Category Archives: Current Events

Scalia Speaks – to Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lies to Power

Rav David Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, was our guest this past Shabbat, and his Friday night talk made abundantly clear his passionate love for every Jew regardless of station in life or level of observance. Of course, one would have naturally thought the opposite based on the tendentious, fanatical and demonstrably false story peddled by the media in the wake of the massacre of the Pittsburgh Jews HY”D, since retracted but for which no apology has yet to be offered. It is an object lesson in the current low state of the fourth estate. (i.e., the press).

The lie emerged from a misreading of an interview in Makor Rishon, utterly distorted by a writer for Haaretz known for her rabid anti-Orthodox and anti-Torah biases, and peddled by a gullible media conglomerate in America all-too-willing to besmirch rabbis.

The headline – “Rav Lau refuses to call Pittsburgh synagogue a Bet Knesset” – was simply false. As Makor Rishon reported, when its reporter tried to induce negative comments about Conservative Judaism in the wake of this horror (and how absolutely inappropriate was that?), Rav Lau responded, seemingly in shock, “Mah zeh meshaneh b’aizeh Bet Knesset oh nusach haim mitpallelim?!” – What does it matter what synagogue or text they were praying? There it was, the words “Bet Knesset,” hiding in plain sight, one might say.

The reporter persisted, trying then to extract another headline, “so you’re saying it is a Bet Knesset?” To which the follow-up question would have been: “so why doesn’t the State recognize them? Why aren’t they recognized as legitimate according to the halacha?”

This was an appalling attempt not to solicit Rav Lau’s thoughts and feelings on the murder of Jews but to focus the inquiry on the nature of the religious observance of the victims. The line of questioning was so inappropriate that Rav Lau protested – and pointed out its rudeness and irrelevance, reiterating that these people were Jews, in a publicly-identifiable Jewish place, engaging in all the formalities of prayer and seeking “closeness with G-d.” His answer was right on key to media questions that, in context, were so discordant and tasteless: taking a moment that symbolized Jewish unity and our common fate and trying to exploit it to stoke the flames of controversy and division.

But how can it be that a heartfelt identification with the murdered Jews of Pittsburgh became a dismissal of this synagogue as a synagogue and supposedly an insult to the victims?

There was a time when the primary role of journalists was to report the news. They attempted, often at great hardship, to ascertain the facts and provide those facts in a cogent narrative to the reader. That ended almost fifty years ago. Today, most journalists see their role not as reporting the news but as shaping the news. There is no objectivity; there is only an agenda that they seek to promote. They are not reporters but advocates, and the causes they advocate are so dear to them (in the Jewish world they include radical feminism, hatred of Torah, hatred of Israel, etc.) that reporting falsehoods that advance their agenda is seen as simply  a means to serve the greater good, as they perceive it.

There was a time when journalists prided themselves on their courage in speaking truth to power. Now, too many pride themselves on speaking lies to power if their personal political or religious preferences are thereby served. This is causing untold harm to society for several reasons.

People tend to believe what they see in print even if experience – especially recent experience – should have taught us otherwise. The internet is an intellectual jungle and a moral swamp. The lies that are promulgated with astonishing frequency – here is one: “the Tree of Life Congregation that Shabbat was hosting a brit milah of the offspring of two men,” a lie that caused several fringe rabbinic figures to declaim sheer foolishness – are used as click bait, to grab the eyes but also leave a deleterious imprint on the mind and soul.

A reader has to be even more skeptical about what a journalist writes than the journalist is supposed to be when interviewing a politician or public figure. Or a better idea: simply stop reading outlets or individuals who traffic in falsehoods as a matter of course.

It is as if the laws of lashon hara (evil talk) have been repealed. Classically, lashon hara is defined as information (even true) that tends to disparage another person or will cause his or her reputation to be diminished in your eyes. The public’s “right to know” is not a Torah concept or value. There are a tiny number of general exceptions to this rule –allowances for averting danger or to alerting people to potential harm in shidduchim or business – but most modern journalism is an ethical free-for-all that sees ruining people as a sport and acceptable for the cause.

Indeed, two of the complainants against Brett Kavanaugh have in recent weeks recanted and admitted that they concocted lurid accusations in order to derail his nomination and gain attention for themselves. That is bad enough, and they should be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned (which will never happen); what is worse is how the media breathlessly reported these allegations that smeared an individual only because it suited their agenda. That is a gross corruption of the freedom of the press; it is possible to have a press that is too free.

