The Tragedy of American Jewry

Seldom do one op-ed article and three letters to the editor unintentionally reveal the malady that is threatening to destroy American Jewry.

In the Wall Street Journal (December 30, 2016), the writer Andrew Klavan criticized physicist Stephen Hawking for the latter’s now common assertion that the universe can be explained without G-d, the Creator. Hawking: “The laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” If science explains everything then G-d becomes unnecessary; of course, science does not explain everything. But they are both wrong in their assumptions. Klavan is wrong because Jews believe the creation did emerge “spontaneously from nothing,” that G-d created the universe “yesh me-ayin,” creation ex nihilo, and doesn’t seem to realize that “the laws of gravity and quantum theory” are merely tools that the Creator, in His will, created, and could have used in creating what He wishes to create. Hawking is wrong because, as Klavan rightly points out, the laws of nature had to originate from something, and to believe the converse (the eternity of the universe and matter) is, well, a belief.

No matter. Klavan’s objective was to re-introduce religion into this discussion by positing the impossibility of explaining creation without a Creator. It was a reaffirmation of his religious faith and a defense of all believers.

On January 5, 2017, Klavan was lambasted in the WSJ by three letter writers for his naïveté, “patent nonsense,” “obvious flaws,” and “obnoxious and erroneous assertions.” All three were diehard seculars, presumed atheists who ridicule the very notion of God’s existence. More on their contentions in a moment.

Here’s the irony: Klavan described himself as being raised a “secular Jew who converted to Christianity,” and is married to a Christian and raising a Christian family. The three letter writers were named Gelb, Fried and Siegal, all obviously Jewish names and all, at least the descendants of Jewish fathers if not mothers as well. Nevertheless, let us assume the three are Jews.

What emerges is that the only person of faith in this whole mix is the Jew who purported to convert to Christianity. The three Jews were the ones who publicly professed their rejection of God and mocked the believer.  That is, sadly, quite typical of American Jewish life today, and why the Jewish world, outside the Orthodox community, is suffering sustained and consistent losses of people, prestige, influence and a real connection to the truths of Torah. As every Jewish life is precious – because every Jew is an integral part of the Jewish nation – such losses are devastating to us all and are a cause for mourning, not celebration. But neither mourning – nor celebration – will save one soul for Torah and the Jewish people.

Beyond the tragic irony is the realization that the heretical arguments of the three Jewish letter writers are hackneyed and unsophisticated, such that they could be answered by an educated Yeshiva high school student. The old question “Who created G-d?” is asked, as if it is a credible challenge to the notion of God as First Cause or a refutation of the concept of cause and effect.

It is a shame that intelligent Jews are unfamiliar with Jewish sources and discussions of these very matters among the greatest Jewish minds in history (like Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Ramban et al), and the lack of Jewish education among Jews who are otherwise educated is the real crisis that has eviscerated American Jewry.

Briefly, for this most engaging topic, G-d is an incorporeal Being who transcends time and space and, indeed, created time and space. Nothing preceded Him or follows Him. That is the definition of “eternal.” He always existed and thus was never created.

Moreover, God created cause and effect, as well as the laws of nature that were fixed and finalized when the process of creation stopped with the onset of the very first Shabbat. So to ask “who created the First Cause” is to indulge a non sequitur. The First Cause needs no creation; that is what makes it “First.”

Only physical entities need to be created. Only physical entities can be “proven”  in a laboratory because a laboratory is equipped to evaluate physical substances based on the laws of nature. Matters that are purely ideational are not subject to “laboratory” proof. This is both obvious – and has a profound practical and moral dimension to it. If G-d’s existence was physically verifiable – as it was, for example, at Sinai – it would impair and undermine the free will of every human being – as it did in the aftermath of Sinai. Free will is the essence of the human personality. Thus, to the person of faith, God’s existence demands study and can be found in creation and His governance of human affairs. To the person of no faith, the fact that a non-physical G-d cannot be demonstrated in a laboratory is supposedly a slam dunk refutation of G-d’s existence. Hardly, and “faith” here does not mean “blind faith” or “irrational faith,” but a faith that is grounded in reason, tradition, and knowledge.

One writer (Siegal) insisted that all he seeks is mutual respect –  that Klavan should respect his right of disbelief as he respects Klavan’s right to believe. But this too is misleading, as nothing that Klavan wrote indicates even remotely a lack of respect for the secular viewpoint. What he wrote is that “secularism” is failing Western civilization because it is inherently incapable of dealing with radical Islam and other moral challenges. It is secularism that cannot recognize the tenacity of true faith (of any kind) and how the material world holds less and sometimes no attraction to some believers. For sure, that secular view has engendered the curious disposition that every problem can be resolved, every war can be negotiated to a peaceful conclusion satisfactory to all sides, and that bitter enemies can reconcile without compromising their cherished beliefs. But none of that is true save for extraordinary circumstances. This secular viewpoint is alive and well among one shrinking segment of Israeli society that refuses to characterize attacks on Jews or Israel as elements of a religious war simply because it is inconvenient to characterize it as such or because they refuse to accept that faith (of any kind) can have that power over human beings. But it does.

To ask secular people to reconsider the value of faith is not to disrespect them but to show concern for them. It is merely to point out to them that they are “accidentalists,” and there are perhaps no greater believers today that those who believe that the universe and everything in it, man and his development, are just cosmic accidents.

All these questions have rational answers, and if only Jews would study them before rejecting Judaism or tilling the vineyards of others we would be a different people. How sad that the Jew of faith had to become a Christian to find that faith, while the three Jews with Jewish surnames revel in their pseudo-sophisticated lack of faith. How sad that after almost two millennia of a bitter exile in which so many Jews tenaciously clung to the Torah that, in recent years,  millions of Jews have used the freedom of America to reject their faith and heritage. That is the tragedy of American Jewry and why our numbers and commitment are in such steep decline. It can only be reversed through love, tolerance, intensive Torah education and recognition of the historic times in which Jews are now living – having returned to Israel, established Jewish sovereignty there after a lapse of two millennia, and on the verge of the Messianic era.

For sure, there are large pockets of great strength, optimism and dynamism in American Jewry and American Jewish religious life.  The thinking Jew should run, not walk, to be part of that people, that process and that destiny.

Two-State Illusion

The Jewish people have been “refuseniks” long before Jews from the former Soviet Union heroically gave that designation such honor. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Yosef, nearly falling into the lecherous clutches of Potiphar’s wife, extricated himself in a way that the Torah (Breisheet 49:8) described in one word: “And he refused.” That word is set apart from the rest of the verse by a psik, a sort of bracket, after which Yosef offers several explanations to the trollop who pined for him. But those disparate explanations are not essential to the narrative. What is essential is that one word: “Va’y’ma’ein.” And he refused. Period. The refusal matters more than the reasons.

Avraham refused to follow the debauched trends of his generation and ushered in a new era for mankind. Yitzchak and Yaakov both refused to buckle to their enemies and their inner strength and courage inspires us until today. Jews have always been refuseniks, and we would not be celebrating Chanukah this week but for a group of refuseniks called Maccabees who defeated a powerful Syrian army, rejected Greek culture, and overcame the Hellenist Jews of their generation who were trying to curry favor with the hostile, anti-Jewish establishment. Jews can refuse the enticements of sin, whether moral, physical or financial.

