The Beauty of Israel

Our Sages taught us (Kiddushin 49b) that “ten measures of wisdom descended to the world; the Land of Israel took nine, and the rest of the world took one. Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; Yerushalayim took nine and the rest of the world took one.” Other nations have a disproportionate share of wealth, poverty, arrogance, and might – all as the Creator saw fit to apportion.

Certainly faithful Jews accept the words of our Sages without question or hesitation, even if the notion of the pervasive wisdom in the land of Israel is not always obvious at first glance. Indeed, things happen here daily that cast doubt on that dictum. Even the beauty of Yerushalayim is not always apparent, unless the dictum refers to spiritual beauty, which it probably does.

Without being too brazen, I would edit the words of the Sages as follows: “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; the Land of Israel took nine and the rest of the world took one.”

That seems about right.

There are many beautiful places across the globe, scenes of the majesty of nature, locations of such astonishing splendor that they serve as testimony to our Sages’ comment (Berachot 10a) “there is no Artist like our G-d.” I have been fortunate to visit many of them and even recite the blessing that acknowledges G-d “who made the works of creation.” I hope to visit others. But the Land of Israel is unique in the sheer number of stunning vistas that are compacted into what is, after all, a relative tiny country, barely the size of New Jersey.

I thought of this while gazing at three particular sites. To look out at the Mediterranean Sea as the sun is setting is to glimpse eternity, serenity and the infinite wonders of G-d’s world. The sea does not stop; it is as if there is nothing beyond it. It is exquisite in its tranquility. All the worries of life, all the turmoil around the globe –even in some of the countries that border on the Mediterranean – fade into nothingness. The Mediterranean, dubbed by our Sages the “Great Sea” because it borders the Land of Israel, has seen so much history and been at the center of civilization. Yet, its peace is undisturbed.

We spent two days in Mitzpe Ramon that overlooks the Machtesh Ramon, the Ramon Crater, Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon. (Yes, I know it is not technically a crater.) It was formed not by the impact of a meteorite or a volcanic eruption but by the receding of the ocean waters that once covered the Negev and receded during the third “day” of creation when G-d separated between the waters and formed dry land. It was essentially untouched since then, giving rise to rock formations of dazzling colors – and right in the middle of the desert. The canyon, the cliffs, the stark beauty of the hills and valleys all engender a profound sense of humility in the person who happens upon it. “A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth endures forever” (Kohelet 1:4). That earth, that endures forever, is on spectacular display in Machtesh Ramon.

Just a few kilometers north of the town (which is less than 20 miles from the Sinai border) is the Kerem Ramon, the Ramon Vineyard, one of the largest vineyards in Israel. It encompasses hundreds of acres – and smack in the middle of the desert. The pioneers of early Israel vowed to make the desert bloom, in the famous cliché, and they largely succeeded. And here, modern pioneers, graduates of the Yeshivat Hesder in Mitzpe Ramon, have done it again. Across the street, literally, is desert, untended brown earth that has been barren for millennia. In the near horizon the mountains of the desert loom large, austere and forbidding in appearance. And that is what this vineyard looked like just a few years ago – bleak, brown earth – until faithful Jews acted on G-d’s promise to the Jews who would return to Israel after a long and bitter exile: “For G-d will comfort Zion and console all its ruins. He will turn its desert into Eden, and its dry places like G-d’s garden” (Yeshayahu 51:3). Indeed.

Perhaps the most striking feature that comprises the beauty of the land of Israel is the eye-catching array of colors. The blue of the sea and the blue of the sky; the greenery of the fields and the blue of the sky; the oases in the desert – the lush greenery set off against the austere brown – that offer  hope and suggest limitless possibilities. It is a panoply of rich and vibrant colors that bring nature, and the human imagination, to life, and invariably to appreciation for the handiwork of the Creator.

When I was a teenager, a Rebbe assigned our class a project in tefila (prayer). Each student was asked to choose a verse from the prayers and depict that verse in pictures. I chose a verse from Hallel: “The heavens are the heavens for G-d and the earth was given to man” (Tehillim 115:16). My pictures contrasted G-d’s domain with that of man and compiled them for my project. “The heavens are the heavens for G-d” – the azure sky with tufts of clouds lazily ambling about, the infinity of space where all is calm and peaceful, the sunsets that fill us with awe. “And the earth was given to man” – scenes of violence, terror, war and hatred (even then!). Scenes of the brutality of man to his fellow man that seemingly has no limits, no boundaries, and no end. Scenes of vulgarity and coarseness that belie the image of G-d with which every human being is endowed.

Of course, the Rebbe told me that I misconstrued the verse, which is just as well, but nonetheless. When will the beauty of the natural world – especially of the Land of Israel – be appreciated by mankind enough to call a halt to man’s volcanic eruptions of hatred, anger and violence?

Perhaps when, despite my emendation above, the Land of Israel also reclaims the nine measures of wisdom with which it was blessed and shares its conclusions with willing listeners across the world. Then the beauty above will be matched by beauty below as well and He who has made peace in the heavens will bring peace upon us, all Israel and His troubled world.

The Sensitive Rabbi

Is there such a thing as being too sensitive?

