Category Archives: Jewish History

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.

Deal of the Century: Cautious Pessimism

The most pro-Israel American president in history just released the most pro-Israel American peace plan in history, and the first that doesn’t call on Israel to make “painful sacrifices” up front or expect Israeli concessions in exchange for empty words, gestures and ceremonies. Do I think it will bring real peace? Certainly not. But it leaves me cautiously pessimistic for the future (optimism in the Middle East is misplaced until the coming of Moshiach).

The negative: recognition of a Palestinian state is a bone in the throat of every Torah Jew (or should be), as is the potential loss of sovereignty over parts of the heartland of the Jewish people that G-d granted us for eternity. As one rabbi once put it, no generation has the right to compromise the boundaries of the land of Israel that were given to us by the Creator and delineated in the Torah. That land is the possession of the Jewish people for all time and no single individual, group or generation has the moral, halachic or legal right to waive that possession. This sentiment was expressed not by a Religious Zionist but in 1937, by the vociferously anti-Zionist Rav Elchanan Wasserman HY”D, in encouraging opposition to the Peel Commission’s partition plan.

The loss of Israeli territory in the Negev is especially gratuitous and irksome, especially considering the years of war and terror and hostility that the Arabs foisted on Israel. A formal place for them in Yerushalayim is similarly agonizing, even it is doesn’t change much the reality on the ground.

Secondly, the negotiations over the agreement almost presuppose a right-wing government in Israel because a left-wing government would use this basic framework – a tacit acceptance by the right-wing of a Palestinian state and the surrender of more territory – and negotiate into weakness, danger, and vulnerability. There should be no confidence that a right-wing government will rule Israel after the next election (or the one that will follow a few months later). With PM Netanyahu’s formal indictment today, just hours before the White House announcement, his prospects for heading the next government have dimmed even more. Hence the hazards ahead, which will be entrusted to less experienced politicians and leaders.

So why then is this plan not an unmitigated disaster, as has been almost every other American or Israeli peace plan going back to the Rogers plan in 1969? It is because it must be measured not against Paradise but against the status quo. The status quo has worked well for Israel in the last decade. Terror exists but has been drastically reduced, the economy is thriving, personal security and well-being have been enhanced, and the situation in the countries surrounding Israel has superseded any internal anxiety. The “Palestinians” have been marginalized by the Arab world, much less by the West. Their bad choices have finally caught up to them. They have no base of support, no passionate advocates anymore beyond the Israeli and the American Jewish left. They are thus reduced to ranting and raving, making wild threats, burning pictures of President Trump, and chanting. Their vehement opposition to this plan is one of its important selling points.

It brings to mind Abba Eban’s famous quip that that “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” There should be confidence that they will miss this opportunity as well, thus rendering moot Israel’s technical agreement to a Palestinian state and partial renunciation of sovereignty. (Indeed, Israel hasn’t formally accepted those terms; it has simply agreed to use the Trump as the framework for negotiations.) Finally, after many decades, Arab intransigence has cost them. Yes, they should have accepted the original Camp David offer of autonomy in 1978, complied with the Oslo agreement of the 1990’s, embraced the Clinton parameters of the year 2000, the Olmert plan of 2007, etc. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. They didn’t. Their leadership always fails them miserably, if indeed they are truly representative of their people. They have always implemented the game plan of rejecting offers in the hopes of getting a better one at some point, pocketing tangible concessions in exchange for words (the classic has always been “renouncing terror”) and never really conceding anything tangible of their own.

