The Era of Argument

The noted professor Stanley Fish recently published a book, a slim but insightful volume, entitled “Winning Arguments.” Even after concluding the book, I could not determine whether the “Winning” of the title was a gerund (a verb meaning that the book instructed one how to prevail in arguments) or an adjective (that is, which arguments would be the most persuasive in rhetorical combat). And then I realized that it was neither, and that I misconstrued even the word “Argument.” Don’t judge a book by its title, or its cover.

When we think of “arguments” today, it is almost associated with acrimony, protests, vindictiveness and insolubility. These encompass the riots in the streets, the harassment of people who articulate views that are unpopular with the masses or the advocates who are averse to dialogue and prone to violence, and the sheer inability of people to talk to others with different and certainly opposing views. Even “we agree to disagree” would be a step up in public discourse but a return to that halcyon era seems way off in the future.

The “Arguments” of the title, I think, refer to the classic arguments of yore, advocacy that was free of rancor or insult. A legal argument is typical of the genre. Often judges will say, “we will hear arguments on that matter tomorrow,” which in the current climate would be taken to mean that each side should come prepared to scream, then scream louder, and be bolstered by the boisterous supporters of its side that it had assembled in the audience. Of course, legal arguments mean nothing of the sort but are rather dispassionate discussions of the legal issues at hand in which each side musters all the precedents and logic underlying its case and tries to counter, rationally and orderly, the arguments of the other side.

There was a time when such arguments were not limited to the courtroom but, in fact, people could sit around a table in a social setting, discourse on the issues of the day, enlighten each other, have a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions about life, religion, politics and the like, and remain friends, and even look forward to the next gathering.

Those are the arguments to which Professor Fish refers, and the “Winning,” I assume, means “pleasing, appealing, or charming” rather than “triumphant or unbeatable.” Wouldn’t it be something if we could return to those days when people could have a friendly dialogue, learn from each other, agree to disagree, meet again – rather than fear being ostracized from one’s social circle, rendering one’s children unmarriageable to families of another viewpoint, having water thrown in one’s face, being verbally harassed on the streets, fired from one’s job, and being stalked and maligned as an enemy of society? And those intellectual arguments need not be that much different in kind from domestic or personal arguments – an exchange of views (who’s doing the dishes and who’s taking out the garbage) in which each side’s concerns are heard and addressed.

What, then, is the problem, which, to a large extent, has infiltrated our Torah world as well?

It is largely that modern arguments never end because there is no yardstick that can be employed that will lead definitively to a conclusion. Fish: “We live in a world where God and truth have receded, at least as active, perspicuous presences…absolute authority exists only in a heaven we may someday hope to see…”

We have forfeited the capacity to have reasoned dialogue because G-d’s word has been neglected when it is not altogether being distorted; even truth has been pounded into oblivion. It is not uncommon to hear people today speak of “my truth,” something which is synonymous with their “feelings.” But “feelings” are not truth, by definition subjective, and what we have generally is a passionate exchange of feelings about which there can be no common ground. It is why people – on television and often around tables – just talk past each other, and why we live in “a world of argument.”

To give just one example: we hear repeatedly the famous Torah verse “You should love your neighbor as yourself” used to justify all sorts of things of which the Torah disapproves, because the sentiment expressed is so noble and universal. Yet, one rabbinic explication of the verse is that because we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we have to “choose for him a pleasant mode of execution” (Masechet Sanhedrin 45a and elsewhere).That is, if we must execute someone for a crime, we must choose a mode of execution that causes the least pain. A person guided by feelings might think that a better way of expressing our love for another would be not to execute him at all! But such a person would be devoid of true Torah knowledge and oblivious to the Mesorah. And that is just one example of how G-d’s word can be so trivialized in these modern arguments and truth the first casualty of the rejection of G-d. Loving our neighbors as we do ourselves does not vitiate any of the Torah’s commandments even as it simultaneously influences our performance of many of them.

Towards the end of the book, Fish quotes from another book written twenty years ago by the sociologist Deborah Tannen, always incredibly prescient in her analysis of societal trends. The book was entitled “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words” and it portrayed the impending poisoning of public discourse, in which “your goal is not to listen and understand [but]… to use every tactic in order to win.” People, she wrote, thus “search for the most foolish statement in a generally reasonable treatise, seize upon the weakest example, ignore facts that support your opponent’s views and focus only on those that support yours.”

This is why the word game has become so popular in this genre – finding the one word or phrase than can be construed as offensive and use that as a pretext not to deal with the substance of the contentions that are being raised. It is as obvious as it is phony and hypocritical.

The America of 1998 when Tannen’s book was published was certainly not as polarized as it is today, but the argument culture is alive and devouring us. Witness the people who can no longer talk to each other civilly, friendships that have cooled, relationships that have ended, and all because of this gross incapacity to open one’s mind to the views of another, to agree or disagree pleasantly and to evaluate by the objective barometers given to us – especially in the Torah – what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is contemptible.

Rational arguments are impossible in a world that glorifies the primacy of feelings above all. Where contentions need not be proven by resort to conventional resources (“I don’t have to prove anything; I feel I’m right, I know it in my heart”) then dialogue becomes impossible and we are on the brink of “might makes right.” That can only be followed – and has already been followed – by physical attacks on those with disfavored views, the banning of the expression of certain moral notions in university classrooms, and the creation of an underground where traditional morality can still be taught and discussed out of sight of society’s self-appointed hall monitors and truth suppressors.

Where relativism predominates, true virtue cannot exist. In the wake of its disappearance we find only competing personal “moralities” that cannot enlighten or ennoble anyone. What passes for sophisticated discussion are puerile and vacuous Facebook posts and tweets that sock it to the disfavored.

