Lies to Power

Rav David Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, was our guest this past Shabbat, and his Friday night talk made abundantly clear his passionate love for every Jew regardless of station in life or level of observance. Of course, one would have naturally thought the opposite based on the tendentious, fanatical and demonstrably false story peddled by the media in the wake of the massacre of the Pittsburgh Jews HY”D, since retracted but for which no apology has yet to be offered. It is an object lesson in the current low state of the fourth estate. (i.e., the press).

The lie emerged from a misreading of an interview in Makor Rishon, utterly distorted by a writer for Haaretz known for her rabid anti-Orthodox and anti-Torah biases, and peddled by a gullible media conglomerate in America all-too-willing to besmirch rabbis.

The headline – “Rav Lau refuses to call Pittsburgh synagogue a Bet Knesset” – was simply false. As Makor Rishon reported, when its reporter tried to induce negative comments about Conservative Judaism in the wake of this horror (and how absolutely inappropriate was that?), Rav Lau responded, seemingly in shock, “Mah zeh meshaneh b’aizeh Bet Knesset oh nusach haim mitpallelim?!” – What does it matter what synagogue or text they were praying? There it was, the words “Bet Knesset,” hiding in plain sight, one might say.

The reporter persisted, trying then to extract another headline, “so you’re saying it is a Bet Knesset?” To which the follow-up question would have been: “so why doesn’t the State recognize them? Why aren’t they recognized as legitimate according to the halacha?”

This was an appalling attempt not to solicit Rav Lau’s thoughts and feelings on the murder of Jews but to focus the inquiry on the nature of the religious observance of the victims. The line of questioning was so inappropriate that Rav Lau protested – and pointed out its rudeness and irrelevance, reiterating that these people were Jews, in a publicly-identifiable Jewish place, engaging in all the formalities of prayer and seeking “closeness with G-d.” His answer was right on key to media questions that, in context, were so discordant and tasteless: taking a moment that symbolized Jewish unity and our common fate and trying to exploit it to stoke the flames of controversy and division.

But how can it be that a heartfelt identification with the murdered Jews of Pittsburgh became a dismissal of this synagogue as a synagogue and supposedly an insult to the victims?

There was a time when the primary role of journalists was to report the news. They attempted, often at great hardship, to ascertain the facts and provide those facts in a cogent narrative to the reader. That ended almost fifty years ago. Today, most journalists see their role not as reporting the news but as shaping the news. There is no objectivity; there is only an agenda that they seek to promote. They are not reporters but advocates, and the causes they advocate are so dear to them (in the Jewish world they include radical feminism, hatred of Torah, hatred of Israel, etc.) that reporting falsehoods that advance their agenda is seen as simply  a means to serve the greater good, as they perceive it.

There was a time when journalists prided themselves on their courage in speaking truth to power. Now, too many pride themselves on speaking lies to power if their personal political or religious preferences are thereby served. This is causing untold harm to society for several reasons.

People tend to believe what they see in print even if experience – especially recent experience – should have taught us otherwise. The internet is an intellectual jungle and a moral swamp. The lies that are promulgated with astonishing frequency – here is one: “the Tree of Life Congregation that Shabbat was hosting a brit milah of the offspring of two men,” a lie that caused several fringe rabbinic figures to declaim sheer foolishness – are used as click bait, to grab the eyes but also leave a deleterious imprint on the mind and soul.

A reader has to be even more skeptical about what a journalist writes than the journalist is supposed to be when interviewing a politician or public figure. Or a better idea: simply stop reading outlets or individuals who traffic in falsehoods as a matter of course.

It is as if the laws of lashon hara (evil talk) have been repealed. Classically, lashon hara is defined as information (even true) that tends to disparage another person or will cause his or her reputation to be diminished in your eyes. The public’s “right to know” is not a Torah concept or value. There are a tiny number of general exceptions to this rule –allowances for averting danger or to alerting people to potential harm in shidduchim or business – but most modern journalism is an ethical free-for-all that sees ruining people as a sport and acceptable for the cause.

Indeed, two of the complainants against Brett Kavanaugh have in recent weeks recanted and admitted that they concocted lurid accusations in order to derail his nomination and gain attention for themselves. That is bad enough, and they should be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned (which will never happen); what is worse is how the media breathlessly reported these allegations that smeared an individual only because it suited their agenda. That is a gross corruption of the freedom of the press; it is possible to have a press that is too free.

