Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Of Nerve and Nerves

The overwrought and hyperbolic response of some American Jewish organizations to the series of threats against JCC’s across the country should now be met with apologies of similar passion. The repeated accusations of misconduct and outright Jew hatred leveled against the Trump Administration should now be withdrawn and must engender forthright and unrestrained contrition. For all the talk about dog whistles, faint signals, hints, alt-right, alt-white supremacists and neo-Nazi nationalists lurking outside the Oval Office, well, it turns out that, no, it wasn’t Steve Bannon, after all, calling in bomb threats to Jewish institutions. Imagine that. Who would have thought??

The news that an Israeli-American Jew, probably a tad off, has been arrested in Israel for orchestrating dozens of phony bomb threats to US centers should put American Jews at ease. But of course it won’t, because the narrative of “rampant Jew hatred fomented by the right-wing government” is too precious to abandon. So far, two people have been arrested for this “anti-Semitic” wave: a black supremacist, anti-Trump journalist with ties to left-wing organizations and an Israeli-American Jew. Only in America!

Come on: will the white supremacist, Trump-supporting, flag-waving American from the boondocks of Kentucky who hired both of them please identify yourself and surrender to the authorities? The concern here is that until the narrative is satisfied, Jews of a certain temperament and political persuasion will not move on. But they should, as should we all, and try to recover some semblance of normal political discourse. Like the resident of Chelm who kept looking for the lost object under the street light “because it’s brighter there,” there are Jews who are obsessed with finding Jew haters in America, the Trump administration, the government and everywhere but where they can really be found.

It should have been noted that we are not living in an age of terrorist threats but of terror, period. Today’s terrorists do not warn their victims. Hoaxes, rare as they are, serve to win attention, disrupt lives and upset the daily course of business. The professional terrorist does not warn because the possibility of detection is almost guaranteed and his real aim – terror and mayhem – will thereby be thwarted. Those who warn are usually psychotics who do not mean to cause any real harm but only seek their moment of infamy when they are caught. That is the pattern notwithstanding that it remains prudent and appropriate to investigate every claim and threat. Fortunately, they were investigated and resolved, albeit not in the way that will calm the nerves or serve the interests of Jewish Trump-haters.

What was imprudent and inappropriate, which is not to say unsurprising, was the avalanche of condemnation of the Trump administration, blaming it for the attacks either directly or indirectly, and accusing it of fomenting Jew hatred, being dismissive of Jew hatred, and then labeling Trump’s denunciation of Jew hatred “insufficient,” “too late,” and indicting him for leading an administration that is “infected by the cancer of anti-Semitism.” When Trump suggested, in his inarticulate way, that the threats might be “the reverse,” he was castigated again, and not for the lack of clarity. But he was right, and maybe that’s what he meant. The media and the Jewish establishment primed the pump for an angry, bitter, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, unemployed white man. That was woefully wrong; it was the “reverse.”

Now it turns out that these threats were not at all related to Jew hatred but the product of one sick mind who was trying to win back his Jewish ex-girlfriend and another – a Jew – of equal derangement but unknown causality. In other words, the “reverse” of what people expected. Can we now expect apologies from the Jewish organizations that were so quick to condemn? We should insist on it.

There is something ennobling about accepting responsibility for error. It is mature, cathartic and humbling. It adds credibility when real problems arise. Jewish organizations that cry “anti-Semitism!” too frequently forfeit whatever credibility they still have. America is a country remarkably free of Jew hatred and Jewish life here has been blessed. That is not to say it will always remain so – the exile is the exile – but to pretend it is a cauldron of Jew hatred is false and offensive.  Forget the “statistics” and walk the streets, breathe the air, shop in its malls and meet its people.  Stop looking under the streetlight. Repetitive, false accusations of Jew hatred against innocent people with whom one has a legitimate political disagreement will eventually foment Jew hatred. To accuse government officials of Jew hatred because of political disagreements is repugnant. It must stop. The promiscuous use of the “anti-Semitism” charge is a sign of weakness, not strength, and whatever potency it had at one time has already been diluted because of the flippancy of its flingers.

Let’s be clear. Are there non-Jews who might not like some Jews? Sure. Even more clear: are there Jews who don’t like some other Jews? Sadly, yes. Neither is “Jew hatred,” the irrational passion that has infested too much of mankind since Sinai. Let us then make sure that those accused of Jew hatred have real animus against Jews. That requires left-wing Jews to reconcile themselves to the reality of President Trump and disagree with him civilly. Without animus. Without unfounded accusations. And without conflating immigration or health-coverage policy disagreements with Jew hatred.

The Coalition for Jewish Values (where I serve as Senior Rabbinic Fellow) earlier this week – even before the arrest in Israel – condemned the specious accusations of Jew hatred being lodged against good Americans. We must realize that politics comes and goes but the Torah’s values are eternal. All Jews need to return to the values of Torah – of respect for others, of a commitment to justice and self-preservation, of the dignity of all people and of a relentless fight against evil.

It is unseemly, disgraceful, immoral and counter-productive to hurl unfounded charges of Jew hatred, and that applies to both liberals and conservatives. Worse, too many Jews have developed the tendency to deny obvious Jew hatred in front of their eyes because the sources of that Jew hatred are favored or fearful groups, or political allies, and, instead, falsely attribute Jew hatred to their political foes in an attempt to score points and diminish their influence. Jews should really stop doing that – both because it is simply wrong and because it is completely ineffective and self-defeating.

A good start would be if all the Jewish organizations that lambasted the Trump administration, whose statements, in the end, did not matter one whit in terms of these particular crimes, would just apologize for overreacting and pledge to be more responsible in the future. If for nothing else, when and if a real white-supremacist Jew hater ever emerges again r”l, their claims will be taken more seriously.

And Jews all over should just calm down and prepare for Shabbat and Pesach.

The Majority

Torah jurisprudence is based on the principle of “majority rule.” If we routinely followed minority opinions, the Torah would fragment into many Torot and we would cease to be a unified people. Of course, the unity of Torah was much greater in ancient than recent times because of the finality of the Sanhedrin’s judgments. Nonetheless, in matters that affect the klal, we have been able to sustain the oneness of the Jewish people by maintaining uniform standards. Thus, observant Jews can daven in any shul, regardless of nusach, as long as there is adherence to basic norms. The presence or absence of a mechitzah is one classic dividing line.

