Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

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!

Honored Guests

Every year we welcome into our Succot some of the most distinguished guests in Jewish history – the “Ushpizin” – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David. It is the Jewish dream team and a mystic’s delight, but for the rest of us – why are they here and what do they teach us?
Rav Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, once told the following story. In the year 2000, he was invited to deliver the annual St. George Lecture at Windsor Castle, the first Jew ever so honored. He was overwhelmed by the thought of it – and what he would say – especially considering that Windsor Castle is the oldest royal castle in the world in continuous use since its construction in the 1070’s by William the Conqueror, a decade after the Norman Conquest. Kings and queens have used that residence ever since and much happened to us while they were there.

In the almost 1000 years since, Jews underwent great hardship in the UK – starting with the blood libel in Norwich in 1144, the massacre in York in 1190 (there’s a kinah that describes that), and the expulsion of Jews in 1290 by King Edward I. Jews did not return legally to Britain until Oliver Cromwell permitted them in 1657. And Rabbi Sacks wondered: if those Jews could talk, what would they say now?

What he did say was this: I’m trying to put myself in the mindset of someone who inherits this castle and who lives here. The place is saturated with history. Every royal who lives here sees this home as his personal history, but also as the history of a nation. The residents therefore have moral obligations to the past and the future, and not just the present. Every resident becomes part of that history, the history of Windsor Castle, and he has to preserve it for the next generation of Windsors, the next generation of royalty. This is life lived not just an individual but in an historical context.

Jews, he said, do not have castles. We do not have castles but our history, our memory, is built through words. In context, he meant the hagada – the lecture occurred before Pesach – words that emanate from the commandment of “and you shall relate to your children on that day,” to impart the story of Israel to every new generation. We don’t need buildings of brick and stone if we know the words, and the words are transmitted from generation to generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, frequently under conditions of hardships and travails. And every child is taught the words, because that is his legacy – to transmit those words to his children.

Edmund Burke wrote that “a partnership is not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Burke meant that everyone in society is part of the partnership – but we mean it as referring to the great Jewish odyssey. Indeed, the venerable Labor ideologue Yitzchak Tabenkin told David Ben Gurion not to accede to the partition demands of the Peel Commission, because he had “consulted” both his grandfather and his grandson, and neither would tolerate one generation’s surrender of the ancestral land of the Jewish people. No individual generation has the right to betray the past or the future.

I would take it a step further. Jews don’t have Windsor Castles; those do not represent our essence. We have our words but I would expand that too: what we have our experiences – experiences that we cherish, that define us, that keep us connected to G-d and to our people and that we transmit from one generation to the next.

We don’t need a fancy castle because we have a Succa – and in that Succa we hear the echoes of the giants of our history. The beauty of our history is that they – the Ushpizin – are the constants; we are transient. In our Succa, the guests are always the same – the Ushpizin; only the hosts change from year to year.

And what we convey most to our children are those experiences – of the Succa and the seder, of Shabbat and the shofar, of prayer and Torah study, of the innumerable acts and cherished values – that will both shape them and fully equip them with the means to live not just in the moment but in history, to see themselves as partners in the grand plan of the Creator in history.

“So that generations will know that I caused you to dwell in Succot when I took you out from the land of Egypt, I am G-d.” We dwell in the Succa so that we can transcend the generations – so that all generations will know that G-d has preserved us from time immemorial until this very day. Those Succot in the wilderness began our journey, which will culminate, as the prophet Zecharia taught, when all nations will come to Yerushalayim to celebrate Succot, in the era when G-d’s kingship will appear on earth and the entire world will pay homage to G-d, “and He will be One and His name will be One.”

The Optimism of Rosh Hashana

On Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, all individuals and nations “stand in judgment before the Creator of worlds.”  Naturally, we are usually more preoccupied with our individual judgments, even if the global judgments are equally, if not more, influential. We see all around us the rise of evil, and the unwillingness to confront it; we see the suffering of millions, and the indifference of billions; we hear of threats to the good and decent as the wicked and brazen intimidate and silence. We wonder about reward and punishment, and confront the challenging and comforting words of the Mishna (Avot 1:7) “Do not despair because of [seeming lack of] retribution.”

