Life With a Smear

The world is awash in gossip, slander, endless accusations, the intentional dissemination of rumors and innuendo, and reckless disregard for propriety, the norms of justice and the proper redress for wrongs, imagined or otherwise. Trial by media is the new normal. Trial by judges or juries that require the adduction of evidence and witnesses and proof beyond a reasonable doubt or even by the preponderance of evidence is passé, old-fashioned and behind the times. They are certainly less effective in destroying the lives and reputations of the targets whose guilt might not be proven in a conventional manner. For all the sanctimonious talk about progress and modernity, one might wonder whether or not duels were a more civilized form of resolving disputes than this is. Note: I am not calling for the re-institution of duels.

Jewish law is quite clear and in marked contrast to the perverse culture that surrounds us. One is not only prohibited from believing lashon hara (defined as any statement, even true, that tends to disparage the reputation of the subject) but one is also obligated to justify or interpret favorably even criminal or unseemly actions that we view with our own eyes – much less those we hear about from others. Jewish leaders, from the time of Moshe until today, have often been subject to cruel and despicable slander. All, obviously, were baseless, and all were intended to denigrate and marginalize them and reduce their influence in Jewish life.

The smear has become routine in public discourse and the saga of Judge Roy Moore is just the latest example. I have no truck with Judge Moore and no idea whether or not the accusations of vile misconduct against him are true. I will make two predictions (always risky but nonetheless): he will not become the Senator from Alabama and the day after he drops out or loses the election his accusers will disappear from the public eye never to be heard from again. For even his most vociferous (and even sincere) opponents must concede that the sole purpose of these accusations is not to find justice for the alleged victims but rather to achieve some petty, partisan political goal. But this is nothing new.

Recently, the acclaimed investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson wrote a book entitled “The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control  What You See, What You Think and How You Vote.” It is an enlightening and frightening tale of the extent to which modern politics has become a game of money and power but a game that is fueled by lies, falsehoods, accusations, allegations, rumors, innuendo, and anything that can manipulate the gullible public in providing money or votes for a particular candidate or leave them disgruntled enough that they simply do not vote for the candidate to whom they would naturally incline. (After all, despite the protests to the contrary about the importance of voting, any candidate would rather have you stay home and not vote than go out and vote for the opponent.) Hence, politics has become a bi-partisan sport of character assassination and simply….lies.

This has always existed to some extent but it has reached new levels with the capacity to reach massive numbers of people in mere seconds and the rigorous scientific study of words, phrases, images and particular charges that sway particular voters. Campaigns have become nothing more than the steady drip of innuendo that, like the kikayon of the prophet Yonah, make a brief splash and then disappear overnight. Her book is filled with numerous examples, and even admissions of the players that this is the game they play. Remember last summer when the news blared that Melania Trump came here as an illegal immigrant and worked without a visa, and candidate Donald Trump was lambasted for his hypocrisy in marrying such a person? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t – but it was all fabricated, simply made up, all her papers were in order. It’s the exposure of this “breaking news!”  that mattered to the disseminators – the instinctive impression on the listeners – and not whether the charge was false or FALSE. It was actually TOTALLY FALSE. That is just one of dozens of examples she cites.

So too – in my lame attempt to be bi-partisan – the persistent allegation that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not in the United States. Very interesting, but few noted that such (even if true) would not have disqualified him to run for the presidency as long as his mother was an American citizen. This was born out by the 2016 election when a handful of diehards pointed out that Ted Cruz was, in fact, born in Canada. Indeed, but he remained eligible because his mother was an American citizen. From a Constitutional perspective, it matters not whether you were born in Canada or Kenya. But that too was fake news, designed to tarnish the candidate rather than educate the public.

Attkisson traces the birth of the modern smear movement to the “borking” (yes, it became a verb) of Judge Robert Bork whose nomination to the Supreme Court  was rejected by Congress because of tendentious and repugnant accusations raised against him. But it has risen to a whole new level. Do not think for a moment that modern journalists pound the pavement and wear out their shoes trying to uncover dirt on candidates; that might have happened long ago. Today, most journalists are partisans (many reporters and columnists coordinate their writings with the campaigns they support!) and they are fed opposition research by those campaigns and do little background investigation about them. The slightly ethical will at least try to interview the accusers; the less ethical will just publish accusations that have already been disseminated on the internet, on the grounds that if it is on the internet it is already newsworthy. As consumers of news, we are fed narratives that have no connection to truth and myths that shape or reinforce our voting patterns. The examples are legion and I recommend the book. She quotes the Nazi propagandist Goebbels: “It would be possible to prove, with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned, that a square is in fact a circle.” And, as Jews learned all too well, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Donald Trump was a master at deflecting the dirt thrown at him by flinging dirt at his accusers and his opponents. He did this during the campaign, and now as well. Allegations  against him of Russian “collusion” are simply turned against Hillary Clinton and her Russian “collusion.” (Full disclosure: I have met and spoken with Russians more than 100 times in the last year, almost all in shul. Nevertheless…) Obviously, Trump was successful in navigating this swamp, but the swamp has only deepened.

How does it work? Attkisson defines a smear in this way: “In simple terms, it’s an effort to manipulate opinion by promulgating an overblown, scandalous, and damaging narrative. The goal is often to destroy ideas by ruining the people who are most effective at communicating themThe smear business is interminable and eminently profitable…Imagine trying to focus on your job or family while professional smear artists engage in a 24/7 operation to discredit and controversialize you. To them, it’s second nature. They’ve perfected their techniques. They maintain a constant pressure. Their slander alienates your bosses, clients, colleagues, and the general public. They isolate you from your support system. Eventually, your own family and friends start to wonder about you. You feel the icy chill of distancing from those you consider closest.

