Category Archives: Current Events

Birth of the Eternal Nation

The Pesach Hagadah is dedicated almost exclusively, certainly in the first half, to the redemption from Egypt. Passages that do not quite fit this narrative were not universally recited, like, for example, Dayyenu (yes, that is hard to imagine) or the accounts of the miracles at the Red Sea. But one section seemingly does not relate at all to the Exodus, and yet appears in every Hagadah: V’hi she’amdah. “And this has stood by our forefathers and us; for not only has one enemy risen against us to destroy us but rather in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” It is a remarkable passage that should cause us to reflect on the eternity of the Jewish people. Individual Jews, and even large numbers of Jews, have suffered inordinately, but the Jewish nation miraculously endures and thrives. Yet, this passage also does not mention the Exodus at all. So why is it recited – and immediately before we begin our discussion of the events of the Exodus?

Last year, Natan Sharansky celebrated the 30th anniversary of his release from the Gulag after nine years in prison. As reported by the acclaimed journalist, Yedidya Meir, at the dinner of gratitude Sharansky made at the time (as he does every year on the date of his release, Rosh Chodesh Adar)  he told the following story. Over a decade ago, Sharansky was invited by President Bush to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, and the speakers that morning – politicians, celebrities, etc. – were asked to relate the event in their lives where they most felt God’s presence. Christians call it “bearing witness.”

All the stories were inspirational, some led to born-again moments in their lives, but all followed the same basic pattern. Some shared a low moment when they felt God’s presence lift them up, and others spoke about a dramatic moment when they felt divine intervention saved their lives. A fighter pilot related that a malfunction caused his engines to fail and he was plunging to earth – and he felt a heavenly force just intervene, restart his engines for no explicable reason, as if there was some superior force above him.

When it came time for Sharansky to speak, he said that Jews look at these experiences differently. We look for God’s presence not in the life of the individual but in the life of the nation, i.e., what God does for us as a people. (Sharansky knew well that not everyone present that morning was a lover of Israel.)

He told the audience that you – all Bible-believing Christians – know of the Jews enslaved in Egypt, and how Pharaoh refused to free them, and the plagues, the miracles, and the Red Sea. It was God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm that redeemed us from Egypt and founded our nation.

But not long ago – just a few years ago – there was a mighty evil empire that intimidated the entire world. And everyone was afraid to challenge them. Nations sought accommodation, détente, some arrangement whereby the world would keep the peace and no one would interfere in the domestic affairs of this evil empire.

There was one small group of Jews who arose, reasserted their Jewish identity and reclaimed their membership in the Jewish nation. It was a small group at first – dozens, then hundreds, then thousands – but small compared to the gargantuan size of their enemy of whom everyone else was afraid. And then Jews across the world heard of them and rallied for them, and pressured governments, and then blow after blow was rained on the Soviet Union until it collapsed from within and the Iron Curtain fell and the Jews were liberated, again.

Everyone burst into applause, and he continued. “For Jews, that is how God manifests His presence – in the life of our nation. He reveals Himself through what happens to the Jewish people.” He then told his audience that night, that this demonstration of God’s presence in the life of the Jewish people was greater than anything anyone of them had ever experienced in their lives as individuals.

“And this has stood by our forefathers and us; for not only has one enemy risen against us to destroy us but rather in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” The template for our survival and our eternity as a people was drafted in Egypt. The divine presence stands with us in every generation. In every generation we face enemies who wish to destroy us, not just one generation with one foe, but in every generation. “And God saves us from their hands.” and gives us – and the world – another chance.

That is why V’hi she’amdah must begin our recitation of the events of the Exodus. That is the pattern from that moment and throughout history until today. And every day, but especially every Pesach, we acknowledge it, give thanks for it, and promise to live in a way that makes us worthy of it, so that the day will soon come when  we again experience divine wonders such as those that liberated us from the bondage of Egypt and we will again see God’s mighty hand and strong arm on the mountains of Zion and Jerusalem, accompanying the dawn of our redemption.

Chag kasher v’sameach to all!

 

 

The Leader Sets the Tone

(The following was published today in the Jerusalem Report.)

Is sin inevitable? We like to think not. In Parshat Vayikra, the Torah details the atonement procedures for a variety of sinners by routinely introducing the sin with the word “if.” “If the priest sins… if the entire assembly sins… if the individual sins…” (Vayikra 4:3, 13, 27). Only in reference to the ruler or king does the Torah insist on the inevitability of sin, as in “When the ruler sins” (ibid 4:22). Why must the ruler sin?

The sin of leadership is predictable.  Lord Acton famously opined: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A person entrusted with power and authority by others often internalizes a sense of his own greatness and invincibility, which is always unwarranted. Errors are covered up, and often mutate into sins and, even worse, Louis XIV’s conclusion that “I am the state.” Sin therefore becomes unavoidable, and undoubtedly the Torah employed the word “when” as a cautionary note to the prospective leader, so he should be immensely careful not to stumble, and also to engender in him at least a little humility.