The simple explanation is that there is a Judge and judgment, and G-d’s justice may be more deliberate than ours would be, but it will come. So do not despair. It will come. But there is another explanation as well.

There is no more visceral sensation that pervades our being this time of year than the ultimate question that hovers around us: “who will live and who will die.” It’s the question that cannot be avoided. Each year, for all the blessings in our lives, death takes its toll and makes our world a little darker and a lot emptier. Death – even the specter of death – brings with it a sense of vulnerability and helplessness. Rav Soloveitchik wrote (in his “Halachic Man”) that death and holiness are contradictions. In the confrontation between man and nature, man always loses. Life itself is transient and fragile. And in a world at war, in a world where Jews feel increasingly exposed because the evildoers are shameless and emboldened and almost all others are feckless appeasers, it is that world in perpetual conflict that led the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes to look at man’s life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Rosh Hashana teaches us the exact opposite. We are confronted with the obligations of repentance, which is a reflection of renewal. The Gemara says (Masechet Shabbat 106a) that if one from a social group dies, everyone in the group should worry. And not just worry, as Rambam (Laws of Mourning 13:12) elaborates: whoever doesn’t mourn properly, as our Sages commanded, is “cruel,” i.e., is living in denial. What should one do? He should be scared, anxious, examine his deeds, and repent.

It is interesting that the proper response to loss – like to the Day of Judgment – is repentance, which forces us to refocus, to reconnect with the Eternal One and His reality, to triumph over the lure of the frivolous and remember that, indeed, our time here is limited. And that is life-affirming, not depressing.

That is the great message of the Mishna: “do not lose faith in the coming retribution.” It is not only that we believe in reward and punishment, and that the wicked will soon receive their just retribution. It also means “do not despair because of the existence of evil,” of suffering, of problems. Do not despair. Do not think that life is over. Do not even think that the world is filled with evil. None of that is true.

Rav Kook wrote on the verse we recite every morning (Tehillim 30:6) that “G-d’s anger endures for a moment” but to live according to His will is life itself. All the problems in the world, in our lives, are just “a moment,” and that underscores that the abundance of good that is “a life according to His will.”

Rav Kook: “the goodness and kindness in life are the permanent and dominant foundation of existence. It is evil that is temporary and ephemeral.” Evil is the exception, something extraordinary, and comes only to deepen and expand our appreciation of the good. That we don’t always see it like that is the problem with which we have to wrestle.

A person who sees the world as filled with death, pain, suffering and evil is not only mistaken, and not only loses his desire for and enjoyment in life, and not only fills the world with hatred and despair. But such a person also is not paying close enough attention – to see the blessings of life, prosperity, of children and grandchildren, of food, clothing and shelter, of all the opportunities we have to do good for others.

Winston Churchill said, quite insightfully, that the pessimist sees the challenges in every opportunity, whereas the optimist sees the opportunities in every challenge. If the Day of Judgment fills us with awe and trepidation – as it should – it is only because we wish to choose life, not because the alternative is mysterious and terrifying but primarily because of the opportunities that we are afforded in this world.

Rav Saadia Gaon taught us that the shofar is sounded on Rosh Hashana not only to inspire our repentance, induce our trembling on the day of judgment, or even to remind us of the coming redemption and the resurrection of the dead – but rather, in its most basic purpose, as an act of coronation: to accept upon ourselves His kingship and the world of good He has favored us with.

If, on occasion, “at night we lie down in tears” (Tehillim 30:6) – tears shed because of the misery and fear and sorrow we witness, sadness because of personal loss – still “by morning there is joy and song,” the joy of rejuvenation, and the sound of redemption. That is the eternal faith of the Jew. So, never despair and always be optimistic.

May we all merit hearing the sounds of song and salvation in the tents of the righteous, and be inscribed and sealed for a year of life and goodness, of good health and prosperity, of peace and redemption, for us and all Israel.

Enjoy this selection from the “Jewish Shofar” project.

