Category Archives: Contemporary Life

Not-So-Smart Phones

The narrative of creation accounts for many details of our origins but obviously not all, so what is included must be of great import. And of course the Torah was not given to us to teach cosmology, science, or even history but rather to teach us morality – not how we came to be but why we came to be, and how we should live. And so the nuggets of information provided about the ancients should catch our attention.

Thus we are taught that Lemech had one son named Yaval, “and the name of his brother was Yuval, the forerunner of those who play the harp and the flute” (Breisheet 4:21). Yuval was the original music man. And Lemech’s other wife Tzila “also gave birth to Tuval Kayin, the forerunner of those who sharpen and craft implements of copper and iron” (ibid 4:22). These facts are certainly interesting, but what’s the point?

And note the contrasts: the Netziv commented that the harp and the flute have dueling functions; the harp soothes while the flute arouses. They are not generally played together, and yet Yuval played both. So too, the instruments that were manufactured by Tuval Kayin could also be put to disparate uses. Tuval Kayin, like his great-great-great-grandfather Kayin, was also a farmer, so he created tools that made the work easier. But Rashi wrote that that he was too much like his ancestor Kayin, who murdered his brother Hevel but was not very efficient in carrying out the dastardly deed, But Tuval Kayin was so named because he perfected the craft of Kayin, manufacturing weapons of homicide like knives and daggers. So too Yuval the music man who used his music for idolatrous worship. What exactly are we being taught?

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a long essay by Nicholas Carr that should wake us up to the realities of the new world and the potential dangers that technology present. We always see the good, the benefits and the advantages in every modern invention but rarely internalize the downside, the struggles, or the changes for the worse, if we even do more than pay lip service to it. And so it is with the ubiquitous Smartphone.

Smartphones have become indispensable; more than half its users cannot imagine life without a product that didn’t even exist less than two decades ago. Traditionally, we have worried about the moral and spiritual dangers that are extant. I, like many rabbis, have railed against people even bringing Smartphones to shul, much less using them during prayer. Sadly, some people just can’t help it, and can’t disconnect from these devices even for a few moments. We have all witnessed people answering emails or texting during the davening (a real embarrassment to the shul and its sanctity as well as an insult to G-d in whose presence they presumably stand) and all been irritated by phones ringing during davening (although, fortunately, it is less of a problem in our parts).  But the essay makes a different and much stronger point: these Smartphones are making us dumb and our children even dumber. And that is a real, and in many venues an uncontrollable, problem.

The advantages are numerous. Smartphone provide with heretofore unimaginable convenience and an ever-increasing array of diversions. Who could have dreamed even a few years ago of a hand-held device that serves as a phone, camera, mailbox, photo album, computer, every newspaper and magazine you want to read, every movie, television show or sports program you want to watch, a calendar, a diary, a siddur, Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch and much more? But Smartphones come at a great cognitive cost, and that’s what the research is showing. Just hearing a ring or a vibration makes it more difficult to concentrate. And when people hear a buzz and don’t check their phones, immediately their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens and their problem-solving skills decline. The ramifications for us will be clear in a moment.

In one study, three groups of students were given a test. One was told to keep their phones on their desks, another in their pockets or purses and a third group in a different room. Those whose phones were in view did the worst, those whose phones were in another room did the best, and those whose phones were present but in their pockets came out in the middle. Their mere presence drains away our mental energy and detaches us from our surroundings.

Obviously, those who people who bring phones to shul will have worse kavana even if the phones are off, and kavana is something with which we struggle under the best circumstances. Even more seriously, schools that allow children to bring their phones are wasting the parent’s tuition money. The children will simply not learn as much, their cognitive skills and ability to concentrate will decline precipitously, and then we will wonder where we have gone wrong. It is also worth noting that the mere presence of a phone diminishes the concentration of all those who see it, even if they do not own it, because it reflects the universe of opportunities, delights and fantasies in the great beyond, which always seem more interesting that whatever one is doing at the moment.

