Category Archives: Contemporary Life

On Liberty (With Apologies to John Stuart Mill)

    One of the most famous phrases in American history was drawn from the laws of Yovel, the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Vayikra 25:10). Those stirring words are inscribed on the Liberty Bell (not all that it’s cracked up to be, but still worth a visit) housed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.  The Bell actually predated the War of Independence but has been associated with the drive for American independence since at least the 1830’s.

     The Liberty Bell notwithstanding, the Torah’s choice of the word dror to signify “liberty” or “freedom” is unique. It is the only time the word appears in the Torah in the instant context, although Yirmiyahu uses it several times. We are more familiar with the word cherut to denote the same idea, even though cherut is not found in the Torah at all but is frequently cited in the context of the rabbinic dictum in  Avot (6:2): “Read not ‘engraved’ [charut on the luchot, tablets] but ‘freedom’ – cherut – as the only free person is the one who is engaged in Torah study.”  That is cherut, not dror. What does dror mean and how does it differ from cherut?

The Talmud refers many times (see, e.g., Shabbat 106b) to a tzipor dror, a “free” bird, a bird that is untamed, difficult to trap, and does not accept the mastery of another. Dror means liberty, but it is a liberty that does not tolerate any restrictions or controls. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, great philologist that he was, understood this tzipor dror as a bird “which only follows its natural trend, without altering it or being affected by human proximity.” It does its own thing, and that should ring a bell for all Americans.

As such, it really is an apt description of the American concept of liberty, even if Isaac Norris, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly who selected it in 1751, had no such awareness of Hebrew nuance. From the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol from the Revolutionary era to the public protests erupting across America these days because of the onerous restrictions necessitated (or not) by the Corona plague, Americans don’t like to be told what to do. The “pursuit of happiness” is individualized, subjective. One size does not fit all. The Founders, for the most part, extolled the virtues of individual liberty and small government – as big government (as we have seen) is usually hostile to individual liberty. Big government is founded upon and can only endure by encroaching on the right, freedoms and especially the money of its subjects.

The verse is most suitable for the Liberty Bell as it is for the Jubilee, in which all slaves were freed and ancestral property generally restored to the original owners. Each person returned to his or her natural state and landed property to its natural owner. Artificial barriers and human fetters were removed and life returned to a halcyon past.

Notice, though, how Jews speak not of dror, the undisciplined form of liberty that allows people to follow their consciences, muses and desires, but of cherut, a freedom that is “engraved,” carved on the tablets of the law, rooted in something external to us – the Divine Word. Freedom is the right to live with abandon or a reckless rejection of any inhibition but is rather embedded in our capacity to choose, to subdue our inclinations and harness our energies and resources to serve G-d. And the choices that are presented to us are not simply trivial flavors of life or varieties of experiences but have real world consequences. We choose the good or the opposite, life or the opposite, and so develop our souls for eternal life.

There are two concepts of freedom and each reflects the milieu most appropriate for it. The American concept reflects the ideal for a secular society; the heavy hand of the ruling class has historically been unkind to individual freedoms and the pursuit of happiness, and thus liberty remains the prevailing ethos and with good reason.

Conversely, the Torah view is the archetype for a religious nation. It promotes discipline and self-control, and mandates both behavior and values that bring a godly and sacred dimension to life. Such is only possible in a divinely-ordained system.

We must understand both systems and remember never transpose them. We must never let the American ethos pervade the Jewish moral standard – something that has been the bane of modern life and much of the last century. Only then can we remain faithful to our divine mandate and true to our mission.

The End Game

Is it too early to try to make sense of the Corona virus pandemic that has rocked the world? Trying to read God’s mind is always a hazardous and hubristic venture. We can never be certain of our conclusions.  On the other hand, we also risk losing the opportunity to evaluate where we are, what does God want from us, and further sink into the morass of materiality and happenstance.

One problem in this endeavor is that usually people try to interpret events in accordance with their conventional modes of thinking. And the ramifications of this crisis are multifaceted. It has shaken every societal and global institution. Americans have responded to the shutdown of society and infringements on personal freedom remarkably well, especially considering the disruption of family life and the collapse of the economy. The American economic juggernaut has ground to a halt. American politics, unpredictable for years, has descended into utter nebulousness.

The world has been brought closer in one sense, but in other ways remains the same. No place on the globe has been immune from the spread of disease; shared suffering has engendered some international cooperation. But it has also exposed some countries, such as China, as both victims and villains in this drama. The game of power politics and the desire for strategic advantage for some countries over others continue unabated.