Nonetheless, all leaders sin, and recent (and certainly, ancient) examples of leaders who succumb to the most pedestrian vices are so numerous as to be commonplace. The people usually are quite critical of the flaws of the leader, if only because the leader often makes decisions that displease some of them. Even if those decisions are correct, the aggrieved party still feels wrongly deprived and roundly disrespected, and decries the injustice of it all. “When” the ruler misbehaves, there will be people who take it very personally and show him little sympathy or compassion.

The great commentator Rashi highlighted the use of the word “asher” (“when”): “From the term “ashrei” (fortunate); how fortunate is the generation whose ruler takes to heart and seeks atonement for his unintentional sins, and even more for his intentional sins” (Vayikra 4:22). How fortunate indeed!

In 1987 an American president publicly admitted a mistake in a manner that has become exceedingly rare since. President Reagan spoke to the nation in the wake of the Iran-Contra Affair and began: “First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration.” In the decades since, “I take full responsibility for my own actions…” has morphed into the passive expression of “mistakes were made;” by whom and for what in particular is rarely articulated. Part of the reason for this obvious flight from personal responsibility is the 24/7 news cycle that harps on any mistake and forever hound the confessor.

A generation in which personal accountability is a cherished value will breed leaders for whom personal accountability is both natural and appreciated. Conversely, a generation that flees from personal accountability – in which individuals routinely try to camouflage their mistakes or look for others to take the fall – will produce leaders who do the same. As the Talmud states (Masechet Arachin 17a) “the leaders mirror the generation, and vice versa.”

The ability to accept personal accountability is thus a telling insight into both the individual politician’s character, and the values of his contemporaries: especially the latter. These days, where the acceptance of personal responsibility has harmful consequences, it is simply more prudent to avoid it, blame others, or change the topic. That should not be, and this weakness afflicts all of us.

The leader sets the tone for his society, and his admissions (that are just recognition of his own limitations) can influence his peers to embrace the same value. It is not only that the leader apologizes, confesses, or concedes his mistakes; it is also that he takes to heart the need for atonement. On his own he realizes the value of accountability for mistakes, and that virtue is desperately needed by all people as well.

Historically, penance was an act of greatness, and leaders who admitted their failings or insecurities were more admired by their peers for their humanity and grace. As the leader does, so do the people; as the people do, so does the leader. “When the ruler sins…” is as much a reflection of the qualities of the ruler and the inevitability of mistakes as it is on the true value system of the people he serves. The average person can avoid sin through vigilance and self-control; the leader is more vulnerable, and rightly so, as he sets the moral tone for the entire society. Knowing the leader will sin, perhaps the people can not overreact to any of his failings. The nation that encourages, even celebrates, the acceptance of personal responsibility by its leaders is a nation that knows how to pursue justice, morality and ethical perfection.

 

Of Nerve and Nerves

The overwrought and hyperbolic response of some American Jewish organizations to the series of threats against JCC’s across the country should now be met with apologies of similar passion. The repeated accusations of misconduct and outright Jew hatred leveled against the Trump Administration should now be withdrawn and must engender forthright and unrestrained contrition. For all the talk about dog whistles, faint signals, hints, alt-right, alt-white supremacists and neo-Nazi nationalists lurking outside the Oval Office, well, it turns out that, no, it wasn’t Steve Bannon, after all, calling in bomb threats to Jewish institutions. Imagine that. Who would have thought??

The news that an Israeli-American Jew, probably a tad off, has been arrested in Israel for orchestrating dozens of phony bomb threats to US centers should put American Jews at ease. But of course it won’t, because the narrative of “rampant Jew hatred fomented by the right-wing government” is too precious to abandon. So far, two people have been arrested for this “anti-Semitic” wave: a black supremacist, anti-Trump journalist with ties to left-wing organizations and an Israeli-American Jew. Only in America!

Come on: will the white supremacist, Trump-supporting, flag-waving American from the boondocks of Kentucky who hired both of them please identify yourself and surrender to the authorities? The concern here is that until the narrative is satisfied, Jews of a certain temperament and political persuasion will not move on. But they should, as should we all, and try to recover some semblance of normal political discourse. Like the resident of Chelm who kept looking for the lost object under the street light “because it’s brighter there,” there are Jews who are obsessed with finding Jew haters in America, the Trump administration, the government and everywhere but where they can really be found.

It should have been noted that we are not living in an age of terrorist threats but of terror, period. Today’s terrorists do not warn their victims. Hoaxes, rare as they are, serve to win attention, disrupt lives and upset the daily course of business. The professional terrorist does not warn because the possibility of detection is almost guaranteed and his real aim – terror and mayhem – will thereby be thwarted. Those who warn are usually psychotics who do not mean to cause any real harm but only seek their moment of infamy when they are caught. That is the pattern notwithstanding that it remains prudent and appropriate to investigate every claim and threat. Fortunately, they were investigated and resolved, albeit not in the way that will calm the nerves or serve the interests of Jewish Trump-haters.