And right from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”  For sure, such tactics have seeped into the Jewish world as well, and the agendas that are hostile to Torah do not hesitate to “controversialize” their adversaries or to lie, distort and malign in order to achieve their goals.

For the world, Sharyl Attkisson concludes with this synopsis: “For now, one thing you can count on is that most every image that crosses your path has been put there for a reason. Nothing happens by accident. What you need to ask yourself isn’t so much ‘Is it true, but Who wants me to believe it—and why?’

But Jews have to ask even more potent questions: how seriously do we take the Torah and its admonitions against lashon hara? How do we ostracize purveyors of lashon hara in our community and in the media? How do we erase from our minds the negative images that lashon hara imprints? How do we protect the innocent and potential victims against possible abusers without drenching ourselves in lashon hara? And how do we inculcate in the religious public that civil disputes are the province of Bet Din and criminal accusations are the province of the secular court system – and not the media, in either case?

Life with smears is the inevitable consequence of trial by media and the inundation of our world with lashon hara. We should rise above both and set an admirable example for the rest of society.

 

 

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Not-So-Smart Phones

The narrative of creation accounts for many details of our origins but obviously not all, so what is included must be of great import. And of course the Torah was not given to us to teach cosmology, science, or even history but rather to teach us morality – not how we came to be but why we came to be, and how we should live. And so the nuggets of information provided about the ancients should catch our attention.

Thus we are taught that Lemech had one son named Yaval, “and the name of his brother was Yuval, the forerunner of those who play the harp and the flute” (Breisheet 4:21). Yuval was the original music man. And Lemech’s other wife Tzila “also gave birth to Tuval Kayin, the forerunner of those who sharpen and craft implements of copper and iron” (ibid 4:22). These facts are certainly interesting, but what’s the point?

And note the contrasts: the Netziv commented that the harp and the flute have dueling functions; the harp soothes while the flute arouses. They are not generally played together, and yet Yuval played both. So too, the instruments that were manufactured by Tuval Kayin could also be put to disparate uses. Tuval Kayin, like his great-great-great-grandfather Kayin, was also a farmer, so he created tools that made the work easier. But Rashi wrote that that he was too much like his ancestor Kayin, who murdered his brother Hevel but was not very efficient in carrying out the dastardly deed, But Tuval Kayin was so named because he perfected the craft of Kayin, manufacturing weapons of homicide like knives and daggers. So too Yuval the music man who used his music for idolatrous worship. What exactly are we being taught?

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a long essay by Nicholas Carr that should wake us up to the realities of the new world and the potential dangers that technology present. We always see the good, the benefits and the advantages in every modern invention but rarely internalize the downside, the struggles, or the changes for the worse, if we even do more than pay lip service to it. And so it is with the ubiquitous Smartphone.

Smartphones have become indispensable; more than half its users cannot imagine life without a product that didn’t even exist less than two decades ago. Traditionally, we have worried about the moral and spiritual dangers that are extant. I, like many rabbis, have railed against people even bringing Smartphones to shul, much less using them during prayer. Sadly, some people just can’t help it, and can’t disconnect from these devices even for a few moments. We have all witnessed people answering emails or texting during the davening (a real embarrassment to the shul and its sanctity as well as an insult to G-d in whose presence they presumably stand) and all been irritated by phones ringing during davening (although, fortunately, it is less of a problem in our parts).  But the essay makes a different and much stronger point: these Smartphones are making us dumb and our children even dumber. And that is a real, and in many venues an uncontrollable, problem.

The advantages are numerous. Smartphone provide with heretofore unimaginable convenience and an ever-increasing array of diversions. Who could have dreamed even a few years ago of a hand-held device that serves as a phone, camera, mailbox, photo album, computer, every newspaper and magazine you want to read, every movie, television show or sports program you want to watch, a calendar, a diary, a siddur, Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch and much more? But Smartphones come at a great cognitive cost, and that’s what the research is showing. Just hearing a ring or a vibration makes it more difficult to concentrate. And when people hear a buzz and don’t check their phones, immediately their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens and their problem-solving skills decline. The ramifications for us will be clear in a moment.

In one study, three groups of students were given a test. One was told to keep their phones on their desks, another in their pockets or purses and a third group in a different room. Those whose phones were in view did the worst, those whose phones were in another room did the best, and those whose phones were present but in their pockets came out in the middle. Their mere presence drains away our mental energy and detaches us from our surroundings.

Obviously, those who people who bring phones to shul will have worse kavana even if the phones are off, and kavana is something with which we struggle under the best circumstances. Even more seriously, schools that allow children to bring their phones are wasting the parent’s tuition money. The children will simply not learn as much, their cognitive skills and ability to concentrate will decline precipitously, and then we will wonder where we have gone wrong. It is also worth noting that the mere presence of a phone diminishes the concentration of all those who see it, even if they do not own it, because it reflects the universe of opportunities, delights and fantasies in the great beyond, which always seem more interesting that whatever one is doing at the moment.

And worse: we are impairing our social skills through addiction to these devices while our children are not developing any social skills at all. Relationships suffer, if real ones at all exist. Smartphones serve as a constant reminder of all the friends we could be chatting with electronically, so they grab at our minds even when we are talking to live people, leaving those conversations shallower and less satisfying. Read “Reclaiming Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle, and you will realize that the ubiquity of Smartphones makes us less productive (even as we think we are being more productive), destroys our capacity for self-reflection, and prevents us from living in the moment with real people. It has spawned a generation that prefers texting to talking and virtual interactions to real ones.