All this misses the real point. Again, people are prone to seeing the world in a new situation as they have in prior situations. From a Jewish perspective, there are people who will look at any event and interpret it as a call for increased Torah study. Others perceive this plague as a divine mandate to do more acts of chesed, and in the current crisis opportunities abound. Aliya activists see the potential, with good cause, for a dramatic increase in Aliya. Still others will look at our closed shuls and conclude that God has not been happy with our communal prayer, and so has temporarily stripped us of it. And the Messianists see this, as they see everything, as an indication that Moshiach is coming soon.

All of that might be true and I hope they are true but I think they are reading into the situation more than simply interpreting the facts on the ground. And what are those facts? It is the one overpowering reality that mankind struggles with and has still not accepted: the reality of G-d’s existence and His mastery over the world. It is a time for teshuva, not just in the classic sense of repentance but in its literal sense of a “return,” a return to an awareness of G-d.

Even in nations that recognize God’s existence, He has been compartmentalized. G-d is “assigned” to a panoply of rituals, houses of worship, lifecycle events (especially tragic ones), and pious, platitudinous invocations often from impious people who enjoy platitudes. But the reality of His might, His dominance, and especially His morality is widely ignored. Society celebrates “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the works of the hands of man” (Tehillim 135:15). The explicit intent of government officials is not to introspect on the broader meaning of life, which should be easier in an environment devoid of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing entertainment industry, but rather to get the economy going and have people dive right back into the crass consumerism that for many is the purpose of life and the source of their contentment and meaning. Certainly, a prosperous economy is critical to a functioning polity – but only because it then facilitates the more consequential pursuits of life. It should be the means to an end and not the end goal itself. When there are no or few consequential pursuits, then we wrongly admire those who have power and influence, and generally set the tone for the zeitgeist.

Who are the powerful? One might suggest the politicians, the generals, the tycoons, the scientists, the doctors, the clergymen and others. They are the ones who claim to have the answers for everything and promise us the fulfillment of our life’s ambitions – as long as we subscribe to their assumptions. And now we see the limits of their powers and how their answers are really not answers at all.

Of course no one saw this coming. Anyone (many do, in fact) can irrefutably predict an impending calamity because until it happens it is always impending. I can’t criticize any person for failing to anticipate something unprecedented; that is as unfair as it is illogical. But the responses to the disaster are illuminating in that they spotlight the wide chasm between our egos and our inadequacies.

The approaches of some rabbis to this catastrophe have been spot on, while others have been deeply flawed. The doctors are trying heroically to save lives, as are the scientists in the frantic research. There is no explanation why one person succumbs and another survives, why one man is afflicted and another woman is unaffected, why the elderly are most vulnerable and the young almost unscathed. There are theories – but the theories ultimately testify to how little we know. Hundreds of scientific papers from across the world have been published in the last six weeks alone with potential cures or treatments. That indicates not just their creativity and their untiring efforts but also their limitations. When there are many answers it means there is no one, real answer. Thus we are treated to the daily spectacle of “this drug works” and “no it doesn’t!” “We are days or months away from a vaccine!” followed by “No, you’re not,” with the sincere, mercenary and political motivations all jumbled. And when someone finds the answer to this disease, who can say that this won’t be followed by other medical challenges which are similarly confounding?

Those who place their faith in science – a staple of secular mankind since the Enlightenment – should re-evaluate, to say the least. (I don’t know anyone who has faith in politicians.) Simple questions – the efficacy of certain drugs, the existence of herd immunity for Corona virus or any immunity at all for those recovered – cannot be answered, are answered in the alternative, or will only be answered after the fact. We ask rhetorically in the daily Shacharit: “Are not all the mighty like nothing before You, men of renown as if they never were, the wise as if devoid of knowledge (science?), and men of understanding as if devoid of intelligence?”

It is indeed so, as jarring as it sounds and as humbling it is to the self-image of modern man. We try, we often succeed, we use our G-d-given intelligence to try to solve the mysteries of the universe and properly so – but “all is a fleeting breath,” a particularly evocative metaphor in these troubled times.

The wealthy – the group that is most idolized in a materialistic world – have seen the ground on which they walk shaken. The world economy is crumbling, and the markets are volatile. For sure, they are better able to absorb the blow than are the middle class or the poor. Pity those whose businesses will fail or are unemployed from companies that will not reopen. It was unthinkable even two months ago that supermarket shelves in the United States would be empty and that people would be lining up by the thousands to receive boxes of food from local authorities.

Everyone is groping in the dark for answers and perhaps the message is to look up. The atheist and vulgar materialist will find their explanations in nature and the like. They will be unrepentant until the end. They will continue to impose their amorality (often, immorality) on the world under the guise of rights, ethics, kindness and even morality but all “the works of the hands of man.”