The question itself will be deemed by some as lacking sensitivity! But even as the heart tells us “no” – one cannot be “too” sensitive – the mind teaches us that, yes, there is sensitivity that is counterproductive, and harms both protagonist and subject. Intellectually, we realize that, at times, compassion, sympathy and sensitivity can be misplaced. The parent who succumbs to a child’s cries for endless pieces of candy is acting as compassionately as the surgeon who refuses to make an incision in his patient to avoid causing him pain, and as unwisely. Neither is acting as a parent or surgeon should.

As the famous comment of our Sages (Kohelet Rabba 7:16) taught, “One who is compassionate to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the compassionate,” a truism confirmed repeatedly in recent times, especially here in Israel. While our default position must be sensitivity, there are times when we must limit or even overcome those natural instincts in order to maintain our value system and properly serve G-d. Unlimited compassion is far better than the opposite but can be equally destructive.

Admittedly, this notion is a tough sell today. We are living through an era in which the pull of the heart matters more than the conclusions of the mind, feelings more than facts, and perception more than reality. This is true in politics, race relations, the wars of the sexes, and a host of other issues. Truths, even obvious truths, must be suppressed, and that is the world we live in. But the ascription of spiritual gravitas to “feelings” threatens to transform the Jewish and general worlds beyond recognition, undermine the Torah, render parenting more difficult than it already is, and distance us from G-d.

Certainly, rabbis are called upon to show sensitivity constantly, which is understandable, but therein lies the modern dilemma. One of my colleagues recently suggested that rabbinic responses to a number of issues have been colored by the conflation of the role of the rabbi with that of the social worker or therapist. (That is not entirely surprising. I once asked a non-Orthodox rabbi what led him to become a rabbi, seeing as he did not believe in the divine origin of the Torah, and he told me that he saw himself as a “social worker with a better title.”) But while a rabbi engages in therapy of sorts, he is not a therapist, nor is that his primary role.

Thus, this colleague noted, a therapist rarely offers value judgments to his client. His function is to listen, empathize, connect with the emotional world of the patient and try to help him/her navigate the unstable terrain on which the patient walks. Value judgments are usually inappropriate and often unhelpful. Conversely, rabbis (clergymen, generally) are expected to give value judgments. They too must seek to understand the emotional world of the person, but that world, rather than benign, is governed by our relationship with G-d. Indeed, the rabbis’ world view – unlike that of the therapist – is ideally always shaped by the laws and values of the Torah. The proffer of values need not be heavy-handed but can never be completely discounted or ignored.

If the therapist’s principal task is to help the person become psychologically healthy, the rabbi’s role is to help the person become spiritually healthy. The therapist tries to get the person right with the world; the rabbi tries to get the person right with the Almighty. Obviously, there are areas that overlap, but there are also boundaries that should not be blurred even if the ways we negotiate that arena may differ from case to case. The rabbi – unlike the therapist – must eventually speak the language of “permitted, forbidden, can, may, should, should not,” and if he doesn’t, he has not merely improperly conflated the two roles but he has essentially vitiated the rabbinic role. That is done sometimes for good reasons – a desire not to cause pain or an excess of sensitivity – and sometimes for bad reasons – a craven need for popularity or a fear of bad press among the opinion-shapers of today.

Rabbis and rabbinical organizations have been wrestling for some time with a number of issues in this genre. More often than not, this has resulted in confusion, not clarity, as political correctness clashes with halachic correctness, and some rabbis willfully act more as therapists and social workers (if not social trendsetters) than as rabbis. Thus, the halacha is usually black and white – after all, that is why it is called Halacha, the way we walk – and no amount of hand-wringing or pressure will change that. There are limits beyond which the halacha cannot go. Is that insensitive? It is not meant to be, but one can argue that honesty shows greater respect for the other side than a faux sensitivity that raises expectations that will never be met.

There are approaches to sins and sinners that most rabbis use that do not require denial, acceptance or vilification. Here’s one, mine, and quite common: we are all sinners but I do not have to delve into each person’s private life to ascertain their level of religiosity. Why is it anyone’s business? It is certainly not my business. What is unacceptable is the glorification of the sin, its public advocacy and its celebration – and that applies to a host of sins. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:5) says that one who publicizes his sins against G-d is brazen, and so there is virtue in concealing such sins from others. Such a person is a Jew who is in as good standing as any other Jew. That is the difference between the sinner, which we all are to varying degrees, and the heretic, who denies that what he is doing is divinely proscribed.

Of course, that requires the rabbis to use the language of “sin,” which, it seems, the rabbi qua therapist has been loath to do. Sin is a sign of human frailty. It is our constant but unwanted companion in life. But the notion of “sin” presupposes that there is an objective morality (of divine origin) that distinguishes between right and wrong, moral and immoral. A rabbi who fails to use the language of sin has ceased to function as a rabbi. Similarly, a rabbi who encounters a person addicted to a certain sin – and there are numerous possibilities; consider the rageaholic who is prone to violent outbursts – and discourages that person from seeking help to overcome that addiction has acquiesced in the sin and failed as a rabbi. The treatment might work and it might not work, but foreclosing the option is irresponsible and insensitive. It can even be spiritually devastating.

