Category Archives: Contemporary Life

Aliya

Last week my wife and I made aliya after more than six decades of life in the United States. We are officially Israeli citizens, which affords me the right to criticize the Israeli government without being told to move here if I want to have a say, and the right to denounce American Jews for remaining in the fleshpots of the exile. But I’m going to hold off on both for the time being…

It would be easy to make Aliya if we were fleeing persecution but that is not the case, notwithstanding that rabbis have always been among the most persecuted Jews, and usually by other Jews. But that is not why. It would be easy to make Aliya if America had become unlivable, a place without a long-term Jewish future, and one can make a compelling argument that the handwriting is presently on the wall waiting to be read. Nonetheless, when I announced to the shul eighteen months ago that we would be making aliya in July 2020, the United States was peaceful and prosperous, President Trump was cruising to a (narrow) election victory, and pandemics, economic collapse and race riots were not even on the horizon. That we left amid all this turmoil in American life is a coincidence and not the proximate cause of our departure. In any event, “coerced Aliya” (running from something) is not as salutary or enjoyable as “voluntary Aliya” (running towards something). We are in the latter category in fulfillment of the verse in Shir Hashirim (1:4), “Moshcheini, acharecha narutza.” Pull me and I will run after You.

It would be easy to make Aliya if our children lived here – and two children already do, with grandchildren, but two still live in the US with grandchildren. We have experienced the range of emotions, of farewell and reunion, as can be expected. It would be easy to make Aliya if I was out of a job and had nowhere else to turn, but that would also be untrue. I could have stayed. It was a l’chatchila choice (ab initio, even granting the long time abroad), not a b’diavad (post facto).

Politically, it turns out to have been a lateral move. I went from one country (the USA) where leftists and anarchists are daily and violently protesting the government’s failure to deal effectively with the Coronavirus and where the media elites despise the head of government to another country (Israel) where leftists and anarchists are daily and violently protesting the government’s failure to deal effectively with the Coronavirus and where the media elites despise the head of government. Like I said, a lateral move.

So why make Aliya now? And the simple answer is: it was time. Personally, professionally, and ideologically, it was time to make the move that is the mandate and destiny of all Jews.

For one thing, the future of the Jewish people is in Israel rather than anywhere in the exile. If the events of the last few months (or century) have not demonstrated that, then nothing will ever be sufficiently convincing. The exile is drying up around us. More Jews live today in Israel than in the rest of the world combined. Moreover, after millennia of persecution, punitive measures, and harsh restrictions directed against Jews generally and specifically those who wanted to dwell in the land of Israel, today there is no Jew in the world living in a country from which he or she cannot freely emigrate and come live in the land of Israel. And if there are (Cuba?), there are just a relative handful. That is a divine gift.

It was time to be a player in the grand game of Jewish life rather than just a highly interested and vocal spectator. And I do not doubt that for all the dedication of rabbis, teachers and professional leaders in the Jewish world – and for all the vast investments in Jewish infrastructure that makes the United States such a hospitable and pleasurable exile – life in the exile is a holding pattern. We are trying to hold on to something – powerful in its own right and indispensable for almost two centuries – that cannot be sustained in perpetuity. We are not building as much as we are trying not to fall. We are walking on a ledge rather on solid footing. And now this is true not only spiritually but also physically and politically.

Few will deny that America has experienced two terrible traumas in the last five months, both unpredictable but both bearing an imprint that will leave a long term mark on American life. The Coronavirus pandemic exposed the greatest vulnerability in America today: the polarization that is itself an epidemic. The hatred of the President has reached self-destructive proportions, in which his legion of political and media enemies would rather see the country collapse further than recover even gradually. The tirades about Trump’s failures to halt the pandemic or economic dislocation are vociferous, and inversely proportionate to the suggestion of any alternative plan or approach. It is particularly unctuous, which is to say typical of politics at its worst, to criticize every policy without offering even a hint of how you would have done it differently or better. So they do what politicians love doing – printing money and claiming credit for distributing it to the voters, and trying to WIN at all costs.