Today, it is agenda that governs, not news or facts. And the pursuit of an agenda has now induced several Knesset members to demand that the Israeli government formally recognize the non-Orthodox movements, elevate their stature, and deem them legitimate expressions of Judaism because of the events in Pittsburgh. Talk about striking while the iron is hot! But the grievous attack on our fellow Jews in Pittsburgh, one that has shaken all Jews to the core, does not change the truth of Torah one iota. There were intermarried Jews who were murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust; we do not then permit intermarriage in their memory. There were Jews who (rightly) saved their lives during the Holocaust by eating non-kosher food; that doesn’t mean we commemorate them by eating treif. It is an intellectual non sequitur but the agenda matters more than logic or the eternal truths of Torah.

The contention of these Knesset members is as farcical and publicity-driven as it is insincere. They supported recognition of the heterodox movements the day before the massacre just as much as they did the day after the massacre. So spare us the false piety, as if the murderer compels us to destroy the Torah even as he destroyed the lives of eleven Jews.

Is it possible that the halcyon days of journalism never existed? It could be that facts were always filtered through the reporter, and what was transmitted or omitted was always prejudiced by the reporter’s personal predilections. Maybe – but at least they tried to hide it and pretend they were objective. Perhaps a reporter’s byline should contain his or her top three favorite causes and voting preferences so their writings can be evaluated accordingly.

It is true, as the left often claims, that not every criticism of a leader is Fake News, but there are many criticisms that are clearly Fake News. The mere fact that the term Fake News resonates with the public reflects both its pertinence and its accuracy and underscores the problem of modern journalism.

There is a reason why many journalists (although I’m sure not all) are held in such low esteem today – lower than the President or even Congress. Most of us are still inclined to afford some credence to something that is in print (or on the screen) right in front of our eyes. But having experienced these lies myself, and having been present at events and then read media accounts that had little to do with the event I just witnessed with my own eyes and ears, I know that our initial instinct should be to doubt, disbelieve and then reject much of what we read or hear.

It will change when journalists just report the news and not try to interpret it for us. It will change when there is full disclosure of the journalists’ biases and pet causes. It will change when people stop reading, listening to or watching agenda journalism. It will change when people protest the shaming of good people and the propagation of lies, half-truths and distortions about them.

That is to say, it will not change anytime soon.  So caveat lectorum. Reader beware.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bonds of Family and Faith

The horrific murder of 11 Jews in their house of worship on Shabbat reinforced several fundamental truths about Jewish life and this, presently dysfunctional, society.