And worse: we are impairing our social skills through addiction to these devices while our children are not developing any social skills at all. Relationships suffer, if real ones at all exist. Smartphones serve as a constant reminder of all the friends we could be chatting with electronically, so they grab at our minds even when we are talking to live people, leaving those conversations shallower and less satisfying. Read “Reclaiming Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle, and you will realize that the ubiquity of Smartphones makes us less productive (even as we think we are being more productive), destroys our capacity for self-reflection, and prevents us from living in the moment with real people. It has spawned a generation that prefers texting to talking and virtual interactions to real ones.

These phones are not just in our hands but they are inside our heads. They hijack our attention and constitute a “supernormal stimulus” such as the world has never before seen. And we remember less, because everything is out there, accessible with a few taps of a finger. But William James, the 19th century American psychologist and thinker, said that the art of remembering is the art of thinking. We encode certain information that enables us to think conceptually, to make intellectual associations. When we stop doing that we create delusions of intelligence, with people feeling they know more but actually know less about the world around them. That’s why so many college students struggle to place the Civil War or World War II in the right decade (or quarter-century) and have no idea how many Supreme Court justices or United States Senators there are.

The only hope – the only answer – is to learn how to disconnect. Shabbat is great for that but it only comes once a week. Shul is even better – twice a day, morning and night. Leave the phone at home, period, or in the car. Carve out disconnect time as well with spouse and children. And parents who send their children to school with Smartphones are forewarned; the phones are smart but the people who cannot disengage from them become dumber. That’s the science.

The Torah introduces these ancients as the pioneers of innovation, which began with them and has not ceased. Yuval’s music brings joy, inspiration and comfort but can also be used for debauchery and idolatry.  Tuval Kayin’s inventions were great for farming but also for homicide and mayhem. It’s not history; we are not accounting for the dates of the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. It’s Mussar, designed to tell us how to control all new inventions but not have them control us. Every invention is morally neutral, with positive and negative qualities. Rashi says that the sons of Lemech failed in their understanding and embrace of the new technology and let themselves be swept away by the immoral possibilities and their potential for evil and dehumanization.

That same potential exists in all of us, until we internalize the notion that everything created is primarily for the glory of G-d and must promote His service.

 

 

 

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Succot and the Nations

(This was first published as a front page cover essay in the Jewish Press, October 4, 2017)

     One of the unique features of the Succot service in the Bet Hamikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven bulls on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Succot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world. These bulls served as atonement for their sins which would ensure that they, too, were blessed, with heavenly rain and prosperity. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Bet Hamikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Succa 55b)

     Indeed, who – or what – does atone for the nations of the world today?

     As we celebrate Succot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies. Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a re-direction of its energies and objectives.

     Perhaps even worse than the geo-political nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality than mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the divine will needed to be ascertained and implemented.

      But G-d has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined. For the first time in American history, more Americans today are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that were once considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.

      Something changed dramatically in Western society over the last century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be in the 1960’s.

       Before the 1960’s, sin existed, and all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, but they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them. What was considered scandalous, appalling and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today, and properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40% of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided. Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews – presumably, the possessors and propagators of the divine morality – have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era. G-d’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.

     Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10% of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive. Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by  all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.

      What changed in the 1960’s?

      Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed G-d from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments. Certainly, they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life. To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated several months ago.

      Please allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah, one that is being fulfilled before our eyes, is G-d’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days. “And G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3). Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megila 29a) that G-d, in a sense, returns from the exile with us. “It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”

       Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel. It was the triumph of the Six Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized G-d’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it. If we bless G-d as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.

       But if we posit that during the exile, shechinta b’galuta, the divine presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the divine presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the shechina has receded from the exile, from America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, home to most Jews for almost two millennia. As the divine presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960’s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960’s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory and Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, G-d’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear. As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values and even paying lip service to values, and the loss of shame.

     With a loss of the divine presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a superior morality than the one that G-d offered His subjects, both Jews and Gentiles. It is a new world in which even mentioning G-d in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that intermarriage, which hovered around 5% until the 1960’s, has skyrocketed since.

      Certainly, G-d’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. G-d as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence. But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels. The divine presence never departs from the Kotel Hamaaravi, the western wall of the Temple (Midrash Raba Shmot 2:2). There are times during the year when we feel that G-d is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a) and in our Sukkot. And of course there are remnants of the divine presence in the exile as well. G-d’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even when one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6). But whereas the shechina was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is less and less experienced in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations is declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.

