Speech Therapy

Asked what a Jew should do in order to grow spiritually, the Gaon of Vilna responded that there should be two areas of emphasis: the study of Torah and the guarding of one’s speech. The former provides us with the intellectual and moral framework of G-d’s system – the values of Torah – and the latter, so overlooked today even by Jews who consider themselves observant, is an essential method of implementing those values and measuring one’s moral progress. But Shemirat Halashon (guarding one’s speech) involves so much more than eschewing gossip, tale-bearing and the like; it requires monitoring one’s speech to avoid the obscene, the lascivious, the offensive, and the foolish. And that is a fundamental obligation of every Jew and a staple of the preparatory month of Elul.

We should learn to control our speech. Problems arise when external controls are enforced, especially when those restraints are not intended to refine our character but rather to promote an agenda and upend the traditional value system of the Torah.

Case in point: there are certain words that are now rightfully taboo in society, known euphemistically as the E-word, the G-word, the K-word, the N-word, and probably one for every other letter of the alphabet. They occasionally even bring offense to the privileged victims in today’s society. But for the life of me, I cannot fathom why certain words are permitted to certain groups and prohibited to others. Many blacks, for example, routinely use the N-word but take great offense when others use it. That is puzzling.

Can a word be situationally offensive? That is to say, repugnant when uttered by some speakers but innocuous, even funny, when uttered by others? I find that hard to accept. Truth be told, I’m from the generation of “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me” generation, so I have never been offended by anything anyone has said to me. I adopt the “who cares”? attitude, and brush it, and the speaker, off. I have never had a slur make the slightest impact on me.

These days, of course, the use of some words will send otherwise grown people running for their safe spaces, if they don’t run first to social media, complaining about micro-aggressions and other puerile, pseudo-psychological fabrications.

I am not endorsing or encouraging the use of any odious, hateful or unpleasant language, and language does evolve from generation to generation. In fact, I oppose it strongly. But I do wonder how it came about that the same word can be tasteful or distasteful depending on the color of one’s skin, the religion one professes, or the nationality to which one subscribes? It is interesting that the vulgarities once shunned on television or in polite society are now voiced regularly in public and broadcast, especially among the politicians and athletes, and replaced by a new set of forbidden words coined by a cadre of scathing, and not always sincere, scolds. Only that the new words are not universally forbidden, just to some people. How did that come about?

It recalls the variety of ways in which African-Americans have been referred to – none inherently impolite or meant as an affront – even during my lifetime, with changes demanded every two decades or so. Imagine if Jews woke up one day and insisted on being called Hebrews, and then Mosaic’s, and then Israelites, and we kept adjusting our designation of choice based on … nothing really. When I was younger, referring to a black as a “colored person” was insulting, the NAACP notwithstanding. But how is the disfavored “colored person” different from today’s favored “person of color”? It is ridiculous. If anything the latter is more impertinent, as if the “color” is the essence and the “person” is the accidence and the adjective. I choose to use neither expression as both attempt to define a human being by something relatively inconsequential. So how do these things come about?

I wish I could believe they came about because of a sincere attempt to show sensitivity, kindness, brotherhood and friendship. The African-American is far from the only group that frequently changes its reference of choice, but it all comes down to one quest: the desire for power. When you control someone’s speech, you are not far from controlling their ideas, their actions and their values. These unwritten speech codes have emerged from the naked pursuit of power and thus provide a useful club to whack or intimidate non-conformists into silence or infamy.

Thus Ilhan Omar and company attempt to immunize themselves for their patent Jew hatred by attributing any criticism of them, not to their abhorrent ideas but to their skin color. Has anyone given white Jew haters a pass? Not to my knowledge. So what does skin color have to do with anything? The accusation of “racist!” has lost its potency because it is used as a shield against legitimate criticism and a tool to gain power. It is as if one is not allowed to judge the content of their character because of the color of their skin, a new take on Reverend King’s ringing declaration.

Similarly, anyone who opposes same-sex marriage or deems homosexual conduct a sin (like, for example, any Jew who is faithful to the Torah) is automatically tarred with being homophobic. The discussion is over (over!), an odd assertion for those who insist that every controversial issue and even many sins be re-evaluated in the context of “starting a conversation.” (Incidentally, I have found that people who want to have “conversations” on these matters invariably want to subject their audiences to their monologues that resemble diatribes. Once upon a time, conversations were reciprocal expressions of thought.)

Similarly, anyone who even alludes to a connection between Islam and terror when a Muslim commits a terrorist act is guilty of Islamophobia. For sure, this accusation is not meant to persuade or reason but to embarrass and intimidate, but such has become the norm of public discourse. The effect is to send truth-seekers underground while the great majority succumb to the prevailing dogma or are expelled from the society of the decent and cowardly.

Some jurisdictions have banned the use of the word “convict” to refer to…convicts, much like the Obama administration eschewed the word “terror” in favor of “man-made disaster.” Even Major League baseball surrendered – changing its “disabled list” to the “injured list,” cowing to the demands of the disabled but apparently insensitive to the lobby of the injured. The list was not a slight to the disabled; these players are disabled. That is why they are on the list.

This is political correctness run amok but the ramifications are broad.

Note how the inability to articulate certain ideas will in due course be reflected in the prevailing culture. It will literally change a society’s value system. And it will certainly undercut any notion of objective truth. Note further how the suppression of speech and thought as an expression of power and control has engendered the fanciful idea that there are multiple truths or no single truth, that truth is not an absolute but simply an expression of one’s personal narrative.

That is not normal (which is, by the way, another word said to cause grievous offense today), it is not healthy for a society, and it is clearly undesirable for Jews who reflect repeatedly on G-d’s “truth” in our prayers and studies. Ultimately, this speech control is nothing less than bullying, and the scolds are bullies who have been given a pulpit in an age when the ease of instant communication, and its relative anonymity, has given license to too many people to become nasty, spiteful and malicious, which is just one small step short of violent.

