Category Archives: Jewish History

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.
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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.

 

Party Line

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

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

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 But what if today’s Democrat Party no longer represents those fundamental values, embraces doctrines that are antithetical to Torah, vehemently opposes equality of treatment of public and parochial schools (such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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Obvious

To quote Menachem Begin, “Sometimes the obvious needs to be said.”

That’s the initial reaction to President Trump’s courageous and long-awaited announcement that the United States, after seventy years of indecision, has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Well, of course, it is, and has been since King David designated it as such more than 3000 years ago. Even more, it has been so since G-d decreed that Jerusalem would be the world center of the divine presence and implanted the Jewish people there to safeguard the city and proclaim His word to mankind.

All credit goes to President Trump for overcoming the naysayers in his administration and across the world, fulfilling a campaign promise (something that still shocks the average American) and acknowledging that the declaration “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel” is not just an applause line at a generation of AIPAC conferences. Seventy years of vacillation is a long time. It means that if Choni the Circle Drawer (see Masechet Taanit 23a) had fallen asleep in 1948 with part of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty  but with the United States renouncing Israel’s declaration of Jerusalem as its capital so as not to pre-judge final status negotiations, and awakened today with all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and the US still rejecting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in order so as not to pre-judge final status negotiations, no one would blame him for wanting to take a sleeping pill and crawling back under his blanket. Nothing would have changed in seventy years, especially the empty rhetoric of diplomats.

So, who would oppose such an obvious iteration of reality? Who would mourn such an historic recognition of Jewish rights to Jerusalem? It seems like almost everybody. Almost.

They fall into several groups.  First, those who make a living from fostering a “peace process” that by definition can never end, no matter the facts on the ground and the reality Above. These are the people who supported the catastrophic Oslo surrenders, the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif and the facilitation of the Iranian nuclear program. They include people who deny Jewish destiny in the land of Israel and would prefer the State of Israel not exist, although it is still considered impolitic (except on college campuses) to state that publicly. They include diplomats from across the world, and most of the pointy heads in Foggy Bottom, who find Israel to be, at least, an international nuisance, and so routinely castigate Israel at the United Nations and global conferences. For them, Israel’s right to exist is always tenuous, and they have determined that Israel should remain the only country on the planet denied the right to designate its capital city. They include the radical Arab world that will never recognize Israel’s existence except as a means to weaken it and then destroy it.

To them, America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has “destroyed the peace process,” which is a lot like saying the NY Giant’s restoration of Eli Manning as starting quarterback has “destroyed” my chances of leading the team to victory this Sunday. There is no “process” and there is no “peace.” If anything, acknowledgment of Jerusalem’s true status shatters some radical Arab fantasies that Israel’s existence is temporary and tentative, that the Jewish presence there will just slowly wither away. If anything, it pours cold water on some Arab dreams and is a wake-up call to Israel’s detractors as to the direction in which history is moving.

The second group consists of those who fear Arab violence in the wake of this decision. These well-meaning people are often inclined to give Arabs a pass for lack of self-control, thereby rationalizing and fomenting such violence. But “three days of rage” have really been “three generations of rage,” if not more, and succumbing to such blackmail is as understandable as it is pathetic. “The eternal people are not afraid of the long road,” as the song goes, and the voices who fear this decision because of the potential consequences would similarly have opposed (and like-minded people did oppose) the declaration of statehood in 1948. A proud, free nation asserts its just rights and privileges, and especially when those rights and privileges are rooted in the Torah, the Prophets and G-d’s eternal promises to His people. A nation of slaves, exiles and dependents lives in fear of the present and future. “Mi she’maamin lo mefached: those who believe are never scared.”

The third group is composed of leftist Jews who have abandoned their connection to Jewish destiny. The dogmas of the left have captured them and any action that strengthens Jewish destiny and our possession of the land of Israel is anathema to them. They have forgotten Jerusalem, their right hand has lost its cunning, their tongues cleave to their palates because they have not lifted Jerusalem above all their delights, especially the joy of hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the donors who sustain their organizations. They have sold their souls for the porridge of the acclaim that is garnered by Jews who turn on their own people, which is not to say that they are not sincere in their misguided beliefs.

The final group? The Trump haters who assume he can do no good and who will long resent that he was the president who recognized Jerusalem, rather than his predecessors (Clinton, Bush and Obama) who promised to do the same but never did. Once you posit that someone can never do anything good, then, by definition, anything done is not good.