Although we are taught to “follow the majority” (Shemot 23:2), what happens to the minority opinion? The Lubavitcher Rebbe (on that verse, as recorded in the Kehot Publication Society anthology, 2015 edition) offered three possibilities of understanding the majority-minority dynamic: the majority opinion simply outweighs the minority opinion, the minority opinion is nullified, or the minority unites with the majority and moves forward together. (Rav Kook, interestingly, argued that the majority view prevails not just because it is numerically superior but because the sheer numbers mean that more potential opinions, sevarot and viewpoints were entertained.)

The Rebbe then explained how it is that the minority unites with the majority. There are two possibilities: the minority defers to the opinion of the majority because that is what the Torah demands, even though they remain unconvinced; or the minority, understanding the Torah rule, reconsiders its position until they become convinced that the majority, were, in fact, correct. Of these two scenarios, the second one is the ideal and fosters true unity among the Jewish people, a unity that emerges from a deep sense of humility and kavod talmidei chachamim.

Last month’s OU declaration on the prohibition of female clergy in Jewish life, authored by seven distinguished Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva, clearly reflects the overwhelming consensus of rabbinic thought on the matter. This is a matter that has been obvious for millennia and has only become an issue of late because of trends in the secular society. But the reaction of advocates of female clergy has not followed either model delineated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Among the small cohort of activists, there is a refusal both to defer to rabbinic authority as well as a reluctance to re-evaluate their position. Among the professional activists, many have taken to penning daily op-ed pieces, as if psak is influenced by social media on the one hand or by passionate redundancy on the other. It is not, of course, but as modern start-ups use “crowd funding” to raise seed money, these activists have created something like “crowd-paskening within their echo chamber. This is not only divisive but dangerous.

The psak ratified what was conventional wisdom and Jewish practice since Sinai, something that even Reform Judaism recognized until the 1970’s and Conservative Judaism until the 1980’s. Reading the literature of those times and the relentless (but ultimately futile) opposition of the JTS Talmud faculty to women’s ordination is proof both of the motivations of the activists – a cause driven by currents blowing through the secular world – and the obviousness of the prohibition. I have addressed the reasons for the prohibition at length in the past; suffice it to say that the requirement for a mechitzah in shul is less grounded in the sources than is the prohibition of female clergy. And we know how the mechitzah issue played out in Orthodox life.

Today, rabbis from every wing of Orthodoxy, probably representing over 95% of Orthodox Jews, if not more, oppose the notion of female clergy. In the words of one dear colleague, “this science is settled.” To be sure, there will always be deniers who insist that the data is not being understood properly and they have an approach that no one ever considered before, but they are in a distinct minority and they are unfortunately treading on hazardous ground.

Years ago, I wrote of “The Rise of the Neo-Cons,” and the renaissance of the ideology that spawned the birth of Conservative Judaism and its eventual disengagement from traditional Orthodoxy, Torah observance, and today, real influence in Jewish life. Many of their early ideologues were Orthodox rabbis, some were fine talmidei chachamim, and all, I’m convinced, were sincere in their quest to save Torah for American Jewry by modernizing it and conforming it to what they perceived to be the people’s desires. They had a good run but the movement eventually foundered on a lack of authenticity and commitment to the Torah, such that today it is almost indistinguishable from Reform Judaism. The modern neo-Cons, I fear, are making the same mistake, and compounding their errors with the obstinacy of rejecting the opinion of the vast majority of their colleagues. There is no sense, at present, that there is any reconsideration or unification with the majority opinion. Some, disciples of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, are openly disdainful of his opinion, and some have embarked on a shameless campaign to discredit the Rav as an authority, not realizing that they are discrediting themselves in the process in addition to disrespecting one of the bearers of the Mesorah in the last century, a deed condemned the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8).

This week brought even more proof that they are leading their small flock into a minefield of heresy. One female ordainee opined that it is about time that halacha reconsider the normative rule that dates to Sinai that women do not count for a minyan. Say what you will, but this was one of the predictions of the JTS faculty that opposed female ordination: that the next step inevitably would be changing the structure of the minyan, and so it was, and is. And the “reason” is also predictable: the assertion was that in a society where women count in everything, how can they not count for a minyan? This is a compelling argument in the small part of the religious world that measures every halacha and minhag by secular values to assess whether it passes muster, and if it doesn’t, it has no merit. But few religious Jews, frankly, employ Western values as the barometer by which they measure the worth of the Torah. The justified fear is that those who do will not remain religious Jews for long.

One by-product of the refusal of the minority to follow the opinion of the majority is that it undermines rabbinic authority – i.e., theirs. Their small band of followers will follow them only insofar as the band agrees with their decisions but will renounce any deviations from their pre-determined conclusions. If rabbis reject the consequences of “lo tasur,” why shouldn’t their laity? The results are very democratic but not very halachic; nor are they sustainable. That is a simple historical truth.

With the OU statement, the matter really is settled. Those who insist on going forward anyway will not be causing a schism in the future but are causing one right now. To have shuls in which Orthodox Jews would not enter because of the presence of female clergy is an act of self-excommunication. Those who continue to insist that the whole world is wrong but they’re right – or are praying for an “eilu va’eilu” outcome – are cheating their followers and ultimately robbing them and their children of their heritage. We know the end of this story, so why go down that road?

There have been occasions when I asked a “she’elah” on a particular issue and was puzzled or disappointed in the psak. But I followed it regardless. If I wanted to rely on my own opinion, I wouldn’t have asked. That deference is what the Torah seeks. Think of the contribution advocates of female clergy could make, and the worlds they would save, if they announced that they accept the psak and will find a way to comply. That would show greatness, true leadership and love of the Jewish people.

 

Time to Chill

Here in Israel, one is conscious while standing at every intersection to be wary of “rammers” who are looking for a quick entry to paradise at the expense of your life and limb. The possibility of peace is not even on the horizon, and Iran continues in a stealthy way on its path to develop nuclear weapons. The region is in turmoil. And yet, with all that, Israel is an oasis of tranquility. Israel just ranked fifth, sixth or eleventh – depending on the survey – on the global indices of happiest nations, in each case ahead of the United States. People here, for the most part, are calm, happy, living their lives, basking in the beauty of the land, its natural development, its spiritual resources and the opportunities that G-d has provided our generation.