Rambam (Hilchot Taanit, Chapter 1) writes that “when troubles, such as famine, a plague, or locusts befall a community, we are to cry out to G-d… It is one of the ways of repentance… And those who do not cry out but conclude that this is just ‘the way of the world and these tribulations are mere coincidence,’ this is nothing but cruelty that causes them to cling to their evil ways and it only invites more suffering.”

Why is this “cruelty”? Because cruelty (achzari’ut) is the feeling that “I am a stranger (a zar) to all this hardship. It has nothing to do with me. It is all coincidence.” Even an earth shaken to its core will not dislodge the unbeliever or the materialist from his world view; that too is an ordeal, of a different sort. Nevertheless, it seems that the scourge is having some positive effect. Last week, a Pew survey indicated that more than 25% of Americans report that they are praying more than they did before the crisis. If it is sustained, along with the humility engendered by this blunt encounter with our evident vulnerabilities, a vital transformation in society will have begun.

The times demand a reassessment of priorities and life’s purposes, a return to G-d as the Source of all life and not as a cliché, not as an image that we trot before our mind’s eye during periods of stress only to relegate Him to some corner (large or small, depending on the person) of our world in more normal periods. We know that Moshiach will arrive amid some global cataclysm, when mankind concludes that nature, science, wealth, or power do not have the solutions to what ails us. That despair forces us to look away from ourselves, to “lift our eyes on high and discern Who created all of these” (Yeshayahu 26:26). The sooner we do that, the sooner we will see an end to human suffering and malaise, and behold the dawn of the era of redemption.

 

Ask the Rabbi, Part 4

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

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

 

Should a person be comfortable or uncomfortable davening in an airport or on an airplane?  And should he act conspicuously or inconspicuously?

Setting aside security considerations, our mandate as Jews is quite straightforward and is presented to us at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch (1:1). The Rema states that “one should not be embarrassed in front of people who (might) ridicule his divine service.” After all, what do we have to be ashamed of – that the Creator and Master of the Universe has called upon us to serve Him? There could be no greater honor.

Of course, there are practical considerations to be weighed as one must strive not to be unduly provocative to other people. Davening on an airplane often inconveniences other passengers. Congestion in the galleys or aisles is so disruptive that many modern day poskim have recommended that people on airplanes daven alone and not in a minyan, especially where provisions for group tefila are not made. Even in the airport, davening in the middle of crowds of quizzical onlookers is not conducive to the kavanah required for tefila. But airports have plenty of semi-private spaces (some even have designated prayer rooms without overt religious symbols or icons) that are amenable to prayer.

I have frequently davened in airports without incident. Decades ago, I was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Düsseldorf, Germany – my first time in that country. Without any options, I davened with talit and tefilin in a corner of the waiting area, with numerous passersby stopping to glance or gaze at this unusual spectacle. I thought to myself at the time: “Good, let Germans see a Jew wearing talit and tefillin on their soil.” And I survived. The rest of the world can only benefit from the presence of proud, fearless Jews. So can we.

 

Is it appropriate to analyze one’s parents? 

Much depends on what is meant by “analyze.” Certainly, sitting in judgment of one’s parents is forbidden. We are mandated not only to honor (kibud) but also to revere (mora) our parents. Analyzing one’s parents, and their virtues or vices as parents or as individuals, would violate the latter prohibition. And this applies even if parents act abusively. As the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) relates, a story codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 240:3), “if a child is wearing expensive clothing and sitting among noblemen, and one’s father or mother tears his clothing, strikes him in the head and spits in his face, the child cannot embarrass them but must remain silent, fearing the King of Kings who commanded him so.”

Admittedly that is an extreme case but the point is clear: scrutinizing, critiquing or rebuking our parents is generally forbidden.

However, if a parent torments or traumatizes a child to the point of psychological dysfunction, it would certainly be permissible, even therapeutically indispensable, to discuss one’s upbringing in a counseling setting. Discussion of parents and parenting is a staple of certain types of therapy. But it should be done, wherever possible, with respect and reverence, and eschewing the tendency to blame all of one’s troubles on other people. Indeed, recognizing that no one is perfect can even engender the assumption of personal responsibility for one’s own fate in life, and that can lead to healthy outcomes.

If “analyzing” parents means better understanding their decisions in order for the child to learn parenting skills, then that is proper as well. After all, as a wise Rav once said,   “G-d eventually takes revenge on children by  making them parents.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of four books.

On Balance

Well, the world has certainly changed, and in a hurry.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were overwhelmed with a variety of crises – the rise in violent attacks against Jews in America and Europe; the opioid epidemic that was sweeping the nation and devastating large swaths of the country; and our vaping teenagers,  a plague that necessitated government investigations, crackdowns and restrictions. These troubles dominated our thinking before we had ever heard the term “social distancing.” That doesn’t even mention the omnipresent threat of global warming that was to end the planet in a decade or so unless, among other things, single-use plastic bags was banned from all stores. All that seems not months but years ago, and all it took to drive them from the headlines was a once-in-a-century pandemic.