What was imprudent and inappropriate, which is not to say unsurprising, was the avalanche of condemnation of the Trump administration, blaming it for the attacks either directly or indirectly, and accusing it of fomenting Jew hatred, being dismissive of Jew hatred, and then labeling Trump’s denunciation of Jew hatred “insufficient,” “too late,” and indicting him for leading an administration that is “infected by the cancer of anti-Semitism.” When Trump suggested, in his inarticulate way, that the threats might be “the reverse,” he was castigated again, and not for the lack of clarity. But he was right, and maybe that’s what he meant. The media and the Jewish establishment primed the pump for an angry, bitter, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, unemployed white man. That was woefully wrong; it was the “reverse.”

Now it turns out that these threats were not at all related to Jew hatred but the product of one sick mind who was trying to win back his Jewish ex-girlfriend and another – a Jew – of equal derangement but unknown causality. In other words, the “reverse” of what people expected. Can we now expect apologies from the Jewish organizations that were so quick to condemn? We should insist on it.

There is something ennobling about accepting responsibility for error. It is mature, cathartic and humbling. It adds credibility when real problems arise. Jewish organizations that cry “anti-Semitism!” too frequently forfeit whatever credibility they still have. America is a country remarkably free of Jew hatred and Jewish life here has been blessed. That is not to say it will always remain so – the exile is the exile – but to pretend it is a cauldron of Jew hatred is false and offensive.  Forget the “statistics” and walk the streets, breathe the air, shop in its malls and meet its people.  Stop looking under the streetlight. Repetitive, false accusations of Jew hatred against innocent people with whom one has a legitimate political disagreement will eventually foment Jew hatred. To accuse government officials of Jew hatred because of political disagreements is repugnant. It must stop. The promiscuous use of the “anti-Semitism” charge is a sign of weakness, not strength, and whatever potency it had at one time has already been diluted because of the flippancy of its flingers.

Let’s be clear. Are there non-Jews who might not like some Jews? Sure. Even more clear: are there Jews who don’t like some other Jews? Sadly, yes. Neither is “Jew hatred,” the irrational passion that has infested too much of mankind since Sinai. Let us then make sure that those accused of Jew hatred have real animus against Jews. That requires left-wing Jews to reconcile themselves to the reality of President Trump and disagree with him civilly. Without animus. Without unfounded accusations. And without conflating immigration or health-coverage policy disagreements with Jew hatred.

The Coalition for Jewish Values (where I serve as Senior Rabbinic Fellow) earlier this week – even before the arrest in Israel – condemned the specious accusations of Jew hatred being lodged against good Americans. We must realize that politics comes and goes but the Torah’s values are eternal. All Jews need to return to the values of Torah – of respect for others, of a commitment to justice and self-preservation, of the dignity of all people and of a relentless fight against evil.

It is unseemly, disgraceful, immoral and counter-productive to hurl unfounded charges of Jew hatred, and that applies to both liberals and conservatives. Worse, too many Jews have developed the tendency to deny obvious Jew hatred in front of their eyes because the sources of that Jew hatred are favored or fearful groups, or political allies, and, instead, falsely attribute Jew hatred to their political foes in an attempt to score points and diminish their influence. Jews should really stop doing that – both because it is simply wrong and because it is completely ineffective and self-defeating.

A good start would be if all the Jewish organizations that lambasted the Trump administration, whose statements, in the end, did not matter one whit in terms of these particular crimes, would just apologize for overreacting and pledge to be more responsible in the future. If for nothing else, when and if a real white-supremacist Jew hater ever emerges again r”l, their claims will be taken more seriously.

And Jews all over should just calm down and prepare for Shabbat and Pesach.

The Majority

Torah jurisprudence is based on the principle of “majority rule.” If we routinely followed minority opinions, the Torah would fragment into many Torot and we would cease to be a unified people. Of course, the unity of Torah was much greater in ancient than recent times because of the finality of the Sanhedrin’s judgments. Nonetheless, in matters that affect the klal, we have been able to sustain the oneness of the Jewish people by maintaining uniform standards. Thus, observant Jews can daven in any shul, regardless of nusach, as long as there is adherence to basic norms. The presence or absence of a mechitzah is one classic dividing line.

Although we are taught to “follow the majority” (Shemot 23:2), what happens to the minority opinion? The Lubavitcher Rebbe (on that verse, as recorded in the Kehot Publication Society anthology, 2015 edition) offered three possibilities of understanding the majority-minority dynamic: the majority opinion simply outweighs the minority opinion, the minority opinion is nullified, or the minority unites with the majority and moves forward together. (Rav Kook, interestingly, argued that the majority view prevails not just because it is numerically superior but because the sheer numbers mean that more potential opinions, sevarot and viewpoints were entertained.)

The Rebbe then explained how it is that the minority unites with the majority. There are two possibilities: the minority defers to the opinion of the majority because that is what the Torah demands, even though they remain unconvinced; or the minority, understanding the Torah rule, reconsiders its position until they become convinced that the majority, were, in fact, correct. Of these two scenarios, the second one is the ideal and fosters true unity among the Jewish people, a unity that emerges from a deep sense of humility and kavod talmidei chachamim.