      The Six Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the divine presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal. Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.

      What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. Without G-d’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling with faith and tenacity are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries. The very notion of G-d has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the  idea of G-d as Creator, King and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1%.

     One might ask: if this is true, and the divine presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in Israel today in some parts? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege. The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the shechina has precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.

     Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Bet Hamikdash stood, and G-d’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Succot atoned for the nations of the world. “And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?

      Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. That is a momentous event and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3). Currently, the world could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews who remain in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values.  We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.

      It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all of G-d’s creatures. Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Succot past. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with G-d, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation. We celebrate that uniqueness in the Succa, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Succot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with G-d and offer just one bull as G-d celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.

       On Succot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the divine presence to its natural locale, re-commit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world, and nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.

Our Enemies

In July 2005, I spent a week in New Orleans, even survived a hurricane that deviated off course at the last minute. Two months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and wrecked the Bush Administration. Six years later, I spent a week in Oslo. Two weeks after I left, a crazed gunman murdered 69 young people. Mayhem has followed my visits to several other cities as well, all coincidences, of course.

Needless to say, exactly one year ago, I vacationed in Charlottesville, Virginia, for two days. The horrific events of last week – the murder, the white supremacist rally, the aggressions of the radical left – were all uncharacteristic of the town, a quaint genteel place typified by traditional Southern hospitality. It seems clear that the demonstrators, rioters and activists were primarily outsiders, and it saddens that Charlottesville will take its place in the list of American cities where senseless, hate-filled violence shattered the calm and robbed the innocent of life.

Much has been made of the appearance of Nazis, white supremacists, and random Jew haters, and their counterparts on the left, including thugs, Black Lives Matter activists, and other random Jew haters, and others, and President Trump’s reaction to all of them. Suffice it to say, the President struggles with his articulation. George W. Bush was known for consistently mangling words and syntax, but Trump makes Bush sound like Lincoln or Churchill. You have to know what he is trying to say to make sense of it.

Most supporters can deduce what he is saying through the plethora of words and images that are being emitted, while his enemies (“opponents” seems to be too tepid a term) fume at his every utterance and isolate phrases or allusions that reflect some esoteric code known only to the coterie of detractors. There is nothing he can say or do that will change their minds, and, I suspect, there is little that he can say or do that will turn his supporters against him. Many of those supporters voted for Trump not as their first or second choice but as their final choice, given the alternative. Given that alternative, he will remain preferable, and American society will continue to fragment amid increasing polarization and intolerance.

Those who deem Trump to be a Nazi sympathizer, or worse, interpret every comment as justification for their conclusions. That contention, certainly, is offensive and baseless, because if it were even possible that there was a Nazi sympathizer in the White House, every sane Jew would be packing his bags and heading for Israel forthwith. And yet, with all the chatter about the increase in Jew hatred in America in the last few years, and the alleged fear of Donald Trump, aliya from the United States is down and yerida from Israel to the US is up. Unless Jews are masochists, and perhaps that can’t be ruled out, then the accusations are crassly political rather than substantive and reality-based.

Should President Trump have denounced the Nazis and left it at that? From the media’s and Jewish establishment’s perspective, certainly. Nazis are the handiest enemy of the Jewish people, an easy and deserved target, and universally reviled by Jews and non-Jews, not least the American public, most of which still remembers entering a war to defeat the Nazis (and Japanese) that cost 500,000 American lives. Everybody hates Nazis, racists, white supremacists, etc., but consider the following.

American Nazis are always seeking to call attention to their venomous ideas, always trying to march somewhere, and their following is infinitesimal, not even a blip on the American radar screen. Even in Charlottesville, their participants, for all the hoopla, numbered in the low hundreds. Their ideas have no traction in American society, even if in the internet era they enjoy wide dissemination. Their right to march has been litigated in the courts and approved on constitutional grounds of free speech and assembly. When the Nazis sought to march in Skokie in 1977-78, President Carter was asked about it at a news conference. Here was the exchange, from January 30, 1978:

 

  1. Mr. President, there’s a group of American Nazis in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, which is contemplating a march that’s in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and there might be victims there of the Nazi concentration camps from World War II. Do you have any plan to use the moral weight of your office to try to discourage this kind of a march? 