These phones are not just in our hands but they are inside our heads. They hijack our attention and constitute a “supernormal stimulus” such as the world has never before seen. And we remember less, because everything is out there, accessible with a few taps of a finger. But William James, the 19th century American psychologist and thinker, said that the art of remembering is the art of thinking. We encode certain information that enables us to think conceptually, to make intellectual associations. When we stop doing that we create delusions of intelligence, with people feeling they know more but actually know less about the world around them. That’s why so many college students struggle to place the Civil War or World War II in the right decade (or quarter-century) and have no idea how many Supreme Court justices or United States Senators there are.

The only hope – the only answer – is to learn how to disconnect. Shabbat is great for that but it only comes once a week. Shul is even better – twice a day, morning and night. Leave the phone at home, period, or in the car. Carve out disconnect time as well with spouse and children. And parents who send their children to school with Smartphones are forewarned; the phones are smart but the people who cannot disengage from them become dumber. That’s the science.

The Torah introduces these ancients as the pioneers of innovation, which began with them and has not ceased. Yuval’s music brings joy, inspiration and comfort but can also be used for debauchery and idolatry.  Tuval Kayin’s inventions were great for farming but also for homicide and mayhem. It’s not history; we are not accounting for the dates of the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. It’s Mussar, designed to tell us how to control all new inventions but not have them control us. Every invention is morally neutral, with positive and negative qualities. Rashi says that the sons of Lemech failed in their understanding and embrace of the new technology and let themselves be swept away by the immoral possibilities and their potential for evil and dehumanization.

That same potential exists in all of us, until we internalize the notion that everything created is primarily for the glory of G-d and must promote His service.

 

 

 

Succot and the Nations

(This was first published as a front page cover essay in the Jewish Press, October 4, 2017)

     One of the unique features of the Succot service in the Bet Hamikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven bulls on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Succot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world. These bulls served as atonement for their sins which would ensure that they, too, were blessed, with heavenly rain and prosperity. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Bet Hamikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Succa 55b)

     Indeed, who – or what – does atone for the nations of the world today?

     As we celebrate Succot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies. Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a re-direction of its energies and objectives.

     Perhaps even worse than the geo-political nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality than mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the divine will needed to be ascertained and implemented.

      But G-d has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined. For the first time in American history, more Americans today are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that were once considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.

      Something changed dramatically in Western society over the last century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be in the 1960’s.

       Before the 1960’s, sin existed, and all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, but they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them. What was considered scandalous, appalling and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today, and properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40% of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided. Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews – presumably, the possessors and propagators of the divine morality – have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era. G-d’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.

     Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10% of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive. Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by  all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.

      What changed in the 1960’s?

      Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed G-d from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments. Certainly, they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life. To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated several months ago.

      Please allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah, one that is being fulfilled before our eyes, is G-d’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days. “And G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3). Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megila 29a) that G-d, in a sense, returns from the exile with us. “It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”

       Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel. It was the triumph of the Six Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized G-d’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it. If we bless G-d as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.

       But if we posit that during the exile, shechinta b’galuta, the divine presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the divine presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the shechina has receded from the exile, from America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, home to most Jews for almost two millennia. As the divine presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960’s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960’s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory and Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, G-d’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear. As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values and even paying lip service to values, and the loss of shame.

     With a loss of the divine presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a superior morality than the one that G-d offered His subjects, both Jews and Gentiles. It is a new world in which even mentioning G-d in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that intermarriage, which hovered around 5% until the 1960’s, has skyrocketed since.

      Certainly, G-d’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. G-d as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence. But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels. The divine presence never departs from the Kotel Hamaaravi, the western wall of the Temple (Midrash Raba Shmot 2:2). There are times during the year when we feel that G-d is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a) and in our Sukkot. And of course there are remnants of the divine presence in the exile as well. G-d’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even when one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6). But whereas the shechina was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is less and less experienced in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations is declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.

      The Six Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the divine presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal. Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.

      What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. Without G-d’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling with faith and tenacity are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries. The very notion of G-d has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the  idea of G-d as Creator, King and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1%.

     One might ask: if this is true, and the divine presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in Israel today in some parts? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege. The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the shechina has precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.

     Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Bet Hamikdash stood, and G-d’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Succot atoned for the nations of the world. “And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?

      Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. That is a momentous event and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3). Currently, the world could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews who remain in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values.  We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.

      It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all of G-d’s creatures. Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Succot past. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with G-d, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation. We celebrate that uniqueness in the Succa, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Succot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with G-d and offer just one bull as G-d celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.

       On Succot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the divine presence to its natural locale, re-commit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world, and nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.

The End of the “Three-Day Yom Tov”

It is official: the phrase “three-day Yom Tov” has been banned from these parts, never to be uttered again. The reason is simple. There is no such thing.

There can be a one day Yom Tov (Shavuot in Israel), a two day Yom Tov (Rosh Hashana everywhere or Shavuot in the exile), a seven day Yom Tov (Pesach in Israel), and eight day Yom Tov (Succot/Shmini Atzeret in Israel or Pesach in the exile) and even a nine day Yom Tov (Succot/Shmini Atzeret in the exile). But there cannot be a three day Yom Tov, even though many use the term to describe the recent celebration of Rosh Hashana followed by Shabbat and the upcoming (in the exile) celebrations of Succot and Shemini Atzeret on Thursday and Friday followed by Shabbat.

