Torahphobia

Torahphobia is real, prevalent and sweeping across significant parts of the Jewish world. In particular, it is threatening to collapse Modern Orthodoxy, but fortunately, its antidote is at hand. What is Torahphobia? An example will suffice.

A few days ago, the venerable Israeli radio presenter Aryeh Golan was interviewing (actually, as is his style, castigating) a Member of Knesset running for reelection for the Religious Zionist Party. His questions, such as they were, ran along the lines of: How can you be on the same list with so-and-so who years ago called for a “halachic state”? How can you be on the same list with so-and-so who is a “known homophobe”? The interviewee hesitated, stammered and didn’t offer a cogent answer. In fairness to him, these were not really questions as much as they were readings of counts in an indictment so no answer would have sufficed the interviewer. But this is what the MK could have said:

“Aryeh, you know it is wrong to cherry pick quotations in order to besmirch someone’s reputation, and it is repugnant to characterize a person’s entire life with the tendentious snapshot of “known homophobe.” The latter individual was an activist for Soviet Jewry, instrumental in gaining Natan Sharansky’s release from the gulag, a dedicated public servant for decades and possesses a host of other accomplishments. He is not a “known homophobe” but simply a faithful Jew who wants to strengthen the traditional Jewish family and thereby the Jewish state.”

“But you, Aryeh, present yourself consistently as a Torahphobe. You are afraid of the Torah and its value system. You are afraid that the Torah is true, that God gave the Torah and the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and the implications thereof. You are afraid that God exists, that He bequeathed His moral notions to the Jewish people for our benefit and the benefit of world, afraid that there are mitzvot (commandments, and not merely suggestions of pleasant pieties), afraid that there is such a thing as sin. You are afraid that it is all too real. You are a Torahphobe.”

There is no more grating insult that is lodged against traditional Jews today than that we are homophobes. Besides being false (I have never met anyone who actually fears homosexuals), the accusation is intended to stifle any reasonable discussion of the consequences of implementing the homosexual agenda. Anyone who opposes, for example, the legalization of same-sex marriage (or for that matter, a “pride” club at Yeshiva University) is a “homophobe” who should be scorned, if not tarred and feathered.

These accusers are Torahphobes and we should never hesitate to call them out on it, and repeatedly. Torahphobia is the fear of taking Torah seriously, the fear of perceiving its values as divine, eternal and superior to human values. Torahphobes assume that a national commitment to halachah is the equivalent of Iran. Besides, the fear and ignorance revealed by such a sentiment, they do not realize that brutal enforcement of halachah represents a failure of Jewish society, not its success.

Torahphobes do not really take the Torah seriously, or better said, they only take seriously the parts of Torah that appeal to them. They may observe some mitzvot but not the ones that challenge their secular based value system. They only observe those mitzvot that accord with secular progressive nostrums or the nice, ceremonial and cultural mitzvot that most Jews enjoy. In any clash between their values and Torah values, they fear that embracing the Torah will cause the progressive elites to reject them and so they jettison the Torah. They might sincerely believe that their modern values are the Torah’s values, even more pitiable. They fear that the Torah “might” be true, so they are trying to craft a new Torah for themselves that eliminates certain mitzvot and fabricates new ones, based on pleasant and cherished notions such as equality, inclusiveness, compassion, and the like, all esteemed ideas that nonetheless occasionally conflict with true Torah values.

Certainly, not everyone who holds these opinions is Torahphobic. Some simply do not know any better and assume this is the Torah but many, especially in the Modern Orthodox world do or should know better. We have reached the stage today when, sadly, in any conflict between Modern and Orthodox, the laity opt for Modern and renounce or, better, try to re-define Orthodox. The proponents rationalize these deviations from tradition by declaring that they are trying to prevent violence against certain vulnerable groups, suicides within the group (which itself obviously implicates a range of mental health issues that transcend clubs or societal approbation) or simply to show support for the family that is expressing its distress by staging elaborate same sex weddings and demanding their friends and family join the festivities. Whatever these contentions have, all are psychological manipulations and emotional blackmail. But for Modern Orthodoxy treading down this path is a short term formula for self-destruction.

