Category Archives: Current Events

Lumping It

Language always evolves. New words and phrases are coined, enter general usage, and reflect the spirit of the times – for good or less-than-good.

So it is with two phrases that recently infiltrated the culture, one I first heard more than a year ago and one that I encountered just last month.

The first has become a cause célèbre in certain parts, with passionate advocates and detractors: “cancel culture.” Count me among the detractors. “Cancel culture” is the attempt to ruin someone’s career or life because of words they utter or positions they hold that challenge the world view of the aggrieved. The cancellers try, in effect, to “cancel” the person – negate his or her existence, erase them from society, and deny them jobs, audiences, friends, and vehicles through which they disseminate their views.

This first appeared more than forty years ago (although it wasn’t called by this term), and it is still its primary application, in the effort to prevent people with whom the activists disagree on one point or another from speaking – at a college, a private event, or any public forum. It is the antithesis of free speech, which by the explicit admission of the cancellers should not pertain to any speech with which they disagree. I recall when this was the fate of Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the early 1980’s for her pronounced foreign policy views against Communism and totalitarianism and for a strong America. (The nerve!) She was banned from some campuses and harassed at others. In the last decade this has become the norm on too many American campuses.  Speakers, almost always conservatives, are either banned or their speeches are disrupted by rude behavior designed to make the event unpleasant enough that listeners leave or the speaker leaves. Several speakers – political scientists and professors, mostly – have been physically assaulted. In sum, freedom of expression has been suppressed, which itself has exacerbated the polarization in society. “Free speech for me and not for thee” is the death knell of American civilization.

This suppression is often accomplished by pressuring the hosts to cancel the event and convincing the proprietors of the venue that violence will likely ensue if the event is not canceled.  Often, threats of violence are made, and the pusillanimous cave in. Or, concerted efforts are made to force employers to fire the speaker or, in the entertainment industry, not to hire the offender to perform. In the latest manifestation of this lunacy, there are states in these United States that boycott other states, outlawing official state delegations from visiting or spending money in states whose policies annoy them. These left-wing states – such as California or New York – have authorized boycott of other states, such as North Carolina and almost ten others. The main irritants are state laws that conform to reality in defining males and females (how outrageous!) and laws that restrict in some form the provision of abortions.

It is important to note “cancel culture” is a one-way street. The cancellers are almost always on the political and cultural far left, and the victims are almost always conservatives with traditional views. There are foreign policy affronts that engender these efforts to “cancel” people – such as support for a strong America or a strong Israel. But usually the offenses are failures to toe the leftist line on social issues, all of which leave one open to the hackneyed accusations of racism/ bigotry/ misogyny/ homophobia/ Islamophobia, etc.  and sometimes all of them together. It is a select list of victims and grievances, and it is not easy to win a nomination to that list. Hence the growing discomfort – on the far left and the far right – with inclusion of Jews on this list, notwithstanding the recent spate of physical and verbal assaults on Jews in America and Europe. Too many writers are still too quick to blame the Jews for provoking attacks on themselves, something to which no other group is subject.

Social media, an altogether unconstructive phenomenon in any event, encourages these purity tests by indulging in the second phrase, one I just heard last month: “hate reading.” No, not “hate speech,” but “hate reading.” That is the process through which one scours the writings or words of a particular individual in order to extract the one word or phrase or idea that defy the conventional norms of these cultural imperialists. In the best circumstances, words are lifted out of context. More generally, words, sentences, expressions, themes and entire essays are just misconstrued. It is not just that the main point is missed but rather that the ideas are outright distorted, positions never articulated or even contemplated are assailed, and the process takes on the appearance of a grotesque farce. Radicals of all sorts, including radical feminists, are skilled in this. It is the snippet that is highlighted and twisted, publicized through (un)social media, and their false narrative takes root in the public domain.

The weak (or perhaps the prudent?) then decide to stop writing or speaking, and the field is abandoned to the passionately misinformed and the enemies of tradition. The latter make absolutely no effort to engage the speaker or writer or refute her ideas. There is no substantive argument. Hate reading and cancel culture only target the individual. It is as if their ideas are beneath contempt. Or perhaps proof enough that they are just beyond refutation.

“Hate reading” is characterized by the utter disregard for what the person has actually said; it is indeed just a search for, and often the fabrication of, the word or phrase that “triggers” (hey, there’s another newfangled concept) the easily offended. Nothing is heard or read with an objective mind but only read in order to get aroused and enraged.

How did American society descend to these depths wherein so many people just hate read, sit in judgment of those with whom they disagree and try to destroy them rather than respect their right to express and disagree? How can it be that so many people go to college and are actually traumatized by hearing views that differ from theirs? And especially in a society that prided itself on free and open debate, on the exchange of views and opinions, and on the right to disagree without being disagreeable? How did disagreement become inherently disagreeable?

The answer is multi-faceted but it occurred to me not long ago that, in the wake of all these new phrases, we lost some oldies but goodies. I recently told some millennials that when I was young, there was a popular expression in the schoolyard:  “if you don’t like it, you can lump it.” They conceded that they had never heard that expression, which, to me, was a crying shame.

That is one way to deal with disagreements, insults, arguments or opinions that diverge from yours: “if you don’t like it, you can lump.” It is of disputable etymology, but it worked! You don’t like it, so you don’t like it. Move on. No two people should ever agree on everything – or one of them is superfluous. So get over it. Let the other person have his views. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person” (Avot 4:1). “Cancel culture” and “hate reading” have reinforced the echo chambers that divide us and cause nothing but grief and agitation.