What is most damaging to American society is the growing notion among the elites – not the mob of racists and anarchists – that America was conceived in sin, nurtured in criminality and has no redeeming value. In the turbulent 60’s, the elitist institutions protected themselves against the anarchists. Today, the corporations, media and universities join hands with anti-American anarchists to stifle liberties like freedom of speech, assembly and worship in the name of some higher dogma, and routinely purvey lies, untruths and distortions of reality – in order to both protect and encourage the anarchists and, it can’t be denied, win an election. “Systemic racism,” all the rage today, is an indictment without any possible defense (to defend against it is itself racist); it is a cudgel more than it is a complaint.

Opposing sides that no longer share common values, a definition of truth or reality or even rules of speech cannot interact. When one side of a debate is perceived by the other not just as wrong but as evil and immoral, public discourse ends and mob rule begins. That the mob now rules – anarchists destroying private or government property, assaulting innocent people in the streets, attacking the police, “canceling” those who disagree with them (the latter, woefully predicted by Orwell) – will only be tempered and then only momentarily if President Trump is defeated in November. And if he loses by a whisker, amid allegations of voter fraud abetted by mail-in ballots, harvested ballots, forged ballots, and on line voting in key swing states, then all bets are off and the hostility will no longer be unilateral. And if Trump wins, as is eminently possible given the lies people tell pollsters and the fear of expressing public support? There will be even more violence. Uneasy times are ahead.

Jews should especially take note of this because we are in the unenviable position of being perceived as part of the privileged white establishment by the minorities who are now protesting across the country but not by the privileged white establishment itself who see Jews as outsiders. Jews will have no natural allies in the coming struggle, which will come as a shock to liberal Jews who think their liberalism and historic support for civil rights inoculates them from the disruptions ahead. The liberal Jew of old –tolerant, open, respectful, and supportive of even anathematic views like the right of Nazis to march in Skokie – is a dinosaur, because that type of liberalism has disappeared. The Democrat party of old, the church (or synagogue) of most modern Jews, no longer exists. It too pays obeisance to the leftist mob, and is unsympathetic to Israel and to the Jewish ethos, not that most Jews realize it.

In the best sense, none of that is a reason to move to Israel, although it might be the tipping point in people’s otherwise positive decision. Jews have an unblemished record of staying in the exile a bit too long and paying a heavy price for it. But more importantly, we all recognize certain basic truths about Torah and Jewish life. The long prophesied “Kibbutz Galuyot” (ingathering of the exiles) has not only occurred but is actually entering its final stages. Jews from over 130 countries today live in Israel. The return to the land of Israel, itself a biblical prophecy, is something that we now take for granted. Most Jews alive today cannot envision a world without the Jewish state of Israel. Even in quarantine (where I now find myself, in escalating tedium, life on hold), I realize that centuries of Jews would have given their right arms to be able to quarantine in the land of Israel.

It is not without its problems. As I am sure I will note in the coming years, many of the afflictions of the more modern, leftist, faddish elements of Orthodoxy, and its neo-Conservative offspring, exist here as well, along with the clamor for a more malleable mesorah and elastic morality. There is much to do here, especially in warding off the displacement of Jewish morality by Western morality. But these are the problems of growth, of building the future, rather than trying to preserve the past.

I feel blessed that I am able to be here, as I feel blessed to have succeeded in my careers in the exile. Even as a rabbi, I never hid the fact that Aliya was both a Torah value and an imperative, even if it was against my interest in saying so. I certainly don’t disparage the USA or its people, or my Jewish brothers and sisters there. I was the beneficiary of prior generations who not only built the wonderful Jewish community of Teaneck but who constructed the edifice of American Jewish life that enabled survivors and refugees to rebuild Torah after the horrors of the Holocaust. For that, I will always be appreciative of America, its history, its aspirations and the haven it provided to Jews and others.

Nonetheless, we should not let our gratitude and nostalgia for the past cloud our vision of the present and future. With blessings from Israel!

Justice?