Today, it is agenda that governs, not news or facts. And the pursuit of an agenda has now induced several Knesset members to demand that the Israeli government formally recognize the non-Orthodox movements, elevate their stature, and deem them legitimate expressions of Judaism because of the events in Pittsburgh. Talk about striking while the iron is hot! But the grievous attack on our fellow Jews in Pittsburgh, one that has shaken all Jews to the core, does not change the truth of Torah one iota. There were intermarried Jews who were murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust; we do not then permit intermarriage in their memory. There were Jews who (rightly) saved their lives during the Holocaust by eating non-kosher food; that doesn’t mean we commemorate them by eating treif. It is an intellectual non sequitur but the agenda matters more than logic or the eternal truths of Torah.

The contention of these Knesset members is as farcical and publicity-driven as it is insincere. They supported recognition of the heterodox movements the day before the massacre just as much as they did the day after the massacre. So spare us the false piety, as if the murderer compels us to destroy the Torah even as he destroyed the lives of eleven Jews.

Is it possible that the halcyon days of journalism never existed? It could be that facts were always filtered through the reporter, and what was transmitted or omitted was always prejudiced by the reporter’s personal predilections. Maybe – but at least they tried to hide it and pretend they were objective. Perhaps a reporter’s byline should contain his or her top three favorite causes and voting preferences so their writings can be evaluated accordingly.

It is true, as the left often claims, that not every criticism of a leader is Fake News, but there are many criticisms that are clearly Fake News. The mere fact that the term Fake News resonates with the public reflects both its pertinence and its accuracy and underscores the problem of modern journalism.

There is a reason why many journalists (although I’m sure not all) are held in such low esteem today – lower than the President or even Congress. Most of us are still inclined to afford some credence to something that is in print (or on the screen) right in front of our eyes. But having experienced these lies myself, and having been present at events and then read media accounts that had little to do with the event I just witnessed with my own eyes and ears, I know that our initial instinct should be to doubt, disbelieve and then reject much of what we read or hear.

It will change when journalists just report the news and not try to interpret it for us. It will change when there is full disclosure of the journalists’ biases and pet causes. It will change when people stop reading, listening to or watching agenda journalism. It will change when people protest the shaming of good people and the propagation of lies, half-truths and distortions about them.

That is to say, it will not change anytime soon.  So caveat lectorum. Reader beware.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bonds of Family and Faith

The horrific murder of 11 Jews in their house of worship on Shabbat reinforced several fundamental truths about Jewish life and this, presently dysfunctional, society.

