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?

 

 

 

The Tribal Order

The nation of Israel was not formed as one bloc but rather divided into twelve different tribes with a common mandate and destiny. Such was noticed by the heathen prophet Bil’am who lifted his eyes “and saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes” (Bamidbar 24:2). It impressed him so much that he uttered words that accompany our daily entry in shul: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, and your sanctuaries, Israel.” What exactly did Bil’am see in our tents that was so “good”?

Rashi comments that Bil’am saw Israel dwelling according to our tribal formation, and he perceived that “each tribe [was] living by itself and not commingling, and that the entrances to their tents were not aligned so one person could not look into the home of his neighbor.” Such a nation he deemed worthy of having the Divine presence rest on it.

A few verses later, Rashi reiterates that Bil’am noticed that our tent entrances were not aligned, and perhaps there are two different points being made. One response was engendered by the tribal formation and the other by our tents. The entrances to the tents were not aligned for purposes of modesty and privacy. Too often people are tempted to find out what’s going on in someone else’s house; thus, this safeguard was enacted. Jewish law prescribes where we are allowed to build doors, windows, balconies and the like so as not to encroach on the privacy rights of others. We let others invite us in; we don’t intrude or insert ourselves where we do not belong. That is the definition of the “good tent.”

But Bil’am also saw us dwelling according to our tribes, each tribe to itself, and each entrance staggered so we don’t peer into the next tent. This is not modesty but propriety and broadmindedness. To peer into someone else’s tent means to scrutinize their conduct, to search for the slightest non-conformity, to seek out and highlight the differences, especially the failures or departures from the norm, that very often and improperly agitate and perturb us a little too much. The point is that all Jews are not the same. We were not formed as a linear, one-dimensional nation. If we were, then we wouldn’t dwell in tribes, and we would have our “entrances aligned,” all Jewish homes would look alike, sound alike and act alike. And that is not so and has never been so. We are a nation of tribes.

Among the most hollow, vacuous and pointless expressions we hear again and again is the call for unity. It sounds good – but unity occurred only happened at Sinai when we received the Torah. Indeed, if we were meant to have an imposed unity on the Jewish people, we would not have been divided into twelve tribes, nor would it be praiseworthy that Bil’am “saw that all the tribes lived apart and did not mingle.” We would all have to live together, do the same things in the same way, and never deviate. But each tribe has its own path and we glorify our own path and dismiss others out of ignorance. In effect, there are twelve paths to G-d, and each tribe represents a different one. I cannot emphasize enough that I am not referring to halacha here. The opposite is true. Every legitimate path – bar none – has to be faithful to Jewish law. But to think that there is only one way, or even that my way is necessarily better, holier or closer to G-d’s will, is a mistake. And so we are told not to “peer into the tent of our neighbors.”

This requires further explanation, so here is an example. In Israel today, there is a revolution taking place in the Charedi world, what is being called the rise of the “Charedi middle class.” There always were wealthy Charedim who subsidized most of the rest – but now there is a middle class that today has its own organizations, culture, websites and publications. They are more at home in general society even while not fully partaking of it. There is a multi-million dollar industry of advertising to the Charedi community, now that there are Charedi consumers who work (more than 50% of Charedi men of working age now work) and spend their earnings as they wish. Communities evolve.

I recently read an article on this phenomenon, and the author noted that when R. Simcha Elberg (longtime editor of Hapardes) visited Bnai Brak for the first time in the 1960’s, he dubbed it the “olam hachumros,” the world of stringencies. He did not mean it pejoratively as some people might take it, but descriptively, a world that chooses the most stringent interpretations of halacha in every aspect of life because they choose to limit their interactions with the rest of society. But he notes that traditional Jewry was never like that; it is something unique.

Is that approach wrong or a distortion of the true Torah? No; it’s just different. That’s a tribe, even if it’s not my particular tribe.  We have room for a tribe of machmirim who deserve our respect even if others choose a different way – and as long as they also realize there are different ways within halacha (and, again, I am not at all referring to the neo-Cons who proclaim themselves Orthodox but deviate from Orthodoxy in law, practice and ideology because of their absorption of modernist and non-Jewish trends). It is not better to be stringent, just like it is not better to be lenient. Halacha is case and fact sensitive, but even more importantly each religious grouping is just a different tribe.

It has been noted frequently that Mizrachi communities always studied Torah differently than in Ashkenazi communities, and halachic norms and emphases were also different. The Israeli Charedi is markedly different from the American Charedi, just as the American ModO increasingly has less and less in common with the Israeli dati leumi. These are all tribes of Israel.

