Category Archives: Contemporary Life

Election Fever

Here in Israel, election fever has seized the population or at least some small segment of it, with Knesset elections to be held in exactly two months. As always, old faces predominate even, as per custom, palates are salivating at the rise of the next flavor of the month, a taciturn general who can lead the nation to some place it thinks it hasn’t yet been.

The greatest mystery surrounds the fate of PM Netanyahu, who – if he survives – will shortly become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, to the dismay of those diehard Ben-Gurion aficionados who still see him as the prime minister and to the utter horror of long-time Netanyahu haters. Netanyahu’s problems are not with the voters, who would surely elect the Likud again as Israel’s largest party in the Knesset. His main problem is with the Attorney-General, who seems poised to indict him on something, anything. One doesn’t have to be a Netanyahu acolyte to note that none of the accusations are for anything even remotely substantive but the product of relentless investigations that have literally gone on for years in the hopes of pinning something, anything, on him. That should ring a bell for Americans, accustomed by now to the sad reality that you can always get anyone on something, and the clever prosecutor can make the innocuous look sinister, and simple acts of friendship look venal.

Lest one think that voters might get tired of a man who has served almost a decade, Israel’s parliamentary system can enable PM Netanyahu to “win” while receiving the endorsement of barely 25% of the voters, i.e., with 75% of the people voting for some other party. Some win. Some system (!) but at least it allows almost all voices and opinions to have a hearing.

Netanyahu has vowed to run even if indicted while his critics have vowed to end his campaign if he is indicted. The AG Mandelblit may release his findings shortly before the election, an odd practice to be sure. Israel does not use the Grand Jury system for indictments so it is basically one man’s choice. Talk of “one man, one vote.” This one man – Mandelblit – can change the face of Israeli history all by himself; despite Netanyahu’s current protestations, I cannot envision a situation in which even the Likud will allow him to run while under indictment. The pressure of the media (which despise him, for the most part) would be too intense.

The flavor of the month is Benny Gantz and his new Chosen L’Yisrael (Resilient Israel) Party. The name is as awkward in Hebrew as it is in English. Gantz is the latest in a long list of generals to retire from the military, enter politics, sweep to some elective office, and flame out after one or two elections. The names of his predecessors in this pattern might be familiar to some: Yigael Yadin, Yitzchak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, and I’ve forgotten several others. Despite these repeated attempts, the only two generals to actually attain the premiership were Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, both of whose tenures were marked by catastrophic surrenders of territory, domestic instability and weakened security. That has not stopped the Israeli public’s enchantment with ex-generals, at least for one election.

Gantz has been a cipher to date. His military career was not especially notable and his public policy statements have tended towards platitudes, clichés, half smiles, winks and good wishes. One problem generals have making the transition to politics (besides the need to get elected) was encapsulated by Harry Truman, who said of his successor, General Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” The fantasy of the politician-general is that he will know best how to defend the homeland, whereas actually being president or prime minister requires much more than that. The new flavor has always done well, and so Gantz’s party is expected to win double-digit seats. And then he too will decline in the election after this one, to be replaced by another flavor.

By the same token, third parties claiming the center also do well – once – and then recede. Think of Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon, both up, and then down, but still around. This year’s incarnation of the Labor Party is nearing defunct status. And the wild card in the Knesset is always the Arab parties, last time the third largest bloc.

The so-called religious parties present an especially intriguing narrative this election season. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked ran away from home, i.e., abandoned the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party that they started to form the Yamin Hachadash (New Yamin, or Right, party). Although their maneuver contained not a little duplicity, it was a smart political move. Bennett has always perceived himself as a potential prime minister but felt hampered by leading a party that was perceived as sectoral even as he tried to broaden it. The widening of the traditional National Religious party apparatus led to certain gains but also muted its response to the issues that naturally affected their constituency including the plight of religious soldiers in the army and the leftist’s concoction of the specter of hadata, religious coercion, which they claim threatens their way of life. More impactful? The left’s hachlana (secular coercion), which in many ways has diminished or diluted Israel’s Jewish character.

The New Yamin is taking a gamble. In essence, Bennett has responded to critics of his Bayit Yehudi leadership who accused him of creating “Likud B” by, in effect, creating “Likud B.” If his gamble succeeds, his party might eventually succeed a post-Netanyahu Likud as Israel’s right-wing party but with a greater respect for Jewish tradition that has been found in the Likud. If it fails, well, the right-wing parties can find themselves with more votes but without power or influence in government. A similar and prior fiasco produced the disastrous Oslo Accords.

The traditional religious parties, right and left, never seem to grow despite obvious gains in their percentage of the population. The Agudah party, under whatever name, never rises beyond the six seats it had in the 1980’s. For sure, many of its voters don’t vote or vote for other parties. And since many of the so-called secular parties – especially Likud – contain many Knesset members who are Torah observant, the narrow parties like the Aguda party, the National Religious party, Shas and its various permutations get stuck at a certain threshold, and then reinforce their narrow agendas by focusing only on their constituencies.

The national religious party apparatus is divided into several small groupings that make meeting the electoral threshold a challenge. But the new leadership of these parties is especially promising. Betzalel Smotrich (new head of the National Union Party) has been an especially effective and diligent legislator and is uncompromising in his support of Torah, Jewish life and the land of Israel. We need such people with backbones and ideas. And Rav Rafi Peretz, the new leader of the old Bayit Yehudi, is not a natural politician – former combat helicopter pilot and Chief Rabbi of the IDF, and long-time Rosh Yeshiva – and perhaps that can be his great strength. His humble demeanor masks a steely will, and his unabashed commitment to Torah, mitzvot, the strengthening of Jewish identity and the holiness and inviolability of the land of Israel should stabilize the Jewish Home, both the party and the country. It would be best if these, and some other smaller right-wing parties, merged and created a larger bloc that could effect a proud national-religious agenda.

