Category Archives: Contemporary Life

The Rabbinate and Its Contents

If you had to choose a rabbi (and who doesn’t?), what criteria would you use? And why? Fortunately, few people would choose a rabbi who is recognized as a “tzadik!”

This was the subject of a new survey commissioned by the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics (based here in Modiin), and the results shed light on the modern rabbinate, the modern laity, and some of the differences between the Israeli and American rabbinate. As is often the case, superficial media accounts highlighted one or two points that were not really essential to the report but did accord with the biases of those outlets.

Two important issues need to be underscored. The survey questioned only those who identify as religious-Zionists and who were classified according to varying levels of observance, and thus excluded the larger Charedi community from its deliberations. The Charedi attitudes, in a number of ways, differ significantly from those of the Dati-Leumi community. By the same token, although there is a basic congruity between the religious practices and commitments of the Dati-Leumi world in Israel and what is called “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy in America, they are by no means identical or even symmetrical. Nonetheless, there are lessons that can be learned from this study even by American Jews.

The survey questioned hundreds of men and women, of all ages, even sub-dividing them into levels of observance, on issues ranging from the intensity of their connection to rabbis, the frequency of their interactions (questions or personal), and the traits that are most important to them in choosing a rabbi with whom they would consult. What follows are the main features that I extracted from the survey and my deductions.

Those who perceive a rabbi primarily as the source of halachic guidance will be disappointed. Almost 2/3 of the respondents never ask a halachic question (never?!) or ask roughly once a year. It is surely unsurprising that 2/3 of what can be called the Dati-Lite (liberal Religious Zionist, with “flexible” attitudes towards halachic observance) never ask a halachic question. Never!  Why this is so is not addressed, but it might relate to a reduced level of commitment (the “social Orthodox,” those who observe the mitzvot because they desire to associate with or live among other observant people, will be less likely to obsess over halachic minutiae), or to a reluctance to relate to a rabbi, or perhaps, echoing the Talmud (Masechet Yoma 75), the spiritual world appears to them as a plain, all smooth and untroubled. Or perhaps they are fortunate in avoiding the halachic scrapes that arise in the kitchen, workplace or on Shabbat.

Interestingly, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the younger the respondent, the more likely he or she is to ask a she’elah. Almost three times as many young people (aged 16-30) ask she’elot once a week than do people over age 51, and twice as many ask at least once a month. Similarly, the more observant the individual, the more likely he or she is to ask halachic questions; this makes complete sense. In my own personal survey, I have found that 10% of the people ask 80% of the questions – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Of course, 49% of respondents said that they first turn to the Internet (!) with any halachic questions. Rabbi Google might be today the leading “posek” in the world, not so much because of reliability (questions are very fact sensitive and nuances will be lost both to the site and to the questioner) but rather because one can easily hunt for the answer that is desired. As could be anticipated, the younger the questioner, the more likely he or she will turn to the Internet as the first resort, with a full 56.7 of Jews under 30 looking on-line for G-d’s word. But note that this age cohort also asks the most questions of rabbis – so it appears that they will consult Google and then, often, a real, live rabbi as well. It is important to add that more than a third of the respondents will first turn to their permanent rabbi, as opposed to seeking answers “on the street” or randomly.

While this phenomenon is regrettable, and was the source of much hand-wringing and even mockery of the modern rabbinate in some accounts, the unbiased will recognize that the same could be said of medicine, law and almost every discipline. Some doctors will tell you that patients who diagnose themselves on the Internet frequently think they have maladies that they really don’t have – and this pseudo-knowledge hampers the doctor’s ability to properly advise the patient. People will consult their physicians asking for specific medicines they found on the Internet or refuse to take other medications because of side-effects they read about, which are often quite rare. Yet, no one would say doctors are being replaced – or lawyers, accountants, therapists, etc. The Internet is not replacing the rabbi.

More good news: over 90% of respondents said they have (53.8%) or would like to have (35.5%) a rabbi to whom they can ask halachic questions. Some of the reporting actually drew the opposite conclusion, for their own reasons. Apparently, rumors of the demise of the modern rabbinate have been greatly exaggerated.

While the above addressed halachic questions, Jews have been known to ask their rabbis all sorts of questions, relying on their guidance, intuition or something else – but that is not always a good idea. Almost 2/3 of the respondents would never ask a rabbi for business or investment advice, and just as well, assuming the rabbi has no particular expertise in the area. And even if he does, the blurring of roles can cause unnecessary discomfort. (In the Charedi world, of course, this type of consultation is much more widespread.)

Sadly, 1/3 of respondents would never turn to a rabbi for guidance in marital issues, with almost half of older people (over age 51) saying they never would, perhaps reflecting the reticence of older people to open up about personal matters, emotions, etc. By contrast, only 1/5 of younger people would be reluctant to turn to a rabbi for assistance in this area, perhaps having grown up in a world in which baring one’s deepest secrets is done routinely, and often to strangers. The most common areas of consultation – in which respondents would always consult with a rabbi (aside from matters of life and death) – are family, marriage and children’s issues. Again, only 17% of older people approach their rabbis with such matters but fully 44.2% of younger people and 34.4% of middle-aged (31-50) people do so in the first instance. Additionally, 38.3% of young people will consult a rabbi for matters of personal spiritual growth, and in general, men more than women. But both sexes were equal in their willingness to consult rabbis about familial or marital questions.