One thing that we have learned over the course of history is that the religious eco-system is very finely balanced. You pull a little too much here and something unravels there, which is part of the Lakewood problem we are dealing with these days. If the only goal is Torah study, then you might tend to cut corners somewhere else in order to sustain it. If a college or higher education is deemed evil and unacceptable, thereby impairing one’s earning potential, money for self-sustenance will have to be acquired in some other fashion. On the other hand, if Torah study is not a primary value at all, then there is a tendency to cut corners somewhere else and our minds become littered with Western, non-Torah values that we talk ourselves into thinking are Torah values. And when college or higher education is perceived as a value in its own right, and not simply as a means to earning a living or gaining a broader perspective on life, there is no shortage of Jewish souls that have been lost treading that path. College attendance poses risks if you go and if you don’t go, unless you remain in a Yeshiva environment and that too is not a panacea.

Similarly, Lakewood may possess one set of problems but it is unlikely their rabbis are often asked, for example, about the propriety of attending intermarriages or same-sex marriages, a phenomenon to which some ModO rabbis, to their discredit, are increasingly amenable. That, too, is a price paid for indulging the modern culture and ethos.

Since there is no perfect system, we all have to learn from each other. Jews who mock the foibles of any group are really mocking themselves, a most distasteful, self-defeating and even masochistic tendency. Each tribe, like each individual, is a different composite of virtues and vices, of mitzvot and aveirot. No one is perfect – and that is why it is wrong and frivolous, even arrogant, to peer into someone else’s tent and demand that he conform to my standard, my stringency or my leniency. We are twelve tribes. There are tribes that emphasize Torah study, prayer, acts of kindness, modesty, public service, settlement, military service or the like, and historically it was always like this. Some people need stringencies to survive spiritually while others would be crushed by them, just like there are some who could benefit from a stringency or two but don’t embrace them because they are too comfortable in their spiritual skins, are at peace with their flaws, or often assume incorrectly that what they perceive as a “stringency” is actually the essential law.

To say that everyone has to be like me or like us is as foolish as saying there’s nothing we can learn from any other tribe. All are wrong. Each person must dwell under the banner of his tribe but all the tribes have to reflect fidelity to Torah. Our entrances are not aligned so that if we peer into someone else’s tent, our perspective is necessarily skewed. One comment of Rashi refers to modesty in our interpersonal relations but the other refers to the mutual respect and tolerance that all Torah Jews in all our different groupings – Ashkenaz and Mizrachi, Yeshivish and non-Yeshivish – and, indeed, all Jews, must have so we can grow together, learn from each other and strengthen each other.

And of our brothers and sisters who have rejected Torah and Mitzvot and created ideologies that rationalize their non-observance and, these days, defend even intermarriage, assimilation and opposition to Jewish rights in the land of Israel? Those who are still halachic Jews are part of the Jewish people but I fear for their future. Their numbers are dwindling even as their proclamations and threats become shriller. Are they, too, a tribe? I think not; it would be awkward to define a tribe of Israel as non-observant deniers of Torah, Mesorah and sometimes even G-d’s existence. But they are certainly part of the existing tribes, albeit less faithful and committed. They must find the leadership and the inner will that bring them back to Torah observance and full participation in Jewish life, and perceive themselves as valued members of the great odyssey of the Jewish people rather than as a bridgehead for the reformation of Judaism according to Western and secular values. That has undeniably been a road to oblivion. Witnessing it should evoke in us tears of anguish and openness to outreach and acceptance.

It is not unity that the Jewish people require but rather love – love of each other because of our diversity and not despite it, love of each other as individuals and as one nation that transcends our differences and even our flaws. Sin’at Chinam (baseless hatred), the Netziv wrote, is hatred for another because he is slightly different than you. Such hatred destroyed the Beit Hamikdash and has prolonged our exile. Ahavat Yisrael is the cure for all that ails us.

In so doing, the world will again look at us and admire our tents, our diversity and our common objective of bringing glory to G-d and His Torah and we will usher the world itself into the era of complete redemption.

The New Sadducees

How have the Jewish people arrived at a situation where even the Kotel Hamaaravi, the Western retaining wall of the ancient Temple and the site adjacent to the holiest place in Judaism, should be the source of acrimony and strife among Jews?

The latest contrived controversy was fomented by the government’s withdrawal of an ill-fated plan to formally recognize the southern part of the Kotel as a place for non-Orthodox, mixed prayer services for those Jews who have rejected tradition. Those who have attempted to make the change of decision (back to the status quo!) into a cause célèbre are surely aware but for their own purposes ignore the fact that the same area has been used for non-Orthodox prayer services for several years already. The issue seems to be that the area in question (to the south of the Mugrabi Gate and in front of Robinson’s Arch) has its own entrance and the Reform leadership wants an entrance from the main plaza rather than a separate entrance.

One would not be wrong in concluding, as Naphtali Bennett has said, that the whole tumult is over a door – and where that door should be located. Of course, the Reform leaders are also seeking official recognition of their status. Nevertheless, since the designated area has been sparsely used since its opening – it sits vacant and unused for days at a time, such being the commitment of the non-Orthodox to daily prayer – one would also not be wrong in concluding that the Reform desperately need a controversy to keep their money flowing in, the passions of their declining membership inflamed, and interest in their movement from dissipating altogether. And this is that controversy, and soon they will find another, because the long term projections of their survival are not promising.