 

THE PRESIDENT. I deplore it. I wish that this demonstration of an abhorrent political and social philosophy would not be present at all. This is a matter that is in the American Federal courts, as you know, and under the framework of the constitutional guarantee for free speech. I believe under carefully controlled conditions the courts have ruled that it is legal and that they have a right to act this way. 

We have the same problem, as you know, in other parts of the Nation—in the South with the Ku Klux Klan, and others. And I don’t have any inclination to intercede further. I think it’s best to leave it in the hands of the court.

 

Note well what Carter said and didn’t say. He deplored the march, found their ideas abhorrent, but acknowledged the matter is being litigated and that the Nazis have a legal right to march. He declined to intercede further. Trump used very similar language, inelegant in his own way, deploring, condemning, saying such hatred has no place in American society, etc. He even pointed out that the evil white supremacists had a permit for their demonstration – as opposed to their protesters who did not and broke the law. (The withdrawal of the police that led to open violent confrontations and then to the despicable homicide should be investigated fully. That was a horrible failure of government.) But imagine if Trump had merely stated – as Carter basically did – that they have a right to march, and left it at that. He would have been excoriated, accused of winking and encouraging these nuts, or supporting them outright.

The Nazis in 1978 eventually marched in a Chicago park, all… several dozen of them, led by Frank Collin (the son of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who changed his name from Cohen. Go figure.) Nothing happened. Back in 1978, I (at the time, young and headstrong; now I am older and headstrong) thought that the Nazis should not be allowed to march and should be violently resisted. The man who would soon become my father-in-law suggested that it would be far better to allow them to march, rant and rave – and just ignore them. No coverage. No media. No reaction. I argued. In retrospect, he was right (all right, hard for me to admit) and I was wrong. Their demonstration received no attention. They crawled back into their swamps after a few minutes. Life went on and they continued marching in obscurity. I wonder if the same approach would work today; perhaps it should be tried.

The world today is far different, and not only because Jews are slightly more sophisticated. Free speech is under assault. The WSJ recently excerpted a new book by a liberal (a true liberal) Columbia professor who noted that in today’s climate, “class­room con­ver­sa­tions that once might have be­gun, ‘I think A, and here is my ar­gu­ment,’ now take the form, ‘Speak­ing as an X, I am of­fended that you claim B.’ What re­places ar­gument, then, are taboos against un­fa­mil­iar ideas and con­trary opin­ions.” Like it or not, the counter-demonstrations were an expression of violent offense that others have detestable opinions that should not be allowed to be expressed. That is not the United States of America.

There were two troubling subtexts to the Charlottesville riots. The first was that the radical left wing protesters (the antifascists and other groups) set out to deny the free speech rights claimed by the odious Nazis. There was a time when liberals defended that, and here the ACLU did, even if it have been neglectful in other defenses of free speech such as on college campuses. For its efforts, it was lambasted by Virginia’s governor and blamed for the ensuing violence. That is more ominous than Americans recognize because such suppression of speech has become common across the country, and is un-American. Trump alluded to this but not coherently enough. That does not bode well for Jews, who hold some opinions based on Torah morality that are not appreciated by left-wing groups in this era, and those groups are actively trying to repress and even criminalize that speech.

That is true as well about the matter of the Confederate statues, about which I am an agnostic. I understand why it would trouble blacks, as I am troubled by the statues of Titus and Hadrian in Rome and Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev. (If NYC wants to remove the plaque honoring Marshal Petain, please also remove the one honoring Charles de Gaulle, who turned out to be a hater of Israel who embargoed weapons for Israel already paid for when Israel most needed it in 1967, and that of Peter Stuyvesant, a rabid Jew hater in his own right.) On the other hand, there is something Orwellian about flushing history down the memory hole. It smacks of untruthfulness, even weakness. I stood before the Arch of Titus, and other statues of Roman emperors in the Pantheon or Italian museums, and laughed like Rabbi Akiva at the end of Masechet Mako). I wished that they could all come back to life for a few moments and see what became of their grandiose empire and, conversely, the nation of Israel that they tried to destroy. There are many American blacks who revel in their freedom, in the eradication of slavery and their successes in America, and their triumph over the ideology of the old men on horseback, whose ideology reflected their times, and whose defeat can teach all of us about morality, values and human dignity; if only there were many more in that community. That would also be tolerant, a lost virtue.