From this vantage point, the same cannot be said of Americans, who appear to be constantly agitated and uneasy when some are not altogether threatening or carrying out acts of mayhem. The recent election campaign, and perhaps even the last decade, created intense polarization that apparently will not readily abate. And the levels of intolerance have escalated to proportions that are unprecedented in living memory, and if truth still matters, it must be underscored that the intolerance is coming almost exclusively from the political and religious Left. They should look in the mirror and take stock.

At UC Berkeley a few weeks ago and at NYU more recently, conservative speakers who were invited to campus were harassed until they could not speak. At Berkeley, protesters started fires and burned buildings as part of the freedom of expression that they deny others. This censorship has become routine on campuses of higher “learning” and others places where people who could formerly be described as “liberals” resided.

Conversely, I recently attended a conference in Yerushalayim (mainly of right-wingers) at which a panoply of politicians spoke, among them Yitzchak (Buji) Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor Party. He said some preposterous things that evoked laughter from the audience, but no one heckled, and he even received polite applause when he concluded, not for what he said but for coming to say it. A subsequent speaker noted the contrast to last spring’s Haaretz conference in Tel Aviv where Minister Naphtali Bennett was invited to speak, and as soon as he opened his mouth, he was heckled, shouted down, told to leave by unruly members of the audience who simply did not want to hear what he had to say. He was only able to continue when he told the left-wing audience that “you will not be able to silence me,” and the police came to escort the demonstrators out. If you have examples of right-wing censorship, please share them. I can’t think of any recent ones.

Of course, I have enjoyed this same type of pathetic, pitiable intolerance myself by a small band of radical, non-Orthodox feminists who take issue with something or another that I have said. They have called for protests and cancelations to some of my speeches as well and simply lie when they don’t get their way. I have addressed conferences at which they claimed I was banned from speaking, and no protesters showed up at any of my recent talks in Israel. Their calls for boycotts fail so miserably that after their recent attempt was publicized, I was invited to speak at five additional shuls and Yeshivot in response to their risible intolerance. I happily complied. And the nice crowds that attend are always put off by their sheer arrogance and methods so whatever their cause is, if they indeed have a cause, their tactics are counterproductive.

The broader question is: from where do they derive the hubris, the small-mindedness and the crudeness to try to prevent people from speaking? On campus after campus, there is a wave of insularity that has created a class of young people who cannot abide an opinion different from theirs, and refuse to allow others to hear it. They have even threatened professors who do not silence students who express views that challenge the political correctness that has become their godless gospel. Colleges have become less places of knowledge than venues of indoctrination where dissenters are persecuted. What has happened?

The Midrash (Breisheet Raba 8:5) records that when G-d decided to create man, the angels were divided on the propriety and wisdom of such a creation, a hybrid of the spiritual and the animalistic. “Kindness” suggested that man be created because he would perform acts of kindness in the world, while “truth” insisted that it was a bad idea because man was full of lies. But “G-d took truth and threw it to the ground,” and created man.

But “G-d’s seal is truth” (Masechet Shabbat 55a). How could He discard truth as if it is meaningless?

In “B’ahava Ve’emunah”(“With Love and Faith”), one of the popular Shabbat handouts in Israel, Rav Natan Kotler has serialized an analysis of issues relating to Mesorah and machloket in Chazal. Last week, he answered the above-referenced question as follows: There are two types of truth (citing Likutei Halachot, Ribit). There is “emet metakenet,” a refined truth that is open to all ideas and can garner something from everyone. That type of truth forges a society that is tolerant and welcoming, and in which the truth emerges as a distilled composite of all ideas. In a sense, it echoes Rav Kook’s explanation of how “Torah scholars spread peace in the world” (Ein Aya, to Masechet Berachot 64a). They succeed by hearing all sides, by seeing all points of views, by engaging in dialogue and discussion before deciding a particular issue. Even when some opinions are rejected, as they should be, that type of “truth” is still favored by G-d.

Nevertheless, there is also an “emet harsenet,” a destructive truth, wherein people see only their opinions and never entertain the possibility that their approach might be wrong. Proponents of this destructive truth negate all other views and outlooks and will even try to suppress all who disagree with them. This has been the way of dictators throughout history, this is the type of “truth” that G-d threw to the ground so that man could be created, and this type of “destructive truth” is the stock-in-trade of the left-wing elements that are plaguing the Western world and wrecking any refined form of public discourse.

On so many issues that have engendered so much unrest, unhappiness and distress on the political and religious left, is it really possible to maintain that there is only one opinion? That there is no other possible opinion? Whether the issue is the merits of President Trump, immigration, abortion, affirmative action, building a wall, fighting Islamic terror, national security, law and order, police conduct in the inner cities, female clergy, and a host of others, can any honest, rational person contend that there is only one possible view? Theirs on the left? That there is no other opinion that can be considered or uttered in civil society? What misguided petulance. That is the “destructive truth” that we are currently witnessing. Isn’t it healthier to see both sides of a debate, even if one side then is found to be more appealing, logical or even correct?

One can agree or disagree on any issue, but the notion that there is only one possible conclusion that may be spoken in public – the subtext of the activist left – has left American society on the brink of disintegration. And nothing more nullifies the traditions of free speech and the values of the Torah than this type of rank bigotry.

This is where the “Hitler” narrative always enters the picture. The plethora of people on the left who regularly call this person or another “Hitler” are essentially saying that their ideology is pure evil, and no further discussion is needed. There is no other side. There is nothing to talk about, no possible nuance, and nothing missing in their analysis. Pure evil.  These comparisons are not only odious and facile but they also tend to diminish the real evil of a Hitler, may his memory be blotted out.

Even supporters of President Trump concede that he has uttered his share of foolish, repugnant and insensitive remarks to which people have rightly taken offense. People are allowed to take offense, even though there is not yet a constitutional right guaranteeing that no American will ever feel offended. So take offense – but then move on! Raise your children, take care of your homes, go to work, learn Torah, do mitzvot, do something productive. Again, at this great distance, I look at the “protests” on American TV from these left-wing groups and marvel at the vacuity of it all. It accomplishes little except for the momentary pleasure of venting but is completely futile in the real world. Conservatives suffered through two Obama terms but I don’t recall riots, protests, prayers for his failure and an inability to function normally in the world. Conservatives didn’t need safe spaces, coloring books or crying towels. Has the American spirit been so infantilized that people collapse emotionally at the slightest disappointment?