Jews, whether we admit it or not, live in a binary world. We are presented with the blessing and the curse, with good and evil, with the choice of following or disobeying G-d’s will. Some have forsaken that for lack of faith or the desire to curry favor in the general world, but we abandon that approach at our peril.

There does not appear to be a way out of this morass, short of repentance. Perhaps the only true consolation is the Talmudic statement (Masechet Sanhedrin 98a) that the generation in which the Messiah comes will be either entirely righteous or guilty. It will be a generation in which people simply cannot agree or even dialogue about what is right or wrong or good and evil. The righteous will know they are righteous and have little to do with the evil, and the evil will think they are virtuous and that the so-called righteous are misguided or worse.

If indeed the era of argument is a prelude to the coming of Moshiach, then at least we can (not) enjoy it while it lasts.

 

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A Visit to Shechem

It has been 49 years since my first visit to the Tomb of Yosef in the Samarian city of Shechem, called Nablus by the Romans to evoke the Italian city of Naples and obscure its Jewishness. In the ensuing half-century, I have visited Shechem approximately a half-dozen times but not at all in more than 15 years, since the city and its holy site were declared off limits to Jews (in violation of an explicit Arab commitment in the defunct and disastrous Oslo Accords). Until last night.

Accompanied by Elliot Cahan, Director of North American Development for the Yeshivat Hesder in Elon Moreh, a stone’s throw from Shchem (literally), we visited Shechem towards midnight, under cover of darkness and with a heavy military presence. More than a dozen times a year, the IDF opens up the Tomb of Yosef to Jewish visitors – always late at night and always with tight security. It is quite an experience, made even more special by the cool breeze that wafted through the Samarian mountains.

In 1969, still a young child, our family took an Egged bus to Shechem, exited at the Central Bus Station and walked a few blocks to the holy site. It was at high noon and quite routine.

We drove from the center of Israel, turned north at the Tapuach Junction and first traveled through the Arab town of Hawara, a fascinating site in its own right. The town was alive, with a commercial district that was new and vibrant, with exceedingly bright store signs, eateries packed with customers (it was late night, remember) and even some Jews walking around. I was last in Hawara four years ago, when it was drab and non-descript. Now, it looked totally revamped, thanks to the influx of millions of dollars funneled to the region by the Obama administration, which even paid for two sparkling new mosques. (Odd, indeed, that the United States government cannot build a synagogue or church in the US for constitutional reasons but the American taxpayer can fund the building of two mosques in Hawara.)

Aside from that, the town looked so normal that it reinforced my basic notion that many Arabs are not political, and just want to be left alone, and in fact, privately would prefer to be governed by Israel instead of their own corrupt dictators. They enjoy their proximity to the freedom that Israel represents. Alas, they too are often swept up by the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish fervor that too often animates their society. As if to prove the point, the entry into Shechem was a reminder of the stark reality of the Jew-hatred that remains endemic to Arab society.

The ride from Itamar, a large settlement adjacent to Shechem, was as uneventful as any ride can be in a bullet proof van filled with men toting guns. The army presence was pervasive and the operation well organized. Just two blocks from the grave, our van was hit by large stone, which glanced off the thick sides of the vehicle. It was close to midnight, and to myself, I complimented the stone throwers on their work ethic, staying up late to seize the opportunity to stone Jews. The Tomb of Yosef, our Sages taught, was purchased by our patriarch Yaakov, and is thus one of the three places in Israel whose Jewish ownership cannot be denied. Sadly, the Arabs did not get the memo and have refused to examine the deed.

The Tomb of Yosef was destroyed shortly before my previous visit, in the wake of a terrorist attack that left six soldiers dead including Madhat Yusuf, a Druze officer who was allowed to bleed to death by the terrorists who refused to allow medical assistance to arrive for almost six hours and by the IDF commander who refused to order a rescue operation. The tomb and surrounding structure were razed and burnt to the ground.

It has now been rebuilt, refurbished, enlarged and a worthy final resting place for the great son of Yaakov. Over the course of the night, perhaps 1000 Jews came to pray, recite tehilim, and enjoy the ambience of this historic site. Van after van and bus after bus pulled up, depositing its passengers – men, women and children, Hasidic and modern, Jews of all stripes and backgrounds, and all to secure our claim to this territory that resonates with Jewish history. And this despite the fact that outside the tomb there was sporadic gunfire in the distance and the release of tear gas canisters to keep the hostiles at bay.

And perhaps as well to fortify ourselves in these troubled times with the strength of Yosef the Righteous. Yosef is the paragon of self-control in Jewish tradition, the man who had every reason and rationalization to sin and yet remained faithful and chaste. In an era in which self-control is considered a vice and immorality shamelessly parades about in public, Yosef’s lesson is a powerful reminder of human potential and an antidote to human degradation.

It was also Yosef who was so hated by his brothers that they sold him into slavery, and yet was quick to forgive them when he saw the broader picture, the providential role he and they played. In an era in which discord and acrimony are prevalent, Yosef showed us that there can be a better way, that Jews can find unity in our common purposes and objectives in fulfilling G-d’s will as a nation and as individuals.

And Yosef was characteristic of the Jew who benefits the nations of the world, whose wisdom and kindness saved millions even if it was not always appreciated.

I’m not keen on praying at graves, something that attracts many Jews of a different bent. But visiting the graves of heroes and righteous people affords the opportunity to bask in their presence and especially reflect on their lives and what we can learn from them.

The tomb of Yosef in its current state is a reminder of the hatred of our enemies that still deny Jewish history, and especially the necessity to enter only in the middle of the night so as not to provoke the natives even more. But it is also a reminder of the glorious past and the struggles of the present, and contains within it the seeds of the blessings of the future – the blessings of holiness and faith, the blessings of strength of character and moral rectitude, and the blessings of Moshiach ben Yosef who is in the process of rebuilding the material life of Israel and laying the foundation for ultimate redemption.