That dynamic has now been reversed, and how that must stick in the craw of the old Oslo, two-state illusion crowd. Now, Israel will within days be able to declare full sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and the settlements in Judea and Samaria; a concrete and substantial achievement up front. It is the Palestinian state that has to be created over the course of next four years and only if the Arabs adhere to certain benchmarks that alone would alter the nature of Palestinian society. And if they don’t – and who really thinks they will? – Israel will have pocketed this enormous diplomatic accomplishment at absolutely no cost. That is genius, and credit goes to the diplomatic team that conjured up this strategy. The onus is on the Arabs – to accept the plan as a basis for negotiations even as it makes absolutely no reference to a return of refugees or compensation for loss of homes, and implicitly rejects both. And both of those claims, surely, if raised, would be balanced against similar and more substantive claims by Jews who were forced to flee Arab lands in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

What the Trump Plan has accomplished is force the Palestinians to confront their suicidal ideology and genocidal ambitions head on. That won’t be easy for them, and they will likely be unable to overcome their rabid Jew hatred (although giving their kleptocrats access to $50B might be irresistible enough to compel them to say the right words and open the spigots of money). Tellingly, representatives of three Arab countries were at the White House today, another indication of how the allegiances in the Middle East have shifted in the last several years even as Palestinian diplomacy, if that word can even be  used in their context, has remained stagnant. They are trapped in a time warp, the world has passed them by, and their only hope for their future is to come to terms with the new reality. Their old game plan has left them in last place. Hysteria is a poor substitute for statecraft.

But their fallback position in times of diplomatic opportunity has always been terror, and that too engenders some cautious pessimism. Their leadership has already rejected the plan (MK Ahmed Tibi, somehow still a member of Knesset: “this is a wedding without the bride”). It would be unsurprising if missiles and rockets start to fly or if bombs start exploding in cities, r”l. Israel is naturally on high alert but perfection in these matters is difficult to sustain permanently. We will need divine mercy and the thwarting of the evil plans of our enemies.

It is clear that only Donald Trump could have produced such a plan. The deep state of the State Department must be apoplectic, and the Israel haters in the EU must be beside themselves wondering how this happened. The Arabs must be wondering how this guy ever got elected. (They are not alone!) He ran as a disrupter, and this is a characteristic disruption. After annexation of even parts of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley by Israel, the terrain – literal and diplomatic – will be significantly and perhaps even permanently altered. There is still land in Judea and Samaria (about a third) whose disposition will be frozen for four years and awaits negotiations. Time is on Israel’s side.

And it took this President to do it. Perhaps Jews will notice. Israel wins merely by improving the status quo in its favor and would certainly gain if the other side acquiesced in its existence. But that too is unnecessary in the near term. History is made through such decisions. Even if it is not all to my liking, the deal of the century represents a sea change for the region, dramatic and positive steps for Israel and a day of reckoning for the Palestinians. You can oppose a Palestinian state and a further partition of Israel and still implicitly favor this proposal. What makes it an especially good deal for Israel is that the Arabs will reject it – leaving Israel advantaged for the future in a multitude of ways that should inspire chants of “Make Israel Great Again.” Or something like that.

 

Mirror Image

We often have the tendency, probably born of centuries of hardship and persecution, of focusing on the dark side, of seeing the worst in others, sometimes ourselves, and even anticipating untoward consequences in every endeavor or association. Occasionally it is warranted, usually it is not, but it does color our perspective on events.  And during those times of the year when we address our shortcomings – the Omer, the Three Weeks or the Yamim Noraim (come to think of it, that’s a good part of the year!) – we can misconstrue and even overlook the greatness of Klal Yisrael. It helps to dwell on how others see us. It turns out that maybe we are not as bad as we think.

Last month, I visited the Friends of Zion Museum in Yerushalayim, which depicts the history of Christian Zionism. Located in Nachalat Shiva, and right across from where the new Museum of Tolerance is being constructed, the museum details the efforts of Christian Zionists to spearhead the re-establishment of a Jewish State in the land of Israel. For sure, the most famous and arguably effective Christian Zionist, was Arthur James Balfour, who as British Foreign Secretary in 1917, issued his eponymous declaration that “viewed with favor” the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel, and pledged His Majesty’s support for that effort. That the British reneged was not the fault of Balfour, who acted from a keen awareness of the biblical prophecies that foresaw the return of the people of Israel to the land of Israel.