Rav Kook wrote (Shmoneh Kvatzim, 2:22) that people who look favorably on others, whatever their views, are calmer, enjoy life more, and gain an appreciation of other people with whom they might not necessarily agree. The more we love other creatures of G-d, the better off we are and the closer we are to G-d as well.

I would reckon that the vast majority of Clinton supporters/Trump opponents have moved on. They may be wary of the new administration but do not want it to fail. But the activists who enjoyed years of ideological authoritarianism and political despotism over their foes do not want to accept that time, politics and the world have moved on, and partly because their tyranny of ideas was so abhorrent to the American ethos.

It’s time for everyone to chill (even just a little), take a deep breath, form a loyal and productive opposition if warranted, find common ground on whatever issues are possible, and develop a little openness to the views of others. They might learn something, and they might indeed start enjoying life again. It is not healthy – physically or spiritually – to always live on edge, ready to crumble at the slightest irritation.

After all, life is short, and it is unfortunate to go through life angry, miserable and tormented by the politics of what is, even now, a prosperous nation living through peaceful times. It might even help the United States nudge a few places higher on the international happiness index.

 

The Psak

It was long in coming but the psak banning the institution of female clergy in Orthodoxy by the seven distinguished Roshei Yeshiva and rabbis, and its adoption and publication by the Orthodox Union, settles this most contentious matter that has riled Orthodoxy for over a decade. It is now clear that “women rabbis” are incompatible with Orthodoxy and the line has been plainly drawn. No number of op-eds or Facebook posts that resound off the walls of the echo chamber in which they circulate can change that reality, and those who are faithful to Mesorah and Rabbinic authority will, of course, comply if they wish to remain within the traditional camp of Israel. That deference, admittedly, is not typical of advocates of this deviation from Jewish tradition, and perhaps that is the heart of the problem.

Henceforth, Jews are on notice that the embrace of female clergy places them beyond the pale of Orthodoxy as assuredly as rejection of mechitza did for prior generations. The similarities between the two issues, and their resolutions, have already been discussed here. The remaining question is the disposition of those OU shuls – less than a handful, to be sure – that currently have female clergy. What should happen with them?

There are several possible approaches. The worst would be inactivity, or a tacit acceptance of the situation as is, because such would undermine the viability of the psak and do little to discourage continued departure from this basic Jewish norm. Ideally, the women in question regardless of their title – their sincerity is assumed – can be reassigned to perform the tasks customarily associated with the role of teacher, and without the new nomenclature that has been more of a distraction than a benefit. If they wish to teach Torah there are a number of ways within Halacha that this can be accomplished and their talents can be fully utilized.

One additional approach might be borrowed from the mechitza struggles of the past, and that would be to officially “grandfather in” those shuls that currently run afoul of the psak, with the understanding that no new OU shuls can embark on this path and at a certain point in the future these same shuls will conform their practice to the dictates of halacha. That has the distinct advantage of abruptly halting the deterioration of standards and commitment to Torah that this deviation has engendered but the disadvantage of acquiescing in the current violation for an indefinite period.

This approach is similar to what the OU did with the non-mechitza shuls in the distant past. There was a time when hundreds of shuls that were OU congregations did not have mechitzot but were otherwise Orthodox in practice and deportment. Beginning in the 1960’s, these shuls began to fade out as a result of the enhanced observance of Torah that began to spread through the religious Jewish world. Those shuls then either installed mechitzot (thereby becoming fully Orthodox) or, unfortunately, declared their allegiance to the non-Orthodox movements, with all the corrosion of Torah values and utter loss of Jewish commitment and even identity that the latter has wrought. Today there is not one OU shul without a mechitza, and it is inconceivable that there will ever be another. This is neither a critique of the past nor gloating over the present but simply recognition that the Torah world has an inner compass, guided by the gedolim, which enables it to distinguish between acceptable innovations and objectionable deviations. Such is not only faithful to Jewish law and tradition but also maintains a semblance of unity among the Jewish people.

If shuls that are in violation of the psak are “grandfathered in,” the question then becomes, to paraphrase Chazal’s queries in Masechet Gittin, “Mah Hi b’otan hayamim?” What would be the status of those shuls while they were still in substantial breach of Jewish law? Could – should – a religious Jew daven there? In the mechitza cases, a sense developed over the decades that these shuls were, for lack of a better term, “Orthodox-lite” or even just “traditional,” the latter being a praiseworthy adjective that, in retrospect and because of these deviations, became something of a pejorative. (Personally, I still like the term “traditional,” as defining one who follows tradition. How could that be bad?? The irony is that “traditional” came to describe those who did not follow tradition (!) completely, and became just another example of how modern life has taken certain words and co-opted them for meanings far from their previous usage and common understanding.)

As there were Jews in the past who would not daven in a shul without a mechitza even though it otherwise professed its fidelity to the Torah, there are undoubtedly Jews today who would not daven in a shul that featured female clergy regardless of its other merits. That is a sad state of affairs, and just another illustration of how divergence from tradition is so divisive to Jewish life.

Most Jewish organizations wade into controversy quite infrequently and difficult decisions are generally enacted and implemented at a glacial pace. It is not implausible that the “grandfathering” policy will be tacitly adopted as the path of least resistance. It might not sit well with the current communities that have strayed from tradition to be perceived as “not quite Orthodox.” But they will then have the choice of pertinaciously clinging to a course of action that the overwhelming majority of the religious Jewish world has deemed to be beyond the pale but that they retain because of its appeal to a value system that is alien and often hostile to Torah, or rejoining the fold and conforming their behavior to the tradition of Sinai that binds together all good Jews. I pray that they choose the latter and do not deepen this schism in Jewish life.