Last month’s OU declaration on the prohibition of female clergy in Jewish life, authored by seven distinguished Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva, clearly reflects the overwhelming consensus of rabbinic thought on the matter. This is a matter that has been obvious for millennia and has only become an issue of late because of trends in the secular society. But the reaction of advocates of female clergy has not followed either model delineated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Among the small cohort of activists, there is a refusal both to defer to rabbinic authority as well as a reluctance to re-evaluate their position. Among the professional activists, many have taken to penning daily op-ed pieces, as if psak is influenced by social media on the one hand or by passionate redundancy on the other. It is not, of course, but as modern start-ups use “crowd funding” to raise seed money, these activists have created something like “crowd-paskening within their echo chamber. This is not only divisive but dangerous.

The psak ratified what was conventional wisdom and Jewish practice since Sinai, something that even Reform Judaism recognized until the 1970’s and Conservative Judaism until the 1980’s. Reading the literature of those times and the relentless (but ultimately futile) opposition of the JTS Talmud faculty to women’s ordination is proof both of the motivations of the activists – a cause driven by currents blowing through the secular world – and the obviousness of the prohibition. I have addressed the reasons for the prohibition at length in the past; suffice it to say that the requirement for a mechitzah in shul is less grounded in the sources than is the prohibition of female clergy. And we know how the mechitzah issue played out in Orthodox life.

Today, rabbis from every wing of Orthodoxy, probably representing over 95% of Orthodox Jews, if not more, oppose the notion of female clergy. In the words of one dear colleague, “this science is settled.” To be sure, there will always be deniers who insist that the data is not being understood properly and they have an approach that no one ever considered before, but they are in a distinct minority and they are unfortunately treading on hazardous ground.

Years ago, I wrote of “The Rise of the Neo-Cons,” and the renaissance of the ideology that spawned the birth of Conservative Judaism and its eventual disengagement from traditional Orthodoxy, Torah observance, and today, real influence in Jewish life. Many of their early ideologues were Orthodox rabbis, some were fine talmidei chachamim, and all, I’m convinced, were sincere in their quest to save Torah for American Jewry by modernizing it and conforming it to what they perceived to be the people’s desires. They had a good run but the movement eventually foundered on a lack of authenticity and commitment to the Torah, such that today it is almost indistinguishable from Reform Judaism. The modern neo-Cons, I fear, are making the same mistake, and compounding their errors with the obstinacy of rejecting the opinion of the vast majority of their colleagues. There is no sense, at present, that there is any reconsideration or unification with the majority opinion. Some, disciples of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, are openly disdainful of his opinion, and some have embarked on a shameless campaign to discredit the Rav as an authority, not realizing that they are discrediting themselves in the process in addition to disrespecting one of the bearers of the Mesorah in the last century, a deed condemned the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8).

This week brought even more proof that they are leading their small flock into a minefield of heresy. One female ordainee opined that it is about time that halacha reconsider the normative rule that dates to Sinai that women do not count for a minyan. Say what you will, but this was one of the predictions of the JTS faculty that opposed female ordination: that the next step inevitably would be changing the structure of the minyan, and so it was, and is. And the “reason” is also predictable: the assertion was that in a society where women count in everything, how can they not count for a minyan? This is a compelling argument in the small part of the religious world that measures every halacha and minhag by secular values to assess whether it passes muster, and if it doesn’t, it has no merit. But few religious Jews, frankly, employ Western values as the barometer by which they measure the worth of the Torah. The justified fear is that those who do will not remain religious Jews for long.

One by-product of the refusal of the minority to follow the opinion of the majority is that it undermines rabbinic authority – i.e., theirs. Their small band of followers will follow them only insofar as the band agrees with their decisions but will renounce any deviations from their pre-determined conclusions. If rabbis reject the consequences of “lo tasur,” why shouldn’t their laity? The results are very democratic but not very halachic; nor are they sustainable. That is a simple historical truth.

With the OU statement, the matter really is settled. Those who insist on going forward anyway will not be causing a schism in the future but are causing one right now. To have shuls in which Orthodox Jews would not enter because of the presence of female clergy is an act of self-excommunication. Those who continue to insist that the whole world is wrong but they’re right – or are praying for an “eilu va’eilu” outcome – are cheating their followers and ultimately robbing them and their children of their heritage. We know the end of this story, so why go down that road?

There have been occasions when I asked a “she’elah” on a particular issue and was puzzled or disappointed in the psak. But I followed it regardless. If I wanted to rely on my own opinion, I wouldn’t have asked. That deference is what the Torah seeks. Think of the contribution advocates of female clergy could make, and the worlds they would save, if they announced that they accept the psak and will find a way to comply. That would show greatness, true leadership and love of the Jewish people.

 

Time to Chill

Here in Israel, one is conscious while standing at every intersection to be wary of “rammers” who are looking for a quick entry to paradise at the expense of your life and limb. The possibility of peace is not even on the horizon, and Iran continues in a stealthy way on its path to develop nuclear weapons. The region is in turmoil. And yet, with all that, Israel is an oasis of tranquility. Israel just ranked fifth, sixth or eleventh – depending on the survey – on the global indices of happiest nations, in each case ahead of the United States. People here, for the most part, are calm, happy, living their lives, basking in the beauty of the land, its natural development, its spiritual resources and the opportunities that G-d has provided our generation.