Ari Teman grew up in our shul and became a comedian and a tech entrepreneur, but what has happened to him in the eighteen months is no laughing matter. He was convicted several months ago of bank fraud, and is facing a maximum of 30 years in prison when he is sentenced later this month.

What did he do to face a sentence that, in today’s America, murderers, robbers, looters, rioters, arsonists and anarchists would not receive even if they were arrested, prosecuted and convicted? The facts are somewhat complicated but boil down to this.

Ari founded a company called GateGuard to provide a sort of virtual doorman to residential buildings across the country. He contracted with several New York City landlords, some with checkered reputations, and knowing of their history, inserted a clause in the contract that allows him to issue “remotely created checks” and debit the bank accounts of landlords who are in arrears. Apparently, it is a similar clause to one that Airbnb uses to protect itself against non-paying customers. It reads: “You give us permission to write and sign checks with your checking and/or savings account information to do a bank draw against your entity (or entities) for the amount it (or they) owe.” It seems crystal clear – if it is read.

Each landlord duly signed these clauses (they are all online, and clicking on “acceptance of the terms” is how the contract is formalized and activated). When several invoices went unpaid after services were rendered, Ari warned the companies and then duly exercised this clause in the contract, created the checks, deposited them in his account – and was soon after arrested and charged with bank fraud – the creation of these very checks. At trial, claims made by the landlords and their representatives that the contracts were entered into without being read – and that references to this arrangement were somehow ignored or they simply didn’t recall them – were allowed to stand and accorded great weight. And this, despite the reality that their contracts are generally perused by lawyers and representatives. It is a very odd circumstance; most people are well aware that they should never sign something they haven’t read.

Exacerbating the situation, a crime of this sort requires “criminal intent” on the part of the perpetrator. Was there criminal intent here? Well, Ari certainly believed, based on the terms of the contract, that what he was doing was legal. A reasonable interpretation of the agreement should be sufficient to negate the presence of criminal intent. And it should not be lost on anyone that in the sometimes sordid world of New York real estate, it is common for some owners to simply refuse to pay their bills in a timely fashion. They just say “sue me!” That is despicable in its own right, but it is also what engendered the institution of “remotely created checks” in the first place.

Add to this witches’ brew a post-trial allegation of prosecutorial misconduct for failure to disclose the disreputable history of one of the lead prosecution witnesses and we have the makings of a miscarriage of justice, and one with a potential to ruin a young life.

Are these rogue prosecutors of the sort that have become the bane of the American judicial system? It shouldn’t only be the hoax prosecutions of political figures that attract our attention. Indeed, it should be the ones that target the average individual without access to media hoopla because if we ignore them, then anyone can become a target. And the expense and anxiety of defending one’s innocence can be debilitating.

Prosecutors exercise discretion all the time as to who they will or won’t prosecute. This could have been handled as a civil dispute. As such, it is a clear case of Pidyon Shvuyim. If you are moved by Ari’s plight, and wish to assist his appeal fund, please contribute to his GoFundMe account at https://www.gofundme.com/f/justice-matters-ari-teman-legal-defense-fund .

And, on Ari’s behalf, let us all appeal to the G-d of true justice and abundant compassion.

 

Statue of Limitations

The mass destruction wrought to historical statues and venues across America by the privileged and protected modern Philistines engenders the following question: Is there a difference between the demolition of Buddhist shrines by the Taliban, the destruction of Terach’s idols by Avraham and the tearing down of statues bearing the likenesses of flawed human beings taking place now?

The question remains even if we adopt the reasonable approach that the Midrash was not necessarily depicting a literal act on Abraham’s part but rather conveying the idea that Abraham shattered his father’s intellectual idols. Nevertheless, we have to clarify why is it that most civilized people were horrified by the Taliban‘s wanton acts, why we Jews from a young age are taught to applaud Avraham’s zealotry, and why so many people are ambivalent or even supportive of the  brutal erasure of America’s history – including some of its secular saints, sinners and founding fathers.

How do we distinguish one from the other?