The laity is faltering and could use some sensitive but determined rabbinic guidance. On the other hand, Modern Orthodox institutions, to their credit, are still holding firm. Witness YU’s ongoing litigation amid the pressure opprobrium it is receiving from some of their own alumni and others.  But their commitment is under relentless assault and they require public support to remain steadfast.

A “Pride” club subsidized by Yeshiva University is as sensible as a “Chilul Shabbat Club” that demands public activities on Shabbat or an “intermarriage dating club” that wants to expand the romantic options for the student body. We must have compassion for people’s personal plights and assist them in observing the Torah despite the hardships they feel. But we should reject the notion that they must be accommodated as a group or that, generally, support for traditional family values is somehow hateful. YU does not have to cater to or endorse every sin that people bring with them to college. Indeed, those who want to flaunt and celebrate their sins, whatever they are, can choose any other college in the United States. To want to be “Orthodox” on their terms is quite modern, even understandable, but is also a clear symptom of Torahphobia.

To be sure, we are all guilty of Torahphobia on some level. We are all somewhat afraid of letting go of our practices or beliefs that conflict with the Torah but which we mostly enjoy and sometimes perceive as our self-definition. Everyone has challenges in life. It is axiomatic that we cannot judge another person because we do not stand in their place (Avot 2:4). It is also axiomatic that another person’s challenges seem like a trifle to those who are not challenged in that area, leaving us to wonder why they cannot overcome them (see Masechet Succah 52a). Some are challenged in the realm of arayot in all forms, others in the realm of money, lashon hara, aggression, anger, haughtiness, kindness, love of all Jews and a host of other possibilities. Some people are naturally blessed with no temptation in one area but succumb in other areas. But we all struggle in some vein and it is self-defeating to seek a pass, a license, or public approval of our capitulation. And we were all given by God the gift of repentance that first requires recognition of sin, wrongdoing or shortcomings.

The other day, I was sitting in the Me’arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, and my mind wandered to Avraham and how he would relate to these modern imbroglios. After all, Avraham lived in most decadent and depraved times and as an Ivri, he stood against the world, its cultural onslaught and moral depredation. He tried to pray for Sodom, or at least comprehend God’s justice in dealing with Sodom, but he didn’t live there, was disappointed when Lot moved there and did not endorse or subsidize their lifestyle because those were the modern mores in his era and the local custom.

We are his heirs and descendants. Avraham possessed not only a deep and abiding faith in God but also an indomitable strength of character that enabled him to stand against the tide of his times even when he was alone and without any public support. His genes – physical and spiritual – give us our foundation, direction and purpose in life. As we enter the Yerach Ha’eitanim, the “month of the mighty” in which our forefathers were born, it behooves us to recapture Avraham’s spirit and animate this generation. Then we will heal ourselves of the rampant, infectious Torahphobia and become passionate Torahphiles, faithful servants of Hashem, and hasten the redemption.

Ktiva va’chatima tova to all!

The Queen

I’ve been on self-imposed silence writing my sixth book, which I hope to be out before this coming Pesach, entitled “Road to Redemption.” My last book is most appropriate for this time of year, entitled “Repentance for Life,” and is available in only fine stores and on line at https://kodeshpress.mystagingwebsite.com/product/repentance-for-life/ or Amazon. 

Nonetheless, a few words about the death of Queen Elizabeth II are appropriate. In truth, it is hard for an Israeli or American to wrap our minds around modern royalty. It so counters the democratic ethos with which we are raised. The United States itself arose in opposition to monarchy and the Constitution stipulates that the government may not confer any titles of nobility on anyone (with apologies to the Duke of Flatbush, the Dukes of Hazzard, the Prince of Bel Air or any other pretenders). And the pomp and pageantry, as gaudy as it is archaic, is an acquired taste, and for some, never to be acquired. But the outpouring of condolences, emotions, and support from across the world accompanied by extensive media coverage is something to behold and requires understanding. 

Certainly it is story that is tailor made for the media, which is attracted to and covers well anniversaries, ceremonies, and milestones. And despite her long life and miles traveled, she never visited Israel (though her mother-in-law is buried here and perhaps there is a connection). Yet the irony is that the adoration of the Queen is something that runs completely counter to the values usually forced on us by the modern culture and its purveyors. We are constantly inundated with the notion that egalitarianism is among the greatest and most sacred values in modern life. We are all equal. We are all special. Birth means nothing (to some, birth does not even decide what gender you are). Here comes the Queen, and the other royals, representing an institution that is all about birth! Titles, positions, rights and privileges are bestowed upon individuals, and for life, simply because of their lineage. 