To be fair, the rabbinic model of the Hasidic Rebbe is more aligned with the “rabbi as therapist” than the so-called “Lithuanian” model, if only because the Rebbe serves also as a father figure to his followers. It is easy to imagine a Rebbe telling an individual with lascivious tendencies that he should do whatever Mitzvot he can do and not define himself by the sin, and such is right and proper. It would be inconceivable, though, that the Rebbe would not also gently remind his interlocutor that his conduct is nonetheless a sin, and offer ways to overcome it. But we cannot deny the more common model symbolized by Moshe himself, that of “yikov hadin et hahar” – let the law bore through the mountain. The Law is the Law is the Law. That is Torah truth but also most unwelcome in the parts of the Jewish world that prefer nuance to truth, and gray to black and white.

There is something even off-putting about a discussion of integrating sinners into the community. When have we ever had a community that did not have sinners? Indeed, the Gemara (Kreitot 6b) states that “any public fast that does not include the intentional sinners of Israel is not considered a public fast.” Being inclusive of sinners is routine; we should not pretend it’s revolutionary.

What compounds the problem is the obliteration of all traditional moral norms in society, especially during the Obama years, which has made even the promotion of traditional morality something akin to a hate crime. Often, the appeal to the heart strings is palpable – the quest for love, happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction in life. “Does G-d want to remove from some people the possibility of love? Does G-d want to deprive any person of happiness or physical gratification? Does G-d not want people to be who they are?” Those may be powerful questions, but ones that we need not necessarily fully answer, except to say this: the Jewish laws of sexual morality and Kashrut are chukim (Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6), which defy simple understanding. They are decrees from G-d that bind the faithful even if we do not fully comprehend them or their particulars. As such, they are the primary means by which we show our fidelity to G-d and our commitment to the way of life He assigned to us in His wisdom, compassion and love. They connect us to G-d, as indelibly as letters engraved in stone. That will not change.

To some people today, the utterance of simple truths is utterly unacceptable. They seek not a dialogue but a monologue enforced through threats and intimidation. But truths, uttered or even unuttered, still remain truths. Providing a forum to air one’s pain is, indeed, sensitive, but when one later encounters the brick wall of G-d’s law, the collision will be even more jarring. There is a better way – mutual respect and mutual sensitivity. That is, mutual respect, not just for the struggles of all sinners but also respect for the integrity of G-d’s law and the limits He imposed on us. And mutual sensitivity, especially for those faithful Jews who try to observe the Torah amid personal sacrifice and against the current of modern society, and even for rabbis who will not pander to the modern ethos or always make people happy but rather strive to bring all people closer to G-d and serve Him and His people with faith and honesty.

That is being truly sensitive to the primary objectives in life of every living being. We should try it.

 

The Wisdom of Kotzk

So what was a born and committed mitnaged (me) doing several weeks ago at the grave of Rav Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the celebrated Kotzker Rebbe? Kotzk is a small village in central Poland, where the Kotzker Rebbe set up his Hasidic court in the second quarter of the 19th century, and our Heritage tour stopped there and visited the tiny Jewish cemetery where his grave is located. Indeed, the Kotzker is the Rebbe that mitnagdim can most appreciate, because he favored the primacy of Torah study above all and disdained the traditional trappings of the Hasidic court, the claims of miracles and wonders, and even the customary veneration of the Rebbe. His end also had its dark and very human side.

At his grave, I shared and explained some of his more famous aphorisms, all of which contain wisdom and insight that can benefit Jews today as well. Here are some of my particular favorites.

The middle of the road is for horses.” Human beings have to ascertain all the facts as best they can, and then decide. This is especially true of leaders, spiritual and/or political. One can choose the right side or the left side, but one must choose, at least in theory. These days, only the theory remains. So-called “leaders” are prone to nuance, obfuscation, endless debates and committees, seeing all sides and then choosing none, one compelling reason why malaise and apathy are so prevalent. Decisions are often avoided so as not to offend anyone – echoing Disraeli’s famous quip: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” – with anarchy and ineptitude the general result.

The Kotzker had it right, as did General Patton (“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way”), but it is a hard sell in a world where “leaders” live in fear of laity, are forced to follow and then pretend they are courageously blazing new trails. (A distinguished rabbi who was with us explained the Kotzker’s statement as referring to the Rambam’s “golden mean,” which is not the midpoint between two extremes – the realm of the horses – but similar to the third vertex of a triangle that draws from the other two. That could be, but I still prefer my interpretation.)

Where is G-d to be found? Wherever you let Him in.” Jews have suffered for centuries from approaches to Torah that seek to confine G-d to comfortable places that will not impinge on our desires or that sought to conform the Torah to modern, Western values that are often antithetical to Torah but, strangely, are perceived by many people as superior to those of the Torah. Thus the ongoing efforts to legislate certain sins out of existence or re-define Jewish law and lore so that they satisfy modern sensibilities. Such endeavors are often presented as attempts to bring us closer to G-d but they are more accurately understood as feats of self-worship, with references to the Deity as a flimsy and transparent cover. G-d can be found in surrender to His Torah, in the voluntary abnegation of our desires that conflict with His stated will. And that is “letting Him in,” to our minds, hearts and deeds.