 

 

The Jewish State

The Knesset this week, by a vote of 62-55, adopted a Basic Law declaring Israel to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people” (in Hebrew, medinat hale’um hayehudi). By the hysterical reaction of the Jewish secularists, leftists and non-Orthodox Jews in America, one would think that Roe v. Wade had been reversed.

The thought arises: isn’t the State of Israel already the “nation-state of the Jewish people”? Isn’t that why it is referred to colloquially as “the Jewish state”? Indeed, I recall hearing once or twice (of course, it was in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem) that “our hope is not lost,” that the beating Jewish heart yearns to return to the land of Israel, “the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” in order “to be a free people in our land.” Wasn’t that the essence of the Hatikvah and the Zionist movement?

Moreover, Israel’s Declaration of Independence declared (as Declarations are supposed to do) that “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.” (Of course, this is not entirely true. The Land of Israel was not the birthplace of the Jewish people; we actually became a nation in Egypt from which we were liberated by the mighty hand of G-d – and then our nationhood was confirmed when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. But let’s not quibble.)

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

This assertion was the main predicate for what followed, the dramatic announcement seventy years ago (5 Iyar 5708) that: “Accordingly, we, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael and of the Zionist movement…by virtue of our natural and historic right…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

There it is – in bold italics. Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” is seventy years old. Why are so many Jews throwing a hissy fit?

One anomaly is that, for all the drama of the Declaration of Independence, it has never had the force of law in Israel. Thus, Hatikvah was never Israel’s formal national anthem, nor was the Israeli flag ever officially adopted as the national flag. Both of those entities gained official recognition through this new law. Is that a problem? It might be for Arabs, but both the Declaration of Independence and the new law assure the non-Jewish population of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Accordingly, the rights of all citizens are protected (sometimes, it must be said, to a fault), so why the uproar? Surely the Arabs of Israel are aware that they live in a Jewish state, and if it troubled them, could easily emigrate to one of the 23 Arab states in the region.

Some critics have charged that the law is unnecessary, hardly the case in a world where Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish state is constantly under attack and especially in an environment in which previous advocates of the “two-state illusion” have now abandoned that chimera in support of a “one-state-for-all-its-citizens delusion,” essentially a renunciation of the existence of a particularly Jewish state. Sometimes laws come to reinforce basic values, norms and notions, and it is noteworthy that Israel for the first time in its history – and long overdue – it has adopted an official anthem, flag and language (Hebrew), all reflective of its Jewishness.

And perhaps therein rest the discomfort, discontent and even hostility in some circles to this law. There are too many Jews who see themselves first as universalists and only then –if then – as Jews. They are uncomfortable when Jewish symbols infringe on their universalism, and horrified when actions of the Jewish state (self-defense, for example) “embarrass” them in their social circles. The dictates and value system of Torah having been long eschewed, and exchanged for Western secular liberalism, anything that smacks of being Jewish becomes, by definition, “too Jewish” and even “Charedi.” Their Jewish identity, as noted here in the past, is primarily ethnic, not religious, but even the ethnic identity has to be bland, innocuous and couched in a universal framework.

It is odd, indeed, that a law that seems so self-evident to many is deemed repugnant to others. As Israel becomes more Jewish and religious in population, character and practice, the secular minority has become more shrill, more vocal, and to a great extent, has lost its moorings. What was natural to Ben Gurion – “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael” – has somehow become anathema to his party, no longer his followers in any meaningful sense. Ben Gurion, for all his flaws and his rancorous relationship with the Torah, had Jewish pride. That is not necessarily true of his socialist and secular heirs. Those who fear the Arab reaction to this law would have recoiled from declaring statehood seventy years ago, no doubt mindful of the Arab “reaction” to that provocation.

En route to complete redemption, the men are indeed being separated from the boys, the believers in the Zionist dream from the non-believers, the people of faith from the faithless, and the proud Jew from the pretenders. It is shameful, and of course reflective of the acrimonious partisanship that afflicts so many nations today, that the bill passed by only 62-55. The world that has not fully accommodated itself to Jewish independence in the land of Israel can rant and rave, but who would have thought that nonchalance or opposition to Israel as the “Jewish state” would have so many Jewish supporters? That too is a disturbing sign of the times.

And the recent fiasco involving Birthright, in which young participants brought to Israel on the dime of Jewish communal funds seized the opportunity to abandon the trip to visit with Israel’s enemies, simply underscores the problem of garnering support for a Jewish state in the land of Israel from people alienated from Torah. That dilemma trumps the problem of dealing with a coddled, egocentric generation that feels entitled to anything – including a free trip to Israel – and does not see the moral absurdity of taking someone’s money and diverting it for your own purposes.

As we approach Tish’a B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, the temporary loss of our homeland and the weakening of Jewish nationhood, we can celebrate this forceful assertion of Jewish pride, identity and strength, and pray that all Jews join the bandwagon. The era before the final redemption will be tumultuous; in fact, it is already tumultuous. All we can do is hang on, maintain our faith, learn Torah, do mitzvot, reach out to our fellow Jews and pray that the days of sadness and strife are soon transformed into days of joy and peace.

 

 

The Children

The acclaimed American author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It should also be true that the mature mind is able to recognize that there can be two conflicting values at the same time that, nonetheless, still require resolution born of compromise. Both suggestions, apparently, will never apply to politicians.

There are two competing values at play in this week’s volcanic eruption of controversy. One value is that it is wrong for strangers to arbitrarily separate children from parents. There are tears, there is trauma, and shame on the parents who put children in that position unless compelled by unavoidable circumstances. The second value is that countries are defined by borders and nations by laws, and countries that cannot control their borders or otherwise regulate immigration see their sovereignty undermined and their way of life compromised. That is the ongoing story of Europe’s collapse.