Years ago, we banned from use the Purim expression “sending Mishloach Manot.” Obviously, one cannot “send the sending of manot;” just send them and be done with it. What we send are “manot,” period.

So there is no “three day Yom Tov” but rather two days of Yom Tov followed by Shabbat. Lest you think I am overly persnickety (just overly; a little persnicketiness would do everyone some good), please note that the difference is more than semantics.

The expression “three day Yom Tov” conjures up thoughts of drudgery that doesn’t seem to end – cleaning, cooking, eating, cooking, eating, cleaning, and then more eating – with many hours of shul attendance sprinkled in to get us out of the dining room. Some dread three whole days without their electronic devices – no phone, no internet, no texting, and no news updates. That is actually a good way to break the Smartphone addiction that has left many people – especially young people – almost incapable of carrying on a conversation with a live human being right next to them, a human being with whom the interlocutor has to make eye contact and enunciate words in full sentences, wait for a response and answer again.

Nonetheless, since there cannot be a “three day Yom Tov,” what should we call the celebrations of two-day holidays followed by Shabbat?

Rav Eliezer Melamed hinted at the answer which, if understood properly, can revolutionize our lives:

shelosha yamim shel kedusha,” or in our parlance, “three days of holiness,” or even just “three holy days.” (Note: not three holidays; it doesn’t sound the same nor convey the same meaning.) Three Holy Days. Say it again: “Three Holy Days.” It has a nice ring to it. Rolls off the tongue.

The notion of “Three Holy Days” is a far cry from the implications of the “three day…(banned phrase).” In the first instance, “Three Holy Days” reminds us that these days are not identical in their obligations and observances but are all defined by varying degrees of holiness.  Yom Tov and Shabbat are not the same and the distinctions should be noted. Secondly, “Three Holy Days” communicates a love of mitzvot and a desire to rejoice in our service of G-d, as if the purpose of these days is not just to eat and eat (and cook, serve and clean) but to internalize the profound ideas of Torah and Jewish nationhood that have sustained us for thirty-seven centuries. A “three day Yom Tov” (I can’t believe I just wrote that) is feared, a source of anxiety and trepidation, but “Three Holy Days” should be anticipated by all serious Jews with excitement and merriment. Who would not want to be immersed in Torah, Mitzvot and G-d’s presence for three full days, if not more? Who would eschew three consecutive days doing nothing but indulging our souls? Even the meals of the “Three Holy Days” have tremendous spiritual significance.

“Three Holy Days” marks this period of time, and which we will enjoy again this coming Shavuot, as opportunities to saturate our souls with the experiences that develop them and therefore our entire lives. There is little that we do during the working days of the week that has as considerable an influence on our souls as does our proper observance and celebration of the “Three Holy Days.” Our children and grandchildren will be shaped and inspired by what they see, hear, feel and experience far more than anything that happens outside this time.

If they perceive that the “Three Holy Days” are a burden, and involve chores and preparations that weigh down and even dispirit the adults in their lives – if, indeed, they are educated with the banned expression “Three Day-you-know-what” – then they will absorb this lesson quite well and chafe under the loss of work time and regret the hours they could have otherwise spent sharing the inanities of their daily lives on social media.

But if they learn the lofty phrase “Three Holy Days” they will understand the great blessings that we enjoy, of finding our true happiness in Mitzvot and divine service, and they will seek to surround themselves with holiness, holy things and holy moments. There is no better time for this than Succot, during which we enter into a mitzvah with our entire bodies and bask in the divine presence.

So long live the “Three Holy Days” – and Chag Sameach to all!

 

 

The Hidden Moon

A well known Torah teacher in Israel, Rav Eliezer Kashtiel, asks a familiar question. We generally celebrate our holidays at the full moon, in the middle of the month. Succot, Pesach, and Purim are all full moon holidays. Not only is Rosh Hashana different, but we highlight that difference: “Sound the shofar in the concealment of our festival day.” Which festival occurs when the moon is concealed? That would be Rosh Hashana (Masechet Rosh Hashana 34a). But why must the festival coincide with the moon hidden from sight? And why is our attention called to it?

There is a famous dispute between the Gaon of Vilna and the holy ARI on a sensitive question: is it permissible to cry on Rosh Hashana? The Gaon ruled that one is not allowed to cry, for at the beginning of the second Temple era, Nechemia admonished the people who had come to the Temple for the first time on Rosh Hashana to “go home, eat, drink, for this day is holy to G-d, and don’t be sad, for delight in G-d is your strength” (Nechemia 8:10). Thus, the GRA said, the prohibition against sadness precludes crying.

The ARI disagreed, as recorded by R. Chaim Vital and the Ba’er Heiteiv (Orach Chaim 584:3). The ARI would cry on Rosh Hashana and even said that whoever didn’t cry, it is a sign that his soul is not healthy. That’s the paradox of Rosh Hashana: on the one hand, it’s a happy and joyous day; while on the other hand, it’s a day of solemnity and judgment. Which is primary?

There are several answers that synchronize the opinions of the GRA and the ARI, but here is one. There are different types of crying. There are tears of sadness and there are tears of joy. Sometimes they are commingled, and sometimes they are distinct. And we all know the difference. Rosh Hashana is the only holiday that is celebrated at the New Moon, the beginning of the month, because, like the new moon every month, it symbolizes a fresh start, a rebirth. On Rosh Hashana, we are all children again. We are reborn. We still hear the cantor of our youth that shapes the way we absorb and understand the davening throughout our lives. We still see the sights and inhale the aromas of the homes in which we were raised. We are children again, full of hope and excitement.