Jews share a special bond with each other that is almost incomprehensible to outsiders. It is not simply a product of the relatively small number of Jews in the world, for, as G-d, said, we were meant to be “the smallest of all the nations.” It emerges from our history – of shared mission, shared suffering, shared fate, and shared destiny. All Jews feel to our core an attack on any one of us. The massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh, like the massacre of Jews by Arab terrorists  in their synagogue in Yerushalayim several years ago, sends shock waves through our system. But even when a Jewish hiker disappears in Thailand, or a Jewish tourist is beaten in Berlin – both have occurred in the recent past – those stories become known to every Jew who follows the Jewish news. Our nation unites in prayer, resources are mustered to confront any danger or respond to any outrage, and we are on edge until the matter is resolved.
It is not only a Jewish mandate but also a truism: we have a long memory, going back to our forefathers, to Egypt and Amalek, to the two Jewish commonwealths, through the long exile that nears its end and climaxed with the Holocaust. We don’t forget. We shall never forget. And now the horrors of Pittsburgh are forever ingrained in the hearts of the Jewish people, long after the news cycle has moved on to the next event.
Secondly, these events underscore the innate bonds of Jews that transcend levels of religious observance. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and one who is a Jew according to Halacha cannot lose that status. Our grief is not diminished an iota because some of the murdered were not Orthodox. The Halacha is clear and unequivocal: a Jew who is murdered because he or she is a Jew is a kadosh, a holy martyr, who enjoys a place in Paradise next to the holiest martyrs in our too-often gory history of persecution. Those who from time to time assert for political reasons that the Torah world considers non-observant or less observant Jews as lesser Jews or not Jews at all have never been telling the truth. The pain we all feel now should forever put paid to that canard.
And now to this society’s inherent dysfunction. It has become almost impossible for events – good or bad – to be analyzed objectively by sober minds. Everything – but everything – is viewed these days by aggressive and fulminating politicians and professional activists through a partisan lens. It didn’t take long for even this massacre to become a ball of wax to be shaped by each one’s agenda. Curiously, everyone seems to be blamed except the perpetrator, who is almost let off the hook because he is deemed just a tool of…well, take your pick.
As I have heard it, and this is just a random sampling of commentary, the murderer’s problem was not diabolical Jew hatred but rather that he was anti-immigration, and so the immigration laws need to be relaxed. His problem was not his neo-Nazi ranting but the lack of effective gun control (as if a mass murderer would honor gun laws when he doesn’t respect the anti-homicide laws.) And of course, today’s staple: his problem is not Jews but President Trump whom he despises because he is too pro-Jewish but yet, paradoxically, mysteriously, also encouraged or enabled this deadly Jew hatred.
It has reached obsessive, irrational  levels.
President Trump, judging by some of the more rabid elements of the media, is responsible for the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews, the pipe bombs sent to Democrats, the murder of Jamal Khashogghi, the migrants’ attempt to cross the southern border, Hurricane Florence, last year’s drought in California, terror in Israel because of his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, the absence of peace in the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis, and every other domestic and global problem. The only development for which Trump is not at all responsible, apparently, is the booming economy, for which his predecessor now claims exclusive credit.
This is what is called an obsession, an interpretation of events so skewed as to defy rationality. Four years ago, when the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City was attacked and four people were killed, no one sought to blame the then president. Sadly, hatred is a constant in life and exists regardless of the president or party in power. Jews know this all too well. There are Jew haters on the left and the right, Jew haters who vote for Republicans and Jew haters who vote for Democrats, Jew haters who are white and Jew haters who are black. Jew haters do not fit into a neat ideological package – except their lives are consumed by jealousy, failure, and hatred.
It is unseemly to exploit this tragedy for partisan ends, on either side. It is unseemly to exploit this sadistic act to promote the non-Orthodox, which is totally irrelevant to these events.  It seems the only group that hasn’t pitched its cause is the pro-Aliya advocates, notwithstanding  that argument would have the most substance.
I don’t believe that hatred has mushroomed in recent years but if there is one deleterious trend that needs to be arrested it is the increasing dominance of social media. That has enabled haters to better propagate their hate, to easily find fellow travelers, to plot, scheme, and then, in some sick way, to revel in the commission of their crimes and the notoriety these dastardly deeds engender. These tools – Twitter, Facebook, and the like, whatever few positive elements they might have – are now the vehicles that haters, nuts, the violent, and the disaffected all use to facilitate their evil. To me, at least, that is the big change in society that has made politics, life and social interactions so much more toxic, with often deadly consequences. They allow people without filters to spew venom, lashon hara, libel, lies and hatred without consequence, and the anonymity encourages and emboldens them. These tools are ubiquitous spiritual, moral and physical dangers.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Here’s one encouraging note: at the Congressional candidates forum I moderated last week (between challenger John McCann and incumbent Josh Gottheimer), McCann let slip this gem to the audience: “Whether I win or Josh wins, this district will be well represented.” How refreshing – especially because in the current climate it was so unexpected. I don’t think similar candor is heard anywhere else in the country.
There is no policy difference that justifies mass murder. Differing views on immigration, abortion, the environment or tax policy will obviously not erupt into violence for normal people. Obviously, then, only evil people murder, and to associate their evil with a particular political cause or policy actually diminishes that evil, and in some macabre way can be seen to rationalize it. That must stop.
Jews are no strangers to targeted, hate-filled violence. Such has been our fate since the days of Abraham. But rather than lose ourselves in the poison of the moment and divide along party lines, we should use this crime as a catalyst for good deeds, to remind ourselves and the world of our mission and our mandate, why G-d founded our nation and why He has preserved us until today, and rededicate ourselves to His Torah and His morality and to popularize those ideas to a world that desperately needs them. And needs them now.
May the memories of the murdered be a blessing and inspiration to all Jews and good-hearted, decent people everywhere.

The Ark of History

The two great individuals of ancient times – Noach and Avraham – had different personalities, were treated differently by G-d and their contemporaries suffered wholly different fates. Noach’s world was destroyed – the generation of the flood – while Avraham’s – the generation of the dispersion – was saved but scattered. Some explain the difference by highlighting one particular facet: Noach’s contemporaries were evil towards G-d but absolutely hideous towards each other, whereas the generation of the dispersion got along well with each other even though they rebelled against G-d. A society that is corrupt, immoral, depraved, angry, bitter, acrimonious and hostile towards anyone who is slightly different cannot long endure and cannot be saved.