Jews share a special bond with each other that is almost incomprehensible to outsiders. It is not simply a product of the relatively small number of Jews in the world, for, as G-d, said, we were meant to be “the smallest of all the nations.” It emerges from our history – of shared mission, shared suffering, shared fate, and shared destiny. All Jews feel to our core an attack on any one of us. The massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh, like the massacre of Jews by Arab terrorists  in their synagogue in Yerushalayim several years ago, sends shock waves through our system. But even when a Jewish hiker disappears in Thailand, or a Jewish tourist is beaten in Berlin – both have occurred in the recent past – those stories become known to every Jew who follows the Jewish news. Our nation unites in prayer, resources are mustered to confront any danger or respond to any outrage, and we are on edge until the matter is resolved.
It is not only a Jewish mandate but also a truism: we have a long memory, going back to our forefathers, to Egypt and Amalek, to the two Jewish commonwealths, through the long exile that nears its end and climaxed with the Holocaust. We don’t forget. We shall never forget. And now the horrors of Pittsburgh are forever ingrained in the hearts of the Jewish people, long after the news cycle has moved on to the next event.
Secondly, these events underscore the innate bonds of Jews that transcend levels of religious observance. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and one who is a Jew according to Halacha cannot lose that status. Our grief is not diminished an iota because some of the murdered were not Orthodox. The Halacha is clear and unequivocal: a Jew who is murdered because he or she is a Jew is a kadosh, a holy martyr, who enjoys a place in Paradise next to the holiest martyrs in our too-often gory history of persecution. Those who from time to time assert for political reasons that the Torah world considers non-observant or less observant Jews as lesser Jews or not Jews at all have never been telling the truth. The pain we all feel now should forever put paid to that canard.
And now to this society’s inherent dysfunction. It has become almost impossible for events – good or bad – to be analyzed objectively by sober minds. Everything – but everything – is viewed these days by aggressive and fulminating politicians and professional activists through a partisan lens. It didn’t take long for even this massacre to become a ball of wax to be shaped by each one’s agenda. Curiously, everyone seems to be blamed except the perpetrator, who is almost let off the hook because he is deemed just a tool of…well, take your pick.
As I have heard it, and this is just a random sampling of commentary, the murderer’s problem was not diabolical Jew hatred but rather that he was anti-immigration, and so the immigration laws need to be relaxed. His problem was not his neo-Nazi ranting but the lack of effective gun control (as if a mass murderer would honor gun laws when he doesn’t respect the anti-homicide laws.) And of course, today’s staple: his problem is not Jews but President Trump whom he despises because he is too pro-Jewish but yet, paradoxically, mysteriously, also encouraged or enabled this deadly Jew hatred.
It has reached obsessive, irrational  levels.
President Trump, judging by some of the more rabid elements of the media, is responsible for the Pittsburgh massacre of Jews, the pipe bombs sent to Democrats, the murder of Jamal Khashogghi, the migrants’ attempt to cross the southern border, Hurricane Florence, last year’s drought in California, terror in Israel because of his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city, the absence of peace in the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis, and every other domestic and global problem. The only development for which Trump is not at all responsible, apparently, is the booming economy, for which his predecessor now claims exclusive credit.
This is what is called an obsession, an interpretation of events so skewed as to defy rationality. Four years ago, when the Jewish Community Center in Kansas City was attacked and four people were killed, no one sought to blame the then president. Sadly, hatred is a constant in life and exists regardless of the president or party in power. Jews know this all too well. There are Jew haters on the left and the right, Jew haters who vote for Republicans and Jew haters who vote for Democrats, Jew haters who are white and Jew haters who are black. Jew haters do not fit into a neat ideological package – except their lives are consumed by jealousy, failure, and hatred.
It is unseemly to exploit this tragedy for partisan ends, on either side. It is unseemly to exploit this sadistic act to promote the non-Orthodox, which is totally irrelevant to these events.  It seems the only group that hasn’t pitched its cause is the pro-Aliya advocates, notwithstanding  that argument would have the most substance.
I don’t believe that hatred has mushroomed in recent years but if there is one deleterious trend that needs to be arrested it is the increasing dominance of social media. That has enabled haters to better propagate their hate, to easily find fellow travelers, to plot, scheme, and then, in some sick way, to revel in the commission of their crimes and the notoriety these dastardly deeds engender. These tools – Twitter, Facebook, and the like, whatever few positive elements they might have – are now the vehicles that haters, nuts, the violent, and the disaffected all use to facilitate their evil. To me, at least, that is the big change in society that has made politics, life and social interactions so much more toxic, with often deadly consequences. They allow people without filters to spew venom, lashon hara, libel, lies and hatred without consequence, and the anonymity encourages and emboldens them. These tools are ubiquitous spiritual, moral and physical dangers.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Here’s one encouraging note: at the Congressional candidates forum I moderated last week (between challenger John McCann and incumbent Josh Gottheimer), McCann let slip this gem to the audience: “Whether I win or Josh wins, this district will be well represented.” How refreshing – especially because in the current climate it was so unexpected. I don’t think similar candor is heard anywhere else in the country.
There is no policy difference that justifies mass murder. Differing views on immigration, abortion, the environment or tax policy will obviously not erupt into violence for normal people. Obviously, then, only evil people murder, and to associate their evil with a particular political cause or policy actually diminishes that evil, and in some macabre way can be seen to rationalize it. That must stop.
Jews are no strangers to targeted, hate-filled violence. Such has been our fate since the days of Abraham. But rather than lose ourselves in the poison of the moment and divide along party lines, we should use this crime as a catalyst for good deeds, to remind ourselves and the world of our mission and our mandate, why G-d founded our nation and why He has preserved us until today, and rededicate ourselves to His Torah and His morality and to popularize those ideas to a world that desperately needs them. And needs them now.
May the memories of the murdered be a blessing and inspiration to all Jews and good-hearted, decent people everywhere.

Land of the Unforgiven

The embarrassing spectacle currently engulfing the United States shows no signs of abating and the descent into anarchy is proceeding. The presumption of guilt, the disregard of judicial process, the contemptuous dismissal of the necessity of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (“proving” it to one’s fans on social media suffices), the flippancy with which reputations are ruined never to be repaired, and the intolerance of those who see only one perspective on anything as legitimate and worthy of being heard all testify to the collapse of the social order.

There is something else that adds to America’s current ills, perhaps the root of it all. It occurred to me while listening last week to Dennis Prager’s radio show. His guest was Rabbi Shmuly Boteach and, for a time, the latter’s protégé Roseanne Barr, the comedienne who fell into disfavor last year for racist remarks she tweeted. As an aside, I have never found her act funny or even mildly interesting, nor watched any of her shows, but Rav Shmuly’s point – well taken – is that America has become a very unforgiving nation. There are people who commit a single moral offense and are considered “one and done.” One social misstep and you become a public pariah. He emphasized that Barr went through the Rambam’s four steps of repentance – she regretted her misdeed, verbalized it, confessed it, and committed to the future, and even donated money to black causes. She seems genuinely contrite – and so, he asked, why have Americans lost the capacity to forgive?