Another figure that stood out was this: 37.5% would never ask a rabbi about workplace conduct matters – not professional business matters but ethics, interpersonal relations, etc., as if they desire to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But Judaism is a holistic (and holy) system, in which the Torah has something to say about every area of life.

Finally, asked what two characteristics are most important in choosing a rabbi from whom to seek counsel, only 4% stated a “rabbi known as a tzadik,” here referring, apparently, not to personal saintliness but to his ability to perform miracles and wonders and access the mystical world in order to  effect the desired objective. (I’m afraid the figure is actually higher, and clearly is higher in other parts of the Torah world.)  So what then are people looking for in their rabbinical counselor?

More than 50% chose “modesty and humility,” implying not just these wonderful traits but also the lack of a personal agenda, a willingness to admit that not all answers reside in him, and an openness to the questioner. Indeed, the second most favored quality was “a personal relationship” with the rabbi. Grading much lower were qualities such as Torah knowledge, general knowledge and connectedness. Note that the question related not to halachic queries but to general and personal advice that was sought from the rabbi.

As such, it seems clear that what people seek out most in a rabbi is the personal connection, someone who knows them for many years, has experienced life’s highs and lows together with them, and knows what makes them tick. That bond is precious, that connection is sacred, and that relationship is one that is mutually rewarding.

Far from lamenting the state of the modern rabbinate, the study revealed how a significant portion of the religious-Zionist world desires, seeks and sustains a relationship with a rabbi, and this in a secular environment that frowns on and even discourages ultimate answers to life’s questions. Of course there is much that can be improved but only the immature, the impetuous, and the agenda-driven are constantly disappointed when they realize that life itself, and the living, are imperfect. While the American-type rabbinate is not yet pervasive in Israel, organizations such as Barkai are trying to fill that niche, something that can only add to the effectiveness and success of the rabbinate and the well-being of all Jews.

 

Advertisements

Falling Down

Do you remember when the great Willie Mays fell down chasing a fly ball during the 1973 World Series? Here was Mays, one of the most graceful and agile athletes ever to play center field, author of some of the most remarkable fielding plays in baseball history, and now 42 years old, playing for the Mets in the last days of his outstanding career – and tripping over his own feet. It was a sad end to a distinguished career.

I couldn’t help thinking of the “Say Hey Kid” while watching Robert Mueller’s rambling, awkward, uncomfortable and disjointed testimony before two Congressional committees. It was clear that he was out of his element, unfamiliar with much of the report that bears his name that he clearly did not write and arguably did not read. He seemed to be suffering some of the natural effects of aging – and suffering even more (as I have seen with other distinguished people), from shady handlers and manipulators hiding behind Mueller’s reputation for probity to carry out the nefarious schemes of the Resistance.

Mueller responded, well over 200 times, with some variation of “I cannot respond,” “that is beyond the purview of the investigation,””I don’t remember,” “I don’t recall,” “If it’s in the report, it is accurate,” “I can’t get into that,” “can you repeat the question?” and the like. He erred in identifying the name of the president…who appointed him a United States Attorney. He fumbled for words, obvious words. He was surrounded by handlers who seemed to prop him up and feed him lines, not a principal in the process but a figurehead.

And that makes the composition of his investigative team so suspicious. Did he really not know the politics of his staff attorneys and investigators? Was he unaware that all supported Hillary Clinton and a half dozen contributed money to her campaign? Did he even ask?

Had Hillary Clinton been a defendant in a criminal case (or Donald Trump, for that matter), and these attorneys had been questioned about their fitness to serve on a jury, all of them would have been barred for potential bias. It is an obvious conflict, and an obvious question that should have been asked of each of them: did you contribute to or actively participate in either campaign? That it was not is a clear indication of Mueller’s manipulation.

As was this: the unethical and un-judicial standard of a potential defendant not being exonerated. Such a thing is unknown in our – or any – fair-minded judicial system. The presumption of innocence is sacred, for several reasons including the impossibility of ever proving one’s innocence of anything. After all, there might be no evidence of criminality now but who’s to say such evidence won’t appear in a month, year or decade from now? That is why prosecutions require the foundation of probable cause that a crime was committed (a standard that was not even met in this case) and conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

That such deference was not granted to Donald Trump is outrageous.

As was this: the only evidence of collusion between a candidate and a campaign was not investigated by Mueller. That was the Clinton’s campaign’s solicitation of and payment for the salacious and unverified Steele dossier published in Russia that was used to facilitate spying on American citizens. (Unmentioned were the tens of millions of funneled by foreign entities to the Clinton Foundation, which mysteriously has packed up its tent and disappeared.) “Beyond the purview of my investigation”? That was supposed to be the essence of his investigation. Mueller should have just admitted that the purview of his investigation was to dig up any material on Trump, and present it without the right of cross-examination or any substantive challenge.

The horrors of Russian interference that purportedly disrupted and corrupted American democracy has still not quite been explained. What did they do? Meet with campaign officials? I assume that the campaigns on both sides met with foreigners representing several dozen countries. I myself greet several Russians every week. Is that collusion?

Apparently they purchased ads on the Facebook that influenced…who exactly? As the joke (by now, old) goes: did the Russians convince Hillary not to campaign in Wisconsin? Even Bill thought that was a big mistake. What did the Russians do that influenced the election? And note that the conflation of “Russians” and “Russian government” is not at all warranted without further evidence.