Is it no longer possible in America to recognize that both are legitimate values? We are taught that “no alien shall draw near to bring the incense who is not the offspring of Aharon, that there never again be like Korach and his cohorts…” (Bamidbar 17:5). How can we guarantee that there will never again be a controversy like the one precipitated by Korach? The commentators explain that the verse means that there will never again be a controversy like that of Korach and Moshe, where one side (Korach) is 100% wrong and the other side (Moshe) is 100% right. Life’s arguments are usually nuanced. Modern politicians don’t do nuance. They seek votes, power and money.

Naturally, each of the values presented above is not absolute. Democracies are desirable destinations for the impoverished and the refugee, and the United States has always been a magnet for such individuals, even if immigration policy has changed over the last 140 years and not always been applied consistently or fairly. But only anarchists feel that nations should have no borders, no laws, no enforcement, and no control, and it can’t be emphasized enough that the policy of separating children from parents is not only not new but it also only applies to those who attempt to cross the border illegally. Why this is routinely ignored is baffling only to those who don’t recognize the incendiary hyperbole that is the stock in trade of the political left. Families that attempt to cross the border legally – at the authorized border crossings – are never separated. They are then deported, admitted, or, if a claim of asylum is not readily verifiable, detained together while their cases are adjudicated.

The anarchists do not wish to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, and the disparate treatment of the two, and so their two tactics are appeals to raw emotion and a resort to hurling vulgarities at those with whom they disagree. Neither speaks well of them or their cause. Emotion is usually a poor way to make policy and inevitably leads to bad policy and exacerbates the problem. And cursing one’s opponents, obstructing their lives, or interfering with their meals is an admission that they are either bereft of ideas and the ability to persuade or presume that there is absolutely no justice, merit or logic on the other side. For that, see Korach, above. When mobs are allowed to rule, decent people suffer and civil society deteriorates.
A number of Jewish organizations abetted the anarchists in their public statements, and did not distinguish themselves in issuing anguished cries of protest, however heartfelt, without even a single policy prescription. That too is mere venting but contributes little to the public discourse. Simply saying what cannot be done to avoid one problem, and taking no position on what should be done to avoid a concomitant problem, is not especially wise or helpful. But it plays well in the liberal media who record these things.

Fair people should be able to admit that the forced separation of children from parents is unpleasant and the crying heartrending. This, too, exists on a scale of gradation ranging from the goodbyes on “going off to camp day” (that, too, is traumatic, and I’ve seen it; sometimes the children are bawling, and sometimes the parents are bawling) to the Holocaust (absolute evil). Since this is not the Holocaust – no child is being marched to gas chambers for immediate execution – references to the Holocaust are as appalling and repugnant as they are inaccurate, and another indication of the dearth of reasoning on the part of those who make them. They are used as conversation stoppers – so far removed they are from reality.

Indeed, there is a situation in America where parents and children are routinely and forcibly separated. Last year alone, roughly 4500 young children were forcibly separated from their single mothers who were arrested for committing a crime. If there is no proximate relative, the children are placed in foster care, which is, too often, a disaster. It is horrible, traumatic, and life-altering, but no one says that single mothers should therefore have immunity from prosecution for any crimes they commit in order to spare the children this grievous harm. Actually, I should not say that “no one” says that; I’m sure there are some anarchists who would say that.

The separation at the border is more akin to the single-mother arrest scenario than, certainly, to the summer camp severance, even though the child at the border is liable to be reunited with his/her parents within hours, days or weeks. The arrested mother, sadly, can wind up spending years in prison, disconnected from her children. Reasonable people can differ as to whether the current policy is meant primarily for the purpose of deterrence or only partly, but not on this: illegal immigrant parents should be on notice that capture and separation is a distinct possibility. So why not use a border crossing?

Obviously, as the talking heads and politicians put it, the “optics” of separation are not good. But policies should not be adopted or rejected because of “optics” or in response to visceral appeals to passions. What is being done is unkind – but it is also unkind to allow alien gang members, drug dealers, human smugglers and murderers to infiltrate the country to terrorize their former countrymen who are here legally as well as other American citizens. It should be possible for reasonable people to utilize both their hearts and their minds in formulating policy. But politicians are a different breed and everything – everything – is perceived through one prism: votes.

For all the wailing of the leftist politicians about the “children,” the news today is that two proposed Republican bills in Congress would require that family units (even those crossing illegally) be kept intact and that the President’s border wall be fully funded. This should be a win-win for both sides – children’s advocates should be ecstatic that the young will no longer be wrenched from their parents and that the trigger for those painful separations – the illegal entries – will be drastically reduced or eliminated by a border wall. And yet the current reports are that not one Democrat supports either bill, meaning that they would rather children suffer this pain than not suffer this pain, as long as there is no border wall. It is a cynical ploy for votes – and no mystery why the approval rating for Congress is below 20%. I’m surprised it’s that high.

In this week’s Torah reading, the Jewish people’s journey to the land of Israel was detoured because of the refusal of Edom to allow the tribes of Israel to traverse Edomite territory on their way to the land of Israel. Note that all we wanted was to cross through their land, not remain there permanently, and even offered to pay substantially per capita for that right and for the water they would consume. This refusal had serious consequences, as the people had to retreat southward (away from Israel) and circumvent Edomite territory. This led to despair, frustration, complaints about the lack of water and food, and general discontent among the people.

It was uncharitable, to be sure, but Edom was not obligated to let us pass through, we respected their sovereignty, and moved on to another route. A nation without borders and without laws cannot long endure. Executive orders are temporary and constitutionally dubious actions.  The most liberal American has to reckon with the fact that, by some estimates, more than five billion people on the planet live in poverty, distress or repression, and would love to come to the United States of America and benefit from its freedoms and kindnesses. Obviously, they all can’t, nor can their children.