There are many people who have concluded – and it is a very American approach in honor of the Fourth of July – that a “live and let live” religious compromise is most appropriate. As Thomas Jefferson wrote while drafting the Virginia statute on religious freedom, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Many people felt “out of sight, out of mind, do whatever you want to do, and just don’t bother me.” There is some merit to that argument.

Yet, we are talking here about the precincts of the Holy Temple, the area closest to the holiest place in Judaism – the Temple Mount itself. There is an obligation of “guarding the Mikdash;” we don’t say “anything goes” in the Mikdash. And even Jefferson’s liberal views on religious freedom do not give me the right to erect a shtiebel in Times Square; there are other concerns and considerations afoot. For sure, other religions protect their holy sites and it is considered uncouth and unseemly to deviate from the norms of those places. Only Muslims are allowed to even enter Mecca, much less worship at the Grand Mosque and it is inconceivable that the Vatican would allow Protestant services in St. Peter’s Square. The pertinent analogy here is really to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where all the Christian denominations fight over inches of space and zealously protect their turf.

Is that what we want for the Kotel? Invariably, if non-Orthodox services at this site are formally recognized, there would be demands within a year or two that the main Kotel plaza permit this alien worship service as well. I can write their brief: their assigned area is separate but unequal, they are relegated to the back of the bus, they are receiving second class treatment, etc. And the High Court would hear the case and rule against Jewish tradition as it nearly always does. But this is the Kotel, and for those who believe in God’s existence it is a special place and not just a tourist site of historical interest.

Obviously, mixed prayer services conflict with the sanctity of the place. Those neo-Conservatives and others who point to the absence of a mechitzah at the Kotel for centuries as justification for leniency today are unknowingly referencing a time when the Kotel was not under Jewish sovereignty and the Jewish people suffered under the yoke of foreign occupiers of the land of Israel. Is that how we should view modern Israel – as no different than when the Mamluks ruled the place? I think not. It is also mystifying and disconcerting that there are organizations that aspire to leadership that instead  choose to take “no position” on these matters, preferring hackneyed calls for unity rather than unequivocally defending the Torah. Imagine if Moshe, in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, had cried out not “Mi LaHashem Eilai?” (“Whoever is for G-d, follow me”) but rather “Why can’t we all just get along?” That is the modern approach but the Jewish people and the Torah world deserve better than that.

And there is the profound irony that the very law of the separation of the sexes during prayer is derived from what took place on the Temple Mount itself! The non-Orthodox, in effect, are insisting on their right to pray adjacent to the place that teaches that their preferred form of worship is a violation of Jewish law. Alas, the irony and the transgression are lost on them. Perhaps basic tolerance requires first respecting the sensitivities of those Jews who still pray daily for the rebuilding of the Temple and whose faith and tenacity regarding Jewish tradition maintained the Jewish people’s connection to Zion during the centuries of exile.

Even sadder is this. A few years ago, Rabbi Berel Wein wrote a short but insightful book entitled “Patterns in Jewish History.” It is uncanny how nothing ever changes in Jewish life except the names and places. The same arguments we have today – within Orthodoxy, with the non-Orthodox, and with non-Jews – we have had since the beginning of Jewish history. We fight over the same things – Israel, the Mesorah, secular education, women, mysticism, work, etc. Again and again the patterns return, and there is nothing new under the sun.

And so it is. It occurred to me while in Israel last week that we are re-living the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were wealthy, influential and Hellenized, and they made the Temple the focus of their activities and their doctrinal deviations. The Reform movement is similarly wealthier on average than other groups of Jews, fancy themselves influential (although, as we will see, the extent of their influence is grossly exaggerated), Americanized, and they are now focused after decades of indifference on claiming a share of the Temple Mount environs. Of course, history never repeats itself precisely and no analogy is perfectly apt. Both the Sadducees and the Reform denied and rejected the Oral Torah, but unlike Reform, the Sadducees at least believed in the divine origin of the written Torah. And the Sadducees disappeared right after the destruction of the Temple because they had nothing else going for them. They were severed from tradition, from the community of faithful Jews and they had lost their Roman patrons.

The Reform movement is in a free fall, and none of this is any cause for rejoicing. We are losing these Jews in astounding numbers. As the Talmud states, one sin engenders another sin. Removing the mechitzah didn’t drive people to the temples but away from them. Abandoning Hebrew in prayer and other mitzvot further undid the connection of Reform Jews to the Jewish people. Relaxing conversion standards didn’t stop intermarriage but encouraged it and then made conversion into a farce. They then made their peace with intermarriage but permitted patrilineal descent for Jewish status when even diluted conversion was too much. One departure from tradition led to another until today when even belief in G-d is optional in the Reform movement. Anywhere from 30-50% of Reform members today are not even halachically Jewish and, as such, is in no position to dictate to the Jewish world about anything.

The conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees went on for several centuries with occasional and horrendous bloodshed. Thousands were killed on both sides, and one glimmer of good news is that such will never happen in these modern tiffs. But the sad truth is that Reform is disappearing before our eyes, just like the Sadducees did. Their numbers are dwindling and are already inflated. Official membership is low, active membership is even lower, and many who respond to surveys identifying themselves as “Reform” do so as the default classification for those who are totally non-observant. Their power and influence are gone even on the American scene.

Here’s another sad truth: Israel doesn’t need Reform as much as Reform needs Israel. That’s why their threats to withdraw political and financial support are such a bluff.  The Reform movement is essentially a wing of the Democrat Party, now the party of opposition that itself has fallen on hard times. It has little sway with the ruling authorities. Congressional support for Israel is rooted in the justice of our claims and the backing of Christian evangelicals, not the Jews, and the Reform movement has, in fact, been consistent critics of Israel for many years. Indeed, support for Israel is the only aspect of Reform that resembles anything uniquely Jewish; without Israel, Reform is just social justice with holidays and one need not be Jewish to fight for social justice. And much of the money sent by Reform members to Israel supports organizations that are really inimical to the true needs and values of the Jewish state.

To condition their support for Israel on changing the status quo is cynical, even if it were credible. The Reform movement needs Israel, without which their vanishing from the Jewish stage will be hastened. Similarly, they need to build up the Orthodox (Charedim or otherwise) as the enemy; it’s good for business. But I don’t identify as “ultra-Orthodox,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most religious-Zionist rabbis also support the government’s decision and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and many others have simply tired of the blackmail to which the non-Orthodox have resorted for some time whenever some issue does not go their way.

And what they need most is something we all need: to acknowledge G-d and His Torah and to surrender to His will. We don’t submit G-d’s law to our scrutiny or approval nor do we sit in judgment of the Creator. Those who deign to sit in judgment of G-d have historically been on the fast track to their own disappearance. Until they learn to surrender to G-d and make His will their will, they will go the way of the Sadducees. That is the lesson of history – for them and for us. It is a sobering thought that we have seen before this movie of the assimilation and disappearance of large numbers of Jews, and we know how it ends. And we also know how it can be stopped. But that will take great people to admit that their path has been misguided, to return to tradition, and make their contributions to Jewish life and the world in a way that is faithful to the Torah that is the heritage of all of us.

Just leave the Kotel alone.

The God Squad

To get right to the point, the obsession with the level of religious observance of the Kushner couple is unseemly, repugnant, embarrassing, and a poor reflection on the critics who are oblivious to the gross violations of Halacha they themselves are committing. Regarding the celebrity couple, every morsel they consume, every outfit they wear, every word they utter and every Shabbat or holiday they observe is accompanied by the intense scrutiny of busybodies whose own knowledge of halachic methodology ranges from woefully inadequate to utterly non-existent. They deserve better, as do the Jewish people and the world., and they should be left alone.

If the couple would suddenly announce that they are no longer “Orthodox” because they find too many Orthodox Jews narrow-minded, provincial, intolerant and judgmental, I, for one, would not blame them. Of course, they have too much class to do that, and in any event, it is foolhardy to eschew the Torah and G-d’s service because of the depredations of some Jews. Fortunately, most of the nitpicking has come not from our world (some has, to our dismay) but from the general universe of Trump haters. The critics generally fall into three categories:  Jews who pretend they are defending G-d’s honor, inveterate Trump haters, and the general media.

The shallowness of the media is unsurprising and therefore not disappointing. But the first category is most troubling – those religious Jews, whoever they may be, who sit back, smirking and smug, passing judgment on the religiosity of others and determining who is or isn’t in the fold, as they see it.

These self-styled guardians of the faith and keepers of the flame – the God Squad – should be aware of the number of violations, sins and misdemeanors that they are committing: lashon hara and rechilut (disparaging talk without any benefit), failure to judge another person favorably, failure to love another Jew, desecration of G-d’s Name,  distorting the Torah, tormenting a convert and failure to show extra love for a convert, inappropriate rebuking of another Jew, not judging another person until you stand in their place, and others. Perhaps they should look in the mirror before gazing out their window at others.

Another group consists of those who despise all things Trump, have lost all sense of reason and balance, and hold everyone in the Trump camp to impossible standards of conduct and even decrying the permissible as forbidden and unprecedented. (E.g., Trump revealed classified information (!) and created a “back channel” (!) to another country! Well, yes, like every administration has had since the beginning of the Republic.) This group’s animus finds its way into the two shrillest sets of critics: the general media and the secular Jewish press.