We would be wise to adopt the Vilna Gaon’s emphases, especially regarding our speech – to speak pleasantly, disagree amicably, and interact amiably with all human beings. The only controls on our speech should come from the propriety of Torah and our never-ending quest to be better people. It should not come from brazen, aggressive outsiders, nor should we ever have to stifle the true ideas and values of Torah in order to comply with the ever-shifting mores of the agenda-driven nags.

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Mirror Image

We often have the tendency, probably born of centuries of hardship and persecution, of focusing on the dark side, of seeing the worst in others, sometimes ourselves, and even anticipating untoward consequences in every endeavor or association. Occasionally it is warranted, usually it is not, but it does color our perspective on events.  And during those times of the year when we address our shortcomings – the Omer, the Three Weeks or the Yamim Noraim (come to think of it, that’s a good part of the year!) – we can misconstrue and even overlook the greatness of Klal Yisrael. It helps to dwell on how others see us. It turns out that maybe we are not as bad as we think.

Last month, I visited the Friends of Zion Museum in Yerushalayim, which depicts the history of Christian Zionism. Located in Nachalat Shiva, and right across from where the new Museum of Tolerance is being constructed, the museum details the efforts of Christian Zionists to spearhead the re-establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel. For sure, the most famous and arguably effective Christian Zionist, was Arthur James Balfour, who as British Foreign Secretary in 1917, issued his eponymous declaration that “viewed with favor” the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel, and pledged His Majesty’s support for that effort. That the British reneged was not the fault of Balfour, who acted from a keen awareness of the biblical prophecies that foresaw the return of the people of Israel to the land of Israel.

An even more famous name (for other reasons) was the 19th-century New York preacher George Bush, whom the museum mischaracterized as a direct ancestor of the presidents. (He was actually a cousin to a great-grandfather of GHW Bush. Apparently, the family lacks creativity in its names.) But Reverend Bush was outspoken in his support of the Jews’ return to Israel, and long before political Zionism was extant. They and the others portrayed loved the Bible and believed in it, and thus loved Jews as well.

Many Jews have always been suspicious of that support, fearing that it is all a surreptitious front to infiltrate the Jewish community and convert us all. There are such groups – but they are not the Christian Zionists, and dreading this support betrays a lack of self-confidence (and ingratitude) on our part more than it does the execution of nefarious schemes on theirs.  Such modern Christian Zionists such as Rev. John Hagee or the supporters of the late Rav Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (still active after his untimely passing) are motivated by their love of G-d’s people. As was this incredible family whose story is also told in the museum: the Ten Boom family about whom I knew nothing until last month.

Elizabeth and Willem Ten Boom lived in Haarlem, about 12 miles west of Amsterdam, in the mid-19th century. He was a clockmaker by profession, but in 1844 they opened their home to Christian prayer. The essence of their mission was based on the verse in Tehillim “Seek the peace of Yerushalayim” and they began to advocate for the Jewish people, for their return to Zion, and for the establishment of a Jewish state.

Their son Casper and his wife continued the tradition, as did their children. And for exactly 100 years, the family held these prayer services for the Jewish people. Why did it end? Because in 1944 – exactly 100 years later – Casper Ten Boom and his daughters Corrie and Betsie were arrested by the Gestapo and charged with hiding Jews. Indeed, they had turned their home into a refuge for Dutch Jews, eventually saving the lives of almost 800 Jews, and others from the Dutch underground. The Jews would stay for a while, and then be sent to another safe house or smuggled outside the country.

When Casper was arrested, he was 84 years old. In prison he said he would continue to help Jews if released, and when threatened with death by the Nazis, he responded, “It would be an honor to give my life for G-d’s ancient people.” He died in prison after just ten days of incarceration.

Corrie and Betsie were sent to several concentration camps, the last being Ravensbruck about 60 miles north of Berlin, the infamous women’s concentration camp. There, Betsie died – but Corrie survived, and she continued to tell her story and that of the Jewish people, and was honored by Yad Vashem before she died in 1983, on her birthday, aged 91.

To what do we owe such self-sacrifice? What did we do to deserve that? She – her family – owed us nothing, and yet four Ten Booms gave their lives fighting the Nazis to save Jews.

One answer might be that we are not as bad as we sometimes think we are or as sinful as we think we are when we remind ourselves that, yes, “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” That is all true but our sinfulness is relative to the high standard the Torah sets for us. There is a better answer that we would do well to contemplate because it shapes our lives even today. There remains a segulah that the Jewish people have, a special quality with which we were endowed by our Creator. We remain connected to G-d even in our worst moments.  We are chosen and precious to Him even when the nations scorn us and persecute us – even when Jew hatred becomes acceptable in the halls of Congress and the diplomatic salons of the world. There remains something unique about us that the righteous Gentiles perceive, and so should we.

A new book was published a few months ago commemorating the 50th yahrzteit of R. Aryeh Levine, the great tzadik of Yerushalayim, which related the following story. After the Six-Day War, R. Aryeh was once at the Kotel when Rav Avraham Neriah (son of R. Moshe Zvi) approached him and said, “if Hashem could do such wonders for us, even though we are not worthy, then He can give us even more.”

And R. Aryeh cut him off. “Never say that we are not worthy. A person can say about himself ‘I am not worthy,’ but we can’t even calculate the merits of the Jewish people.”

If only we saw ourselves as the righteous Gentiles see us, we would have a better appreciation of who we are and our children would better understand who they are and what is expected of them. That is also at the core of the Jewish experience, and should be the focus of Jewish education, and something we should never forget. That itself will bring closer the days of redemption, for Israel and the world entire.