Politicians are almost always duplicitous and labor to sound pious and sincere, but let’s be frank: do foreign governments take an interest in American elections? Of course they do. That is because most countries’ interests will be furthered by one side winning and hindered by another side winning. It is why the US routinely interferes in Israel’s elections, with the Obama State Department even being censured by Congress for spending American money to try to defeat PM Netanyahu in 2013. The British, French, Germans, Italians, Australians and Israelis all have an interest in who the American president is. As do the Russians, Iraqis, Iranians and Pakistanis. Sometimes countries will overtly favor one person, other times they will covertly support one over the other, and some countries – usually adversaries – will try to acquire dirt on both parties to hedge their bets and use the information to their advantage in future relations. That has been a Russian tactic for decades – and one of a nation’s most common uses of its intelligence agencies (and even diplomatic corps) is to gather information on candidates and positions, predict outcomes, and try to reach out to any and all campaigns. I doubt that the Russians are atypical, as I don’t doubt that the US does the exact same thing in other countries. (See the histories of Chile, the Philippines and Iran for just a few examples.)

The whole process has been a bizarre farce since the beginning and has corrupted the American legal establishment in ways that will reverberate for quite a while. The tendentiousness is blatant. The misstatements by so many Dem representatives were reprehensible. It is clear that collusion (if it did occur) is not a crime. Period. So, can a person obstruct justice to impede an investigation into a non-crime? That seems more like obstruction of injustice. Does one obstruct justice by asking an investigator, prosecutor, or judge to go easy on someone? If so, that type of “obstruction” occurs every day, and I have probably violated it hundreds of times. But that is not obstruction. Nor is ranting in private about the injustice of it all, nor is calling a political witch hunt a political witch hunt.

There were repeated references to Michael Cohen pleading guilty and going to prison for “campaign violations.” Well, that is an obvious falsehood. Cohen was prosecuted for tax evasion and fraud having nothing to do with Trump – and admitted to a host of other violations simply at the behest of prosecutors who would not otherwise have accepted a deal. Just because he pleaded guilty to a campaign violation does not even mean that there was a campaign violation, as anyone who has ever pleaded guilty to a seat belt violation instead of a moving violation can attest.

How Trump won remains a mystery only to elitists who know little about the country in which they reside but pontificate about all the time. It seems pretty apparent that the Dems hope to perpetuate these investigations through 2020, hoping that the country tires of Trump and the whole tumult. But the danger to the country is enormous – not just the indifference of politicians to the real problems the country faces but also the harm to its international reputation, the invitation to even more insidious interference in the future, the corruption of the legal process, and the nightmare of an agency with limitless power focusing its enmity and unlimited resources on a political target. That is the stuff of banana republics.

When the Torah taught us “Justice, justice, you shall pursue”(Devarim 16:20), the Kotzker Rebbe explained the redundancy by averring that justice must be pursued only through means that are just. Justice is distorted when the means to attain it are perverse.

Let Mueller rest and retire. He had his Willie Mays moment today and it is sad to end a distinguished career on such a depressing note. But, had I been on the committee, I would have closed with this statement:

Mr. Mueller: “There is compelling evidence that your staff was biased against Trump from the beginning and that you purposely omitted or ignored exculpatory evidence. You may not be guilty of prosecutorial misconduct – but nor have you been exonerated of it.”

Unfortunately, those who think that will be the last word on this matter will be sorely disappointed. And Jews – and Jewish organizations – that fail to appreciate this President’s pro-Israel and pro-Jewish policies, and can never find a good word to say about him, are both foolish and ungrateful, and will yet be called to account by the Jewish community and all right-thinking people.

 

Who is First?

Election campaigns are so much fun that Israel is having two within the span of four months, providing daily entertainment if you sift through the vitriol. American elections are different because the dates are defined in law, unlike Israel’s parliamentary system, but they are also so much fun that American political campaigns are very, very long. Perhaps it is better said that they never end – the permanent campaign in which winning matters much more than governance. Israel’s election campaign, while unnecessary, is also mercifully short.

For all the volatility of American politics today – the endless feuding, screaming, dysfunction, real accusations, false accusations and and occasional hilarity – it is downright tame, even stable, compared to what is going on here in Israel. Having a polarized and divided society is the fate of many democracies today, which can be a strength (no group becomes excessively powerful) or a weakness (nothing really ever gets done). But to hold two elections within a few months is bizarre, especially since the electorate hasn’t changed. The configuration of Knesset seats is also likely not to change that much, although I do suspect that Binyamin Netanyahu – who just became Israel’s longest serving prime minister in history, exceeding David Ben-Gurion’s tenure – will not be the prime minister one year from now.

What is especially unusual, and somewhat irksome, is that the right-wing religious parties have fragmented into so many different groups that they are also undermining themselves, as they did in 1992 resulting in the Oslo catastrophe. I count one, two, three, four, five and maybe six parties or maybe more parties that on some level have support of the Religious Zionist community – all reflecting what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” There is the Bayit Hayehudi, the remnants of the old Mafdal; the New Right party of Naphtali Bennett, who gambled and lost when he abruptly left the party he founded to start his own. (Was it a wise move? Well, the modern philosopher, political theorist and ex-basketball player Charles Barkley once said that “the only difference between a good shot and a bad shot is whether or not it goes in.” If you shoot and miss, it’s a bad shot. Bennett shot and missed.) There’s the Zehut party, angling for a Torah state in which marijuana is legal. The Yachad party. Otzma Yehudit on the far right. The new Noam party inhabiting similar quarters. And even the Likud has a fair share of Religious Zionists in its list. And I have probably overlooked one or two equally redundant parties.

