Beyond Yom Ha’atzmaut

(First published yesterday on Israelnationalnews.com)

Yom Ha’atzmaut always unleashes an outburst of pride in the State of Israel, properly and justifiably so. It is natural to be moved and inspired by the proliferation of flags across the streets and cities of our country and to bask in the astonishing achievements of a state that was born in struggle, built through tremendous self-sacrifice and commitment, and has produced for its citizens a prosperous, free, and (for the most part) Jewish society.

     And then Yom Ha’atzmaut passes and we are confronted with problems that only seem to deteriorate with each year and with a political establishment that is locked into its own fanciful world, oblivious to the chaos it is fostering. If a person wanted to destroy the Jewish state, there are several steps that he could take (with Iran just being a distraction).

     First, he would cede large swaths of the country to hostile elements. As Defense Minister Benny Gantz noted in private the other day, large portions of the Negev and the Galil are being lost to the Jewish state. (As Defense Minister, one would think that he would do more than whine about it.) There are many parts of Israel today that are off-limits to Jews, “no-go” zones where Jews would be endangered if they entered. We have become accustomed to the large red road signs that prohibit the entry of Jews to Area A in Judea and Samaria. It is not farfetched to believe that the day might soon come when we see those same road signs in pre-1967 Israel, warning Jews not to enter these areas for fear of their safety. He would also reinforce to the Arabs that the Temple Mount is theirs, not ours, and that they are the real sovereigns in the territory in which they live.

     Second, he would want to fill the country with non-Jews. If one-quarter of Israeli citizenry is already non-Jewish, he would try to import tens and hundreds of thousands of others to further dilute the Jewish character of the State. And then he would turn a blind eye to the fact that a large percentage of this population opposes the very notion of a Jewish state and actively seeks to undermine it – and finds representation of this view in the Knesset. There are not many countries in the world that would seat legislators committed to its downfall and who openly collaborate with its enemies. In fact, I cannot think of another country aside from Israel that permits it.

      Third, he would embolden the Arabs in Israel to believe that they can violate the law with impunity, obstruct Jews who want to plant trees on state land, attack the security forces wantonly, taunt them recklessly, neither arrest nor prosecute them for their crimes, and permit illegal building wherever and whenever they desire. He would allow Arabs to steal cars from Jewish neighborhoods, and not investigate those crimes or arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. He would encourage chaos – and only enforce the law for and against Jews.

      This is happening for two reasons. There is a palpable fear that enforcing the law against Arabs will provoke riots that will then be broadcast globally. It is as if only the Jewish state must accept a certain level of crime from its inhabitants, even if good people thereby suffer. Thus, Arabs can stone Jews, rampage through neighborhoods, harass Jews on buses and even trash the emergency room at Hadassah Hospital – without any consequences. On Reshet Bet, Hadassah’s Director even claimed – incredulously – not to know the identity of the saboteurs. Somehow, I think if the perpetrators were Haredim, he would know and the media machine would be blaring their identities. It is more than infantilizing them. It is allowing a hostile entity free rein to destabilize society and demoralize its good citizens. The second reason is below.

      Fourth, our putative destroyer would adopt a policy of preempting terrorist attacks rather than deterring the terrorists. Certainly, even preemption requires great dedication and skill, and we pay a heavy price for that. But ultimately, we recognize that preemption is imperfect, and that some attacks will occur. But they are less likely to occur if the society that dispatched them (and cheers them on) felt the sting of their dastardly deeds as well. If they knew the price that would be paid, and paid immediately – loss of funding, deprivation of rights to the Temple Mount or in Hevron, increased settlement building, deportation of the guilty, etc. – they would be more likely to deter their own hostile agents. Inevitably there is an element of collective punishment in all sanctions but presently, the only people being collectively punished are Israeli Jews. We are the ones who must be constantly mindful of potential rammers when we stand at intersections and potential stabbers when we walk the streets. Alas, we will be told, if we employ methods of deterrence then riots would inevitably take place, and no one wants that televised. And so the enemy wins.

