The First Modern Orthodox Jew: Two Models

Amid all the discussions about Modern Orthodoxy, its past, present, and future, it is perhaps helpful to look at two different paradigms into which Modern Orthodoxy currently divides itself – one positive, and one, well, less so.

One individual grew up in a religious home, so punctilious in its observance of mitzvot and sensitivity to others that he felt stultified. So he moved to the big, bad city and became so respected there that was elevated to leadership, notwithstanding the depravity of the place. He felt better about himself, even tried to maintain some of the observances he had practiced in his family home. Ultimately, he was spared his city’s fate not because of any personal qualities he possessed but solely because of the merit of the home he rejected. That person was Lot.

The contrasts between Lot and his uncle/brother-in-law Avraham were subtle but remarkable nonetheless. Lot could not bear the piety of that home, its insistence on the rigid worship of one G-d and its constant pursuit of virtuous deeds. When he abandoned Avraham, Lot – not atypically as history has played out – went to live in a place that was the antithesis of that home. Sodom was the center of debauchery, lechery, cruelty, and moral perversities. Undoubtedly, Lot concluded that he could live the life of the Sodomite while retaining the trappings of Avraham’s home. He was partially right – and he walked that tightrope in a way that is not unfamiliar to, and might even concern, many of us.

Our Sages pointed out Lot’s moral complexities. He came to Sodom, tried to blend in and eventually rose to prominence. He was appointed a judge in that immoral gutter – meaning he acculturated himself, probably attending college and law school there. Likely, he attended class on Shabbat but without writing or otherwise breaching a Shabbat stricture, and willfully absorbed all the heresy, mockery of religion and defiance of the fundamental moral norms with which he was raised – and he thought it did not affect him because he was on the kosher meal plan. He learned from the scholarly professors at the University of Sodom that G-d doesn’t exist and that His bible and moral laws were man-made, and Lot then must have pitied his poor old uncle who actually believed in G-d and His laws and comported himself accordingly.

Lot participated in the carousing associated with that life while still thinking himself somewhat above it. He made sure that others paid his admission fee to the Friday night frat parties and Saturday football games, and probably davened at least once a day.

Rituals mattered, even if there was little internalization and his heart was not in it. He loved the seder – we even find that he baked matzot for Pesach (Rashi, Breisheet 19:3). That didn’t require a moral sacrifice but just a cultural affinity. Perhaps, at his request, the casinos in Sodom ordered special kosher-for-Passover chips with which he could gamble. He was so at home in Sodom, and so comfortable with his dual life, that he saw no contradiction in his lifestyle and was unaware of any compromises he had made. Spiritually, he was content; professionally, he became a judge (like others could become congressmen, senators, cabinet ministers and ambassadors); but morally, he was bankrupt and, worse, he didn’t even know it. He thought he had it made when in fact he was plunging headlong to his own destruction.

When Lot saw the visiting angels, he rose to greet them, acting on the instincts that had been honed in Avraham’s home (ibid 19:1). He welcomed them in violation of the norms of Sodom – but he also did it in a half-hearted, desultory way. He didn’t run towards them, as Avraham did. He waited to see who they were and only greeted them because they appeared to him as worthy noblemen. He sneaked them into his home, lest his neighbors think poorly of him for this act of kindness. He suggested they lodge overnight without washing their feet first, so others would think they just arrived (ibid 19:2). What Avraham did sincerely, enthusiastically, with a full heart, and as part of his divine service, Lot did superficially, going through the motions, just trying to fulfill the mitzvah with minimum compliance to the technical norms.

And when the knock on the door came by the authorities and his enraged townspeople, Lot offered them his daughters’ virtue as enticement (#Lot-too?) and to demonstrate that his morals really were compatible with those of Sodom, that he really did fit in, and that his professions of piety were all external, just on the surface. He embraced some of the deeds and ceremonies but his heart was elsewhere and his inner spiritual world was non-existent.

Was Lot the first Modern Orthodox Jew? He kept what he kept, nothing more, and resented being judged. He felt that his immersion in the local culture was permissible as long as he committed no overt sins and thus rationalized his conduct as still faithful to his upbringing. Ideology and especially values were secondary to the technical performances that he, for the most part, still observed. And of course he lived in a place where there was no moral authority; indeed, he fled Avraham’s home only because he did not like to be told what to do. He doubtless answered any halachic questions he had by scouring the internet for the psak that he wanted. Eventually, he was saved from Sodom – but he disappeared from Jewish life with a peripheral role (Moav and Ammon) that found its way back to our people centuries later only through G-d’s machinations. But to the world of Avraham, then and there, he was lost.