It’s mostly but not entirely true. The lack of forgiveness only pertains when the wronged party is a member of one of the established and celebrated victim classes in America, and when the wrongdoer is a member of the class of official oppressors. The former can do no wrong and the latter can do no right. The former cannot even be challenged and the latter is not allowed a defense. But in general, his claim is true. So what has happened to the concept of forgiveness in America? Are too many people are one and done?

Certainly that situation is lamentable but he didn’t quite explain what has happened, which transcends Roseanne and is certainly harmful to society.

The Talmud (Moed Katan 16b, Avoda Zara 5a) describes King David as the man “who established the discipline of repentance,” such that “if an individual sins, he is told ‘go follow the individual.’”    If the community sins, there is a different protocol for repentance, but if an individual person sins, he is told to heed the example of King David who sinned, confessed, repented and was forgiven. King David is the role model for the repentance of the individual sinner.

There are two reasons why America has lost its capacity to forgive. Firstly, because forgiveness requires that there be recognition of something called “sin,” and that is what is most missing from modern society. There can’t be “sin” because sin requires an objective standard of morality, i.e., G-d and a moral code. Repentance presupposes that there is an awareness of sin. What we have in place of sin are artificial social constructs that are dictated by the cultural elites in order to allocate power to their various favored identity groups.

To give one simple example: make an anti-black comment and you are understandably thrown out of civil society. But make an anti-Jewish comment and you get sympathy, support, votes, acclaim, if not even lionization. Thus, at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Bill Clinton can sit a few seats from Louis Farrakhan on the dais with nary a negative comment. (If George W. Bush ever sat next to David Duke at any event, we would never hear the end of it.) The outrage is a bit selective; the double standard is obviously hypocritical.

And the notion that there are certain slurs that some groups cannot say while others can is a moral absurdity. That is no longer a quest for morality or civil discourse but a quest for power. There is no greater power exercised over human beings than the power to control their speech. That is the exercise of brute force. But that is now an accepted element of our world, even though no person should indulge in speech that is harmful to others and no person should get a pass based on group identity.

There cannot be forgiveness in a place where there is no concept of sin, and America has lost its fear and even recognition of sin. Real “sin” is mocked and has been driven underground. Instead of sin, we are told that we each have our own truth, our own gauge of right and wrong and good and evil. So how can forgiveness ever be possible?

And there is a second reason as well why America is so unforgiving – and the contrast with the Torah outlook is striking. The dominant ethos in today’s America is that people cannot change. You are who you are, and that is all. Your personality and values at age 5 or 15 will be your personality and values at age 35, 55 and 75. Dr. Freud, take a victory lap: you won. But what a rejection of the possibility of repentance, and what a dark view of man’s potential!

One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that people can change. We can change because we have free choice. We can change by learning more Torah, by scrutinizing our personalities, by moving to a different environment, by repenting and by realizing the error of our ways.

Even King David had challenges in life, sins he committed and acts he regretted, but by the end of his life he was a different person. He was no longer the same individual who had his trials when young, even in the early years of his monarchy. That is why he is the paragon of individual repentance. But King David today would be disparaged, demeaned and destroyed for his indiscretions. He would be deemed irredeemable.

Where there is no acceptance of sin, there cannot be forgiveness, and where society denies that people can change, there cannot be repentance. And that has created a sad, bitter, churlish, grumpy, hypocritical – and polarized country. If Jews would ever entertain, much less subscribe to such a philosophy, there would be no point in a Yom Kippur.

But we don’t – and that is why we continue to admire King David, who guides and inspires us until today, and why the world at large, and this troubled society in particular, could benefit from our knowledge, wisdom and moral absolutes.

Show Trial

Imagine living in a society in which you can be subjected to anonymous allegations of criminal conduct without any supporting facts or circumstances and without being given the opportunity to defend yourself. Then imagine that, in that same society, you are found guilty without being tried, and in which the mere attempt to defend yourself against hazy, unsubstantiated, unproved, unprovable and even scurrilous accusations compounds your guilt in the eyes of the elitist judges who serve at the pleasure of their faceless masters.  The accused “enjoy” the presumption of guilt. The indictment itself is tantamount to conviction; the only variable is the harshness of the punishment.