     Fifth, he would try to chip away at the Jewish character of the state, bending halacha to solve social problems caused by the leftist establishment and undercutting the spiritual leaders of the nation. To date, these efforts are making it more difficult to determine who is a Jew and what foods are kosher.

     Finally, he would want to make the survival of Israel’s government dependent on the approval and acquiescence of the most hostile elements in the society. This way, these parties can assure their voters that they are achieving their nefarious goals through cooperation rather than through confrontation. Thus, they will milk the current government as much as they can for as long as they can – and we will pay the price. What Lenin said – that capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them – is gaining a strange resonance here as well. We are consciously subverting the very foundations of the Jewish state of Israel, while the politicians seem to be blissfully unaware of the long term consequences of their actions and gloat over the short term consequences. It is self-interest above all. And this is the second reason why Arab marauders are allowed to intimidate and assault Jews with impunity: a strong hand will cause the government to collapse.

      I recognize that stating that politicians are mendacious is like asserting that the sun rises in the east –  but at least the sun only rises once a day. We are descending to new depths. The government of “all the people” doesn’t even represent a majority in the Knesset. It endures, limping along to the detriment of the country, primarily so that one group should remain in power and one group should not be in power. Right-wingers who should know better continue to prop up the government, and they too should never again be allowed near the levers of power. Note that I was not among those who were implacably opposed to this government. Many of the problems with which they are dealing were allowed to fester under previous governments, which also had a greater interest in preventing televised riots than strengthening Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. But the current government’s “survival at all costs” mentality is a clear and present danger.

      This is a wonderful country with wonderful people, and the pride we Jews take in it is well deserved. It is a fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Certainly, there are challenges, as the land of Israel is only acquired through suffering (Berachot 5a). But like in some other democracies, the political class has failed us. It creates problems, and its solutions to other problems create even more problems. Perhaps the government intends to prove that we survive only through miracles and divine providence. Nevertheless, we cannot rely on miracles. We deserve better. And we need to fear less what our enemies might do to us than what we are doing to ourselves.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 18

(This is the third year that I am answering questions in the Jewish Press forum entitled, “Is it Proper?” All the rabbinic responses – and more – can be read at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to have a shorter seder so guests will not have to struggle to stay awake or is it better to have a longer seder filled with divrei Torah that ends very late? What about when young children are involved?

I have often marveled at people who measure a seder (or for that matter, the Rosh Hashana davening) by its length. “We finished at 11:00 PM…at midnight…at 3:30 AM,” as if time is the essence and the substance ancillary.

The fundamental mitzvah of the seder is to transmit the narrative of the Exodus to our children, the background, the story, and above all the implications for today. It is to convey to them the grandeur of the night on which we became Hashem’s eternal and chosen people. How that is done varies with every family – but that is what must be done.

Thus, the length of the seder should be organic, not forced, and depend on the age and knowledge of the guests, and especially the children. It is as foolish and counterproductive to send children to sleep after they ask the Four Questions as it is to sing Chad Gadya with most of the company already sleeping on the floor from the lateness of the hour and the effects of the wine. And I have never much seen the value in having children read rote divrei Torah that they copied in school without fully understanding what they are reading.

Every family strikes it own balance but there are certain prerequisites. Each child, on his/her own level, must be informed of the events of this majestic night, and the purpose of the maror, matzah and the wine. All guests should ponder the implications of exile and redemption, of enemies rising in every generation to destroy us, and of Hashem’s watchful hand that has preserved us until today.

Often the most meaningful discussions will occur at the meal. Sometimes it is necessary to speak privately to the youngsters who will not remain awake for the meal. But clearly the length should be natural and secondary to the quality of this exalted evening.

Is it proper to go on a Pesach program in a place like Dubai, United Arab Emirates?

First things first: Pesach was meant to be celebrated in the land of Israel. That is the Torah’s clear intention, and even if there is no formal mitzvah of aliyah l’regel today, nonetheless there is still a virtue in being in Israel and experiencing the fifth kos – that Hashem will bring us to the land He promised our forefathers.