From this vantage point, the same cannot be said of Americans, who appear to be constantly agitated and uneasy when some are not altogether threatening or carrying out acts of mayhem. The recent election campaign, and perhaps even the last decade, created intense polarization that apparently will not readily abate. And the levels of intolerance have escalated to proportions that are unprecedented in living memory, and if truth still matters, it must be underscored that the intolerance is coming almost exclusively from the political and religious Left. They should look in the mirror and take stock.

At UC Berkeley a few weeks ago and at NYU more recently, conservative speakers who were invited to campus were harassed until they could not speak. At Berkeley, protesters started fires and burned buildings as part of the freedom of expression that they deny others. This censorship has become routine on campuses of higher “learning” and others places where people who could formerly be described as “liberals” resided.

Conversely, I recently attended a conference in Yerushalayim (mainly of right-wingers) at which a panoply of politicians spoke, among them Yitzchak (Buji) Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor Party. He said some preposterous things that evoked laughter from the audience, but no one heckled, and he even received polite applause when he concluded, not for what he said but for coming to say it. A subsequent speaker noted the contrast to last spring’s Haaretz conference in Tel Aviv where Minister Naphtali Bennett was invited to speak, and as soon as he opened his mouth, he was heckled, shouted down, told to leave by unruly members of the audience who simply did not want to hear what he had to say. He was only able to continue when he told the left-wing audience that “you will not be able to silence me,” and the police came to escort the demonstrators out. If you have examples of right-wing censorship, please share them. I can’t think of any recent ones.

Of course, I have enjoyed this same type of pathetic, pitiable intolerance myself by a small band of radical, non-Orthodox feminists who take issue with something or another that I have said. They have called for protests and cancelations to some of my speeches as well and simply lie when they don’t get their way. I have addressed conferences at which they claimed I was banned from speaking, and no protesters showed up at any of my recent talks in Israel. Their calls for boycotts fail so miserably that after their recent attempt was publicized, I was invited to speak at five additional shuls and Yeshivot in response to their risible intolerance. I happily complied. And the nice crowds that attend are always put off by their sheer arrogance and methods so whatever their cause is, if they indeed have a cause, their tactics are counterproductive.

The broader question is: from where do they derive the hubris, the small-mindedness and the crudeness to try to prevent people from speaking? On campus after campus, there is a wave of insularity that has created a class of young people who cannot abide an opinion different from theirs, and refuse to allow others to hear it. They have even threatened professors who do not silence students who express views that challenge the political correctness that has become their godless gospel. Colleges have become less places of knowledge than venues of indoctrination where dissenters are persecuted. What has happened?

The Midrash (Breisheet Raba 8:5) records that when G-d decided to create man, the angels were divided on the propriety and wisdom of such a creation, a hybrid of the spiritual and the animalistic. “Kindness” suggested that man be created because he would perform acts of kindness in the world, while “truth” insisted that it was a bad idea because man was full of lies. But “G-d took truth and threw it to the ground,” and created man.

But “G-d’s seal is truth” (Masechet Shabbat 55a). How could He discard truth as if it is meaningless?

In “B’ahava Ve’emunah”(“With Love and Faith”), one of the popular Shabbat handouts in Israel, Rav Natan Kotler has serialized an analysis of issues relating to Mesorah and machloket in Chazal. Last week, he answered the above-referenced question as follows: There are two types of truth (citing Likutei Halachot, Ribit). There is “emet metakenet,” a refined truth that is open to all ideas and can garner something from everyone. That type of truth forges a society that is tolerant and welcoming, and in which the truth emerges as a distilled composite of all ideas. In a sense, it echoes Rav Kook’s explanation of how “Torah scholars spread peace in the world” (Ein Aya, to Masechet Berachot 64a). They succeed by hearing all sides, by seeing all points of views, by engaging in dialogue and discussion before deciding a particular issue. Even when some opinions are rejected, as they should be, that type of “truth” is still favored by G-d.

Nevertheless, there is also an “emet harsenet,” a destructive truth, wherein people see only their opinions and never entertain the possibility that their approach might be wrong. Proponents of this destructive truth negate all other views and outlooks and will even try to suppress all who disagree with them. This has been the way of dictators throughout history, this is the type of “truth” that G-d threw to the ground so that man could be created, and this type of “destructive truth” is the stock-in-trade of the left-wing elements that are plaguing the Western world and wrecking any refined form of public discourse.

On so many issues that have engendered so much unrest, unhappiness and distress on the political and religious left, is it really possible to maintain that there is only one opinion? That there is no other possible opinion? Whether the issue is the merits of President Trump, immigration, abortion, affirmative action, building a wall, fighting Islamic terror, national security, law and order, police conduct in the inner cities, female clergy, and a host of others, can any honest, rational person contend that there is only one possible view? Theirs on the left? That there is no other opinion that can be considered or uttered in civil society? What misguided petulance. That is the “destructive truth” that we are currently witnessing. Isn’t it healthier to see both sides of a debate, even if one side then is found to be more appealing, logical or even correct?