Surprises await, as always. What is most impressive is that all these parties are not just vying for the perks of power (hey, that’s life) but present substantially different visions of what a Jewish state is and should be. That is a debate that affects Jewish destiny for all Jews across the world. It is also a good reminder that God runs the world His way – and also that (Masechet Makot 10b) He guides us along the way that we want to walk as well.

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The Oldest Hatred

There are persistent and credible reports that the oldest hatred – hatred of Jews – is back, with a vengeance, and is escalating throughout the world. For sure, some of the statistics are inflated by organizations that are in the business of monitoring Jew-hatred. And there are overt instances of Jew hatred that are ignored by these same organizations for partisan, political reasons, as they try to curry favor with their ideological siblings at the expense of distorting their mission and business model. (I still hate using the expression “anti-Semitism,” as I have yet to meet a Jew who defines himself as a “Semite.” The term itself is an obvious attempt to minimize this hatred.)

Is it true that Jew hatred has returned? Or is it more possible that it never left?

I tend to believe the latter. After all, the Sages were quite clear that Jew hatred has been our fate since we left Egypt (if not before), and certainly since we received the Torah at Sinai. Sinai was so named, the Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 89b) because from there, hatred (sin’ah) of the nations towards us descended to the world. We are different, have always been different, and maintain a set of divinely-ordained values that sets us apart from the world, and that the world – in whole or in part – has always struggled to adopt. It is no surprise that Jew-hatred endures.

It is likely true that the communication revolution of the past twenty years brought much Jew-hatred out of the shadows. The aftermath of the Holocaust drove many Jew-haters under cover. It became decidedly unpopular to openly stigmatize and denounce Jews. But the internet has allowed the most fringe parties on the planet to disseminate their odious ideas in many regards, and Jew hatred is no different. The ranting of otherwise obscure people is given undeserved prominence and thus, like many poisonous weeds, grows and grows.

Nevertheless, Jew hatred today is not generally typified by assaults on certain aspects of Torah and not even on the occasionally misdeeds of Jewish miscreants. It is located and (in many cases) shielded by masquerading as hatred of Israel.

So here’s the time to pull the mask off this new incarnation of the oldest hatred. How often do we hear that to be anti-Israel is not to be conflated with being anti-Jewish, that not every criticism of Israel is necessarily reflective of (all right, I’ll say it for effect) anti-Semitism? Too often, because the reality is that Jew hatred today is most often disguised as hatred of Israel.  And yes, to hate Israel is to hate Jews, and to be anti-Israel is to be a Jew-hater of the traditional, historical sort. Complaints about the nation state of the Jewish people have succeeded complaints about the Jewish people. Make no mistake about it, and the next time you read this disclaimer – “just because I am against Israel doesn’t mean I am a Jew hater” – answer promptly: “Yes, it does.”

How do we know and how can ascertain when this new Jew-hatred presents itself? Clearly, there are people who criticize Israel out of love – they want it to be more Jewish, more assertive, more protective of Jewish life, and less accommodating to its enemies. That is not hatred of Jews but love of Jews. But here are a few helpful hints that expose modern Jew hatred in its guise of just being anti-Zionist.

People who maintain that the State of Israel has no right to exist are Jew haters, period. Besides rejecting the Bible, they are promoting the notion that only Jews – of all peoples on the face of the earth – have no right to a national homeland.

People who support the BDS movement to encourage (and in some cases, to actively legislate) the boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning of Israel – and only Israel, of all the nations on the globe – they are Jew-haters, period. They are positing, without any evidence supporting their proposition and with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the State of Israel is the greatest threat to world peace today, undermines world stability, and is a source of great harm to other nations. This is not just preposterous and anti-Zionist; it is rank Jew-hatred that has accompanied us throughout our history. Any person or group that is uninterested in the cruelty and viciousness of any of the world’s dictatorships, and sees absolutely no need to BDS any other country in the world except for Israel is a Jew-hater, pure and simple.

People who complain about Israeli checkpoints that inconvenience Arabs entering Israel and apprehend terrorists are Jew haters, not just anti-Israel partisans. That is because they are maintaining that Israel, alone among the nations on the earth, has no right to physical borders, to control its borders, to exercise sovereignty over its land or to deter Arab terrorists from murdering innocent civilians. The mere assertion that Israel is not allowed to act as other sovereign nations act is Jew-hatred; the elementary rights that all other nations exercise simply do not pertain to the Jewish state. That is Jew hatred.

People who demand that Israel, alone among the nations on earth, has no right to retain the territory in its homeland that it captured in a defensive war but must surrender it in order to create another  hostile Arab state in the region are Jew-haters. They are applying to Israel standards that they do not apply to any other nation on earth, all of which captured its territory at one time in defensive (and sometimes offensive) wars. The proffering of rules that apply only to Israel is an explicit indicator of Jew hatred, and must be exposed as such.

Finally, people who claim that they cannot be Jew-haters because they are Jewish themselves, and think they can thus condemn Israel with immunity from the charge of Jew-hatred, are Jew-haters in one of the worst but too common manifestations of the oldest hatred: the self-hating Jew. The self-hating Jew hates himself or herself but also hates other Jews as well. This, sadly, is a well known phenomenon in Jewish history. Being Jewish doesn’t inoculate a person from possessing the scourge of Jew-hatred. Some of the worst Jew haters in history were Jews, descended from Jews, or had Jewish blood in them – and fought madly and violently to erase their Jewish identity.

Perhaps in one of the most whimsical expressions of this dynamic, there are Jew haters today – several American politicians stand out – who are quick to claim Jewish ancestry from Conversos or others in a lame attempt to distract from their Jew-hating policies and pronouncements. If only they realized that some Jew-haters are Jews, and some are even Jews who wear the garb of pious people and observe some of the mitzvot, they would spare us their resort to this tripe, a defense that convicts rather than exonerates its advocates.