That is one model of Modern Orthodoxy. There are many who indulge modern society and embrace its values, first thinking that the immoral norms do not affect them and later that those same norms must be part of the world of Torah because, after all, they profess them. They maintain ritually connected, for the most part, and take pride in their children’s accomplishments even if they are conjoined with an abandonment of Torah commitment. It is enough that they observe (or try to observe) a ritual or two – even though their minds, hearts, values and life’s interests are elsewhere, far removed from the world of G-d, Torah, mitzvot, Israel and Jewish destiny. It suffices that they are good people. That model is not unfamiliar to us, and it is unsustainable.

There is a second model of Modern Orthodoxy, one that might be better characterized as Orthodoxy plain and simple and the ideal for which we should strive, and that is the life of Avraham. He wasn’t a recluse nor did he shun or condescend to his neighbors. Indeed, they revered him as “a prince of G-d in our midst” (Breisheet 23:6) even if they could not fully understand or appreciate him. And that is because he struck the proper balance, as Rav Soloveitchik famously explained, of the dual life of “I am a stranger and a resident among you” (ibid 23:4). Avraham knew how to be a resident and good neighbor, to encourage his fellow citizens in pursuit of virtue and to join with them to promote the common good. He supported them, did business with them honestly, welcomed them into his home graciously and even went to war with them. He lived an integrated life, but he also knew the limits of integration.

Avraham participated in his society – but he also knew when he had to segregate himself, when he had to keep his distance, even when he had to sequester himself from them lest their deviances affect himself and his family. Avraham knew the secret of Jewish life in the exile: how to be part of society while still remaining apart from it.

That is the real test of our lives. Modern Orthodoxy, as it is understood today and as the reports from the field filter in, is struggling and in some arenas floundering because it has failed that test and lost that balance – either rejecting any good about the world at large and cloistering itself within the proverbial four ells or tacking its sails to every cultural wind and construing every modern value – i.e., every modern value, without distinction or analysis – as admirable, laudable and worthy of embrace, even if they conflict with or negate basic Torah principles.

We have the model of the fully integrated Lot who eventually disappears in the haze of the aftermath of the great devastation and the model of Avraham, “the stranger and the resident,” whose faithful descendants live until today and merit the divine blessings that are his legacy.

Which model we choose determines our future – as individuals and as a nation.

The Eternal Scourge

Jews across the world are rightly agitated by rising Jew hatred, not merely hostile rhetoric and anti-Israel activism but also physical attacks on random Jews. In France and Germany, in the United States and (lest we forget) Israel, and in other countries, Jews have been assaulted by enemies of the Jewish people in sudden and unprovoked beatings. Jewish institutions have been targeted in these countries as well, and most Jewish places of worship and assembly have beefed up security in recent years.

Is it worse than ever? Of course not, but Jews are understandably concerned and at a loss as to why it is happening and how it can be prevented. A recent AJC survey indicated that 88% of American Jews think Jew hatred in America today is a problem, and 84% think it has increased in the last five years. Yet, 98% have not experienced a direct personal attack, whether physical or verbal, and 95% have not avoided attending Jewish events for reasons of safety. Thus, the perception might be worse than the reality.

But the reality is that hardly a week goes by without a report of a physical attack on a Jew somewhere in the world. Certainly, the plethora of Jewish media outlets and web sites publicize these attacks, such that Jews who pay attention to these things know about it quickly, and repeatedly. Domestic politics has largely cultivated this perception as well, as Jewish Democrats have undeservedly embraced the narrative that President Trump and Republicans are to blame; that would hardly explain why a young black man in New York City punches a Hasidic Jew in the face almost every week (young black males not being generally perceived as MAGA hat wearers).

Sadly, it seems that nothing ever changes. Jew hatred is a persistent evil that, logically, should have disappeared after the Holocaust, after the founding of the State of Israel, or after the social progress in so many societies. And yet it endures even in countries where few or no Jews live.