Herzl, Ben Gurion and Begin were all refuseniks in their own way, and today, we too are again called upon to be refuseniks, as the world community (read: UN) spearheaded by an American government led by a president, for whom so many Jews are still enamored, who has been waiting for an opportunity to stick it to Israel since his favorite preacher schooled him in the perfidies of the Jews. Yes, yes, this US government has provided Israel with $25B in military assistance in the last eight years, most of it spent in America; the same government has also furnished Iran with $100B to spend as they wish on terror, mayhem and the development of nuclear weapons.

Some Jews are irredeemably leftists and Obama supporters and nothing can happen that will change their minds. They have a unique capacity to be spat upon and then to exclaim with joy that it is raining. Gishmei Beracha. Or maybe Gishmei Kelala. Those “Jews” – make no mistake; a disproportionate number of them are not halachic Jews but the product of the scourge of intermarriage that is devouring American Jewry – would sooner blame Israel than open their eyes to Obama. Spare me the crocodile tears of those Obama supporters, some of whom voted for Obama twice, who now castigate him and offer platitudes of support for Israel, and of course would have voted for him a third time given the opportunity.

Obama is as much a product of his background – anti-Israel, liberationist theology – as John Kerry is of his: grandson of an apostate Jew who changed his name from Kohn to Kerry to try to pass himself off as Irish. We are now, indeed, being encircled by the rings of Kerry who does not even recognize his delusions. For example, 2.75 million Palestinians do not live under “Israeli military occupation,” as Kerry claims. Even ignoring the inflated number of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria, more than 90% live under an autonomous Arab government. If they cannot vote, it is because the brutal Arab dictatorship under which they live does not allow elections. And if those Arabs cannot enter “Israel” at will, it is because Israel is supposed to be a separate country, especially according to Kerry, and countries have the right to determine who can and cannot enter. That should be obvious.

Obama’s treachery was widely predicted, including in this space, and it is still entirely possible that he will recognize a “Palestine” before he is shown the door. But, as is the case with almost everything that Obama did as president, certainly domestically, it can all be reversed and erased. That is not to say that it will be easy. It is entirely in keeping with Obama’s world view that he has alienated Israel (and other US allies) and befriended Iran and Cuba. He hates Netanyahu and loves Castro. He has a fierce hatred of the fulfillment of Jewish destiny in the land of Israel even as he has bolstered and promoted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and presided over the spread of Islamic terror across the globe. What a legacy.

UN Resolution 2334, orchestrated by the Obama administration, is similar in many respects to another act of treachery by Jimmy Carter, later exposed to be a rabid Jew hater. On March 22, 1979, Carter abstained on UNSC Resolution 446 that condemned Israeli settlements, including Jerusalem (!), stated they had no legal validity, violated international law, and deplored … yada yada yada. But Jews are refuseniks, and since 1979, almost 500,000 Jews have populated Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. May the current resolution result in similar growth!

Resolution 2334 differs substantially in only two respects: it calls on the world to “distinguish in their relevant dealings” between Israel “proper” and Judea and Samaria, effectively lending support to a boycott of Israel. And it refers repeatedly to the “two-state solution” and how settlements impair the “two-state solution.” It is time for that narrative change.

The problem is as much branding as it is politics and Jew hatred. There are problems and there are solutions, even if sane, realistic people recognize that not every problem has a solution. The very phrase “two-state solution” is the kicker. If there is a solution to a problem, only a nut would reject the solution and allow the problem to fester. It hasn’t dawned on the geniuses in the striped pants world (although it certainly motivates those who favor Israel’s demise) that the two-state “solution” is no solution at all. No reference was made to a two-state “solution” in Resolution 446 because it was then a dead letter. No rational person believed then that partitioning Israel and awarding its sworn enemies half its territory would be a solution to anything, except to those who perceive Israel’s existence as a problem. No rational person should believe it today.

We have to change the brand. Every time someone says “two-state solution” just write, blurt out or yell “two state illusion.” It is an illusion – indeed, a delusion – to think that an independent “Palestine” will bring peace. There never was an independent “Palestine,” there is no such political identity, no historic Palestinian figures from the 19th century going back to creation, and no means for even a peaceful “Palestine” to sustain itself as a state on territory that lacks material resources and infrastructure. It is a fabricated identity, fabricated not to buttress Arab claims but merely to suppress and eliminate Jewish claims. It is therefore not surprising that the “Palestinians” refused a state before 1948, made no effort to create a state when Jordan and Egypt controlled these territories from 1948-1967 and have rejected several ill-advised attempts to award them a state in the last 15 years. Let’s get real.

“Two state illusion” rolls off the tongue, and when uttered repeatedly, it makes a “two-state solution” sound much less appealing or even sensible. And it is a tribute to a number of Jewish activists that the Republican Party platform this year withdrew its support for the “two-state illusion,” and the incoming Trump administration seems presently disinclined to advocate it. And why would it? It can’t work, and if it could work, it would have worked already.

Much of the chatter makes it seem as if the “two-state illusion” was long-standing American and Israeli policy. It is not. Even the Oslo Accords did not endorse a “Palestinian” state, and the US only signed on to it at the urging of Ariel Sharon in 2004. Sharon encouraged the Bush Administration to support such a state in exchange for recognition of the settlement blocs as legal. This, sadly, was another disastrous legacy of Ariel Sharon. George W. Bush issued such a letter in June 2004, but US support of the settlement blocs was repudiated by Hillary Clinton in 2009 even as she pocketed the “two state illusion” as US policy conceded by Israel. Well, times have changed, and as Einstein noted, only the insane keep repeating the same actions and hope for different results.

Judea and Samaria represent Israel’s past and future. It is immoral to say that Jews can live in Shiloh, Illinois and not the original Shiloh. To articulate that sentiment is to be on the wrong side of history and to mock the Bible. Obama and Kerry are on the wrong side of history. In the story of Chanukah, it is distressing to note that most Jews sided with the enemy, the Syrian Hellenists who tried to stamp out Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel and eradicate the Torah itself. Those Jews were on the wrong side of history. Many of the battles of the Maccabees were fought on land that neither Obama nor Kerry recognize as Jewish. But it was then and is now.

Those Jews who are turning on Israel are also on the wrong side of history. It is patently clear that the closer Jews are to Torah the greater is one’s commitment to the land of Israel, whose possession by Jews is obviously a major element of the Torah.  Of course, there are observant Jews who are still enthralled with the two-state illusion but they are an ever declining minority of the Torah world. So be it.

The battles that are being waged now for the land of Israel during the celebrations of Chanukah are reminders to us that the old antagonisms still exist in every generation, and that the spirit of the Jewish refusenik that has animated us throughout history will give us the strength and courage to refuse even the entreaties of people who perceive themselves as well-meaning in their quest to hound, diminish and weaken Israel.

That light still shines in every truly Jewish home, and will shine forever.

Happy Chanukah!

 

This Land is…

Here in the land of Israel, nothing is expected to be normal and events verify that conclusion on a daily basis. That is the reality, and not necessarily a bad thing.