I suppose it’s a good thing that Jew-haters try to conceal their Jew-hatred under the façade of just being anti-Israel; that means that it is still considered disreputable in most circles to be construed a Jew-hater. And yet too many Jews have adopted this hackneyed cliché of “being anti-Israel is not at all being anti-Jewish” in order to shelter their home team politicians. It is undeniable that the Democrat Party has become home to some of America’s most prominent Jew haters, and most Jews – confirmed Democrat partisans to their core (for some it is their primary identity) deny it, defend it, trot out the cliché, or reproach Israel for eliciting this Jew-hatred.

Note that the Republican Party has ostracized Rep. Steve King for remarks he made that were probably more out stupidity than venality.  When he asked rhetorically, in an interview, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he was roundly and unanimously condemned by all Republicans, stripped of his committee assignments, and urged to find another line of work. (For the record, if his question had only mentioned “Western civilization,” it would have been fair and unremarkable. But “white nationalist and white supremacist” have been offensive terms, I think, since…forever.)

Yet, Democrats have been cozying up to the rabid, blatant Jew hater Louis Farrakhan for several decades. He is feted at their gatherings, featured in pictures with a host of Dem politicians (including Barack Obama), sought after for advice and (tacit) endorsements. And seldom is heard a discouraging word – from any Democrat politician, and certainly no Democrat legislator is sanctioned, Steve King style, by the Dem leaders.

It is the Democrat Party that is today the home of Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and others –all openly, shamelessly and fearlessly anti-Israel and hence anti-Jewish. They are supporters of BDS, in some form deniers of Israel’s right to exist, and essentially reject the lawful sovereignty of the State of Israel over its homeland. And rather than repudiate such representatives as Omar, Steve King style, she was rewarded with a seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, notwithstanding her anti-Israel and thus anti-Jewish animus, and even her advocacy for leniency for members of ISIS who hailed from Minnesota.

This is not your grandfather’s Democrat Party, but too many Jews are stuck in the past, and too many Democrat supporters of Israel, some Jews themselves, have been cowed into silence. They give a pass and turn a blind eye to obvious anti-Israel expressions and policies if they originate with someone who has a (D) after his or her last name. That does not bode well for the future.

Some organizations – the ADL stands out – are fixated on the Jew-hatred of the white supremacists while whitewashing the Jew-hatred found on the radical left, in part of the black and Muslim communities and their favorite political party. Honesty in their approach would be a welcome change. Others struggled mightily to camouflage the overt Jew-hatred found in the radical feminist movement and their marches. Some, to their credit, prioritized their Jewish identity and walked away – but others did not, the “cause” being greater than their pride and dignity as Jews.

One way to overcome their inhibitions, and speak truth to the new power base in the party, is to decry this new manifestation of Jew hatred, to say unabashedly that, yes, hatred of Israel is hatred of Jews, without vacillation, hesitation, and weaselly obfuscations.

Indeed, that might help maintain support for Israel as a bi-partisan value – and help confront and eradicate this newest incarnation of the oldest hatred. Jew-hatred must be called out – whether it emanates from the left or the right, Democrats or Republicans, Jews or non-Jews.  It will be challenging, but as Rav Avraham Kook famously stated: “The purely righteous do not just complain about evil but increase justice.” The diminution of Jew-hatred (elimination is a fantasy) will go a long way in creating a society and a world with justice for all. It begins with eradicating the contrived distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.

It is one and the same.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)

The Wages of Sin

The Second Lady of these not entirely United States, Karen Pence, is being lambasted by the “enlightened” media for her decision to teach again in a Christian school that unabashedly professes biblical values. The school’s main crime seems to be its endorsement of marriage as the uniting of “one man and one woman in a single, exclusive covenant union.” This has aroused the ire not of advocates for polygamy but those for same sex marriage, apparently still unaware that the Bible repudiates those relationships. The reaction should send a chill down the spine of every faithful Jew. Karen Pence has committed the modern sin (one of the only sins still on the books) of embracing traditional concepts of sin; alas, the abolition of all forms of biblical sin is now deemed by the purveyors of today’s culture as sophisticated, liberating, avant-garde, and trendy.

She might be today’s target – but religious Jews are in their gun sights as well.

Most American Jews today are, sadly, unaware of the Torah’s morality, conflate it with secular progressivism at its worst, or reject it in whole or in part. Advocates for the new morality clamored for several years to have their seat at the table; having gained it, they now seek to drive traditionalists out of the house entirely. Increasingly, people of religious faith find their views mocked and scorned in the public domain, and accused of being haters by real haters of G-d, tradition, morality and common sense. All this was predictable. The quest for legitimacy was not simply about rights for some but about eradicating from society all traditional norms and public expressions thereof. Will it be long before religious schools are threatened by the government with revocation of their charters and denial of any government funds (even for religiously neutral activities) if they continue to teach certain biblical passages that reflect the moral mandates by which mankind lived and civilization prospered for thousands of years? It will happen, sooner rather than later.

This poses a particular dilemma for Jews. This will not be the first exile in our history in which the primary assault was on Jewish values. The so-called “Greek” exile, in which Jews in Israel were threatened by Hellenistic dominance, culminated in the rebellion whose victory is celebrated on Chanuka. That threat was almost entirely spiritual. Jews were allowed to live in the land of Israel with a functioning polity and Temple – as long as Hellenism was embraced. Greek culture was pluralistic in that sense. G-d could take His place among the pantheon of other gods, G-d forbid. To pious, faithful Jews, that was unbearable, and worth a war.

Its successor Roman culture similarly challenged Jewish values, even as Rome conquered the land of Israel, destroyed the Temple, exiled most Jews, and sought to suppress the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvot. These cultural assaults on Jews were almost non-existent during the Christian and Muslim exiles, as both embraced biblical morality in some form but were antagonized by the Jews’ persistence in clinging to the Torah and not converting to their updated versions of the Torah. The hostility was physical, personal and religious, even as we shared similar values, more or less.