Why then is that notion celebrated? Here’s a theory: it is because deep down people recognize that egalitarianism is false. It is not real. We are not born equal, and certainly not into equal circumstances. Some people are born into depressed circumstances and must strive to overcome them. Others are born into idyllic circumstances and must try to use their blessings to benefit others. And many are born into the middle class and attempt to fill their lives with meaning and purpose, pursuing happiness and success. Egalitarianism might be an ideal but it is a fraud and thinking people recognize that. Hence the profound interest in the Queen and her family. 

Many of the Brits in my neighborhood are genuinely grieving over the death of the Queen and I think for reasons that transcend her longevity (which was astonishing). Most have known no other such figure in their lives. She was a fixture. But it is more than that. There are other values of which the Queen reminds us. 

She represented nationalism, another concept that is anathema to the secular progressive left that dominates the media. They fantasize about one world, no nations, no borders, and no religion. And then there is the Queen, a symbol of the idea that it is human nature to coalesce into small groups such as families and communities and then larger groups such as nations. That so how the world was set up. That is normal. Countries like America lack unifying, living symbols of nationhood, and so suffer from divisions and acrimony. Israel has such an institution – the Torah – but its complete implementation in society still awaits. But nationalism is real and cannot and should not be pushed away. And the Queen was the nominal head of her church as well. 

Furthermore , the Queen represented selflessness in pursuit of national greatness that is also sorely lacking today. Other countries do not have that and their societies are riven by petty politics and petty politicians for whom the national interest is not their primary objective. That is an inestimable deficiency. She was a unifying element of many different countries across the globe, exceedingly rare today. 

Finally, it is important to recall our sages’ expression that the “human kingdom resembles the heavenly kingdom.” To have reverence for a human being is fraught with danger, humans being flawed creatures. Yet we are commanded to revere royalty – even Gentile royalty – because that reminds us of the infinitely greater reverence we must have for the King of Kings. 

If the Queen’s passing teaches us that we not all equal or the same but are born into different stations in life from which we serve G-d and His creatures or if her passing imparts to us the importance of nations and the splendor of those who serve them selflessly, it is sufficient reason for all of us to reflect on her life and its lessons. And remember the King, whose kingship we will again acknowledge and celebrate on Rosh Hashanah. 

Ask the Rabbi, Part 19

(This is the third year that I am answering questions in the Jewish Press forum entitled, “Is it Proper?” All the rabbinic responses – and more – can be read at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to use video streaming apps that offer non-kosher movies and TV shows?

This raises broader questions that have been debated in the Jewish world for several thousand years: to what extent should Jews partake of the secular culture? And can we seal ourselves off hermetically from the world at large?

There are cogent arguments on both sides of the debate, as one would expect of such a hoary discussion. Certainly, there is no guardian against immorality and we have a paramount interest in warding off temptation. On the other hand, there are aspects of the secular culture that are enlightening. This was less so in the ancient world, more so in more modern times, but today’s cultural swamp is trending towards the former. Yet, we do recognize that it is impossible to shut out the world completely, and walking on the streets of most cities offers temptations that are more enticing than any app. What then is a good Jew to do?

Halacha demands that we live a disciplined life. We must develop our self-control. Kosher apps are fine but the devious, non-kosher mind will find a way around them too. Ultimately, streaming services – just like telephones, televisions, computers and the internet – are morally neutral vehicles. They can be used to enrich our lives or debauch them. Free people will even differ on what is considered kosher or non-kosher. Parents must know that their children will watch anything that they watch – and inconsistency is spiritually lethal.

The best approach – which is not to say is the majority approach in the religious world – is to worry less about the app and more about the person. We need to teach clearly and unequivocally what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, acceptable and unacceptable, and also teach techniques to avoid the temptations that will inevitably surround us.

Self-censorship using a moral compass informed by the Torah is more effective than censorship coming from the outside.

Is it proper to check your personal and/or business email before Shacharit?