Such an imagination put the Kafka into “Kafkaesque,” and bears great similarity to the haunted Czech-Jewish author’s “The Trial.” The subject of that harrowing tale, an obscure bank official, was arrested by unknown individuals, charged with crimes but was not privy to the “minor” details of who, what, when, where and why. He does not know his accusers, the nature of the charges against him, and the judges who will adjudicate his fate. His end is predictable, sad, and closer to current reality than we would like to believe.

But change the alleger from anonymous to reluctantly named, another depressing chapter in history presents itself and is most instructive for today.

In the late 1930’s, Josef Stalin orchestrated the Moscow Show Trials, in which thousands of Communist Party leaders – many comrades who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Stalin during the Russian Revolution – were summarily tried, convicted and executed. In addition, millions of Soviet citizens were exiled to Siberia or otherwise murdered by the secret police. It was the great purge during which Stalin removed any potential rival for power and cemented his dictatorial and sadistic control over the Soviet Union. Most of the Jews who were enthusiastic Communists, served the Revolution and became party officials, met their untimely fate at this time without exactly sanctifying G-d’s name. Half the defendants in the very first Show Trial were Jews, and in a bitter irony, many of the Jews who were tried and convicted remained unrepentant Communists, spouting Communist dogma (not Shema Yisrael) with their last breaths.

There were several mass trials but all followed the same basic format. The pretext was that the individuals, whether party officials, bureaucrats, military officers including several marshals, ran afoul of the political correctness of the time. Charges were trumped up, documents forged, interrogations forced, and most of the defendants were coerced into confessions that admitted to something, anything. Those standing trial who attempted to defend themselves, even sometimes by pledging and emphasizing their loyalty to Stalin, were treated even more harshly for they were deemed to be irredeemable. Truth was neither an interest nor an objective.

Guilt was presupposed and foreordained. Those who confessed were executed and those who refused to confess were also executed. The only difference was that those who confessed might succeed in sparing their immediate family members from exile or execution. Those who refused to confess paid the price of their own death, the persecution of their families, and the confiscation of their property. Media condemnation of the accused was routine but obviously corrupt and fraudulent, the media being just another tool of the ruthless state.

And while this mass murder was ongoing, the leftist media in America – led by the New York Times’ Walter Duranty – was praising Stalin as “the greatest living statesmen.”  The Times’ perspicacity remains intact today.

Clearly there was nothing about these trials that even remotely followed legal process or resembled  anything similar to how the law functions in a civilized society. This was “political terror” masquerading as trials, all to achieve the political goals desired by Stalin. His failure to feed his people (the Show Trials followed immediately after the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians, whose food was literally confiscated to feed Russians) or even to attract popular support for any of his policies induced him to purge the party, the state and this world of his enemies. Apparently, mere public shaming of his enemies – modern American style – did not suffice.

The centerpiece of the Show Trials was the public confession, usually extracted after torture and sometimes just a day after insistent claims of innocence.  Typical of this genre was the trial of Nikolai Krestinsky, a member of the Politburo from Lenin’s time and of Jewish origin, who professed his innocence of the charges of loyalty to Trotsky and Trotskyism, and then the next day, had a “change of heart:”

    Krestinsky: Yesterday, under the influence of a momentary keen feeling of false shame, evoked by the atmosphere of the dock and the painful impression created by the public reading of the indictment, which was aggravated by my poor health, I could not bring myself to tell the truth, I could not bring myself to say that I was guilty. And instead of saying, “Yes, I am guilty,” I almost mechanically answered, “No, I am not guilty.”
Vyshinsky: Mechanically?
Krestinsky: In the face of world public opinion, I had not the strength to admit the truth that I had been conducting a Trotskyite struggle all along. I request the Court to register my statement that I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and that I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed.

Krestinsky was unceremoniously executed the next day.

The German author Bertolt Brecht captured the moral pretensions of the intellectual Left, dominant then in academic and literary circles and on the ascent again today, and wryly described the victims of Stalinist oppression in a way that should chill every American today: “The more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die.” Those were the Soviet show trials.

And these are the natural consequences of the merger of arrogance, intolerance, the politics of personal destruction, the presumption of the guilt of disfavored individuals, the corruption of due process, trial by mob and media and the prevailing assumption that only one political view is moral, acceptable, entitled to a public hearing and allowed in public debate and college classrooms.

Certainly there is a chasm that separates the genocidal purges of Stalin and the petty political games played in America. But the casual way in which lives are destroyed, the utter disregard of the pursuit of truth, and the wanton use of accusations, threats, legislative hearings that are more akin to circuses, and the repeated attempt to terrorize people out of public service strike too familiar a chord.

These are not only polarized times but sad ones as well. Even Kafka would be surprised, and alarmed.