For all those who claim to have seen the corona virus coming, I wish they would have told me right before. Of course no one knew, even if there are always people predicting catastrophes. The problem is that there are always more people predicting catastrophes than there are catastrophes. When the one person is right, he is lauded for his genius and prescience. When the multitudes are wrong, no one pays attention to them (remember the looking disaster of Y2K?). It reminded me of the old economists’ joke, that economists have accurately predicted twelve out of the last five recessions. That’s about right.

Governments’ response, both federal and state, will be the subject of much deliberation and recrimination, little of it objective or honest. There is a reason why there is no template for dealing with the unprecedented; that is because it is unprecedented. To have too few ventilators available in such a disaster is a criticism that would be warranted only if I told you that next year hundreds of thousands of dialysis machines will be needed, so spend the money now, and suffer the consequences. It is simply unpredictable, and that calls for emergency measures. Every politician would love to repair the bridge the day before it collapses. To do it too early seems like a waste of money, too late is too late. Sadly, it is usually difficult to time it so precisely. But the outsourcing of pharmaceutical production to China is a national travesty, one born of the multiple regulations and union requirements that render manufacturing in America less than cost effective. That has to be solved because it is unhealthy (both literally and figuratively) to be dependent for our vital medicines on the Chinese whose way of life, of doing business, of governance, and moral notions so differ from ours.

Of more interest is the religious response. The good news is that the Jewish community for the most part adapted quite well to the most Draconian restrictions imaginable. To me it is unthinkable to have spent a month outside of shul, davening alone. For American Jews, whose spiritual lives are often centered on the shul, to be robbed of that daily experience could be crushing, if not for the fact that we are historically a nation of adapters. The believing Jew sees G-d’s hand in everything. In a profound way, the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot. We therefore serve G-d not by building private altars but by abstaining from certain otherwise obligatory acts. It is the same in the current environment; our divine service is characterized by what we cannot do even if we want to do it. Fortunately, our Sages anticipated this predicament: “Rav Assi said: ‘Even if a person thought to perform a mitzvah but was unable to do so due to exigent circumstances, Scripture construes it as if he performed it’” (Kiddushin 40a). The sense of loss and feeling of dislocation is great but that is where we are. The mitzvah of saving lives and avoiding harm to oneself or others takes precedence over public prayer and learning.

Not every Jewish community was quick to get with the program with the resultant increase in illness, death and suffering in those communities both in Israel and in America. Some held out for a few days, some a few weeks, and I suppose there are still some recalcitrants even today. One rabbi claimed that only G-d would tell him when to close his shul (I assume he merited a divine communication, because he was closed the next day.) Another rabbi quoted that Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that “the world only endures because of the breath of children studying Torah” – so the closing of yeshivot endangers us rather than protects us. Still another decried the loss of pubic prayer, since “the world exists due to the kedusha in U’va l’tzion and the response in Kaddish after public Torah learning” (Sotah 49a).

Those are all true statements, of course, but certainly homiletical, and neither will prevail in halachic discourse over the requisites of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives. For sure, their emotions and desires were in a holy place, but why did they not comply and continue to endanger their communities?

I found it fascinating that a similar dynamic played out among Catholics. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week (April 6) and the headline says it all: “As Coronavirus Halts Masses, Conservative Catholics Push Back.” These Catholics argued that “believers need the church now more than ever.” Cardinal Burke opined that just as people need food and medicine and take care not to spread the virus in the process, “so also we must be able to pray in our churches and chapels…and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion.” Rusty Reno, the noted Catholic writer, stated that “in a time of pandemic – a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment and death, churches must not join the stampede of fear.”

It is impossible to know whether here Catholics followed the Jews, Jews followed the Catholics or both came to their conclusions on their own. But it is an intriguing question: why is that (for lack of a better term) those religious groups who self-define as the most “conservative,” or “traditional,” or “fundamentalist,” or “ultra…” of one sort or another, insisted on maintaining spiritual business as usual despite the dangers extant – even as the rest of the society effectively shut down?

There are many possible answers (a commitment that exceeds that of others, not being one of them) but here I suggest two, one general and one specific.

The first is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to our lives that was not only unforeseen but also still is, in a literal sense, incredible. It is simply beyond belief, something that the entire planet is experiencing that no one had ever experienced before –a global pandemic that necessitates the shutdown of economies and social institutions. It is easy to dismiss such a calamity as real – even after its effects are upon us. There lurks in the mind the suspicion that “this can’t really be happening.” If so, finding comfort and refuge in our normal spiritual lives is reassuring and even more imperative notwithstanding the “dangers” that are not fully internalized.