I could probably revive the dead but I prefer to revive the living.” There is no greater wonder than the resurrection of the dead – but reviving the living might be more challenging. Habit, the great strength of the committed spiritual life, is also its bane. If we do something today – pray, wear tefilin, eat kosher, etc. – simply because we did it yesterday, then our spiritual life has ossified and teeters on the brink of irrelevance. Such can lead people who are observant in their private lives or synagogue activities to lie, steal, commit other crimes and think nothing of it.

Religious man struggles first with maintaining the daily commitment but then with infusing that commitment with vitality and enthusiasm. That is a challenge, but where is it written that we are not to be challenged? In fact, the opposite is true. In a similar context, the Kotzker stated: “Just to (by rote) fulfill one’s obligations? Not at all! Either everything or nothing,” which takes us back to the middle of the road and the horses. If you’re going to do something, do it right, and do it right the first time and every time (within the limits of human frailties).

The Jewish people could use a little revivification of the living – to minimize the sense of routine and maximize the excitement of Torah life and the opportunities that have blessed our generation. One reason why that has become more difficult in recent times is this:

I am requesting that you not sin, not because it is forbidden to sin but rather because you should not have enough leisure time to sin.” Modern man has a lot of time on his hands, and we do not always fill that time in the most salubrious ways. The technological advances of the last century have eased the burdens of sustenance and alleviated the household chores that consumed much of our time and energy in the past, but they have also created different burdens and new obligations. Certainly, some of the social movements that have transformed the world in the last half century are the consequences of these advances that arose detached from any moral constraints or at least in a society where moral restrictions were perceived as archaic.

We have the opportunity and the means today to increase our Torah study, performance of mitzvot and pursuit of the good far more than did past generations, and yet many will argue – and with merit – that we are more disconnected from G-d than prior generations and less governed by His will. So, too, many will argue cogently that we have much greater means today of interacting with other people and yet many feel more, not less, disengaged from real, live human beings. Witness the number of people who walk the streets or sit at public events staring at their Smartphones, as if what is elsewhere is always more important and interesting that what or who is right in front of them.

Well, the Kotzker’s wish that man have no time to sin is the polar opposite of today’s reality, and how then we use that time defines our real values in life.

I can tell you what not to do. What to do, each person has to ask himself.” Of course, the Kotzker was not talking about the performance of the positive commandments but rather the expression of one’s personality and goals in the world at large. Our Sages state (Berachot 58a) that just as no two people look alike, no two people think alike. Every personality is different, and so every human being adds a different dimension to existence. Often, people will seek out the advice of others to find out who they are. That is a risky venture, often compromised more by the advisor’s biases or predilections than what the questioner really is or wants to be. Deep down, most people know who they are and what they want to be, even if it takes time to act upon it or to actualize it. But there is nothing that is more personally fulfilling than finding one’s role in life and carrying it out to perfection (or as close to perfection as man can come).

Finally, “You don’t love fish. If you loved the fish, you would not have killed it and cooked it on a fire.” Modern man tosses around words like “love” as if they are stray pennies found on a street in China. Often, love of “something” is just self-love projected outward. We don’t love “fish,” we love what the fish does for us, how it satisfies our appetites and pleases our palates (fish lovers, only). True love is love of the other for what the “other” is – spouse, especially – and not what that other does for us, what needs they satisfy or how they can be used. Love, as the term is commonly used, is much more utilitarian than we like to think; that is why so many marriages today are perceived as disposable, a short-term exchange of pleasures and comforts mutually agreed upon until the provision of pleasures ceases or one finds better accommodations elsewhere. Whatever that is, and however common that is today, unfortunately, one thing that it is not is “love.” Love remains a relationship of giving, not taking, and that is applicable to love of G-d and love of man.

Of course, there are many more such aphorisms of the Kotzker Rebbe, and straight Torah insights as well, even if the Kotzker himself never compiled them in a book. But wisdom is always beneficial, and the wisdom of Kotzk in so many ways still speaks directly to our generation.

If only we would heed it…

In Defense of …Shamai

One of the greatest people in our long and illustrious history, and one of the greatest Talmudic Sages ever, is frequently and unfairly dismissed and even disparaged. Who? Shamai the Elder, the contemporary of the great Hillel. Shamai is always compared unfavorably to Hillel, who was known for his kind nature, infinite patience, and big heart. Hillel, in the famous stories recorded in Masechet Shabbat (31a) indulges a variety of nudniks who ask him pointless and even preposterous questions, and is open to converts of all types and with a variety of strings attached. All this while Shamai, conversely, tries to drive them all away with a stick. And even the converts themselves concede that say the sternness and impatience of Shamai almost drove them away from the world of truth. It was the humility of Hillel that brought them closer to G-d.

Yet, Shamai is also the one who taught (Avot I:15) “greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.”  But how is it possible to greet everyone pleasantly – and at the same time be considered a “kapdan” – irascible, pedantic, and short-tempered? The two do not really go together.

Furthermore, humility is such a prized trait in Jewish life, and Hillel’s humility is prototypical. Just look at the way Hillel treated the converts in the several vignettes noted in the Gemara – converts who insisted: “convert me on condition that I accept only the Written Torah…convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot…convert me on condition that you make me the Kohen Gadol (High Priest),” each condition an impossibility in its own way. Yet, in each case, Hillel came and converted them after Shamai forcefully drove them away. Where was Shamai’s “pleasant countenance”? Indeed, where were his good midot (character traits)?