That’s a lot of parties, with nuanced differences but primarily espousing similar views, the “narcissism of small differences,” but that has and will result in cannibalizing their voting base. Bennett’s party and Feiglin’s party threw away about 5 seats, 250,000 wasted votes in April’s election. If those votes had counted, there wouldn’t have been a need to rely on Avigdor Lieberman’s party – which everyone assumed would join the right-wing coalition until he decided not to join and embarked on an anti-Torah campaign that he hopes will improve his electoral prospects. One would think that the dissipation of votes, power, and influence in the last election would engender some humility, a contraction of the parties and a willingness to work together for common goals. After all, agreement on 80-90% of the issues at hand should count for something.

What induces all these candidates and parties to run, to highlight their small differences, and then fail to work together to form a coalition? It’s old story that never ends, even if we assume that everyone is sincere.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102a) discusses the sad tale of Yerav’am ben Nevat who split ancient Israel into two kingdoms, reintroduced idolatry (building his own golden calves), a person who saw himself as royalty, but who also possessed tremendous spiritual potential. The Sages noted that notwithstanding that he “sinned and caused others to sin,” he was also a Torah scholar whose Torah had no defect but was completely perfect. All other scholars were before him “like shrubbery.”

And, typically of this type of talented individual, the Gemara says that, in a prophetic vision, “G-d grabbed hold of Yerav’am’s cloak (apparently in order to shake some sense into him). And G-d said, ‘repent, and I, you and King David will stroll together in Paradise.’” Together, we can perfect the world!

But then “Yerav’am asked, who goes first? And G-d said, David goes first. And Yerav’am responded, if so, I can’t. I don’t want it.” Either I go first or I don’t go at all.

Mi Barosh – who goes first? – is such a destructive syndrome. Who will lead? Who is in charge? That ailment destroys people, societies, and nations. It destroyed Korach in his time and Yerav’am in his. It makes politics so superficial and allows problems to fester and never get resolved. Yerav’am was so jealous of the Davidic dynasty hat he felt disrespected even to walk behind the true king; he had to be first.

This Mi Barosh malady is harmful to marriages, to families, to shuls and communities. It is so ancient and so commonplace that one would think we would be aware of it, recognize it, and carefully scrutinize our motivations, decisions and actions. Sadly, we don’t, and even sadder, Mi Barosh is the rule, not the exception. The multiplicity of parties in Israel, and the cavalcade of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, all reflect this fundamental human weakness. People will give up their lives, their spiritual destiny, their families, their wealth and their friends, and all for just a little honor, or a little more honor than the next guy.

Mi Barosh underwrites – and undermines – much of the political scene today, and the results could be quite unpleasant, as they were when Yerav’am maneuvered his way into the kingship of Israel and an ensuing rift in the Jewish society. And each person understands this, and each thinks that the other should therefore give way. Mi Barosh.

If we understand this on a personal level, we will have made great progress. To understand this on a national level will take a bit longer. Maybe it is happening now with a re-configuration of leaders on the right – but perhaps it will not be fully appreciated until the exalted son of David redeems Israel and the world. The sooner the better.

 

The Moon and the Jews

(Published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, July 19, 2019)

     Fifty years ago this week man first walked on the moon, something fantasized about by human beings since ancient times. It was a triumph of human ingenuity that united all of mankind for a brief moment, and that, in the summer of 1969, brought a brief respite from the turmoil that tormented American life – a summer noted for mayhem (the Manson murders), music (the Woodstock retreat) and endless marches against the Vietnam War.

I missed all of that, spending my first summer in Israel and not yet Bar Mitzvah. I recall standing on July 20, 1969, with many others, on a street corner in Netanya looking at the grainy black-and-white television images of the first steps on the moon. The excitement was palpable. Earth’s moon was our gateway to space and the universe beyond. And then, oddly, the attraction of landing men on the moon faded quickly. No person has touched the moon’s surface since 1972. What happened? And is there a Jewish perspective on this accomplishment?

The scope of the moon program and its ancillary achievements were astonishing. More than 400,000 people worked for NASA on the space program and the inventions that were largely unknown byproducts of the drive to land a man on the moon transformed our world – everything from scratch-resistant lenses and anti-icing equipment to the first widespread use of Velcro, microchips, MRI’s, and the gravity-defying space pen (before the space pen, the astronauts used… pencils).

The drive to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth came about for the most prosaic reason: a desire to supersede the Soviet Union whose space program was then more advanced and successful. And it was fraught with danger that, in that era of stoic and understated heroes, was downplayed. But a fire aboard Apollo 1 during a launch pad test killed three astronauts in 1967. Less than a year after the successful landing, Apollo 13’s flight to the moon was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded on board; that crew returned safely. We have witnessed two space shuttle explosions in the ensuing decades.