The week of fires that swept across the land, more than 1000 in all, now seems like a distant memory except, of course, to those who lost their homes and possessions. It is nothing less than miraculous than no one died, and no one was even seriously injured. Every home was evacuated, and to those who have seen the effects of fires in other parts of the world, this was nothing less than “G-d’s kindnesses” on display for all.

The fires stopped because of increased vigilance on the part of the authorities, buttressed by the heavy rains that fell last mid-week that saturated the earth and left it less vulnerable to conflagration. The fires occurred in an atmosphere that was parched dry and the flames were fanned by heavy winds that were relentless for several days.

To be sure, not every fire was arson. Some were the result of negligence, some gross negligence. Many Arab communities have the quaint custom of disposing of their garbage by burning it, something I witnessed last month in the Arab village of Turmus Aya just south of Shiloh. The dry land and the strong winds caused some of those garbage fires to spread out of control. Of course, every arsonist that was arrested during the spate of fires is now claiming that he was just an inexperienced sanitation engineer, and that is something the courts will work out.

Neve Tzuf, and many other places, were clearly different. I visited Neve Tzuf last week and walked through many of the more than twenty homes that burnt to a crisp. The fire in Neve Tzuf was not an accident or due to negligence. On Friday night at 10:30 PM, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at the perimeter. Within seconds, the gale force winds had spread the fire on a direct line into the oldest part of the community, and within minutes – 20 minutes – the homes were burned. Families lost their possessions, which can be replaced except for sentimental items like photograph albums that were lost forever. In Bet Meir, an artist lost his life’s work; every painting was destroyed.

In Neve Tzuf, the winds were so powerful that logs caught fire and flew through the air. In one place, fiery logs literally flew over one house (that emerged unscathed) and sailed into the adjoining house. Logs, trees and branches flew all over, and naturally, some wooden homes were ignited. But the bravery of the firefighters halted the progress of the flames, and finally extinguished them – and again, with no loss of life or injury.

And the spirit was astonishing. Within minutes, every family in Neve Tzuf was safely evacuated to the adjacent settlement. A Bar Mitzvah scheduled in Neve Tzuf last Shabbat took place in nearby Aderet as scheduled. Every family has found temporary dwelling, and plans are afoot to rebuild as quickly as possible. The government has been very active in ensuring compensation and swift resettlement. The love of Jews for each other, especially in times of need, is extraordinary and inspirational. And it is what makes the coming tragedy so much more difficult to accept.

The community of Amona, located just a few miles north of Yerushalayim, is slated for demolition and the families for eviction on the first day of Chanuka after a long, protracted and still ongoing legal battle. It is still difficult to understand why there cannot be a resolution that allows the families, residents there for years, to remain in place. There is in the Amona story a toxic brew of politics, religion, hypocrisy, fear, and money. The facts themselves are complicated and it is almost impossible to sift through the conflicted record and ascertain the real truth, but who’s to say the real truth is what matters here?

The crux of the legal entanglement is that Amona was allegedly built on private, Arab-owned land and not on state-owned property, nor was Amona an “authorized” community but an outpost originally built without state approval. After years of litigation, the High Court ruled that the residents of Amona must go, and the Court demanded that the eviction take place no later than the first day of Chanuka.

Then the real complications present: how much of Amona was built on private land? It is not completely clear but residents say about one acre, or less than 1% of the total property developed by the residents of Amona.  Should an entire community be destroyed because 1% or 5% or 10% of the buildings are built on private property?

And this: Who is the private Arab owner whose land was allegedly seized by the residents? Here, all agree that no one knows. No individual Arab ever came forward in any court proceeding to claim that his rights were violated. The lawsuit herein was bought by a number of far-left and some anti-Israel groups who are opposed to all settlements  and who are funded by enemies of Israel in Europe and elsewhere. In effect, the Court is insisting that the Jews be evicted, and their homes destroyed, so the land can be restored to…no one.

Why would the Court do that? Well, among the left in Israel, the decisions of the High Court are the closest they ever come to the authority of Sinai, but it is no secret that the High Court has always been unrepresentative of Israeli society and a bastion of the far left. It has always been reliably hostile to the interests of the settlers and generally to religious Jews, and the presence of a token settler and religious Jew on the Court does not change that, especially when the token justices are ideologically compatible with the left.

Thus, the worst aspect of the judicial system is that the Court is self-perpetuating. It remarkably has long played a decisive role in choosing its replacements, all of which keeps their ideological flame burning. That undemocratic state of affairs is one aspect of governance that Israel’s excellent Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, is trying to change, and she has run into a buzz saw of protests from the left who love their monopoly and use the High Court to impose their viewpoints on the masses that greatly outnumber them.

Add to this mixture the fact that PM Netanyahu has long championed the rights of settlers in Judea and Samaria at the same time he has been finding ways to limit the expansion of settlements. He takes credit in Israel for a sizable increase in the population of Judea, Samaria and Yerushalayim during his tenure as prime minister, while denying across the world that he has anything to do with it. And he feels pressure from Israel’s indefatigable Minister of Education, Naphtali Bennett, of the Bayit Hayehudi Party, who is an unabashed supporter of the rights of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel, and wisely wants to stabilize the legal status of the settlements after almost 50 years of living in limbo.

Add to this the fact that the legal status of Judea and Samaria is still undetermined after almost one-half century of Israeli possession. The previous owner, Jordan, left the scene almost three decades ago. The Palestinians are not a sovereign state and Israel refuses to declare its sovereignty. It is a real no-man’s land, except to the extent that Israel administers the territory, and even subsidized the building of Amona – what the court now claims is illegal – through provision of road, electricity, water infrastructure and the like. Complicated – but it is hard to argue that the “government” was unalterably opposed to Amona’s existence.

Isn’t the destruction of homes even built on private land somewhat Draconian? It is well known that there are dozens of Arab homes in Yerushalayim built on private Jewish property, as there as entire Bedouin villages that are illegally on state land between Beer Sheva, Dimona and Mitzpeh Ramon. Would the government ever consider evicting Arabs and destroying their homes? Aside from a few isolated cases because of dangerous code violations, it is not likely to happen. “Equal justice under the law” it is not, even granting the legal casuistries that would find a point or two of distinction between all these cases.

Absent an animus towards the settlers, a fair and equitable resolution is eminently presentable. There are legal doctrines of adverse possession (similar to the laws of chazaka) in a Jewish context that grant possession to new owners who took  possession under color of title and developed the land over a certain number of years. The doctrine prevents the squandering of resources that absentee owners present to a society. This would be normal.

What would also be normal is reference to what in Jewish law is called “takanat hashavin,” an ordinance that is designed to rectify a wrong even if a thief benefits. Thus, if a thief steals a beam and uses it to build his home, and is caught, we do not demand that he remove the beam and thereby dismantle his house. It is enough that he compensate the true owner for the value of the beam. And while the Rema (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 360:1) ruled that there is no “takanat hashavin” for land and houses built on stolen land must be destroyed, others disagree (see the Mabit and the Shaar Hamelech for details) especially when the encroachment is minor. Perhaps even the Rema would agree when there are no “owners” that are claiming the property, as in this case, for the Rema underscores the need to return the land to the “baalim,” its true owners. Here, there are no “owners” seeking recovery of their property.

