Category Archives: Current Events

Ask the Rabbi, Part 3

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

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

 

Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?

 It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.

This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.

 

Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.

 

We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.

  

Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.

For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.

Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.

Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.

It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.”

 

Not Day, Not Night

Towards the end of the hagada, in the piyut that catalogs the momentous events that have occurred in our history at midnight (“Vayehi bachatzi halailah”), we ask Hashem to “bring near the day that is neither day nor night.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms – how can there be a day that is not a day or a night? It might be twilight – but that is not a “day,” that is a very brief period of time.

And then that passage ends by contradicting even that: “Illuminate the darkness of night with the light of day.” So which is it? Do we want the darkness brightened – or do we want the day that is neither day nor night?

The piyut is discussing the Messianic era, and this phrase is based on a recurrent refrain in Tanach. Zechariah (14:7) prophesied of the time when “there will be a day known to Hashem – not day or night, but towards evening there will be light.” And right before (14:6) he said “on that day, there will not be a bright light or a dim light.”

And note something else as well. The critical verse that defines the night of the seder contains what seems like an error. The key mitzvah of the seder is “you will tell your child on that day, that this is why G-d took us out of Egypt” (Sh’mot 13:8). But, in fact, we don’t tell our child on that day but rather on that night. Indeed, it would seem then, that the night of the seder is referred to as that day. Why is that?

Night, as we know, is always symbolic of exile – darkness, murkiness, confusion, a lack of clarity. At night, man is inactive – and even alarmed because we are exposed to the elements, to nature, even to human marauders. Night reflects the mists of the moment, when our world is perplexing, uncertain, unclear and more than a little frightening. Day is clarity, optimism, knowledge and redemption. On that day, the Torah says, G-d redeemed us. The Red Sea split – “And G-d saved Israel on that day from the hands of Egypt” (Sh’mot 14:30).

What Zechariah taught us is far-reaching in its significance. The era before the redemption is a time of “not day or night.” There are so many different, confounding and contradictory events and circumstances. On one hand, there is affluence, technological development, great sophistication – and yet we are suddenly humbled by plagues and illnesses and by the insecurity that surrounds us. Is it “day” now for the world – or is it “night”?

Indeed, it is exactly what was prophesied: “It is neither day nor night.” The Baal HaMetzudot commented that in that era “Israel will be perplexed, not knowing whether events are the prelude to salvation or destruction.”

The night of the seder and Pesach itself, the Zohar writes (Parshat Bo) is a time when “the night is as bright as the longest days of summer.” It is the moment of clarity in the world, when Hashem’s mighty hand is revealed, and all becomes clear. The world can be in darkness, but “for the children of Israel there was light in their dwelling places. The sun can set, but still “And on that day you shall relate to your children” of the miraculous exodus from Egypt.

When Hashem is visible and His influence is palpable and undeniable – like in Egypt – that is the time when “towards evening it will be light.” We are waiting for the divine light to be as it was when the world was created. On Pesach we re-experience the Exodus when there were no doubts or uncertainty in the world – only the overpowering reality of Hashem’s presence.

As that day nears – the day that is neither day nor night – Pesach both tantalizes us with the range of possibilities, and challenges us to bring them closer, hasten their arrival, and actualize them in the real world. Our day is one in which, if we open our eyes even a little, the darkness can and will dissipate and we will see the light, and merit the grandeur of the coming redemption.

May Hashem extend His protective hand around His people, send healing to the ill and consolation to the bereaved, end this scourge, and usher in the future of light and brightness and joy, for our community and all of Israel.

On Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Jewish President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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