If there remains a shred of decency in the political class, they will join together and craft a solution that respects both values, builds a border wall, controls legal immigration, protects those fleeing from violence (even aids those troubled countries to quell the violence that makes their citizens want to flee), keeps families together, upholds the rule of law, suppresses the anarchists, restores civil discourse among groups with competing values, and strengthens America and the American values of law, order, liberty and human dignity.

Is that too much to ask?

Maybe, but do it anyway, for the children.

Jewish Identity

    It has occurred to me that most, if not all, of the perennial arguments roiling Jewish life for several decades are the product of one, solitary, substantial and irreconcilable difference in the perception of Jewishness. And it all stems from one verse in the Torah, at the very founding of our nation.

G-d said to us, through Moshe (Sh’mot 6:7): “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” There are two fundamental aspects to the nation of Israel that is often obscured or ignored. We are both a nation and a religion; as Rav Shamshon Hirsch put it, “a religio-nation.” We have both an ethnic identity as well as a religious identity. This conflation of religion and ethnicity is by and large unknown in the world.

For example, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims each have a unique religious affiliation but by no means would anyone aver that there is an ethnic identity that binds adherents together. Christians from Africa, Asia or South America bear little in common with each other beyond shared beliefs, just like Arab Muslims are different in many ways from non-Arab Muslims. There is no ethnic identity that links them all together.

Not so with the Jewish people, where religion and ethnicity are intertwined, and always has been. It is one reason why Jews have always taken a keen interest in the welfare of Jews wherever they might be, and why Jews are bound by the Torah to see the land of Israel as our homeland even when we hold citizenship elsewhere. National identity is grafted on to our Jewish identity (historically, that has usually been a graft that was eventually rejected) but the Jewish identity remains paramount. We are part of the Jewish nation, which nonetheless should not be construed as inimical to maintaining kinship with our host nation.

It is that phenomenon of the “religio-nation” that has been under assault for most of the last century and to which many Jews no longer subscribe. Too many Jews have bifurcated the Jewish character  into separate ethnic and religious identities, and one attendant consequence has been the controversies that never seem to end.

The clearest example relates to the hoary and by now hackneyed question of “who is a Jew?” Jewish law is clear that a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. But those who perceive Jewishness as defined simply by ethnic identity (i.e., the presence of some Jewish blood in one’s ancestry) did not hesitate in embracing patrilineal descent or purely formulaic conversions requiring little more than a declaration of attachment, however tepid, to the Jewish people. Usually, it is for the purpose of marriage rather than the fulfillment of a genuine religious quest. The religious component of Jewish identity – the Torah, the Mitzvot, the obligations that bind us to the G-d who designated us as His people – is non-factor.

Thus a Jewish sportswriter breathlessly reported the news that June 8, 2018, was a banner day in our history: “Five Jewish baseball players hit home runs in one day,” a truly remarkable feat. Except for this: all seem to be the product of intermarriages, three are not Jews according to Jewish law, and, of the two sons of Jewish mothers, neither was raised Jewish. Jewish? Yes, if traces of blood are the only indicia of Jewish identity. There is no sense at all of our founding doctrine: “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” All that matters is an ethnic attachment, and that they had a good day at the plate.

In weightier matters, the ruckus over the recognition of a non-Orthodox presence at the Kotel underscores this dichotomy. Even ignoring the obvious point that Reform Judaism does not grieve over the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash nor prays for its rebuilding, what is most telling is that those who are clamoring for access do not perceive the Kotel as a religious site but as an ethnic, cultural or historical one. It is a relic of Jewish history, a solemn reminder of a bygone era, and even a glorious testimonial to our survival. But a religious site, requiring faithfulness to the tenets of that religion? Hardly. Permanent access is sought in order to facilitate ethnic rites of passage – like Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, often devoid of any real religious substance or commitment– rather than as a place to which Jews go to bask in the divine countenance or to sense His presence where it is most felt, in proximity to the Temple Mount and the ruins of the Bet Hamikdash.

It is a mystery why Israelis feel bound to respond to these entreaties, even threats, when they are coming from a place of antagonism to the foundations of the Jewish state. The decline of American Jewish political support for Israel among ethnic Jews is just a symptom of the problem that cannot be rectified by concessions in the religious sphere – Kotel, conversions, institutional support, etc.

Indeed, it is quite telling that divorcing the ethnicity from the religion certainly eradicates the faithfulness to Torah but it also causes the Jewish ethnic identity to attenuate over time. Hence the bizarre but growing phenomenon of Jews who pride themselves as universalists, not particularists, and whose commitment to Jewish life often entails supporting policies that would destroy Israel or obliterate Judaism. That is to say, the ethnic Jew does not need “Judaism” to remain “Jewish,” and will therefore embrace (happily or half-heartedly) cultural aspects of Jewish life stripped of any real Jewish content – e.g., attending Temple on Yom Kippur followed in midday by a treif lunch to “break the fast,” or observing both Jewish and Christian holidays in December and April, something that is seen as very ecumenical, open and tolerant. And it is. It’s just not really Jewish. From this perspective, the average ethnic American Jew’s support for Israel is understandably waning, as Israel is embarrassing him by defending itself and not further surrendering its land to its enemies.

The Jewish world in both Israel and America has to reckon with this divergence in Jewish identity but in different ways. In Israel there must be recognition that those who assert a purely ethnic Jewish identity weaken the claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, which, after all, is based on the Torah and G-d’s will. It is exacerbated by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are not halachic Jews – in other words, classic examples of people with an ethnic but not a religious connection to the Jewish people. The conflation of Jewish and Israeli identity is admirable but misleading; there are many Jews who (sadly) are not Israelis but there are also many Israelis who are not Jews. We blur the difference at our peril.