One could spend a lifetime studying this phenomenon and not ascertain any definitive source.  Every reason proffered is insufficient, and every putative cause is debatable. To listen to the nasty diatribes or read the rabid ranting of Jew haters today and historically, the causes are multi-faceted, contradictory and often mutually exclusive. They hate Jews because Jews are too clannish or too cosmopolitan. They hate Jews because we are too wealthy or too poor, too liberal or too conservative, supporters of Trump or opponents of Trump. Some hated Jews because Jews were Communists and others hated Jews because Jews were capitalists. They hate Jews, many say today, because of Israel, but Jew hatred long predates the establishment of the State of Israel. One could go on and on, and no reason is ever dispositive because all of this ignores one fundamental dimension of our existence.

There is a paradox at the heart of one of the most well known – and challenging – descriptions of the Jewish people. Moshe proclaimed in his final charge to the Jewish people, almost his very last words (Devarim 33:28), that “Israel dwells securely when alone (“badad”), itself an echo of the most famous exposition of this notion, Bilaam’s characterization of the Jewish people as “a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9).

We are so familiar with this idea that we don’t ever consider why this is or should be a value. The great Rav Avraham Zuckerman zt”l noted that the Torah posits that the Jewish people are central to the world’s existence. Blessing flows to the world through us and our responsibility for the fate and welfare of other nations is a paramount feature of our existence. By definition, we are engaged with the rest of mankind. Nonetheless, we are also mandated to dwell alone, not be commingled with the nations but rather to retain a separate and distinct identity. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch even contended that we exercise our greatest influence on the nations when we are alone and distinct.

How can we be both alone and engaged? Moreover, Moshe underscores elsewhere (Devarim 32:12) that “G-d will guide us to be alone…” When does that happen?

Perhaps the answer will explain the current unrest in our world today. Indeed, the bane of Jewish life (in addition to persecution) has always been assimilation and its corollary – life in the exile. In every society in which we have lived, Jews have assimilated in large numbers over time. But when we are threatened with disappearance – when our assimilationist tendencies pass the tipping point – it is then that Jew hatred seemingly rises out of nowhere to remind us of our identity. As much as we try to hide it, G-d will not let it be hidden.

That is what the Torah means when Moshe declared that “G-d guides us to be alone” – to feel alone, to feel singled out and even excluded. And this Jew hatred, which is always beneath the surface, then explodes, the lid bursts off, and people who have no logical reason to hate Jews just start attacking Jews.

Has the US crossed that tipping point? The truth is that I don’t know how G-d runs His world or makes these judgments. What I do know is that assimilation in the United States is worse than ever and intermarriage is more accepted than ever. Both trends are extremely damaging and it is certainly unsurprising that these wake-up calls – these inexplicable attacks on Jews – have proceeded apace.

Several weeks ago, three Jewish athletes played baseball on Yom Kippur for their MLB playoff teams, all of whom, rightfully, lost. It does not seem that much thought was even given to the question of playing or not playing. A Sandy Koufax opting out of playing on Yom Kippur is simply unimaginable today. The attachment to Judaism outside the religious world is much more tenuous; the connection to Judaism is cultural – not national. It is personal – and not anyone else’s business. Even that modest symbol of commitment – abstaining from a public desecration of the Day of Atonement for the most frivolous of reasons – has been lost.

When Jews start vanishing and their Jewish identity evaporates, then “G-d guides us to isolation,” to feeling our identity through the hatred of our neighbors. That the targets are often clearly identifiable Jews does not mitigate the hypothesis; after all, we are all in this together and responsible for one another. “Once the destroyer is unleashed, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” (Bava Kama 60a). Eventually, the world takes notice of this unusual phenomenon – this original, incomprehensible and unshakable hatred of the Jews – and they too will acknowledge the one G-d.

Some will be adamant that more education is needed to win over hearts and minds and eliminate this scourge. It is wishful thinking and a waste of resources.  A recent Schoen Consulting poll revealed that almost 1/3 of American adults believe that far less than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 22% of millennials hadn’t even heard about it – and this after decades of billions of dollars spent on Holocaust education, memorials, museums and programming.

Others will argue that this is tantamount to blaming the victim, as if to say we bring Jew hatred on ourselves. Such a contention is a denial of Jewish tradition and thought – and that itself is an accurate synopsis of the problem. Of course we do not deserve to be attacked in the streets or in our synagogues, and many will say (rightfully so) that we should arm and defend ourselves and fight back. All true. But that doesn’t address the root of the issue. When our Jewish identity is expressed through virtuous acts and closeness to G-d there is no need for the negative pressures and overt hostility to reinforce that identity.