One can agree or disagree on any issue, but the notion that there is only one possible conclusion that may be spoken in public – the subtext of the activist left – has left American society on the brink of disintegration. And nothing more nullifies the traditions of free speech and the values of the Torah than this type of rank bigotry.

This is where the “Hitler” narrative always enters the picture. The plethora of people on the left who regularly call this person or another “Hitler” are essentially saying that their ideology is pure evil, and no further discussion is needed. There is no other side. There is nothing to talk about, no possible nuance, and nothing missing in their analysis. Pure evil.  These comparisons are not only odious and facile but they also tend to diminish the real evil of a Hitler, may his memory be blotted out.

Even supporters of President Trump concede that he has uttered his share of foolish, repugnant and insensitive remarks to which people have rightly taken offense. People are allowed to take offense, even though there is not yet a constitutional right guaranteeing that no American will ever feel offended. So take offense – but then move on! Raise your children, take care of your homes, go to work, learn Torah, do mitzvot, do something productive. Again, at this great distance, I look at the “protests” on American TV from these left-wing groups and marvel at the vacuity of it all. It accomplishes little except for the momentary pleasure of venting but is completely futile in the real world. Conservatives suffered through two Obama terms but I don’t recall riots, protests, prayers for his failure and an inability to function normally in the world. Conservatives didn’t need safe spaces, coloring books or crying towels. Has the American spirit been so infantilized that people collapse emotionally at the slightest disappointment?

Rav Kook wrote (Shmoneh Kvatzim, 2:22) that people who look favorably on others, whatever their views, are calmer, enjoy life more, and gain an appreciation of other people with whom they might not necessarily agree. The more we love other creatures of G-d, the better off we are and the closer we are to G-d as well.

I would reckon that the vast majority of Clinton supporters/Trump opponents have moved on. They may be wary of the new administration but do not want it to fail. But the activists who enjoyed years of ideological authoritarianism and political despotism over their foes do not want to accept that time, politics and the world have moved on, and partly because their tyranny of ideas was so abhorrent to the American ethos.

It’s time for everyone to chill (even just a little), take a deep breath, form a loyal and productive opposition if warranted, find common ground on whatever issues are possible, and develop a little openness to the views of others. They might learn something, and they might indeed start enjoying life again. It is not healthy – physically or spiritually – to always live on edge, ready to crumble at the slightest irritation.

After all, life is short, and it is unfortunate to go through life angry, miserable and tormented by the politics of what is, even now, a prosperous nation living through peaceful times. It might even help the United States nudge a few places higher on the international happiness index.

 

The Psak

It was long in coming but the psak banning the institution of female clergy in Orthodoxy by the seven distinguished Roshei Yeshiva and rabbis, and its adoption and publication by the Orthodox Union, settles this most contentious matter that has riled Orthodoxy for over a decade. It is now clear that “women rabbis” are incompatible with Orthodoxy and the line has been plainly drawn. No number of op-eds or Facebook posts that resound off the walls of the echo chamber in which they circulate can change that reality, and those who are faithful to Mesorah and Rabbinic authority will, of course, comply if they wish to remain within the traditional camp of Israel. That deference, admittedly, is not typical of advocates of this deviation from Jewish tradition, and perhaps that is the heart of the problem.

Henceforth, Jews are on notice that the embrace of female clergy places them beyond the pale of Orthodoxy as assuredly as rejection of mechitza did for prior generations. The similarities between the two issues, and their resolutions, have already been discussed here. The remaining question is the disposition of those OU shuls – less than a handful, to be sure – that currently have female clergy. What should happen with them?

There are several possible approaches. The worst would be inactivity, or a tacit acceptance of the situation as is, because such would undermine the viability of the psak and do little to discourage continued departure from this basic Jewish norm. Ideally, the women in question regardless of their title – their sincerity is assumed – can be reassigned to perform the tasks customarily associated with the role of teacher, and without the new nomenclature that has been more of a distraction than a benefit. If they wish to teach Torah there are a number of ways within Halacha that this can be accomplished and their talents can be fully utilized.

One additional approach might be borrowed from the mechitza struggles of the past, and that would be to officially “grandfather in” those shuls that currently run afoul of the psak, with the understanding that no new OU shuls can embark on this path and at a certain point in the future these same shuls will conform their practice to the dictates of halacha. That has the distinct advantage of abruptly halting the deterioration of standards and commitment to Torah that this deviation has engendered but the disadvantage of acquiescing in the current violation for an indefinite period.

This approach is similar to what the OU did with the non-mechitza shuls in the distant past. There was a time when hundreds of shuls that were OU congregations did not have mechitzot but were otherwise Orthodox in practice and deportment. Beginning in the 1960’s, these shuls began to fade out as a result of the enhanced observance of Torah that began to spread through the religious Jewish world. Those shuls then either installed mechitzot (thereby becoming fully Orthodox) or, unfortunately, declared their allegiance to the non-Orthodox movements, with all the corrosion of Torah values and utter loss of Jewish commitment and even identity that the latter has wrought. Today there is not one OU shul without a mechitza, and it is inconceivable that there will ever be another. This is neither a critique of the past nor gloating over the present but simply recognition that the Torah world has an inner compass, guided by the gedolim, which enables it to distinguish between acceptable innovations and objectionable deviations. Such is not only faithful to Jewish law and tradition but also maintains a semblance of unity among the Jewish people.