It is first worth noting that if Jews wanted to enter the grievance competition, we could be very fierce competitors. Any self-respecting Jew should take umbrage at a highway be named for Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration, after all, did a little or nothing to save Jews during the holocaust and even thwarted efforts at refugee relief or disabling crematoria. Forget the statues; the FDR drive is an affront. Stuyvesant town and high school would have to be renamed because Peter Stuyvesant was a known Jew hater who banned Jews from his new settlement in lower Manhattan. The statues of Hadrian and Titus in Rome, like the statue of Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev, should cause profound pain and offense to any Jew. All were tyrants and mass murderers of Jews. As unseemly as the grotesque victimhood sweepstakes is, whatever evil was performed by Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson doesn’t compare to what the Roman emperors and the Ukrainian desperate did to the Jews. But we don’t go around seeking the destruction of their images because, to me at least, they serve as a constant reminder that we survived and prevailed. We won. It’s Hadrian and Titus and Chmielnicki and a host of others who have essentially disappeared from history.

There is even a better reason why we can take a more tolerant approach to these statues, and perhaps it takes a Canadian safely ensconced north of the border to offer a way forward and provide us with helpful distinctions. Jeffrey Collins, a professor in Ontario, suggested in the WSJ the other day that the first question to ask in evaluating any statue is why? Why was it erected in the first place? Whom was it intended to honor and for what?

Asked that way it is clear that Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, TR and FDR and others were honored not for their flaws or misconduct but for their accomplishments. The question really is do their flaws and imperfections outweigh the accomplishments? By any reasonable standard, the answer is of course not. If people were to be judged only by their sins and misdeeds, then no one will be deserving of honor. Washington and Jefferson are not being honored because they were slaveholders but rather because of their roles in the founding of America. Any rational person should realize that if we choose to honor only those without sin then no one will be honored, and that includes Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and George Floyd.

Thus, we can distinguish between a Washington, a Roosevelt, or a Columbus, and, as Professor Collins noted, a Stalin, whose evil dwarfed any nationalistic achievement. (Visiting Russia once, I personally witnessed the reverence some Russian still have for him, notwithstanding the Holomodor, the Jew hatred, and the Gulag, and found it quite shocking.) But even in the case of a scoundrel, it could very well be that a given locality would seek to pay him tribute (for example, in Russia or Georgia) where such would be horrific in any other place. Indeed, there are more statues of Stalin in Russia or Georgia today then there are of Lincoln in the south or Lee in the north.

Context is important, as well as a true evaluation of a person’s life and his essential pursuits and just not his imperfections. It should be obvious to reasonable observers that homage is paid to people not because they are perfect but because of their greatness in a variety of spheres that made a difference in the world in spite of their flawed humanity.

Professor Collins noted that the “why” question is not asked today and so all context and perspective is lost. Instead, the question asked is “how does make me feel right now?” That question is most in line with the narcissism of the protesters and many others today, whose sole barometer of anything is its momentary impact on their feelings. If so, the world is aflame because, among the rioters, there is a dearth of moral instinct and an abundance of faux outrage.

The Confederate statues present a sticky problem. Robert E. Lee was an American hero, who fought in the Mexican War and was commandant at West Point. Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, which he turned down so as not to show disloyalty to his home state of Virginia. He was a professional who was instrumental in the post-war reconciliation – but since he is most known for waging war in the unjust cause of the South, a new generation that has not known slavery but only opportunity, is outraged at his existence and the reverence paid to him. As the respect paid him is largely owed to his military leadership of the Confederacy, he is a ripe target for the wrath of the disgruntled, and such wrath is inescapable.

Of course, the modern Visigoths would have a point if their only complaint was with the Confederate statutes. It seems their real complaint is with the United States, and such grievances cannot be assuaged in any rational way. They are enraged that Columbus “discovered” America. Mix in politics, power, money and elections, and it is a most combustible time.

Along these lines, if a statue reflected perverse and depraved ideas, then that statue as well would be a fair target. Hence, the adoration of Avraham, even if, again, it is unknown whether that tale is literal or metaphorical. And the Taliban, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley?