 

Time Warp

There was a time when banning overt, unabashed Jew haters from the land of Israel would have been uncontroversial. It is now more complicated since some of those Jew haters have found residence in the Democrat Party that is reluctant to rein them in, chastise them, or otherwise distance itself from them. Thus the kerfuffle – to be over moments after this is posted – over Israel’s denial of entry visas to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, which has ignited the toxic brew of religion, politics, Jew hatred and Jewish timidity.

It used to be obvious that every nation has the fundamental right to control its borders and admit or deny admission to any person. This notion is today challenged by those Americans and Europeans who seek open borders and even a dilution of the distinction between citizen and non-citizen. Most nations still exercise that right, to the consternation of illegal immigration activists, as even the United States did in 2012, when the Obama administration refused to admit the Israeli Member of Knesset Michael ben Ari on the grounds that he said some not unkind things about an alleged terrorist group that was by then long defunct. Banning foreign parliamentarians with troubling views to the governing authorities has a long history. Israel’s President Rivlin vehemently protested this affront to Israel’s democracy, and was ignored. So let’s get real.

The ban made sense based on the Rabbinic dictum: “Who is wise? He who foresees consequences” (Masechet Tamid 32b). If the disruptive duo had come – their itinerary reported a visit only to “Palestine,” refusing even to recognize Israel’s sovereignty anywhere – and they had provoked riots at a checkpoint, bloodshed on the Temple Mount, and death, injury and mayhem wherever they went, it is certain that the same critics of Israel’s ban would be criticizing Israel’s permission to admit them. Clearly they were not traveling this long distance to enjoy Israel’s food or tourist sites or learn about the Jewish people’s inherent and eternal connection to the land or Israel’s security needs. They were coming to make trouble. The fact that Tlaib refused a humanitarian visa after pleading to see her grandmother vindicated Aryeh Deri’s career with his one tweet: “Apparently she hates Israel more than she loves her grandmother.” Indeed.

If either congresswomen had joined in throwing stones at Israeli soldiers – as the late, unlamented Columbia professor Edward Said did years ago – would they have been arrested? Ignored? And then what?

The broader point is what this ban says about the Democrat Party and American Jews’ long infatuation with it. For sure, President Trump has here (like in many other areas) made them crazy, veering from overreactions to slight provocations to no reactions where a strong response would have been warranted. To the latter point: the inability of the Democrats in the House to denounce Jew hatred alone without supplementing the resolution with a laundry list of professional victims groups is shameful and doesn’t bode well for the future. It is the result of a party determining its policies simply in relation to the President: whatever he supports, they are against. Whatever he is against, they support.

It is not rational, although it does give new meaning to the term “opposition party.” They indiscriminately oppose whatever Trump does.

It is equally shameful that Rep. Omar remains on the House Foreign Relations Committee, with access to classified material that can do real harm to America’s and Israel’s interests. It is known that intelligence leaks from the Obama administration to Israel’s enemies precluded several military operations. That is not how allies operate.

But Jewish Democrats who now fear repercussions have to account for the shift in their party and its attitude towards Israel. It is not the same and hasn’t been for years, but the failure to acknowledge that has made their position in the party more precarious and has led to a diminution of their influence. Support for Israel has long been touted as a bipartisan proposition, and it largely but by no means universally still is. The Dems have changed.

In the rawest analysis, the policies of the Dems do not comport with where the people of Israel are today. They can blame Obama or Netanyahu all they want – but the Israelis keep confounding Thomas Friedman and his ilk and voting in right-wing parties. That is where Israel is. That is not where the Democrats are. That is the first problem.

The second problem was already noted. President Trump is the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House – in terms of policies, advisers and appointees. It really can’t get any better than this, but the opposition party is just forced to oppose, even this. It is as if it would behoove the US to embrace failed policies – like the two-state illusion, like haggling over the embassy in Yerushalayim, like endlessly debating the annexation of the Golan Heights – just because that is where the diplomatic positions froze a decade ago. That is also senseless. The trope of several decades – “everyone knows what the final solution will look like; just do it” – turned out to be empty words that casually detonated a decade of terror. I suppose this was one final solution that Israelis rejected and for good reason.

Something else has changed over the years that Jews – never adept at reading historical trends – would do well to ponder. Much of the discussion about Jews and Democrats today reminds me of the Israel-Turkey dynamic in the last 16 years, since Erdogan became Prime Minister and then President. Too many Israelis wondered, hoped and assumed that relations between Turkey and Israel would return to their pre-Erdogan state because, after all, Turkey and Israel were longtime friends, even allies to a certain extent, and Turkey prided itself on being the only Muslim country to have diplomatic relations with Israel.
The fact that Erdogan was a rabid Jew-hater and explicit enemy of Israel and Jews was just ignored as an inconvenient fact, as if he would one day come around because, after all, Turkey long prided itself on being the only Muslim country to have diplomatic relations with Israel.
This illusion was maintained even after the Mavi Marmara debacle. It’s only in the last few years that Israel recognized that the old Turkey is not coming back as long as Erdogan is there. We would do well to remember the adage of Lord Palmerston,  a 19th century British prime minister: “There are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.”  Things change. One might as well talk glowingly of Israel’s future relations with Iran, because, after all, the late Shah was also close to Israel.
Much has changed in the Democrat party, even if a core of traditional supporters of Israel still retains some power in Washington. Their hearts are in the right place, even if their policy preferences don’t always reflect it. But it is foolish to believe that nothing has changed and the old party is one Trump defeat away from reconstituting itself. The identity politics fetish of the modern Democrat hurts Jews, as does the constant Dem attack on the successful who, apparently, only achieve success by exploiting everyone else. The Democrat obsession with unlimited abortion rights – sad to say, the real source of its consistent Jewish support –its embrace of biblically ordained sins and immorality as cherished freedoms, concomitant with attacks on genuine religious liberty by people of faith also clash with the true Jewish value system. Its acceptance of the modern madness of gender choice and dozens of pronouns should not resonate with Jews whose Torah provides a clear and compelling insight into human relations.