The 20th century saw again the rise of cultural challenges to Judaism, where the ethos of the Torah itself came under assault. While America was mostly accommodating, Europe collapsed under the weight of Nazism and Communism. The Nazi hatred for Judaism and Torah paralleled its barbarous hatred for Jews. But before and after the Holocaust, it was the Soviet Union that concentrated the brutal organs of its dictatorship on waging war against the Torah and those Jews who studied it and followed its precepts. The attempt to eliminate all traces of religion – and of the Torah as the source of all morality – was pervasive and relentless. The banning of the Jewish calendar, the teaching of Torah and even the Hebrew language, the prohibition on the performance of mitzvot and even the acknowledgment of fidelity to G-d greatly offended the state authorities who, as good atheists usually do, worshiped themselves and the works of their hands.

The Nazi system was destroyed seventy- five years ago and the Soviet Union imploded thirty years ago, but hatred of G-d and His morality has surfaced again, as it always must somewhere, in the form of new morality that has made personal freedom and individual autonomy the highest of all values. That notion is barely tolerable – but what has made it intolerable is the demand by these advocates of freedom that their freedom takes precedence over the freedom of others. Their insistence on living as they choose to live –marrying whomever they want, flaunting their lifestyles however they want – pales before their demand that everyone else accept it, embrace it, love it, promote it and utter nary a dissenting word.

And those who still dissent, nonetheless, will be shamed and victimized, pilloried and persecuted – from the bakers, florists and photographers who have had their personal autonomy trampled to the religious Jews and Christians whose expressions of faith and commitment to traditional morality mark them, in the thinking of the new Torquemadas, as haters and bigots.

All they lack is the official machinery of state power to enforce their doctrines at the point of a bayonet or under threat of riots and mobs that will harass every school, student, storekeeper or servant of G-d who resists and doesn’t comply. That is what they lack. So far.

George Washington said that “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” The United States was founded, and became a haven for Jews and others, because of its firm commitment to the freedoms of speech, worship, religion, press, assembly and association. Those freedoms are being endangered by the progressive mob – and by the silence of those who have been intimidated by that mob. Undoubtedly, this clash of cultures is at the core of the polarization and discontent that is roiling America. The positive outcome of this clash is that leaders of various faith communities, whatever our other differences, have bonded together to confront this threat to universal morality and these attacks on religious faith. Again, to quote George Washington, “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

It is not unforeseeable that the culture and values of modern America may become so antithetical to Jewish life as to negate any benefits this exile provided in the past. It might make living a complete Torah life so difficult that many more Jews will be swept away by this torrent and divine service driven underground – as has happened to us before. Ironic, indeed, if this exile ends not because of a wave of physical persecution and limits to our freedom but by the excesses that freedom without responsibility, unmoored from its biblical origins, engendered, proliferated, inundated and  overwhelmed this land, from sea to shining sea.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)

Power Politics

It is no great mystery why the dysfunctional American political system has ground to a stalemate. When two sides to any negotiation lack a common objective, there is no incentive to settle any dispute. President Trump has always prided himself on being the great dealmaker; of course, in business, deals are made because both sides share the goal of making as much money as possible. In the good deal, each side will benefit. Seller, buyer, supplier of raw materials, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer will all work together, take their cuts, and rejoice on the way to the bank.

Sadly, politics are currently practiced is not conducive to deal-making. The objectives are not money per se or even the general welfare but the solitary goal of power – its the pursuit and attainment. Power is a zero sum game. (Today, of course, one byproduct of power is access to money and the ability to distribute it to cronies, friends and voters, but it is not the money itself that is the goal, unlike the businessman for whom that is the only goal.) If the objective is power, then raw power politics infuses every decision, policy and negotiation, and the only desirable outcome is the weakening, even destruction, of your opponent.

It is odd, indeed, how the game of politics in this democracy and so many dictatorships is played by the same rules. The “people” don’t really matter. I laugh when I hear politicians (on both sides) intone about what “the American people want” or “the American people will not accept.” Such sentiments are risible, as politicians are unconcerned with the American people as such but only with their constituents, and their constituents who vote, and especially their constituents who vote for them. The game is how to achieve power, keep it and expand it.

It doesn’t break any new ground to suggest that politicians as a class are dishonest people but the levels of dishonesty and hypocrisy have reached new nadirs. Politicians (think Schumer and Pelosi, for two) in past years routinely voted for and spoke favorably about physical barriers as indispensable for border security. Now? Well, we know what is happening now, but the only thing that has changed is the name and party of the president. Compounding the problem is that very few of these politicians will allow themselves to be interviewed by journalists who will question them about these inconsistencies.  They prefer the softball questions of the “journalists” who are their ideological patriots. Wouldn’t you love to hear Nancy Pelosi answer this question: “How can a border wall be immoral when you voted for it in the past, and budgeted even more money for it than the President is asking now? When did it become immoral?”

Of course walls work, always have, always will. Many politicians – Pelosi and Obama among them – live behind protective walls. The Kotzker Rebbe could afford to keep his doors unlocked, with a sign out front “lo tignov,” do not steal, as deterrent; he had nothing worth stealing anyway. It is amusing how people who oppose a border wall always seem to live in gated communities. The issue then, obviously, is not security or even a wall – but public relations, votes, and the road to power. It is a sham, played out for the entertainment of the masses. The only people affected by this farce are the workers are temporarily furloughed and unpaid, and the victims of illegal immigrant crime who are permanently murdered or become addicted to the waves of narcotics and opioids that enter this country through the southern border, by air and by sea. (Incidentally, there is something both saddening and maddening about a country with a severe drug problem that is now gung ho on legalizing marijuana.)

Here is a clear example of dishonesty at work: one leftist activist group mocked the President’s reference to Israel’s successful border wall, claiming that the wall that cuts through Judea and Samaria was necessary to prevent terrorist incursions, and that such has not been a problem on the United States’ southern border. True – but that is not the wall to which Trump is referring. Israel built a sophisticated barrier along its southern border with Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula to halt the influx of illegal migrants from the Sudan, Eritrea and surrounding areas. Tens of thousands arrived in the last decade or so, some working in menial jobs but others turning to violence and theft – until the barrier was built. It has been almost 100% effective in preventing illegal migration from the south.