What is the sound of the shofar? The whole year we talk to G-d, with words. On Rosh Hashana, we employ the wordless sounds of the shofar, the cry of the infant who can’t say anything or do anything. He just cries. It’s not a cry of sadness or of pain; it’s not the cry of longing for or regret for the past; that will come. It is the cry of the child who yearns for mother and father, for the security and comfort of home; it is our cry to our Father in Heaven that we have returned after being abroad for too long. Please let us in. We cry in joy over the future – like at all beginnings, births and weddings – not over the past. We cry over the journey that took us to distant places, but now we have come home.

There is no moon. The past is the past. We are born again. We just need to be delivered into the new world of the New Year.

The Torah tells us that the two great women, midwives, who ushered in the redemption from Egypt and the founding of our nation, were named Shifra and Pu’ah. In the understanding of our Sages, these noble women were Yocheved and Miriam, respectively the mother and sister of Moshe. So why were they called Shifra and Pu’ah? The Gemara (Sota 11b) says that one was called Shifra because her role was to straighten out (meshaperet) the limbs of the newborn, and the other was called Pu’ah because she cried out (po’ah) to the child to bring her forth into the world.

Shifra and Pu’ah. Those names should ring a phonetic bell in our minds. Pu’ah – crying, cooing. The hundred sounds of the shofar that we blow correspond to the hundred cries (pe’ayot) of Sisera’s mother. And Pu’ah’s mother was Shifra, a word like the shofar itself. The Baal Hatanya wrote that the sounds of the shofar accompany our rebirth. It calls out to us plaintively and seeks our improvement; it urges us to straighten ourselves out. It asks us to renew ourselves, that we cry not tears of sadness – “do not be sad  because the delight in G-d is our strength” –  but tears of joy (even if that too recollects what is missing), tears of hope and anticipation, tears of the newborn, of a reborn soul.

The Slonimer quotes the Toldot Yaakov Yosef who reinterpreted the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that discusses the three books that are open on Rosh Hashana – the books of the righteous, the wicked and the intermediates. The books are open, but we get to inscribe ourselves. We get to choose the book in which we want to be written. What are our true aspirations? Those who crown G-d as King over themselves – every limb, every deed, and every thought – have chosen the book of life. Those who cannot make that commitment are choosing a different book.

If the moon is concealed on Rosh Hashana, it is only to remind us that a new beginning awaits us, if only we want it, if only we are ready for it. May we embark on that new beginning wisely and choose the book of life thoughtfully, and may G-d show us favor and seal us in that book for a year of meaningful life and good health, of prosperity and happiness, and grace our people with renewal as well – to an end to fear and trepidation, and to the beginning of complete redemption.

Shana Tova to all!

Our Enemies

In July 2005, I spent a week in New Orleans, even survived a hurricane that deviated off course at the last minute. Two months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and wrecked the Bush Administration. Six years later, I spent a week in Oslo. Two weeks after I left, a crazed gunman murdered 69 young people. Mayhem has followed my visits to several other cities as well, all coincidences, of course.

Needless to say, exactly one year ago, I vacationed in Charlottesville, Virginia, for two days. The horrific events of last week – the murder, the white supremacist rally, the aggressions of the radical left – were all uncharacteristic of the town, a quaint genteel place typified by traditional Southern hospitality. It seems clear that the demonstrators, rioters and activists were primarily outsiders, and it saddens that Charlottesville will take its place in the list of American cities where senseless, hate-filled violence shattered the calm and robbed the innocent of life.

Much has been made of the appearance of Nazis, white supremacists, and random Jew haters, and their counterparts on the left, including thugs, Black Lives Matter activists, and other random Jew haters, and others, and President Trump’s reaction to all of them. Suffice it to say, the President struggles with his articulation. George W. Bush was known for consistently mangling words and syntax, but Trump makes Bush sound like Lincoln or Churchill. You have to know what he is trying to say to make sense of it.

Most supporters can deduce what he is saying through the plethora of words and images that are being emitted, while his enemies (“opponents” seems to be too tepid a term) fume at his every utterance and isolate phrases or allusions that reflect some esoteric code known only to the coterie of detractors. There is nothing he can say or do that will change their minds, and, I suspect, there is little that he can say or do that will turn his supporters against him. Many of those supporters voted for Trump not as their first or second choice but as their final choice, given the alternative. Given that alternative, he will remain preferable, and American society will continue to fragment amid increasing polarization and intolerance.

Those who deem Trump to be a Nazi sympathizer, or worse, interpret every comment as justification for their conclusions. That contention, certainly, is offensive and baseless, because if it were even possible that there was a Nazi sympathizer in the White House, every sane Jew would be packing his bags and heading for Israel forthwith. And yet, with all the chatter about the increase in Jew hatred in America in the last few years, and the alleged fear of Donald Trump, aliya from the United States is down and yerida from Israel to the US is up. Unless Jews are masochists, and perhaps that can’t be ruled out, then the accusations are crassly political rather than substantive and reality-based.

Should President Trump have denounced the Nazis and left it at that? From the media’s and Jewish establishment’s perspective, certainly. Nazis are the handiest enemy of the Jewish people, an easy and deserved target, and universally reviled by Jews and non-Jews, not least the American public, most of which still remembers entering a war to defeat the Nazis (and Japanese) that cost 500,000 American lives. Everybody hates Nazis, racists, white supremacists, etc., but consider the following.