Kudos to the Orthodox Union for making this stand, taking this decision, and following the practice of generations of seeking rabbinic guidance on the complex moral and religious issues of the day. Every mainstream Orthodox organization, including TORA, OU, RCA, Young Israel, Agudah and others and representing probably 98% of American Orthodoxy, has announced its rejection of Jewish female clergy. The avalanche of articles antagonistic to the decision and the dearth of articles supportive are less a hint of where the people really stand than an indication that, for almost all Orthodox Jews, this conclusion was rather obvious and long overdue.

The Tragedy of American Jewry

Seldom do one op-ed article and three letters to the editor unintentionally reveal the malady that is threatening to destroy American Jewry.

In the Wall Street Journal (December 30, 2016), the writer Andrew Klavan criticized physicist Stephen Hawking for the latter’s now common assertion that the universe can be explained without G-d, the Creator. Hawking: “The laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” If science explains everything then G-d becomes unnecessary; of course, science does not explain everything. But they are both wrong in their assumptions. Klavan is wrong because Jews believe the creation did emerge “spontaneously from nothing,” that G-d created the universe “yesh me-ayin,” creation ex nihilo, and doesn’t seem to realize that “the laws of gravity and quantum theory” are merely tools that the Creator, in His will, created, and could have used in creating what He wishes to create. Hawking is wrong because, as Klavan rightly points out, the laws of nature had to originate from something, and to believe the converse (the eternity of the universe and matter) is, well, a belief.

No matter. Klavan’s objective was to re-introduce religion into this discussion by positing the impossibility of explaining creation without a Creator. It was a reaffirmation of his religious faith and a defense of all believers.

On January 5, 2017, Klavan was lambasted in the WSJ by three letter writers for his naïveté, “patent nonsense,” “obvious flaws,” and “obnoxious and erroneous assertions.” All three were diehard seculars, presumed atheists who ridicule the very notion of God’s existence. More on their contentions in a moment.

Here’s the irony: Klavan described himself as being raised a “secular Jew who converted to Christianity,” and is married to a Christian and raising a Christian family. The three letter writers were named Gelb, Fried and Siegal, all obviously Jewish names and all, at least the descendants of Jewish fathers if not mothers as well. Nevertheless, let us assume the three are Jews.

What emerges is that the only person of faith in this whole mix is the Jew who purported to convert to Christianity. The three Jews were the ones who publicly professed their rejection of God and mocked the believer.  That is, sadly, quite typical of American Jewish life today, and why the Jewish world, outside the Orthodox community, is suffering sustained and consistent losses of people, prestige, influence and a real connection to the truths of Torah. As every Jewish life is precious – because every Jew is an integral part of the Jewish nation – such losses are devastating to us all and are a cause for mourning, not celebration. But neither mourning – nor celebration – will save one soul for Torah and the Jewish people.

Beyond the tragic irony is the realization that the heretical arguments of the three Jewish letter writers are hackneyed and unsophisticated, such that they could be answered by an educated Yeshiva high school student. The old question “Who created G-d?” is asked, as if it is a credible challenge to the notion of God as First Cause or a refutation of the concept of cause and effect.

It is a shame that intelligent Jews are unfamiliar with Jewish sources and discussions of these very matters among the greatest Jewish minds in history (like Rav Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Ramban et al), and the lack of Jewish education among Jews who are otherwise educated is the real crisis that has eviscerated American Jewry.

Briefly, for this most engaging topic, G-d is an incorporeal Being who transcends time and space and, indeed, created time and space. Nothing preceded Him or follows Him. That is the definition of “eternal.” He always existed and thus was never created.

Moreover, God created cause and effect, as well as the laws of nature that were fixed and finalized when the process of creation stopped with the onset of the very first Shabbat. So to ask “who created the First Cause” is to indulge a non sequitur. The First Cause needs no creation; that is what makes it “First.”

Only physical entities need to be created. Only physical entities can be “proven”  in a laboratory because a laboratory is equipped to evaluate physical substances based on the laws of nature. Matters that are purely ideational are not subject to “laboratory” proof. This is both obvious – and has a profound practical and moral dimension to it. If G-d’s existence was physically verifiable – as it was, for example, at Sinai – it would impair and undermine the free will of every human being – as it did in the aftermath of Sinai. Free will is the essence of the human personality. Thus, to the person of faith, God’s existence demands study and can be found in creation and His governance of human affairs. To the person of no faith, the fact that a non-physical G-d cannot be demonstrated in a laboratory is supposedly a slam dunk refutation of G-d’s existence. Hardly, and “faith” here does not mean “blind faith” or “irrational faith,” but a faith that is grounded in reason, tradition, and knowledge.

One writer (Siegal) insisted that all he seeks is mutual respect –  that Klavan should respect his right of disbelief as he respects Klavan’s right to believe. But this too is misleading, as nothing that Klavan wrote indicates even remotely a lack of respect for the secular viewpoint. What he wrote is that “secularism” is failing Western civilization because it is inherently incapable of dealing with radical Islam and other moral challenges. It is secularism that cannot recognize the tenacity of true faith (of any kind) and how the material world holds less and sometimes no attraction to some believers. For sure, that secular view has engendered the curious disposition that every problem can be resolved, every war can be negotiated to a peaceful conclusion satisfactory to all sides, and that bitter enemies can reconcile without compromising their cherished beliefs. But none of that is true save for extraordinary circumstances. This secular viewpoint is alive and well among one shrinking segment of Israeli society that refuses to characterize attacks on Jews or Israel as elements of a religious war simply because it is inconvenient to characterize it as such or because they refuse to accept that faith (of any kind) can have that power over human beings. But it does.

To ask secular people to reconsider the value of faith is not to disrespect them but to show concern for them. It is merely to point out to them that they are “accidentalists,” and there are perhaps no greater believers today that those who believe that the universe and everything in it, man and his development, are just cosmic accidents.

All these questions have rational answers, and if only Jews would study them before rejecting Judaism or tilling the vineyards of others we would be a different people. How sad that the Jew of faith had to become a Christian to find that faith, while the three Jews with Jewish surnames revel in their pseudo-sophisticated lack of faith. How sad that after almost two millennia of a bitter exile in which so many Jews tenaciously clung to the Torah that, in recent years,  millions of Jews have used the freedom of America to reject their faith and heritage. That is the tragedy of American Jewry and why our numbers and commitment are in such steep decline. It can only be reversed through love, tolerance, intensive Torah education and recognition of the historic times in which Jews are now living – having returned to Israel, established Jewish sovereignty there after a lapse of two millennia, and on the verge of the Messianic era.