The Apollo 11 astronauts were flying into uncharted territory. All precautions were taken but the slightest mishap – as happened other times – would have taken their lives. President Nixon had a failure speech prepared in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were stranded on the moon, lauding their courage and inspiration. Indeed, it was not known for many years that while exiting the Eagle moon landing craft, one of the astronaut’s backpacks had broken the switch on the computer that armed the engine! Fortunately, Buzz Aldrin inserted a simple pen that he brought with him – and the system worked (Newsmax, July 2019).

Strange as it sounds, Jews have always had a special relationship with the moon. We count our months according to the moon’s cycle (Masechet Sukka 29a) and as a nation are compared to the moon (Midrash Tehillim 22). The moon was singled out for creation on the fourth day, and it is the only aspect of creation that perceptibly changes shape every day before our eyes, waxing and waning every month and thereby meriting its own beracha upon its monthly reappearance. It seemed so close and yet so unreachable that the text of the accompanying tefilot characterized the moon as “aini yachol lingoa bach,” I cannot touch you. And yet touch it we did. One rabbi quickly opined that we should no longer recite that phrase; he was overruled. For all but twelve men, the moon remained untouchable, part of our world but literally beyond our grasp.

Poskim debated whether or not there was an obligation to observe mitzvot on the moon, with some claiming that mitzvot were mandated only “on the earth” (Devarim 12:1). That proposal never got off the ground. A joke circulated about the Jewish astronaut who reported on the difficulty of his mission orbiting the earth: “It was amazing, except for every 70 minutes – Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv…” In reality, there have been more than a dozen Jewish astronauts – Americans, Israelis and one Soviet Jew, Boris Volynov, who in January 1969 became the first Jew in space.

For all the exhilaration of the moment, the next moon landing just four months later drew much less attention. By 1972, missions were being canceled due to budget cuts. The late Eugene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the moon, on December 17, 1972. Almost as quickly as man arrived, he determined that there was no reason to return.

Great moments of joy are often followed by emotional deflation. The feat, once achieved, no longer energizes. We remember the first person to do something, much less the second, and not at all the tenth. The space program stumbled in this essentially human way, the sense of “been there, done that, now what?” The mystique and enchantment of the moon landing fell victim to cost-benefit analyses and financial constraints. A fantasy fulfilled simply begets another and different fantasy.

And perhaps this as well: The American culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s eroded the nation’s moral core, and government failures – ethical, military, diplomatic and economic – sapped the people’s trust in the traditional institutions of American life. The contrast between the harmony in the heavens and the chaos on earth was too glaring – wars, massacres, human suffering and misery, and the emergence of new challenges and adversaries, all on earth – to justify spending resources on space without any immediate benefit. And Americans, now caught up in the throes of a consumerist and increasingly libertine society, prioritized pursuit of pleasure in the present over adventure in the great beyond. Man’s intellectual and technological achievements often carry a whiff of “my power and the might of my hand have accomplished all of this” (Devarim 8:17). Success feeds the ego in a potentially destructive way but also leaves man looking for new hills to climb and different hurdles to overcome.

Of course, there was and is another way to approach this, and why the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing evokes such nostalgia and good feeling. It is because the grandeur of the universe also reminds us of the smallness of mankind, underscoring our humility in the face of the Creator and His creation. “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your hands, the stars and the moon that You brought into existence. What is a human that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You remember him? Yet You made him slightly less than the angels and crowned him with glory and splendor” (Tehillim 8:4-6).

From this great distance, the astronauts reported, the earth looks so small and peaceful. If only we embraced that perspective, then our humility, ingenuity and commonality would impel us to imbue this planet with G-d’s presence and an eagerness to obey His will. For one fleeting moment fifty years ago, that perspective became possible – an eternal tribute to those whose courage revealed for all the extraordinary frontiers of human potential.

The Intermarriage Ruckus

The Midrash Tanchuma (beginning of Parshat Balak) notes that the nations of the world were also given a prophet – Bilaam – and underscores the difference between that heathen prophet and our Moshe. “Moshe warned the people against sin, while Bilaam encouraged a breach (in moral norms) so as to destroy people’s [spiritual potential].” Moshe’s world, and his Torah, contains moral strictures and eternal guidance; Bilaam’s world is a hedonistic free-for-all that causes chaos to man and havoc for the soul.

Rav Rafi Peretz, the soft-spoken Rosh Yeshiva and current head of the Bayit Hayehudi party here in Israel, raised the ire of the easily ired by terming the intermarriage rampant among American Jews a “second Holocaust.” He was apparently unaware that using the Holocaust as an analogy to anything is the exclusive province of one secular American Jewish organization. Of course, the error in using the term, if it indeed was an error, was that it enabled his intended targets and their defenders to avoid dealing with the substance of his remarks – uttered with love and genuine concern – and obsess over the Holocaust itself. But if he had not used the analogy, then his heartfelt critique would certainly have been disregarded, so let’s get real.

The reference was otherwise unremarkable, as provocative as some deemed it. Analogies of the Holocaust to assimilation and intermarriage have been made for decades, by personalities as diverse as Golda Meir, Emil Fackenheim and scores of kiruv professionals. As I remember hearing it in the 1970’s, someone opined that it matters little “whether a soldier is killed in battle or shirks his uniform and flees the battlefield; both are lost to his nation’s war effort.” We can certainly parse the distinction – the soldier who falls in battle does so advancing the interests of his nation and dies a hero. The deserter is a cowardly traitor. There is a difference in assessment and cause – but the effect is the same. Both can no longer contribute to the country, and in that regard the analogy holds. Assimilation does give Hitler a posthumous victory and the intermarried Jews and their offspring are generally lost to the Jewish people.