If one is not celebrating in the land of Israel, there is certainly a value in celebrating Pesach at home. The transformation of the Jewish home from its normal state into its Pesach mode is truly magical. The impression made on children – of parents and grandparents, of cousins and extended family, of traditions unique to each family – is indelible. Even Bubby’s special Pesach dishes will be cherished forever, unlike those of some anonymous chef. And although it is understandable that some families feel compelled to go to a hotel because of the inability to accommodate large numbers of relatives in one house they should still be mindful that the advantage also has some disadvantages.

Once a decision has been made to observe Pesach outside the home it doesn’t really matter in what country it is being celebrated. I remember that before the first Pesach after Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt there were enterprising hoteliers who advertised about observing Pesach in Egypt, “back where it all began.” Thankfully it didn’t catch on.

Dubai is much friendlier and genuinely appreciates Jewish and Israeli visitors, which is a very heartwarming change in this part of the world. But to fly over Israel to celebrate Pesach elsewhere? There is something odd about that. At least stop in for a visit either before or after Pesach. Chag Kasher v’sameach!

Is it proper to ask someone to leave your makom kavuah in shul?

The old joke just happened to me. A few months ago I was somewhere in northern Israel, found a shul for Mincha, walked in ten minutes early, and saw one person sitting already. The shul contained about 150 seats. I sat down in the middle of the shul. Two minutes later, a fellow walked in – now the third person in shul – approached me and said (in Hebrew): “you are sitting in my seat.” I burst out laughing – and graciously moved over two seats.

There is certainly a value in having a makom kavuah, which is derived from no less a personage than Avraham. It helps our kavanah and it also stamps a particular hallowed place with our personal commitment. Yet, too much is made of it. In our shul, I instituted a rule that a makom kavuah would be honored up to one minute past the start of davening. After one minute (allowing for watch discrepancies), you were no longer entitled to “your” seat, which, if it meant so much, you would have graced with your presence in a more timely fashion.

Underlying this conclusion was the halachic reality that makom kavuah does not necessarily mean a particular seat but rather a particular area. And within four amot (roughly, seven feet) of that seat is still considered your makom kavuah, as the Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 90:60) notes. So it is not necessary to be so insistent on a particular seat, and certainly not to be aggressive or abrasive about it.

As it is, the aforementioned shul in northern Israel did not assemble a minyan for Mincha that day until 12 minutes after sunset, by which time I had already davened. I wondered that, perhaps, if the members were less adamant about their personal spaces they might attract more people.

Is it proper to learn during chazarat hashatz?

No, and I plead guilty with an (inadequate) explanation.

The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chaim 124:17) exhorted us to be careful not to learn during chazarat hashatz. The repetition of the amida is intended today not so much to fulfill the requirements for those who can’t read (a rarity) but instead to enable us to focus on this communal tefilah given the difficulties we all have in concentrating during our private tefilot. To learn Torah is not only a wasted opportunity (even if we still answer amen) but engenders the idea in others that the repetition is not that important. For every one person who will learn, five others will be checking emails on their cell phones and ten others will be conversing.

The prohibition seems straightforward and years ago I made a conscious effort to stop. I failed, for several reasons, but was bolstered in my waywardness when I came across a teshuvah of Rav Menachem Azariah of Fano (102:8) who wrote (in the 16th century; this is not a new phenomenon) that learning Torah during chazarat Hashatz is improper but most Jews are not careful about this because they have already fulfilled their obligation of tefilah and so grab whatever mitzvah they can during this period.

Most later poskim rejected the contention of the Rema miFano but nevertheless conceded that the issue was usually not framed as an outright prohibition but rather as inadvisable given that the less learned will then do what brings them pleasure – idle conversation and the like.

Rav Kook generally noted that divine service requires orderliness. It is as sensible to learn while davening as it is to daven while learning. Each element of avodah demands our utmost attention and is the commandment of the moment that must be fulfilled. The temptation for Talmud Torah is enormous – but even that temptation, I tell myself, must be controlled. It is undeniably true that the greatest of our Torah sages were meticulous in not learning during chazarat hashatz.