To buy the digital CD, including other melodies, here is the Link

http://payhip.com/b/dm7j

 

Name Changers

The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that four actions can change a person’s heavenly decree for the good: charity, changing one’s name and one’s deeds (maybe even one’s domicile) and crying out to G-d. Rambam places this directly in the realm of repentance – not just to avert a decree but to better oneself: “Among the ways of repentance is that a person constantly cries out before G-d with supplications, gives charity to the full extent of his ability, keeps far from sin, and changes his name, as if to say ‘I am someone else and not the man who committed these sins,’ and he changes his deeds for the good…” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).

For sure, merely changing one’s name without a concomitant change of behavior is fatuous, worthy of a criminal entering the witness protection program. He hasn’t changes his essence but is seeking to evade justice. But how does changing one’s name in the best of circumstances constitute any real change in the individual? After all, we are defined more by our deeds; our name just is a handy reference point to the person who does those deeds, for good or less-than-good.

We do not find that name-changing is a common practice among penitents today, but the Gemara and the Rambam are evoking a different experience than the literal act. The true penitent has to perceive himself as a different person, as someone else entirely, unencumbered by his past. That past might have been lamentable and might even have defined him in the eyes of the public, but that person has now been replaced by a new person. Same DNA makeup, different moral universe. The sincere penitent has become a different person, so it is prohibited, as Chazal teach (Bava Metzia 58b) to say to a penitent: “Remember your past deeds,” as if he is still who he was before.

But can name-changing erase the past? Should it?

For several years, activists in the black American community have been seeking (in some places, successfully) to erase the names on public places of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and change them to names that are more suitable to their interests. Their offenses are known. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe were all slave owners, and their names adorn cities, school, universities and other institutions. Monroe, in fact, is the only US President to have a foreign capital named for him – Monrovia, Liberia. John C. Calhoun, slave owner, Senator, Vice-President, Secretary of State and ardent segregationist, has a building named for him at Yale University, where several months ago, a black employee, irritated at a stained glass window depicting black slaves in what he perceived to be a pejorative way, smashed it to pieces. (He was fired and threatened with arrest. Our times being what they are, and the activists being who they are, he was never prosecuted for his vandalism and has been re-hired by Yale.)

Assuming that these activists are sincere and not merely engaging in a cultural power play so common in this overheated era, is there any merit to their argument? Should the Founding Fathers of this nation be dishonored because of the sordid aspects of their past, notwithstanding their astonishing achievements that changed the world for the good? Does erasing their names really erase our history, or is the notion of re-writing the past too Orwellian, too much like the old Soviet Union, to be taken seriously?

There are two approaches to these questions.

One can be called “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Jews have a long history, the longest of any nation still intact with a coherent and vibrant relationship with our ancestors, as well as the memory of numerous enemies that tried to destroy us over the millennia. Those enemies are often celebrated, perhaps innocently.

For example, the World Monuments Fund every year presents what it calls the “Hadrian Award” for excellence in architecture. It is named for the 2nd century Roman emperor Hadrian, who was renowned for being a patron of the arts, for his love of architecture and culture (he rebuilt the Pantheon that still stands in Rome, and for his humanitarian endeavors across the globe.

Hadrian was also a psychopathic mass murderer who brutally suppressed the Bar Kochva rebellion, and killed in his time hundreds of thousands of Jews. That rebellion only began after Hadrian banned the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot in the land of Israel. Thousands of Jews went into hiding in order to cling to our faith. Hadrian, apparently, oversaw the torture and execution of some of our Talmudic giants, including Rabbi Akiva.

The Midrash illustrates the cruelty, caprice and vindictiveness of Hadrian with the following story (Eicha Rabba 3, Reish): A Jew passed by the emperor Hadrian and greeted him. Hadrian said: “How dare you, a Jew, deign to greet the emperor of Rome!” The Jew was beheaded. Another Jew then passed and did not greet the emperor. Hadrian stopped him and said: “How dare you, a Jew, not greet the emperor of Rome!” That Jew was also then beheaded. A puzzled officer then asked Hadrian: “You kill those who greet you for greeting you, and kill those who don’t greet you for not greeting you?”