And one must never succumb to the pressures of the cancellers. There have been two times, I think, when groups attempted to cancel me for some grievance they had. Both failed – essentially because they were told to “lump it,” albeit in other words. You would be surprised at the effectiveness of telling haters to “lump it.” They are nonplussed – and quickly move on to more amenable targets.

Our Sages taught us that “just like no two people look alike, no two people think alike” (Berachot 58a). Just as people’s different faces – even ugly ones – should not bother us, so too even their views (ugly or even just different) should not bother us.

“Lumping it” is a good antidote to both hate reading and cancel culture. When they learn to lump it, or are forced to lump it because they are otherwise ignored, even pitied, we can regain some normalcy in American life and go back to arguing with each other in peace – and with mutual respect.

 

The Banality of Impeachment

One of the most unfortunate consequences of the impetuous rush to impeachment (and acquittal) is the plausible possibility that this nuclear weapon of democracy – the abrogation of the people’ will as expressed at the ballot box by the president’s partisans opponents – will become routinized in the future. For example, the next president who whispers to Russia’s president to tell the Russian autocrat that he will have more flexibility after the election, and so Russia should not rock the boat and make unreasonable demands about missile deployment beforehand, then that president should be impeached for subordinating the nation’s security to his own electoral fortunes.

By the misguided standards of today’s Democrat resisters, a rough overview of American history would indicate that Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, LBJ, Reagan, two Bushes and one Obama should all have been impeached. Of course, the only impediments to this happening in the future is not the conduct of the president – probably all could be impeached by this legal yardstick – but the alignment of two indispensable factors in the current imbroglio:  A Democrat House and a fully-aroused left-wing mainstream media. You need both – I presume with justification that Republicans would not act as recklessly (remember that Clinton was admittedly guilty of committing the felony of perjury) and that the mainstream media would defend to the death of honest journalism any Democrat president, whatever he or she did.

So you need both, and here you have both, with the sad result that impeachment itself will have become so mainstreamed – the House indicts with a slim majority, the Senate acquits because it can’t achieve the supermajority needed for conviction – that corrupt presidential behavior is no longer deterred because the impeachment process is perceived as toothless. In such a rabid climate, it is not unforeseeable that impeachment becomes as dull as a Knicks game, and attracts about as much attention.

It is indeed an appalling sign of the decline of American politics and the polarization of society that the US managed only one impeachment process in the first 180 years of its existence – and now three in the last fifty years. Invariably, there will be more to come. The irrational hatred of the resisters, who fear that they will be unable to stop this President’s re-election, will move to the next stage after this failure. Perhaps alleged violations of the defunct emoluments clause will be dredged up. Perhaps the corpse of the Muller investigation will be exhumed again. The dearth of evidence of any crime, any wrongdoing, of anything but politics as usual, will stain American politics for decades. At least the Nixon hearings had John Dean and Alexander Butterfield. Here, third and fourth hand hearsay, and the one person who testified and had listened to the allegedly offensive conversation has been publicly contradicted by several others who were also on the call – but not allowed to testify. If President Trump ran on a commitment to drain the DC swamp, the current impeachment process is compelling proof that the swamp has not yet been drained. Its long term effects remain to be seen.

The bitter paradoxes abound. The Democrats are outraged that military aid to Ukraine was briefly delayed, and termed a threat to US national security, while unconcerned that no military aid was provided to Ukraine under the Obama administration, and when Ukraine most needed it – while Russia conquered Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine.

The Democrats caterwaul over the interference of Ukraine in this election but not the last (that is not even worthy of investigating) – even as the Democrats reached out and hired foreign entities in Russia and Ukraine to fabricate a dossier about a political opponent, even as Democrats regularly interfered in Israel’s elections, and probably those of many other countries, in the past.

The Democrats screech over the intangible benefit Trump might have received from an investigation into the deeds of a political opponent but have squelched an investigation into the tangible benefits Biden and son really did receive, as if, somehow, Joe Biden is immune from investigation for alleged wrongdoing  while he was Vice-President because he is now running for president.

And the Nixon impeachment process actually featured evidence of wrongdoing, including spying on political opponents and journalists, even as Democrats today (like Adam Schiff) try to bolster their case by spying on political opponents and journalists.

All these are applications of the famous Talmudic principle: kawl haposel, b’mumo posel (Kiddushin 70a). Whoever besmirches others does it with their own flaws. Whoever stigmatizes another does it with their own blemish. If only they had the self-awareness to recognize this, it wouldn’t be so catastrophic. But they don’t, and so civil society plunges into chaos and is torn asunder.

How should leaders’ misdeeds be treated? By definition, no one is perfect, and neither king nor president achieves perfection by assuming a political office.  Jewish tradition teaches, in fact, that “fortunate is the generation in which the prince brings offerings for his sins” (Horayot 10b). Not to be able to admit any wrongdoing, and survive the confession, is an inducement not to admit any wrongdoing. Such breeds arrogance, recklessness and a poor cadre of potential leaders.

Can Jewish leaders be impeached? Don Yitzchak Abravanel, who  served the Jew-hating monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, famously said no (Commentary to Devarim 17). All rulers are accepted with their faults and even (strong words!) stand in place of G-d on earth – and such is true even of Gentile rulers. Furthermore, the Jewish ruler is chosen by G-d, so only He can reverse His decision (see Zecharia 11:8).

While there is some validity to the Abravanel’s contentions, most authorities disagreed. Mmonarchs are ratified, and can be deposed, by a decision of the High Court. Thus, the Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 1:1) suggests that Yeravam feared the Sanhedrin would execute him if he worshipped idols. He encouraged others to sin, but didn’t necessarily sin himself, at least at first. Both Avshalom and Adoniyahu asserted a claim to the monarchy while their father King David was still alive, and even King David deemed himself at least partially deposed during these rebellions (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashana 1:1).