Traditionally, we understand the difference between Noach and Avraham, and the implicit criticism of Noach, in that Noach made no effort to reach out to his generation. He was content to save himself, and did, while Avraham lived among his contemporaries, interacted with them, gained their respect over time, and influenced multitudes – he was the “father of a multitude of nations.”  But there is more to it than that

Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rav of Har Bracha, dealt recently with the following question: there are many moral and halachic challenges in the Israeli army today, some of them quite intentional as the remnants of the secular, progressive Israeli world attempt to impose Western culture and values on young draftees, especially religious ones. Given that, the questioner asked, aren’t the Haredim justified in trying to avoid those problems that carry with them a real risk of diluting one’s level of religious commitment if not eradicating it entirely?

To be sure, the Haredi world has changed substantially, and several thousand young Haredim now enlist every year, but the question focused not on numbers but on attitude. How should we deal with the spiritual dangers implicit in exposing impressionable young Jews to potentially heretical ideas and decadent environment?

Rav Melamed answered that the primary goal of haredim, and of exile Jews in general, was always hisardut, survival. Survival was everything – both physical survival and spiritual survival. To survive in the exile requires walls, and even occasionally, an ark, some secure, impregnable facility (or lifestyle) that removes us from the mainstream of society that is always beckoning, always enticing, and too often successful in luring us away from the world of Torah.

But such an attitude has no place in Israel. There the goal is not mere survival but rather living the complete Torah life, and that requires Torah study, observance of mitzvot, a state, an army, a government, industry and commerce and agriculture and much else. It requires living a complete life according to the Torah, and through that, the model Torah society is built.

I think Rav Melamed is both wise and correct – but what about Jews in the exile today? What ensures, or facilitates, our survival, with G-d’s grace? There are two possible models that we can follow, one follows Noach’s lead and the other the path of Avraham.

The first is to build an ark, to segregate ourselves, interact with others as minimally as possible, and wall ourselves off in the hopes of surviving the onslaught of spiritual allures and dangers that lurk around us. That was Noach’s approach.

The other model is Avraham, who lived in Elon Moreh, and Egypt, and Hevron, and had to go to war, and befriended Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, and tried to understand and help the evildoers of Sodom, and who had to deal with Pharaoh and Avimelech and the other debauched creatures of his day. Avraham shepherded his flock with them, made treaties with them, tried to educate them about the true G-d, and saw himself as part of his society, not aloof or estranged or above it all. And they recognized that as well, as the children of Het later said to him, “you are a prince of G-d among us.”

We could certainly stop here and say that the lesson is to be an Avraham rather than a Noach, and it is probably true and good advice, but even that is not dispositive. There is a danger in being an Avraham as there is in being a Noach. Neither was completely successful – Noach was certainly unsuccessful as his whole world was destroyed, he became a hermit and recluse after the flood and his descendants did not always adhere to his values. But even Avraham, our forefather and hero, he too had his share of frustrations and setbacks. There is a price to be paid in mingling with Sodom and the Philistines and the other degenerates who were his neighbors. His own son Yishmael was a casualty, as was Esav his grandson.

In truth, we live in a more open world today, and the Haredim live in a more closed world, but we each have our share of successes and failures. We all walk a fine line, even dangling on a precipice. It seems that the Haredi world loses some of its youth because of failed segregation; sometimes the highest wall is not enough, especially in a world in which there are incessant intrusions on our lives every minute and wherever we are. But we lose some of our youth because of failed integration: when we do not convey well enough the need for a wall of some height, for some barriers and moral limits; when we fail to teach our youth that we are not all the same and that we need to carve out for ourselves a special, spiritual place; when we fail to inculcate the notions of obligations and responsibility rather than privileges and feel-good spirituality.

Too much segregation doesn’t work, like too much integration doesn’t work. What is too much integration? One secular Jewish paper recently headlined that “Jewish” groups are upset about Justice Kavanaugh’s stance on Jewish issues and fear for the future. So what are their “Jewish” issues? Not Jewish education and tuition tax credits, and certainly not assimilation or intermarriage, of course not Israel, and not even his position on religious liberty matters. No – these left-wing Jewish groups are worried that Justice Kavanaugh is “wrong” on these four “Jewish” issues: abortion, immigration, sanctuary cities and affirmative action.

But I cannot quite determine what makes those Jewish interests; they are secular, political controversies that are roiling American society. We can certainly have opinions on them, and not just the one opinion mandated by the left-wing elites. They are not Jewish interests per se – but I do understand why those who think that way are rapidly disappearing from the Jewish world with a tenuous connection maintained only by a fluid definition of what it is to be a Jew.

So if neither segregation nor integration fully works, then what are we to do? And the answer is: both! We have to know when to segregate and when to integrate, when to get involved and when to step back. And above all, we must follow the sagacious guidance of Isaiah the prophet who said long ago (54:2): “Broaden the place of your tent and stretch out the curtains of your dwelling place; do not hesitate.”  We have to reach and not completely wall ourselves off. But also: “lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs.” We have to make sure that our tent is in order, firmly attached to the ground, before expanding outwardly. A tent that is not rooted is blown away by the first stormy wind that drifts over us.