So why the indignant attacks on Rav Peretz for pointing out the obvious? Well, these days, pointing out the obvious is a risky proposition, as sundry groups allied with leftist, anti-religious or progressive causes tolerate only one viewpoint: theirs. And one cannot rule out the political dimension, as Israel is undergoing another election campaign and there is an inordinate desire to besmirch the religious parties in any way possible. Just today, a veteran Israeli journalist, known for his anti-Torah views, rhetorically asked an interviewee if Rav Peretz is “chashuch” (unenlightened, in the most charitable definition), because in another fabricated “controversy” he failed to toe the PC line and oppose the only form of psychotherapy banned today for political, not practical, reasons, and despite his claim to have experienced some measure of success with it. Alcoholism and other addictions, anger, depression and the like can be treated (and not always successfully because there are always bad therapies, bad therapists, and individual free will) but only one condition under the sun can never be treated, even if a person wants to seek treatment freely, of his or her own volition. Certainly no one should be coerced into any therapy but prohibiting people from seeking help of their own accord is neither enlightened nor scientific.

And isn’t hearkening back to the culture and morality of Hellenism and ancient Rome the very definition of “chashuch?” After all, it was the darkness of Greece that the lights of Chanuka came to illuminate, to enlighten the world forever with Jewish moral ethics. That is a Jewish approach born of Jewish sources rather than modern sociological and political trends.

So who would be offended by referring to the intermarriage and assimilation as a “second Holocaust,” a “silent Holocaust,” and the like? Could it be the intermarried themselves who have already made their choices and are tenuously connected to Jewish life as it is? As noted, intermarriage lacks the coercive aspects of the Holocaust genocide even if the result is the same. But don’t they know that intermarriage is (was?) a taboo, and the death knell of Jewish continuity? Of course they do.

Politics aside, it would seem that the offended include those who defend, support and have even acquiesced to intermarriage, and number in their ranks a couple of pseudo-Orthodox rabbis, better defined as neo-Conservatives or even Modern Hellenists. There is not a Torah value that they seem to respect when it defies the zeitgeist. The defense of the intermarried as good Jews with holy souls is not just wrong but also counterproductive, catastrophic for the Jewish future. They are overly inclined to assuage the consciences of the intermarried in their modern church of good feelings and love conquers all. But what then happens to Torah and the Jewish people?

As they subtly encourage more and more intermarriage, they are blithely indifferent to one simple rule of economics: Whatever you subsidize (i.e., endorse, tacitly encourage, or reward), you get more of. Whatever you tax (i.e., penalize, oppose, disapprove and reject), you get less of. Do they want more intermarriage? Then they should keep attacking Rav Peretz and all others who refuse to reconcile themselves to this horror-by-choice. But then they will have distinguished themselves as modern Bilaam’s, the sinner’s favorite prophet because he rejects the very concept of sin. Bilaam too believed in all forms of love, free expression, and faithfulness to one’s inner compass, and completely rejected the notion of a divine morality that binds the faithful – and affords them a better, holier, more productive and happier life.

And perhaps that should be our approach, in an age in which authority of all sorts is routinely assailed and dismissed. The life of Torah provides us with the best life possible. (Those who seek it elsewhere are attempting to connect to themselves, which might provide some temporary, but not enduring, joy.) A recent study showed that people who attend religious services even once a week have a substantially lower incidence of suicide. That makes sense, because they are part of something greater than themselves and can find meaning in life regardless of whatever personal pain they experience. There are similar studies extant, worth publicizing, as it can help restore people to observance. It is unsurprising that the Torah “restores the soul” and “gladdens the heart” (Tehillim 19:8-9).

It is eerie that a Jewish think tank recently released an exhaustive study of the state of Jewry today – and the word Torah was not even mentioned. The overwhelming focus was on Jew hatred and how to combat it, as if the only reason for the existence of the Jewish people is to confound our enemies who want to destroy us. Thwarting anti-Jewish persecution is a worthy goal – but isn’t enunciating the purposes, objectives, values and uniqueness of the Jewish people, and how to advance those, an even worthier goal? We don’t live just in order not to die. We live in order to glorify G-d and His Torah.

There are many modern maladies traceable to a rejection of Torah. All the various lifestyles that people today have been forced to (wink, wink) celebrate, endorse and legitimize do not alter that basic reality. It is the Torah life and the conquest of our yetzer hara (instinctual drives) that provide us with balance and true happiness, and not our indulgence of every fantasy or passion. We should have compassion for every sinner because we are all sinners, but woe to us if we accept Bilaam’s Torah and his moral guidance. If people only realized what a Torah life truly meant, they would run to it, embrace it, and protect it with their lives – as holy and faithful Jews have done for millennia. And rabbis should never be intimidated into abandoning or concealing any part of the Torah.