Radak (I Melachim 21:10) and Ralbag (II Shmuel 17:4) both underscore that a corrupt, thieving, violent king could be deposed by the people, and Ralbag (Mishlei 29:4) noted that such a person is not worthy to be called a “king.” It is as if the title disappears, along with his power and authority.

Nevertheless, Rav Naftali Bar-Ilan (in his magisterial “Mishtar u’Medina b’Yisrael”) cautions that the removal of a ruler should be done with great deliberation and reluctance. Even a ruler deemed wicked usually has some merits in other areas, and the judgment as to his ouster must include the overall welfare of the community and kingdom. Even the rapacious King Ahab fared better under these criteria. And often a toppled monarch will be succeeded by someone far worse in character, and great instability and unrest will ensue. Hesitation and multiple stage thinking should be the governing rules, and not just crass politics or fear of another election loss.

It would seem that the Democrat’s objective here – since they know the Senate will not convict and remove – is to create an overwhelming sense of “Trump fatigue” in the electorate, such that people tire of the constant drama, accusations, tweets and anarchy, and are even willing to risk the loss of security, peace and prosperity to achieve several news cycles without the overheated rhetoric of the President’s critics. Who knows? It might work – but it is a long shot and extremely damaging to the polity.

This brings me to the final point, seemingly unrelated but in fact part of the crisis of politics in America: the election cycle is too long because it literally never ends. It makes no sense that candidates spend tens of millions of dollars and drop out before a vote is even cast. Other countries – Britain and Israel (the world’s expert on elections, although not on forming functioning governments) – can carry out the entire process in just several months.

I humbly propose this law: no candidate is allowed to declare his candidacy, and no debates can be held, before January 1 of the presidential election year. This allows a month until the primary voting starts. The drastically-reduced campaign season would have to feature more substance and fewer inane personal attacks on the aspirants. That might even induce a qualified candidate or two to run.

It would at least give the American people a well deserved break from the madness – and banality – that currently grips it.

This President and the Jews

It should not be disputable that President Trump has been the best President that the State of Israel has ever come across, even as it is acknowledged that the job of the American president is not to serve Israel’s needs but those of the United States. Clearly, the President sees America’s interests as aligned with those of Israel to a degree unseen since Israel’s creation. No president has been more supportive and it is difficult to conjure how any president could be more supportive.

Thus, President Trump moved the American embassy to Yerushalayim, executing American law and fulfilling a campaign promise that had been made by two other presidents and then abrogated. He recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital. He cut off funding for the PA because of their tireless support for terror and terrorists and kicked out the PLO from Washington DC. He recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, leading to the founding of a new settlement there called “Trump Heights.” He shares the distinction of having an Israeli community named for him with George (Givat) Washington and Harry (Kfar) Truman. JFK only merited a forest.

Most recently he recognized the legality of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, reversing a tendentious decision of the Carter administration that had already been rejected by President George W. Bush but reinstated by President Obama. He has provided Israel with steadfast support at the United Nations, in contrast to the shameful denouement of Obama when he gleefully allowed a Security Council resolution to pass declaring Israeli settlements illegal – even denying Israel’s claim over the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount).

President Trump has coordinated with Israel over joint approaches to Iran and has facilitated Israel’s burgeoning relationship with the Arab Gulf states. He has given Israel a free hand in dealing with terror in Judea and Samaria and rockets emanating from Gaza; there are no more hollow calls for restraint, no more evenhandedness between terrorist and terror victims.

Every country has a wish list from every other country with which it has diplomatic relations. Trump has done everything for Israel except build the Third Temple, perhaps because that is not on Israel’s wish list. It is impossible to imagine what more he can do.

Domestically, he has loudly denounced Jew hatred and violence against Jews, and multiple times. (Don’t believe the false Charlottesville narrative, repeatedly debunked.) He has consoled Jews in times of grief and rejoiced with Jews in times of joy. He has filled his administration with Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, and has a comfort level with religious Jews rarely seen in the White House. He has been repaid, if that is the right word, with solid majority support in the Orthodox community – and largely been castigated, rebuked, and disparaged by non-traditional Jews, many more agitated by Trump’s pro-life commitment than his pro-Israel actions.

For sure, there are many Jews who think that his pro-Israel bias is a sham, a balloon that will someday pop and unleash his presumably pent-up anti-Jewish animus. Given his support for Jews and Israel, and the contemptible way most Jews perceive him, I could not blame him – even as I seriously doubt that would ever happen. But if it did (and it won’t) we would have only ourselves to blame, and especially the deplorable role Jews have played in assailing this most pro-Jewish president.

Simply put, the impeachment spectacle has become too Jewish for my taste. Consider: the lead inquisitor on the Intelligence Committee was Adam Schiff and his counterpart on the Judiciary is Gerald Nadler. Both are Jews. The Democrats’ lead counsel on Intelligence was Daniel Goldman; on the Judiciary, Norman Eisen. Both are Jews.

The lead witness proffered by the Intelligence Committee (if the great “presumer” can be called a “witness”) was Ambassador Gordon Sondland. He is Jewish. For good measure, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. The law professor who was most strident opining on Trump’s impeachability, Noah Feldman, is also a Jew. The presidential candidate who asserts that Trump is “the most corrupt president in American history” is Bernie Sanders, a Jew, who is also old enough to have served in the Senate with Warren Harding and who should certainly be familiar with LBJ. There are others. Frankly, it is just too much. Too many Jews are too visible, and for the wrong reasons.