Amend the Law of Return

      Volodymyr Zelensky is an inspirational and courageous figure. His single-minded focus on his country’s survival at great personal risk reveals him to be a Ukrainian patriot, even as his knowledge of the Holocaust is a little deficient. And as a Jew, he could come to Israel tomorrow and declare himself an Israeli citizen. Not only Zelensky himself but his Gentile wife and baptized children could also become Israeli citizens tomorrow. It is not that they would – but they could.

      Similarly, Agata Kornhauser-Duda is the first lady of Poland, married to Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, a practicing Catholic. She too could arrive in Israel tomorrow and declare herself to be an Israeli citizen, along with her husband, parents and daughter, because her paternal grandfather was a Jew. Her Gentile parents could come as well.

       There are fine people whose connection to Judaism is that they carry within them drops of Jewish blood, do not at all identify with Israel or the Jewish people, and yet, according to the Law of Return, are eligible for Israeli citizenship as Jews.

      That, in a word, is insane.

      Compounding the insanity is the havoc this clause has knowingly caused to Israel’s Jewish character. We would not be arguing over diluting the traditional standards for conversion – mocking halacha in the process – if we were not embracing hundreds of thousands of halachic Gentiles who bear but a tangential connection to the Jewish people. And with the influx of Ukrainian refugees – not the Gentile refugees who are looking for a temporary refuge but those refugees of Jewish descent that are similarly claiming Israeli citizenship – we are dealing with the existing problem by exacerbating it. Undoubtedly, we could find tens of millions of people across the globe that have Jewish ancestry, even a Jewish grandparent. And what will be of Israel, the only Jewish state?

       Certainly, part of the campaign to secularize Israel, reform conversion laws, and relax public Shabbat restrictions on transportation, commerce and entertainment, is a consequence of the arrival in Israel of hundreds of thousands of halachic Gentiles. While waving the magic wand of conversion over them – immersing them in a mikveh without requiring acceptance of mitzvot – sounds attractive to some, it doesn’t solve the problem of secularization. (Will we soon see Ukrainian refugees of Jewish descent taken from the airport straight to a mikveh – and then to their hotels?) The Jewish character of Israel will be further adulterated.

       Consider: about twenty minutes from my home is a Christian church that caters to the immigrant population that arrived in the 1990’s and 2000’s. I hesitate to name the church because I do not want to call attention to it in any way. Their membership has grown from dozens of families in the early 1990’s to many hundreds. They have built a new building. They have in the last decade or so added branches in Rishon Letzion and Ashkelon. They conduct their services on Shabbat (both as Israel’s official day of rest and probably so as not to draw too much attention to themselves) and have simultaneous translation of the services into Russian, English, Yiddish and Romanian. The church also engages in social welfare work, helping their immigrant families find homes, jobs, education, etc.

     It is indisputable that most of their families came here as beneficiaries of the Law of Return, as the offspring of Jews. It is equally indisputable that they are practicing Christians who might even allow themselves to be dunked in a mikveh if there were tangible benefits to being a recognized Jew in the land of Israel. But that is also insane. What interest of the Jewish people is advanced by pretending that Gentiles are quasi-Jews, “traditional” but not religious?

      It is long past time to amend the Law of Return to conform to sanity and promote the true interests of the Jewish people dwelling in Zion. While most of the fireworks in the past fifty years have centered on the conversion clause – accepting as citizens Jews who have “converted,” even if not according to halacha – this has applied to relatively few people, even as a change would infuriate the non-Orthodox movements in America. But the clause that vests the rights of a Jew in the State of Israel “to the grandchild of a Jew” and “the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew” has caused more spiritual harm and created more havoc and social disunity than did the conversion clause. It was adopted at the same time as the conversion loophole (1970) but somehow flew under the radar.

     To be sure, the text of the law disqualifies anyone “who is not a member of another religion,” but aside from celebrated cases (like Brother Daniel) who would really know? Who investigates? Are the current group of refugees of Jewish descent interrogated as to whether or not they practice Orthodox Christianity? The number of Russian Orthodox churches in Israel alone would indicate that a large number of olim from the great wave of Aliya did not renounce their prior faith but brought it with them to Israel. It must be underscored that this is not meant to exclude any Jew with a Jewish mother regardless of his or her level of observance. Nor is it a comment on the propriety of temporarily admitting other Ukrainians as refugees.