The general media can be forgiven their ignorance of Torah, Halacha, and the arcana of Jewish observance. As the modern media is overwhelmingly secular and often anti-religious in outlook and practice, the information at its disposal is limited and their knowledge of the facts necessarily superficial. “Car or plane + Shabbat = bad” is the simplest equation and some Jews get dispensations if they know the right people and are important enough. That’s about the extent of their knowledge. One cannot expect any deeper understanding from the general media.

Sadly, this does not apply to the secular Jewish press. As Jews, they are obligated to study Torah, understand it, practice it and honor it. But their ignorance of Torah is breathtaking and as simplistic as that of the general media. They are more affronted, apparently, by the nuances of some possible rabbinic prohibitions than by any number of gross violations of Torah prohibitions that they routinely celebrate. The litany of sins endorsed, the disparagement of the Torah, and the desecration of G-d’s Name engendered thereby, are of no concern at all. This is despicable and outrageous.

A brief primer on the methodology of Jewish law might be helpful to the layman. Judaism has no system of allowances, indulgences or dispensations. What we do have is a sophisticated system of law and custom that govern our lifestyle that often results in a variety of rabbinic opinions on some issues owing to the disparate intellects G-d granted us. Additionally, the competing values that present themselves in a particular case can often result in different answers being propounded to different people on facts that are similar but not identical. By way of analogy, two people can have the exact same illness and yet the doctor might prescribe two different drugs to those people. Why, you ask? (The media would just blaze the headline: “Doctor prescribes different medication to patients with SAME illness!!”)

The answer is that every question is asked in a certain context, and that context reflects the competing values. Some of the competing values that can intrude on what might seem to the layman to be a straightforward question of “do or don’t” or “permissible or forbidden,” are the potential or actual threat to life or well-being, the avoidance of a great financial loss, the respect we owe other human beings, the public (versus the private) need, an intimate relationship with the governing authorities, the honor of Heaven, biblical v. rabbinic prohibitions, active violations v. passive violations, and a host of others.

One would think that with the establishment of the State of Israel and the ongoing integration of halachic norms into the daily rhythms of a modern state that even secular Jews would develop a greater awareness of how Halacha accommodates the needs of a modern state in an open and natural way. The provision of necessary services does not end when Shabbat starts. It didn’t stop even in ancient times. It is a denigration of Halacha to suggest that a modern Torah state cannot function in the absence of non-Jews or not-yet-religious Jews to provide those services – military, police, diplomatic, medical, nursing, electricity, etc. This should be obvious. Already in ancient times the Sages permitted defending the border on Shabbat against incursions of marauders who came for property and not to take life, as maintenance of the Jewish polity is itself another implicit value. A Jew need not accept being robbed or burglarized every Shabbat even when there is no threat to life or limb. Jewish soldiers and police officers are dispatched to protect streets and parks on Shabbat; we don’t demand that all Jews stay home so as not to require security. These are not violations of Shabbat but actually the fulfillment of the Shabbat laws.

I do not know all the facts and circumstances of the halachic questions that were (or weren’t) asked in the matters herein but nothing I have seen or heard sounds implausible to anyone with knowledge of halacha who lives in the real world and recognizes how halacha applies in that real world. There are some observant physicians who engage in far greater violations of Shabbat on a weekly basis than anything that has happened to our protagonists here, and with less justification, although by no means does that apply to every observant physician.

Every legal system encounters conflicts of laws and values, and all contain mechanisms by which those conflicts are resolved; certainly, Halacha does. Only a person who dwells in an ivory tower and is detached from the arena of activity imagines that real life is free of such tensions. It is important to note that such resolutions are not always uniform – in any legal system – and will often vary based on the slightest difference in facts. That is why Jews are required to ask qualified experts how those conflicts should be resolved and different Jews can get different answers from different rabbis to what seem to be the exact same questions. Those rabbis whose lives are dedicated to the study of Torah and service of the people of G-d are best suited to answer those questions, not the self-styled God Squad.

If the nitpicking and backstabbing weren’t bad enough, the religious critics are unwittingly positing that a full Torah life is inconsistent with a modern state, which is itself a disparagement of the Torah. They might be waiting for Moshiach without realizing that the same issues will exist in Messianic times. Thus the differences in halachic treatment for individuals as individuals and individuals who are serving a public role as well.

We should start minding our own business and worry first about our own piety and practice. “Adorn (i.e., perfect) yourself and after that adorn others” (Bava Metzia 107b). It is very timely and sagacious advice. And this has less to do with one’s feelings about this President and his family than it does with how we show our love for G-d, Torah and our fellow Jews.  These issues transcend the couple in question and apply to many people in sundry communities, and religious Jews especially should be mindful of the pejorative image that can be created through untoward hypercriticism.

Rather than be condescending, vindictive and sanctimonious, we should be supportive, understanding and tolerant. Let us leave the former to the media. The ways of our Torah are the paths of pleasantness, peace and mutual respect.