For sure, there are large pockets of great strength, optimism and dynamism in American Jewry and American Jewish religious life.  The thinking Jew should run, not walk, to be part of that people, that process and that destiny.

The Mirror

     The reaction to the Trump victory has been over-the-top, provoking raucous and even violent demonstrations by those whose commitment to democracy tolerates only one legitimate electoral outcome – the one they prefer. They shout epithets at the man whom they despise because he used epithets, and act violently to protest the man they fear will bring violence to American streets. They are trying to destroy America to thwart the man they believe will destroy America. One wonders how they have so much time off from work, until the realization dawns that violent protest is their paid profession.

Certainly there are more restrained opponents of the president-in-waiting, who fear the consequences of aspects of his character and his unformed policy prescriptions. That, indeed, is true of every opponent of every new president. But those ideological opponents are not taking to the streets, not denouncing Trump at every turn, and not demanding – demanding! – that the rest of society join them in their disgust, issue proclamations against him, and oppose all his policies and appointments. They will not be satisfied until Trump adopts their view of every issue and nominates for his cabinet people they approve. Of course that will not happen. The unrestrained antagonists can be ignored, save for the violence, but the Jews among them who think calling someone racist, bigot, sexist, etc. has any potency anymore should take a look in the mirror.

The Baal Shem Tov said that righteous people who have no evil within them do not see evil in others. For everyone else, the evil we see in others is essentially what we do not want to see in ourselves. It is as if when we are looking at others, especially critically, we are standing in front of a mirror really looking at ourselves. What bothers us about others should really bother us about ourselves and induce us to change, learn, grow, and improve. And at first, it is worthwhile to recognize what is right before our eyes.

President-elect Trump has elicited strong, even hysterical reactions, for both his real and imagined flaws. One would think that with the elections over it would be prudent for even his opponents to reconcile with the new reality. That so many cannot is a comment more on them than on him. Those who take to the streets to scream, yell, wave signs, break windows, shout vulgarities and cause mayhem are worse than immature; they have become a caricature of everything they are protesting. They may be looking at Trump but they are seeing the worst in themselves.

It is hard to deny that over the last few decades America has become a decadent, even vulgar, society. The lewd and the crude are standard entertainment offerings, with many critics even deprecating family entertainment (notwithstanding that it usually produces higher revenue) as saccharine and old-fashioned. Trump has been rightly criticized for his occasional vulgar speech, although certainly that should not define his personality any more than any other single attribute defines a person. He does push the ends of the envelope when he is not altogether shredding the envelope. But he is actually quite representative of the society that he will soon lead. The crude language that he uses on occasion is quite typical of American culture. It is ironic that many protesting his crudity revel in it when the practitioners are rap singers, entertainers, and cable television offerings. Their words are the same as his words, except that his are used more sparingly and often whimsically.

Whatever offensive things he has said are actually tame compared to the lyrics of rap, the ranting of bad comedians, and what the tawdry culture celebrates. We should remember that New Yorkers first got to know Donald Trump as a real estate developer, but much of the rest of the country became familiar with him as an entertainer. This is the culture. What so many of his critics loathe in Trump is, perhaps, what they should loathe about American society but they don’t. They are just looking in the mirror and don’t like what they see.

On the flip side, Hillary Clinton represented another coarse aspect of modern life that many of her supporters generally and studiously ignored: the high-flying and sweet rhetoric offered the public contrasted with the crass materialism, insider deals, rank dishonesty and insatiable greed that was the private Clinton world. That she traded access for money, lots of it, is undeniable. Sadly, the American culture has long rewarded the something-for-nothing mentality, from the top of society to the bottom. She was an especially heavy-handed and oleaginous practitioner of it, but also is not atypical of the society. Consider that Harry Truman – also a vulgarian by the way but one of the most honest men ever to serve as president – said that the only way one can make money in politics is by being a crook. We should look in the mirror and ask ourselves why that was tolerable to so many.

Add to that one other lamentable aspect of the culture: the incessant assertions that Clinton was entitled to the presidency because she was a woman and it was “about time.” Nothing has made American life more vacuous than the identity politics played by the Democrats. Who you are and what you are is not as important as to which group you belong, as if choosing a president is all about checking off the right boxes on the diversity application. Such an approach is demeaning to the individual’s status as a unique creature of G-d, but it nonetheless prevails in much of the mass media and the general society. Unfortunately, that will get worse before it gets better, and it cannot get better until each person looks in the mirror and sees a human being and not part of a class.

Finally, the shrillness of Trump’s critics has become especially strident with the demands – demands! – that Trump apologize for this uttered word or not appoint that guy, that rabbis denounce this speech or that act, that everyone kowtow to the social media mob. It is actually amusing that some of the people who did not vote for Trump are now demanding – demanding! – that he fire this guy, change this policy, or else. Or else… what?

I don’t know Steve Bannon from Steve Madden (although I am partial to anyone named Steven) but the customary accusations from the left have descended on him full force (big league, as the president-elect would say). The vehemence of the accusations against him that he is a Jew-hater are in inverse proportion to the evidence of that charge, which evidence is actually quite skimpy and disreputable. Why Trump should heed his opponents and dismiss a loyal aide is a mystery, mitigated only by the realization that he will justifiably ignore them. The louder they get, the less people hear them.

What is no mystery, and quite-off-putting, is the frequency at which charges of “anti-Semitism” (as people inexplicably call Jew-hatred) are leveled against anyone with whom many liberal Jews disagree or who make an off-handed crack. It is the stock in trade of organizations such as the ADL, long just an irritant – an expensive irritant, at that – without any power or influence in the Jewish or non-Jewish world. Its only weapon is that accusation, and so it lies in wait and sits in judgment of every utterance made by anyone. (I have been attacked several times by the ADL over the years – I frankly don’t remember for what – as has Jerry Seinfeld, among numerous others.)