If shuls that are in violation of the psak are “grandfathered in,” the question then becomes, to paraphrase Chazal’s queries in Masechet Gittin, “Mah Hi b’otan hayamim?” What would be the status of those shuls while they were still in substantial breach of Jewish law? Could – should – a religious Jew daven there? In the mechitza cases, a sense developed over the decades that these shuls were, for lack of a better term, “Orthodox-lite” or even just “traditional,” the latter being a praiseworthy adjective that, in retrospect and because of these deviations, became something of a pejorative. (Personally, I still like the term “traditional,” as defining one who follows tradition. How could that be bad?? The irony is that “traditional” came to describe those who did not follow tradition (!) completely, and became just another example of how modern life has taken certain words and co-opted them for meanings far from their previous usage and common understanding.)

As there were Jews in the past who would not daven in a shul without a mechitza even though it otherwise professed its fidelity to the Torah, there are undoubtedly Jews today who would not daven in a shul that featured female clergy regardless of its other merits. That is a sad state of affairs, and just another illustration of how divergence from tradition is so divisive to Jewish life.

Most Jewish organizations wade into controversy quite infrequently and difficult decisions are generally enacted and implemented at a glacial pace. It is not implausible that the “grandfathering” policy will be tacitly adopted as the path of least resistance. It might not sit well with the current communities that have strayed from tradition to be perceived as “not quite Orthodox.” But they will then have the choice of pertinaciously clinging to a course of action that the overwhelming majority of the religious Jewish world has deemed to be beyond the pale but that they retain because of its appeal to a value system that is alien and often hostile to Torah, or rejoining the fold and conforming their behavior to the tradition of Sinai that binds together all good Jews. I pray that they choose the latter and do not deepen this schism in Jewish life.

Kudos to the Orthodox Union for making this stand, taking this decision, and following the practice of generations of seeking rabbinic guidance on the complex moral and religious issues of the day. Every mainstream Orthodox organization, including TORA, OU, RCA, Young Israel, Agudah and others and representing probably 98% of American Orthodoxy, has announced its rejection of Jewish female clergy. The avalanche of articles antagonistic to the decision and the dearth of articles supportive are less a hint of where the people really stand than an indication that, for almost all Orthodox Jews, this conclusion was rather obvious and long overdue.

Womb with a View

In the special haftara for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh several days ago, we read the stirring words of the prophet Yeshayahu: “Who has heard of anything like this? Who has seen anything like these? Can a land be born in one day, can a nation be born at once, as Zion went into labor and bore her children at once? Will I bring [Yerushalayim] to the birth stool and not cause her to give birth?… Should I now shut the womb, says your G-d?” (Yeshayahu 66:8-9)

Israel has been freed of Barack Obama’s heavy hand and unsympathetic heart but now faces an even more problematic adversary: itself. After years – to some extent, decades – of Israel’s leaders avoiding tough decisions and eschewing what some deem “provocative” actions, all out of fear of the “American” reaction, the tide has now turned dramatically, and an American president is asking Israelis, in effect, what do you want? What are your objectives? What are your goals? An American president is allowing Israel to write its own destiny, and being told, wait. We haven’t quite figured it out. The womb of redemption is opening, and Israel’s leaders are saying, again, “not so fast.”

This has become most clear in the tiptoeing around the issue of the proposed move of the American embassy in Israel to Yerushalayim. Despite a Congressional act mandating such a move that dates back to the 1990’s, no president has carried it out, despite several promising to do so. President Trump has made similar promises and now seems to be hesitating, quite uncharacteristically it should be added. Why?

It is time to realize that the obstacles to the move of the embassy are not in Washington but in Yerushalayim, and, it seems to me, this same Israeli reluctance bedeviled President Bush (41) who also would have moved the embassy but was rebuffed by Israel. In essence, Israel plays a game – declaring Yerushalayim to be its eternal, undivided capital and demanding that the world acknowledge that fact and then, behind the scenes, working to ensure that it does not happen for fear of whatever the fear of the moment is.

To be sure, the location of the American embassy in Israel is not the most critical issue facing Israel or the world today but it is an important symbol. David Ben Gurion located the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv because he thought it unwise to place military headquarters in Yerushalayim, what was then a border town. But no other country on the globe has its capital so disrespected by all other nations, and there is no American embassy elsewhere in the world that is not located in that country’s designated capital. However it is rationalized, it is bizarre, and the claim that such will “pre-judge the negotiations” is even more bizarre and risible. Life cannot be put on hold indefinitely, and there are no negotiations on the horizon that will ever result in Arab recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital. So how long should Israel wait? Seventy years since independence? Fifty years since reunification? Maybe 150 or 200 years? Enough is enough. It is either important or it is not important, and if it is not important enough to demand it, then Israeli leaders should stop using the Yerushalayim cliché as an applause line at speeches to American Jews.