The second subtext is one that affects Jews in America and across the world. The Nazi obsession that we have (justified by the ideas uttered but not by the numbers of people uttering them) has rendered Jews blind to the haters on the other side. People are not our friends just because they protest against Nazis, any more than ISIS is our friend because they are fighting our foe, Bashar al-Assad. The Trump reference that set off so many people – the bad people on “many sides” – highlighted the fact that there are haters on the left that hate Jews and Israel as much as the haters on the right. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the anti-fascists, et al are rife with haters of Jews and Israel. There is no reason to give them a pass. The Nazis and white supremacists are loathed by everyone and are miniscule in number, while the leftist anti-Israel groups have found a comfortable home in one wing of the Democrat Party. They are being mainstreamed, not the Nazis; they are the ones supporting BDS; they are the ones who are being pandered to by the Cory Bookers of the world; they are the ones who deserve our attention.

Yet, President Trump’s clumsy attempt to reference them was roundly denounced. It is fascinating that the reaction here in Israel, official and unofficial, is largely bewilderment at the American Jewish disregard of their primary adversaries and the elevation to prominence of their faux foes. We have reached a stage, on the bizarre landscape of contemporary American Jewry, where support for Israel is no longer construed as being “pro-Israel” and to some people indicates the opposite, while antagonism towards Israel is not perceived as being “anti-Israel.” It will not be the first time that Jews have failed to distinguish between enemies and enemies, and friends and enemies.

Of all the problems facing American Jewry today, the existence of an American Nazi Party is not even in the top ten. Assimilation and intermarriage have robbed us of more Jewish souls than has this pathetic band of losers. That is the problem but it is far easier to denounce Nazis and white supremacists than it is to keep Jews Jewish for positive reasons, have Jews marry other Jews, and embrace the lifestyle that G-d ordained for us. The real enemies of the Jews in America and the world are not “Nazis,” and we are blind not to see that.

Like bad generals who always fight the last war, we are looking backwards and seeing the wrong things. The Nazis are evil, of course, but some of those confronting them are also not our friends and some are real enemies. We will survive them, but we should not deny their existence, nor should we embark on a campaign to turn friends into enemies. Those who do not learn from past are doomed to learn the name of George Santayana. But those who see only the past and look at everything through the prism of the past are doomed to distort the present and will be unprepared to face the challenges of the future.

As the exile winds down, it would be wise and prudent for Jews to assess who are our real enemies and what poses the genuine threats to our future. That has yet to happen, for, to many Jews, it hits too close to home.

Sins of Coercion

Does the Talmudic category of “ones rachmana patrei,” that “the Merciful One exempts [from punishment one who sins because of] coercion” apply to sins that are not forced on us by our enemies or by circumstances beyond our control? This issue has again risen to the fore by the assertion of a well known American-Israeli rabbi that this concept can be applied to deal sensitively with the plight of practicing homosexuals and has been the source of controversy here in Israel. To be clear, my focus here is not on the quandary of the homosexual, a situation that in our world causes great hardship to individuals and families, demands our sympathy and understanding and has been discussed at length. It is rather on the plight of the rabbinate.

What was suggested is not a new idea and was first proposed decades ago. It was posited, according to a straightforward reading of the statement, that the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual contact applies only to a heterosexual who chooses to engage in same-sex behavior, not the committed homosexual whose only desires are in that arena. As he is, purportedly, wired that way, he cannot be held responsible for his actions and, indeed, G-d would not want to deprive him (or her) of the capacity to find love in this world.