It strikes me that persuading anyone to change any position today is beyond the scope of any writer or thinker. Positions have so hardened, and there is no form of human corruption that doesn’t have its ardent defenders. Sinners of all stripes take refuge in that. But sometimes it is important just to articulate basic truths, so the great majority of faithful Jews realize that the real world has not gone completely mad. It is just sort of underground – perhaps waiting for the speedy appearance of the great redeemer.

 

 

Virtue-Signaling

Character is the composite of repeated actions, employed values and refined qualities, so it is somewhat absurd to judge people – usually to condemn them – based on one deed or misdeed. Should Moshe’s reputation be tarnished irrevocably because he failed to bring his generation or himself into the land of Israel? Should even the spies that he dispatched or Korach his cousin and nemesis be cast into eternal ignominy because of their sins? Should one wrong action outweigh a lifetime of accomplishment?

Part of the moral malaise of modern man reflects this very question. It is not only the absence of heroes that can inspire anyone to do good but also the penchant of many individuals, and even the delight some take, in destroying great people’s reputations, knocking them off their pedestals, exposing and publicizing even a single flaw, and even uncovering the misdeeds or sometimes just words that allow people to conclude, “You see? They were no good. We are all no good. There is no such thing as greatness, moral attainment, or holiness.” It is as if to say because there are no perfect people, there are no people worthy of emulation.

But is that true? Are there no heroes left anymore? Does the slightest blot on one’s escutcheon destroy whatever good anyone did? Well, it depends, but on what?

If I thought for a moment that any of these modern critics were sincere and trying to make the world a better place, I would hesitate, but I don’t believe that at all. It’s mostly virtue-signaling – the public display of one’s moral superiority on the cheap, without any sacrifice, consequences, or real accomplishment. It is as if one gains moral standing merely by pointing out the failings of others, lifting up themselves by lowering others. It is as pathetic as it is commonplace.

We are living in an age in which virtue-signaling matters much more than actual virtue, and thus one can proclaim that there is no such thing as virtue because there really are no virtuous people. It is very cynical – and wrong.

For example, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson are today routinely derided as slave-owners and racists, whose names and pictures in public places cause offense, especially to the easily offended. References to them are being systematically excised in places in America where virtue-signaling is rampant and tolerance is in short supply. Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves and preserved the Union, sometimes expressed racist views and is similarly excoriated as unenlightened. Add to this list the flaws of FDR, for whom thinking Jews bear ill will because of his studied indifference to the Holocaust, or JFK and his moral indiscretions, and a host of others.

Poor Joe Biden keeps falling into the clutches of the virtue-signalers almost on a weekly basis. I don’t carry his water, but he got a raw deal when he declared it an asset rather than an iniquity to work together with segregationist Senators with whom he disagreed vehemently. Of course, he erred only in implying that they were Republicans; they weren’t – the two Senators he named, Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge, were Democrats. So he didn’t exactly reach across the aisle but rather to the people sitting right next to him. Perhaps some courageous reporter will ask Biden why he joined the party of segregationists in the 1970’s and what measures he took to weed them out of his party.

And now it’s Martin Luther King’s turn. His Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer, David Garrow, an unabashed admirer of King, could not get an essay published in America (it was  published in a British periodical; there is some protection left for secular saints, sometimes) that detailed repeated salacious, scandalous and criminal behavior on King’s part, all recorded by the FBI on audiotape to be released within a decade So is there no one beyond reproach? What do we really gain from all these takedowns?

Nothing at all. But here is where we got off track and how we can get back on track. The critics are not approaching these individuals from a religious or objectively moral perspective, and do not generally take Christianity seriously, but they have embraced Christian doctrine that has skewed their outlook: that of the “perfect person.” There can be perfect people, and only the perfect person should be admired or worshipped. Everyone else is fallen, disgraced, abominable and nothing special. But the Torah never proposed such an idea and definitively opposed it. There are no perfect people. The greatest among us – Avraham, Moshe, David, etc. – all stumbled, all sinned, and all repented. That is what defines human character at its best – especially the capacity to do wrong, admit it, repent, and regain one’s moral standing.

To be sure, certain crimes are so heinous that they tarnish the person forever (homicide leaps to mind, among a number of other sociopathic acts), but aside from that, the criterion we should utilize in measuring the heroes of the past and even present is this: were their moral weaknesses or flaws part of their life’s purpose or major accomplishment or distinct from it? The lives of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Kennedy, King – and most of the other targets of today’s virtue-signaling hypocrites – were not defined by their flaws but by the good that they did, and the good they did was completely unrelated to their sins and moral failings. Obviously the same pertains to Moshe – but not to Moshe’s spies whose mission in life (“all noblemen, leaders of Israel”) was undermined and vitiated by their sins, and not to Korach whose rebellion overwhelmed and destroyed any accomplishments  he had.

We should realize that even worse than living in a world where people search for flaws in others as if they are looking for chametz on the night before Pesach – with a microscope, a magnifying glass and then a megaphone – is living in a world where we think there are neither heroes nor people of accomplishment, and we conclude that there is no goodness worthy of emulation in this world because no one is perfect. That is a world of despair and emptiness, a sad world that needs real uplifting.

Rather than indulge the virtue-signaling dwarfs who are nibbling at the ankles of giants, all to further a political agenda, we should recognize human complexity and admire the struggles and achievements of great people not despite their imperfections but precisely because they were imperfect, and still achieved so much. Erasing their names and pictures is insensitive – to truth, reality and to a true understanding the nuances of human nature.