An even more famous name (for other reasons) was the 19th-century New York preacher George Bush, whom the museum mischaracterized as a direct ancestor of the presidents. (He was actually a cousin to a great-grandfather of GHW Bush. Apparently, the family lacks creativity in its names.) But Reverend Bush was outspoken in his support of the Jews’ return to Israel, and long before political Zionism was extant. They and the others portrayed loved the Bible and believed in it, and thus loved Jews as well.

Many Jews have always been suspicious of that support, fearing that it is all a surreptitious front to infiltrate the Jewish community and convert us all. There are such groups – but they are not the Christian Zionists, and dreading this support betrays a lack of self-confidence (and ingratitude) on our part more than it does the execution of nefarious schemes on theirs.  Such modern Christian Zionists such as Rev. John Hagee or the supporters of the late Rav Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (still active after his untimely passing) are motivated by their love of G-d’s people. As was this incredible family whose story is also told in the museum: the Ten Boom family about whom I knew nothing until last month.

Elizabeth and Willem Ten Boom lived in Haarlem, about 12 miles west of Amsterdam, in the mid-19th century. He was a clockmaker by profession, but in 1844 they opened their home to Christian prayer. The essence of their mission was based on the verse in Tehillim “Seek the peace of Yerushalayim” and they began to advocate for the Jewish people, for their return to Zion, and for the establishment of a Jewish state.

Their son Casper and his wife continued the tradition, as did their children. And for exactly 100 years, the family held these prayer services for the Jewish people. Why did it end? Because in 1944 – exactly 100 years later – Casper Ten Boom and his daughters Corrie and Betsie were arrested by the Gestapo and charged with hiding Jews. Indeed, they had turned their home into a refuge for Dutch Jews, eventually saving the lives of almost 800 Jews, and others from the Dutch underground. The Jews would stay for a while, and then be sent to another safe house or smuggled outside the country.

When Casper was arrested, he was 84 years old. In prison he said he would continue to help Jews if released, and when threatened with death by the Nazis, he responded, “It would be an honor to give my life for G-d’s ancient people.” He died in prison after just ten days of incarceration.

Corrie and Betsie were sent to several concentration camps, the last being Ravensbruck about 60 miles north of Berlin, the infamous women’s concentration camp. There, Betsie died – but Corrie survived, and she continued to tell her story and that of the Jewish people, and was honored by Yad Vashem before she died in 1983, on her birthday, aged 91.

To what do we owe such self-sacrifice? What did we do to deserve that? She – her family – owed us nothing, and yet four Ten Booms gave their lives fighting the Nazis to save Jews.

One answer might be that we are not as bad as we sometimes think we are or as sinful as we think we are when we remind ourselves that, yes, “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” That is all true but our sinfulness is relative to the high standard the Torah sets for us. There is a better answer that we would do well to contemplate because it shapes our lives even today. There remains a segulah that the Jewish people have, a special quality with which we were endowed by our Creator. We remain connected to G-d even in our worst moments.  We are chosen and precious to Him even when the nations scorn us and persecute us – even when Jew hatred becomes acceptable in the halls of Congress and the diplomatic salons of the world. There remains something unique about us that the righteous Gentiles perceive, and so should we.

A new book was published a few months ago commemorating the 50th yahrzteit of R. Aryeh Levine, the great tzadik of Yerushalayim, which related the following story. After the Six-Day War, R. Aryeh was once at the Kotel when Rav Avraham Neriah (son of R. Moshe Zvi) approached him and said, “if Hashem could do such wonders for us, even though we are not worthy, then He can give us even more.”

And R. Aryeh cut him off. “Never say that we are not worthy. A person can say about himself ‘I am not worthy,’ but we can’t even calculate the merits of the Jewish people.”

If only we saw ourselves as the righteous Gentiles see us, we would have a better appreciation of who we are and our children would better understand who they are and what is expected of them. That is also at the core of the Jewish experience, and should be the focus of Jewish education, and something we should never forget. That itself will bring closer the days of redemption, for Israel and the world entire.

 

Abolish the Rabbinate?