To be sure, to the extent that the settlers are living on private land, the true owners should be financially compensated and, if necessary, furnished with an equal replacement for their lost territory. That would be fair, unless the real objective is to stick it to the settlers.

We should be careful about the rule of law and even about the honor of the Court but even more careful not to become overly legalistic. The rule of law is never deified; in fact, the opposite is true. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) states that Yerushalayim was destroyed because they based all their decisions on strict Torah law and did not act “beyond the letter of the law” when the spirit of the law required it. Will Amona be destroyed because of strict justice that ultimately distorts what is moral and proper?

It would be bitterly ironic if after so many Jewish homes were destroyed by arson, to the great horror of the country, that Jews themselves would destroy other Jewish homes with bulldozers. It would be incredibly sad if such destruction took place on Chanuka, which celebrates the re-dedication of the Bet Hamikdash and the re-assertion of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel against the enemies of the day. (Amona overlooks the road where Yehuda HaMaccabee fought some of his battles and entered Yerushalayim.)

Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have signed petitions urging a fair resolution to this crisis that does not involve destruction of Jewish homes and displacement of Jewish families. Many here are hoping that the American rabbinate will offer their support as well. The prospective destruction of Jewish homes is painful to contemplate.

Perhaps it is due time we realize that all of Israel is built on private land? “For the land is Mine, and you are all strangers and sojourners with Me” (Vayikra 25:23). With good will on all sides, a resolution that reminds us that we are all on G-d’s land can be achieved, and together we can celebrate the joys of Chanuka and continue the process of building and settling the land of Israel.

 

 

The Mirror

     The reaction to the Trump victory has been over-the-top, provoking raucous and even violent demonstrations by those whose commitment to democracy tolerates only one legitimate electoral outcome – the one they prefer. They shout epithets at the man whom they despise because he used epithets, and act violently to protest the man they fear will bring violence to American streets. They are trying to destroy America to thwart the man they believe will destroy America. One wonders how they have so much time off from work, until the realization dawns that violent protest is their paid profession.

Certainly there are more restrained opponents of the president-in-waiting, who fear the consequences of aspects of his character and his unformed policy prescriptions. That, indeed, is true of every opponent of every new president. But those ideological opponents are not taking to the streets, not denouncing Trump at every turn, and not demanding – demanding! – that the rest of society join them in their disgust, issue proclamations against him, and oppose all his policies and appointments. They will not be satisfied until Trump adopts their view of every issue and nominates for his cabinet people they approve. Of course that will not happen. The unrestrained antagonists can be ignored, save for the violence, but the Jews among them who think calling someone racist, bigot, sexist, etc. has any potency anymore should take a look in the mirror.

The Baal Shem Tov said that righteous people who have no evil within them do not see evil in others. For everyone else, the evil we see in others is essentially what we do not want to see in ourselves. It is as if when we are looking at others, especially critically, we are standing in front of a mirror really looking at ourselves. What bothers us about others should really bother us about ourselves and induce us to change, learn, grow, and improve. And at first, it is worthwhile to recognize what is right before our eyes.

President-elect Trump has elicited strong, even hysterical reactions, for both his real and imagined flaws. One would think that with the elections over it would be prudent for even his opponents to reconcile with the new reality. That so many cannot is a comment more on them than on him. Those who take to the streets to scream, yell, wave signs, break windows, shout vulgarities and cause mayhem are worse than immature; they have become a caricature of everything they are protesting. They may be looking at Trump but they are seeing the worst in themselves.

It is hard to deny that over the last few decades America has become a decadent, even vulgar, society. The lewd and the crude are standard entertainment offerings, with many critics even deprecating family entertainment (notwithstanding that it usually produces higher revenue) as saccharine and old-fashioned. Trump has been rightly criticized for his occasional vulgar speech, although certainly that should not define his personality any more than any other single attribute defines a person. He does push the ends of the envelope when he is not altogether shredding the envelope. But he is actually quite representative of the society that he will soon lead. The crude language that he uses on occasion is quite typical of American culture. It is ironic that many protesting his crudity revel in it when the practitioners are rap singers, entertainers, and cable television offerings. Their words are the same as his words, except that his are used more sparingly and often whimsically.

Whatever offensive things he has said are actually tame compared to the lyrics of rap, the ranting of bad comedians, and what the tawdry culture celebrates. We should remember that New Yorkers first got to know Donald Trump as a real estate developer, but much of the rest of the country became familiar with him as an entertainer. This is the culture. What so many of his critics loathe in Trump is, perhaps, what they should loathe about American society but they don’t. They are just looking in the mirror and don’t like what they see.

On the flip side, Hillary Clinton represented another coarse aspect of modern life that many of her supporters generally and studiously ignored: the high-flying and sweet rhetoric offered the public contrasted with the crass materialism, insider deals, rank dishonesty and insatiable greed that was the private Clinton world. That she traded access for money, lots of it, is undeniable. Sadly, the American culture has long rewarded the something-for-nothing mentality, from the top of society to the bottom. She was an especially heavy-handed and oleaginous practitioner of it, but also is not atypical of the society. Consider that Harry Truman – also a vulgarian by the way but one of the most honest men ever to serve as president – said that the only way one can make money in politics is by being a crook. We should look in the mirror and ask ourselves why that was tolerable to so many.

Add to that one other lamentable aspect of the culture: the incessant assertions that Clinton was entitled to the presidency because she was a woman and it was “about time.” Nothing has made American life more vacuous than the identity politics played by the Democrats. Who you are and what you are is not as important as to which group you belong, as if choosing a president is all about checking off the right boxes on the diversity application. Such an approach is demeaning to the individual’s status as a unique creature of G-d, but it nonetheless prevails in much of the mass media and the general society. Unfortunately, that will get worse before it gets better, and it cannot get better until each person looks in the mirror and sees a human being and not part of a class.

Finally, the shrillness of Trump’s critics has become especially strident with the demands – demands! – that Trump apologize for this uttered word or not appoint that guy, that rabbis denounce this speech or that act, that everyone kowtow to the social media mob. It is actually amusing that some of the people who did not vote for Trump are now demanding – demanding! – that he fire this guy, change this policy, or else. Or else… what?

I don’t know Steve Bannon from Steve Madden (although I am partial to anyone named Steven) but the customary accusations from the left have descended on him full force (big league, as the president-elect would say). The vehemence of the accusations against him that he is a Jew-hater are in inverse proportion to the evidence of that charge, which evidence is actually quite skimpy and disreputable. Why Trump should heed his opponents and dismiss a loyal aide is a mystery, mitigated only by the realization that he will justifiably ignore them. The louder they get, the less people hear them.

What is no mystery, and quite-off-putting, is the frequency at which charges of “anti-Semitism” (as people inexplicably call Jew-hatred) are leveled against anyone with whom many liberal Jews disagree or who make an off-handed crack. It is the stock in trade of organizations such as the ADL, long just an irritant – an expensive irritant, at that – without any power or influence in the Jewish or non-Jewish world. Its only weapon is that accusation, and so it lies in wait and sits in judgment of every utterance made by anyone. (I have been attacked several times by the ADL over the years – I frankly don’t remember for what – as has Jerry Seinfeld, among numerous others.)

