Category Archives: Contemporary Life

Ask The Rabbi, Part 6

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the sixth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Is it appropriate to share mother-in-law jokes?

Humor is often used to defuse tension, and no relationship is fraught with more tension than that of in-laws. The Talmud (Yevamot 2a) itself refers to mothers-in-law as tzarot (rivals or adversaries) as in the worst circumstances they compete for the affections of their child with the new spouse. But those are under the worst circumstances, which is not to say they don’t occur with some frequency.

Certainly, one has to respect one’s in-laws (see Yoreh Deah 240:24, and Taz 19), presumably out of gratitude that they gave life to one’s spouse. Warm relations with one’s in-laws gladden your spouse and make for a better marriage, notwithstanding the occasional bumps in the road in any relationship. And it is those bumps that have engendered the popular mother-in-law jokes.

Generally, one is not allowed to joke about a person even if that person will not be offended by it, because who for sure knows whether offense is taken? Jokes about the individual would therefore be inappropriate; conversely, jokes about the institution are less troubling, especially if the mother-in-law knows they are in jest. (Sometimes it seems as if the primary purpose for the creation of the Internet was the sharing of jokes.)

We shouldn’t be so stuffy as to disallow any form of humor, particularly when it is playful and not malicious. Chazal (Avot 6:5) even noted that “mi’ut sechok,” a little humor, is one of the 49 ways through which the Torah is acquired. Chazal didn’t say “no humor,” but rather “a little humor.” It should be acceptable in this context as well. After all, even Moshe Rabbenu, given the choice of living with his in-laws or returning to his enslaved brethren in Egypt, left Yitro and returned to the house of bondage. Doesn’t that say it all?

 

For hundreds of years, Jews in Poland fasted on the 20th of Sivan to commemorate the tens of thousands of Jews killed in 1648-49 in the Chmielnitzky uprising.  Yet, we don’t fast today for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.  Why not?

We probably should but there are several reasons why we don’t. Some point to a statement in the kinot – “for we may not add a new day of mourning over ruin and burning,” a reference to the Crusades. But as the question implies, the fact that Jews in Poland did fast renders that reason less than compelling, even if the kinot were an authoritative halachic source.

I think the real reason is broader and an unhealthy reflection on our society today. Polish Jews formed one community. It is probably fanciful to say that all were religious but at least they all saw themselves as part of one nation. Sadly, that is no longer true in Jewish life. Polish Jewry had a central leadership body – the Council of the Four Lands – that could issue decrees to which all Jews felt bound. We no longer have a respected council of leaders that all Jews respect.

Moreover, how many Jews today fast the established four fasts, such that a decree to establish another would be heeded? Fasts are designed to be catalysts for teshuvah, repentance. How many Jews sincerely engage in acts of repentance? The Holocaust devastated mainly, although not exclusively, Ashkenazic Jewry. It would be very difficult to convince, say, most American Jews to accept an additional fast.

That being said, the current observances of Yom Hashoah fall short of a meaningful commemoration of this unique and horrific calamity. They tend to consist of contrived ceremonies, survivor accounts, hollow expressions of “Never Again,” and the pursuit of the broader agenda of the organizers. There is little religious perspective added, and almost no attempt to fit the Holocaust into the context of Jewish history before and after it. That might have to wait another generation and those proper observances will include a public fast.

 

Should the average Jew learn Kabbalah?

Much depends on how we define “Kabbalah.” Certainly traditional Kabbalah bears absolutely no relationship to the mass market Kabbalah that distributes amulets and holy water, emphasizes the recitation of enigmatic texts and is mostly New Age-type self help for the vulnerable.

Traditional Kabbalah, as taught in the Zohar, the writings of the Ari”zal and his disciples and later expositors as well, focuses on the inner workings of the universe, a deeper understanding of G-d and the role of Israel in the world. It tries to resolve the conundrum of how an incorporeal G-d created, sustained and continues to relate to a corporeal universe. The problems lie in the broad use of physical imagery and anthropomorphic terms to refer to these extremely esoteric concepts. These expressions are liable to engender in the casual reader a grave misunderstanding of fundamental principles of the Torah, especially relating to the nature of G-d.