(First published December 14, 2018 on Arutz-7 at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/23155)

A spanking new organization called “Ruach Hiddush – Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel” – has called for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It claims to represent the “rich… spectrum” of Jewish life, even transcending denominational lines. In truth, the few “Orthodox” representatives are not at all representative of anyone Orthodox, could fairly be called “Orthoprax” or “neo-Conservative”, and thus this proclamation is yet another call by non-Orthodox clergy for the elimination of the Chief Rabbinate.

Why would they want to do such a thing? In essence, they strenuously object to the Chief Rabbinate’s fidelity to Halacha, its commitment to the preservation of Jewish identity as defined by tradition, the furtherance of Torah and the promotion of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. They would encourage pluralism, freedom of conscience and legitimacy of any and all views professed by Jews, especially including those having little connection to Torah. They vehemently protest the “monopoly” the Chief Rabbinate has on matters of Jewish status, Kashrut, and interpretations of Jewish law, seeing as it is an unnecessary government entity.

Of course, that is the nature of government of any sort: a monopoly on the provision of services and the safeguarding of public trusts. Israel’s tax authority has the monopoly on tax collection, just like local zoning boards have a monopoly on how big your home extension can be. Israel’s army has a monopoly on defending the State, and the Transportation Ministry has a monopoly on the determination of speed limits. One could cogently argue that there should never be any monopolies at all; such a person is called an anarchist and no doubt will attract much support, at least initially. There are plenty of people who would love to be freelance tax collectors, zoning inspectors, generals, race car drivers on public roads, or control any other government interest. Similarly, the proponents here desire anarchy in conversion, marriage and divorce, kashrut, and every other realm of Torah – including mitzvot and Judaism’s fundamental principles. That is not a formula for success or Jewish continuity.

Their appeal is a modern form of “kill the ump!” They don’t like the “three strike rule,” preferring more flexibility and openness, perhaps four or five strikes for those who find three too restrictive. They don’t like the strike zone rules that give the umpire too much discretion and control – even a “monopoly” – over the game. They would prefer baseball without umpires, letting the players police themselves and make up the rules on the fly. Nice try; even the most hardened players and managers know that is not a viable option, even if we don’t necessarily have to agree with every single call.

I know Rav David Lau personally and have witnessed up close his limitless dedication to Torah, his love of every Jew of whatever background and his tireless execution of his duties. His days are impossibly long, and each day includes supervision of the Chief Rabbinate’s Court system, the kashrut apparatus, the personal status issues, ceremonial appearances and teaching Torah in all parts of the country, sometimes visiting three, four, five places in one day and night, to encourage Torah observance, love of Israel, and tolerance, and to spread the light and joy of Torah. His critics should envy his merits.

But the suggestion that the Chief Rabbinate be abolished engendered this thought: what if, instead, the Reform Rabbinate would be abolished?

It is by now incontrovertible that the Reform Rabbinate has been a catastrophe for the Jewish people. From its very origins, it has brought nothing but a renunciation of mitzvot, assimilation, conversion to Christianity and the attenuation of Jewish identity. The early Reformers in Europe switched Shabbat to Sunday, brought an organ into their temples and eliminated the mechitza. A wave of assimilation and conversion followed.

In America, it is enough to recall the treifa banquet on July 11, 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the first very graduating class of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform ordination school, was feted with clams, crabs, shrimp, and frog legs – all washed down with a dairy dessert. The temples had mixed seating (one Reform rabbi termed the mechitza an abominable “cage”), organs, confirmation ceremonies, a new prayer book that intentionally omitted calls for the return to Zion and the coming of Moshiach. Kashrut restrictions and Shabbat observance were nullified (the leading Reform rabbi of the 19th century mocked what he called “kitchen Judaism”), the marriage and divorce rites were radically altered and bore no resemblance to any Torah requirement.