Granted that this is what they do for a living, but when Jewish organizations cheapen the use of this slur by sheer frequency and inappropriate use, it is like the boy who cried wolf. When it really happens – and real Jew hatred occurs, such as in the Crown Heights riots 25 years ago when the ADL was out-to-lunch, no one will pay attention. Would that the ADL was more exercised by the nomination of Keith Ellison as head of the Democratic National Committee! Now there’s a guy with some rough things to say about Jews and Israel, but criticizing a Democrat hits too close to home. They would be better off taking on “Black Lives Matter,” elements of which are permeated with Jew hatred.

In a most bizarre twist, an array of “Jewish” organizations is calling on Trump to denounce “anti-Semitism” (again) and announce his support for a Palestinian state. In other words, eviscerating the State of Israel is now a sign of philo-Semitism? Jews who love Jews are supposed to favor expelling Jews and renouncing Israeli sovereignty over the biblical heartland of Israel? We do live in strange times. Perhaps it is worth mentioning a cartoon that has made the rounds in the last week, with the caption: “The difference between Donald Trump and most leftist American Jews is that Trump has Jewish grandchildren.” If only these groups would realize that intermarriage is the most serious crisis facing them today, and compared to that, politics is beanbag.

As it is, few outside the leftist media echo chamber pay attention even today to their “demands.” Fortunately, the Social Justice Warriors who have arrogated to themselves the right to adjudicate everyone’s morality (except their own), speech, conduct and ideas are now, post-Trump victory, on the decline. They can yell and scream “racist!” “bigot!” “sexist!” and they will, and they will demand apologies, retractions, clarifications and penance from their targets in order to stay relevant, and the cowardly will accommodate them, but their moment has passed. They will be ignored because they should be ignored. They have committed the grave, modern offense of becoming boring, predictable, and tiresome. The tyranny of those who monitor every word or phrase for swift offense, and keep a dossier on the offenders, is over. Long live freedom!

They too should look in the mirror. Those who attack others for “intolerance” and insist on verbal reparations are among the most intolerant and bigoted people walking the earth today. If only they had the self-awareness to look at their targets and see the hatred in their own hearts for anyone with whom they disagree. They should follow the Baal Shem Tov and realize they are looking in the mirror.

Even this confirmed Mitnaged would welcome that type of neo-Hasidism.

The Empire Strikes Back

    The simplest way to understand the Trump victory is to recognize that since 1952, the United States changes the presidential party in power every eight years, the only exception being the dispatch of Jimmy Carter after just four miserable years, and the extension of the Reagan eight years with four of GHB Bush. Otherwise, it is like clockwork – R, D, R, D, R, D, R, D and now R again. Of course, there is much more to this election cycle.

Four years ago in this space, I published an essay that went viral: “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.” It lamented the Obama victory in 2012 and how changes were coming to the United States that would leave the country unrecognizable to many of its citizens with domestic policies that were more socialist and foreign policies that shrunk America’s role in the world and made the world a more violent and dangerous place. It further lamented the decline of politics in America that depicted a good, decent man like Mitt Romney as a monster and ogre who gleefully threw the elderly off cliffs, deprived the ill of their cancer medication and delighted in firing hard-working people.

It was nearly impossible, given the demographics of American life, to see a plausible path to the Republicans ever winning the presidency again. One of the ironies of this riotous, unpredictable and unprecedented presidential campaign is that the only Republican who could have won was not really a Republican and certainly not a Republican for a long period of time. For make no mistake: a conventional Republican – a Bush, a Cruz, a Rubio, et al – might have been preferable to Donald Trump in theory, but such a conventional Republican would have been eviscerated, lambasted, vilified and scorned in actuality, and would have lost the election.

I remained puzzled about the almost universal support of Democrats for Hillary Clinton, despite her personal flaws, and the Republican “never Trumpers” who refused to support their party’s nominee because of his personal flaws. And both were flawed, which is an understatement. But Trump’s policies always trumped Trump’s personality, and I was always at a loss to understand which of Hillary Clinton’s policy prescriptions for America were preferable to those of Donald Trump. But too many Republicans, including columnists, pundits, activists and even some rabbis (who might not be Republicans), were so turned off to some of Trump’s faults that they were completely blind to Clintons’ when they weren’t rationalizing them altogether. Too many people did not recognize that there was no moral argument that could be marshaled on behalf of either candidate, but Clinton supporters were particularly dismissive in that regard. The only morally consistent approach was to concede that both candidates were deficient and that one’s vote was based on policy. That was my approach, as well as to acknowledge that Judaism prefers leaders with skeletons in their closets (Masechet Yoma 22b); it keeps them humble.

 

Here in Israel, there is, for the most part, a great sigh of relief. It is anticipated that Obama’s grudging support for Israel and his embrace of Iran will both be reversed, and that the world will learn again to respect and even fear a resurgent America. It is also anticipated that President Trump will craft a new foreign policy that rejects the chimera of a “two-state solution” and supports the right of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel. That will be a welcome and revolutionary change, even if it happens subtly rather than overtly. The fear of the Obama “December” surprise is still present but less burning. A presidential recognition of a “Palestine” can be reversed and a UN resolution critical of Israel, settlements, support of a Palestinian state, etc., supported by the US might be vetoed by…Russia, whose president has better ties with Netanyahu than Netanyahu had with Obama. Perhaps President-elect Trump could weigh in on that matter with Putin as well.

There are numerous takeaways from this most unusual election.

      Polarization. It is not just that the electorate is divided, but rather the persistence on the left in portraying the right as evil, not just wrong, has led to the despair in so many parts today over the Clinton loss. How can “evil” win?? This pattern dates back to Obama’s first term and is now entrenched in American life. With evil, you can’t compromise; with evil you can’t even dialogue. Those who vote for evil must be evil! And one should then not wonder why children – from kindergarten through law school – are being kept home from school today in droves so their troubled parents can try to explain how “evil” could prevail. Here’s the approach they should take: another opinion is not necessarily evil but different. There is no one solution to the problems that confront America. And there are people who can occasionally do or say bad things but that failing does not necessarily make them bad people. That goes for both candidates, not just one. We are all imperfect and we must learn to accept the imperfections of others if we hope to live in the world without becoming insane, vengeful or perpetually angry. Endlessly citing this or that word or phrase as if it defines the human being who uttered is a caricature, not an analysis.

      The Failure of Punditry and Pollsters. There are people who make their living making predictions, and they were almost all wrong, and in very predictable ways. Once it became socially unacceptable to support Trump – and many of the pundits and writers were the ones who made it socially unacceptable – it was clear that polls were not accurate and would miss 3-5% of the voting public, at least. That is exactly what happened, as Trump’s margin of victory was extremely narrow in several states that facilitated his victory.

It also vindicated Trump’s campaign model that should drive so many “professionals” batty. He spent relatively little, spoke his mind, eschewed handlers and messaging, and spoke directly (even occasionally tactlessly) to the people. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who shunned the media like the plague and felt like answering questions was beneath her, Trump was omnipresent on television, interviewed again and again, and then again. Free advertising, very human and personal, and a brilliant strategy.