The more rooted we are and the deeper our commitment, the more we can expand. First we plant roots, and then we spread out, and we will thus merit the realization of the eternal covenant and the promise of complete redemption, speedily and in our days.

Land of the Unforgiven

The embarrassing spectacle currently engulfing the United States shows no signs of abating and the descent into anarchy is proceeding. The presumption of guilt, the disregard of judicial process, the contemptuous dismissal of the necessity of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (“proving” it to one’s fans on social media suffices), the flippancy with which reputations are ruined never to be repaired, and the intolerance of those who see only one perspective on anything as legitimate and worthy of being heard all testify to the collapse of the social order.

There is something else that adds to America’s current ills, perhaps the root of it all. It occurred to me while listening last week to Dennis Prager’s radio show. His guest was Rabbi Shmuly Boteach and, for a time, the latter’s protégé Roseanne Barr, the comedienne who fell into disfavor last year for racist remarks she tweeted. As an aside, I have never found her act funny or even mildly interesting, nor watched any of her shows, but Rav Shmuly’s point – well taken – is that America has become a very unforgiving nation. There are people who commit a single moral offense and are considered “one and done.” One social misstep and you become a public pariah. He emphasized that Barr went through the Rambam’s four steps of repentance – she regretted her misdeed, verbalized it, confessed it, and committed to the future, and even donated money to black causes. She seems genuinely contrite – and so, he asked, why have Americans lost the capacity to forgive?

It’s mostly but not entirely true. The lack of forgiveness only pertains when the wronged party is a member of one of the established and celebrated victim classes in America, and when the wrongdoer is a member of the class of official oppressors. The former can do no wrong and the latter can do no right. The former cannot even be challenged and the latter is not allowed a defense. But in general, his claim is true. So what has happened to the concept of forgiveness in America? Are too many people are one and done?

Certainly that situation is lamentable but he didn’t quite explain what has happened, which transcends Roseanne and is certainly harmful to society.

The Talmud (Moed Katan 16b, Avoda Zara 5a) describes King David as the man “who established the discipline of repentance,” such that “if an individual sins, he is told ‘go follow the individual.’”    If the community sins, there is a different protocol for repentance, but if an individual person sins, he is told to heed the example of King David who sinned, confessed, repented and was forgiven. King David is the role model for the repentance of the individual sinner.

There are two reasons why America has lost its capacity to forgive. Firstly, because forgiveness requires that there be recognition of something called “sin,” and that is what is most missing from modern society. There can’t be “sin” because sin requires an objective standard of morality, i.e., G-d and a moral code. Repentance presupposes that there is an awareness of sin. What we have in place of sin are artificial social constructs that are dictated by the cultural elites in order to allocate power to their various favored identity groups.

To give one simple example: make an anti-black comment and you are understandably thrown out of civil society. But make an anti-Jewish comment and you get sympathy, support, votes, acclaim, if not even lionization. Thus, at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Bill Clinton can sit a few seats from Louis Farrakhan on the dais with nary a negative comment. (If George W. Bush ever sat next to David Duke at any event, we would never hear the end of it.) The outrage is a bit selective; the double standard is obviously hypocritical.

And the notion that there are certain slurs that some groups cannot say while others can is a moral absurdity. That is no longer a quest for morality or civil discourse but a quest for power. There is no greater power exercised over human beings than the power to control their speech. That is the exercise of brute force. But that is now an accepted element of our world, even though no person should indulge in speech that is harmful to others and no person should get a pass based on group identity.

There cannot be forgiveness in a place where there is no concept of sin, and America has lost its fear and even recognition of sin. Real “sin” is mocked and has been driven underground. Instead of sin, we are told that we each have our own truth, our own gauge of right and wrong and good and evil. So how can forgiveness ever be possible?

And there is a second reason as well why America is so unforgiving – and the contrast with the Torah outlook is striking. The dominant ethos in today’s America is that people cannot change. You are who you are, and that is all. Your personality and values at age 5 or 15 will be your personality and values at age 35, 55 and 75. Dr. Freud, take a victory lap: you won. But what a rejection of the possibility of repentance, and what a dark view of man’s potential!

One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that people can change. We can change because we have free choice. We can change by learning more Torah, by scrutinizing our personalities, by moving to a different environment, by repenting and by realizing the error of our ways.