Their modern descendants, sad to say, are not much better. Most Reform rabbis do not believe in the existence of G-d, nor do they accept that the Torah is divine or that the mitzvot are obligations and not mere suggestions. They do not feel bound by the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith. It is they who are largely responsible for producing an intermarriage rate of more than 70% in the American non-Orthodox world, as well as widespread ignorance of any true Torah concept. One is hard-pressed to find any four-generation family of so-called Reform Jews who are all still Jewish. And these are the rabbis that this new group – including the aforementioned Orthoprax rabbis – wishes to entrust with Jewish destiny and the future of Torah in Israel. Having failed miserably on the American scene, they now wish to export their failures to Israel – and become offended when they are excluded from the decision-making processes in the Jewish State. They have destroyed the company and now insist on a promotion and a raise. As they say, only in America…

I know several Reform rabbis. By and large they are decent people, mean well, and don’t at all realize the harm they are causing. They feel they have to find a way to accommodate the intermarried, without the self-awareness that they are perpetuating and exacerbating the problem. Their sermons are almost exclusively limited to elements of the Democrat Party platform (abortion rights, immigration rights, gun control, etc.) occasionally spiced with some railing against the Orthodox establishment for not considering them Jews. Of course they are Jews – that canard has been losing steam for almost two decades even as it is still uttered routinely – as long as the mother is Jewish or they are properly converted (something that is increasingly the problem).

If the Reform rabbinate would be abolished, I don’t doubt that a steady stream of Democrat political operatives could fill in on Shabbat mornings and deliver timely sermons that would be well-received by the audience. Everyone knows that if they are looking for Torah, they will not find it there.

Instead of abolishing the Chief Rabbinate, something that would cause untold harm to the Torah world, the Jewish people and the State of Israel, perhaps we should consider abolishing the Reform rabbinate. Only good would result and many Jews would clamor to reclaim their Jewish identity and their rightful share in G-d’s Torah.

Am I serious? Of course not! This is a parody, as I assume the call by “Ruach Chiddush” for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate is also a parody.

And if they are serious, and their proclamation is not meant as parody?

Well then…

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.

The Ark of History

The two great individuals of ancient times – Noach and Avraham – had different personalities, were treated differently by G-d and their contemporaries suffered wholly different fates. Noach’s world was destroyed – the generation of the flood – while Avraham’s – the generation of the dispersion – was saved but scattered. Some explain the difference by highlighting one particular facet: Noach’s contemporaries were evil towards G-d but absolutely hideous towards each other, whereas the generation of the dispersion got along well with each other even though they rebelled against G-d. A society that is corrupt, immoral, depraved, angry, bitter, acrimonious and hostile towards anyone who is slightly different cannot long endure and cannot be saved.

Traditionally, we understand the difference between Noach and Avraham, and the implicit criticism of Noach, in that Noach made no effort to reach out to his generation. He was content to save himself, and did, while Avraham lived among his contemporaries, interacted with them, gained their respect over time, and influenced multitudes – he was the “father of a multitude of nations.”  But there is more to it than that

Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rav of Har Bracha, dealt recently with the following question: there are many moral and halachic challenges in the Israeli army today, some of them quite intentional as the remnants of the secular, progressive Israeli world attempt to impose Western culture and values on young draftees, especially religious ones. Given that, the questioner asked, aren’t the Haredim justified in trying to avoid those problems that carry with them a real risk of diluting one’s level of religious commitment if not eradicating it entirely?

To be sure, the Haredi world has changed substantially, and several thousand young Haredim now enlist every year, but the question focused not on numbers but on attitude. How should we deal with the spiritual dangers implicit in exposing impressionable young Jews to potentially heretical ideas and decadent environment?

Rav Melamed answered that the primary goal of haredim, and of exile Jews in general, was always hisardut, survival. Survival was everything – both physical survival and spiritual survival. To survive in the exile requires walls, and even occasionally, an ark, some secure, impregnable facility (or lifestyle) that removes us from the mainstream of society that is always beckoning, always enticing, and too often successful in luring us away from the world of Torah.