Yet, upon scrutiny, the application of “ones rachmana patrei” to this situation is flawed, misplaced and incorrect, and will inevitably lead to a deterioration in observance of any Jews who are influenced by it. There is the considerable likelihood that such contentions will lead Jews astray in every area of life in which they feel they lack self-control on the one hand or seek passionately on the other. It can and will undermine the very notion of commandment, sin, and repentance. In essence, this methodology of “ones rachmana patrei” can be equally misapplied to Shabbat desecration, theft, violence, adultery, gossip, tax fraud, and any other sin, major or minor. Several points deserve analysis.

Firstly, “ones rachmana patrei” is generally applied when one is forced to sin because of some external coercive element rather than a lack of internal control. The motivating factor is always some outside force and not simply an innate desire that cannot be constrained. For example, the anusim (from the same root; Conversos in the vernacular) were forced to convert and engage in Christian practices because of the murderous hostility of 15th century Christian Spain. The proof text for “ones rachmana patrei” is the case of the naarah ha’me’urasa, the betrothed maiden who is violated in the field against her will. “And to the maiden you shall do nothing; she is not guilty of a capital crime” (Devarim 22:26). As the Talmud (Masechet Bava Kama 28b) explains, she is guiltless, compelled to sin because of the brutish acts of her assailant.

Secondly, the classic cases of “ones rachmana patrei” are noted by Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, Chapter 5) under the laws of martyrdom. One who is compelled by hostile enemies on pain of death to commit one of the three cardinal sins – idolatry, sexual immorality, or homicide – is obligated to forfeit his life and not sin, as those three sins are particularly corrosive to the soul. One can save one’s life and violate all other sins except in a time of religious persecution. Yet, if the person instead saves his own life by committing one of the three cardinal sins, “he has failed to sanctify G-d’s name, but because he was coerced, he is not punished” (Rambam, ibid 5:4). Again, “ones rachmana patrei” requires the coercion of an outside party.

Thirdly, it must be underscored that “ones rachmana patrei” only means that there is no criminal punishment of the offender. It does not at all render the act in question permissible in the first instance. So even if it were true that the committed homosexual is an “anoos,” and thereby not liable to judicial punishment, that would not justify the commission of the acts in any event. They remain prohibited, even if there is no longer criminal liability. An article in the recent Tzohar journal (Volume 41, pages 81-101) reiterated the prohibition against people with same-sex attractions even secluding themselves together; the authors never entertained permitting sinful actions based on “ones rachmana patrei.

Nevertheless, “ones rachmana patrei” is applicable in many familiar areas to us. We are not liable today for not bringing the Korban Pesach, or one in captivity has not violated the Torah by not eating in the Succa on the 15th night of Tishrei, because circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill those mitzvot. Sadly, a person without arms cannot fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin shel yad like a blind person cannot recite Kiddush Levana. One who will die unless he consumes non-kosher food must eat non-kosher food. All are exempt by G-d from fulfilling these commandments because of the situation forced upon them. A license to sin because of tendencies that cannot be controlled is far removed from this concept.

Indeed, a person is only considered an “anoos” after he has made every possible effort to fulfill a mitzvah or avoid its violation – every possible effort. And even then, if he cannot fulfill the commandment, he has to be overcome with regret and sorrow, much like Moshe was when told he could not enter the land of Israel even though he desired to perform the commandments tied to the land. But wasn’t he prevented by G-d and therefore not obligated in those mitzvot? Yes, and so the Alter of Kelm noted that we learn from Moshe that even an “anoos” has to be distressed about his failure to follow G-d’s will (see Rav Menashe Klein’s Mishneh Halachot 17:189, at the end). Again, this was an inability to fulfill positive commandments; a permanent license to engage in a capital prohibition was never contemplated in the absence of any external coercive element.

There are grounds that support the notion that someone who is mentally ill and cannot control himself is not liable for his actions – because “ones rachmana patrei.” It is analogous to the insanity defense familiar in secular law. But there is no indication that the concept of “ones rachmana patrei” is being employed here in this sense, and, as we know, such an assertion in this context would be the epitome of political incorrectness.

Bringing comfort to troubled souls is one of the essential tasks of the rabbinate but to do so by distorting or fudging the Torah’s prohibitions is self-defeating and ultimately destructive. The Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 75a) tells the distressing tale of a man who developed an obsession with a particular woman, such that the doctors said he would die if he did not sin with her. The Sages brusquely prohibited even a private conversation between the two, much less anything more risqué. They did not seek to rationalize his desires because of “ones rachmana patrei.”