American Nazis are always seeking to call attention to their venomous ideas, always trying to march somewhere, and their following is infinitesimal, not even a blip on the American radar screen. Even in Charlottesville, their participants, for all the hoopla, numbered in the low hundreds. Their ideas have no traction in American society, even if in the internet era they enjoy wide dissemination. Their right to march has been litigated in the courts and approved on constitutional grounds of free speech and assembly. When the Nazis sought to march in Skokie in 1977-78, President Carter was asked about it at a news conference. Here was the exchange, from January 30, 1978:

 

  1. Mr. President, there’s a group of American Nazis in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, which is contemplating a march that’s in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and there might be victims there of the Nazi concentration camps from World War II. Do you have any plan to use the moral weight of your office to try to discourage this kind of a march? 

 

THE PRESIDENT. I deplore it. I wish that this demonstration of an abhorrent political and social philosophy would not be present at all. This is a matter that is in the American Federal courts, as you know, and under the framework of the constitutional guarantee for free speech. I believe under carefully controlled conditions the courts have ruled that it is legal and that they have a right to act this way. 

We have the same problem, as you know, in other parts of the Nation—in the South with the Ku Klux Klan, and others. And I don’t have any inclination to intercede further. I think it’s best to leave it in the hands of the court.

 

Note well what Carter said and didn’t say. He deplored the march, found their ideas abhorrent, but acknowledged the matter is being litigated and that the Nazis have a legal right to march. He declined to intercede further. Trump used very similar language, inelegant in his own way, deploring, condemning, saying such hatred has no place in American society, etc. He even pointed out that the evil white supremacists had a permit for their demonstration – as opposed to their protesters who did not and broke the law. (The withdrawal of the police that led to open violent confrontations and then to the despicable homicide should be investigated fully. That was a horrible failure of government.) But imagine if Trump had merely stated – as Carter basically did – that they have a right to march, and left it at that. He would have been excoriated, accused of winking and encouraging these nuts, or supporting them outright.

The Nazis in 1978 eventually marched in a Chicago park, all… several dozen of them, led by Frank Collin (the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who changed his name from Cohen. Go figure.) Nothing happened. Back in 1978, I (at the time, young and headstrong; now I am older and headstrong) thought that the Nazis should not be allowed to march and should be violently resisted. The man who would soon become my father-in-law suggested that it would be far better to allow them to march, rant and rave – and just ignore them. No coverage. No media. No reaction. I argued. In retrospect, he was right (all right, hard for me to admit) and I was wrong. Their demonstration received no attention. They crawled back into their swamps after a few minutes. Life went on and they continued marching in obscurity. I wonder if the same approach would work today; perhaps it should be tried.

The world today is far different, and not only because Jews are slightly more sophisticated. Free speech is under assault. The WSJ recently excerpted a new book by a liberal (a true liberal) Columbia professor who noted that in today’s climate, “class­room con­ver­sa­tions that once might have be­gun, ‘I think A, and here is my ar­gu­ment,’ now take the form, ‘Speak­ing as an X, I am of­fended that you claim B.’ What re­places ar­gument, then, are taboos against un­fa­mil­iar ideas and con­trary opin­ions.” Like it or not, the counter-demonstrations were an expression of violent offense that others have detestable opinions that should not be allowed to be expressed. That is not the United States of America.

There were two troubling subtexts to the Charlottesville riots. The first was that the radical left wing protesters (the antifascists and other groups) set out to deny the free speech rights claimed by the odious Nazis. There was a time when liberals defended that, and here the ACLU did, even if it have been neglectful in other defenses of free speech such as on college campuses. For its efforts, it was lambasted by Virginia’s governor and blamed for the ensuing violence. That is more ominous than Americans recognize because such suppression of speech has become common across the country, and is un-American. Trump alluded to this but not coherently enough. That does not bode well for Jews, who hold some opinions based on Torah morality that are not appreciated by left-wing groups in this era, and those groups are actively trying to repress and even criminalize that speech.

That is true as well about the matter of the Confederate statues, about which I am an agnostic. I understand why it would trouble blacks, as I am troubled by the statues of Titus and Hadrian in Rome and Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev. (If NYC wants to remove the plaque honoring Marshal Petain, please also remove the one honoring Charles de Gaulle, who turned out to be a hater of Israel who embargoed weapons for Israel already paid for when Israel most needed it in 1967, and that of Peter Stuyvesant, a rabid Jew hater in his own right.) On the other hand, there is something Orwellian about flushing history down the memory hole. It smacks of untruthfulness, even weakness. I stood before the Arch of Titus, and other statues of Roman emperors in the Pantheon or Italian museums, and laughed like Rabbi Akiva at the end of Masechet Mako). I wished that they could all come back to life for a few moments and see what became of their grandiose empire and, conversely, the nation of Israel that they tried to destroy. There are many American blacks who revel in their freedom, in the eradication of slavery and their successes in America, and their triumph over the ideology of the old men on horseback, whose ideology reflected their times, and whose defeat can teach all of us about morality, values and human dignity; if only there were many more in that community. That would also be tolerant, a lost virtue.

The second subtext is one that affects Jews in America and across the world. The Nazi obsession that we have (justified by the ideas uttered but not by the numbers of people uttering them) has rendered Jews blind to the haters on the other side. People are not our friends just because they protest against Nazis, any more than ISIS is our friend because they are fighting our foe, Bashar al-Assad. The Trump reference that set off so many people – the bad people on “many sides” – highlighted the fact that there are haters on the left that hate Jews and Israel as much as the haters on the right. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the anti-fascists, et al are rife with haters of Jews and Israel. There is no reason to give them a pass. The Nazis and white supremacists are loathed by everyone and are miniscule in number, while the leftist anti-Israel groups have found a comfortable home in one wing of the Democrat Party. They are being mainstreamed, not the Nazis; they are the ones supporting BDS; they are the ones who are being pandered to by the Cory Bookers of the world; they are the ones who deserve our attention.