But why let facts get in the way of a good advertisement?

“Hatred distorts traditional norms of conduct” (Midrash Breisheet Rabba 55:8, and cited in this week’s sedra of Beshalach by the medieval commentator Chizkuni to explain Pharaoh’s irrationality). Haters lose their perspective and their reason and renounce whatever value system they previously professed. If Trump is for a wall, Dems must oppose it. If Trump wants American troops out of Syria, Dems become jingoistic proponents of the projection of American power across the Middle East and the world (after decades of opposition to same). If Trump wants to resolve the problem of the CHIIPS (CHildren of Illegal Immigrant Parents raised in America), Dems must oppose any solution. When Obama was pro-Putin, that  was statesmanship; if Trump is pro-Putin, that is treachery. If Trump is protectionist (even to a fault), then the Dems – the party of protectionism! – must present as free traders.

If Trump is pro-Israel, then the Dems have to become anti-Israel. Whoever Trump nominates for any position must be opposed; the simple fact that he nominates them disqualifies them from public service. If Trump negotiates with North Korea, the Dems must oppose it.

The executive and legislative branches are distrusted by large elements of the population. And the federal judiciary has also corrupted itself, issuing injunctions to thwart the President’s will on specious legal grounds and totally ignoring obvious statutory authority; too many partisan judges see themselves as part of the resistance and that undermines faith in the third branch of government. Thus there is across-the-board distrust in every center of authority, with each branch at war with the others. And it is indisputable that the FBI has disgraced itself with shady partisan tricks under color of authority, criminal behavior that, if the sides were reversed, would be the subject of endless investigations and condemnations by the liberal media.

Well, this is not normal and the application of “Hatred distorts traditional norms of behavior and thinking.” It is self-destructive, and corrosive to any nation that lives through it. Politics has always been about power but it usually included an interest on some level in promoting the general welfare of the people. That has disappeared and it is hard to see how the upcoming presidential campaign – whoever runs or whoever wins – will succeed in restoring the norms of public discourse.

There are few real policy disputes. There are questions of degree more than kind. These issues were always handled in the past through finding a number that meets both sides’ needs. The $5B sought for a border wall is a rounding error in the federal budget of more than four trillion dollars. The budget allocates more billions to frivolous vanity projects of various Congressmen than to the border wall. The Postal Service loses more every year than is sought in this request. Politicians remain obsessed with getting favorable coverage from their media sycophants and claiming to speak on behalf of the “American people.”

How can we find a way out of this morass? Declaring a national emergency won’t work as the Dems will run to the courts where the matter will be buried for months or years. So here is a suggestion: Open up the government for one week, beginning this Monday. This way, federal workers can get two paychecks at the end of the week and will be up to date (and not have people realize that citizens can get along quite well without these “non-essential workers”). One week – during which time each side presents proposals and counterproposals. The side that refuses to compromise will be exposed as the side that refuses to compromise.

Does that matter anymore? We will see.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)

Democracy in Decline

It is not a happy season for democracies. The American President and the Israeli Prime Minister are under constant, endless investigations, with no end in sight. The British Prime Minister and the French President are besieged, incapable of implementing their preferred policies, whatever the merits might be. Riots abound in both places, and in Germany, where the long-serving Chancellor has lost support, power and is nearing the end of her tenure. Italy and Greece are as unstable as ever.

In each case, the media and hostile special interest groups are obsessed with opposition, resistance, tearing down societal structures and fomenting instability. And by comparison, Russia and China are authoritarian islands of stability, notwithstanding the internal problems of each. But it seems as if each democracy is intent on cannibalizing itself, and many “free” countries have enormously high rates of dissatisfaction with life, government and society. People are always agitated about something. Almost every government leader in democracies across the world is the target of some sustained personal, legal or political attack, without respite. It is the era of permanent investigation and relentless criticism. What was once democracy’s strength – the people’s power to change governments – has now become the symbol of its stagnation and weakness.

It is no wonder that after almost forty years of growth, promoted by the Reagan Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is now on the decline. The Democracy Index, a somewhat tendentious but annual barometer (last measured in 2017) of the state of democracies across the world, finds that there are only 19 full democracies in the world today, compared to 52 dictatorships (authoritarian regimes, as they are politely called). Both the United States and Israel rate as “flawed” democracies, the latter partly for its religious ethos that irritates the secularists who measure these things, but both because of the dysfunctional governments that rule their respective countries. Israel rates well on the level of political participation of its citizens; the United States rates relatively poorly in that regard, tied with Mexico and Bulgaria.

President Trump, no conventional steward of governance by any means, riles up the opposition simply by proposing something. Policies that were once supported by Democrats (e.g., border wall over a decade ago) are now opposed simply because of their proponent. Kicking the can down the road and obsessing over elections (and not the actual tasks of elected officials) are the norms of political life. Money and power (which gives access to even more money) are the coin of the realm. The only area in which politicians excel is in spending money they don’t have.

Israel’s government is in such disarray. The Prime Minister is under threat of multiple indictments and his wife currently under indictment and awaiting trial. Binyamin Netanyahu today serves as the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister (and Health Minister, and possibly several other ministries). That is not a successful formula for good governance, effective leadership, astute problem-solving or crisis management. The new elections on the horizon will shuffle the deck but except for the customary one or two new faces who will shine brightly and then flame out, all the cards are still the same.