When it comes to Israel, the harsh truths need to be recognized. Hubert Humphrey is gone. Scoop Jackson is gone. The Dem support for Israel the last 25 years has been mainly providing military assistance through Congress while indulging Israel’s worst instincts (like Oslo), and pouting (Clinton) or protesting (Obama) when Israel acted in its own interests as a sovereign nation should. They and others have become accustomed to an Israel that is constantly surrendering and compromising and the key to “peace” lies in endless Israeli concessions.
Let’s face it. Israel has fared well or poorly under both Democrat and Republican administrations. Truman was not the greatest fan of Jews but to his credit overcame tremendous opposition and threats from within his own administration to recognize the nascent State of Israel. Eisenhower was unfriendly and perceived Israel as a nuisance or a vassal, depending on the circumstances. Kennedy was the first to sell arms to Israel (Hawk missiles); thus for the first 15 years of Israel’s existence, tenuous years of wars and constant struggles, the US provided no military aid, and didn’t even sell it. Johnson refused to enforce America’s commitment to keep open the Straits of Tiran and then threatened Israel not to strike preemptively in 1967; Israel wisely ignored him and took matters into her own hands. Nixon, even less friendly to Jews than Truman, bailed out Israel with massive weapons transfers during the darkest days of the Yom Kippur War. Ford had his reassessment when Israel didn’t concede fast enough for his taste and Carter bludgeoned Israel into concessions at Camp David.

Reagan was balanced and serves as a good contrast to the others. He was supportive of Israel, both publicly and privately, and some of his public criticisms were staged, and Israel knew it. But he sold AWACS to Saudi Arabia because he saw that as an American interest – even though Israel opposed it at the time – and it turned out to be a positive move.

Bush 1 was not friendly to Israel (overall), Clinton was better but certainly not good (his relations with Israel soured when Netanyahu stopped the concessions; no foreign leader visited the Clinton White House more than did the mass murderer Yasser Arafat), Bush 2 was better, Obama was horrible, and Trump is fantastic, to the utter horror of most Jews and Democrats.

The mainstream Dem party in Congress is still supportive of “Israel” in the abstract but supportive of the concessionary, compromising Israel they grew to love in the 1990’s, the Israel that buried thousands of terror victims and thereby evoked flowery sympathies from all.  They still cling to the “two-state delusion” and thus it is not possible to say they are supporters of a strong Israel.
Only Republicans today support that strong Israel. But wishing for the old Israel is as delusional as wishing for the old Dem party, the old Turkey or the old Iran. You can’t live in a time warp.
Of course, there is some value in maintaining the pretense that support for Israel is bipartisan. It is to some extent, but less and less and we shouldn’t deny that, blame Israel, blame Trump or blame Republicans. We should blame the Dems for abandoning their values and not renouncing the Jew haters in the midst.

Finally, we should bear in mind that just like the Dems today are not like the Dems of the past, the Jews today are not like the Jews of the past. Intermarriage is rampant in Jewish life and we not be astonished at the number of “Jews” – born of one Jewish parent – not having the same feelings towards Israel as did their fully Jewish grandparents. Do not expect them to demand that a Dem or progressive party or politician they favor also support Israel as in the past.
I can understand why other policy interests will always lead some Jews to support the Dems – but then make demands on the leadership. Don’t acquiesce to second class treatment. Don’t accept the prominence given to bigots, racists and Jew haters. Don’t let them take your votes for granted. Don’t betray your people or your principles. Don’t live in a time warp.

As the great baseball manager Sparky Anderson once said, “Don’t live in the past. There’s no future in it.”

The Rabbinate and Its Contents

If you had to choose a rabbi (and who doesn’t?), what criteria would you use? And why? Fortunately, few people would choose a rabbi who is recognized as a “tzadik!”

This was the subject of a new survey commissioned by the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics (based here in Modiin), and the results shed light on the modern rabbinate, the modern laity, and some of the differences between the Israeli and American rabbinate. As is often the case, superficial media accounts highlighted one or two points that were not really essential to the report but did accord with the biases of those outlets.

Two important issues need to be underscored. The survey questioned only those who identify as religious-Zionists and who were classified according to varying levels of observance, and thus excluded the larger Charedi community from its deliberations. The Charedi attitudes, in a number of ways, differ significantly from those of the Dati-Leumi community. By the same token, although there is a basic congruity between the religious practices and commitments of the Dati-Leumi world in Israel and what is called “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy in America, they are by no means identical or even symmetrical. Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learned from this study even by American Jews.

The survey questioned hundreds of men and women, of all ages, even sub-dividing them into levels of observance, on issues ranging from the intensity of their connection to rabbis, the frequency of their interactions (questions or personal), and the traits that are most important to them in choosing a rabbi with whom they would consult. What follows are the main features that I extracted from the survey and my deductions.

Those who perceive a rabbi primarily as the source of halachic guidance will be disappointed. Almost 2/3 of the respondents never ask a halachic question (never?!) or ask roughly once a year. It is surely unsurprising that 2/3 of what can be called the Dati-Lite (liberal Religious Zionist, with “flexible” attitudes towards halachic observance) never ask a halachic question. Never!  Why this is so is not addressed, but it might relate to a reduced level of commitment (the “social Orthodox,” those who observe the mitzvot because they desire to associate with or live among other observant people, will be less likely to obsess over halachic minutiae), or to a reluctance to relate to a rabbi, or perhaps, echoing the Talmud (Masechet Yoma 75), the spiritual world appears to them as a plain, all smooth and untroubled. Or perhaps they are fortunate in avoiding the halachic scrapes that arise in the kitchen, workplace or on Shabbat.

Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to ask a she’elah. Almost three times as many young people (aged 16-30) ask she’elot once a week than do people over age 51, and twice as many ask at least once a month. Similarly, the more observant the individual, the more likely he or she is to ask halachic questions; this makes complete sense. In my own personal survey, I have found that 10% of the people ask 80% of the questions – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Of course, 49% of respondents said that they first turn to the Internet (!) with any halachic questions. Rabbi Google might be today the leading “posek” in the world, not so much because of reliability (questions are very fact sensitive and nuances will be lost both to the site and to the questioner) but rather because one can easily hunt for the answer that is desired. As could be anticipated, the younger the questioner, the more likely he or she will turn to the Internet as the first resort, with a full 56.7 of Jews under 30 looking on-line for G-d’s word. But note that this age cohort also asks the most questions of rabbis – so it appears that they will consult Google and then, often, a real, live rabbi as well. It is important to add that more than a third of the respondents will first turn to their permanent rabbi, as opposed to seeking answers “on the street” or randomly.

While this phenomenon is regrettable, and was the source of much hand-wringing and even mockery of the modern rabbinate in some accounts, the unbiased will recognize that the same could be said of medicine, law and almost every discipline. Some doctors will tell you that patients who diagnose themselves on the Internet frequently think they have maladies that they really don’t have – and this pseudo-knowledge hampers the doctor’s ability to properly advise the patient. People will consult their physicians asking for specific medicines they found on the Internet or refuse to take other medications because of side-effects they read about, which are often quite rare. Yet, no one would say doctors are being replaced – or lawyers, accountants, therapists, etc. The Internet is not replacing the rabbi.

More good news: over 90% of respondents said they have (53.8%) or would like to have (35.5%) a rabbi to whom they can ask halachic questions. Some of the reporting actually drew the opposite conclusion, for their own reasons. Apparently, rumors of the demise of the modern rabbinate have been greatly exaggerated.

While the above addressed halachic questions, Jews have been known to ask their rabbis all sorts of questions, relying on their guidance, intuition or something else – but that is not always a good idea. Almost 2/3 of the respondents would never ask a rabbi for business or investment advice, and just as well, assuming the rabbi has no particular expertise in the area. And even if he does, the blurring of roles can cause unnecessary discomfort. (In the Charedi world, of course, this type of consultation is much more widespread.)

Sadly, 1/3 of respondents would never turn to a rabbi for guidance in marital issues, with almost half of older people (over age 51) saying they never would, perhaps reflecting the reticence of older people to open up about personal matters, emotions, etc. By contrast, only 1/5 of younger people would be reluctant to turn to a rabbi for assistance in this area, perhaps having grown up in a world in which baring one’s deepest secrets is done routinely, and often to strangers. The most common areas of consultation – in which respondents would always consult with a rabbi (aside from matters of life and death) – are family, marriage and children’s issues. Again, only 17% of older people approach their rabbis with such matters but fully 44.2% of younger people and 34.4% of middle-aged (31-50) people do so in the first instance. Additionally, 38.3% of young people will consult a rabbi for matters of personal spiritual growth, and in general, men more than women. But both sexes were equal in their willingness to consult rabbis about familial or marital questions.

Another figure that stood out was this: 37.5% would never ask a rabbi about workplace conduct matters – not professional business matters but ethics, interpersonal relations, etc., as if they desire to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But Judaism is a holistic (and holy) system, in which the Torah has something to say about every area of life.

Finally, asked what two characteristics are most important in choosing a rabbi from whom to seek counsel, only 4% stated a “rabbi known as a tzadik,” here referring, apparently, not to personal saintliness but to his ability to perform miracles and wonders and access the mystical world in order to  effect the desired objective. (I’m afraid the figure is actually higher, and clearly is higher in other parts of the Torah world.)  So what then are people looking for in their rabbinical counselor?

More than 50% chose “modesty and humility,” implying not just these wonderful traits but also the lack of a personal agenda, a willingness to admit that not all answers reside in him, and an openness to the questioner. Indeed, the second most favored quality was “a personal relationship” with the rabbi. Grading much lower were qualities such as Torah knowledge, general knowledge and connectedness. Note that the question related not to halachic queries but to general and personal advice that was sought from the rabbi.

As such, it seems clear that what people seek out most in a rabbi is the personal connection, someone who knows them for many years, has experienced life’s highs and lows together with them, and knows what makes them tick. That bond is precious, that connection is sacred, and that relationship is one that is mutually rewarding.

Far from lamenting the state of the modern rabbinate, the study revealed how a significant portion of the religious-Zionist world desires, seeks and sustains a relationship with a rabbi, and this in a secular environment that frowns on and even discourages ultimate answers to life’s questions. Of course there is much that can be improved but only the immature, the impetuous, and the agenda-driven are constantly disappointed when they realize that life itself, and the living, are imperfect. While the American-type rabbinate is not yet pervasive in Israel, organizations such as Barkai are trying to fill that niche, something that can only add to the effectiveness and success of the rabbinate and the well-being of all Jews.

 

Falling Down

Do you remember when the great Willie Mays fell down chasing a fly ball during the 1973 World Series? Here was Mays, one of the most graceful and agile athletes ever to play center field, author of some of the most remarkable fielding plays in baseball history, and now 42 years old, playing for the Mets in the last days of his outstanding career – and tripping over his own feet. It was a sad end to a distinguished career.