Judaism always advocates dealing with people with “chesed ve-emet,” kindness and truth. Kindness alone and truth alone can very often distort reality and impair our perception of what is good, moral and just. Kindness and truth must work in tandem, as we need both to survive and appreciate the good in each other.

The Dangers of Equality

All things being equal, equality is a wonderful thing.  The Torah mandates that “there shall be one law for you, for the stranger and resident among you” (Vayikra 24:22); nonetheless, there are numerous differences in Jewish law in the rights and privileges of a Jew, a non-resident alien, a man or a woman, a child, a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. Thus, equal treatment under the law is a goal for which we strive, recognizing that differences will arise in which each of the aforementioned parties is advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the circumstances – and that pure equality exists in mathematics but not in life.

Still, the word and concept “equality” so resonate in the American mind that to question its application is a secular heresy. That “all men are created equal” was true but not entirely true was little noted at the time but troubled the American conscience for a century and to some degree until today as well. But we must be mindful of the pernicious effects of the modern “equality” that has come to us in the form of the “Equality Act,” congressional legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives on an entirely partisan vote. It is denominated HR 5 – i.e., the fifth piece of legislation introduced in the House this year.

What could be wrong with the “equality” that is entertained by the “Equality Act?”

The Equality Act aims to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and for other purposes.” It includes all the trendy categories, and focuses on preventing discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and the like, and certainly some of those goals are admirable. But it goes further, “barring discrimination in foster care and adoption,” meaning that an Jewish or Catholic agency, for example, would be precluded from placing children in homes that professed the core values of those faiths. It prohibits any discrimination in any “public gathering,” the ramifications of which will be clear in a moment.

Significantly, and most troubling, Section 1107 of the Act explicitly states: “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”  In plain English, the religious liberties secured pursuant to RFRA are now in clear jeopardy.

Taking all these clauses in composite, and articulating the true intent of the drafters, this statute has several grievous implications for proponents of religious liberty, all people of faith, and the traditions that accompanied the founding of the USA.

For example, under this statute, feminists could sue to abolish the mechitza in shul, as that partition distinguishes between men and women in a place of “public gathering,” and one that receives some government benefits at that. Others might sue to void separate education in our yeshivot, and if you think that can’t happen, think again. The King David High School in Manchester, England, was just downgraded to “inadequate” as an educational institution – even though its student scores are superlative – simply because the authorities have determined that separate boys and girls classes violates England’s Equality law.

Or, what if a same-sex couple demanded the right to conduct their wedding in a synagogue social hall? The statute as written vitiates any notion of religious freedom, making the First Amendment protection of freedom of worship almost a non-entity. A yeshiva would not be able to prevent the hiring of a transgender male as rebbe, and if it denied him (or her) the job, then go fight City Hall. Or the courts. And while you’re at it, try to deny a drag queen the privilege of serving as Chazan for the yamim noraim.

      We were once assured that enshrining equality before the law would not prejudice the rights of religious people. That turned out to be a canard, and the only lingering doubt is whether or not proponents of these laws knew from the beginning that they would focus their legal firepower on recalcitrant religions after the passage of those laws.  Anyone who thinks this cannot happen with the Equality Act should read about the ongoing, endless saga of Jack Phillips, who is still being sued (now for the third time) for his refusal to create personalized cakes for a variety of couples to whose union he has moral and religious objections. And one should be aware that even the Supreme Court did not narrowly rule in his favor on grounds of his freedom of religion but on his right to free expression. That these consumer-activist demands encroached on his religious liberties was of interest to the majority decision but was not the holding of the court.

Some might say “let them sue,” which is reasonable and even the American way. But even if those plaintiffs sue and lose, the annoyance, expense and consumption of time and energy defending a lawsuit can easily hamstring, derail and in some cases even bankrupt a merchant and certainly a religious institution. We should assume that such lawsuits will be filed in far left states that will automatically rule in favor of the “aggrieved” parties, forcing the defendants into the even greater and debilitating expense of multiple appeals, or the dilution or compromise of their religious values.

None of this is accidental or unknown to proponents of these measures. Their hatred for the religious traditions that proscribe their behaviors is palpable and their desire to impose their values and lifestyles on everyone else – once known as the “majority” – is limitless. Their quest for legitimization demands that the law not only “protect” them but that it also trample on and erode the rights of religious people. Advocates of traditional morality – laws that defined civilization for millennia – are their sworn foes. Any thought, word or deed that disrupts their objectives, enunciates moral verities, or challenges their assertions must be suppressed, and those who utter them must be denounced, ostracized, and then tarred and feathered.

Jews take care never to count people but rather words of a verse, hands or (in Biblical times) shekel coins because to count individuals one, two, three, four implies that we are all the same. But we are not all the same. Each person is unique, and as individuals and not merely as part of a group.

The “Equality Act” transforms religious people into citizens who are less-than-equal, whose moral aspirations must be denounced and whose Bible needs to be amended. The good news is that there is no chance that this bill will pass the Senate or be signed into law by President Trump. But we will rue the day if and when Democrats regain control of Congress and the Presidency, awash as they are in the identity politics that vest all rights in groups but not in individuals.

And not even all groups; people of faith have no standing under this bill. And if it ever passes, America will no longer be the same and we will realize too late the gross inequalities created by this Equality Act.