In America the crisis is even worse. The glorification of ethnic Jewish identity is a Jewish hobby – basking in the achievements of “Jews” of even tenuous association with the Jewish people (athletes, celebrities, public officials) and trying to hide from the ignominious deeds of other such “Jews” of ethnic origin only (such as the miscreants accused of sexual harassment in the last year or so, who have been disproportionately, though of course not all, Jewish).

The greater problem is intermarriage, and the biggest problem with intermarriage is that most American Jews today do not consider it a problem. And that makes sense – if all Jewishness requires is a biological affiliation with other Jews. By this reasoning, any child of one Jewish parent or grandparent will always have Jewish blood and therefore it shouldn’t matter who one marries. And so it doesn’t, and so most American Jews intermarry and assimilate.

The attempt to reach out to these individuals by broadening the Jewish cultural offerings available to them will inevitably fail, as such programs do not conflict with their ethnic Jewish identity; in fact, they reinforce it. The ethnic Jew can also enjoy a bagel, klezmer and even reading the Bible in a totally secular way. But none of that will strengthen the other pillar – the religious component of Jewish identity. Rav Saadia Gaon wrote almost eleven centuries ago the verity of Jewish identity: “Our nation is a nation only by virtue of the Torah.” It is true that there are Jews who embrace the religion but not the national or ethnic attachments that bind us together, but those are really fringe elements. The greater problem today: those Jews who welcome Jewishness but disassociate from Judaism.  They might even support the State of Israel but that tribal sentiment is infinitely more difficult to transmit to children when it is detached from Torah; hence the declining support for Israel among the young, many of whom have been educated in multi-cultural, “progressive” environments where such tribalism is anathema and anachronistic.

Hoping people will love Israel when they don’t love Torah and mitzvot is a tried and true recipe for failure. So many Jews just don’t know what they are missing or what they have abandoned. They have been raised in a heterogeneous environment in which religion is a private matter and ethnicity is the spice of life but not life itself.

The only hope for this remnant of Israel, denizens of free countries, is to expand the teaching of Torah in a positive, loving way but without making it trendy, a slave to newfangled values, a tool of social justice agendas or anything else that detracts from its divine origin. Only then will its voice reach its intended audience, and all of us will strengthen the identity that G-d bestowed upon us at our founding, as not only a nation among nations but as His nation.

Having Your Cake

The simplest way to view the Supreme Court’s decision in the Masterpiece Bakeshop case as a victory for religious liberty is to consider the reaction had the court ruled against Jack Phillips and the assertion of his religious principles. The celebrations over the marginalization of religion in America would still be going on and the glee would have been unrestrained over successfully ramming down the throats of Americans a coerced acceptance of relationships construed by the Bible as immoral. That Phillips won is – or might be – a turning point in the cultural decline of America or at least a momentary halt to the moral slide.

How did he win? Much has been made of the narrowness of the Court’s ruling, basing itself on the meanness of the Colorado Human Rights Commission towards religious faith. That implies, many have noted, that had the Commission been less hostile – e.g., had it told Phillips “you have a beautiful faith that we love and respect but alas we must rule against you” – Phillips would have lost. That seems a flimsy reed on which to resolve a legal dispute, not just regarding the future but particularly for this case.

It is as if the Court realized that there was something just a little off, a little un-American, about forcing an individual to violate his conscience by coercing a personal performance that celebrates a lifestyle he considers abhorrent but the Court did not know how to worm its way out of the legal morass it had created with its decisions over the last decade. Having long abandoned the pretense that its decisions reflect “law,” “precedent” or even “constitutional jurisprudence” and is nothing more than the articulation of the personal sensibilities of its members (and often just one member, Justice Kennedy), the Court had to find a way to justify Phillips and at the same time not antagonize the cultural elites in the American media industry that have no use for religion or respect for its adherents.

So the Court crafted a convoluted decision that vindicated Phillips – justice for one person – while the real substantive arguments and future battlegrounds were fleshed out in the concurrences and dissent. It is hard to escape the conclusion that America on these issues has moved past the tolerance of “live and let live” (itself an achievement) to the recriminations and nastiness of “my way or the highway” (or fines, sanctions, imprisonment and the like). After all, the case did not involve the denial of emergency medical care but the baking of a cake (and, down the road, flowers, caterers, photographers and other personal services).

That Phillips was sincere in his religious belief meant little to the “liberal” justices who insisted, in one way or another, that his rejection of same sex marriage was too similar to racism (and to one Commission member, Nazism). It deserves to be underscored that what is so scorned now is rooted in the Bible and was considered normal, unremarkable morality for several millennia. And note Phillips’ earnestness, from Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence:

Phillips routinely sacrifices profits to ensure that Masterpiece operates in a way that represents his Christian faith. He is not open on Sundays, he pays his employees a higher-than-average wage, and he loans them money in times of need. Phillips also refuses to bake cakes containing alcohol, cakes with racist or homophobic messages, cakes criticizing God, and cakes celebrating Halloween—even though Halloween is one of the most lucrative seasons for bakeries. These efforts to exercise control over the messages that Master­piece sends are still more evidence that Phillips’ conduct is expressive.”

And for that he was reviled as a bigot.

Kennedy’s meandering decision sidestepped the fundamental freedoms that Phillips has, at least in theory: freedom of speech and religion. Kennedy’s musings in his Obergefell decision – that “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons (emphasis mine) are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives” – would be a nullity but for the ruling (not the reasoning) here. He even averred there that there can be heartfelt objections to same sex marriage that should be protected. Again, from the concurrence:
States cannot punish protected speech because some group finds it offensive, hurtful, stigmatic, unreasonable, or undignified. If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
The First Amendment gives individ­uals the right to disagree about the correctness of Obergefell and the morality of same sex marriage. Obergefell itself emphasized that the traditional understanding of marriage long has been held—and continues to be held— in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world.”