Isru Trump

In Israel this week, the rejoicing over the 50th anniversary of the liberation and unification of Yerushalayim amounted to a three-day celebration when combined with the two-day visit to Israel of President Trump that served as a welcome introduction. Of course, there is nothing that can make everyone happy. A cabdriver on Tuesday complained to me that the Trump shutdown of large parts of the city cost him business and cut into his income. A different cabdriver on Wednesday told me how much he enjoyed the Trump visit because there was less traffic when and where he could drive and so he benefited from the extended menucha (rest) during these days. Different strokes for different folks.

The visit itself was one that delighted healthy Israelis and thinking Jews. The change in tone from the Obama years was stark; Obama waited five years to visit Israel as president, and when he came he lectured, hectored, criticized and attempted to demean Israel’s government. Would Hillary Clinton have doubled down on Obama’s pro-Arab tilt or been the first president to visit the Kotel, as Donald Trump became this week?  The Trump visit unended the hoary shibboleths of the American diplomacy that is wedded to orchestrating another partition of Israel and engendering a second Arab state on the biblical land of Israel, not because it will produce peace but another high-profile signing ceremony.

Trump’s visit, and his kind, thoughtful and endearing words about Israel, reversed the trajectory of Israel-United States relations in a New York minute. The proof of the different approach and its success were worn on the lugubrious faces of Israel’s most leftist TV political commentators who toiled in vain to find something to criticize in PM Netanyahu’s statecraft and any – any – evidence that Trump supports their cherished two-state illusion. Alas, the good spirit engendered by the visit depressed them even more, and a number seemed downright angry.

What is the Trump approach to the conflict in the Middle East? It is to build on the only positive, though unintended, foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama: the budding cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms to fight radical Islamic terror and especially the nefarious influence of Iran. In Riyadh, President Trump mentioned Israel several times while speaking to 50 Arab and Muslim political leaders, and none of them walked out or threw their shoes at him. The roof of the venue also did not collapse. Apparently it is clear to them that the Jewish state is the least of the problems that threaten their autocracies.

The most marked change, and the one that had right-wingers buzzing, was what Trump didn’t say. Not only did he omit the conventional non-wisdom that the conflict in Israel is the core of all problems in the Middle East but he also failed to mouth the words “two-states.” It was so shocking, given the last decade’s obsession, that when I informed my barber of what had transpired, he was stunned, deliriously so. It’s the type of platitude that people of a certain bent have been thoughtlessly expressing for so many years that its absence was the story, along with Trump’s lecture to Palestinian “President” Mahmoud Abbas (now in the tenth year of a four-year term) that he must immediately halt funding terror and subsidizing terrorist families to be taken seriously as a negotiating partner.

To be sure, Trump burned no bridges and credit must go to him and his advisors who crafted his speeches. He acknowledged Abbas as “a partner for peace,” even though that is absurd, because Trump has as much influence in selecting the leaders of the “Palestinians” as do the Palestinians. It was a “nothing to lose” throwaway line. But Trump, in his speech to Israelis at the Israel Museum, became the first president in memory to acknowledge the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel as rooted in the Bible and not just a consequence of the Holocaust. The latter – an Obama construct that was harmful to Israel – reduced Israel’s claim to the land as based on security needs only. That raised the expectation that Israel would surrender the Jewish heartland as long as its existence and safety were guaranteed, on paper of course. It is about time the world recognized that, as someone said last week, saying that Jews have no claim to Judea is as ridiculous as claiming that Arabs have no right to Arabia.

No wonder Abbas looked so grim, like a man who was told that the jig is up, notwithstanding that, tragically, Abbas always has the terror jig to fall back on, G-d forbid. Old habits die hard, but he should also recognize that it doesn’t seem that this administration will handcuff any Israeli response to renewed Arab terror. Some right-wingers were disappointed that Trump did not move the US embassy to Yerushalayim. But readers of this space know that I have long maintained that the Israelis – including the current government – do not really want the embassy moved, despite all their protestations to the contrary.  The possible fallout does not outweigh the advantages. I disagree; symbols do matter, and American recognition that Yerushalayim is Israel’s capital – something endorsed by the Czech Parliament this week, in defiance of the European Union’s mendacity – would send a powerful message to the world, especially the Arab world.

More importantly, Trump paid obeisance to the “peace process” and the “negotiations” and “getting to the deal,” while knowing full well that none of this will happen. It is a wise decision and one that will drive batty the professional peace processors at Foggy Bottom and their European counterparts. It seems that he has been told, or realized on his own, that a true settlement is not possible, and getting involved will only expend his energy on futility, waste his time and sap his strength. It happened to his predecessors. He said, in essence, “You two have a problem but I know that a solution can be found. I really want one. So work it out amongst yourselves, and I’ll be happy to help along the way.” One can hear an echo of Jim Baker mocking Israel in front of Congress in 1991, reading out the White House phone number and saying “call us when you’re serious about peace.” Well, now the sandal is on the other foot, and Trump is saying this to Israelis (for whom the status quo is working out quite well) and the Arabs who dwell in the land of Israel (who, aside from the terrorists and the political class) also much prefer to be ruled and protected by Israel than by the PA: “Good luck and please keep in touch. I have more important things to deal with.” And he does.