     There are always those who will contend that we should grant Israeli citizenship to descendants of one Jewish grandfather because that was Hitler’s criterion for determining Jewish status for his malignant ends. But Hitler, may his name be blotted out, was a genocidal murderer. He was not a posek. He doesn’t decide questions of Jewish law – not about Shabbat, Kashrut, conversion or Jewish status. And to allow him that privilege is to award him a posthumous victory over the Torah.

     We must return to sanity. Approximately one-quarter of Israeli citizens today are not Jewish and most do not want to be. What is the tipping point at which we realize that Israel is only nominally a Jewish state – when one-third are not Jewish? For when we reach one-half, it will not be a Jewish state at all, and this without being conquered by any hostile country.

      The Law of Return is one of the crown jewels of the State of Israel. It is a declaration that no Jew in the world is homeless and that every Jew has a place and can automatically become a citizen in the land of Israel. It is a bulwark against the persecution of Jews and it is an invitation to all Jews to come home and build a Jewish state. It is as fundamental to Israel’s self-definition as is Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But just like, as US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once stated, “the constitution is not a suicide pact” but must be interpreted “with a little practical wisdom,” so too the Law of Return is not a suicide pact and should not be interpreted as such.

       So it is high time that the Law of Return applied to Jews, and only Jews. For those remarkable people of Jewish descent – whether they had a Jewish grandfather, or are descendants of Conversos, or were otherwise part of a hidden community – who want to come to Israel and live full Jewish lives, the road to sincere conversion is open and welcoming. If it isn’t, then we should make it open and welcoming so that we may gather in all our exiles and bring closer the redemption.

Never Again?

   

     If platitudes were weapons, Ukraine would by now be advancing on Moscow.

     Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unprovoked except by paranoia, has been devastating and deadly for Ukrainians and Russians but has also exposed the moral weakness of the West. Ukraine has been overrun by clichés – Western expressions of sympathy, empathy, compassion, commiseration, concern, condolences, solidarity, respect, admiration, and warmth. Ukrainians have been the focus of an infinite number of prayers and the beneficiaries of the newest Western sign of support – hashtags. In place of weapons they have received words, and even with weapons now pouring in to Ukraine, it seems evident that this is being done to assuage Western consciences more than to change the strategic equation or enable Ukraine to survive.

      With the West having from the beginning ruled out the use of force, and currently even rejecting repeated pleas for the creation of a no-fly zone, the carnage in Ukraine continues unabated. Its ultimate conclusion rests in the hands of one unpredictable Russian man who can either look for a settlement that preserves some of his interests or carry on with an invasion that will result in the deaths of tens of thousands and the destruction of a country. If Russia prevails, it is hard to conceive of a more Pyrrhic victory. If Putin assumed that Ukraine did not constitute a legitimate nation, Ukraine’s spirited defense of its territory and people proves otherwise and will make for one very unpleasant occupation.

     It is hard to say that war could have been avoided. I was in the camp of those who believed that Putin would not invade but would succeed in gaining most of his strategic objectives without the need for an invasion. After all, prior territorial seizures in Ukraine were tacitly accepted by the West with strong words but little else. The immediate response to the invasion – sanctions (which for decades now have not deterred Cuba, North Korea or Iran from seeking their strategic aims) – was extremely unlikely to deter Russia which, after all, withstood the 872 day Nazi siege of Leningrad that claimed one million Russian lives. Projecting Western notions of morality or politics onto Putin – he’s down in the polls, he’s losing popularity, he doesn’t care about the material welfare of his people – was always fanciful, and irrelevant in any dictatorship whose survival depends not on popularity but on raw power

     Putin was certainly emboldened by the fecklessness of Western leadership – a feeble American president, a Europe dependent on Russian energy, and a materialistic, flaccid West tired of war and even tired of paying for defense. When you continually announce ahead of time what you will not do, what troops or weapons you will not send, and even wink at acquiescing to a “minor incursion,” you have essentially invited aggression. Then again, this war was unnecessary, the product of Putin’s paranoia that somehow, for some inexplicable reason, NATO wishes to invade Russia and Putin’s job is to prevent that. But why would NATO – which has never invaded anything – want to invade Russia? It is a concise application of the Talmudic principle (Kiddushin 70a) that “He who disqualifies others…does so with his own flaws.” A revanchist aggressor sees everyone around him as a revanchist aggressor as well.