Jews number about one-hundredth of one percent of the world’s population and far less than 2% of the United States population. So how is it that we are so prominent – to my taste, too prominent – in these sham proceedings? And how do we ensure that it is does not redound to the detriment of Jews in the United States and in Israel?

The latter question is especially disquieting because Jews run the risk of being tarred with primary responsibility for the coming impeachment, alienating half the country who are diehard supporters of Trump, realize (and even appreciate, much more than do many Jews) his support for Israel and see these Jews as ungrateful at best and malicious at worst. Perhaps it behooves Jewish supporters of Trump to raise their profile not only so that the President knows (he does) but that his faithful devotees know as well.

The former question is enlightening in nature but frightening in its implications. Our forefather Yaakov was blessed with the reality that Jews would never be bystanders to history but that we would be leaders in every nation in which we lived and prime movers of civilization. That is a gift that we should embrace.

Nonetheless, it is a mistake for Jews to be so front and center in the persecution of this (or probably any) president. It is as if we don’t realize the costs of exile and how no exile has ever ended well for Jews. Ever. One can easily project the tide of American life turning in ways that are deleterious to Jewish interests and hostile to Jews. It is apparent in the anti-Jewish (not just anti-Israel) feelings on campuses, in the escalating contempt for the Bible and its moral notions, and in the current assault on free speech and freedom of worship that is gaining currency in elitist circles as well. It is apparent in the rising number of overt Jew haters in the Democrat Party – still not chastised or censured but, instead, celebrated. If sufficient numbers of Trump supporters become enraged over what they perceive as the disproportionate number of Jews who are Trump haters, then only bad things can come from that.

As it stands now, the attacks on Jews in the United States, from both the right and the left, come from outspoken Trump haters. A discredited, widely denounced but unapologetic Jew hater is already calling the impeachment process a “Jew coup.” We would do well to lower our profile and reduce the number of public Jews suffused in impeachment mania. If Democrats are gung ho on impeaching this President because they fear he will get re-elected, and just want to damage him through this endless legal torture, then surely this land contains a sufficient number of Gentiles who can indulge those whims without involving people whose energies could better be devoted to worthy Torah pursuits.

Yes, Torah pursuits. If only…

And if not, then we risk far more than defeat of this president at the polls. Whoever succeeds him will not be as pro-Israel or pro-Jewish and we will rue that day if it comes.

The First Modern Orthodox Jew: Two Models

Amid all the discussions about Modern Orthodoxy, its past, present, and future, it is perhaps helpful to look at two different paradigms into which Modern Orthodoxy currently divides itself – one positive, and one, well, less so.

One individual grew up in a religious home, so punctilious in its observance of mitzvot and sensitivity to others that he felt stultified. So he moved to the big, bad city and became so respected there that was elevated to leadership, notwithstanding the depravity of the place. He felt better about himself, even tried to maintain some of the observances he had practiced in his family home. Ultimately, he was spared his city’s fate not because of any personal qualities he possessed but solely because of the merit of the home he rejected. That person was Lot.

The contrasts between Lot and his uncle/brother-in-law Avraham were subtle but remarkable nonetheless. Lot could not bear the piety of that home, its insistence on the rigid worship of one G-d and its constant pursuit of virtuous deeds. When he abandoned Avraham, Lot – not atypically as history has played out – went to live in a place that was the antithesis of that home. Sodom was the center of debauchery, lechery, cruelty, and moral perversities. Undoubtedly, Lot concluded that he could live the life of the Sodomite while retaining the trappings of Avraham’s home. He was partially right – and he walked that tightrope in a way that is not unfamiliar to, and might even concern, many of us.

Our Sages pointed out Lot’s moral complexities. He came to Sodom, tried to blend in and eventually rose to prominence. He was appointed a judge in that immoral gutter – meaning he acculturated himself, probably attending college and law school there. Likely, he attended class on Shabbat but without writing or otherwise breaching a Shabbat stricture, and willfully absorbed all the heresy, mockery of religion and defiance of the fundamental moral norms with which he was raised – and he thought it did not affect him because he was on the kosher meal plan. He learned from the scholarly professors at the University of Sodom that G-d doesn’t exist and that His bible and moral laws were man-made, and Lot then must have pitied his poor old uncle who actually believed in G-d and His laws and comported himself accordingly.

Lot participated in the carousing associated with that life while still thinking himself somewhat above it. He made sure that others paid his admission fee to the Friday night frat parties and Saturday football games, and probably davened at least once a day.

Rituals mattered, even if there was little internalization and his heart was not in it. He loved the seder – we even find that he baked matzot for Pesach (Rashi, Breisheet 19:3). That didn’t require a moral sacrifice but just a cultural affinity. Perhaps, at his request, the casinos in Sodom ordered special kosher-for-Passover chips with which he could gamble. He was so at home in Sodom, and so comfortable with his dual life, that he saw no contradiction in his lifestyle and was unaware of any compromises he had made. Spiritually, he was content; professionally, he became a judge (like others could become congressmen, senators, cabinet ministers and ambassadors); but morally, he was bankrupt and, worse, he didn’t even know it. He thought he had it made when in fact he was plunging headlong to his own destruction.

When Lot saw the visiting angels, he rose to greet them, acting on the instincts that had been honed in Avraham’s home (ibid 19:1). He welcomed them in violation of the norms of Sodom – but he also did it in a half-hearted, desultory way. He didn’t run towards them, as Avraham did. He waited to see who they were and only greeted them because they appeared to him as worthy noblemen. He sneaked them into his home, lest his neighbors think poorly of him for this act of kindness. He suggested they lodge overnight without washing their feet first, so others would think they just arrived (ibid 19:2). What Avraham did sincerely, enthusiastically, with a full heart, and as part of his divine service, Lot did superficially, going through the motions, just trying to fulfill the mitzvah with minimum compliance to the technical norms.