Do not underestimate the resentment that the Trump candidacy engendered in the professional political class. He is the ultimate outsider in a world where to be an insider is considered a success. Trump is the guy who walks in unannounced from the parking lot, becomes the team quarterback and wins the championship. (There are such cases – Johnny Unitas, Kurt Warner, and probably dozens of people reading this.) Those who toiled in the system and either wouldn’t or couldn’t are naturally brusque with the one who did and could.

The Republican Party is Floundering. Some of its most principled people refused to support Trump, because of both personal blemishes and policy heresies. But it should recognize that it is increasingly talking to an electorate that is deaf to its values, uncomfortable with personal responsibility, uninterested in its policies and – for many – addicted to the free stuff that only Democrats can offer. It is safe to say that the Trump phenomenon cannot be duplicated, so where does that leave the GOP, alienated in large part from its standard bearer?

Ganging Up. Americans like a fair fight, and Trump was opposed by the full weight of one party, much of the other, the presidency and the tools of government, and especially by the mainstream media whose collusion with Clinton (including slipping her questions before debates and checking articles with her before publication lest something displease her, as Wikileaks revealed) made them not the reporter of news but makers of news and attempted shapers of outcomes. That was never supposed to be the role of the independent media, and the few outlets or individuals who actually presented fair and balanced coverage were not only honest and a credit to their profession but reaped the windfall of high ratings. They became a refuge for Trump supporters, whether tepid or passionate. Donald Trump became the underdog despite the media’s best efforts to make him the bully. People saw through that, saw the ugliness of the insider dealings and the cattiness of released emails, and saw the pay-to-play schemes – and recoiled from them.

Narrow Margins. Republicans should not gloat. Once again, the Democrat candidate won the popular vote. That is somewhat misleading because if California is taken out of the mix, then Trump wins by several million votes. Nonetheless, Republicans still have won the popular vote only once since 1988, and future prospects are not good unless…Trump is successful in his quest to strengthen the inner cities and reach out to other communities traditionally marginalized by Republicans and patronized by Democrats. His direct appeal to blacks and Hispanics was a welcome shift from prior Republican tactics. As America is becoming less and less white, the Republican Party will become a permanent minority unless it changes its approach to the electorate. Ronald Reagan’s America does not exist anymore.

Les Deplorables. That being said, was there a greater gaffe in memory that Clinton’s contention that half of Trump’s supporters constitute a “basket of deplorables”? That was arguably worse than Romney’s statement that “47%” of Americans don’t pay federal taxes and therefore have no skin in the game. At least Romney’s statement was a fact; Clinton’s slur was a direct attack on the integrity and decency of the supporters (“irredeemable”) of the nominee of a major American party. Rabbis quick to see Trump’s offenses glossed over Clinton’s outrages. Others, impressed by Clinton’s graciousness at a seder, ignored her similar graciousness towards Suha Arafat, kissing, hugging and praising Yasser’s wife right after she accused Israel of poisoning Arab wells in order to murder Arab children. Trump had no monopoly on “deplorables,” most of whom were not deplorable at all, and some of his critics would have benefited from a little more self-awareness. There are bad people on the right – and on the left; truth be told, bad people did not play much of a role in this election.

Rigged System. The Deplorables had only to open their eyes and see the special treatment, the unequal justice under the law, and the outright criminality of the Clinton enterprise to realize that this election demanded more than sitting at home and whining about the worthlessness of voting. The double standard was, to borrow a Trumpian term, “disgraceful.” The corruption, under Obama and Clinton, of the FBI, the IRS, the FCC, the EPA, and much of the rest of the alphabet exceeded anything that Richard Nixon had carried out. The schemes of the Clinton Foundation were breathtaking in scope, and its entire business model was built on Hillary Clinton winning the presidency and rewarding her donors. That is not to be, and the book is still open on whether it will continue as a legitimate charity. Will Obama, before his term ends, pardon Clinton for any and all crimes? I would expect it.

Negativity Works. Well, it depresses the voters and depresses the numbers of voters. Neither candidate is a paragon of virtue but Trump was aided by one factor: his children seem remarkably well-grounded and decent people. It is hard to imagine such individuals emerging from the home of such a “villain,” and having such genuine respect and love for their father. So the negativity became overkill after a while, not to mention Trump’s prior popularity as a TV entertainer that enabled many people to feel that they “knew” him. The feeling of unease that many Americans feel is attributable to the campaigns that brought new lows to American politics. Negativity works, but what an awful price to pay for such successes.

The Death of Political Correctness. Donald Trump is not a politician, and will be the first person since Dwight Eisenhower to assume the presidency never before having held elective office. Being a non-politician, and indeed the antithesis of Hillary Clinton, he did not poll test and focus group every word he uttered. He was refreshing, even if occasionally crass and crude. Certainly the latter is unbecoming, and Trump matured (is that the right word for a 70 year old?) as the campaign neared its end. But most people recognize the unseemliness implicit in the revelation of private comments (or emails). Few but the most pious among us would like to be judged by what we do or say in private; if that were untrue, the curtain business would fail and we would all live in glass houses.

But Trump, one can hope, has put an end to the petty tyranny of political correctness. He said what he thought was true regardless of who was offended by it, and the reactions – often overwrought but occasionally justified – reflected life in an era in which freedom of speech has been curtailed, people watch their words constantly (and not for always salutary reasons) and the thought police are ubiquitous. It wasn’t always like that. There was a time when an offended person, group, or class would just be told to grow up, and if the offense was unintended, a classy person would apologize. Now, the offenders are publicly mocked, excommunicated and sent for sensitivity training. The most intolerant among us are those who frequently hurl epithets like racist, bigot, sexist, -phobe, etc. at someone with whom they disagree. Generally speaking, they are the ones who are the most apoplectic about the results of this election.  Maybe they should just grow up?

One lesson of this election is that Americans are tired of being told what to think, whom they should like or dislike, that their traditions and values are hateful and that an unelected class of scolds gets to sit in constant judgment of their every utterance. Trump was a hero to those Americans, and anathema to the thought police. Those vocally liberated voted for Trump in droves and thumbed their noses at their supposed judges. Democracy is a most unruly form of government.

One by-product of this election and the PC malady is that the Democrats continue to view the electorate not as individuals but only by a group identity.  We are not individuals but whatever ethnic, religious, gender, racial or national attachment we have. How limiting – how degrading is that to every person who is then expected to think and act and vote like the group to which he or she is a part! Are we supposed to vote someone because the candidate is a Jew, a black, a woman, a Latino, or something else? Nothing could be more anti-intellectual, demeaning or shallow. That too should end. It won’t, not yet anyway.

Margaret Thatcher once said one of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Perhaps that will change as well.

There have been bitter and divisive elections in the past in the United States; obviously 2000, but also 1860 (the Civil War followed Lincoln’s election, after he succeeded James Buchanan, still the last president who previously served as Secretary of State) and 1828 and 1824 (the ruthless battles between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams) come to mind. Some of those campaigns were even dirtier and more vicious than this one. But the world needs a strong America; the dangers around us are real and cannot be wished away. We can only pray that Donald Trump, who has so many good instincts in many areas, will be focused and responsible. In many ways, he is similar to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, whose tenure started but didn’t end well. Trump will surround himself with good people – Boltons, Giulianis, Flynns, Huckabees, Carsons and others. Life goes on. We hope and pray for the best.