     And what Putin also failed to anticipate was the resolute courage of President Zelensky, a stark contrast in vigor and values to most Western leaders for whom courage usually consists of a snarky tweet against a universally accepted and convenient target. Zelensky’s fearlessness is extraordinary in modern times, especially given the stakes and his options.

     But what of the West – and what of Israel and the Jewish people? Focusing on the humanitarian crisis is an appropriate response but it is post facto and serves to deflect from the main problem. To be sure, it is complicated. It was Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British Prime Minister, who declared with great perspicacity that nations “have no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.” And each country responds according to those interests. That the West (not to mention Russia) guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the Budapest Agreement when Ukraine relinquished its nuclear arsenal in 1994 is as relevant as was Eisenhower’s 1957 guarantee to maintain Israel’s freedom of passage through the Straits of Tiran (a guarantee forgotten a decade later and provoked the Six Day War). The Western focus on saving refugees – while pursuing policies that do nothing to inhibit the creation of more refugees – is benevolent but hollow. Standing by while civilians are being massacred, and sufficing with unleashing a torrent of verbal condemnations, makes the bystanders feel better about themselves but does little to help the victims. The purveyors of platitudes are talking to themselves far more than they are talking to the aggressor. Raising funds for refugees is noble but preventing the creation of more refugees is even nobler.

     Israel’s role is certainly, and mindbogglingly, complex. On the one hand, the moral outrage cries out for action, not just words. On the other hand, Israel has pursued good relations with Russia for over a decade now, as a counterforce to US vacillations and the encroachment of Iran. It is not an alliance but the occasional convergence of interests. Russia allegedly quashed an Obama-proposed UN Security Council resolution endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state. Ukraine, even under Zelensky, has not once voted in support of Israel at the UN. There is also a sizable Jewish community in Russia that is protected but still vulnerable. To condemn Russia outright jeopardizes Israel’s interests. To ignore wanton attacks on civilians jeopardizes Israel’s moral posture. It is realpolitik at its most agonizing.

     And yet.  Doing the right thing always entails some risk; otherwise it would be simple and unremarkable. In six weeks, when Jews commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) one of the persistent themes we enunciate is how the world stood by and did nothing, how they heard the cries of the victims and were silent. Well, yes, that is so because the world usually stands by and does nothing. The “world” is amoral; it is the responsibility of the human beings who inhabit that world to infuse it with morality. When those human beings make their calculations, and struggle over the complexities, and weigh their interests and their values on opposite sides of the scale when confronted with unfolding atrocities, we easily discern how evil can proliferate. During the Holocaust, each nation – and each individual – also wrestled with competing interests and values and the results were painfully evident.

     There are three possible responses to evil: public protests against the crimes, apathy in the face of human suffering or even hostility to the victims. But when all three responses eventuate in passivity and inaction, the protests are not much more than virtue-signaling, and are not much more edifying than the latter two reactions. We don’t have much to complain about if our reactions are similar to the reactions of others. And it should make us even more awestruck by the actions of the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to shelter Jews. That has never been the norm of human behavior.

     What has become the norm is that after every atrocity, someone will piously intone “never again,” and then someone else will piously intone “never again” after the next atrocity, and so on. It is certainly better than indifference. How much better? That is a question each person has to answer. It would seem that a no-fly zone is the least the West should do at this point. There is a slight risk of a nuclear exchange (Putin is not suicidal), but the alternative is to give nuclear powers carte blanche to indulge in mischief around the world. This is a notion that Russia is testing, and which Iran is watching carefully. Israel should take note as well.