Even King David had challenges in life, sins he committed and acts he regretted, but by the end of his life he was a different person. He was no longer the same individual who had his trials when young, even in the early years of his monarchy. That is why he is the paragon of individual repentance. But King David today would be disparaged, demeaned and destroyed for his indiscretions. He would be deemed irredeemable.

Where there is no acceptance of sin, there cannot be forgiveness, and where society denies that people can change, there cannot be repentance. And that has created a sad, bitter, churlish, grumpy, hypocritical – and polarized country. If Jews would ever entertain, much less subscribe to such a philosophy, there would be no point in a Yom Kippur.

But we don’t – and that is why we continue to admire King David, who guides and inspires us until today, and why the world at large, and this troubled society in particular, could benefit from our knowledge, wisdom and moral absolutes.

Show Trial

Imagine living in a society in which you can be subjected to anonymous allegations of criminal conduct without any supporting facts or circumstances and without being given the opportunity to defend yourself. Then imagine that, in that same society, you are found guilty without being tried, and in which the mere attempt to defend yourself against hazy, unsubstantiated, unproved, unprovable and even scurrilous accusations compounds your guilt in the eyes of the elitist judges who serve at the pleasure of their faceless masters.  The accused “enjoy” the presumption of guilt. The indictment itself is tantamount to conviction; the only variable is the harshness of the punishment.

Such an imagination put the Kafka into “Kafkaesque,” and bears great similarity to the haunted Czech-Jewish author’s “The Trial.” The subject of that harrowing tale, an obscure bank official, was arrested by unknown individuals, charged with crimes but was not privy to the “minor” details of who, what, when, where and why. He does not know his accusers, the nature of the charges against him, and the judges who will adjudicate his fate. His end is predictable, sad, and closer to current reality than we would like to believe.

But change the alleger from anonymous to reluctantly named, another depressing chapter in history presents itself and is most instructive for today.

In the late 1930’s, Josef Stalin orchestrated the Moscow Show Trials, in which thousands of Communist Party leaders – many comrades who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Stalin during the Russian Revolution – were summarily tried, convicted and executed. In addition, millions of Soviet citizens were exiled to Siberia or otherwise murdered by the secret police. It was the great purge during which Stalin removed any potential rival for power and cemented his dictatorial and sadistic control over the Soviet Union. Most of the Jews who were enthusiastic Communists, served the Revolution and became party officials, met their untimely fate at this time without exactly sanctifying G-d’s name. Half the defendants in the very first Show Trial were Jews, and in a bitter irony, many of the Jews who were tried and convicted remained unrepentant Communists, spouting Communist dogma (not Shema Yisrael) with their last breaths.

There were several mass trials but all followed the same basic format. The pretext was that the individuals, whether party officials, bureaucrats, military officers including several marshals, ran afoul of the political correctness of the time. Charges were trumped up, documents forged, interrogations forced, and most of the defendants were coerced into confessions that admitted to something, anything. Those standing trial who attempted to defend themselves, even sometimes by pledging and emphasizing their loyalty to Stalin, were treated even more harshly for they were deemed to be irredeemable. Truth was neither an interest nor an objective.

Guilt was presupposed and foreordained. Those who confessed were executed and those who refused to confess were also executed. The only difference was that those who confessed might succeed in sparing their immediate family members from exile or execution. Those who refused to confess paid the price of their own death, the persecution of their families, and the confiscation of their property. Media condemnation of the accused was routine but obviously corrupt and fraudulent, the media being just another tool of the ruthless state.

And while this mass murder was ongoing, the leftist media in America – led by the New York Times’ Walter Duranty – was praising Stalin as “the greatest living statesmen.”  The Times’ perspicacity remains intact today.

Clearly there was nothing about these trials that even remotely followed legal process or resembled  anything similar to how the law functions in a civilized society. This was “political terror” masquerading as trials, all to achieve the political goals desired by Stalin. His failure to feed his people (the Show Trials followed immediately after the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians, whose food was literally confiscated to feed Russians) or even to attract popular support for any of his policies induced him to purge the party, the state and this world of his enemies. Apparently, mere public shaming of his enemies – modern American style – did not suffice.