 

Party Line

It is not an easy time to be a Jewish Democrat or a Democratic Jew, depending on which facet of identity is considered primary or secondary. For almost a century, most Jews have considered membership in the Democrat Party to be part of their birthright and a natural expression of their Jewishness, and this from a time when Jews were much more knowledgeable and committed to Torah, Mitzvot, Jewish values and Jewish ideas. These days too many Jews just assume that whatever policies or values are espoused by Democrats or the Party platform must (or should) be Jewish, clear and concise expressions of Torah truth.

To be sure, there was some substance to these claims. Jews felt more at home in a political party that encouraged immigrants and minorities, protected personal freedoms and, especially, supported to some extent Jewish national aspirations in the Land of Israel and under President Truman even recognized the nascent State of Israel. The Democrat Party was home to numerous Jews, especially in Congress and in city politics, and Jews drawn to socialism or least socialist instincts were comfortable in the party of unions and the common man that confronted the party of big business.

Of course, many Jews, especially in New York, were Democrats by default because there was no functioning Republican Party (still generally true). But what if today’s Democrat Party no longer represents those fundamental values, embraces doctrines that are antithetical to Torah, vehemently opposes equality of treatment of public and parochial schools (such that families who send their children to Yeshivot are doubly taxed) and, particularly, has joined Israel’s enemies in opposing the State of Israel, supporting BDS or worse, and seeks to undermine its very viability? This is no longer your grandfather’s Democrat Party.

It has been an oft-repeated shibboleth that support for Israel is and should be bi-partisan, and for many decades that has been true. Indeed, one of the greatest and enduring causes that brought together Republicans and Democrats has been support for the State of Israel. Such still is the recurring theme at every AIPAC conference, and rightly so, even if the claim gets more strained every year. It was always heartwarming to see Dems and Reps who disagree about everything else join together on stage and pledge their support for Israel, and not for votes or money but because they genuinely believed that Israel’s cause was just, its alliance with the United States beneficial for both countries, and their shared values good for the world.

Shall we keep saying that it is still true when we know it not to be true?

While support for Israel in Congress remains largely bi-partisan, the winds of change are blowing – and against the Democrat-Israel alliance. Among the rank and file, a recent poll found that 79% of Republicans support Israel in the regional dispute, while only 27% of Democrats support Israel. That is shocking, and eye-opening, and marks a dramatic shift from even twenty years ago, and probably ten years ago. It should not be hard to remember the debacle at the 2012 Democrat Convention in Los Angeles where a voice vote of the crowd clearly and vociferously opposed the plank asserting that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, only to be overruled by a farcical pronouncement of the chairman. (The crowd also voted against G-d, which makes sense in that context.)

In recent years, Democrat politicians have been emboldened to ally themselves with openly anti-Israel policies and positions and, this year, are fielding a number of candidates, some but not all Muslim, who make no attempt to conceal their contempt for Israel. They pledge to oppose any support for Israel, to undermine the US-Israel alliance and routinely refer to Israel as an apartheid, racist state. While Republicans have had their (small) share of anti-Israel and even Holocaust-denying candidates, they have all been repudiated by the Party and are considered extremists on the fringe who are unwelcome in the mainstream Republican Party. Among the Dems, not only are these avowedly anti-Israel candidates not repudiated, they are also no longer considered to be on the fringe. They are becoming the mainstream of the party and are extremely popular.  For example, the Reps have marginalized and ostracized David Duke and his acolytes while too many Dems pay obeisance to Louis Farrakhan despite his anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish tirades.

Worse, current office-holders like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York unabashedly appear at anti-Israel and pro-BDS forums, with seemingly no consequences. New Jersey’s own Sen. Cory Booker, who already put party above principle by bowing to pressure and endorsing the Obama Iran deal that provided for an Iranian nuclear weapons capability after ten years (if not earlier), was recently photographed with anti-Israel, BDS activists holding a sign that read “From Palestine to Mexico, all walls have got to go.” His later claim that he did not know what the sign said is risible, calling into question his veracity, his judgment or both, all of which should disqualify him from office.

Obviously, for both of them – and others – it is a wise political move. Since the center of gravity in the Democrat Party has shifted to the far left, that is where the votes, financial support, enthusiasm and the party’s moral compass can be found. In today’s Democrat Party, support for Israel has become a losing issue, a victim of the specious dogma of “intersectionality” that propounds that all “victim” groups, however defined, must make common cause with each other, however absurd the consequences. In this bizarre state of affairs, Arabs are always the victims and Israel – having no inherent right to exist in any form – is always the colonial oppressor. (Thus, rallies of radical feminists always include the waving of Palestinian flags and anti-Israel rhetoric, seemingly oblivious to the reality that these same feminists would be tossed from rooftops in Gaza if they ever tried to hold a rally there.)