I couldn’t help thinking of the “Say Hey Kid” while watching Robert Mueller’s rambling, awkward, uncomfortable and disjointed testimony before two Congressional committees. It was clear that he was out of his element, unfamiliar with much of the report that bears his name that he clearly did not write and arguably did not read. He seemed to be suffering some of the natural effects of aging – and suffering even more (as I have seen with other distinguished people), from shady handlers and manipulators hiding behind Mueller’s reputation for probity to carry out the nefarious schemes of the Resistance.

Mueller responded, well over 200 times, with some variation of “I cannot respond,” “that is beyond the purview of the investigation,””I don’t remember,” “I don’t recall,” “If it’s in the report, it is accurate,” “I can’t get into that,” “can you repeat the question?” and the like. He erred in identifying the name of the president…who appointed him a United States Attorney. He fumbled for words, obvious words. He was surrounded by handlers who seemed to prop him up and feed him lines, not a principal in the process but a figurehead.

And that makes the composition of his investigative team so suspicious. Did he really not know the politics of his staff attorneys and investigators? Was he unaware that all supported Hillary Clinton and a half dozen contributed money to her campaign? Did he even ask?

Had Hillary Clinton been a defendant in a criminal case (or Donald Trump, for that matter), and these attorneys had been questioned about their fitness to serve on a jury, all of them would have been barred for potential bias. It is an obvious conflict, and an obvious question that should have been asked of each of them: did you contribute to or actively participate in either campaign? That it was not is a clear indication of Mueller’s manipulation.

As was this: the unethical and un-judicial standard of a potential defendant not being exonerated. Such a thing is unknown in our – or any – fair-minded judicial system. The presumption of innocence is sacred, for several reasons including the impossibility of ever proving one’s innocence of anything. After all, there might be no evidence of criminality now but who’s to say such evidence won’t appear in a month, year or decade from now? That is why prosecutions require the foundation of probable cause that a crime was committed (a standard that was not even met in this case) and conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

That such deference was not granted to Donald Trump is outrageous.

As was this: the only evidence of collusion between a candidate and a campaign was not investigated by Mueller. That was the Clinton’s campaign’s solicitation of and payment for the salacious and unverified Steele dossier published in Russia that was used to facilitate spying on American citizens. (Unmentioned were the tens of millions of funneled by foreign entities to the Clinton Foundation, which mysteriously has packed up its tent and disappeared.) “Beyond the purview of my investigation”? That was supposed to be the essence of his investigation. Mueller should have just admitted that the purview of his investigation was to dig up any material on Trump, and present it without the right of cross-examination or any substantive challenge.

The horrors of Russian interference that purportedly disrupted and corrupted American democracy has still not quite been explained. What did they do? Meet with campaign officials? I assume that the campaigns on both sides met with foreigners representing several dozen countries. I myself greet several Russians every week. Is that collusion?

Apparently they purchased ads on the Facebook that influenced…who exactly? As the joke (by now, old) goes: did the Russians convince Hillary not to campaign in Wisconsin? Even Bill thought that was a big mistake. What did the Russians do that influenced the election? And note that the conflation of “Russians” and “Russian government” is not at all warranted without further evidence.

Politicians are almost always duplicitous and labor to sound pious and sincere, but let’s be frank: do foreign governments take an interest in American elections? Of course they do. That is because most countries’ interests will be furthered by one side winning and hindered by another side winning. It is why the US routinely interferes in Israel’s elections, with the Obama State Department even being censured by Congress for spending American money to try to defeat PM Netanyahu in 2013. The British, French, Germans, Italians, Australians and Israelis all have an interest in who the American president is. As do the Russians, Iraqis, Iranians and Pakistanis. Sometimes countries will overtly favor one person, other times they will covertly support one over the other, and some countries – usually adversaries – will try to acquire dirt on both parties to hedge their bets and use the information to their advantage in future relations. That has been a Russian tactic for decades – and one of a nation’s most common uses of its intelligence agencies (and even diplomatic corps) is to gather information on candidates and positions, predict outcomes, and try to reach out to any and all campaigns. I doubt that the Russians are atypical, as I don’t doubt that the US does the exact same thing in other countries. (See the histories of Chile, the Philippines and Iran for just a few examples.)

The whole process has been a bizarre farce since the beginning and has corrupted the American legal establishment in ways that will reverberate for quite a while. The tendentiousness is blatant. The misstatements by so many Dem representatives were reprehensible. It is clear that collusion (if it did occur) is not a crime. Period. So, can a person obstruct justice to impede an investigation into a non-crime? That seems more like obstruction of injustice. Does one obstruct justice by asking an investigator, prosecutor, or judge to go easy on someone? If so, that type of “obstruction” occurs every day, and I have probably violated it hundreds of times. But that is not obstruction. Nor is ranting in private about the injustice of it all, nor is calling a political witch hunt a political witch hunt.

There were repeated references to Michael Cohen pleading guilty and going to prison for “campaign violations.” Well, that is an obvious falsehood. Cohen was prosecuted for tax evasion and fraud having nothing to do with Trump – and admitted to a host of other violations simply at the behest of prosecutors who would not otherwise have accepted a deal. Just because he pleaded guilty to a campaign violation does not even mean that there was a campaign violation, as anyone who has ever pleaded guilty to a seat belt violation instead of a moving violation can attest.

How Trump won remains a mystery only to elitists who know little about the country in which they reside but pontificate about all the time. It seems pretty apparent that the Dems hope to perpetuate these investigations through 2020, hoping that the country tires of Trump and the whole tumult. But the danger to the country is enormous – not just the indifference of politicians to the real problems the country faces but also the harm to its international reputation, the invitation to even more insidious interference in the future, the corruption of the legal process, and the nightmare of an agency with limitless power focusing its enmity and unlimited resources on a political target. That is the stuff of banana republics.