The sainted Rav Yisrael Salanter, who knew a thing or two about midot, wrote (Or Yisrael, 28) that it is a mistake to degrade or malign Shamai. Shamai was a great and righteous person, Hillel’s equal, and our Sages indicate, Hillel’s intellectual superior (Yevamot 14a). True, Shamai was meticulous in his observance of mitzvot, hated injustice and had a passion for truth – all of which would lead people to believe he was a kapdan.. But that wasn’t it at all.

Shamai was also humble, just like Hillel. One who is not humble cannot “greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” To greet someone – anyone – means that you have no airs, you don’t perceive yourself as better than them, you don’t wait for them to speak first because you hold yourself to be above them in the social hierarchy.

Shamai’s inflexibility was rooted in something else. Both Hillel and Shamai were unassuming servants of G-d but they differed on one point: is humility always preferable in divine service, or does humility have to defer to something else – strictness, even dogmatism – when it comes to the honor of Torah?

It wasn’t that one had a congenial personality and the other was disagreeable. Character traits are inborn, even if we are obligated to ameliorate and refine the unpleasant ones. Neither Hillel nor Shamai responded to the converts from an emotional or personal perspective but rather from an ideological one. According to Shamai, when it comes to the honor of Torah, there is no room for humility or compromise. It’s not our Torah; it’s G-d’s Torah. It’s not our Jewish people; it’s G-d’s Jewish people. For a potential convert to come along and insist “convert me on condition” of this or that, that is a breach of the honor of Torah.

Hillel disagreed; humility is always preferable and humility can often erode the objections and even the cynicism of detractors. Nevertheless, the dispute between them lives on. Who is correct – when it comes to the honor of Torah, should we be malleable like Hillel or rigid like Shamai? How we answer that question resolves an issue that has been front and center in Jewish life for the better part of two centuries – what concessions to “modernity,” if any, should we make to keep Jews Jewish, to attract the discontented or the unaffiliated, or to assuage the grievances of sundry groups against the Torah?

The answer is that we need both Hillel and Shamai. When it comes to the honor of Torah, Shamai was right. We cannot compromise on the honor of Torah, on the inviolability of mitzvot, or on basic Jewish values or doctrines. If we do, then the Torah will cease to have any meaning or effect. We cannot chip away at the Torah – change this or dilute that – because then it is no longer a Torah of truth. But when it comes to showing respect for human beings, then we require the humility of Hillel – to see each person as an individual, as a precious soul, to reach out, draw near, and show our love for every Jew.

Is it possible to show honor to Torah and respect for people? Of course, that was the gift and genius of Hillel. But note well that for all his humility and his desire to accommodate the converts, Hillel did not compromise even one iota of the Torah, weaken one standard, or renounce one principle. And that was a remarkable feat and a testament to his spiritual greatness. It is an error to believe that Hillel watered down the Torah to make it more palatable to his generation. Note as well that Hillel was able to succeed with his interlocutors only because they too were humble, deferential, sincere, and willing to learn from him and submit to his authority.

Without Shamai’s firmness, the temptation would be too great to adulterate the perfect Torah in order to accommodate the desires of man. And without Hillel’s sensitivity, Jews with an attenuated commitment could never be inspired and would be lost to our people. Both were indispensable to the furtherance of the Mesorah.

On Shavuot, as we celebrate the Divine Revelation that gave the Jewish people our Torah more than 33 centuries ago, we must contemplate our relationship with the Torah itself, adding a new layer of “acceptance” to our earlier ‘acceptance.” Much of what ails us in Jewish life can be healed if we embrace the ways of Hillel and Shamai, and combine a tenacious grip on the immutable Torah with a gentle embrace of the people of Torah, on all levels.

Then, we will bring the light of Torah everywhere, rejoice in the return of G-d’s sovereignty to His world, and merit true redemption, speedily and in our days.

Chag Sameach to all!

The Crucible and the Womb

The Torah refers to the Egyptian experience in a number of ways. Some are literal – exile and house of bondage – and depict our alienation from the land of Israel and the nature of our sojourn in Egypt – and one is figurative: “I removed you from the iron crucible of Egypt” (Devarim 4:20). How was Egypt an “iron crucible”?

The Maharal (Gevurot Hashem 3) quotes the Midrash (Shocher Tov on Tehillim 116) that Chazal added another simile as well. In addition to Egypt being a crucible (“just like the goldsmith reaches in and extracts the refined gold from the furnace, so too G-d reached down and extracted Israel from Egypt”), the Maharal adds that the Exodus from Egypt was similar to a fetus still in the womb of the cow, for which the shepherd reaches in and extracts it. So too G-d delivered us from Egypt “removing one nation from another nation” (Devarim 4:34). What is the difference between these descriptions – the gold emerging from the crucible and the fetus emerging from the womb – and how do they reflect on the Exodus?

The Maharal explains that in the crucible, the gold is simply the tool of the goldsmith. The smith has all the power, control and authority. In Egypt, the Jewish people were dominated, oppressed, and defenseless, with no hope of any independent existence. The Egyptians were simply too strong, and we were too weak – so the master goldsmith took us out from the fire and created a nation.