The second speaks to us, as I cannot address the Catholic claims. Halacha is a very balanced and delicate ecosystem. For sure, there is a scale of hierarchies as there are gradations of holiness and importance in the mitzvot. The more “fundamentalist” a group is, the more likely they are to attach greater significance to facets of Torah that are less compelling (clothing and beards come to mind). But they can also lose their sense of balance and true priorities when they take one mitzvah and see it as the end-all and be-all. In so doing, they distort the ecosystem, as they also do, for example, by taking Agadic statements designed to teach us values and employing them to draw halachic conclusions, a profound methodological error.

Psak halacha (a conclusive determination of authorized practice) involves much more than just deciding that a particular mitzvah “to me or my group” is more important than any others. It involves reckoning with ancillary values (hefsed merubeh, kavod habriyot, etc.) that will play a significant role in the final analysis even if their applications involve some subjectivity. Failure to account for ancillary values – or exaggerating the importance of one particular mitzvah – will invariably lead to distortion in the final conclusion. Hence the reluctance to comply with the current societal mandates for a long time (in some places). Their yearning and intentions were as admirable as their conclusions were misguided and deadly. Thus it turns out that they were not more frum but less frum than they hoped to be. That is the price for a misconstruction of halacha but may Hashem help us all!

People often think that the greatest value in the Torah is pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, and who is to argue with that? It is certainly a supreme value and dominates our thinking here. In truth, though, it is not the highest value, because even the saving of a life is superseded by the three cardinal sins each of which mandates martyrdom instead of violation.

That makes fidelity to G-d’s will, or better said, service of G-d in every situation we confront in life, the highest value. That divine service is ordinarily manifested in the performance of many mitzvot like Torah study, public prayer and the like. It requires the building and maintenance of communities dedicated to joint practices and shared values. If the times now demand a temporary retrenchment in that type of divine service, then we should grieve, realize what we are missing, and when the gates are reopened surge forward with renewed vigor and appreciation for the spiritual beauties of our lives.

Just like after the churban, sometimes G-d demands service through abstention in some spheres (public prayer) and intensification in other spheres (acts of kindness).

May He soon end this scourge, bring healing to the afflicted and comfort to the bereaved, and send His righteous Moshiach to redeem His world.

Ask The Rabbi, Part 2

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

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

Should a person lend any significance to his dreams?

     Well, none of us are Yaakov Avinu or Yosef Hatzadik whose dreams were prophecies, messages from G-d that guided their (and our) futures. Dreams were the typical means of conveying prophecies for all prophets except for Moshe. But even if dreams are not prophecies, and not all are noteworthy, Chazal recognize with extraordinary prescience the importance of dreams.

The Gemara (Masechet Berachot 55b) states that a person only dreams at night of what he thinks about during the day. That is, dreams are a way of reconciling conflicts in one’s conscious life, or giving unconscious expressions to one’s fears or fantasies, or sometimes dealing with a painful reality in a way that is less provocative or distressing. Certainly, it bears mention that (ibid 54a) just like there is no wheat without chaff, so too there is no dream without some nonsense. The true nature of dreams is masked to make their deeper messages more palatable and most will be unremembered and unremarkable.

Occasionally, dreams will enable us to think more intensely about an issue or problem or person or event that is troubling us, and sometimes troubling us in a way that we refrain from thinking about openly. Certainly, the higher our spiritual level, the more elevated will be the substance of our dreams. But one who goes even seven days without a dream is called “evil,” i.e., unfortunate (ibid 14a). Dreams are divine gifts that clear our minds, ease our hearts and sometimes call attention to potential problems that are resolved without us being fully cognizant of it.

Should a person think highly of himself?

  No. And yes.

This calls to mind the two divergent schools of musar – of Novardok and Slabodka. The former, founded by Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, taught that striving for perfection required the internalization of shiflut ha’adam, the lowliness of man – how man is driven by his desires and fantasies and routinely succumbs to sin. Thus, man can only improve by nullifying the ego, which would be accomplished, in theory, by performing acts of self-abasement. Famously, a student would enter a hardware store and request a dozen eggs; the subsequent mockery and humiliation presumably did wonders to rein in the pleasures of the ego.

The Alter of Slabodka disagreed sharply and focused his musar on the recognition of gadlut ha’adam, the inherent greatness of man, created in G-d’s image and with a soul that could apprehend G-d’s wisdom and morality. The descendants of the Avot and the heirs to the illustrious traditions of Israel must have a healthy self-worth. The people that stood at Sinai and received G-d’s Torah must always act in a dignified and refined way befitting their royal status.