This is our world, and that is the downside of this process. The counterforce to assimilation and the attenuation of Jewish identity is a shocking and forced reassertion of Jewish consciousness. As our Sages stated (Masechet Megila 14a), Haman’s extermination plans did more to bring about the repentance of Jews than the words of all forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses combined.

But there is an upside as well – we have the capacity to transform ourselves and the world itself and render Jew hatred a distant memory. For it is not only the Jewish people who are alone in the world. It is G-d who is also “alone,” until we bring His kingship and His glory to the attention of all the nations who will realize and even rejoice in the knowledge that there is no G-d but G-d and that we are His people.

As we near the end of days, it will become more and more difficult for Jews to retain their Jewish identity. That is when we must redouble our efforts and immerse ourselves in Torah and mitzvot, in Shabbat and Kashrut, in the traditional morality and value system of the Torah that we brought to the world. In fact, our lives depend on it.

 

D.C. Follies

Our Sages taught (Yoma 22b) that no person should be appointed a leader of the community unless he has skeletons in his closet (literally, “a basket of reptiles behind him”). It helps keep him grounded and humble, especially as “there is no person so righteous who does only good and never sins” (Kohelet 7:20). Of course, what is traditional in Jewish life is apparently anathema in Washington, where the political circus has continued for three years with no end in sight.

Impeachment is a political process that is rooted in sufficient misdeeds in both quantity and quality that the office-holder has lost the confidence of the co-equal ruling class, but more importantly, the people. The Constitution is suitably ambiguous on the subject, authorizing impeachment for the straightforward crimes of “treason and bribery” but also the malleable “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The last clause is odd, given the wide range of “misdemeanors” that include things that are frivolous. But an analysis of American impeachment history, as sparse as it has been, and fortunately so, is instructive.

Andrew Johnson, the hated successor to the beloved but assassinated Abraham Lincoln, was impeached on purely political grounds. He was known as a racist and a drunk, was hesitant to extend equal rights to the former black slaves and eager to allow the full re-admission of Southern states to the Union with a minimal conditions. This antagonized his Republican Party who sought to bypass and then weaken him. They had a handy remedy when Congress had passed a law, the Tenure in Office Act, solely to limit his presidential powers. It required Congressional approval for the removal of any federal official, such as a Cabinet Secretary, whose tenure in office had originally been approved by Congress. Johnson held that such an act was an unconstitutional limitation on presidential prerogatives undertaken by a Congress that despised him. His veto was overturned. (By way of analogy, Congressional enactment of the War Powers Resolution in 1973 was a direct assault on the despised President Nixon, who, like all of his successors, have deemed that Act also unconstitutional.)

When Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and nominated Ulysses S. Grant as his replacement – doing it intentionally to test the constitutionality of the act – he fell into the trap Congress laid for him, and he was impeached, which is tantamount to an indictment. It was a blatantly political and personal rebuke, as his impeachment trial took place in 1868, an election year, in which Johnson was never going to be nominated by the Republicans for a full term as president. (It is worthy to note – and quite apropos to current events – that this was the second time the House had taken up impeachment charges against Johnson. The first was in 1867 on some other pretext, but that vote failed).

Andrew Johnson was spared conviction in the Senate by one vote, the Senate then adjourned, and General Grant was nominated by the Republicans as their presidential candidate in 1868. Several months later he was elected president. It was nasty politics through and through.

By contrast, Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice was political in process but substantively based on the commission of crimes unrelated to the conduct of his presidency. Free people will always differ on whether impeachment under such circumstances is warranted. For sure, Republicans saw a partisan opportunity but since sitting presidents cannot be indicted, the open question was how should Congress deal with a president who has committed crimes while in office? As he cannot be indicted, tried, and punished if guilty, the only two options are impeachment or disregard of those crimes. In context, the former was a reasonable if unsuccessful endeavor weakened by the widespread perception that Clinton’s lies to conceal his marital infidelities was something to which the common person could relate. In a totally partisan vote, he was acquitted by the Senate and served out the remainder of his term with enhanced popularity but the ignominy of being the only president ever impeached for crimes committed while in office.

If Johnson’s impeachment was politically-motivated and Clinton’s impeachment driven by criminal behavior, it is clear that Richard Nixon’s near-impeachment was spurred by both raw politics and criminal conduct. To be sure, he suffered under Congresses that were heavily Democratic, and which had loathed him since the late 1940’s. And while it is also true that his crimes were obvious – covering up the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters (hmmm… were the Russians involved?), unleashing the IRS and other government agencies on his political opponents, etc. – it is undeniable that there were few things that Nixon did that had not been done by JFK and LBJ before him. Indeed, using the IRS to harass political enemies was something that occurred routinely in the Obama administration. Nixon wasn’t impeached – he resigned to avoid bi-partisan impeachment and likely conviction in the Senate – and his departure from office engendered a house cleaning in American politics.