Mark Twain stated that “if voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” Twain, at least here, and now, was wrong. The citizens of the American empire have chosen to change course. The people have spoken. Long live the people.

Is this good for the Jews? Time will tell. Disappointments are inevitable in life but we are ever hopeful. God’s hand controls our destiny. But what is always good for the Jews is this: learn Torah, observe the Mitzvot, daven with sincerity, perform acts of kindness, stand with Israel and come to Israel. If we do that, then only good things can happen.

 

The Joy of Torah

 

(This first appeared on the front page of the Jewish Press, October 21,2016.)

Simchat Torah is the culmination of the entire festival season. Gone, at first glance, is the awe of Days of Awe, and the fearfulness of the period of judgment is replaced by a day of rejoicing and revelry. The change in mood is so striking – certainly from the solemn joy of Yom Kippur but even from the inner happiness experienced on Succot – that it is not unknown for the spiritual highs of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be lost or forfeited in the riotous behavior some indulge in on Simchat Torah. This refers not just to the execrable drinking that occurs in certain precincts but especially to the ambiance that pertains in many (but by no means all) shuls.

Thus, one who takes a young child to shul only on Simchat Torah and Purim is probably not inculcating in that child the reverence that should typify our deportment in shul, and it will probably take years of training to reverse that impression. That is not to say that young children should not be taken to shul on Simchat Torah but rather that they should be put on notice that the conduct they will witness is atypical.

Undoubtedly, the festivities are cathartic for those who are uncomfortable with the seriousness of Yom Kippur. All of which begs the question: what exactly are we celebrating on Simchat Torah? Of course, one is obligated to rejoice when completing any cycle of Torah study, and so the conclusion of the annual Torah readings and its immediate renewal are appropriate grounds for rejoicing. These are milestones in life, and the transition from Moshe’s death with the Jewish people poised to enter the land of Israel back to the beginning – literally, “in the beginning” – reflects another year in which we have heard, studied, internalized and been uplifted by the Torah’s message. Now, another such year is beginning. And rather than going back to the same place – both in the Torah and in our lives – we are actually ascending a spiral staircase in which we gaze back at the previous year, cherish the insights that have shaped our minds and refined our deeds, and eagerly anticipate the next cycle of readings.

And so we dance, and do hakafot with the Torah in appreciation and gratitude for the divine gift to the Jewish people. Some argue today that hakafot on Simchat Torah are an example of the innovations that once characterized Jewish life that have now been frozen by a stultified Rabbinate. Well, not quite. The hakafot of Simchat Torah are actually extensions of the hakafot that are made throughout Succot. Every day of Succot we grasp our arba minim and march around the Torah that stands in the center. On Simchat Torah, we hold the Torah itself, and circumambulate the place from which the Torah is read. Better said, we are circling our version of Sinai – the shulchan from which the sounds of Torah emanate – and celebrating with “He who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.”

After weeks of repentance and soul-searching, confessions and fasts, and on the verge of returning to our daily lives, we need to celebrate the Torah, elevate it in our eyes, show our love for it and prepare to re-integrate it in all its aspects. Amid all the celebrations, we must realize that dancing with the Torah is not an end in itself but a natural expression of our love for Torah. But that love is primarily actualized not by holding the Torah, waltzing, fox-trotting or tangoing with the Torah, or even kissing the Torah when it passes in front of us. That love is fully consummated only when we study the Torah, observe its laws, cherish it, and protect and preserve it from those who try to modify it to suit the times.

One cannot love the Torah and constantly find fault with it nor can one love the Torah and negate or minimize its divine origin. One cannot love the Torah and try to change it, anymore than one can love a spouse while trying to change that person as well. Both are futile quests. We can only change ourselves. Sometimes, we have to change ourselves to accommodate the spouse who might have an irritating trait or two (love conquers all). Sometimes we have to change ourselves and surrender to the dictates of a divine Torah, even when we find some of the commandments challenging in one way or another.

It is a basic rule of Jewish life that every person will have to struggle with at least one area of Torah, even if only because the Torah demands that we overcome our natural instincts and defer to G-d’s will. In theory, only the perfectly righteous observe the Torah without difficulty, but the perfectly righteous are not that large a demographic today. Nonetheless, true love of Torah always requires that we conform to G-d’s will rather than expect G-d’s will to conform to our needs.

Not long ago, a Yeshiva high school principal wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” Without at all discounting, trivializing or minimizing the struggle that some have with this issue, if such is “the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today” they should count their blessings. And this conclusion accounts for the genuine pain many people feel over their circumstances, which is quite often heartbreaking and should always evoke our empathy. It takes into account the pain of families wrestling with this challenge. But the greatest reality – the one that governs our lives – is the reality of G-d’s existence and the laws of the Torah He gave us.

So the world has never spared the Jewish people formidable religious challenges, and to be sure, many Jews have unfortunately succumbed to those challenges. But imagine if our young people today had to deal with grinding poverty, relentless persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Haskalah, high infant mortality and forced conversions. Imagine if these young people had to witness their families murdered before their eyes by an enemy driven to destroy them because of its hatred of Torah. Imagine if they had to encounter the Inquisition or were forced to abandon all their worldly possessions and flee into exile. Imagine if these young people had no job on Monday because they failed to show up for work on the previous Shabbat. Imagine if kosher food was not readily available in every supermarket, and there weren’t kosher restaurants aplenty to satiate every palate. Imagine if they had to travel hundreds of miles to use a mikveh, as some Jews in the former Soviet Union had to do. Imagine if they were denied the right to learn Torah under the penalty of death. Just imagine…

They should be thankful to have such a “formidable” challenge as the one they claim to have, even acknowledging that it is serious and often tragic. But we should wonder whether or not we are doing an adequate job in educating our young people that Torah sometimes requires sacrifice or pain or struggle, and observance of the Torah sometimes means that we cannot always get our way.

Not every desire can be reconciled with the laws and morality of the Torah, even if the zeitgeist decrees that you can always have everything you want, how you want it and when you want. It is just not true. That is when we show our love for Torah by surrendering to G-d’s will.

Just because young and modern people disagree with something in the Torah does not make them right and the Torah wrong. Perhaps, indeed, it is the reverse. One would think that a primary focus of Jewish education today (in truth, I assume it is) would be to impart to children the reality of life as G-d mandated it to us. Only G-d’s vision of mankind is real – not anything that we concoct. Only G-d’s morality can preserve mankind’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Only the truths of Torah can remind man that he is created in the image of G-d and has been given the tools with which to best serve G-d, perfect his soul and enjoy life on this planet.

Again, without trivializing anyone’s pain or the struggles they confront, it stands to reason that if we investigated every generation going back to ancient times, young people in every generation undoubtedly found something to take issue with in the Torah. When all their peers were worshipping idols, or marauding, or carousing, or eating any type of food, or enjoying the weekend (not Shabbat), or reveling in every new discovery and every act of rebellion against their elders, or when they saw their peers pursuing their life’s dreams and desires unfettered by any external restrictions – it is not difficult to envision that many of them felt spiritual “challenges” as well. Those who overcame them are our illustrious ancestors in whose merit we exist today. Those who succumbed to them disappeared into the mist of history and were lost to our eternal people.