We are experiencing the veracity of Winston Churchill’s adage that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Why is there such discontent?  A number of points need to be made. The authoritarian countries do present greater stability, less crime, less opportunity, often a keener adherence to traditional values but at the cost of less individual liberty. Lest one think that the benefits outweigh the detriments, there are very few people immigrating to Russia and China, nor for that matter are people from across the world flocking to the most highly-rated democracies – Norway, Iceland and Sweden. European countries have been undermined by waves of Middle Eastern migrants, most of whom have not sought acculturation and still others who have transported such alien values to their new homes that violence and crime have rendered parts of Germany, Belgium, France and Britain off limits to citizens – and to the police. Riots and dissatisfaction abound. Many governments flit from party to party in successive elections, with the voters always voting for change, then either not liking the change or not seeing enough of it. The British and American governments are world leaders in stagnation and paralysis. Most voters resent politicians’ failing to keep their campaign promises, except in America where many people are outraged when the President tries to keep his.

There is such a state of perpetual ferment, unrest and turbulence that the happiest people tune out of public affairs, and only wake up (too late) when some unfortunate policy affects them deleteriously. Democracy has been so frangible that some newer democracies have drifted towards authoritarianism in recent years.

What is going on? The Torah certainly doesn’t incline towards democracy (it favors a benign monarchy) although it certainly doesn’t oppose it. But the era of discontent has been fueled by internal, personal struggles that only play out on the public stage of the politics of the moment.

The inherent and ongoing problem has been the secularization of society that has fostered a loss of meaning in life that causes both the obsession with politics and the disgruntlement with government. With freedom comes responsibility, and the freedoms of democracy have been abused to nurture a climate of irresponsibility that has produced aimlessness, the breakdown of the traditional family, rampant out-of-wedlock births and a steep deterioration in the numbers and state of marriage. Moral commitment has been so enervated that (1) people shy away from discussing traditional morality in public forums, (2) seemingly intelligent people are re-visiting (with straight faces) the definitions of male and female, and (3) the rock of society since time immemorial – the Biblical moral norms that set the standard for human interactions and aspirations – has been eroded and marginalized.

Lost in meaninglessness, some have made a religion of the environment and climate change. The priests of this movement, who warn, threaten and predict doomsday ahead, and, in their initial policy foray tried to raise fuel taxes in France to reduce dependency on oil, received their comeuppance in the form of riots that forced the elitists to back down. Call it the French Reformation, spearheaded by the common folk tired of paying indulgences to the Davos set.

Others think they will find meaning and happiness in the triumphs of their favored candidates or party – only to be disappointed when they win and horrified and apoplectic when they lose. The win brings a momentary high – which of course does not endure because it is utterly insignificant in the course of things. Still others – especially, and surprisingly, young people – are embracing restrictive speech codes to spare themselves from having to suffer from hearing contrary views or words they consider harsh, not realizing that these official encroachments on personal liberty will come back to haunt them. The intrusions of Facebook and other social media outlets into people’s private lives rival that of any dictatorship – except for their inability to erase your real existence (they can erase your artificial one) – and the persecution and silencing of conservative or traditional viewpoints do not bode well for democracies either.

One would think that there would be some satisfaction in voting for the government of your choice – but almost 40% of the American electorate never votes. President Trump won in 2016 with 63M votes, in a country of 330M people; neither candidate garnered even 20% of the population. That is a small percentage, which is not to say that it is Trump’s fault. Turnout was less than 56% – and that exceeded the turnout in 2012.

It has occurred to me over the years that the wrong politicians can make life dramatically worse but the best politicians can only make life marginally better. Meaning has to be pursued in the areas that make life meaningful – our relationship with G-d, our commitment to the greater good, our love of family and friends, our pursuit of good deeds and always seeking the good in other people. Those have always been and always will be the key factors in the contented life: faith, family, community, tradition, values and good deeds. Almost everything else is fluff or distractions.

The disappearance of G-d from public and private life – and the creation of new gods to take His place – has spawned restlessness and despair across what used to be called the free world. It has led to the revival of socialism – the idea that the state and its organs (i.e., others) are responsible for me and my needs because I choose to desist from self-help and productivity. It has led to the robust movement to legalize marijuana across the democracies, although rarely in the autocracies; that too is very telling. It has led to the collapse of traditional morality that was one of the linchpins of a world that seemed more normal and more stable, because it was.

The god of dictatorship was slaughtered in the wake of the evil excesses of fascism and Communism; it seems that the gods of democracy are being slaughtered today, with the leaders in all the well known democracies scurrying about for solutions or even viable approaches moving forward. None are obvious or forthcoming; temporary balms are all that are on the horizon. Churchill was right, and Jews and the rest of the world have always fared better under democracies than under dictatorships. But history has taught us that states are more fragile entities than we think, and many things seem unbreakable until they break.

We certainly pray for the welfare of government, as our Sages taught, but we must seek stability, purpose, and true satisfaction in the private and communal areas of life – not in the public arena.

When all forms of human government fail abjectly, what then is our recourse? Perhaps that, too, is one vital role of Moshiach – to redeem society from its waywardness and relieve it of its bitterness and recriminations. That will be true freedom for all and the triumph of G-d’s kingdom on earth, may it come soon and in our days.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)

Abolish the Rabbinate?

(First published December 14, 2018 on Arutz-7 at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/23155)

A spanking new organization called “Ruach Hiddush – Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel” – has called for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It claims to represent the “rich… spectrum” of Jewish life, even transcending denominational lines. In truth, the few “Orthodox” representatives are not at all representative of anyone Orthodox, could fairly be called “Orthoprax” or “neo-Conservative”, and thus this proclamation is yet another call by non-Orthodox clergy for the elimination of the Chief Rabbinate.

Why would they want to do such a thing? In essence, they strenuously object to the Chief Rabbinate’s fidelity to Halacha, its commitment to the preservation of Jewish identity as defined by tradition, the furtherance of Torah and the promotion of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. They would encourage pluralism, freedom of conscience and legitimacy of any and all views professed by Jews, especially including those having little connection to Torah. They vehemently protest the “monopoly” the Chief Rabbinate has on matters of Jewish status, Kashrut, and interpretations of Jewish law, seeing as it is an unnecessary government entity.