But the second simile – the calf emerging from the womb – has a different emphasis than the first. There it is not the fearsome might of the enemy that kept us enslaved but rather the mindset, the mentality, and the dependencies of the victim. Like the calf in the womb, as long as we saw ourselves “as attached to Egypt and inferior to the Egyptians,” then we were still unworthy of any independent existence.

We were enslaved not only because of the power of Egypt, but especially because of the inherent weakness of our national body – as we were just an extension of the Egyptians, one of many foreign tribes they had enslaved.

As an “exile” or a “house of bondage,” Egypt was a punishment; as an “iron crucible” or as a womb, the Egyptian exile was not only a punishment for sin but also a necessary step in nation building. That is why the redemption was so painful, so wrenching, and so difficult for many Jews – it was like being refined in fire or passing through the birth canal. Spiritually we were adrift, sunk in the immorality of Egypt; culturally, we were assimilated into Egyptian society, having long since moved beyond Goshen; and nationally, we saw ourselves as Egyptians, so attenuated was our Jewish identity.

The redemption therefore had to account for two phenomena: the physical might of the Egyptians and the spiritual weakness of the Jews. Slowly, Moshe and Aharon, the 10 plagues, the mitzvot of Korban Pesach and the celebration of Pesach itself enervated the spirit of the Egyptians, and revitalized our national identity. The “strong hand” of G-d broke the Egyptians, and His “outstretched arm” inspired the Jews. That is why the redemption from Egypt was so momentous, and that is why it is the paradigm for the future redemption as well.

Spiritually and nationally, we are still a divided people, unable to agree even on basic issues – who is a Jew, what is a Jew, what do we represent, what do we want, and what is our destiny. Culturally, many Jews are Westernized and often unwittingly drawn to the most meretricious aspects of Western life. The enemy that surrounds us threatens the world as well, and the commitment to prevail against that enemy is tenuous at best.

Nevertheless, just like we did in ancient Egypt, we have to perceive the travails of our modern world – as painful as they are to endure – as refinement, as the crucible through which we pass in order to embrace our destiny. When a powerful and merciless enemy does not break us, we are emboldened and strengthened. And just like in Egypt, we have to perceive the troubles as the birth pangs of a nation and a new era – so we can distinguish between friends and allies, so we can detach ourselves and re-assert our own identity, and so we galvanize ourselves for the struggles ahead, so we can strengthen ourselves in Torah and Mitzvot, in love of Israel, and return in true faith to the traditions that have sustained us for millennia.

Just as in Egypt, where we looked not to others for our salvation but to G-d who revitalized us and gave us the tools and confidence to move forward, so too in the days ahead our mettle will be tested. We too will need the inner strength to follow G-d into an unsown land. We too will determine who can resist and who will succumb, who will despair and who will be resolute. We will yet see who emerges from the crucible of our era intact and emboldened.

To the faithful, Pesach is always “a night of protection” for all Jews who yearn for and anticipate redemption. And so may it be in our day as well.

 

To my brothers and sisters across the Jewish world, Chag Kasher v’sameach to all!

 

 

 

“Culture” Wars – Update

Only in the mind of the modern feminist can an orthodox Rabbi advocate for pre-marital sexual abstinence and be deemed a rape apologist. Such was the peculiar response in some precincts to my “A Novel Idea”

       Arguing over statistics and studies is a futile exercise, as the studies conflict, methodologies differ and even definitions are often imprecise. For those intellectually capable of an open mind, I urge you to read the esteemed social scientist Heather Mac Donald’s cover story in the Weekly Standard (November 2, 2015) subtitled “The Phony Campus Rape Crisis,” which will function as a devastating rebuttal to the criticism that has been directed here, and written in a much stronger manner than was my essay although our objectives were different.

To mention but two “statistics”: one blogger presumed that 23% of my congregants have “likely personally experienced sexual assault.” But “sexual assault,” as some studies, including that of the Justice Department, define it, includes even an unwanted peck on the cheek, an execrable practice still seen in some liberal Orthodox precincts but hardly synonymous with rape except to a certain subset of fanatical activists. Or, “95%” of college rapes go unreported to the police, but they are, apparently, reported to researchers. 95%? And perhaps it is 395%, or 45%?  Perhaps some of these assaults are more akin to the circumstances I explored in my essay (as have others, see George F. Will’s column on a related subject).

To those who persist in citing the “1 in 5 women on campus raped” canard, I refer you to this new Prager University video released this week (as if to come to my rescue!) that debunks this datum. If nothing else, all of the above should allow for a calmer discussion of this matter.

What did I write in my essay, whose every word I stand by? Here’s a synopsis.  The reality is that rape is an abominable crime that is an unimaginable nightmare and deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. To be falsely accused of rape is also an abominable crime that is an unimaginable nightmare for which the lying complainant deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Both are life-altering events and in both cases the victims deserve our fullest support and the victimizers our unmitigated opprobrium. Obviously, instances of rape exceed false claims of rape, and as I noted, “even one is too many.”

That is the black (the former scenario) and the white (the latter scenario) of the matter. But the professional feminists see only the black. There is no white, no other side, the woman is always right, the man is always wrong. In that echo chamber, I am certain, that makes sense. In a world where truth, justice, decency and fairness matter, that contention is risible.