And when the knock on the door came by the authorities and his enraged townspeople, Lot offered them his daughters’ virtue as enticement (#Lot-too?) and to demonstrate that his morals really were compatible with those of Sodom, that he really did fit in, and that his professions of piety were all external, just on the surface. He embraced some of the deeds and ceremonies but his heart was elsewhere and his inner spiritual world was non-existent.

Was Lot the first Modern Orthodox Jew? He kept what he kept, nothing more, and resented being judged. He felt that his immersion in the local culture was permissible as long as he committed no overt sins and thus rationalized his conduct as still faithful to his upbringing. Ideology and especially values were secondary to the technical performances that he, for the most part, still observed. And of course he lived in a place where there was no moral authority; indeed, he fled Avraham’s home only because he did not like to be told what to do. He doubtless answered any halachic questions he had by scouring the internet for the psak that he wanted. Eventually, he was saved from Sodom – but he disappeared from Jewish life with a peripheral role (Moav and Ammon) that found its way back to our people centuries later only through G-d’s machinations. But to the world of Avraham, then and there, he was lost.

That is one model of Modern Orthodoxy. There are many who indulge modern society and embrace its values, first thinking that the immoral norms do not affect them and later that those same norms must be part of the world of Torah because, after all, they profess them. They maintain ritually connected, for the most part, and take pride in their children’s accomplishments even if they are conjoined with an abandonment of Torah commitment. It is enough that they observe (or try to observe) a ritual or two – even though their minds, hearts, values and life’s interests are elsewhere, far removed from the world of G-d, Torah, mitzvot, Israel and Jewish destiny. It suffices that they are good people. That model is not unfamiliar to us, and it is unsustainable.

There is a second model of Modern Orthodoxy, one that might be better characterized as Orthodoxy plain and simple and the ideal for which we should strive, and that is the life of Avraham. He wasn’t a recluse nor did he shun or condescend to his neighbors. Indeed, they revered him as “a prince of G-d in our midst” (Breisheet 23:6) even if they could not fully understand or appreciate him. And that is because he struck the proper balance, as Rav Soloveitchik famously explained, of the dual life of “I am a stranger and a resident among you” (ibid 23:4). Avraham knew how to be a resident and good neighbor, to encourage his fellow citizens in pursuit of virtue and to join with them to promote the common good. He supported them, did business with them honestly, welcomed them into his home graciously and even went to war with them. He lived an integrated life, but he also knew the limits of integration.

Avraham participated in his society – but he also knew when he had to segregate himself, when he had to keep his distance, even when he had to sequester himself from them lest their deviances affect himself and his family. Avraham knew the secret of Jewish life in the exile: how to be part of society while still remaining apart from it.

That is the real test of our lives. Modern Orthodoxy, as it is understood today and as the reports from the field filter in, is struggling and in some arenas floundering because it has failed that test and lost that balance – either rejecting any good about the world at large and cloistering itself within the proverbial four ells or tacking its sails to every cultural wind and construing every modern value – i.e., every modern value, without distinction or analysis – as admirable, laudable and worthy of embrace, even if they conflict with or negate basic Torah principles.

We have the model of the fully integrated Lot who eventually disappears in the haze of the aftermath of the great devastation and the model of Avraham, “the stranger and the resident,” whose faithful descendants live until today and merit the divine blessings that are his legacy.

Which model we choose determines our future – as individuals and as a nation.

D.C. Follies

Our Sages taught (Yoma 22b) that no person should be appointed a leader of the community unless he has skeletons in his closet (literally, “a basket of reptiles behind him”). It helps keep him grounded and humble, especially as “there is no person so righteous who does only good and never sins” (Kohelet 7:20). Of course, what is traditional in Jewish life is apparently anathema in Washington, where the political circus has continued for three years with no end in sight.

Impeachment is a political process that is rooted in sufficient misdeeds in both quantity and quality that the office-holder has lost the confidence of the co-equal ruling class, but more importantly, the people. The Constitution is suitably ambiguous on the subject, authorizing impeachment for the straightforward crimes of “treason and bribery” but also the malleable “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The last clause is odd, given the wide range of “misdemeanors” that include things that are frivolous. But an analysis of American impeachment history, as sparse as it has been, and fortunately so, is instructive.

Andrew Johnson, the hated successor to the beloved but assassinated Abraham Lincoln, was impeached on purely political grounds. He was known as a racist and a drunk, was hesitant to extend equal rights to the former black slaves and eager to allow the full re-admission of Southern states to the Union with a minimal conditions. This antagonized his Republican Party who sought to bypass and then weaken him. They had a handy remedy when Congress had passed a law, the Tenure in Office Act, solely to limit his presidential powers. It required Congressional approval for the removal of any federal official, such as a Cabinet Secretary, whose tenure in office had originally been approved by Congress. Johnson held that such an act was an unconstitutional limitation on presidential prerogatives undertaken by a Congress that despised him. His veto was overturned. (By way of analogy, Congressional enactment of the War Powers Resolution in 1973 was a direct assault on the despised President Nixon, who, like all of his successors, have deemed that Act also unconstitutional.)

When Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and nominated Ulysses S. Grant as his replacement – doing it intentionally to test the constitutionality of the act – he fell into the trap Congress laid for him, and he was impeached, which is tantamount to an indictment. It was a blatantly political and personal rebuke, as his impeachment trial took place in 1868, an election year, in which Johnson was never going to be nominated by the Republicans for a full term as president. (It is worthy to note – and quite apropos to current events – that this was the second time the House had taken up impeachment charges against Johnson. The first was in 1867 on some other pretext, but that vote failed).

Andrew Johnson was spared conviction in the Senate by one vote, the Senate then adjourned, and General Grant was nominated by the Republicans as their presidential candidate in 1868. Several months later he was elected president. It was nasty politics through and through.

By contrast, Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice was political in process but substantively based on the commission of crimes unrelated to the conduct of his presidency. Free people will always differ on whether impeachment under such circumstances is warranted. For sure, Republicans saw a partisan opportunity but since sitting presidents cannot be indicted, the open question was how should Congress deal with a president who has committed crimes while in office? As he cannot be indicted, tried, and punished if guilty, the only two options are impeachment or disregard of those crimes. In context, the former was a reasonable if unsuccessful endeavor weakened by the widespread perception that Clinton’s lies to conceal his marital infidelities was something to which the common person could relate. In a totally partisan vote, he was acquitted by the Senate and served out the remainder of his term with enhanced popularity but the ignominy of being the only president ever impeached for crimes committed while in office.

If Johnson’s impeachment was politically-motivated and Clinton’s impeachment driven by criminal behavior, it is clear that Richard Nixon’s near-impeachment was spurred by both raw politics and criminal conduct. To be sure, he suffered under Congresses that were heavily Democratic, and which had loathed him since the late 1940’s. And while it is also true that his crimes were obvious – covering up the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters (hmmm… were the Russians involved?), unleashing the IRS and other government agencies on his political opponents, etc. – it is undeniable that there were few things that Nixon did that had not been done by JFK and LBJ before him. Indeed, using the IRS to harass political enemies was something that occurred routinely in the Obama administration. Nixon wasn’t impeached – he resigned to avoid bi-partisan impeachment and likely conviction in the Senate – and his departure from office engendered a house cleaning in American politics.

Where does Donald Trump fit into this paradigm? Well, since the first bill to impeach Trump was filed the day he took office, it is obvious that the motivations are primarily, if not exclusively, political. Representative Al Green, among others, has filed multiple bills of impeachment in the last several years, and his other contribution to American politics is this recent quote that will live forever.  Asked this past May whether he was afraid the impeachment “talk will help the president’s re-election,” he responded that “I am concerned that if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.” As in, why leave it up to the people? But he seemed unaware that impeachment and removal from office are two separate acts, and the former without the latter is futile, except as a political sword.

Has the President committed crimes? That is a debatable issue, but despite the heated rhetoric, the simple answer is no. Screaming that crimes have been committed does not make it so. The relentless investigations and the breathless exposes have amount to nothing. From the Russian collusion hoax to the campaign finance “violations,” from the fishing expeditions involving Trump’s tax returns to the current Ukrainian imbroglio, the irrational investigation obsession has paralyzed the country and made it an international laughing stock.

Of course, Trump has been ill-served in a number of ways, particularly his penchant for being his own press secretary while failing to communicate his points coherently and defend his interests and actions cogently. Is it a crime to ask Ukraine’s president to investigate possible Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election? It is bizarre to think so, considering the Democrat’s fixation on foreign entities stealing the 2016 election. Note, indeed, that the Biden matter was the last raised by Trump, and only after President Zelensky indicated there were a number of investigations already taking place.

Furthermore, the claim that he asked a foreign leader to “dig up dirt” on a political rival is an admitted fabrication; no such language was ever used by Trump. “Digging up dirt” suggests revealing the existence of a secret girlfriend in Kiev. That is wholly different from investigating pay-to-play schemes involving high-ranking government officials and their families. Wouldn’t it be of interest to the electorate – and possibly illegal – if an American president was profiting from policies he espoused that related to a foreign government? Wasn’t there frenzied reportage – and prosecutions for perjury – over the possibility that Candidate Trump might have been negotiating to build a hotel in Moscow and had therefore sold his soul to Putin? In reality, Trump did not profit at all from any Russian connections. In reality, the Biden’s profited handsomely from their Ukrainian connections. So why is the former worthy of apoplectic, overblown and tendentious media coverage – and the latter blithely dismissed by that same media as “nothing wrong”? The answer speaks for itself.

Is it inherently unreasonable to ask a foreign government to investigate possible corruption or influence –peddling by an American, especially by a former American Vice-President? Only if one feels that being a presidential candidate should serve as a shield against any corruption investigation, a bizarre stance in its own right but downright hypocritical when one considers the treatment of Candidate Trump.  The phony piety of crying over delayed funding for the Ukrainian military is especially rich coming from Democrats who withheld any support for Ukraine when they really needed it – when Russia conquered Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine during the Obama years. And the notion that a request for such assistance is a campaign violation is laughable, asserted by people who do not know or care about the law and are nothing but hostile polemicists. The mania over a quid pro quo assumes that somehow Ukraine was entitled to American taxpayer money. And when GHW Bush and James Baker withheld loan guarantees from Israel in the early 1990’s after they had been approved by Congress in order to force compliance with American diplomatic policies and anti-settlement preferences, was that not also a quid pro quo, and isn’t that how politics, local and foreign, is played? It is a charade.

Two things seem apparent, even if they gone unremarked upon: it is obvious that the Democrats do not want to formally initiate impeachment hearings because that would give the Republicans the right to issue subpoenas and call witnesses to testify. Witnesses such as Hunter Biden, who could be asked: “How much were you paid to serve on the Burisma board? What is your experience in the energy field? What did you contribute during the time you served on that board? What did you do to earn the money? Did you ever discuss Burisma business with your father or with any Obama administration official?”