Where does Donald Trump fit into this paradigm? Well, since the first bill to impeach Trump was filed the day he took office, it is obvious that the motivations are primarily, if not exclusively, political. Representative Al Green, among others, has filed multiple bills of impeachment in the last several years, and his other contribution to American politics is this recent quote that will live forever.  Asked this past May whether he was afraid the impeachment “talk will help the president’s re-election,” he responded that “I am concerned that if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.” As in, why leave it up to the people? But he seemed unaware that impeachment and removal from office are two separate acts, and the former without the latter is futile, except as a political sword.

Has the President committed crimes? That is a debatable issue, but despite the heated rhetoric, the simple answer is no. Screaming that crimes have been committed does not make it so. The relentless investigations and the breathless exposes have amount to nothing. From the Russian collusion hoax to the campaign finance “violations,” from the fishing expeditions involving Trump’s tax returns to the current Ukrainian imbroglio, the irrational investigation obsession has paralyzed the country and made it an international laughing stock.

Of course, Trump has been ill-served in a number of ways, particularly his penchant for being his own press secretary while failing to communicate his points coherently and defend his interests and actions cogently. Is it a crime to ask Ukraine’s president to investigate possible Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election? It is bizarre to think so, considering the Democrat’s fixation on foreign entities stealing the 2016 election. Note, indeed, that the Biden matter was the last raised by Trump, and only after President Zelensky indicated there were a number of investigations already taking place.

Furthermore, the claim that he asked a foreign leader to “dig up dirt” on a political rival is an admitted fabrication; no such language was ever used by Trump. “Digging up dirt” suggests revealing the existence of a secret girlfriend in Kiev. That is wholly different from investigating pay-to-play schemes involving high-ranking government officials and their families. Wouldn’t it be of interest to the electorate – and possibly illegal – if an American president was profiting from policies he espoused that related to a foreign government? Wasn’t there frenzied reportage – and prosecutions for perjury – over the possibility that Candidate Trump might have been negotiating to build a hotel in Moscow and had therefore sold his soul to Putin? In reality, Trump did not profit at all from any Russian connections. In reality, the Biden’s profited handsomely from their Ukrainian connections. So why is the former worthy of apoplectic, overblown and tendentious media coverage – and the latter blithely dismissed by that same media as “nothing wrong”? The answer speaks for itself.

Is it inherently unreasonable to ask a foreign government to investigate possible corruption or influence –peddling by an American, especially by a former American Vice-President? Only if one feels that being a presidential candidate should serve as a shield against any corruption investigation, a bizarre stance in its own right but downright hypocritical when one considers the treatment of Candidate Trump.  The phony piety of crying over delayed funding for the Ukrainian military is especially rich coming from Democrats who withheld any support for Ukraine when they really needed it – when Russia conquered Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine during the Obama years. And the notion that a request for such assistance is a campaign violation is laughable, asserted by people who do not know or care about the law and are nothing but hostile polemicists. The mania over a quid pro quo assumes that somehow Ukraine was entitled to American taxpayer money. And when GHW Bush and James Baker withheld loan guarantees from Israel in the early 1990’s after they had been approved by Congress in order to force compliance with American diplomatic policies and anti-settlement preferences, was that not also a quid pro quo, and isn’t that how politics, local and foreign, is played? It is a charade.

Two things seem apparent, even if they gone unremarked upon: it is obvious that the Democrats do not want to formally initiate impeachment hearings because that would give the Republicans the right to issue subpoenas and call witnesses to testify. Witnesses such as Hunter Biden, who could be asked: “How much were you paid to serve on the Burisma board? What is your experience in the energy field? What did you contribute during the time you served on that board? What did you do to earn the money? Did you ever discuss Burisma business with your father or with any Obama administration official?”

Witnesses such as Joe Biden, who could be asked: “You never discussed business with your son? Never? Why did you fly him on Air Force Two with you to China? Did you not ask him how his Chinese meetings went? Are you aware of how he supports himself? Do you have other relatives who have joined corporate boards eager for access to you?”

Add that to the uninvestigated scam of the hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign money pocketed by the Clinton Foundation – now apparently defunct – and it is no wonder the Democrats want to avoid public hearings.