But I addressed both those scenarios only in passing. My focus was on the “gray” area, the “he said/she said” scenario, where the events are fueled by what I termed the culture of promiscuity and entitlement on campus, where the couple had a relationship and often a long term physical relationship, and where “feelings” – especially post facto feelings – matter more than legality or fairness. These are cases where the woman sometimes does not feel like a “victim” for weeks or months after the encounter (usually coincident with a breakup or a conversation with a feminist adviser who convinces her that she was assaulted without consent). These are cases in which there are no witnesses, no evidence, and no corroboration. They exist. They are troubling no matter who is right and who is wrong. But the feminist activists see no “gray.” The man is always guilty. Always.

Indeed, the “hookup culture” on campus has created a sense of male entitlement concomitant with some females’ pursuit of unlimited pleasure. It is in that culture that, invariably, women – who, as I noted, have a greater emotional investment in physical intimacy than do men – will over time feel used, abused, scorned and empty. And it is in that culture that, I submit, the problematic area of “he said/she said” is more likely to arise. It is for that scenario that I suggested a return to traditional moral practices, such that are already mandatory for Jews but would even benefit non-Jews. The bloggers who mock that suggestion are playing into the hands of lecherous young men and, ironically, endangering more women both physically and psychologically.

It was in this gray area that I urged a return to the virtues with which religious Jews are quite familiar – no affectionate physical contact between men and women outside the context of marriage. That won’t stop the “black” cases of rape (forcible assault) nor the “white” cases (false accusations), for the most part. But it would stop much of the “gray,” in which consent is unclear or ambiguously given, because the assumption would be, since males are an aggressive breed, that the male assaulted the virtue of the female.

But for the professional feminists, there never is a “gray” area. Men are always predators, women are always saints, and rabbis, always, deserve special calumny if they don’t toe a particular line.

What is most troubling, and quite typical of this genre, is the sheer inability of the feminist activists to tolerate another viewpoint. “On this, there can be no debate! There is only one opinion!” Feminist orthodoxy brooks no dissent (as opposed to Jewish Orthodoxy, whose every tenet, they feel, is negotiable). So their goal is to ensure that only one side of an issue is ever heard. They do this by denouncing any opposition as immoral, shrieking that any dissenter is evil, and trying to intimidate that dissenter into silence, penance and universal obloquy. This is what passes for discourse – forget civil discourse, just discourse – in that pathetic echo chamber of the young and coddled. How sad.

Typically, as they see it, for expressing views with which they disagree, I should be fired from the rabbinate, kicked out of any rabbinic organization to which I belong, tossed from any institution in which I am active, and, for Heaven’s sake, even thrown out of AAA (to which I just renewed my membership, and so will not go down without a fight).

What is even sadder is that, to these activists, men are irredeemable brutes, end of story. My objective, on the other hand, is to preserve the honor of both men and women. Their eager embrace of the “hookup culture” – as long as there is consent – exacerbates the problem, cheapens the nobility of women and undermines the sanctity of marriage.  Their contempt for women, and not just women’s virtues, is breathtaking.

The Talmud (bottom of Sanhedrin 21a) teaches us that after Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, King David’s Sanhedrin decreed that an unmarried man and woman should not be secluded together (the prohibition of yichud). That was good advice then as it is now. It doesn’t mean that they “blamed” Tamar; rather that prudence and common sense dictate not putting oneself in a situation of potential danger. No one ever “deserves” to be raped, as some hideously perverted my words. But do not walk into a field clearly labeled “Danger: Mines!”  Even if the ones who planted the mines would be guilty of causing injury, surely the minefield pedestrian also bears some responsibility for his fate. The mature person takes responsibility for his own actions, a fundamental Jewish principle that I explored in my last book, “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.”

Further irony: these critics are antagonized because they call me a “leader” who should not say these things that upset them;  yet, when I try to take the lead on this particular issue – elevating the moral level on campus so that no one, but especially our young people, is ensnared in that morass – they protest. It sounds like they want “leaders” whom they control and who just follow the script that they write. But those are not “leaders” but followers with a fancy title.

Heeding our moral laws can only benefit men, women, marriages, families and society itself. That was and is my point. The fruitless debate over statistics aside, I would hope that even the professional feminists can subscribe to that.

Minimum Wage Increases: Who Really Benefits?

    New York and California are set to raise the minimum wage from $10 to $15 per hour over the next few years, which sounds like good news for people struggling to make ends meet. What’s wrong with artificially raising wages across the board is illustrated by this priceless statement issued by California’s Governor Jerry Brown: “Economically, minimum wages may not make sense. But morally, socially, and politically they make every sense because it binds the community together to make sure parents can take care of their kids.” It was eloquently ridiculed by Dan Henninger in the WSJ but the statement bears deconstruction, if only because it illustrates the shallowness of the American electorate for whose support, if not love, Brown is appealing. Sadly, he probably means well.

Well, why does raising the minimum wage make no sense, economically? One would think that the more money a worker earns, the better for him, his family, and the commercial enterprises in which he will spend his hard-earned money. So why not raise the minimum wage to $20 per hour, or, even better, $100 or $1000 per hour? Why can’t teachers or nurses earn as much as Alex Rodriguez? Certainly many teachers and nurses will have better seasons.