When the Torah taught us “Justice, justice, you shall pursue”(Devarim 16:20), the Kotzker Rebbe explained the redundancy by averring that justice must be pursued only through means that are just. Justice is distorted when the means to attain it are perverse.

Let Mueller rest and retire. He had his Willie Mays moment today and it is sad to end a distinguished career on such a depressing note. But, had I been on the committee, I would have closed with this statement:

Mr. Mueller: “There is compelling evidence that your staff was biased against Trump from the beginning and that you purposely omitted or ignored exculpatory evidence. You may not be guilty of prosecutorial misconduct – but nor have you been exonerated of it.”

Unfortunately, those who think that will be the last word on this matter will be sorely disappointed. And Jews – and Jewish organizations – that fail to appreciate this President’s pro-Israel and pro-Jewish policies, and can never find a good word to say about him, are both foolish and ungrateful, and will yet be called to account by the Jewish community and all right-thinking people.

 

Who is First?

Election campaigns are so much fun that Israel is having two within the span of four months, providing daily entertainment if you sift through the vitriol. American elections are different because the dates are defined in law, unlike Israel’s parliamentary system, but they are also so much fun that American political campaigns are very, very long. Perhaps it is better said that they never end – the permanent campaign in which winning matters much more than governance. Israel’s election campaign, while unnecessary, is also mercifully short.

For all the volatility of American politics today – the endless feuding, screaming, dysfunction, real accusations, false accusations and and occasional hilarity – it is downright tame, even stable, compared to what is going on here in Israel. Having a polarized and divided society is the fate of many democracies today, which can be a strength (no group becomes excessively powerful) or a weakness (nothing really ever gets done). But to hold two elections within a few months is bizarre, especially since the electorate hasn’t changed. The configuration of Knesset seats is also likely not to change that much, although I do suspect that Binyamin Netanyahu – who just became Israel’s longest serving prime minister in history, exceeding David Ben-Gurion’s tenure – will not be the prime minister one year from now.

What is especially unusual, and somewhat irksome, is that the right-wing religious parties have fragmented into so many different groups that they are also undermining themselves, as they did in 1992 resulting in the Oslo catastrophe. I count one, two, three, four, five and maybe six parties or maybe more parties that on some level have support of the Religious Zionist community – all reflecting what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” There is the Bayit Hayehudi, the remnants of the old Mafdal; the New Right party of Naphtali Bennett, who gambled and lost when he abruptly left the party he founded to start his own. (Was it a wise move? Well, the modern philosopher, political theorist and ex-basketball player Charles Barkley once said that “the only difference between a good shot and a bad shot is whether or not it goes in.” If you shoot and miss, it’s a bad shot. Bennett shot and missed.) There’s the Zehut party, angling for a Torah state in which marijuana is legal. The Yachad party. Otzma Yehudit on the far right. The new Noam party inhabiting similar quarters. And even the Likud has a fair share of Religious Zionists in its list. And I have probably overlooked one or two equally redundant parties.

That’s a lot of parties, with nuanced differences but primarily espousing similar views, the “narcissism of small differences,” but that has and will result in cannibalizing their voting base. Bennett’s party and Feiglin’s party threw away about 5 seats, 250,000 wasted votes in April’s election. If those votes had counted, there wouldn’t have been a need to rely on Avigdor Lieberman’s party – which everyone assumed would join the right-wing coalition until he decided not to join and embarked on an anti-Torah campaign that he hopes will improve his electoral prospects. One would think that the dissipation of votes, power, and influence in the last election would engender some humility, a contraction of the parties and a willingness to work together for common goals. After all, agreement on 80-90% of the issues at hand should count for something.

What induces all these candidates and parties to run, to highlight their small differences, and then fail to work together to form a coalition? It’s old story that never ends, even if we assume that everyone is sincere.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) discusses the sad tale of Yerav’am ben Nevat who split ancient Israel into two kingdoms, reintroduced idolatry (building his own golden calves), a person who saw himself as royalty, but who also possessed tremendous spiritual potential. The Sages noted that notwithstanding that he “sinned and caused others to sin,” he was also a Torah scholar whose Torah had no defect but was completely perfect. All other scholars were before him “like shrubbery.”

And, typically of this type of talented individual, the Gemara says that, in a prophetic vision, “G-d grabbed hold of Yerav’am’s cloak (apparently in order to shake some sense into him). And G-d said, ‘repent, and I, you and King David will stroll together in Paradise.’” Together, we can perfect the world!

But then “Yerav’am asked, who goes first? And G-d said, David goes first. And Yerav’am responded, if so, I can’t. I don’t want it.” Either I go first or I don’t go at all.

Mi Barosh – who goes first? – is such a destructive syndrome. Who will lead? Who is in charge? That ailment destroys people, societies, and nations. It destroyed Korach in his time and Yerav’am in his. It makes politics so superficial and allows problems to fester and never get resolved. Yerav’am was so jealous of the Davidic dynasty hat he felt disrespected even to walk behind the true king; he had to be first.

This Mi Barosh malady is harmful to marriages, to families, to shuls and communities. It is so ancient and so commonplace that one would think we would be aware of it, recognize it, and carefully scrutinize our motivations, decisions and actions. Sadly, we don’t, and even sadder, Mi Barosh is the rule, not the exception. The multiplicity of parties in Israel, and the cavalcade of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, all reflect this fundamental human weakness. People will give up their lives, their spiritual destiny, their families, their wealth and their friends, and all for just a little honor, or a little more honor than the next guy.

Mi Barosh underwrites – and undermines – much of the political scene today, and the results could be quite unpleasant, as they were when Yerav’am maneuvered his way into the kingship of Israel and an ensuing rift in the Jewish society. And each person understands this, and each thinks that the other should therefore give way. Mi Barosh.