To my thinking, a homosexual who cannot alter his behavior but remains chaste because of his religious commitment and faith is absolutely heroic, a role model for all. Perhaps today we lack such role models but at one time we had them. Yosef withstood the blandishments of Potifar’s wife notwithstanding all the good reasons (even some with religious overtones) that rang in his ears, and even though he wound up incarcerated for more than a decade as a result of his demurral. That is strength of character. Yosef is the exemplar of the Jew who is caught in the throes of sensual passion and does not succumb (Masechet Yoma 35b). Boaz refrained from committing any lascivious acts with Ruth, even though it could have been rationalized on some level. And both personalities pale before the superhuman willpower of Palti who did not touch his own wife because of his fear that she was still technically married to David. (I have simplified somewhat; see Masechet Sanhedrin 19b for the details.) Those who can harness the energy of an unquenchable passion and remain faithful to G-d are awe-inspiring. “Let those who love Him be like the powerfully rising sun” (Shoftim 5:31).

Rabbis should be encouraging fidelity to Torah. Rabbis should be teaching Jews about the virtues of self-control and moderation as the keys to faith and happiness. We need not pander to the young generation as if it is hopelessly degenerate and dissolute, as if they can never truly surrender to G-d’s will. Such is the death of Torah and the irrelevance of the rabbinate. Such is the evisceration of the function of Judaism throughout our history. A Jew is called upon to sacrifice; no one was poorer than Hillel (Masechet Yoma 35b) and yet he continued his Torah study in poverty. We would not say “ones rachmana patrei” for Jews who felt compelled to work on Shabbat a century ago (and some even today); commitment to Torah requires sacrifice and that sacrifice is asked of all of us in different ways.

It is disingenuous to claim that Halacha is pluralistic, in the modern sense that there is no one truth. The Talmud characterizes the disputes between the schools of Shamai and Hillel as “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim,” “these and those are the words of the living G-d,” but then concludes that a heavenly echo decreed “the law is according to the house of Hillel.” Yes, there was finality, as there is overwhelming decisiveness and consensus in halacha; it is not an intellectual or spiritual free-for-all. “Anything” does not go. The disputes are always along the margins, in the details of some of the laws and customs. The consensus that dominates halachic practice in the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, Taharat Hamishpacha, Tefila, and other areas is what unites the Torah world. The differences are mostly nuances that have endured for centuries and does at all impinge on our capacity to pray, eat, learn and live together. We can debate how long to wait between meat and milk but not whether a cheeseburger is kosher.

There is a real danger that people will construe themselves as “coerced” by their internal natures – and molest, steal, murder, cheat, gossip and breach all the norms of Torah because, after all, that was the nature with which they were born and, according to modern notions, they are not expected to control and refine. We all are subject to sin, and we all must exercise discretion in not seeking to pry into people’s private lives and judging them accordingly. But it is far better to sin out of lust (and sincerely repent and then stop) than to sin intellectually by writing out of the Torah one or more of its prohibitions. The former is a human being beset by frailties, like all of us; the latter is a heretic.

Similarly, what a rabbi might advise an individual in private is not necessarily appropriate for an entire group or for readers of a newspaper. In fact, sensitivity to the individual is much more important than sensitivity to a group, notwithstanding the modern obsession with “group identity.” It is the individual who deserves our attention, respect, sympathy, not the group with which he identifies or who claims her as an adherent. But our sensitivities and sensibilities should never be projected onto G-d and can never replace the Torah. All we know of G-d’s will is what He told us, and that is what makes the Jewish people special, unique and worthy of His protective hand. We modify, reform or modernize His word and His morality at our peril.

I am saddened by the reality of people suffering with the allure of sin and illicit desire as I am by the implications of a distortion of Torah law. Jews in this situation deserve our sympathy and our help, but also our honesty. And if rabbis do not preach G-d’s values, and do not speak the language of right and wrong, permissible and forbidden, then who will?

 

 

 

The Tribal Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Sadducees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just leave the Kotel alone.

The God Squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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