In a sense, these are but reverberations of the aphorism of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: “a person should always carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one is written ‘the world was created for me’ (Sanhedrin 37a) and on the other ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Breisheet 18:27). The test of life is to know when to reach into which pocket.”

The modern self-esteem movement is misguided, to the extent that it cherishes everyone, even those devoid of real accomplishment. Life doesn’t award participation trophies, but as Jews, we must know our place – and adorn that place with spiritual achievements.

 

May one use data derived from unethical research (an extreme example of which would be data from Nazi research that used human test subjects instead of lab rats and caused unimaginable suffering)?

It is tempting to think that use of data from the research of evildoers might serve some productive purpose, notwithstanding they are the fruits of the poisonous tree of diabolical sadists. It purports to make the torture and death of the victims slightly less gruesome and gratuitous and perhaps even adds an element of purpose. We should utterly resist that notion.

Even assuming that the science derived is legitimate and not distorted by the twisted minds that produced it, use of that data is grossly immoral and would tend to legitimize what is perverse and insufferable conduct. If the question is asked this way – Should Dr. Mengele be construed as a genuine scientist and researcher? – the answer becomes much clearer.

Judaism has a concept of an object that is otherwise neutral or indistinguishable from other objects but is nonetheless assur b’hana’ah, proscribed from providing any benefit or pleasure to another. In terms of foodstuffs, the issur hana’ah supplements the prohibition of consumption. It is not just that it cannot be eaten or drunk – yayin nesech, for example – it cannot even be given away to someone as a gift. Any type of benefit is precluded. That is how this data should be treated: total ostracism.

To think otherwise is to sanction the worst atrocities under the guise of serving a greater purpose, which invariably cheapens human life and incentivizes mass murderers. Nazis should not be glorified as scientists nor their dastardly deeds rationalized as even a partial good. That is the only way to perceive evil as evil, identify it and then eradicate it from the face of the earth.

 

 

 

 

A Jewish President

In the year 2000, Senator Joe Lieberman became the first Jew to appear on the national ballot for one of the two top offices in the land. As Al Gore’s nominee for Vice President, many Jews voted for the ticket out of ethnic pride, notwithstanding that most Jews vote for the Democrat in any event. In 2000, four out of every five Jews vote for the Gore-Lieberman slate, among the highest percentages ever recorded. As I recall, there was palpable pride that Lieberman was on the ticket even among Jews who did not vote for him.

Fast forward to 2020. Two Jews – Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg – for the very first time are credible candidates for the Democrat nomination for President, and there seems to be little Jewish pride in the whole enterprise. Few people care about their pedigree, and no one is questioning their loyalty to America (well, at least not because of their Jewishness). Their Jewish heritage seems to be background noise, a part – and not a very important part – of their personal histories and completely irrelevant to the task at hand. If either man is the nominee, a majority of Jews will vote for him, mostly unthinkingly, because he is a Democrat and not because he is a Jew. The pride in Joe Lieberman is dissipated.

What has changed? Is it because Jews have made it in America and so prominent Jews are no longer a novelty? Or is it because Jews have lost it? I sense the latter.

Consider the obvious: the involvement of each man in Jewish communal life. Sanders is a renegade Jew, whose brief stint on a kibbutz more than a half century ago qualifies as his deepest connection to the Jewish people. Bloomberg has been more involved in Jewish life through his philanthropy – he has supported Jewish charities – and because he has lived in New York City for so many decades. Neither man identifies in the least with the biblical vision of the Jewish people as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people chosen by G-d to bear His name, observe His law, and bring His morality to the rest of mankind. Neither man evinces the slightest interest in, or observance of, the 613 commandments that define the life of the Torah Jew.

Thus, it is unfortunate but typical of American Jewry during this era, that Sanders has been intermarried for more than 30 years and has no Jewish children. Bloomberg is divorced from a Jewish woman (her father was a non-Jew) but his paramour since 2000 is also non-Jewish.  With intermarriage devastating American Jewish life to the extent that accommodation with it is making inroads even in the Orthodox world, it is hard to imagine the consequences to American Jewry if intermarriage (or inter-religious relationships) finds its way into the White House, with all the attention that is naturally focused on the First Family. Intermarriage will be so normalized, even celebrated, that the fragmentation and disintegration of American Jewry will be hastened.

One positive byproduct of the Trump administration has been the prominence of religious Jews – in the President’s family, of course, but even among his staff, advisors and appointees. (I hope they somehow compensate for the plethora of Jewish Democrats who have relentlessly waged war against President Trump since before he took office.) But the visibility of a yarmulka and mezuzot in the White House, the respect for Shabbat and the appreciation for the rhythms of traditional Jewish life have been rewarding, and, one can pray, even inspirational to Jews whose faith and commitment can only be strengthened by the presence of faithful and committed Jews in positions of distinction.