If we understand this on a personal level, we will have made great progress. To understand this on a national level will take a bit longer. Maybe it is happening now with a re-configuration of leaders on the right – but perhaps it will not be fully appreciated until the exalted son of David redeems Israel and the world. The sooner the better.

 

The Moon and the Jews

(Published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, July 19, 2019)

     Fifty years ago this week man first walked on the moon, something fantasized about by human beings since ancient times. It was a triumph of human ingenuity that united all of mankind for a brief moment, and that, in the summer of 1969, brought a brief respite from the turmoil that tormented American life – a summer noted for mayhem (the Manson murders), music (the Woodstock retreat) and endless marches against the Vietnam War.

I missed all of that, spending my first summer in Israel and not yet Bar Mitzvah. I recall standing on July 20, 1969, with many others, on a street corner in Netanya looking at the grainy black-and-white television images of the first steps on the moon. The excitement was palpable. Earth’s moon was our gateway to space and the universe beyond. And then, oddly, the attraction of landing men on the moon faded quickly. No person has touched the moon’s surface since 1972. What happened? And is there a Jewish perspective on this accomplishment?

The scope of the moon program and its ancillary achievements were astonishing. More than 400,000 people worked for NASA on the space program and the inventions that were largely unknown byproducts of the drive to land a man on the moon transformed our world – everything from scratch-resistant lenses and anti-icing equipment to the first widespread use of Velcro, microchips, MRI’s, and the gravity-defying space pen (before the space pen, the astronauts used… pencils).

The drive to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth came about for the most prosaic reason: a desire to supersede the Soviet Union whose space program was then more advanced and successful. And it was fraught with danger that, in that era of stoic and understated heroes, was downplayed. But a fire aboard Apollo 1 during a launch pad test killed three astronauts in 1967. Less than a year after the successful landing, Apollo 13’s flight to the moon was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded on board; that crew returned safely. We have witnessed two space shuttle explosions in the ensuing decades.

The Apollo 11 astronauts were flying into uncharted territory. All precautions were taken but the slightest mishap – as happened other times – would have taken their lives. President Nixon had a failure speech prepared in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were stranded on the moon, lauding their courage and inspiration. Indeed, it was not known for many years that while exiting the Eagle moon landing craft, one of the astronaut’s backpacks had broken the switch on the computer that armed the engine! Fortunately, Buzz Aldrin inserted a simple pen that he brought with him – and the system worked (Newsmax, July 2019).

Strange as it sounds, Jews have always had a special relationship with the moon. We count our months according to the moon’s cycle (Masechet Sukka 29a) and as a nation are compared to the moon (Midrash Tehillim 22). The moon was singled out for creation on the fourth day, and it is the only aspect of creation that perceptibly changes shape every day before our eyes, waxing and waning every month and thereby meriting its own beracha upon its monthly reappearance. It seemed so close and yet so unreachable that the text of the accompanying tefilot characterized the moon as “aini yachol lingoa bach,” I cannot touch you. And yet touch it we did. One rabbi quickly opined that we should no longer recite that phrase; he was overruled. For all but twelve men, the moon remained untouchable, part of our world but literally beyond our grasp.

Poskim debated whether or not there was an obligation to observe mitzvot on the moon, with some claiming that mitzvot were mandated only “on the earth” (Devarim 12:1). That proposal never got off the ground. A joke circulated about the Jewish astronaut who reported on the difficulty of his mission orbiting the earth: “It was amazing, except for every 70 minutes – Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv…” In reality, there have been more than a dozen Jewish astronauts – Americans, Israelis and one Soviet Jew, Boris Volynov, who in January 1969 became the first Jew in space.

For all the exhilaration of the moment, the next moon landing just four months later drew much less attention. By 1972, missions were being canceled due to budget cuts. The late Eugene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the moon, on December 17, 1972. Almost as quickly as man arrived, he determined that there was no reason to return.

Great moments of joy are often followed by emotional deflation. The feat, once achieved, no longer energizes. We remember the first person to do something, much less the second, and not at all the tenth. The space program stumbled in this essentially human way, the sense of “been there, done that, now what?” The mystique and enchantment of the moon landing fell victim to cost-benefit analyses and financial constraints. A fantasy fulfilled simply begets another and different fantasy.

And perhaps this as well: The American culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s eroded the nation’s moral core, and government failures – ethical, military, diplomatic and economic – sapped the people’s trust in the traditional institutions of American life. The contrast between the harmony in the heavens and the chaos on earth was too glaring – wars, massacres, human suffering and misery, and the emergence of new challenges and adversaries, all on earth – to justify spending resources on space without any immediate benefit. And Americans, now caught up in the throes of a consumerist and increasingly libertine society, prioritized pursuit of pleasure in the present over adventure in the great beyond. Man’s intellectual and technological achievements often carry a whiff of “my power and the might of my hand have accomplished all of this” (Devarim 8:17). Success feeds the ego in a potentially destructive way but also leaves man looking for new hills to climb and different hurdles to overcome.

Of course, there was and is another way to approach this, and why the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing evokes such nostalgia and good feeling. It is because the grandeur of the universe also reminds us of the smallness of mankind, underscoring our humility in the face of the Creator and His creation. “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your hands, the stars and the moon that You brought into existence. What is a human that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You remember him? Yet You made him slightly less than the angels and crowned him with glory and splendor” (Tehillim 8:4-6).

From this great distance, the astronauts reported, the earth looks so small and peaceful. If only we embraced that perspective, then our humility, ingenuity and commonality would impel us to imbue this planet with G-d’s presence and an eagerness to obey His will. For one fleeting moment fifty years ago, that perspective became possible – an eternal tribute to those whose courage revealed for all the extraordinary frontiers of human potential.