Certainly, we have no tolerance for idolatry. Its attendant philosophies devastated and corrupted ancient man, and its consequences are still felt today. But these statues were more historical than ideological, and their obliteration in 2001 were expressions of raw power, sheer ruthlessness and cruel conquest. Their destroyer, Mullah Omar, is now dead. His sole point was to destroy the shrines of an ancient religion to prove the superiority of his own corrupt philosophy. That is not Avraham. That is evil.

The modern demolishers have little in common with Avraham and much in common with Mullah Omar and the Taliban. What is especially troubling is that rather than recoil from the comparison, they probably welcome it. Ideas and values have been overwhelmed by chaos and anarchy. The wanton and gratuitous devastation (Ulysses S. Grant? Really?) has taken on a life of its own. Nihilism reigns supreme. The destroyers are intellectually limited and ethically stunted. The political class either encourages it or can’t stop it.

What can?

Reading G-d’s Mind

The joy of Shavuot was slightly marred by the appearance on that sublime, holy and transformative day in world history of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg entitled “The Coronavirus Isn’t G-d’s Will.” I am quite aware that the provocative headline was not the author’s choice. Having been down that road several times myself, and having thoughtful pieces somewhat misconstrued because of incendiary headlines, I recognize that headlines are chosen by editors and not by the writers.

In this case, though, the headline is entirely accurate, as this one sentence indicates: “Religious authorities should lead in proclaiming that Coronavirus isn’t willed or inflicted by G-d.”  Well, how does he know that? Rabbi Greenberg has long been an iconoclast, but I immediately recalled the medieval philosopher (cited by, among others, Rabbenu Nissim and Rav Yosef Albo) who said of G-d: “Eelu yedativ, heyitiv” – “If I knew Him, I would be Him.”

Rabbi Greenberg presumes to know Him. Iconoclasm aside, how does he know? And how would traditional Judaism view the divine role in the current crisis? If anything, the pandemic should instill in us more humility before the Almighty, as we have experienced the limits of human knowledge, the frantic search for answers, and the collapse of the economic and social order as we know them, and all seemingly overnight. There has been a natural increase in prayer in the last few months, as people of all faiths have realized how little we control our lives and our world; such piety is to be encouraged, not derided.

His general point is that man has to act using our wisdom and especially our capacity for kindness, and that is well taken. So too are the targets of his displeasure, including his polar opposites (those who also think they know G-d’s will and attribute the pandemic to their favorite agenda) or those who deny nature entirely and thus presume that their faith renders them immune from disease. That is also sensible, but his road to that conclusion is littered with half-truths, ill-formed assumptions, clichés, and not a few heretical comments.

G-d has self-limited, says the Talmud, giving humans greater freedom and responsibility. The biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended. The Lord asks the faithful to serve not to beget miracles, but out of love and shared fate. G-d shares our pain and asks us to take action to end the suffering.”

I am not sure where G-d’s self-limitation is mentioned in the Talmud, although there is a concept of tzimtzum in the Zohar that relates to how G-d, an incorporeal Entity, created a physical universe. And of course mankind has great freedom and responsibility. But R. Greenberg’s divine “self-limitation” seems less a catalyst for human action than it is an utter denial of divine providence. It is as if G-d was a Creator who then abandoned His creation to its own devices leaving behind a string of platitudes to guide them but certainly disdaining any form of enforcement of His moral system.

Who says the “biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended”? Chanuka was post-biblical; did not Chanuka involve a visible miracle? There have been innumerable instances of miraculous events that have transformed battles and altered the destiny of nations – bombs that didn’t go off, events that defied nature and the laws of war, and the like – not to make even more numerous instances of decisions made or actions taken or not taken that were attributed by participants to nothing but Providence.