It is high time we admitted that people who check their emails when they lay down and when they wake up (as if it’s Kriat Sh’ma), and obsessively in the middle of the day and in the middle of the night, have an addiction problem. They cannot disconnect from the outside world, ignore the reality of life (including family) for the fantasy that something better is happening out there, and become slaves to their devices.

This is exacerbated during tefilah. For years, I waged a relentless battle against people bringing their Smartphones to shul not only because of the distractions they cause to others when they ring but primarily because merely carrying them ruins the kavanah of their bearer. I was defeated in that battle by the Coronavirus, and now the norm has become for people to bring their phones into shul, daven from them and check their emails during Chazarat Hashatz. If that is the unfortunate choice, then people are better off checking their emails before they daven rather than during their davening.

But that is a choice that already concedes defeat. If we are proscribed from “tending to our [material] needs” before Shacharit (Orach Chaim 89:3) then checking emails would seem to be part of that proscription. Our first activity every morning should be the acknowledgment of our Creator rather than worshipping at the altar of spam and junk. Sure, some will argue that the emails might be conveying information about some impending emergency that can be ameliorated by quick action. Sure. That happens all the time…

Since email is addictive, there is a greater likelihood that we will become so consumed by its contents that we will be late for shul and distracted once we get there. That seems a bit more likely than missing out on the news that a meteorite is aiming right for us. Daven first.

Is it proper to watch entertainment videos on YouTube? Informational videos? Torah videos? Under what circumstances, if any, can young children use YouTube? Do you hold the same for all the above for TikTok?

Sadly, I must confess complete ignorance of TikTok although I have read of its abusive and harmful effects on children or others who are addicted to living their private lives in the public domain.

YouTube, generally speaking, is morally neutral like many modern contrivances. It all depends on how it is used. The access to Torah shiurim, including gedolim who are now in the world of truth, is breath-taking. You can sit in shiur with a Torah giant of two or three generations past! That is stunning. You can learn about the history of the Jewish people and find edifying lectures of all sorts. And certainly, it is possible to gain information, and access news and other worthwhile entities, through videos. The same applies for children if they are properly monitored.

However, we should be aware of the downside to all this. YouTube, or the internet generally, is a bottomless pit of Bitul Torah. We can literally waste hours and days watching people (gladly) make fools of themselves, revisiting previously seen entertainment and otherwise frying our brains into numbness. And what will be of the Torah? Life is too short to be wasted on frivolities.

The world is unfortunately filled with problems today, and those problems affect communities and individuals. If Chazal taught us that a suffering person should examine his deeds, and if no obvious defects are found to attribute his suffering to Bitul Torah (Berachot 5a), they knew well of what they spoke. And they spoke to every generation, including ours. That itself should be food for thought.

Within reason, watching videos can be proper but must always be secondary and tertiary to what is most important in the life of a faithful Jew.

Is it proper to go on vacation to a place with no minyan? What about a children’s day trip where there will be no minyan?

The ideal is to vacation in places where one’s spiritual level can be maintained. Almost every city in the world worth visiting has a shul with daily minyanim. Think of the effect on children when, in a foreign country or strange city, they join with other Jews, daven, and see before their eyes the wide reach of Torah and the great variety of Jews. For children, it will enrich the bond of Jewish nationhood in a way that no lecture or speech ever can. I remember visiting France as a child and feeling out of sorts in shul until they started singing “Vayehi binso’a ha’aron” in the same melody we sang at home. I felt an immediate connection to my fellow Jews. (I learned some French as well when the Rabbi asked the congregation, in French, to stop talking.)

That being said, there are places that some people consider worth visiting where minyanim are not readily available. That engenders a discussion of the precise obligation of tefilah b’tzibur. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 90:9) uses the term “yishtadeil,” “one should try to daven in shul with the community.” That means it is not an absolute obligation, and certainly where there is no shul in the vicinity. It also means that it is improper to daven at home with a small minyan when there is a minyan in shul, something that people often take for granted today.

Nevertheless, Chazal extolled the virtues and reward of those who daven in shul every day, and it should not be lightly ignored. If one is in a place without a minyan, the Mechaber continues that he should try to daven at the same time the community elsewhere is davening, so at least then his tefilah is somehow linked to the community’s tefilah.