It is always possible that events and insidious individuals will overtake even his good intentions. There is an entrenched bureaucracy that has been trying to frustrate his agenda, as ill-defined as that sometimes is, and that bureaucracy can be found in every federal department. The American government is polarized to the point of dysfunction. The solitary bi-partisan objective is reelection and that sustains the political class. The media focus on trivia and foolishness; Russia tried to influence the US election as much as the US tries to influence the elections in every democracy that matters, including several times in Israel. The obvious is being trumpeted as malicious, astonishing and unprecedented. Most ominous: the intelligence agencies are compromised by a disgust for Trump that has some leaking classified information in violation of the law, daring someone to arrest them. Those who think the FBI is beyond destroying a president should recall the deeds of Mark Felt. Any of these could force Trump’s hand. A reversion to the days of coercion, condescension and hostility to Israel is unlikely but not impossible.  Trump, an outsider, may yet tame the Blob, as the Washington foreign policy establishment is known, or the Blob may yet consume him.

The two days of Trump were a wonderful prelude to Yom Yerushalayim – which some Israelis called “Isru Trump.” His words were a useful exercise in legitimating the world view of most Israelis and validating their sense of purpose and Israel’s reason for being. And that was followed by the celebrations that were a timely reminder that the divine miracles of 1967 are bearing fruit. Yerushalayim is thriving, the Kotel was hopping, Israel is more secure and prosperous than ever and as several commentators noted this week, the Western Wall is not Judaism’s holiest site but is adjacent to Judaism’s holiest site, which is the Temple Mount itself. No one spoke in those terms, as recently as a few months ago, but that has nothing to do with Trump.

It has been fifty years, and one prays that the best is yet to come, and not that far off, “today, if you but hearken to My voice” (Sanhedrin 98a).

 

 

Birth of the Eternal Nation

The Pesach Hagadah is dedicated almost exclusively, certainly in the first half, to the redemption from Egypt. Passages that do not quite fit this narrative were not universally recited, like, for example, Dayyenu (yes, that is hard to imagine) or the accounts of the miracles at the Red Sea. But one section seemingly does not relate at all to the Exodus, and yet appears in every Hagadah: V’hi she’amdah. “And this has stood by our forefathers and us; for not only has one enemy risen against us to destroy us but rather in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” It is a remarkable passage that should cause us to reflect on the eternity of the Jewish people. Individual Jews, and even large numbers of Jews, have suffered inordinately, but the Jewish nation miraculously endures and thrives. Yet, this passage also does not mention the Exodus at all. So why is it recited – and immediately before we begin our discussion of the events of the Exodus?

Last year, Natan Sharansky celebrated the 30th anniversary of his release from the Gulag after nine years in prison. As reported by the acclaimed journalist, Yedidya Meir, at the dinner of gratitude Sharansky made at the time (as he does every year on the date of his release, Rosh Chodesh Adar)  he told the following story. Over a decade ago, Sharansky was invited by President Bush to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, and the speakers that morning – politicians, celebrities, etc. – were asked to relate the event in their lives where they most felt God’s presence. Christians call it “bearing witness.”

All the stories were inspirational, some led to born-again moments in their lives, but all followed the same basic pattern. Some shared a low moment when they felt God’s presence lift them up, and others spoke about a dramatic moment when they felt divine intervention saved their lives. A fighter pilot related that a malfunction caused his engines to fail and he was plunging to earth – and he felt a heavenly force just intervene, restart his engines for no explicable reason, as if there was some superior force above him.

When it came time for Sharansky to speak, he said that Jews look at these experiences differently. We look for God’s presence not in the life of the individual but in the life of the nation, i.e., what God does for us as a people. (Sharansky knew well that not everyone present that morning was a lover of Israel.)

He told the audience that you – all Bible-believing Christians – know of the Jews enslaved in Egypt, and how Pharaoh refused to free them, and the plagues, the miracles, and the Red Sea. It was God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm that redeemed us from Egypt and founded our nation.

But not long ago – just a few years ago – there was a mighty evil empire that intimidated the entire world. And everyone was afraid to challenge them. Nations sought accommodation, détente, some arrangement whereby the world would keep the peace and no one would interfere in the domestic affairs of this evil empire.

There was one small group of Jews who arose, reasserted their Jewish identity and reclaimed their membership in the Jewish nation. It was a small group at first – dozens, then hundreds, then thousands – but small compared to the gargantuan size of their enemy of whom everyone else was afraid. And then Jews across the world heard of them and rallied for them, and pressured governments, and then blow after blow was rained on the Soviet Union until it collapsed from within and the Iron Curtain fell and the Jews were liberated, again.