It is a sign of how accepted Jews have become in American civic life that the President demonstrates such a comfort level with religious Jews. But that display of Jewish pride would be dramatically reversed in a Sanders or Bloomberg administration, whose connection to Jewish life is, respectively, non-existent and tenuous. How is that connection defined?

Recall as well that Joe Lieberman was an observant Jew, who wore his Jewishness on his sleeve. For sure, his political views were not all Torah based and very much in the mainstream of his party. But he was known in America, and perhaps even most appreciated by Jews, for his forthright and persistent advocacy of the moral notions that are reflective of the biblical Jewish ethic. And he was never ashamed to declare that his morality stemmed from his religious heritage.

For Sanders and Bloomberg, it is clear that their world views are uninformed by their Jewish backgrounds.  Indeed, like many (if not most) American Jews today, their Jewish ties are strictly ethnic. As President Trump is of German-Scottish heritage, Joe Biden’s is Irish, and Elizabeth Warren’s background is still indeterminate, Sanders and Bloomberg are Jews by blood but not ideology. If Rav Hirsch labeled the people of Israel a “religio-nation,” both a nation and a religion, these two candidates lamely embrace the former but completely eschew the latter. Their Judaism is cultural, and thereby misses the essence of our uniqueness.

No wonder there is little excitement in the Jewish world for these two aspirants, no sense of having one of our “own” make it big. Far from embracing their rich and eternal heritage, they perceive it as an accident of birth. While they are wholly different in temperament, policies and even acceptability as presidents, they share in common this constricted approach to Judaism. Judaism as a religion and a national identity are the two legs on which we stand. Remove one, and our distinctiveness withers and disappears and, these days, fairly quickly.

It bears mention that the two do not share the same views on Israel (or on the United States, for that matter). Sanders is overtly hostile and his self-definition as  “pro-Israel” is reasonable only if you characterize as pro-Israel a desire to see Israel divided, weakened and stripped of its Jewish identity. Bloomberg is certainly not hostile; he fits comfortably into the modern Democrat party’s support for an Israel that no longer exists, and for good reason. He opposes settling the heart of the land of Israel and remains wedded to the “two-state delusion.” But that is where the Democrat party is. Sanders’ Israel has the right of self-defense in theory but never in actuality. Bloomberg is more practical on that score, but again, his policies are unrelated to his Jewishness.

Have Jews so made it in America that the prospect of a Jewish president has left people blasé? Or does this feeling emerge because of the nature of these candidates and the realization that, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, the incumbent’s policies are far superior even for Jews? Or is it because their Jewish identity is so tepid that it is hard to connect with them or summon any pride at all?

In truth, ethnic voting is always a distressing phenomenon. Votes should be based on shared values and objectives – not superficial considerations like blood, race, religion or ethnicity. Undoubtedly, if a faithful Jew ever runs for President – a most unlikely proposition – the reaction of Jews will be far different. It is entirely plausible, even probable, that a non-Jewish President can represent the true interests of the Jewish people, and even extend unflinching support to the State of Israel, far better than can any Jewish candidate. The two Jews currently in the running remind us not of the success of the American Jewish community but rather of its decline. That neither will be elected President should come as a relief for multiple reasons.

Inversion Therapy

The only people happy about the ascent of Bernie Sanders are those conservatives who love Donald Trump and those progressives who hate Donald Trump. The former believe that Sanders is unelectable, thus smoothing the path to a Trump second term. The latter see Sanders as the fulfillment of their deepest yearnings – an anti-American, anti-Israel, capitalism-hating, Communist dictatorship-loving septuagenarian bundle of energy, George McGovern reincarnated (except that McGovern was a decorated World War II hero).

The irony is that the Democrats, attempting to cure what ailed their party in 2016, have inverted their process and duplicated the Republican squabble from that historic year. Numerous candidates representing every conceivable wing and branch of the party vie with each other, and diminish each other sufficiently that the only survivor is the anti-establishment figure with the outsized personality and a core of rabid and disaffected supporters who cobble together narrow victories in state after state.

For the Republicans in 2016, President Trump won most of the early primaries with far less than half the votes, did not even win a majority in any state until April, and ended up with less than 45% of the total vote. Not that it matters – the rules are the rules and you win or lose by those rules. Nevertheless, the plethora of candidates then, and for the Democrats now, mean that the margins of victory are very narrow, the base of support is thin but passionate, and fluke candidates have an increased chance of success.

Add to this the dearth of real voters and the strangest things can happen. In Nevada, a state of more than 3,000,000 people and 611,000 registered Democrats, Sanders received about 35,000 votes in his smashing victory. That is not exactly an overwhelming show of strength, less than 6% of all Democrats.