Indeed, this is a recurrent conceptual error in his musings here. “…the Creator’s presence and love are evidenced precisely in the miraculous functioning of the natural order… It is time for everyone to understand that G-d operates within the laws of nature, which are themselves miraculous.”  The world has always functioned pursuant to natural order, but nature and miracles are not at all identical. Greenberg disregards the concept of Providence, whereby God intervenes in human affairs according to His will that is inscrutable to man. Similarly, Providence and miracles are also not identical. Nature is nature; miracles are deviations from nature. Divine providence can employ overt miracles but can also manipulate human beings to serve G-d’s greater purposes. But R. Greenberg further erases from Jewish thought the concept of reward and punishment, for individuals and nations. The Creator of all is just a “good news G-d,” who just wants man to be good (as each person defines it) but otherwise is uninterested in those who perpetrate evil as He sees it. The author’s God does nothing except to ratify human conduct, to the extent that He cares at all. It is a bleak and materialistic picture.

The author further reduces God to being man’s partner without specifying a particular divine role. Clichés aside, what really does it mean that “G-d shares our pain… that we work with him to fight Covid-19 and develop cures and vaccines…to work in partnership with the Lord…”? How does G-d “share our pain”? We know what we have to do to fight this scourge and others – but what does He actually do? What is His role in the partnership, especially since He  has purportedly withdrawn from judging man for doing evil, relies on man to sustain the world by doing good, and mocks as “magical thinking” any person of faith who prays for miracles or salvation?

It is nothing less than cloaking G-d in human garb. He is what we say He is, we believe in Him and serve Him at our pleasure, and write Him out of the story when convenient or His bromides – especially on His moral order – are unwelcome to progressive thinkers.

One will look in vain in classical Jewish literature for even a hint that G-d is uninvolved in his world, sends no messages or punishments, and lets man alone to fend for himself and enjoy whatever immorality, venality or decadence suits him. One who believes that spends a lot of time on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur mouthing words that he simply does not believe:  “Who will live and who will die?…Who by plague, who by strangulation?…Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree…You wish…that man repent and live…Have compassion on Your handiwork…Instill Your awe upon all Your work…Everything is known and revealed before You…Regarding countries it is said, which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger, which for abundance…” This is a fundamental principle of Jewish thought that his premise disregards, even disparages.

Greenberg intones: “The Lord calls us to join with him to fight suffering and to choose life over death.” And if we don’t? Well, there is really not much He can do about it, since nature rules and G-d’s active interest in mankind ended with the Bible. Belief in R. Greenberg’s powerless, figurehead deity, and rejection of God’s existence altogether, seems to be a distinction without a difference.

What lessons can we draw from the crises that are wracking our world these days? Certainly we should feel humbled, limited, and diminished. For all our sophistication and progress, medical science is always one disease behind perfect cures for everything. We solve one problem and another, unprecedented, presents. We can only evaluate at first based on precedents, however apposite or inapposite they might be.

In looking at our present tribulations, we can exclude one approach: the one articulated here, that “Coronavirus isn’t G-d’s will.” It is acceptable to say that “of course it is,” but the humble, human answer is that we just don’t know. But we are certainly allowed, even obligated, to assume that G-d is sending us a message. We are supposed to introspect, self-evaluate, and ponder a deeper meaning beyond the nuts and bolts of medically solving this problem and its consequences. It suffices to say that it might be    G-d’s will, which demands a prescribed response from us. And who among can dare presume that it isn’t G-d’s will?

The Rambam (Laws of Fasts 1:1-3) codifies that we are commanded to cry out to G-d over any communal affliction, including “pestilence.” “And this is one of the ways of repentance. When the community is tormented and cries out, it should know that this tragedy has befallen them because of their evil deeds…But if they don’t cry out or sound the trumpets but rather say that ‘this is the way of the world’ (i.e., nature!) and it is all coincidental [and without ultimate meaning] this is the way of cruelty and causes them to cling to their evil ways.” It is “cruelty” in the essential meaning of the Hebrew word – ach-zar – it is all foreign to me, it has nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with G-d.

That conclusion is cruel – cruel to the individual who believes it and to the community and world he is trying to heal.

Lacking prophecy, we cannot know with any specificity what sins generated this particular malady that is afflicting us. That is not the same as saying there is no sin, no sinner, and no repentance. Perhaps a good place to start our contemplation would not be in the newfangled progressive pantheon of sins but instead in the Bible itself, to see where we have strayed and to find our way back.

That, too, is G-d’s will.