So it is proper, and it is even more proper and beneficial to seek out minyanim on the road so our spiritual level and love of our fellow Jews are enhanced.

Cult of Personality

    As we embark on another election campaign that is certain to produce another uncertain outcome, it might be helpful to ponder how we reached this stage in our politics. And it is far deeper than pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi, the reason de jour and probably pour le futur.

    Consider this fascinating bit of political trivia. From 1948 through 1992, the ruling party in Israel’s governments (i.e., the party of the prime minister) always had at least 40 seats in the Knesset (reaching a high of 56 mandates with Golda Meir in 1969). But since 1996, the ruling party has never had 40 seats or more. That is a huge difference and reflects an enormous change in government, and its functionality and stability. In other words, the political situation is so unstable because there is a plethora of small parties. There always were small parties – many did not cross the threshold – but there were also big parties. For the last 25 years, without any big parties, there is instability, turmoil and even chaos built into the system.

     How did this come about? It is because our political system and its participating voters have moved from the world of ideas and values into the cult of the personality.   

     At a recent talk in the United States, I challenged my audience to deduce where I live. “In my country,” I said, “the leader of the right-wing party is immensely popular among his supporters and fanatically unpopular among his detractors. There is no middle ground. This leader is a punching bag for the leftist media and a relentless target of the legal establishment. When he was in power, the government was polarized. When he is out of power, the government and the electoral system are polarized. Many people who have worked for him hate him with a passion and have turned on him with a vengeance. Others swear never to work for him. Still, his allies are numerous and fiercely loyal and so he has a hold on the electoral system. His supporters are fervent, and would do anything for him, legal or otherwise. He has immense national pride, believes in strength, is conservative with traditional values, yet has been married several times and his personal relationships are challenging, to say the least. His party is stagnant until his future plans are resolved. He has been accused of crimes and of cutting ethical corners and his supporters deride those prosecutions as political witch hunts. So, where do I live to have such a leader?”

     From that perspective, the similarities between Israel and the United States are uncanny. Both countries live under a foreboding cloud or glorious sunshine, depending on one’s politics and the leader of the moment. Both countries political systems are paralyzed. That of the United States is in a slightly better state than Israel’s because at least in America there are regular elections. Israel is in a permanent state of turbulence and disorder because elections are irregular. Not since 1988 has a scheduled election in Israel occurred. But both Trump and Netanyahu, different in so many ways and alike in so many ways, hover over the electoral map like a Colossus. How did that happen? It can’t be a coincidence. It is that something has changed in both countries.

      As the political scientist Gene Healey noted in his book, “The Cult of the Presidency,” the American presidency has evolved in unanticipated ways. The founders feared a national leader who was too powerful, so quadrennial elections and the Electoral College (and impeachment) were checks against presidential overreach. For well over a century, the president was perceived as a mere administrator. Skip past the founders, and from Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt – more than six decades – the only memorable president was Abraham Lincoln, and he was routinely accused of overstepping his authority.   

     Teddy Roosevelt enlarged the position and its role (creating the “bully pulpit”) but it was Woodrow Wilson who gave it its imperial quality. The president who leads (domestically and globally), and seeks power and not just influence. The modern president is responsible for the nation’s soul, curbing inflation, bringing down prices, creating jobs, spending money, defining the culture, and infusing the nation with his personality.

      Until the 20th century, it was considered unseemly for a president to even campaign for the office. Subordinates spread his message. While William McKinley broke one barrier by delivering speeches from his front porch, Wilson began the tradition of frontal campaigning and directly asking for votes. In due course, candidates began to be marketed like cereal and soap and their images polished for prime time. Candidates, allegedly, appealed to voters if they could play the saxophone, and voters presumably wanted a president with whom they would be comfortable drinking beer. That has led to the modern era in which candidates are celebrities, and quickly become media stars or villains. With the process shallow and regularly becoming shallower, presidents are bound to disappoint and usually do. The presidency has become a cult of personality; ideas and policies are secondary concerns.