The centerpiece of the Show Trials was the public confession, usually extracted after torture and sometimes just a day after insistent claims of innocence.  Typical of this genre was the trial of Nikolai Krestinsky, a member of the Politburo from Lenin’s time and of Jewish origin, who professed his innocence of the charges of loyalty to Trotsky and Trotskyism, and then the next day, had a “change of heart:”

    Krestinsky: Yesterday, under the influence of a momentary keen feeling of false shame, evoked by the atmosphere of the dock and the painful impression created by the public reading of the indictment, which was aggravated by my poor health, I could not bring myself to tell the truth, I could not bring myself to say that I was guilty. And instead of saying, “Yes, I am guilty,” I almost mechanically answered, “No, I am not guilty.”
Vyshinsky: Mechanically?
Krestinsky: In the face of world public opinion, I had not the strength to admit the truth that I had been conducting a Trotskyite struggle all along. I request the Court to register my statement that I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and that I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed.

Krestinsky was unceremoniously executed the next day.

The German author Bertolt Brecht captured the moral pretensions of the intellectual Left, dominant then in academic and literary circles and on the ascent again today, and wryly described the victims of Stalinist oppression in a way that should chill every American today: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.” Those were the Soviet show trials.

And these are the natural consequences of the merger of arrogance, intolerance, the politics of personal destruction, the presumption of the guilt of disfavored individuals, the corruption of due process, trial by mob and media and the prevailing assumption that only one political view is moral, acceptable, entitled to a public hearing and allowed in public debate and college classrooms.

Certainly there is a chasm that separates the genocidal purges of Stalin and the petty political games played in America. But the casual way in which lives are destroyed, the utter disregard of the pursuit of truth, and the wanton use of accusations, threats, legislative hearings that are more akin to circuses, and the repeated attempt to terrorize people out of public service strike too familiar a chord.

These are not only polarized times but sad ones as well. Even Kafka would be surprised, and alarmed.

 

The Joy of Teshuva

(First published in the YU Lamdan)

Like many Jews of a certain era, I was reared on stories of the trepidations of the Yamim Noraim – how entire towns in Europe would be terrroized, how people would walk around in apprehension of the approaching Yom Hadin, how every Jew would spend copious amounts of time reckoning with his or her flaws and foibles, how the Baalei Mussar pounded into their adherents the anguish awaiting the unrepentant sinner and his community. I do not doubt the veracity of those accounts but I can state that I do not see it anymore. It is not only that times have changed.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in different ways are both construed as festive days – Rosh Hashana as indicated by Nechemia (8:10) and Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year (Masechet Taanit 26b). Rav Kook’s primary thesis in Orot Hateshuvah was that repentance is supposed to be joyous, not just the outcome of forgiveness but the entire process of repentance. For sure, this was a new idea, and dissented from the more doleful approach of the Baalei Musar. To Rav Kook’s mind, the teshuvah of joy spoke more closely to the hearts of a modern generation. If repentance is not joyful, something is wrong. How so?

Although repentance is a joyous experience in conception, sin or grappling with sin are not. That is why we omit tachanun on any happy occasion, for it doesn’t mention teshuvah at all but rather the wages of sin. “Merciful and Compassionate One, I sinned before you…Do not chastise me in Your anger…my couch melts because of my tears” (Cf. Tehillim, Chapter 6). There is not a word about repentance, only about the damage wrought by sin. Rav Kook wrote: (Orot Hateshuvah 14:7): “All sadness comes as a result of sin, and repentance illuminates the soul and transforms sadness into happiness.”

If happiness is the natural state of the being living in line with its essential nature, then sadness (meaning frustration, discontent, or unhappiness) can only beset a person because of too many actions, thoughts, or traits that are bad for the soul. When the light of repentance emerges, “the pipelines of pleasure and joy are opened.” To encapsulate this in one famous phrase (Orot Hateshuvah 15:6): “Repentance does not come to make one’s life bitter, but to make it sweeter, more pleasant, more true to itself.”

What is the source of this joy? Repentance is the act of renewal or re-creation. We become different people. We always love what is new, so changing one’s name, deeds, and even locale is all part of the joy of the soul in becoming a new creature. If we don’t actually change our names – and maybe we should! – we can feel born again by changing our deeds, habits, location, and routine and especially when it has us in a spiritual rut, celebrating complacency, mediocrity or worse.

For perfect repentance the soul has to maintain two contradictory forces: trepidation and anguish over sin, and confidence and joy over the good, for it is impossible that man should not find some good, even much good, in himself. But even the anguish is productive, a sign that man is healthy, that he knows something is wrong and needs rectification. That is a good thing.

Rav Kook (Ein Aya, Maaser Sheni) wrote that we always have to keep in mind the magnitude of our obligations to God – to do good, to be good and holy, and to perfect our character. But even though we know we are not perfect, and we are to act humbly and contritely before G-d,  “nonetheless these feelings of inferiority should not predominate so that it tramples on his serenity of soul, and robs him of his joy and happiness in life.”