But such an attitude has no place in Israel. There the goal is not mere survival but rather living the complete Torah life, and that requires Torah study, observance of mitzvot, a state, an army, a government, industry and commerce and agriculture and much else. It requires living a complete life according to the Torah, and through that, the model Torah society is built.

I think Rav Melamed is both wise and correct – but what about Jews in the exile today? What ensures, or facilitates, our survival, with G-d’s grace? There are two possible models that we can follow, one follows Noach’s lead and the other the path of Avraham.

The first is to build an ark, to segregate ourselves, interact with others as minimally as possible, and wall ourselves off in the hopes of surviving the onslaught of spiritual allures and dangers that lurk around us. That was Noach’s approach.

The other model is Avraham, who lived in Elon Moreh, and Egypt, and Hevron, and had to go to war, and befriended Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, and tried to understand and help the evildoers of Sodom, and who had to deal with Pharaoh and Avimelech and the other debauched creatures of his day. Avraham shepherded his flock with them, made treaties with them, tried to educate them about the true G-d, and saw himself as part of his society, not aloof or estranged or above it all. And they recognized that as well, as the children of Het later said to him, “you are a prince of G-d among us.”

We could certainly stop here and say that the lesson is to be an Avraham rather than a Noach, and it is probably true and good advice, but even that is not dispositive. There is a danger in being an Avraham as there is in being a Noach. Neither was completely successful – Noach was certainly unsuccessful as his whole world was destroyed, he became a hermit and recluse after the flood and his descendants did not always adhere to his values. But even Avraham, our forefather and hero, he too had his share of frustrations and setbacks. There is a price to be paid in mingling with Sodom and the Philistines and the other degenerates who were his neighbors. His own son Yishmael was a casualty, as was Esav his grandson.

In truth, we live in a more open world today, and the Haredim live in a more closed world, but we each have our share of successes and failures. We all walk a fine line, even dangling on a precipice. It seems that the Haredi world loses some of its youth because of failed segregation; sometimes the highest wall is not enough, especially in a world in which there are incessant intrusions on our lives every minute and wherever we are. But we lose some of our youth because of failed integration: when we do not convey well enough the need for a wall of some height, for some barriers and moral limits; when we fail to teach our youth that we are not all the same and that we need to carve out for ourselves a special, spiritual place; when we fail to inculcate the notions of obligations and responsibility rather than privileges and feel-good spirituality.

Too much segregation doesn’t work, like too much integration doesn’t work. What is too much integration? One secular Jewish paper recently headlined that “Jewish” groups are upset about Justice Kavanaugh’s stance on Jewish issues and fear for the future. So what are their “Jewish” issues? Not Jewish education and tuition tax credits, and certainly not assimilation or intermarriage, of course not Israel, and not even his position on religious liberty matters. No – these left-wing Jewish groups are worried that Justice Kavanaugh is “wrong” on these four “Jewish” issues: abortion, immigration, sanctuary cities and affirmative action.

But I cannot quite determine what makes those Jewish interests; they are secular, political controversies that are roiling American society. We can certainly have opinions on them, and not just the one opinion mandated by the left-wing elites. They are not Jewish interests per se – but I do understand why those who think that way are rapidly disappearing from the Jewish world with a tenuous connection maintained only by a fluid definition of what it is to be a Jew.

So if neither segregation nor integration fully works, then what are we to do? And the answer is: both! We have to know when to segregate and when to integrate, when to get involved and when to step back. And above all, we must follow the sagacious guidance of Isaiah the prophet who said long ago (54:2): “Broaden the place of your tent and stretch out the curtains of your dwelling place; do not hesitate.”  We have to reach and not completely wall ourselves off. But also: “lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs.” We have to make sure that our tent is in order, firmly attached to the ground, before expanding outwardly. A tent that is not rooted is blown away by the first stormy wind that drifts over us.

The more rooted we are and the deeper our commitment, the more we can expand. First we plant roots, and then we spread out, and we will thus merit the realization of the eternal covenant and the promise of complete redemption, speedily and in our days.

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.