But a win is a win is a win, and when elections feature so many candidates, the prospects of a fringe and eccentric candidate prevailing are increased. For all of Donald Trump’s uniqueness, he was far more in the mainstream of Republican position than is Bernie Sanders for traditional Democrats (except for trade policy, on which they largely agree). The difference between Trump and his rivals is that – being a non-politician – he has actually made a concerted effort to fulfill his campaign promises and has largely succeeded. He has been a disrupter, to the great chagrin of most politicians and the political and journalistic elitists, and it is most apparent in his policies in Israel and the Middle East (far better than his predecessors) and in North Korea (no worse than his predecessors who repeatedly succumbed to financial blackmail). The Democrat default position always seems to be “we will work with our allies in the region,” a euphemism for “we have no clue and they have no clue, but together we will foster the illusion that we are doing something.” That is political happy talk, not a sensible policy disagreement.

Sanders is far outside the mainstream of Democratic liberalism, and his contempt for capitalism, liberty, and free speech should be worrisome to all, especially Democrats. Of course, some will say, he can’t possibly win but we have heard that before and the American electorate is volatile, and the far left in particular is both masochistic and suicidal. They don’t really care what has never worked and what will never work as long as those on their enemies’ list suffer. On that list are people of faith, prosperous entrepreneurs, and patriotic Americans. That is divisive and dangerous. Class warfare combined with utter disregard for biblical morality is especially lethal. Stalin and Mao murdered tens of millions of people in order to create their socialist paradises, and neither lost any sleep over it; all for the cause.

Those with the greatest affinity for Sanders invariably include the unsuccessful, the slothful, power seekers, haters of Western civilization and the blame-America-first crowd. His brand of socialism is a train wreck ready to happen – something that sounds noble on paper but derails when it hits the tracks. As Justice Benjamin Cardozo said over a century ago about these “unrealistic altruists…advocating an absolute community and equality of wealth,” their policies are “equally impracticable and pernicious.” History, and not even ancient history, has been perfectly clear on that.

Jews, liberal Democrat Jews especially, should be most concerned over the direction of their party and will find themselves in a real pickle should Sanders be the nominee. And if r”l he is elected president, Jews will go immediately from enjoying the best president Israel has ever had to the absolute worst. The tensions that arose during the presidencies of Eisenhower, Carter, and Obama will seem trivial compared to the unrelenting hostility of the first “Jewish” president. The US and Israel for the last several years have a symmetrical view of world events. That will cease on day one of a Sanders administration. At best, Sanders perceives Israel as a racist, colonialist state that embodies values that are anathema to him; at worst, intermarried Jewish renegade that he is, he sees the Jewish national idea as fundamentally illegitimate. That Sanders could label Israel’s prime minister a “racist” (granted, it is his epithet of choice for everyone with whom he disagrees about anything), and not have even one Democratic candidate on the debate stage rebuke him, challenge him or even protest the characterization, is a warning signal for Jews as to how far Israel’s stock has fallen in the Democrat   party.

Imagine for a moment that nominee Sanders chooses as his running mate defeated Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who has already recommended herself for the position and not because she is in the least qualified. Rather, she checks off two indispensable boxes in the diversity scorecard that defines leftist politics in America today, being a black woman. Her utter inexperience in government and contempt for her electorate are further qualifications in the eyes of her radical leftist supporters. What would Jews do? We can assume that both Sanders and whoever his VP nominee is would dutifully parrot enough Israel-friendly bromides to assuage the consciences of Jews who would not vote for a Republican even if it was Abraham Lincoln himself who was the nominee. But even for them, it should be a rude wake up call, and an indication of how their Jewish identity has disintegrated and their Jewish pride plummeted. The only question remaining is why the Jewish cabal that supposedly runs the world would even allow Sanders to compete, much less to win…

It is hard to imagine a Sanders victory, which is why most Republicans are salivating at the chance for Trump to run against him. But even if he loses, Sanders’ unique brand will be stamped on his party for years to come – the Jew who surrounds himself with Jew haters, who disparages success and promotes dependency, and indulges in class warfare as his ticket to electoral success. It is hard to imagine but don’t count him out. Trump’s triumph in 2016 was very narrow. He barely prevailed in the few Midwestern states that put him over the top. And never discount the allure of free stuff that Sanders is promoting – free health care, free housing, free college, free loan forgiveness, free drugs, all paid for through higher taxes on the “wealthy.” Sanders loves everything that is free, except for free markets.

Such a campaign of giveaways worked for Obama, who lacked the rough edges that Sanders possesses and faced weaker Republican opponents. Can it work again?

Sanders should lose – that is how radical he is. But if he wins, Israel will fare much better than will the United States.