That is the joy of repentance. It is not just the outcome that we are now “beloved, cherished, close to and a friend of God” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 7:6) but in the process itself. It requires that we not just to focus on sin but to contemplate what we have done well.

Perhaps the joy of teshuvah can be internalized only when we realize that repentance is not just a return to God but is really a return to our true selves, to our souls before they were tarnished, to our personalities before the world of falsehood started to contort them. At the heart of that repentance is the recognition that we have tremendous powers and capabilities.

Reb Tzadok even wrote (Tzidkat Hatzadik 154) that just like a person has to believe in God, so too he has to believe in himself, to feel that he matters to God and does not toil or live in vain. We have to believe in our spiritual personalities. Even though we might (might?) sin and become repugnant, we still have the potential to become exalted and escape the shackles of our limitations.

So, too, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz emphasized (Sichot Mussar, 26) that a person who believes in himself can uncover powers and potential that hitherto he did not think he possessed.

All these forces – of simchat hanefesh‘ the joy of repentance, the creation of the new personality and the ability to see the good in ourselves – coalesce on Yom Kippur, the day the second set of luchot were given to us and the day the Bet Hamikdash was consecrated (Masechet Taanit 26b). On Yom Kippur,  we were given all the tools through which we serve God, and every year we celebrate those personal and national tools, and polish them anew.

May we use them well, and in the repentance of joy bring about the personal and national redemption of all Israel.

A Time to Seek

(First published in CBY’s “Kehilatenu”)

Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Not for hamburger, fries and a Diet Coke or even a salad and mineral water. And not even thirsty for water, although that is closer to the point. “All who are thirsty should go to the water (Yeshayahu 55:1) on which our Sages expounded “water refers only to Torah” (Masechet Bava Kama 82a). We are a hungry and thirsty people, especially when Elul comes and the New Year is about to begin.

The Gemara (Masechet Shabbat 138b) teaches that there will come a time in the future when the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people, as the verse says (Amos 8:12): “Behold the days are coming, G-d says, and I will send a famine to the land. Not a famine for bread and not thirst for water but to hear the word of G-d. And people will wander from sea to sea and north to east to seek G-d’s word – and will not find it.” It sounds like a truly desperate state of affairs; people will not even know what is a divine thought or value or what is considered godly behavior. No scholar will be able to answer definitively questions of Halacha. Can that really happen?

That same Gemara concludes with the statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “Heaven forbid that the Torah should ever be forgotten from the people of Israel, as the Torah itself promises “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants” (Devarim 31:21). What then do the Sages mean when they said that ‘people will wander…to seek G-d’s word and not find it?’ It means that they will not find the practical Halacha and the theoretical teaching in one place.”

If so, doesn’t that also mean that the Torah will be forgotten? How and why does Rabbi Shimon disagree with his colleagues?

Rav Yaakov Shapiro, current Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz Harav, quoted Rav Kook as saying that Rabbi Shimon is correct. It is inconceivable that the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people. That is for the simple reason that as long as there are people who “wander about…to seek G-d’s word” then by definition the Torah is not forgotten. We need to be seekers and searchers. That is the purpose of the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim. Indeed, the very word “Elul” is drawn from the Aramaic root for searching (see Targum, Bamidbar 13:2). We need to overcome our normal complacency, our sense that we have seen it all, heard it all, and know it all, and become hungry and thirsty – for the word of G-d.

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe was told “carve for yourself” new tablets of the Law – for yourself. The essence of the second set of tablets, the ones that survived, is that they were produced by Moshe’s own hand. They resulted from an inner yearning that he had to come closer to G-d and heal the breach between G-d and the Jewish people. So too, the repentance of this season is always the result of inner arousal – of the sense that something is amiss and needs to be repaired in our relationship with G-d and even with our friends and loved ones. It is the season of seeking. We are all mevakshim.

Thus we say twice daily in Tehillim 27 there is “one thing I ask of G-d, that is what I seek (that I might dwell in the house of G-d).” And we say “I seek your presence, G-d.” I seek Your closeness and Your favor, I seek Your warmth and forgiveness, I seek new opportunities and new challenges, I seek to satisfy my hunger and to slake my thirst – for You.

And isn’t it true that when we sincerely seek G-d then that is when we are most likely to find ourselves – our real personalities and talents, our real commitment, and our real purpose in life? What a blessing to be afforded this opportunity year after year.

“’Seek G-d when He might be found’ – these are the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippurim (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a).” May our quest begin and we find what we seek, and merit Hashem’s blessings for a year of life and good health, prosperity and peace, friendship and holiness, and complete redemption, for us and all Israel.

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