Yet, President Trump’s clumsy attempt to reference them was roundly denounced. It is fascinating that the reaction here in Israel, official and unofficial, is largely bewilderment at the American Jewish disregard of their primary adversaries and the elevation to prominence of their faux foes. We have reached a stage, on the bizarre landscape of contemporary American Jewry, where support for Israel is no longer construed as being “pro-Israel” and to some people indicates the opposite, while antagonism towards Israel is not perceived as being “anti-Israel.” It will not be the first time that Jews have failed to distinguish between enemies and enemies, and friends and enemies.

Of all the problems facing American Jewry today, the existence of an American Nazi Party is not even in the top ten. Assimilation and intermarriage have robbed us of more Jewish souls than has this pathetic band of losers. That is the problem but it is far easier to denounce Nazis and white supremacists than it is to keep Jews Jewish for positive reasons, have Jews marry other Jews, and embrace the lifestyle that G-d ordained for us. The real enemies of the Jews in America and the world are not “Nazis,” and we are blind not to see that.

Like bad generals who always fight the last war, we are looking backwards and seeing the wrong things. The Nazis are evil, of course, but some of those confronting them are also not our friends and some are real enemies. We will survive them, but we should not deny their existence, nor should we embark on a campaign to turn friends into enemies. Those who do not learn from past are doomed to learn the name of George Santayana. But those who see only the past and look at everything through the prism of the past are doomed to distort the present and will be unprepared to face the challenges of the future.

As the exile winds down, it would be wise and prudent for Jews to assess who are our real enemies and what poses the genuine threats to our future. That has yet to happen, for, to many Jews, it hits too close to home.

Sins of Coercion

Does the Talmudic category of “ones rachmana patrei,” that “the Merciful One exempts [from punishment one who sins because of] coercion” apply to sins that are not forced on us by our enemies or by circumstances beyond our control? This issue has again risen to the fore by the assertion of a well known American-Israeli rabbi that this concept can be applied to deal sensitively with the plight of practicing homosexuals and has been the source of controversy here in Israel. To be clear, my focus here is not on the quandary of the homosexual, a situation that in our world causes great hardship to individuals and families, demands our sympathy and understanding and has been discussed at length. It is rather on the plight of the rabbinate.

What was suggested is not a new idea and was first proposed decades ago. It was posited, according to a straightforward reading of the statement, that the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual contact applies only to a heterosexual who chooses to engage in same-sex behavior, not the committed homosexual whose only desires are in that arena. As he is, purportedly, wired that way, he cannot be held responsible for his actions and, indeed, G-d would not want to deprive him (or her) of the capacity to find love in this world.

Yet, upon scrutiny, the application of “ones rachmana patrei” to this situation is flawed, misplaced and incorrect, and will inevitably lead to a deterioration in observance of any Jews who are influenced by it. There is the considerable likelihood that such contentions will lead Jews astray in every area of life in which they feel they lack self-control on the one hand or seek passionately on the other. It can and will undermine the very notion of commandment, sin, and repentance. In essence, this methodology of “ones rachmana patrei” can be equally misapplied to Shabbat desecration, theft, violence, adultery, gossip, tax fraud, and any other sin, major or minor. Several points deserve analysis.

Firstly, “ones rachmana patrei” is generally applied when one is forced to sin because of some external coercive element rather than a lack of internal control. The motivating factor is always some outside force and not simply an innate desire that cannot be constrained. For example, the anusim (from the same root; Conversos in the vernacular) were forced to convert and engage in Christian practices because of the murderous hostility of 15th century Christian Spain. The proof text for “ones rachmana patrei” is the case of the naarah ha’me’urasa, the betrothed maiden who is violated in the field against her will. “And to the maiden you shall do nothing; she is not guilty of a capital crime” (Devarim 22:26). As the Talmud (Masechet Bava Kama 28b) explains, she is guiltless, compelled to sin because of the brutish acts of her assailant.

Secondly, the classic cases of “ones rachmana patrei” are noted by Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, Chapter 5) under the laws of martyrdom. One who is compelled by hostile enemies on pain of death to commit one of the three cardinal sins – idolatry, sexual immorality, or homicide – is obligated to forfeit his life and not sin, as those three sins are particularly corrosive to the soul. One can save one’s life and violate all other sins except in a time of religious persecution. Yet, if the person instead saves his own life by committing one of the three cardinal sins, “he has failed to sanctify G-d’s name, but because he was coerced, he is not punished” (Rambam, ibid 5:4). Again, “ones rachmana patrei” requires the coercion of an outside party.

Thirdly, it must be underscored that “ones rachmana patrei” only means that there is no criminal punishment of the offender. It does not at all render the act in question permissible in the first instance. So even if it were true that the committed homosexual is an “anoos,” and thereby not liable to judicial punishment, that would not justify the commission of the acts in any event. They remain prohibited, even if there is no longer criminal liability. An article in the recent Tzohar journal (Volume 41, pages 81-101) reiterated the prohibition against people with same-sex attractions even secluding themselves together; the authors never entertained permitting sinful actions based on “ones rachmana patrei.

Nevertheless, “ones rachmana patrei” is applicable in many familiar areas to us. We are not liable today for not bringing the Korban Pesach, or one in captivity has not violated the Torah by not eating in the Succa on the 15th night of Tishrei, because circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill those mitzvot. Sadly, a person without arms cannot fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin shel yad like a blind person cannot recite Kiddush Levana. One who will die unless he consumes non-kosher food must eat non-kosher food. All are exempt by G-d from fulfilling these commandments because of the situation forced upon them. A license to sin because of tendencies that cannot be controlled is far removed from this concept.