To be sure, statements of the obvious are obvious but that does not mean they are not welcome and appreciated – nor do they mean that they come without a diplomatic price or at least a request for one. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should not produce any demands for good-will gestures or concessions on Israel’s part, which will certainly be the approach of the old hands at State who must be railing against this decision. It should not be used to revive empty negotiations that are only designed to weaken Israel and not be construed as a means to resuscitate the two-state illusion, the Holy Grail of peace processors. Indeed, even President Trump announced his support for two states, “if agreed to by both sides,” which is quite an “if” and thus should not be construed as an endorsement of that chimera.

The decision should stand by itself, as “our feet stood firm at the gates of Jerusalem” (Tehillim 122:2). It should be perceived as a reaffirmation of the victory of Chanukah, which, after all, celebrated the liberation by Jews from the Hellenists of the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple that radical Arabs  and haters of Israel today (including Arafat and his followers, and UNESCO and their fellow travelers) deny ever had any connection to the Jewish people. That, alone, is an arrow in the eye of Satan.

Those who deem restatements of the obvious are unnecessary most likely do not pray every day or express their love for spouses, parents and children. Those, too, are obvious sentiments, but the sensible and sensitive individual knows that uttering things that we know are true is good for us and good for the listeners. It sets the record straight, and here it attempts to correct an historical absurdity, not to mention an historic injustice. The recognition is even more important than the location of the embassy for it recognizes what is natural and right, and everything else follows from that. It is a proclamation that rivals that of Harry Truman in 1948. With much of the world and the US State Department vehemently opposed to Israel’s declaration of independence (the revered George Marshall threatened to quit if Truman acted and even to vote against him that November), Truman announced that he would recognize the nascent state of Israel.

History eventually came around, more or less, as it will to this announcement. Gratitude is in order. If people clamor for something for years, and then finally are granted their wish, it behooves them to show a little gratitude to the President who kept his word, remained resolute despite the pressures, and who changed the direction of history.

This is a joyous day. The decision should be embraced by all those who love Jerusalem and Israel, and may they be rewarded with the fulfillment of the prophetic vision: “Seek the peace of Jerusalem, those who love it shall find serenity” (Tehillim 122:6).

Anatomy of a Smear

As if on order, no sooner had I written “Life with a Smear” when we were presented with a real life example of a smear – a deliberate and conscious attempt to manipulate and distort the words of a public figure in order to shame her, force an apology, get her fired and ruin her life and career – all for the purpose of gaining some petty, partisan, political advantage.

The other day, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely purported to “disrespect” and “outrage” “all of American Jewry” (these are actual quotes from her critics) by articulating basic truths of which most American Jews are aware. Asked why there is a disconnect these days between much of American Jewry and Israel on diplomatic issues, and how such matters as the “Kotel” controversy have angered such a large part of American Jewry, she answered that Israel is the homeland of all Jews, “of all streams,” and every Jew should come live here and thereby influence Israeli society. But, she added, most American Jews are “not understanding the complexities of the region,” as they are –and here are the phrases that allegedly ticked off the self-appointed leaders of the branches of American Jewry that are in such a steep decline – “people that never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, going to Iraq. Most of them have quite convenient lives. They don’t know how it feels to be attacked by rockets.”

If we parse her words fairly and objectively, it is clear that her sentiments are true and indisputable. Most American Jews do not have children serving as soldiers, Marines, in Afghanistan or Iraq. That is obvious, and I would speculate that most American Jews don’t even know someone who serves in the American military or served in Iraq or Afghanistan. (I do – a young former congregant was a Marine who fought during some of the harshest combat in Fallujah, Iraq, and I was proud to officiate at his wedding at which he wore his full dress uniform, replete with sword, and of course a good number of chaplains.) But most don’t, and that is true today of most Americans.

This is not because American Jews are selfish, uncaring, unpatriotic or disloyal. In truth, we are underrepresented in the American military according to our percentage of the population, but that has to do mostly with the underrepresentation of particular socio-economic brackets in the American military and the underrepresentation in the military of sections of the country where most Jews live. The higher socio-economic bracket to which one belongs and the more liberal the area of the country in which one lives, we find the lower the rate of participation in the military. This is true for Jews and non-Jews. We can quibble whether this should be so but not whether it is so. It is, and so it has been since the United States abolished the draft 45 years ago. (Parenthetically, only 25 % of the current members of Congress have served in the military, compared to close to 80% of the congressmen in the 1970’s.)