The remaining question is how these rights can be protected in a commercial context. Much was made of the following conundrum: the same Commission that penalized Phillips for refusing to create a cake celebrating an event that violated his religious beliefs dismissed complaints against three bakers who refused (in Gorsuch’s language) because of their “secular principles” to bake cakes that contained biblical inscriptions opposing same sex marriage.

The Conservative concurrences saw the hypocrisy, at the same time recognizing that if freedom of speech is to have any meaning here, a baker should be able to refuse to service any customer through his personal creativity and energy for purposes he considers offensive. The Liberal concurrences distinguished the two cases with unconvincing logic, opining that Phillips would bake cakes for everyone but not same-sex couples, while the other bakers would not bake cakes they considered repugnant for anyone. But such is really  a distinction without a difference; if freedom of speech is limited, then the baker should not be able to approve one message and reject another. And Phillips would not bake a cake celebrating same-sex marriage even if a band of heterosexuals requested it.

The shame of this whole area is not one of the Jewish justices seems to have spent much time over a daf Gemara because a halachic formula that could resolve these disputes easily presents itself. A merchant who serves the public must accommodate that public but there is a difference between the gavra and the cheftza¸ the person and the object. No merchant should have the right to refuse to sell an object to any customer (aside from totally neutral criteria such as a dress code and the like). If the parties herein wished to purchase a wedding cake off the shelf, well, even Phillips had no objection to that and would have sold them the cake.

Phillips objected to the demands on the gavra – the individual – the requirement that he devote his time and energy to a project that he considered sinful. Any merchant or service provider should have the right to decline to provide that service if he or she so chooses.

But, one might ask, won’t that allow a racist merchant to refuse to serve an ice cream cone to a same sex couple because he personally prepares the cone? The answer to that is no, and here’s why. A reasonable objection can only occur in the context of the furtherance or promotion of the objectionable conduct. A homosexual who buys an ice cream cone is not really a homosexual buying an ice cream cone but a person buying an ice cream cone. His sexual preferences are unrelated and irrelevant to the purchase. This is not so when the purchase or service in question – cakes, flowers, etc. – is intended to advocate or celebrate the lifestyle, such as a wedding or engagement party.

Thus, my formula is this: any action that requires the personal services of an individual in furtherance of some objective, cause or lifestyle that he disdains cannot be mandatory in a free society. Then we say to the aggrieved consumer “go elsewhere.” Just like you wish to celebrate your freedoms unimpeded, so too you must allow others to celebrate their freedoms unimpeded.

With this formula, we respect the right of the religious baker not to be forced to create a cake for a same-sex wedding, the Jewish baker not to be forced to create a cake celebrating Hitler’s birthday, or any provider of a personal service to abstain from doing any act that advances or endorses a particular cause he finds distasteful. Nor does it justify a merchant refusing to serve a black customer on racist grounds – there is no cause there that is being furthered and especially where what is being sought is a product and not a service.

That is the hallmark of a free society.

It all seems so simple, except when we recognize that what antagonizes the new left here is the Mordechai who refuses to bow, i.e., the “Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”

I still remember the days when liberals were the tolerant, open ones and conservatives were always lambasted for their reactionary intolerance and narrow-mindedness. Things have changed dramatically! Perhaps this issue, if approached with good will and broadmindedness, will lead to a welcome phenomenon in today’s America: mutual respect. We will know that day has come when these matters cease to be litigated and people patronize the bakers, florists, photographers, caterers and others who sympathize with their causes, and leave the others in peace.

 

The Challenge of Gratitude

The following was first published as an op-ed at  https://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/22189)

The ambivalence of many American Jews to President Trump and his support for Israel is puzzling on one hand and downright churlish on the other.

Consider this: Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who promised to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy to Yerushalayim, never fulfilled those promises, and kept making them anyway. It is as if Jews do not expect promises from politicians to be kept (well, maybe that is not so unusual). But Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who criticize the building of settlements in the heartland of Israel, and some who have even threatened to sanction Israel over it. And they accepted the anomaly of Jews being permitted to build in Bethel, New York or Shiloh, Tennessee but not in the original Bethel or Shiloh. That’s just the way it is – but it is strange.

Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either pay lip service to Israel’s right of self-defense or seek to emasculate it entirely. These presidents routinely decried Israel’s “use of disproportionate force” or urged Israel to accept with equanimity “sacrifices for peace.” The better ones embraced Israel’s right to self-defense in theory but not always in practice, urging “restraint,” caution, and a limited response so as not to offend the terrorists or jeopardize the possibilities for a lasting peace.

And Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who have endorsed and even obsessed over the partition of Israel into two states (another partition, it should be added). These presidents have seemed to feel that only the two-state illusion will bring a just and durable peace to the region. That is, only allowing a hostile and irredentist enemy sovereignty over Israel’s heartland and control of its high ground will ensure prosperity and tranquility for the Jews of the truncated State of Israel. Most American Jews were fine with that – because that is what the presidents professed (and some Israeli prime ministers led them to believe) even when the facts on the ground taught the exact opposite.

It bears mentioning that Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either were troubled by Arab terror (but more troubled by an Israeli response so they drew a moral equivalence between the two) or “understood” Arab terror as emanating from the frustrations of their lives. A State Department spokeswoman once attributed Arab terror to the lack of gainful employment in their communities. So these presidents demanded that Israel should understand it as well, and certainly not “overreact” to the murder and maiming of their own citizens. And we grew very accustomed to the notion that only Israel had to make substantive concessions on the road to “peace,” never the enemy who sought Israel’s dismemberment and dissolution.