Everyone burst into applause, and he continued. “For Jews, that is how God manifests His presence – in the life of our nation. He reveals Himself through what happens to the Jewish people.” He then told his audience that night, that this demonstration of God’s presence in the life of the Jewish people was greater than anything anyone of them had ever experienced in their lives as individuals.

“And this has stood by our forefathers and us; for not only has one enemy risen against us to destroy us but rather in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” The template for our survival and our eternity as a people was drafted in Egypt. The divine presence stands with us in every generation. In every generation we face enemies who wish to destroy us, not just one generation with one foe, but in every generation. “And God saves us from their hands.” and gives us – and the world – another chance.

That is why V’hi she’amdah must begin our recitation of the events of the Exodus. That is the pattern from that moment and throughout history until today. And every day, but especially every Pesach, we acknowledge it, give thanks for it, and promise to live in a way that makes us worthy of it, so that the day will soon come when  we again experience divine wonders such as those that liberated us from the bondage of Egypt and we will again see God’s mighty hand and strong arm on the mountains of Zion and Jerusalem, accompanying the dawn of our redemption.

Chag kasher v’sameach to all!

 

 

The Leader Sets the Tone

(The following was published today in the Jerusalem Report.)

Is sin inevitable? We like to think not. In Parshat Vayikra, the Torah details the atonement procedures for a variety of sinners by routinely introducing the sin with the word “if.” “If the priest sins… if the entire assembly sins… if the individual sins…” (Vayikra 4:3, 13, 27). Only in reference to the ruler or king does the Torah insist on the inevitability of sin, as in “When the ruler sins” (ibid 4:22). Why must the ruler sin?

The sin of leadership is predictable.  Lord Acton famously opined: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A person entrusted with power and authority by others often internalizes a sense of his own greatness and invincibility, which is always unwarranted. Errors are covered up, and often mutate into sins and, even worse, Louis XIV’s conclusion that “I am the state.” Sin therefore becomes unavoidable, and undoubtedly the Torah employed the word “when” as a cautionary note to the prospective leader, so he should be immensely careful not to stumble, and also to engender in him at least a little humility.

Nonetheless, all leaders sin, and recent (and certainly, ancient) examples of leaders who succumb to the most pedestrian vices are so numerous as to be commonplace. The people usually are quite critical of the flaws of the leader, if only because the leader often makes decisions that displease some of them. Even if those decisions are correct, the aggrieved party still feels wrongly deprived and roundly disrespected, and decries the injustice of it all. “When” the ruler misbehaves, there will be people who take it very personally and show him little sympathy or compassion.

The great commentator Rashi highlighted the use of the word “asher” (“when”): “From the term “ashrei” (fortunate); how fortunate is the generation whose ruler takes to heart and seeks atonement for his unintentional sins, and even more for his intentional sins” (Vayikra 4:22). How fortunate indeed!

In 1987 an American president publicly admitted a mistake in a manner that has become exceedingly rare since. President Reagan spoke to the nation in the wake of the Iran-Contra Affair and began: “First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration.” In the decades since, “I take full responsibility for my own actions…” has morphed into the passive expression of “mistakes were made;” by whom and for what in particular is rarely articulated. Part of the reason for this obvious flight from personal responsibility is the 24/7 news cycle that harps on any mistake and forever hound the confessor.

A generation in which personal accountability is a cherished value will breed leaders for whom personal accountability is both natural and appreciated. Conversely, a generation that flees from personal accountability – in which individuals routinely try to camouflage their mistakes or look for others to take the fall – will produce leaders who do the same. As the Talmud states (Masechet Arachin 17a) “the leaders mirror the generation, and vice versa.”

The ability to accept personal accountability is thus a telling insight into both the individual politician’s character, and the values of his contemporaries: especially the latter. These days, where the acceptance of personal responsibility has harmful consequences, it is simply more prudent to avoid it, blame others, or change the topic. That should not be, and this weakness afflicts all of us.

The leader sets the tone for his society, and his admissions (that are just recognition of his own limitations) can influence his peers to embrace the same value. It is not only that the leader apologizes, confesses, or concedes his mistakes; it is also that he takes to heart the need for atonement. On his own he realizes the value of accountability for mistakes, and that virtue is desperately needed by all people as well.

Historically, penance was an act of greatness, and leaders who admitted their failings or insecurities were more admired by their peers for their humanity and grace. As the leader does, so do the people; as the people do, so does the leader. “When the ruler sins…” is as much a reflection of the qualities of the ruler and the inevitability of mistakes as it is on the true value system of the people he serves. The average person can avoid sin through vigilance and self-control; the leader is more vulnerable, and rightly so, as he sets the moral tone for the entire society. Knowing the leader will sin, perhaps the people can not overreact to any of his failings. The nation that encourages, even celebrates, the acceptance of personal responsibility by its leaders is a nation that knows how to pursue justice, morality and ethical perfection.