What Tzipi Hotovely said is absolutely true.

But this is how a smear works: Rick Jacobs, the leader of Reform Judaism who has become an open foe of a strong, proud, traditional Israel, castigated her for being “ignorant and ill-informed,” because, as he said, “my father served with distinction” in the American army. Indeed – we honor his father’s service! – but she did not say that Jews have never served in the American military (“never send” is not the same as “never sent,” and even that phrase was clarified), but rather that most Jews “don’t” serve in the American military. Note the verbal legerdemain – pretending her remarks were a blanket statement about the past rather than a comment on the present. That is rank dishonesty, and he should be ashamed of himself for engaging in it.

The point is not whether his father served or even whether he served (I assume he didn’t; he and I both came of age after the United States switched to an all-voluntary military). When there was a draft, Jews were drafted and served like any other citizen; American Jews fought in World War II in a greater proportion than our share of the population. I’ve walked the grounds of the American military cemetery at Normandy. The Stars of David that mark the graves of the dead American-Jewish soldiers stand out, if only because the thousands of crosses are arranged so neatly. But they are there, in almost every row. She was speaking about current events, how most American Jews today are detached from a military life, and how that surely taints their views on Israel where fighting in the military in an existential conflict that will not end is part of life and the expectation of almost every teenager. And she is correct – so correct that I would be curious to learn how many of her critics, or her critics’ children, have fought in the American military.

Here’s another shameful smear: the accusation that she was disrespecting all those young American Jews who go to Israel and enlist in the IDF. Again – smear. Distortion. Misrepresentation. Lie. And this is how it works – did she mention lone soldiers? Did she mention the IDF? Of course not. Look at both her words and the context. In our community, many dozens of youngsters over the years have enlisted in the IDF, and we are proud of all them. But have any of them fought in Afghanistan or Iraq? Not to my knowledge…   So this is a blatant effort to willfully distort her words. She made no reference to the IDF – so how can she be accused of disrespecting those who fight in the IDF? But this is how the smear game works – more verbal sleight-of-hand – denouncing someone for what was said and is true by attributing to them things that were not said and are false.

There are two real problems at play here, and Minister Hotovely is responsible for neither of them. The officialdom of the heterodox movements is uncomfortable, even resentful, of a successful woman who is proudly Jewish, proudly religious, proudly traditional, proudly Israeli and proudly right-wing.  She undermines several of their persistent narratives about Orthodoxy and traditional life in Israel. Seeing the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel wearing a shaitel must gall them. Too bad – for them.

And the bigger problem is this: with the heterodox movements in a free fall, both in terms of raw numbers as well as influence in American politics because of their persistent liberal bias, they need an enemy to energize their base. They need periodically – these days, it’s every few weeks – to find a scapegoat, an accusation, an insult or a cause to get their people riled up. It can be the Haredim to whom they attribute all sorts of mischief and ill-will. It can be the Kotel, where suddenly – literally, suddenly, after many decades – the status quo of exclusively traditional prayer bothers them. It is as if they woke up one day and realized – or contrived – that the status quo must bother them. It can be the non-acceptance of their conversions, their rabbis, or their modes of worship in one form or another. It can be the growth of the settlements or a forceful response to Arab terror or Gazan rockets. But it is always something.

That is why even an apology from Tzipi Hotovely, which she proffered because that is the way the smear game is played (and shame on the Prime Minister for not standing behind her), will not suffice for the complainants. They want her and her kind out! It is not her but what she stands for that irritates them. She is a constant reminder of what they too could have – with their children and grandchildren – if only they would return to the honest study of Torah and the true observance of mitzvot. That is why they seem to be perpetually aggrieved and always cross about something going on in Israel.

When many Israelis speak of “American Jewry,” they conjure to themselves a benign image of Jews who proudly love and support Israel, feel a deep emotional bond, and constitute a solid bloc of the type of encouragement and cooperation that one can expect from family. Would that it were so – but those days are long gone, sadly. Most American Jews today are unaffiliated – they do not identify as Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. They don’t feel that bond with Israel that their parents and certainly their grandparents did, most by far have never even visited Israel, and the ranks of American Jewry (including the heterodox movements) have been decimated by intermarriage that has obviously sapped their identification with Jews and the Jewish State. And the heterodox movements are permeated with Western ideas and values that occasionally conflate with Jewish ideas and values, but not always, and they can by and large no longer tell the difference.