It is undeniable that younger Democrat politicians have distanced themselves from Israel and Israel’s base of support exists only amongst older Dems (like Pelosi and Hoyer and others), with Josh Gottheimer a notable exception to this trend. Add to this that the Democrat party has become the proponent of policies and moral norms that cannot be reconciled with the Torah or even traditional Judeo-Christian values, one wonders for how long can this instinctive and unquestioning support for the Democrat Party continue in Jewish life? After all, to be a Democrat today means to embrace income redistribution, open immigration, aggressive affirmative action, a diminution of individual religious liberty, an assault on private ownership, sharply increased taxes on the “wealthy,” drastic limitations on free speech and surrender to coercive speech codes, identity politics and a host of other issues that should give any sentient Jew at least some pause.

For most American Jews, alienated from Torah and largely assimilated and intermarried, the Democrat Party is their anchor and even their “spiritual” home. While some might balk at the pervasive anti-Israel bias emanating from their ranks, it is more likely that many of these Jews will turn against Israel to avoid the cognitive dissonance of their party v. their people. To a great extent, that has already happened under the transparent and hollow blather of a “split” between American Jewry and Israel because of (take your pick) conversion, settlements, the Kotel, recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, the two-state illusion, PM Netanyahu or something else that will occur tomorrow or the day after. The painful reality is that the more assimilated the Jew, the weaker will be his or her affinity for Israel or anything Jewish. This is patently clear to all Israelis except the diehard secular ones who share the same grievances. This is what is unfolding in American Jewish life today and why the Dems have shifted so dramatically in the last decade, certainly aided and abetted by the Obama administration that worked hard to weaken the US-Israel alliance.

And what of Jewish Democrats who are not assimilated and are even Torah observant but are comfortable in that party for a variety of reasons – they are liberal, promote a rigid separation of morality and state, tend to support the welfare state or are just perpetually put off by the Republican Party, with or without, before and after Trump?

They have their work cut out for them. In the best circumstance, they can stand athwart history yelling “stop!” to those who have seized control of their party and moved it away from core Jewish interests. That is not easy to do in the current climate but they have few other options. They could also take a look at the reality before them and draw the natural and appropriate conclusions. Certainly, there are many putative Dems who vote for Reps on occasion, for one reason or another, and that might happen as well. But there is something elevating about Israel being the one bi-partisan issue and it would be appropriate to work for the restoration of that situation.

As it stands now, that is a pipedream. Jewish Democrats or Democrat Jews will have to choose which is the noun and which is the adjective.

 

The Era of Argument

The noted professor Stanley Fish recently published a book, a slim but insightful volume, entitled “Winning Arguments.” Even after concluding the book, I could not determine whether the “Winning” of the title was a gerund (a verb meaning that the book instructed one how to prevail in arguments) or an adjective (that is, which arguments would be the most persuasive in rhetorical combat). And then I realized that it was neither, and that I misconstrued even the word “Argument.” Don’t judge a book by its title, or its cover.

When we think of “arguments” today, it is almost always associated with acrimony, protests, vindictiveness and insolubility. These encompass the riots in the streets, the harassment of people who articulate views that are unpopular with the masses or the advocates who are averse to dialogue and prone to violence, and the sheer inability of people to talk to others with different and certainly opposing views. Even “we agree to disagree” would be a step up in public discourse but a return to that halcyon era seems way off in the future.

The “Arguments” of the title, I think, refer to the classic arguments of yore, advocacy that was free of rancor or insult. A legal argument is typical of the genre. Often judges will say, “we will hear arguments on that matter tomorrow,” which in the current climate would be taken to mean that each side should come prepared to scream, then scream louder, and be bolstered by the boisterous supporters of its side that it had assembled in the audience. Of course, legal arguments mean nothing of the sort but are rather dispassionate discussions of the legal issues at hand in which each side musters all the precedents and logic underlying its case and tries to counter, rationally and orderly, the arguments of the other side.

There was a time when such arguments were not limited to the courtroom but, in fact, people could sit around a table in a social setting, discourse on the issues of the day, enlighten each other, have a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions about life, religion, politics and the like, and remain friends, and even look forward to the next gathering.