Generally, these rarefied subjects in the Torah are limited to those, as Rambam writes in a related context (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:13), “whose stomachs are filled with bread and meat, i.e., to know what is permissible and prohibited in the Mitzvot…and these must precede [the stroll through the Pardes, the orchard] because they train us how to think, perfect this world and prepare us for the world-to-come…”

Rambam underscores that even the greatest sages were not always comfortable with this study. How less comfortable, then, should be Jews who are not yet filled with the wisdom of Torah, are not fully observant, nor conversant with Jewish philosophy! The immature student of Kabbalah can be easily harmed by its study and draw incorrect and heretical conclusions about G-d.

We should all be extremely hesitant before embarking on such a study, and only then with a qualified teacher.

 

 

 

Exit Strategy

This is one of the truest but most difficult lessons in life: it is better to leave when they want you to stay than to stay when they want you to leave. Said another way, it is better to leave too early than to leave too late.

I certainly experienced that in my own life in the last nineteen months. We should all be equipped with an internal clock that tells us when it is time to stop doing something you enjoy, and were successful at, and let others have their shot. But we are not so equipped. And it is not an exact science. Our departure times cannot be calibrated like trains in Europe and this has always been a bane of the rabbinate and, classically (because the duration of a career is much shorter) in sports. Those who recall the great but aging Willie Mays falling down in the outfield know the sensation. No rabbi, doctor, lawyer, businessman, hi tech genius or athlete wants to fall down on the job. And this applies with particular cogency to politicians.

This is not about Joe Biden (although it could be) but about Binyamin Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest serving prime minister but is now hemorrhaging support and under siege. Granted, his enemies will always despise him and the criminal charges against him are frivolous, which is not to say he will necessarily be acquitted of them. Anyone who feels that Netanyahu has exploited his office to get rich will not be dissuaded by evidence or reality. It has become common in western societies for opposition politicians to use prosecution to weaken and then disable leaders who cannot be defeated at the polls.

Netanyahu is losing support among his followers, his base, and that warrants some analysis. Israel’s government has been paralyzed, more or less, for several years now, with repetitive and inconclusive elections. Netanyahu has not been able to, and cannot, form a parliamentary majority of like-minded coalition partners; whatever the reason, that is the reality. It is possible – and certainly will happen down the road – that other Likud or right-wing figures would be able to cobble together a governing coalition but PM Netanyahu has alienated so many people in his own party, and certainly in the other sectors of the Israeli political system, that he has crashed into his electoral ceiling.

Had he stepped aside this past March – when again his coalition fell just short of a Knesset majority – he might have been hailed as Israel’s greatest prime minister. Having weathered the Corona virus storm, he would be extolled for presiding over an unprecedented era in Israeli life of peace and prosperity, of growing international appreciation and diplomatic recognition, of leading the world’s charge against the Iranian nuclear program, of forming the closest possible ties with the United States, and of ushering Israel into the forefront of the world’s economies and technological entrepreneurs.

Instead, the Corona virus returned with a vengeance (it probably never really left) and Netanyahu had no coherent plan to combat it – much like every other leader (and critic of that leader) in the world. And now his failures stand out. Like elsewhere, Israel’s economy has taken a Corona hit and unemployment is high. The unfulfilled promises loom large – annexation of even part of Judea and Samaria, the legalization of settlements and their protection against baseless and evidence-free lawsuits, the on-again, off-again building/freeze in the settlements, limiting the powers of the Supreme Court and the Attorney-General, two institutions that frequently undermine democracy, and others.

For sure, some of these are – and will be – trotted out as new promises in the next election campaign and those who believe it deserve to be fooled again. But why do people hang on too long and ruin their legacy?