Secondly, the direct appeal to Zelensky, and the employment of the peripatetic Rudy Giuliani, seems intended to bypass the FBI and CIA – both of whom are not trusted by Trump for the simple reason that elements of both have been trying to undermine him since even before he took office – indeed, even before he was elected. If I were Trump, I would not trust them – and the latest proof is the unconscionable act of publicly disclosing private presidential phone calls to world leaders under the false guise of whistle-blowing but just another attempt to undermine his presidency. It is unimaginable that such treachery could occur and be tolerated, much less celebrated, under any other president.

President Trump would be wise to establish a completely separate and discreet means of communication because he literally cannot trust the intelligence agencies. That is the real scandal that needs to be exposed and prosecuted – or these shenanigans will continue under future presidents whose bureaucrats oppose his policies – and all to the detriment of the country.

And this: Trump’s disruption of the traditional order of politics in America has engendered these endless investigations. And they will be endless: if he is impeached in the coming months, he will be acquitted. If he is re-elected and the Democrats retain the House, he will be impeached again for something or other in 2022 or 2023.

Sometimes, the “basket of reptiles” comes in human form. The circus has come to town, and it is not going anywhere.

Undoing the Past

Rosh Hashana is the first day of the ten days of repentance, but the repentance of Rosh Hashana is different than on the other days. There is no Viduy recited, no confessional prayer and no selichot. It is a day of Malchiyot, the acceptance of G-d’s kingship; we focus not on ourselves but on G-d. So, if there is no overt repentance on Rosh Hashana, how is it part of the ten days of repentance? What is the teshuva of Rosh Hashana?

Rav Eliyahu Lifschitz, in his “Selichot Mevu’eret,” questions the very nature of the mitzvah of teshuva. It is, indeed, a strange Mitzvah, for what does it really add to the Torah? It is a fascinating entry-level question to the Yamim Noraim:  I may want to eat a cheeseburger, but the Torah says I may not. The Torah says I have to observe Shabbat, so I must. If I breach the Torah’s norms, I have sinned, and must comply next time. So what then does teshuva accomplish?

He explains that the Torah’s mitzvot are focused on the future. There is always something to do or not to do. In fact, mitzvot are generally rooted in objects or actions that demand the appropriate response. But teshuva is less concerned with the future than it is with the present. Of course, we regret the squalid past and commit to a more virtuous future, but repentance is oriented in the present.

Said another way, if we sin and do not do teshuva, what have we really lost? We are still obligated not to sin again or to perform the proper positive commandment. So, just do it, or don’t do it! There is always another mitzvah to do and another sin to eschew. What, then, does teshuva add?

Teshuva presupposes that at present there is a new obligation on the sinner: to repent. The gavra (individual) now has the status of a sinner, and that status has to be uprooted. The fact that the sin is over and in the past only has meaning in terms of the future, but in the present, the status of sinner has to be removed.

If Mitzvot can only be done in the future, and Teshuva is a phenomenon of the present, what about the past? Is the past really past, and what happened in the past is irredeemable and unrectifiable? Should we just not cry over spilled milk? No.

The past, too, can be undone, which is important if only because the past remains an integral part of our personality. How can we change the past?

We cannot, but G-d can, and this is what is called kapara, atonement. Human beings live within limitations; there really is no time machine in which we can travel to the past and reverse bad decisions. Only G-d, who is infinite and beyond time and space, can do that. G-d can change the past, and that capacity alone strengthens our resolve to return to Him.

But man is only able to access that divine attribute by surrendering to Him, to anoint G-d our King in every facet of our lives. And this elicits G-d’s boundless compassion that enables us to continue in His service. An avaryan (literally, a sinner), someone once said, is a person who is too rooted in the avar, the past, obsessing over what was and thus paralyzing himself for the future. Those who think the past cannot be undone harm both their present and their future.

This, then, is the purpose of the Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship that is at the heart of Rosh Hashana and the Yamim Noraim. It is the only way to change the past and redeem the present so that we can be worthy of the glorious future. Mitzvot perfect the future, teshuva perfects the present, and kapara perfects the past. And the only prerequisite is to join in the coronation of G-d, and then we will be the beneficiaries of His blessings for a year of life, good health, prosperity and peace, for us and all Israel.

On behalf of Karen and our entire family, I wish all of us a Ktiva vachatima tova!

 

Speech Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Time Warp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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