Every generation thinks it is reinventing the wheel and faces trials that no one else had before. In truth the wheel grinds on, and in every age Jews confront obstacles to the observance of mitzvot and the love of Torah. What we can never do is measure the worth or viability of Torah by contemporary standards of morality. If we ever did, among other problems that would not be a Torah worth sacrificing for or even dancing with.

On Simchat Torah in the Torah reading, we indirectly reference the famous Mechilta (Parshat Yitro) that every small child is taught: “And He said, ‘Hashem came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Se’ir, appeared from the mountain of Paran…” (Devarim 33:2). To whom did G-d appear? The Midrash states that the nations of the world would have protested the giving of the Torah to Israel, so G-d first offered it to them. “He revealed Himself to the children of the wicked Esav (Se’ir) and asked, ‘will you accept the Torah?” They answered with a question: “Mah k’tiv ba?” What is written in it? G-d answered “You shall not murder,” and the children of Esav responded that homicide is a legacy from their ancestor, and so they rejected the Torah.

Ammon and Moav were also approached and asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Told there are restrictions on lascivious behavior, they too declined, for their nations were founded on acts of immorality. The children of Yishmael were also offered the Torah and also asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Informed of the prohibition “You may not steal,” they too protested. “Our forebear was blessed with this special talent, and so the Torah is not for us.

Conversely, when the people of Israel were offered the Torah, we answered “whatever G-d says we will do and we will obey,” “naaseh v’nishma” (Shmot 24:7). We did not ask “Mah k’tiv ba?” We accepted the Torah without investigation (even impetuously, as Rava, the great Amora, was taunted by a heretic, in Masechet Shabbat 88a) and only because we trusted the Lawgiver to give us a Torah that would guide us through life properly, satisfy every legitimate human need, and perfect our souls. We accepted the Torah unconditionally, even though to us it was an “aish dat,” a fiery faith that is not easily handled. We trusted G-d who is compassionate and merciful and knows the best way for man to live.

Some are still asking “Mah k’tiv ba?” – What is written in it?” – and conditioning their acceptance of the Torah on whether or not the commandments of the Torah suit them, their friends, their personalities, their business practices, their own moral conclusions, their family lives, their politics and their proclivities. But those whose acceptance of the Torah is predicated on “Mah k’tiv ba?” will never fully accept the Torah. They are substituting their morality for

G-d’s and, in effect, worshipping themselves.

Is that something to celebrate? Maybe on one’s birthday but that is not the meaning or import of Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate not the giving of the Torah but its incorporation into our lives and our profound joy in being entrusted with G-d’s eternal message for all of mankind. At the very least, we should feel an unlimited sense of gratitude along with the rejoicing.

How can we impart to younger Jews – raised in a world in which narcissism is considered normal and even healthy, and feelings matter more than truth or substance – the spirit of sacrifice, the nobility of surrender to G-d’s will, or the willingness to embrace moral notions that are Divine and objective but contrary to the prevailing norms?

Perhaps we can enlighten them as to the great people in our history who celebrated, loved and lived the Torah when it was not as easy as it is today: Rabbi Akiva (and countless others) who forfeited their lives to teach the Torah to the simple laborer who after a day of toil attends a shiur; parents who retain as their primary ambition in life raising children who love, respect and will learn the Torah; and communities that will faithfully transmit it unaffected by the winds of modernity that are gusting through others.

Those individual giants and committed communities have sustained us until today and will continue in the future. And we should underscore how every Jew has a share in that Torah, community and destiny if only he or she embraces them, a Torah that is “our lives and the length of our days.”  That is the true and enduring celebration of the Torah.

Chag Sameach to all!

Honored Guests

Every year we welcome into our Succot some of the most distinguished guests in Jewish history – the “Ushpizin” – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David. It is the Jewish dream team and a mystic’s delight, but for the rest of us – why are they here and what do they teach us?
Rav Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, once told the following story. In the year 2000, he was invited to deliver the annual St. George Lecture at Windsor Castle, the first Jew ever so honored. He was overwhelmed by the thought of it – and what he would say – especially considering that Windsor Castle is the oldest royal castle in the world in continuous use since its construction in the 1070’s by William the Conqueror, a decade after the Norman Conquest. Kings and queens have used that residence ever since and much happened to us while they were there.

In the almost 1000 years since, Jews underwent great hardship in the UK – starting with the blood libel in Norwich in 1144, the massacre in York in 1190 (there’s a kinah that describes that), and the expulsion of Jews in 1290 by King Edward I. Jews did not return legally to Britain until Oliver Cromwell permitted them in 1657. And Rabbi Sacks wondered: if those Jews could talk, what would they say now?

What he did say was this: I’m trying to put myself in the mindset of someone who inherits this castle and who lives here. The place is saturated with history. Every royal who lives here sees this home as his personal history, but also as the history of a nation. The residents therefore have moral obligations to the past and the future, and not just the present. Every resident becomes part of that history, the history of Windsor Castle, and he has to preserve it for the next generation of Windsors, the next generation of royalty. This is life lived not just an individual but in an historical context.

Jews, he said, do not have castles. We do not have castles but our history, our memory, is built through words. In context, he meant the hagada – the lecture occurred before Pesach – words that emanate from the commandment of “and you shall relate to your children on that day,” to impart the story of Israel to every new generation. We don’t need buildings of brick and stone if we know the words, and the words are transmitted from generation to generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, frequently under conditions of hardships and travails. And every child is taught the words, because that is his legacy – to transmit those words to his children.

Edmund Burke wrote that “a partnership is not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Burke meant that everyone in society is part of the partnership – but we mean it as referring to the great Jewish odyssey. Indeed, the venerable Labor ideologue Yitzchak Tabenkin told David Ben Gurion not to accede to the partition demands of the Peel Commission, because he had “consulted” both his grandfather and his grandson, and neither would tolerate one generation’s surrender of the ancestral land of the Jewish people. No individual generation has the right to betray the past or the future.

I would take it a step further. Jews don’t have Windsor Castles; those do not represent our essence. We have our words but I would expand that too: what we have our experiences – experiences that we cherish, that define us, that keep us connected to G-d and to our people and that we transmit from one generation to the next.

We don’t need a fancy castle because we have a Succa – and in that Succa we hear the echoes of the giants of our history. The beauty of our history is that they – the Ushpizin – are the constants; we are transient. In our Succa, the guests are always the same – the Ushpizin; only the hosts change from year to year.

And what we convey most to our children are those experiences – of the Succa and the seder, of Shabbat and the shofar, of prayer and Torah study, of the innumerable acts and cherished values – that will both shape them and fully equip them with the means to live not just in the moment but in history, to see themselves as partners in the grand plan of the Creator in history.

“So that generations will know that I caused you to dwell in Succot when I took you out from the land of Egypt, I am G-d.” We dwell in the Succa so that we can transcend the generations – so that all generations will know that G-d has preserved us from time immemorial until this very day. Those Succot in the wilderness began our journey, which will culminate, as the prophet Zecharia taught, when all nations will come to Yerushalayim to celebrate Succot, in the era when G-d’s kingship will appear on earth and the entire world will pay homage to G-d, “and He will be One and His name will be One.”