One reason is the belief, sincere or otherwise, that only they can do the job and there will be deterioration in performance, productivity and achievement if they leave. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant. The old quip – “the graveyards are full of indispensable men” – still pertains. The departure of a long-time leader causes feelings of displacement, confusion and occasionally even despair, but somehow the world muddles on. It is not the same, which is not to say that it is better or worse.

The second reason is more prevalent. It is difficult to relinquish positions of power and influence. King George III, just defeated by the colonies, and informed that General George Washington was going to resign his commission, give up power and return to Mount Vernon, said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” It was unthinkable, and Washington did it twice!

Both reasons are often conflated and both played a role in the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution that limits the service of an American president to no more than two terms. Proposed in 1947, and ratified less than four years later, it was an obvious reaction to FDR’s triumph in four consecutive elections, unprecedented in American history.

One might well ask: isn’t this amendment, and aren’t term limits generally, extreme encroachments on the democratic process? After all, FDR won his elections because majorities voted for him, albeit declining majorities in 1940 and 1944. But he won fair and square. Why, then, the limitation?

The paradox of the two reasons cited above for hanging on – the leader’s belief in his indispensability and the difficulty in relinquishing power – is that large numbers of people come to believe the same thing. It is the power of incumbency, the comfort level the electorate has with a reining leader. Life becomes, to some extent, unimaginable, without them.

Nothing is normal in politics or life these days but unremarked upon is this anomaly. If President Trump is re-elected (as of this writing, he has a greater than 47% chance of re-election) and he serves another full four years, it will be the first time in American history that four consecutive presidents each serve two full terms. In fact, when his three predecessors (Obama, Bush and Clinton) each served eight years in office, that became only the second time in American history such occurred, and the first in almost two centuries. Not since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe (1801-1825) did three consecutive presidents serve the full two terms. Presidents 42, 43, and 44 pulled off a feat that had not happened since it was done by Presidents 3, 4 and 5. That encompasses a lot of years and a lot of presidents, and yet it is true.

Incumbency carries great advantages but the recent success of presidential incumbents might be attributable at least partly to the public’s realization that he will be gone anyway in, maximum, another four years. Leader fatigue has no time to set in. (That is generally; among Trump’s detractors, “leader fatigue” beset them on January 21, 2017, if not already on November 9, 2016.)

Parliamentary democracies have no such built-in constraints. Thus, except for Menachem Begin who resigned and left office, Israel’s prime ministers have exited office repudiated by the voters (except for the two extraordinary cases of assassination and criminal corruption).

What is Netanyahu’s exit strategy? Well, he has none and thus his tenure is not likely to end well. Understandably, he does not want to leave by being forced out by his enemies. But he does have the ability to change course, groom successors and plan a comfortable post-politics life that can be filled with new challenges suitable for a person of his talents. It stands to reason that the tendentious criminal charges against him would disappear as well.

For that, one needs to sing a few bars like Kenny Rogers once did: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Most don’t know that, and their reputations, businesses, and careers suffer.

But those who know often find great rewards in the “after” life. It pays to plan and then to carry out that plan.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 5

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the fifth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?

 It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.

This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.

Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.

We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.

 Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.

For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.

Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.

Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.

It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.

 

Should one dress up for a shiur on Zoom if no one can see anything more than your face and top of your shirt? 

 Do we dress to impress others or for ourselves? Probably both – although my sense is more of the former and less of the latter. Nonetheless, Rav Yochanan (Masechet Shabbat 113a) would refer to his clothing as “mechabduti,” that which brings me honor. Clothing reflects our inner dignity, and can serve, for better or worse, as a source of identification with a particular group or lifestyle.

One can certainly argue that what we wear at home during our waking hours should engender as much self-respect and respect for Torah as if we were appearing in public. There are rabbis who would never remove their frocks even in their homes and even in front of their family. Indeed, one could cogently argue that a person should dress up even for a Zoom shiur – but I wouldn’t make that argument…or dress up in fancy clothing.

Clothes define a person but they can also distort and deceive. The costumes we wear – and we all wear costumes of some kind – often say little about our inner life or spiritual gravitas. They create impressions that are often misleading and sometimes are meant to mislead. We might even be placing too much emphasis on clothing in Jewish life by expecting or insisting – overtly or covertly – that everyone should wear the same color, style and material.