Of course, that is the nature of government of any sort: a monopoly on the provision of services and the safeguarding of public trusts. Israel’s tax authority has the monopoly on tax collection, just like local zoning boards have a monopoly on how big your home extension can be. Israel’s army has a monopoly on defending the State, and the Transportation Ministry has a monopoly on the determination of speed limits. One could cogently argue that there should never be any monopolies at all; such a person is called an anarchist and no doubt will attract much support, at least initially. There are plenty of people who would love to be freelance tax collectors, zoning inspectors, generals, race car drivers on public roads, or control any other government interest. Similarly, the proponents here desire anarchy in conversion, marriage and divorce, kashrut, and every other realm of Torah – including mitzvot and Judaism’s fundamental principles. That is not a formula for success or Jewish continuity.

Their appeal is a modern form of “kill the ump!” They don’t like the “three strike rule,” preferring more flexibility and openness, perhaps four or five strikes for those who find three too restrictive. They don’t like the strike zone rules that give the umpire too much discretion and control – even a “monopoly” – over the game. They would prefer baseball without umpires, letting the players police themselves and make up the rules on the fly. Nice try; even the most hardened players and managers know that is not a viable option, even if we don’t necessarily have to agree with every single call.

I know Rav David Lau personally and have witnessed up close his limitless dedication to Torah, his love of every Jew of whatever background and his tireless execution of his duties. His days are impossibly long, and each day includes supervision of the Chief Rabbinate’s Court system, the kashrut apparatus, the personal status issues, ceremonial appearances and teaching Torah in all parts of the country, sometimes visiting three, four, five places in one day and night, to encourage Torah observance, love of Israel, and tolerance, and to spread the light and joy of Torah. His critics should envy his merits.

But the suggestion that the Chief Rabbinate be abolished engendered this thought: what if, instead, the Reform Rabbinate would be abolished?

It is by now incontrovertible that the Reform Rabbinate has been a catastrophe for the Jewish people. From its very origins, it has brought nothing but a renunciation of mitzvot, assimilation, conversion to Christianity and the attenuation of Jewish identity. The early Reformers in Europe switched Shabbat to Sunday, brought an organ into their temples and eliminated the mechitza. A wave of assimilation and conversion followed.

In America, it is enough to recall the treifa banquet on July 11, 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the first very graduating class of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform ordination school, was feted with clams, crabs, shrimp, and frog legs – all washed down with a dairy dessert. The temples had mixed seating (one Reform rabbi termed the mechitza an abominable “cage”), organs, confirmation ceremonies, a new prayer book that intentionally omitted calls for the return to Zion and the coming of Moshiach. Kashrut restrictions and Shabbat observance were nullified (the leading Reform rabbi of the 19th century mocked what he called “kitchen Judaism”), the marriage and divorce rites were radically altered and bore no resemblance to any Torah requirement.

Their modern descendants, sad to say, are not much better. Most Reform rabbis do not believe in the existence of G-d, nor do they accept that the Torah is divine or that the mitzvot are obligations and not mere suggestions. They do not feel bound by the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith. It is they who are largely responsible for producing an intermarriage rate of more than 70% in the American non-Orthodox world, as well as widespread ignorance of any true Torah concept. One is hard-pressed to find any four-generation family of so-called Reform Jews who are all still Jewish. And these are the rabbis that this new group – including the aforementioned Orthoprax rabbis – wishes to entrust with Jewish destiny and the future of Torah in Israel. Having failed miserably on the American scene, they now wish to export their failures to Israel – and become offended when they are excluded from the decision-making processes in the Jewish State. They have destroyed the company and now insist on a promotion and a raise. As they say, only in America…

I know several Reform rabbis. By and large they are decent people, mean well, and don’t at all realize the harm they are causing. They feel they have to find a way to accommodate the intermarried, without the self-awareness that they are perpetuating and exacerbating the problem. Their sermons are almost exclusively limited to elements of the Democrat Party platform (abortion rights, immigration rights, gun control, etc.) occasionally spiced with some railing against the Orthodox establishment for not considering them Jews. Of course they are Jews – that canard has been losing steam for almost two decades even as it is still uttered routinely – as long as the mother is Jewish or they are properly converted (something that is increasingly the problem).

If the Reform rabbinate would be abolished, I don’t doubt that a steady stream of Democrat political operatives could fill in on Shabbat mornings and deliver timely sermons that would be well-received by the audience. Everyone knows that if they are looking for Torah, they will not find it there.

Instead of abolishing the Chief Rabbinate, something that would cause untold harm to the Torah world, the Jewish people and the State of Israel, perhaps we should consider abolishing the Reform rabbinate. Only good would result and many Jews would clamor to reclaim their Jewish identity and their rightful share in G-d’s Torah.

Am I serious? Of course not! This is a parody, as I assume the call by “Ruach Chiddush” for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate is also a parody.

And if they are serious, and their proclamation is not meant as parody?

Well then…

Scalia Speaks – to Jews

The late, great Justice Antonin Scalia not only led the so-called conservative wing of the Supreme Court for several decades but was also a legal thinker whose opinions, even his dissents, shaped this generation’s jurisprudence, and probably that of the next several as well. He was quite literate, forceful and colorful in his dissents, and was also a sought-after speaker, and some of those speeches have been collected in a book entitled “Scalia Speaks.” So what does this pious Catholic have to teach Jews? A lot.

On a mundane level, he noted in one talk that when he was young and rambunctious, whenever he wanted to go to a place of which he knew his parents disapproved, he would argue his case by pointing out that everybody else was going. (How often do parents hear that?) To which their invariable response was: “You’re not everybody else.”