Witnesses such as Joe Biden, who could be asked: “You never discussed business with your son? Never? Why did you fly him on Air Force Two with you to China? Did you not ask him how his Chinese meetings went? Are you aware of how he supports himself? Do you have other relatives who have joined corporate boards eager for access to you?”

Add that to the uninvestigated scam of the hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign money pocketed by the Clinton Foundation – now apparently defunct – and it is no wonder the Democrats want to avoid public hearings.

Secondly, the direct appeal to Zelensky, and the employment of the peripatetic Rudy Giuliani, seems intended to bypass the FBI and CIA – both of whom are not trusted by Trump for the simple reason that elements of both have been trying to undermine him since even before he took office – indeed, even before he was elected. If I were Trump, I would not trust them – and the latest proof is the unconscionable act of publicly disclosing private presidential phone calls to world leaders under the false guise of whistle-blowing but just another attempt to undermine his presidency. It is unimaginable that such treachery could occur and be tolerated, much less celebrated, under any other president.

President Trump would be wise to establish a completely separate and discreet means of communication because he literally cannot trust the intelligence agencies. That is the real scandal that needs to be exposed and prosecuted – or these shenanigans will continue under future presidents whose bureaucrats oppose his policies – and all to the detriment of the country.

And this: Trump’s disruption of the traditional order of politics in America has engendered these endless investigations. And they will be endless: if he is impeached in the coming months, he will be acquitted. If he is re-elected and the Democrats retain the House, he will be impeached again for something or other in 2022 or 2023.

Sometimes, the “basket of reptiles” comes in human form. The circus has come to town, and it is not going anywhere.

Undoing the Past

Rosh Hashana is the first day of the ten days of repentance, but the repentance of Rosh Hashana is different than on the other days. There is no Viduy recited, no confessional prayer and no selichot. It is a day of Malchiyot, the acceptance of G-d’s kingship; we focus not on ourselves but on G-d. So, if there is no overt repentance on Rosh Hashana, how is it part of the ten days of repentance? What is the teshuva of Rosh Hashana?

Rav Eliyahu Lifschitz, in his “Selichot Mevu’eret,” questions the very nature of the mitzvah of teshuva. It is, indeed, a strange Mitzvah, for what does it really add to the Torah? It is a fascinating entry-level question to the Yamim Noraim:  I may want to eat a cheeseburger, but the Torah says I may not. The Torah says I have to observe Shabbat, so I must. If I breach the Torah’s norms, I have sinned, and must comply next time. So what then does teshuva accomplish?

He explains that the Torah’s mitzvot are focused on the future. There is always something to do or not to do. In fact, mitzvot are generally rooted in objects or actions that demand the appropriate response. But teshuva is less concerned with the future than it is with the present. Of course, we regret the squalid past and commit to a more virtuous future, but repentance is oriented in the present.

Said another way, if we sin and do not do teshuva, what have we really lost? We are still obligated not to sin again or to perform the proper positive commandment. So, just do it, or don’t do it! There is always another mitzvah to do and another sin to eschew. What, then, does teshuva add?

Teshuva presupposes that at present there is a new obligation on the sinner: to repent. The gavra (individual) now has the status of a sinner, and that status has to be uprooted. The fact that the sin is over and in the past only has meaning in terms of the future, but in the present, the status of sinner has to be removed.

If Mitzvot can only be done in the future, and Teshuva is a phenomenon of the present, what about the past? Is the past really past, and what happened in the past is irredeemable and unrectifiable? Should we just not cry over spilled milk? No.

The past, too, can be undone, which is important if only because the past remains an integral part of our personality. How can we change the past?

We cannot, but G-d can, and this is what is called kapara, atonement. Human beings live within limitations; there really is no time machine in which we can travel to the past and reverse bad decisions. Only G-d, who is infinite and beyond time and space, can do that. G-d can change the past, and that capacity alone strengthens our resolve to return to Him.

But man is only able to access that divine attribute by surrendering to Him, to anoint G-d our King in every facet of our lives. And this elicits G-d’s boundless compassion that enables us to continue in His service. An avaryan (literally, a sinner), someone once said, is a person who is too rooted in the avar, the past, obsessing over what was and thus paralyzing himself for the future. Those who think the past cannot be undone harm both their present and their future.

This, then, is the purpose of the Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship that is at the heart of Rosh Hashana and the Yamim Noraim. It is the only way to change the past and redeem the present so that we can be worthy of the glorious future. Mitzvot perfect the future, teshuva perfects the present, and kapara perfects the past. And the only prerequisite is to join in the coronation of G-d, and then we will be the beneficiaries of His blessings for a year of life, good health, prosperity and peace, for us and all Israel.

On behalf of Karen and our entire family, I wish all of us a Ktiva vachatima tova!

 

Speech Therapy

Asked what a Jew should do in order to grow spiritually, the Gaon of Vilna responded that there should be two areas of emphasis: the study of Torah and the guarding of one’s speech. The former provides us with the intellectual and moral framework of G-d’s system – the values of Torah – and the latter, so overlooked today even by Jews who consider themselves observant, is an essential method of implementing those values and measuring one’s moral progress. But Shemirat Halashon (guarding one’s speech) involves so much more than eschewing gossip, tale-bearing and the like; it requires monitoring one’s speech to avoid the obscene, the lascivious, the offensive, and the foolish. And that is a fundamental obligation of every Jew and a staple of the preparatory month of Elul.