The cause of Israel struggles today on college campuses because too many young Jews are cut off from their Jewish identity. The more the Jew is disengaged from Judaism, Torah, mitzvot and Jewish values, the more he or she will be disengaged from Israel. It is a tragic but accurate formula – that is why Minister Hotovely was banned by a “Jewish” group from speaking at Princeton – but there is little that Israel can do to reverse that trend. Identification and support for Israel will result from an enhanced sense of Jewish identity but those young Jews who are estranged from Israel have already embedded another identity and set of values and priorities. That is what has to be reversed and at this the heterodox movements are ill-equipped as they have long fostered an alienation from Torah.

That is why they force themselves to be outraged, manufacture slights and insults, and are avid players of the “Gotcha Game,” in which they monitor every single word of their targets in order to find the one word that they can wrench from context, cast in the most negative light or otherwise twist and falsify – all so that they can show relevance to their dwindling flock and their fellow travelers in the secular media. This is the smear game in action.

It would be edifying if Israelis truly understood what is happening in American Jewish life, paid less attention to the instigators of insincere indignation, and more attention to those Jews whose Jewish children and grandchildren will be building Torah, supporting Israel, making aliya and preserving the future of the Jewish people. And, of course, it would be an absolute delight if all Jews – of every stripe and background – did the same, and in so doing brought the era of redemption closer.

 

Succot and the Nations

(This was first published as a front page cover essay in the Jewish Press, October 4, 2017)

     One of the unique features of the Succot service in the Bet Hamikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven bulls on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Succot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world. These bulls served as atonement for their sins which would ensure that they, too, were blessed, with heavenly rain and prosperity. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Bet Hamikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Succa 55b)

     Indeed, who – or what – does atone for the nations of the world today?

     As we celebrate Succot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies. Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a re-direction of its energies and objectives.

     Perhaps even worse than the geo-political nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality than mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the divine will needed to be ascertained and implemented.

      But G-d has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined. For the first time in American history, more Americans today are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that were once considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.

      Something changed dramatically in Western society over the last century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be in the 1960’s.

       Before the 1960’s, sin existed, and all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, but they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them. What was considered scandalous, appalling and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today, and properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40% of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided. Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews – presumably, the possessors and propagators of the divine morality – have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era. G-d’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.

     Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10% of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive. Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by  all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.

      What changed in the 1960’s?

      Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed G-d from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments. Certainly, they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life. To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated several months ago.

      Please allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah, one that is being fulfilled before our eyes, is G-d’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days. “And G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3). Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megila 29a) that G-d, in a sense, returns from the exile with us. “It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”

       Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel. It was the triumph of the Six Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized G-d’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it. If we bless G-d as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.

       But if we posit that during the exile, shechinta b’galuta, the divine presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the divine presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the shechina has receded from the exile, from America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, home to most Jews for almost two millennia. As the divine presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960’s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960’s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory and Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, G-d’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear. As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values and even paying lip service to values, and the loss of shame.

     With a loss of the divine presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a superior morality than the one that G-d offered His subjects, both Jews and Gentiles. It is a new world in which even mentioning G-d in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that intermarriage, which hovered around 5% until the 1960’s, has skyrocketed since.

      Certainly, G-d’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. G-d as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence. But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels. The divine presence never departs from the Kotel Hamaaravi, the western wall of the Temple (Midrash Raba Shmot 2:2). There are times during the year when we feel that G-d is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a) and in our Sukkot. And of course there are remnants of the divine presence in the exile as well. G-d’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even when one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6). But whereas the shechina was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is less and less experienced in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations is declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.

      The Six Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the divine presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal. Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.

      What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. With G-d’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling with faith and tenacity are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries. The very notion of G-d has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the  idea of G-d as Creator, King and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1%.

     One might ask: if this is true, and the divine presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in Israel today in some parts? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege. The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the shechina has precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.

     Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Bet Hamikdash stood, and G-d’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Succot atoned for the nations of the world. “And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?

      Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. That is a momentous event and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3). Currently, the world could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews who remain in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values.  We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.

      It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all of G-d’s creatures. Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Succot past. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with G-d, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation. We celebrate that uniqueness in the Succa, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Succot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with G-d and offer just one bull as G-d celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.

       On Succot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the divine presence to its natural locale, re-commit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world, and nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.