The subtext here is the assertion that moving the embassy will constitute a provocation and inflame the Arab world. But the Arab world is already aflame, if anyone has been paying attention, and moving the embassy can be added to a long list of “provocations.” That list includes Israel’s declaration of independence, victories in battle, the original settlement of the land, and pre-emptive raids against terrorists. One of the most common excuses for inaction in Israel is fear of provocation. Arab prisoners must be treated royally or the Arab street will be provoked; building in Ramat Shlomo, Har Homa, Hevron or really anywhere in Judea and Samaria is a provocation; not releasing the bodies of Arab terrorists (even as Hamas holds the bodies of IDF soldiers) would be a provocation; and even demanding payment from the Palestine Authority for water, electricity and the like is considered a provocation. Cutting off funding to the PA terror apparatus can’t be done, as that too would be a provocation. There is a pattern; some people must be easily provoked.

Saeb Erakat, who functions today as the PA Minister to Christiane Amanpour, declaimed that such a move of the embassy would constitute the end of all of Israel’s agreements with the PA (agreements, he failed to note, that the PA has routinely breached, including, most recently, seeking unilateral disposition of the conflict before the United Nations). He added that the PA would go out of business, and Israel would then be forced to assume responsibility for all the salaries and services provided by the PA. But this is petulance, a tantrum masquerading as a policy. The reality is that the PA is sustained by the billions of dollars funneled its way by the EU, UN, US and other world bodies. It generates little revenue on its own. If the PA would disappear (it won’t, of course), that same foreign money could be provided directly to Israel that could then administer those lands. And with Israel not siphoning off tens of millions of dollars into private bank accounts, as the PA leadership is rumored to do, perhaps that money would even filter down to the average person, and, one can only hope, actually build new housing for Arabs still languishing in refugee camps after more than twenty years of rule by their own leaders. One can only hope. But of course it won’t happen because the PA business is too lucrative.

The broader point is not merely that succumbing to the threats of violence and terror only rewards and encourages the bully but that Israel finds itself (again!?) at a crossroads. The friendly Trump administration enters with no illusions that peace is possible under present circumstances, and well aware that Israel is both a friend and cherished ally. The real question then becomes: what does Israel want?

People generally become so attached to the status quo that any attempt to change it, at all, evokes gasps of horror. (Change the one-China policy? Oy vey! Really?) Netanyahu has become adept at managing the status quo but strategic thinking is also in order. Life also cannot be put on hold pending a resolution of the Iran problem, and to assert that the embassy move should be postponed (forever) because Iran must be dealt with is a non sequitur. Nations can defend themselves, build homes, manage an economy and maintain a capital at the same time. And an American embassy in Yerushalayim would send a powerful message to the world, Arab and European, that the State of Israel exists, will continue to exist, and its just demands deserve recognition.

Why then would Israel be reluctant to insist that now is the time for the fulfillment of what is the elementary right of every nation – to designate its capital? Perhaps it reflects the ongoing struggle over Israel’s Jewish character and its biblical past, a reality that is not universally appreciated in Israeli society. We must return to Israel’s official disinclination as a sign of its current reluctance to see itself as the fulfillment of Yeshayahu’s vision cited above. But that too can and should change.

“Who has heard of anything like this? Who has seen anything like these?” Has a people ever returned from the dead, from millennia of exile and reconstituted itself? No. It is miraculous, notwithstanding that we are living through it.  “Will I bring [Yerushalayim] to the birth stool and not cause her to give birth?… Should I now shut the womb, says your G-d?”

One stage in the redemptive process is world recognition of Yerushalayim, the capital of G-d’s kingdom, which will be transformed into a magnet for seekers of G-d. Should we continue to procrastinate and hinder the next stage of the redemptive process?

“Should I now shut the womb, says Your G-d?” The prophet then continues: “Rejoice with Yerushalayim, exult in her, all those who love her. Gladden with her, with complete joy, all those mourn over her” (66:10). The opening of the womb – the renaissance of Jewish national life after the dormancy of almost two millennia – naturally culminates in the establishment of Yerushalayim as the center of spirituality and the reign of G-d. We are on the verge of that era, if only we want it.

There are moments in the history of nations when the status quo causes stagnation and becomes harmful. It should be obvious that this new President, not tethered to old policies that haven’t worked and not encumbered by the diplomatic shibboleths of the past, presents new opportunities for Israel to advance its destiny. It should embrace it, not run from it. The location of the embassy is not the most significant issue (building, settling, defending and prospering are more meaningful) but it is an important symbol. In a few months, Jews and other lovers of Yerushalayim will celebrate fifty years since the reunification of the city. One-half century, time enough to proclaim that Yerushalayim is Israel’s eternal capital, and to act like it is so. Those who continually kick the can down the road eventually run out of road.

An appropriate 50th anniversary gift would be the relocation of America’s embassy to the city that has been the center of Jewish life for more than 3000 years. The brief tumult it will cause will quickly recede, we will wonder what took so long, and Jewish destiny will edge ever closer to its glorious climax.