Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

The Banality of Impeachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Modern Orthodox Jew: Two Models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eternal Scourge

Jews across the world are rightly agitated by rising Jew hatred, not merely hostile rhetoric and anti-Israel activism but also physical attacks on random Jews. In France and Germany, in the United States and (lest we forget) Israel, and in other countries, Jews have been assaulted by enemies of the Jewish people in sudden and unprovoked beatings. Jewish institutions have been targeted in these countries as well, and most Jewish places of worship and assembly have beefed up security in recent years.

Is it worse than ever? Of course not, but Jews are understandably concerned and at a loss as to why it is happening and how it can be prevented. A recent AJC survey indicated that 88% of American Jews think Jew hatred in America today is a problem, and 84% think it has increased in the last five years. Yet, 98% have not experienced a direct personal attack, whether physical or verbal, and 95% have not avoided attending Jewish events for reasons of safety. Thus, the perception might be worse than the reality.

But the reality is that hardly a week goes by without a report of a physical attack on a Jew somewhere in the world. Certainly, the plethora of Jewish media outlets and web sites publicize these attacks, such that Jews who pay attention to these things know about it quickly, and repeatedly. Domestic politics has largely cultivated this perception as well, as Jewish Democrats have undeservedly embraced the narrative that President Trump and Republicans are to blame; that would hardly explain why a young black man in New York City punches a Hasidic Jew in the face almost every week (young black males not being generally perceived as MAGA hat wearers).

Sadly, it seems that nothing ever changes. Jew hatred is a persistent evil that, logically, should have disappeared after the Holocaust, after the founding of the State of Israel, or after the social progress in so many societies. And yet it endures even in countries where few or no Jews live.

One could spend a lifetime studying this phenomenon and not ascertain any definitive source.  Every reason proffered is insufficient, and every putative cause is debatable. To listen to the nasty diatribes or read the rabid ranting of Jew haters today and historically, the causes are multi-faceted, contradictory and often mutually exclusive. They hate Jews because Jews are too clannish or too cosmopolitan. They hate Jews because we are too wealthy or too poor, too liberal or too conservative, supporters of Trump or opponents of Trump. Some hated Jews because Jews were Communists and others hated Jews because Jews were capitalists. They hate Jews, many say today, because of Israel, but Jew hatred long predates the establishment of the State of Israel. One could go on and on, and no reason is ever dispositive because all of this ignores one fundamental dimension of our existence.

There is a paradox at the heart of one of the most well known – and challenging – descriptions of the Jewish people. Moshe proclaimed in his final charge to the Jewish people, almost his very last words (Devarim 33:28), that “Israel dwells securely when alone (“badad”), itself an echo of the most famous exposition of this notion, Bilaam’s characterization of the Jewish people as “a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9).

We are so familiar with this idea that we don’t ever consider why this is or should be a value. The great Rav Avraham Zuckerman zt”l noted that the Torah posits that the Jewish people are central to the world’s existence. Blessing flows to the world through us and our responsibility for the fate and welfare of other nations is a paramount feature of our existence. By definition, we are engaged with the rest of mankind. Nonetheless, we are also mandated to dwell alone, not be commingled with the nations but rather to retain a separate and distinct identity. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch even contended that we exercise our greatest influence on the nations when we are alone and distinct.

How can we be both alone and engaged? Moreover, Moshe underscores elsewhere (Devarim 32:12) that “G-d will guide us to be alone…” When does that happen?

Perhaps the answer will explain the current unrest in our world today. Indeed, the bane of Jewish life (in addition to persecution) has always been assimilation and its corollary – life in the exile. In every society in which we have lived, Jews have assimilated in large numbers over time. But when we are threatened with disappearance – when our assimilationist tendencies pass the tipping point – it is then that Jew hatred seemingly rises out of nowhere to remind us of our identity. As much as we try to hide it, G-d will not let it be hidden.

That is what the Torah means when Moshe declared that “G-d guides us to be alone” – to feel alone, to feel singled out and even excluded. And this Jew hatred, which is always beneath the surface, then explodes, the lid bursts off, and people who have no logical reason to hate Jews just start attacking Jews.