The answer is because wages cannot exceed the productivity of the worker or the business will fail. This is the “no economic sense ” to which Governor Brown is referring. A worker earning $10 an hour must produce at least $10 worth of product or service. If he produces more than $10, he is either underpaid or the employer is profiting. If he is consistently underpaid, then he has the right, in a free society, to take his services elsewhere and be paid what he is worth. Usually, the employer benefits, as he is the one who is risking his capital in the business and his profit comes partly from the wage/productivity differential in his favor.

Conversely, if the worker earns, say, $15 per hour and produces value of only $10 per hour, then the worker is getting a windfall even as the employer is losing money. Since most employers are not in business to lose money, one of three things will happen: a small number of workers will lose their jobs (hence the spike in unemployment most studies show is a consequence of artificially raising the minimum wage); or, as is happening in the entry level jobs where the minimum wage is most common, the jobs are being automated (that’s why most people pump their own gas – outside of New Jersey, the only state that bizarrely prohibits drivers from servicing themselves – and even fast food restaurants are reducing staff and automating), in which case many employees will lose their jobs; or the company goes out of business, in which case everybody loses their jobs.

That is why teachers, nurses and a host of other professions (rabbis, for one) that accomplish more for society in real terms do not produce enough “economic” value to be paid what a mediocre professional athlete earns.

Obviously there is a number whereby the minimum wage can be raised and not trigger those Draconian consequences, but the number is speculative, much debated, and will probably vary from industry to industry. That is why a “one size fits all” increase is more problematic. And, certainly, one can make a cogent argument that some floor for wages is necessary to inhibit abuse but a ceiling is necessary as well. What $15 does that $17 or $13 or $10 wouldn’t is a partial mystery, although it has the advantage of being an easily calculable figure.

Each business will decide to what extent the higher wage will impair their profitability and/or viability. Buy why would ostensibly intelligent politicians impose a wage hike that they know will lead to increased unemployment among the most vulnerable elements in society, especially among the youth

for whom minimum wage jobs are often their portal into the work force?

For politicians, raising the minimum wage sounds caring in the short term but it is a very populist move, not to mention popular. Many people will earn more money in the short term, and not just those who earn the minimum wage (few do). But there are jobs whose earnings are indexed to the minimum wage (2X, 4X, etc.) and so many workers (i.e., voters) will be scheduled to benefit, although they too will be subject to the wage/productivity rule delineated above. Many of them will be casualties of this hike as well. So why would politicians support something that in due course will lead to higher unemployment among their constituents?

One reason might be that they have shielded the unemployed from the consequences of their bad decisions through unemployment insurance. Therefore, politicians have an interest in maintaining, increasing and prolonging unemployment insurance as long as possible. Part of every person’s paycheck goes to defraying this eventuality but of course most of it just comes out of the government budgets and adds to the deficit. The dislocation to the family and the psychological stresses on the unemployed are not really factored in by the political class. So raising the minimum wage sounds kind, as Brown mentioned, and it makes sense “politically” because also for a reason that I never considered until several days ago. Call it the latest government scheme.

Here’s how a letter writer (Henry Schmid of Sonoma, California) to the WSJ put it last week, and the government plan is brilliant: the tax implications of raising the minimum wage are enormous. “For a family of four with both spouses making the minimum wage, their federal tax will increase from $4106 to $7219, payroll tax will increase from zero to $379, and the $2400 food stamp credit will be lost. Of the $20,800 increase in income in going from $10 to $15 an hour, $7778 will be diverted to the government, which doesn’t include loss of other income dependent government welfare programs and added costs due to the resulting inflation. Over one-third of the wage increase will flow to the government in the form of increased taxes and reduced benefits.”

     I’m assuming his figures are correct, and if they are, the scheme is ingenious when you think about it. The minimum wage increase is just a means for the government to get more revenue from the people, once again from business. And even if there is an interest in getting people off the dole and into the workforce, do those celebrating the doggedness and sensitivity of the liberal politicians pushing the higher minimum wage realize that many, if not most, of the beneficiaries will lose money, in the form of benefit reductions? And if they lose their jobs altogether, well, now their government benefactors have more money to redistribute in the form of unemployment compensation. Indeed, one of the debilitating peculiarities of the welfare state is that it often disincentivizes employment by denying benefits to people who earn more, I suppose, than they should.

Win, win, win, lose. The politicos look good and get the votes of the beneficiaries who do not realize how they are being harmed. The politicos get more money into the government coffers to redistribute and reward their favorite groups of constituents. The workers think they are earning much more money,  and actually are earning more money, but not as much as they think and are oblivious to the real consequences of the increase. Business pays more of its earnings to government, and either lays off the unsuspecting workers or raises prices, which usually depresses consumer spending (depending on what is being sold). Business suffers, the consumer suffers, and the worker suffers. The only entity that benefits is government.

It is ingenious, but not very moral. The letter writer suggests increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, which would help the needy. There has to be a better way, linking increased wages to increased productivity, and keeping people gainfully employed for their own spiritual well-being as well as securing their path to financial stability and success. But don’t expect the politicians to find, endorse or encourage that way. For them, it is not as lucrative.