Granted that this is what they do for a living, but when Jewish organizations cheapen the use of this slur by sheer frequency and inappropriate use, it is like the boy who cried wolf. When it really happens – and real Jew hatred occurs, such as in the Crown Heights riots 25 years ago when the ADL was out-to-lunch, no one will pay attention. Would that the ADL was more exercised by the nomination of Keith Ellison as head of the Democratic National Committee! Now there’s a guy with some rough things to say about Jews and Israel, but criticizing a Democrat hits too close to home. They would be better off taking on “Black Lives Matter,” elements of which are permeated with Jew hatred.

In a most bizarre twist, an array of “Jewish” organizations is calling on Trump to denounce “anti-Semitism” (again) and announce his support for a Palestinian state. In other words, eviscerating the State of Israel is now a sign of philo-Semitism? Jews who love Jews are supposed to favor expelling Jews and renouncing Israeli sovereignty over the biblical heartland of Israel? We do live in strange times. Perhaps it is worth mentioning a cartoon that has made the rounds in the last week, with the caption: “The difference between Donald Trump and most leftist American Jews is that Trump has Jewish grandchildren.” If only these groups would realize that intermarriage is the most serious crisis facing them today, and compared to that, politics is beanbag.

As it is, few outside the leftist media echo chamber pay attention even today to their “demands.” Fortunately, the Social Justice Warriors who have arrogated to themselves the right to adjudicate everyone’s morality (except their own), speech, conduct and ideas are now, post-Trump victory, on the decline. They can yell and scream “racist!” “bigot!” “sexist!” and they will, and they will demand apologies, retractions, clarifications and penance from their targets in order to stay relevant, and the cowardly will accommodate them, but their moment has passed. They will be ignored because they should be ignored. They have committed the grave, modern offense of becoming boring, predictable, and tiresome. The tyranny of those who monitor every word or phrase for swift offense, and keep a dossier on the offenders, is over. Long live freedom!

They too should look in the mirror. Those who attack others for “intolerance” and insist on verbal reparations are among the most intolerant and bigoted people walking the earth today. If only they had the self-awareness to look at their targets and see the hatred in their own hearts for anyone with whom they disagree. They should follow the Baal Shem Tov and realize they are looking in the mirror.

Even this confirmed Mitnaged would welcome that type of neo-Hasidism.

The Joy of Torah

 

(This first appeared on the front page of the Jewish Press, October 21,2016.)

Simchat Torah is the culmination of the entire festival season. Gone, at first glance, is the awe of Days of Awe, and the fearfulness of the period of judgment is replaced by a day of rejoicing and revelry. The change in mood is so striking – certainly from the solemn joy of Yom Kippur but even from the inner happiness experienced on Succot – that it is not unknown for the spiritual highs of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be lost or forfeited in the riotous behavior some indulge in on Simchat Torah. This refers not just to the execrable drinking that occurs in certain precincts but especially to the ambiance that pertains in many (but by no means all) shuls.

Thus, one who takes a young child to shul only on Simchat Torah and Purim is probably not inculcating in that child the reverence that should typify our deportment in shul, and it will probably take years of training to reverse that impression. That is not to say that young children should not be taken to shul on Simchat Torah but rather that they should be put on notice that the conduct they will witness is atypical.

Undoubtedly, the festivities are cathartic for those who are uncomfortable with the seriousness of Yom Kippur. All of which begs the question: what exactly are we celebrating on Simchat Torah? Of course, one is obligated to rejoice when completing any cycle of Torah study, and so the conclusion of the annual Torah readings and its immediate renewal are appropriate grounds for rejoicing. These are milestones in life, and the transition from Moshe’s death with the Jewish people poised to enter the land of Israel back to the beginning – literally, “in the beginning” – reflects another year in which we have heard, studied, internalized and been uplifted by the Torah’s message. Now, another such year is beginning. And rather than going back to the same place – both in the Torah and in our lives – we are actually ascending a spiral staircase in which we gaze back at the previous year, cherish the insights that have shaped our minds and refined our deeds, and eagerly anticipate the next cycle of readings.

And so we dance, and do hakafot with the Torah in appreciation and gratitude for the divine gift to the Jewish people. Some argue today that hakafot on Simchat Torah are an example of the innovations that once characterized Jewish life that have now been frozen by a stultified Rabbinate. Well, not quite. The hakafot of Simchat Torah are actually extensions of the hakafot that are made throughout Succot. Every day of Succot we grasp our arba minim and march around the Torah that stands in the center. On Simchat Torah, we hold the Torah itself, and circumambulate the place from which the Torah is read. Better said, we are circling our version of Sinai – the shulchan from which the sounds of Torah emanate – and celebrating with “He who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.”

After weeks of repentance and soul-searching, confessions and fasts, and on the verge of returning to our daily lives, we need to celebrate the Torah, elevate it in our eyes, show our love for it and prepare to re-integrate it in all its aspects. Amid all the celebrations, we must realize that dancing with the Torah is not an end in itself but a natural expression of our love for Torah. But that love is primarily actualized not by holding the Torah, waltzing, fox-trotting or tangoing with the Torah, or even kissing the Torah when it passes in front of us. That love is fully consummated only when we study the Torah, observe its laws, cherish it, and protect and preserve it from those who try to modify it to suit the times.

One cannot love the Torah and constantly find fault with it nor can one love the Torah and negate or minimize its divine origin. One cannot love the Torah and try to change it, anymore than one can love a spouse while trying to change that person as well. Both are futile quests. We can only change ourselves. Sometimes, we have to change ourselves to accommodate the spouse who might have an irritating trait or two (love conquers all). Sometimes we have to change ourselves and surrender to the dictates of a divine Torah, even when we find some of the commandments challenging in one way or another.

It is a basic rule of Jewish life that every person will have to struggle with at least one area of Torah, even if only because the Torah demands that we overcome our natural instincts and defer to G-d’s will. In theory, only the perfectly righteous observe the Torah without difficulty, but the perfectly righteous are not that large a demographic today. Nonetheless, true love of Torah always requires that we conform to G-d’s will rather than expect G-d’s will to conform to our needs.

Not long ago, a Yeshiva high school principal wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” Without at all discounting, trivializing or minimizing the struggle that some have with this issue, if such is “the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today” they should count their blessings. And this conclusion accounts for the genuine pain many people feel over their circumstances, which is quite often heartbreaking and should always evoke our empathy. It takes into account the pain of families wrestling with this challenge. But the greatest reality – the one that governs our lives – is the reality of G-d’s existence and the laws of the Torah He gave us.