We got used to this type of treatment, so used to it that many Jews today are more troubled by an American president who has renounced each of the approaches outlined above than by the presidents who squeezed, cajoled, threatened, criticized, censured, pressured Israel or otherwise failed to keep their promises. It is as if we feel that we do not deserve fair, decent and supportive treatment coming from a friendly president. Too many Jews find it hard to appreciate our good fortune or otherwise express their gratitude to the incumbent president. Of course, not every American Jew is a supporter of Israel and many agree with each of the disquieting and tendentious policies delineated above that were conventional wisdom for decades. But of those who don’t? How do they rationalize their reticence?

However one feels about President Trump, a non-politician to be sure and an individual whose approach to life certainly has its share of idiosyncrasies, the inability of many Jews to show appreciation and gratitude for his current policies towards Israel is inexplicable, even boorish. In their desire to be “super-moral” they have eschewed basic etiquette, something that itself is immoral. And appreciation is also due to his close advisors who share the views of supporters of a strong and proud Israel dwelling in security from sea to river and have been unafraid to promote and implement them.

Finally, American Jews have a president who, holding firm against intense pressure from most other American allies, fulfilled his campaign promise, recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there – abruptly ending Israel’s bizarre status as the only nation on earth not entitled to declare its own capital. The Trump administration has been unabashed in its support of Israel’s right of self-defense as real and substantive, and has steadfastly refused to second-guess or micro-manage Israel’s defense strategies. The Trump administration has muted any objection to Israel’s settlement policy, a marked change from generations of US opposition and occasionally antagonism to Jews living in Judea (of all imaginable paradoxes) and Samaria, and has even expressed occasional support for those endeavors as Israel’s natural right. The Trump administration has abandoned the two-state illusion in favor of the inspired characterization that the United States will support two states “if both parties agree.” Of course… The Trump Administration, and the outstanding Ambassador Nikki Haley, have afforded Israel complete protection from the hypocrisies and inverted reality of the United Nations.

This is in addition to the renunciation of the Obama agreement with Iran and the ramping up of pressure, sanctions and who-knows-what-else down the road – all to halt an Iranian nuclear program whose expressed aim is the destruction of Israel.

It is inconceivable that Hillary Clinton, had she been elected, would have done any of these things.

Have Jews become so partisan, or has support for Israel declined so much among American Jews, that simple recognition of these facts eludes us? Have we forsworn elementary derech eretz because the president is an imperfect man? Are his critics – and were his election opponents – perfect, all paragons of morality and virtue? How have we become so peevish as a people?

Perhaps there is another problem at play here, one that transcends politics and personalities.

The great Musarist Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote that every person has an erech elyon, a supreme value that transcends all others. What does it mean to have a supreme value? It means a value that is the measure of everything, the barometer by which every consideration in life has to be assessed, and into which all other values have to fit. Think, for a moment, of those Jews more than a century ago who made Communism their highest value. They sacrificed their souls, their families, their interests and their purpose in life to see Communism spread and succeed. In the early years, there were some religious Jews who were Communists – but when the contradictions and the challenges to the integration of Torah and Communism arose, it was the Torah that was abandoned, not Communism. It was the Torah that had to bend or break so that Communism could succeed. Whatever part of Torah did not conform to Communist dogma had to be abandoned.

Communism is dead (except on a few American college campuses and in North Korea) but was replaced by several other  “–isms.” A century ago, secular Zionists made Zionism their primary value, and tossed out parts of the Torah that they felt impeded the realization of the Zionist dream. (That notion still exists but the number of adherents has dramatically fallen) In another iteration of this phenomenon, there are radical feminists today who evaluate and scrutinize every aspect of Torah to ascertain what conforms to feminism and what doesn’t – and the latter has to be discarded. That is their erech elyon, their supreme value. Rav Wolbe wrote that some people make money their erech elyon and for others it is the pursuit of honor or pleasure or children. As if to say, my pursuit of pleasure or my children’s happiness comes first – even above the Torah.

It is so difficult to break away from that mindset; but, Rav Wolbe noted, for the faithful Jew there is nothing in the world that we value as much as we value G-d and our relationship with Him and our fidelity to His will. That is always the erech elyon of the faithful Jew, who posits that G-d and His Torah are the primary values and every other value is subordinate. G-d is always at the top of our ladder of values, or is at least supposed to be, and whatever else a Jew values in life – justice, peace, wisdom, even feminism and Zionism, etc. – must fit into the hierarchy of values that places the Torah as supreme.

For too many Americans, hatred of Donald Trump has become their erech elyon – the one principle that dominates their lives, their every breath, waking moment and productive endeavor. They live to “resist,” whatever that means. As Chazal taught us, both love and hatred “disrupt the normal course of things.” We act differently, uncharacteristically, and sometimes even perversely, when we love or hate something too much, even irrationally.

But hatred of the President should not trump derech eretz, and ingratitude has a way of eventually biting the ingrate. Who’s to say such pro-Israel policies will continue indefinitely – and who’s to say they should, given the ungratefulness of the putative beneficiaries? Many American Jews dreamt that one day a genuinely, no-holds-barred pro-Israel president would emerge and embrace policies that many of us have been advocating for years. And now that it has happened, and while it is happening, isn’t elementary appreciation in order?

Unless we have grown so accustomed to maltreatment and criticism that we believe we deserve nothing but perpetual obloquy, it is. And it behooves us to demonstrate it, especially since G-d’s will is executed in mysterious ways and often through the most unexpected agents.

Here’s one Jew who is immensely grateful to President Trump. May his love of America and Israel continue – to the benefit of both countries.