Jewish parents can certainly take that message to heart. One of the challenges of modern life, and in particular warding off the harmful effects of much of modern culture that is as vacuous as it is tawdry, is to teach our children that they are not like everybody else. We are part of a nation that was set aside by the Creator to embody and promulgate His moral code, a code that most of the rest of the world rejects or ignores. So, yes, we cannot just immerse ourselves in the totality of Western culture and kasher it by giving it a Jewish flavor. We are called upon to be different, to set an example for others, and to revel in what Scalia called the “apartness” that he felt as a young Catholic. That “apartness” meant that activities that were perfectly permissible for others were not to him – and in our context, for us.

The bulk of the book, though, focuses repeatedly on the revolution that Scalia effected in Supreme Court jurisprudence, an odd sort of revolution in that he sought nothing more that to restore the theory of law that had governed the Court since its inception until, say, the early 1960’s. It is what legal thinkers call “originalism,” essentially calling for faithfulness to the original text of the US Constitution. Obviously, he was not completely successful, but the problem itself is one of the primary reasons for much of the polarization and dysfunction in American politics today.

Scalia noted repeatedly that he did not perceive “originalism” as trying to ascertain the original “intent” of the Framers of the Constitution (a somewhat esoteric if not mystical process) but rather the original “meaning” that they ascribed to those words and clauses. For example, the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” could not have meant capital punishment because such was permissible and routinely executed when the Constitution was enacted. There can be no constitutional right to an abortion because such was illegal in colonial times when the Constitution was adopted. Military chaplains cannot be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion because such existed in Washington’s army and when the republic was established.

All these and other changes have come about, and engendered tremendous unrest in society, because of the theory of the “living Constitution,” the notion that the Constitution must reflect, to quote one of Scalia’s nemeses (Chief Justice Earl Warren), “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” (In the most extreme iteration of this idea, former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak held that Israel’s High Court must decide its cases “according to the views of the enlightened community in Israel,” enshrining a judicial tyranny in which the Court has the last word on every aspect of political and social life in Israel that it wishes to address, and I mean every, while willfully ignoring the views of religious Jews whom he considered to be unenlightened.)

There are several problems with this approach. For one, “evolving standards of decency” or “the views of the enlightened community” are both subjective and undemocratic. They essentially take a judge’s personal predilections and carve them into law – without public support or legal authority. They make the judges into the law itself, rather than have judges interpret the law.

Secondly, as Scalia points out with typical sarcasm, this attitude towards the superiority of modern mores suggests that “societies always mature; they never rot. This despite the twentieth century’s evidence of concentration camps and gas ovens in one of the most advanced and civilized nations of the world.” So beware those who wave their personal opinions on a banner and proclaim them to be the views of “enlightened” people, and woe to those who do not share those opinions.

Thirdly, the Bill of Rights was enacted to protect minority rights from majority tyranny, and the resort to the subjectivity of the “living Constitution” undermines that very notion, as we have seen. The Supreme Court (in Kelo, in which Scalia dissented) grossly interfered with private property rights simply because the government decided it had more lucrative ways as to how that property could be used. Or, note how the Court’s narrow decision discovering a constitutional right to same-sex marriage very quickly – and predictably – resulted in attempts to suppress the rights to freedom of religion and expression to traditionalists, whether bakers, florists or others.

Even worse, when one generation’s liberal judges wrap themselves in the mantle of “enlightenment” or “progress,” they unwittingly prompt another generation’s illiberal judges to grant similar substance (and infallibility) to their own decisions, and that is harmful to democracy.

The US Constitution, in an inspired way, has a mechanism to deal with injustices, and even with “evolving standards of decency.” It is called the amendment process, and it is inherently democratic, if a bit slow. But unresolved moral issues from the founding – slavery, for example – were dealt with first through war, of course, but then through passage of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Note as well that the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 granted women the right to vote – through a reasonable democratic process – but it would not have dawned on the Supreme Court to “find” the right to vote in the Equal Protection Clause.

A more reasonable and judicious approach to modern controversies – abortion, same-sex marriage and the like – would be similarly to subject them to the democratic process, state by state, or when appropriate, through Congress. Having the Supreme Court issue decrees from on high as if these matters are now settled has distorted the democratic process, incensed about half the population, and transformed the nominations process for Supreme Court justices into a political circus, and understandably so. Justices are no longer interpreting the existing law but are supposed to make the law, shape the law, create the law and bring about the social changes that the “enlightened public” desires. In effect, they too have become politicians, and that also undermines the integrity of the Court.

We need not leap too far to perceive how the same dynamic has torn apart the Jewish world and left us factionalized and divided. The non-Orthodox movements have long interpreted the Torah based on what they deem to be the “evolving standards” of secular society. In roughly less than two centuries, these “enlightened” folk abolished the laws of kashrut and Shabbat, transformed the synagogue by removing the mechitza, imposed female clergy on the Jewish public, and adopted a steady list of liberal social causes as if they were mandated by Torah and even though most are proscribed by the Torah.

But while the Constitution is man-made and fairly subject to human amendment, the Torah is of divine origin. Its mitzvot are “adjusted” at our peril. These heresies have naturally inspired massive assimilation among their adherents, as the Torah has become so malleable as to be meaningless except as a source of platitudes. Even more troubling than the decline of non-Orthodoxy is the enormous rise in the number of unaffiliated Jews, today a plurality in American life. Why remain connected to a Judaism that just mimics and reinforces one’s political conclusions? Instead, they “have abandoned the source of the living waters to dig for themselves broken cisterns that cannot contain any water” (Yirmiyahu 2:13).

Justice Scalia speaks to us as well. It is uncanny, but perhaps not surprising, how the deformation of American jurisprudence has paralleled that of Jewish jurisprudence (or vice versa) and with very similar consequences. One hopes that the recent additions to Supreme Court (opposed in apocalyptic terms by so many Jews!) will restore the constitutional balance and the supremacy of democracy, and that Congress should get back to the business of legislating. But we must hope, pray and do everything in our power to reach out to our fellow Jews, disappearing one by one into the mists of assimilation, the fog of intermarriage and the haze of Jewish ignorance, to reclaim their heritage, bolster our people and hold on to their eternal destiny.