As long as one is not dressed immodestly, I see no problem with Zoom participants relaxing at home in informal garb. We should save our special clothing for shul, tefila and Shabbat, and at home zoom in on the Torah being learned and not the fashion choices of the participants.

 

How does a young woman determine what is or isn’t immodest when it comes to clothing that falls in the grey area of tznius (i.e., the article of clothing is long enough but its overall look is problematic in the eyes of some but not in the eyes of others)?  Does she consult her own conscience?  Ask her mother?  A teacher? 

Certainly there are both objective and subjective elements to tzniut. Often communities will maintain their own stringent standards that would and should not pertain elsewhere. But the common and overarching objective for every person who aspires to tzniut is the desire not to call attention to ancillary aspects of the human being, such as clothing, appearance and the body itself.

Breaches of tzniut are always rooted in a flawed self-definition – people who want to be known primarily for their physical attributes instead of some quality that reflects true human greatness such as one’s intellect, spirituality or moral excellence. Thus, the Torah mandates that a kohen with an obvious physical blemish cannot serve in the Bet Hamikdash, sensing that onlookers will focus on the blemish and the kohen as an individual and not just an agent thereby detracting from his divine mission.

If that is the barometer of tzniut – a conscious decision to be valued by others for the way we express our uniqueness as people and not the way we flaunt our animalistic side – then all three resources are most helpful. The teacher can impart what precisely are the community standards and expectations, just as the mother can flesh out her daughter’s values, thought processes and conclusions. Ultimately, though, children leave home and live on their own so it is critical that they develop the correct notions about body and self-image, about the particular way in which they wish to be identified and to make their mark in the world, and about our responsibilities as Bnai and Bnot Torah.

This is the only way they will learn to make healthy and proper decisions as adults.

The Price of Peace

While my attentions were elsewhere, peace erupted yesterday between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. I didn’t even know we were at war, perhaps because I am just a little more than a week out of quarantine. Personally, I have never had a beef with the UAE, wish them well, and can envision visiting Abu Dhabi someday. It looks like a fine place. But why is “peace” in this region never just the result of realizing that two countries, not contiguous to each other and having no substantive disagreements and many mutual interests, decide to recognize each other? Why does the attainment of “peace” – or in this case, full diplomatic and trade relations – require substantive concessions only of Israel but not of the interlocutor?

Certainly there is a value in formalizing what has already been an informal and symbiotic relationship for several years, born of a mutual antipathy and suspicion towards Iran. Enemies of enemies do become friends. And it stands to reason that similarly-situated nations in the Gulf, who recognize Israel’s permanence, economic and military prowess, and close ties with the United States, will soon follow suit. Nevertheless, this was not simply the recognition of the mutual interests of two nations.

In this agreement, Israel forfeited its asserted intent to annex Judea and Samaria. The claim that such is just a temporary suspension is politician talk; surely in the next election campaign, which may come sooner than anyone wants, PM Netanyahu will trot out his commitment to annex these lands, or at least apply Israeli law to them. And surely his acolytes will believe it. But this is nothing less than the selling out of one’s patrimony in exchange for something that already existed – increasing diplomatic and commercial ties between two nations. It is a steep price to pay and betrays both a political inferiority complex as well as a deficient spiritual attachment to the heartland of Israel, even if we are mindful of Menachem Begin’s dictum that one cannot annex his own land.

Did Israel make an analogous demand and was there an analogous concession on the UAE’s part? Does anyone believe that if, in exchange for suspension of annexation, Israel had insisted that the Emiratees face Yerushalayim, not in Mecca, in prayer, that they would have agreed? Or what if, thinking smaller, Israel had just sought a commitment that the prayer for the IDF be recited in mosques across the kingdom every Friday, or even just once a month? Probably not.