Those are the arguments to which Professor Fish refers, and the “Winning,” I assume, means “pleasing, appealing, or charming” rather than “triumphant or unbeatable.” Wouldn’t it be something if we could return to those days when people could have a friendly dialogue, learn from each other, agree to disagree, meet again – rather than fear being ostracized from one’s social circle, rendering one’s children unmarriageable to families of another viewpoint, having water thrown in one’s face, being verbally harassed on the streets, fired from one’s job, and being stalked and maligned as an enemy of society? And those intellectual arguments need not be that much different in kind from domestic or personal arguments – an exchange of views (who’s doing the dishes and who’s taking out the garbage) in which each side’s concerns are heard and addressed.

What, then, is the problem, which, to a large extent, has infiltrated our Torah world as well?

It is largely that modern arguments never end because there is no yardstick that can be employed that will lead definitively to a conclusion. Fish: “We live in a world where God and truth have receded, at least as active, perspicuous presences…absolute authority exists only in a heaven we may someday hope to see…”

We have forfeited the capacity to have reasoned dialogue because G-d’s word has been neglected when it is not altogether being distorted; even truth has been pounded into oblivion. It is not uncommon to hear people today speak of “my truth,” something which is synonymous with their “feelings.” But “feelings” are not truth, by definition subjective, and what we have generally is a passionate exchange of feelings about which there can be no common ground. It is why people – on television and often around tables – just talk past each other, and why we live in “a world of argument.”

To give just one example: we hear repeatedly the famous Torah verse “You should love your neighbor as yourself” used to justify all sorts of things of which the Torah disapproves, because the sentiment expressed is so noble and universal. Yet, one rabbinic explication of the verse is that because we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we have to “choose for him a pleasant mode of execution” (Masechet Sanhedrin 45a and elsewhere).That is, if we must execute someone for a crime, we must choose a mode of execution that causes the least pain. A person guided by feelings might think that a better way of expressing our love for another would be not to execute him at all! But such a person would be devoid of true Torah knowledge and oblivious to the Mesorah. And that is just one example of how G-d’s word can be so trivialized in these modern arguments and truth the first casualty of the rejection of G-d. Loving our neighbors as we do ourselves does not vitiate any of the Torah’s commandments even as it simultaneously influences our performance of many of them.

Towards the end of the book, Fish quotes from another book written twenty years ago by the sociologist Deborah Tannen, always incredibly prescient in her analysis of societal trends. The book was entitled “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words” and it portrayed the impending poisoning of public discourse, in which “your goal is not to listen and understand [but]… to use every tactic in order to win.” People, she wrote, thus “search for the most foolish statement in a generally reasonable treatise, seize upon the weakest example, ignore facts that support your opponent’s views and focus only on those that support yours.”

This is why the word game has become so popular in this genre – finding the one word or phrase than can be construed as offensive and use that as a pretext not to deal with the substance of the contentions that are being raised. It is as obvious as it is phony and hypocritical.

The America of 1998 when Tannen’s book was published was certainly not as polarized as it is today, but the argument culture is alive and devouring us. Witness the people who can no longer talk to each other civilly, friendships that have cooled, relationships that have ended, and all because of this gross incapacity to open one’s mind to the views of another, to agree or disagree pleasantly and to evaluate by the objective barometers given to us – especially in the Torah – what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is contemptible.

Rational arguments are impossible in a world that glorifies the primacy of feelings above all. Where contentions need not be proven by resort to conventional resources (“I don’t have to prove anything; I feel I’m right, I know it in my heart”) then dialogue becomes impossible and we are on the brink of “might makes right.” That can only be followed – and has already been followed – by physical attacks on those with disfavored views, the banning of the expression of certain moral notions in university classrooms, and the creation of an underground where traditional morality can still be taught and discussed out of sight of society’s self-appointed hall monitors and truth suppressors.

Where relativism predominates, true virtue cannot exist. In the wake of its disappearance we find only competing personal “moralities” that cannot enlighten or ennoble anyone. What passes for sophisticated discussion are puerile and vacuous Facebook posts and tweets that sock it to the disfavored.

Jews, whether we admit it or not, live in a binary world. We are presented with the blessing and the curse, with good and evil, with the choice of following or disobeying G-d’s will. Some have forsaken that for lack of faith or the desire to curry favor in the general world, but we abandon that approach at our peril.

There does not appear to be a way out of this morass, short of repentance. Perhaps the only true consolation is the Talmudic statement (Masechet Sanhedrin 98a) that the generation in which the Messiah comes will be either entirely righteous or guilty. It will be a generation in which people simply cannot agree or even dialogue about what is right or wrong or good and evil. The righteous will know they are righteous and have little to do with the evil, and the evil will think they are virtuous and that the so-called righteous are misguided or worse.

If indeed the era of argument is a prelude to the coming of Moshiach, then at least we can (not) enjoy it while it lasts.