Has the US crossed that tipping point? The truth is that I don’t know how G-d runs His world or makes these judgments. What I do know is that assimilation in the United States is worse than ever and intermarriage is more accepted than ever. Both trends are extremely damaging and it is certainly unsurprising that these wake-up calls – these inexplicable attacks on Jews – have proceeded apace.

Several weeks ago, three Jewish athletes played baseball on Yom Kippur for their MLB playoff teams, all of whom, rightfully, lost. It does not seem that much thought was even given to the question of playing or not playing. A Sandy Koufax opting out of playing on Yom Kippur is simply unimaginable today. The attachment to Judaism outside the religious world is much more tenuous; the connection to Judaism is cultural – not national. It is personal – and not anyone else’s business. Even that modest symbol of commitment – abstaining from a public desecration of the Day of Atonement for the most frivolous of reasons – has been lost.

When Jews start vanishing and their Jewish identity evaporates, then “G-d guides us to isolation,” to feeling our identity through the hatred of our neighbors. That the targets are often clearly identifiable Jews does not mitigate the hypothesis; after all, we are all in this together and responsible for one another. “Once the destroyer is unleashed, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” (Bava Kama 60a). Eventually, the world takes notice of this unusual phenomenon – this original, incomprehensible and unshakable hatred of the Jews – and they too will acknowledge the one G-d.

Some will be adamant that more education is needed to win over hearts and minds and eliminate this scourge. It is wishful thinking and a waste of resources.  A recent Schoen Consulting poll revealed that almost 1/3 of American adults believe that far less than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and 22% of millennials hadn’t even heard about it – and this after decades of billions of dollars spent on Holocaust education, memorials, museums and programming.

Others will argue that this is tantamount to blaming the victim, as if to say we bring Jew hatred on ourselves. Such a contention is a denial of Jewish tradition and thought – and that itself is an accurate synopsis of the problem. Of course we do not deserve to be attacked in the streets or in our synagogues, and many will say (rightfully so) that we should arm and defend ourselves and fight back. All true. But that doesn’t address the root of the issue. When our Jewish identity is expressed through virtuous acts and closeness to G-d there is no need for the negative pressures and overt hostility to reinforce that identity.

This is our world, and that is the downside of this process. The counterforce to assimilation and the attenuation of Jewish identity is a shocking and forced reassertion of Jewish consciousness. As our Sages stated (Masechet Megila 14a), Haman’s extermination plans did more to bring about the repentance of Jews than the words of all forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses combined.

But there is an upside as well – we have the capacity to transform ourselves and the world itself and render Jew hatred a distant memory. For it is not only the Jewish people who are alone in the world. It is G-d who is also “alone,” until we bring His kingship and His glory to the attention of all the nations who will realize and even rejoice in the knowledge that there is no G-d but G-d and that we are His people.

As we near the end of days, it will become more and more difficult for Jews to retain their Jewish identity. That is when we must redouble our efforts and immerse ourselves in Torah and mitzvot, in Shabbat and Kashrut, in the traditional morality and value system of the Torah that we brought to the world. In fact, our lives depend on it.

 

Undoing the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Speech Therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Moon and the Jews

(Published as an op-ed in the Jewish Press, July 19, 2019)

     Fifty years ago this week man first walked on the moon, something fantasized about by human beings since ancient times. It was a triumph of human ingenuity that united all of mankind for a brief moment, and that, in the summer of 1969, brought a brief respite from the turmoil that tormented American life – a summer noted for mayhem (the Manson murders), music (the Woodstock retreat) and endless marches against the Vietnam War.

I missed all of that, spending my first summer in Israel and not yet Bar Mitzvah. I recall standing on July 20, 1969, with many others, on a street corner in Netanya looking at the grainy black-and-white television images of the first steps on the moon. The excitement was palpable. Earth’s moon was our gateway to space and the universe beyond. And then, oddly, the attraction of landing men on the moon faded quickly. No person has touched the moon’s surface since 1972. What happened? And is there a Jewish perspective on this accomplishment?

The scope of the moon program and its ancillary achievements were astonishing. More than 400,000 people worked for NASA on the space program and the inventions that were largely unknown byproducts of the drive to land a man on the moon transformed our world – everything from scratch-resistant lenses and anti-icing equipment to the first widespread use of Velcro, microchips, MRI’s, and the gravity-defying space pen (before the space pen, the astronauts used… pencils).