Indeed, a person is only considered an “anoos” after he has made every possible effort to fulfill a mitzvah or avoid its violation – every possible effort. And even then, if he cannot fulfill the commandment, he has to be overcome with regret and sorrow, much like Moshe was when told he could not enter the land of Israel even though he desired to perform the commandments tied to the land. But wasn’t he prevented by G-d and therefore not obligated in those mitzvot? Yes, and so the Alter of Kelm noted that we learn from Moshe that even an “anoos” has to be distressed about his failure to follow G-d’s will (see Rav Menashe Klein’s Mishneh Halachot 17:189, at the end). Again, this was an inability to fulfill positive commandments; a permanent license to engage in a capital prohibition was never contemplated in the absence of any external coercive element.

There are grounds that support the notion that someone who is mentally ill and cannot control himself is not liable for his actions – because “ones rachmana patrei.” It is analogous to the insanity defense familiar in secular law. But there is no indication that the concept of “ones rachmana patrei” is being employed here in this sense, and, as we know, such an assertion in this context would be the epitome of political incorrectness.

Bringing comfort to troubled souls is one of the essential tasks of the rabbinate but to do so by distorting or fudging the Torah’s prohibitions is self-defeating and ultimately destructive. The Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 75a) tells the distressing tale of a man who developed an obsession with a particular woman, such that the doctors said he would die if he did not sin with her. The Sages brusquely prohibited even a private conversation between the two, much less anything more risqué. They did not seek to rationalize his desires because of “ones rachmana patrei.”

To my thinking, a homosexual who cannot alter his behavior but remains chaste because of his religious commitment and faith is absolutely heroic, a role model for all. Perhaps today we lack such role models but at one time we had them. Yosef withstood the blandishments of Potifar’s wife notwithstanding all the good reasons (even some with religious overtones) that rang in his ears, and even though he wound up incarcerated for more than a decade as a result of his demurral. That is strength of character. Yosef is the exemplar of the Jew who is caught in the throes of sensual passion and does not succumb (Masechet Yoma 35b). Boaz refrained from committing any lascivious acts with Ruth, even though it could have been rationalized on some level. And both personalities pale before the superhuman willpower of Palti who did not touch his own wife because of his fear that she was still technically married to David. (I have simplified somewhat; see Masechet Sanhedrin 19b for the details.) Those who can harness the energy of an unquenchable passion and remain faithful to G-d are awe-inspiring. “Let those who love Him be like the powerfully rising sun” (Shoftim 5:31).

Rabbis should be encouraging fidelity to Torah. Rabbis should be teaching Jews about the virtues of self-control and moderation as the keys to faith and happiness. We need not pander to the young generation as if it is hopelessly degenerate and dissolute, as if they can never truly surrender to G-d’s will. Such is the death of Torah and the irrelevance of the rabbinate. Such is the evisceration of the function of Judaism throughout our history. A Jew is called upon to sacrifice; no one was poorer than Hillel (Masechet Yoma 35b) and yet he continued his Torah study in poverty. We would not say “ones rachmana patrei” for Jews who felt compelled to work on Shabbat a century ago (and some even today); commitment to Torah requires sacrifice and that sacrifice is asked of all of us in different ways.

It is disingenuous to claim that Halacha is pluralistic, in the modern sense that there is no one truth. The Talmud characterizes the disputes between the schools of Shamai and Hillel as “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim,” “these and those are the words of the living G-d,” but then concludes that a heavenly echo decreed “the law is according to the house of Hillel.” Yes, there was finality, as there is overwhelming decisiveness and consensus in halacha; it is not an intellectual or spiritual free-for-all. “Anything” does not go. The disputes are always along the margins, in the details of some of the laws and customs. The consensus that dominates halachic practice in the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, Taharat Hamishpacha, Tefila, and other areas is what unites the Torah world. The differences are mostly nuances that have endured for centuries and does at all impinge on our capacity to pray, eat, learn and live together. We can debate how long to wait between meat and milk but not whether a cheeseburger is kosher.

There is a real danger that people will construe themselves as “coerced” by their internal natures – and molest, steal, murder, cheat, gossip and breach all the norms of Torah because, after all, that was the nature with which they were born and, according to modern notions, they are not expected to control and refine. We all are subject to sin, and we all must exercise discretion in not seeking to pry into people’s private lives and judging them accordingly. But it is far better to sin out of lust (and sincerely repent and then stop) than to sin intellectually by writing out of the Torah one or more of its prohibitions. The former is a human being beset by frailties, like all of us; the latter is a heretic.

Similarly, what a rabbi might advise an individual in private is not necessarily appropriate for an entire group or for readers of a newspaper. In fact, sensitivity to the individual is much more important than sensitivity to a group, notwithstanding the modern obsession with “group identity.” It is the individual who deserves our attention, respect, sympathy, not the group with which he identifies or who claims her as an adherent. But our sensitivities and sensibilities should never be projected onto G-d and can never replace the Torah. All we know of G-d’s will is what He told us, and that is what makes the Jewish people special, unique and worthy of His protective hand. We modify, reform or modernize His word and His morality at our peril.

I am saddened by the reality of people suffering with the allure of sin and illicit desire as I am by the implications of a distortion of Torah law. Jews in this situation deserve our sympathy and our help, but also our honesty. And if rabbis do not preach G-d’s values, and do not speak the language of right and wrong, permissible and forbidden, then who will?