We should learn to control our speech. Problems arise when external controls are enforced, especially when those restraints are not intended to refine our character but rather to promote an agenda and upend the traditional value system of the Torah.

Case in point: there are certain words that are now rightfully taboo in society, known euphemistically as the E-word, the G-word, the K-word, the N-word, and probably one for every other letter of the alphabet. They occasionally even bring offense to the privileged victims in today’s society. But for the life of me, I cannot fathom why certain words are permitted to certain groups and prohibited to others. Many blacks, for example, routinely use the N-word but take great offense when others use it. That is puzzling.

Can a word be situationally offensive? That is to say, repugnant when uttered by some speakers but innocuous, even funny, when uttered by others? I find that hard to accept. Truth be told, I’m from the generation of “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me” generation, so I have never been offended by anything anyone has said to me. I adopt the “who cares”? attitude, and brush it, and the speaker, off. I have never had a slur make the slightest impact on me.

These days, of course, the use of some words will send otherwise grown people running for their safe spaces, if they don’t run first to social media, complaining about micro-aggressions and other puerile, pseudo-psychological fabrications.

I am not endorsing or encouraging the use of any odious, hateful or unpleasant language, and language does evolve from generation to generation. In fact, I oppose it strongly. But I do wonder how it came about that the same word can be tasteful or distasteful depending on the color of one’s skin, the religion one professes, or the nationality to which one subscribes? It is interesting that the vulgarities once shunned on television or in polite society are now voiced regularly in public and broadcast, especially among the politicians and athletes, and replaced by a new set of forbidden words coined by a cadre of scathing, and not always sincere, scolds. Only that the new words are not universally forbidden, just to some people. How did that come about?

It recalls the variety of ways in which African-Americans have been referred to – none inherently impolite or meant as an affront – even during my lifetime, with changes demanded every two decades or so. Imagine if Jews woke up one day and insisted on being called Hebrews, and then Mosaic’s, and then Israelites, and we kept adjusting our designation of choice based on … nothing really. When I was younger, referring to a black as a “colored person” was insulting, the NAACP notwithstanding. But how is the disfavored “colored person” different from today’s favored “person of color”? It is ridiculous. If anything the latter is more impertinent, as if the “color” is the essence and the “person” is the accidence and the adjective. I choose to use neither expression as both attempt to define a human being by something relatively inconsequential. So how do these things come about?

I wish I could believe they came about because of a sincere attempt to show sensitivity, kindness, brotherhood and friendship. The African-American is far from the only group that frequently changes its reference of choice, but it all comes down to one quest: the desire for power. When you control someone’s speech, you are not far from controlling their ideas, their actions and their values. These unwritten speech codes have emerged from the naked pursuit of power and thus provide a useful club to whack or intimidate non-conformists into silence or infamy.

Thus Ilhan Omar and company attempt to immunize themselves for their patent Jew hatred by attributing any criticism of them, not to their abhorrent ideas but to their skin color. Has anyone given white Jew haters a pass? Not to my knowledge. So what does skin color have to do with anything? The accusation of “racist!” has lost its potency because it is used as a shield against legitimate criticism and a tool to gain power. It is as if one is not allowed to judge the content of their character because of the color of their skin, a new take on Reverend King’s ringing declaration.

Similarly, anyone who opposes same-sex marriage or deems homosexual conduct a sin (like, for example, any Jew who is faithful to the Torah) is automatically tarred with being homophobic. The discussion is over (over!), an odd assertion for those who insist that every controversial issue and even many sins be re-evaluated in the context of “starting a conversation.” (Incidentally, I have found that people who want to have “conversations” on these matters invariably want to subject their audiences to their monologues that resemble diatribes. Once upon a time, conversations were reciprocal expressions of thought.)

Similarly, anyone who even alludes to a connection between Islam and terror when a Muslim commits a terrorist act is guilty of Islamophobia. For sure, this accusation is not meant to persuade or reason but to embarrass and intimidate, but such has become the norm of public discourse. The effect is to send truth-seekers underground while the great majority succumb to the prevailing dogma or are expelled from the society of the decent and cowardly.

Some jurisdictions have banned the use of the word “convict” to refer to…convicts, much like the Obama administration eschewed the word “terror” in favor of “man-made disaster.” Even Major League baseball surrendered – changing its “disabled list” to the “injured list,” cowing to the demands of the disabled but apparently insensitive to the lobby of the injured. The list was not a slight to the disabled; these players are disabled. That is why they are on the list.

This is political correctness run amok but the ramifications are broad.

Note how the inability to articulate certain ideas will in due course be reflected in the prevailing culture. It will literally change a society’s value system. And it will certainly undercut any notion of objective truth. Note further how the suppression of speech and thought as an expression of power and control has engendered the fanciful idea that there are multiple truths or no single truth, that truth is not an absolute but simply an expression of one’s personal narrative.

That is not normal (which is, by the way, another word said to cause grievous offense today), it is not healthy for a society, and it is clearly undesirable for Jews who reflect repeatedly on G-d’s “truth” in our prayers and studies. Ultimately, this speech control is nothing less than bullying, and the scolds are bullies who have been given a pulpit in an age when the ease of instant communication, and its relative anonymity, has given license to too many people to become nasty, spiteful and malicious, which is just one small step short of violent.

We would be wise to adopt the Vilna Gaon’s emphases, especially regarding our speech – to speak pleasantly, disagree amicably, and interact amiably with all human beings. The only controls on our speech should come from the propriety of Torah and our never-ending quest to be better people. It should not come from brazen, aggressive outsiders, nor should we ever have to stifle the true ideas and values of Torah in order to comply with the ever-shifting mores of the agenda-driven nags.