The drive to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth came about for the most prosaic reason: a desire to supersede the Soviet Union whose space program was then more advanced and successful. And it was fraught with danger that, in that era of stoic and understated heroes, was downplayed. But a fire aboard Apollo 1 during a launch pad test killed three astronauts in 1967. Less than a year after the successful landing, Apollo 13’s flight to the moon was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded on board; that crew returned safely. We have witnessed two space shuttle explosions in the ensuing decades.

The Apollo 11 astronauts were flying into uncharted territory. All precautions were taken but the slightest mishap – as happened other times – would have taken their lives. President Nixon had a failure speech prepared in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were stranded on the moon, lauding their courage and inspiration. Indeed, it was not known for many years that while exiting the Eagle moon landing craft, one of the astronaut’s backpacks had broken the switch on the computer that armed the engine! Fortunately, Buzz Aldrin inserted a simple pen that he brought with him – and the system worked (Newsmax, July 2019).

Strange as it sounds, Jews have always had a special relationship with the moon. We count our months according to the moon’s cycle (Masechet Sukka 29a) and as a nation are compared to the moon (Midrash Tehillim 22). The moon was singled out for creation on the fourth day, and it is the only aspect of creation that perceptibly changes shape every day before our eyes, waxing and waning every month and thereby meriting its own beracha upon its monthly reappearance. It seemed so close and yet so unreachable that the text of the accompanying tefilot characterized the moon as “aini yachol lingoa bach,” I cannot touch you. And yet touch it we did. One rabbi quickly opined that we should no longer recite that phrase; he was overruled. For all but twelve men, the moon remained untouchable, part of our world but literally beyond our grasp.

Poskim debated whether or not there was an obligation to observe mitzvot on the moon, with some claiming that mitzvot were mandated only “on the earth” (Devarim 12:1). That proposal never got off the ground. A joke circulated about the Jewish astronaut who reported on the difficulty of his mission orbiting the earth: “It was amazing, except for every 70 minutes – Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv…” In reality, there have been more than a dozen Jewish astronauts – Americans, Israelis and one Soviet Jew, Boris Volynov, who in January 1969 became the first Jew in space.

For all the exhilaration of the moment, the next moon landing just four months later drew much less attention. By 1972, missions were being canceled due to budget cuts. The late Eugene Cernan remains the last human to have walked on the moon, on December 17, 1972. Almost as quickly as man arrived, he determined that there was no reason to return.

Great moments of joy are often followed by emotional deflation. The feat, once achieved, no longer energizes. We remember the first person to do something, much less the second, and not at all the tenth. The space program stumbled in this essentially human way, the sense of “been there, done that, now what?” The mystique and enchantment of the moon landing fell victim to cost-benefit analyses and financial constraints. A fantasy fulfilled simply begets another and different fantasy.

And perhaps this as well: The American culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s eroded the nation’s moral core, and government failures – ethical, military, diplomatic and economic – sapped the people’s trust in the traditional institutions of American life. The contrast between the harmony in the heavens and the chaos on earth was too glaring – wars, massacres, human suffering and misery, and the emergence of new challenges and adversaries, all on earth – to justify spending resources on space without any immediate benefit. And Americans, now caught up in the throes of a consumerist and increasingly libertine society, prioritized pursuit of pleasure in the present over adventure in the great beyond. Man’s intellectual and technological achievements often carry a whiff of “my power and the might of my hand have accomplished all of this” (Devarim 8:17). Success feeds the ego in a potentially destructive way but also leaves man looking for new hills to climb and different hurdles to overcome.

Of course, there was and is another way to approach this, and why the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing evokes such nostalgia and good feeling. It is because the grandeur of the universe also reminds us of the smallness of mankind, underscoring our humility in the face of the Creator and His creation. “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your hands, the stars and the moon that You brought into existence. What is a human that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You remember him? Yet You made him slightly less than the angels and crowned him with glory and splendor” (Tehillim 8:4-6).

From this great distance, the astronauts reported, the earth looks so small and peaceful. If only we embraced that perspective, then our humility, ingenuity and commonality would impel us to imbue this planet with G-d’s presence and an eagerness to obey His will. For one fleeting moment fifty years ago, that perspective became possible – an eternal tribute to those whose courage revealed for all the extraordinary frontiers of human potential.