There is an old story (or two) that plays out repeatedly in Israel’s negotiations over the decades. There is a sense that Israel does not deserve normal relations with other countries, and therefore must always pay a price for an embassy, an ambassador, commercial ties and the like that other nations, that see each other as equals, never do. Embassies are great and “peace” is even greater but we should recognize how frequently over the last decades the Egyptian and Jordanian embassies in Israel have been closed and diplomats recalled over some perceived offense that Israel committed, usually acting in its own interests and self-defense. Those are all symbols; the renunciations of claims are substantive and reveal uneasiness, almost a psychological discomfort, with asserting claims that advance Israel’s biblical and prophetic destiny.

The second historical trope has been Israel’s inability to clearly articulate what political goals it wants to achieve and then seek to achieve them. Its strategic objectives have always been murky (aside from survival) and this haziness has been facilitated by perpetual references to the Americans, and what they purportedly will allow or not allow Israel to do. This has been a mostly false and self-serving narrative, and has certainly been so in recent times. President Trump entered office asking Israel what it wants and has struggled to get a clear answer. Even the move of the embassy and the recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital – and other extremely pro-Israel actions – took longer than expected because of Israel’s hesitations. (A similar dynamic unfolded in the early years of the Bush administration when George W. Bush was ready and willing to move the embassy and fulfill a campaign promise and was dissuaded from doing so by then PM Ariel Sharon.)

Israel politicians have often used the so-called “American veto” in the same way that a child tells his friend that he can’t go hiking because his father won’t allow it, when the child really doesn’t want to go in the first place. It’s a convenient excuse and Israelis have usually accepted it as true. But it is not. Most Americans have only a passing familiarity and fleeting interest in what happens here, and those who do are mostly Christian evangelical supporters of Israel.

The same has now happened with the proposed application of Israeli to Judea and Samaria. It should be outrageous that more than a half-century since Israel’s conquest of these lands, its residents’ daily lives are still governed to a large extent by military, not civilian, authorities, and mundane issues such as building a house or a neighborhood become matters for the military and judicial authorities to resolve. That doesn’t seem very fair or very efficient.

Moreover, it was short-sighted not to exploit the Trump offer of annexation – there will never be a president as pro-Israel and Israelis should be rightly anxious about a potential Democrat ascending to power. It would have been advantageous to pocket that concession – 30% of the land is also something – and then work for the future. I sense that it was domestic politics that precluded this from happening – the Blue/White party with whom Likud shares a tense coalition opposed it – and so the government was more than happy to toss this inedible carrot to the UAE if that would clinch the deal. But it doesn’t bode well for the future.

Israel’s reluctance to proffer a coherent strategy is nothing new. I just finished reading a book about the Watergate era, to which was appended, for no discernible reason, recently declassified memoranda from the Middle East negotiations of the early 1970’s. In one, CIA Director Richard Helms reports on the results of the ongoing secret meetings between King Hussein and Golda Meir (1972). The Israelis insisted on direct, not third-party, negotiations, because “peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations…the King observed ironically that there have now been approximately fifty meetings between Israel and Jordan and the parties are still at square one.” In other words, the whole point of the exercise was not achieving peace – granted, the parties’ positions were far apart – but talking about peace.

Indeed, Helms concluded that “although peace is desirable, Israel can live without it…Things will remain as they are now; and instead of a formal state of peace, Israel believes there will be a gradual drift toward peace since Israel is intent on teaching the Arabs to coexist with her.”

Almost a year and a half later, the Yom Kippur War broke out. There has been much bloodshed since, but one objective has been achieved: much of the Arab world is ready to co-exist with Israel, and not necessarily because they have become Zionists. It is rather because they recognize that it is in their own interests to ally with Israel to confront common foes and build a better future.

That can be achieved formally or informally; it doesn’t really matter. The formal agreements that enshrine the informal relationships mainly serve the interests of the politicians who love ceremonies and use them to bolster their campaigns. This is another missed opportunity, hidden amid fanfare and bold promises. What awaits is visionary, new leadership that is not trapped in the paradigms of the past and that can advance Israel’s true interests going forward.