     Israel has traveled down this same path in a much shorter period of time. For example, neither Ben Gurion nor Menachem Begin had this same cultish following. Ben Gurion stepped down as prime minister in 1963 and hand-picked Levi Eshkol as his successor. When the two had a bitter falling out, Ben Gurion left his party and formed a new one, Rafi, taking with him eight disgruntled Labor MK’s. In the 1965 election, Labor with Eshkol and without Ben Gurion won 45 seats – three more than Ben Gurion’s Mapai had won in 1961. His Rafi party won only 10 seats and did not have a long shelf life in Israeli politics. In other words, the people who voted for Labor voted for Labor, not for Ben Gurion. It was the last time he ran for office.

    Similarly, Begin languished in opposition with a very small but devoted party until Herut merged with other parties and formed a configuration called Gachal that won 26 seats in 1965, his best showing yet. No one was more beloved by his supporters and more despised by his adversaries than Begin but he had an undersized following until his party merged in 1972 with several other parties to form Likud. That party was formed by Ariel Sharon, and it was Sharon who, among other transgressions, established the cult of personality in Israeli political life.

     Until Sharon, Israeli leaders were politicians and members of parties, and party strength and solidarity were the critical factors in elections. Sharon was the first prime minister to leave his party and start a new one – Kadima. He was basically saying – vote not for the party, just vote for me. The party stands for nothing but me. Hence, the surfeit of Israeli political party names that are meaningless. Kadima…Forward? No thought at all was given to the name of Tzipi Livni’s short-lived party – Hatenuah…The Movement? And now our ruling party is Yesh Atid…“There is a Future.” We certainly hope so. Yamin became Yamina and I was hoping this time for Yaminist, but alas it was not to be, at least not in this round.

     The party names don’t matter because the parties don’t matter. Naftali Bennett, now on temporary hiatus from political life, ran through three or four party names. The point was to encourage people to vote for him, as it is to vote for Yair Lapid, or Avigdor Lieberman, or Benny Gantz, or Aryeh Deri. It’s not the party, it’s the person. Often, it is not even discernible what the party stands for (except for those that are extremely parochial and intend only to further the narrow interests of their base) or how it differs from any other party (the plight of the Likud offshoots, defining themselves only as antagonists to the current Likud leader, as well the Religious Zionist and Otzmah Yehudit parties that agree on everything). And oddly, unlike the big parties Likud and Labor (which once was a big party), the small parties never have primaries. They are controlled by the leader. He who doesn’t like it can leave. And if the leader would ever lose popularity, he would just go out and start another party. Most of the current parties are vanity projects.

     Politics has become a nasty trade and campaigns exercises in humiliation because the cult of personality demands unfailing allegiance. And, let it be said, it is difficult to let go and for politicians to bow out gracefully (and permanently). The Gemara (Menachot 109b) quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiah who reluctantly became the Nasi during the Second Temple era: “Initially, if someone said to me: Ascend (become Nasi), I would tie him up and put him in front of a lion [out of anger for his suggestion]. Now that I am the Nasi if someone told me to leave

the position, I would throw a kettle of boiling water at him.” He grew to like the position. And so

politics has become the art of throwing a boiling kettle at your opponent without getting scalded yourself.

     The cult of personality has had the effect of exaggerating the virtues and peccadilloes of our leaders. Until Nixon, no president was investigated for any appreciable length of time. Now,  every word and deed is scrutinized, and in Israel, we are witness to endless prosecutions of disfavored politicians that continue until something sticks, even momentarily, and which are widely perceived as politically motivated. These practices have become frighteningly normal.

     Policies don’t matter as much as personalities. Netanyahu was for the expulsion from Gush Katif and then against it, for a Palestinian state and then against it. And he is not the only such zigzagging politician. But he knows, as the others do, that people are voting for him, personally, come what may and whatever he might do.
     We must return to being a people and an electorate of ideas, not personalities. We should never be so charmed by one individual that we throw away our cherished beliefs and principles. We should never be so revolted by one person that we throw away our cherished beliefs and principles in the other direction and latch on to his or her opponent, just because… and regardless of what they will say or do.

     The good news is that, as frustrating as it seems, this indecision is the way it is supposed to be. It is what makes Moshiach stand out – a leader who is moral and unifying and even unimaginable to the generation that welcomes him, who sees himself only as an agent of God. He will be the leader who unites, inspires and exalts his generation. Until that day, may it come soon, we should vote based on ideas and values, and thus better secure our present and prepare for that glorious future.