So the world has never spared the Jewish people formidable religious challenges, and to be sure, many Jews have unfortunately succumbed to those challenges. But imagine if our young people today had to deal with grinding poverty, relentless persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Haskalah, high infant mortality and forced conversions. Imagine if these young people had to witness their families murdered before their eyes by an enemy driven to destroy them because of its hatred of Torah. Imagine if they had to encounter the Inquisition or were forced to abandon all their worldly possessions and flee into exile. Imagine if these young people had no job on Monday because they failed to show up for work on the previous Shabbat. Imagine if kosher food was not readily available in every supermarket, and there weren’t kosher restaurants aplenty to satiate every palate. Imagine if they had to travel hundreds of miles to use a mikveh, as some Jews in the former Soviet Union had to do. Imagine if they were denied the right to learn Torah under the penalty of death. Just imagine…

They should be thankful to have such a “formidable” challenge as the one they claim to have, even acknowledging that it is serious and often tragic. But we should wonder whether or not we are doing an adequate job in educating our young people that Torah sometimes requires sacrifice or pain or struggle, and observance of the Torah sometimes means that we cannot always get our way.

Not every desire can be reconciled with the laws and morality of the Torah, even if the zeitgeist decrees that you can always have everything you want, how you want it and when you want. It is just not true. That is when we show our love for Torah by surrendering to G-d’s will.

Just because young and modern people disagree with something in the Torah does not make them right and the Torah wrong. Perhaps, indeed, it is the reverse. One would think that a primary focus of Jewish education today (in truth, I assume it is) would be to impart to children the reality of life as G-d mandated it to us. Only G-d’s vision of mankind is real – not anything that we concoct. Only G-d’s morality can preserve mankind’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Only the truths of Torah can remind man that he is created in the image of G-d and has been given the tools with which to best serve G-d, perfect his soul and enjoy life on this planet.

Again, without trivializing anyone’s pain or the struggles they confront, it stands to reason that if we investigated every generation going back to ancient times, young people in every generation undoubtedly found something to take issue with in the Torah. When all their peers were worshipping idols, or marauding, or carousing, or eating any type of food, or enjoying the weekend (not Shabbat), or reveling in every new discovery and every act of rebellion against their elders, or when they saw their peers pursuing their life’s dreams and desires unfettered by any external restrictions – it is not difficult to envision that many of them felt spiritual “challenges” as well. Those who overcame them are our illustrious ancestors in whose merit we exist today. Those who succumbed to them disappeared into the mist of history and were lost to our eternal people.

Every generation thinks it is reinventing the wheel and faces trials that no one else had before. In truth the wheel grinds on, and in every age Jews confront obstacles to the observance of mitzvot and the love of Torah. What we can never do is measure the worth or viability of Torah by contemporary standards of morality. If we ever did, among other problems that would not be a Torah worth sacrificing for or even dancing with.

On Simchat Torah in the Torah reading, we indirectly reference the famous Mechilta (Parshat Yitro) that every small child is taught: “And He said, ‘Hashem came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Se’ir, appeared from the mountain of Paran…” (Devarim 33:2). To whom did G-d appear? The Midrash states that the nations of the world would have protested the giving of the Torah to Israel, so G-d first offered it to them. “He revealed Himself to the children of the wicked Esav (Se’ir) and asked, ‘will you accept the Torah?” They answered with a question: “Mah k’tiv ba?” What is written in it? G-d answered “You shall not murder,” and the children of Esav responded that homicide is a legacy from their ancestor, and so they rejected the Torah.

Ammon and Moav were also approached and asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Told there are restrictions on lascivious behavior, they too declined, for their nations were founded on acts of immorality. The children of Yishmael were also offered the Torah and also asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Informed of the prohibition “You may not steal,” they too protested. “Our forebear was blessed with this special talent, and so the Torah is not for us.

Conversely, when the people of Israel were offered the Torah, we answered “whatever G-d says we will do and we will obey,” “naaseh v’nishma” (Shmot 24:7). We did not ask “Mah k’tiv ba?” We accepted the Torah without investigation (even impetuously, as Rava, the great Amora, was taunted by a heretic, in Masechet Shabbat 88a) and only because we trusted the Lawgiver to give us a Torah that would guide us through life properly, satisfy every legitimate human need, and perfect our souls. We accepted the Torah unconditionally, even though to us it was an “aish dat,” a fiery faith that is not easily handled. We trusted G-d who is compassionate and merciful and knows the best way for man to live.

Some are still asking “Mah k’tiv ba?” – What is written in it?” – and conditioning their acceptance of the Torah on whether or not the commandments of the Torah suit them, their friends, their personalities, their business practices, their own moral conclusions, their family lives, their politics and their proclivities. But those whose acceptance of the Torah is predicated on “Mah k’tiv ba?” will never fully accept the Torah. They are substituting their morality for

G-d’s and, in effect, worshipping themselves.

Is that something to celebrate? Maybe on one’s birthday but that is not the meaning or import of Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate not the giving of the Torah but its incorporation into our lives and our profound joy in being entrusted with G-d’s eternal message for all of mankind. At the very least, we should feel an unlimited sense of gratitude along with the rejoicing.

How can we impart to younger Jews – raised in a world in which narcissism is considered normal and even healthy, and feelings matter more than truth or substance – the spirit of sacrifice, the nobility of surrender to G-d’s will, or the willingness to embrace moral notions that are Divine and objective but contrary to the prevailing norms?

Perhaps we can enlighten them as to the great people in our history who celebrated, loved and lived the Torah when it was not as easy as it is today: Rabbi Akiva (and countless others) who forfeited their lives to teach the Torah to the simple laborer who after a day of toil attends a shiur; parents who retain as their primary ambition in life raising children who love, respect and will learn the Torah; and communities that will faithfully transmit it unaffected by the winds of modernity that are gusting through others.

Those individual giants and committed communities have sustained us until today and will continue in the future. And we should underscore how every Jew has a share in that Torah, community and destiny if only he or she embraces them, a Torah that is “our lives and the length of our days.”  That is the true and enduring celebration of the Torah.

Chag Sameach to all!