Hadrian responded: “Are you trying to advise your king as to how I should kill my enemies?”

The four winners of the 2016 “Hadrian Award” were announced this past July.

Much better known than the Hadrian Award is the city of St. Louis, the second largest city in Missouri and a name that should stick in the craw of every Jew. That city was named for King Louis IX of 13th century of France, a devout Catholic, and canonized by his church for his piety, and especially for one particularly galling and hateful act perpetrated against French Jewry, a catastrophe memorialized in a kina (elegy) recited on Tish’a B’Av. At the behest of Pope Gregory IX, Louis IX seized all the extant copies of the Talmud in France – more than 1200 manuscripts in all, all painstakingly transcribed in an era two centuries before the invention of the printing press – and on one Friday, in July 1242, they were ceremoniously burned in the public square in Paris, 24 wagon loads in all.

With that, the era of the Tosafists effectively ended, most Jews soon left France, and the remaining French Jews were expelled in 1306.

Saint Louis? Not from this vantage point.

For sure, we Jews have plenty of grievances, and awards and cities named for rogues and villains, murderers and tyrants, are among them, but not very prominent among them. Should Jews boycott the city of St. Louis until it changes its name? (Suggestion: call it “Rabbi Yechiel,” after the great sage who headed the Yeshiva in Paris in the 1200’s and defended the Talmud against its detractors and burners. Of course, that will never happen.) Should an enraged Jew tear down the “Gateway Arch?” Of course not. But why shouldn’t the name “St. Louis” evoke such disgust and revulsion among the citizenry that good people will want to change the city’s name in order to avoid hurting the feelings of … anyone?

The answer is that there is a second approach to all these issues. It is this: We would do well to judge people on the totality of their deeds and not by their single acts that we find offensive. (Granted, there can be single acts that are so heinous that one is left with little choice but fusing that act with that person.) The premise is that no one is perfect, and that every human being is flawed. We should judge others by their essences and not by the lamentable, disreputable and even squalid activities with which they were also sporadically associated.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Calhoun and others were all slave owners, but none are being feted for being slave owners. Some of them, indeed, regretted the very institution even as they benefitted from it. Washington was the indispensable figure who led the American Revolution to victory, Jefferson was the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Madison was the Father of the Constitution, etc. All played historic and positive roles, and should be rightly honored for them, notwithstanding the blots on their record.

No one is perfect and if the goal is to honor only perfect people by naming public entities after them, we will live in an anonymous world. Elihu Yale, who gave his money and name to that university, made part of his fortune as a slave trader. Abraham Lincoln himself made occasional racist comments, and FDR, JFK and even Martin Luther King, Jr., had a deplorable relationship with women and did not always treat their wives with the greatest respect. Not every politician with a bridge named for him was a tzadik.

True, anything named for Adolf Hitler, yemach sh’mo, would rightly cause offense, as his essence was evil. Other tyrants and dictators are the same. Their crimes against mankind were so extreme that there is no redeeming quality. We may not be able to see any good in Hadrian or Louis IX but others did, for whatever appalling reason. They had other dimensions to their existence than their hatred of Jews, as others see it. Accepting that outrage is part of the tolerance requested of those who want to live and interact in a civil society, and do not want to impose their views on the rest of society.

We can’t erase the past, and there is something admirable about the way some nations have examined their past wrongs and righted them. The Founding Fathers will always be the Founding Fathers, judged for the enormous good they did in the context of their times. That should be enough to engender a fair assessment of their lives and to honor their achievements.

And isn’t that how we ourselves want to be judged? By the totality of our personalities and not by our sins alone? The process of repentance involves as much an accounting of our sins as an acknowledgment of what we do right. We want to rectify our flaws but be judged on our essence, which longs for the good. Changing our names as part of the path of teshuva is a recognition that we are not our sins, and we do not want to be defined by our sins. So, too, we are not just our virtues. We are an amalgam of both, and we hope, pray and endeavor that our merits exceed our demerits – as individuals, as a nation and as a world.

Then we can leave our judgment in the hands of the True Judge who sees all and knows our hearts, and whose judgment is perfectly calibrated at all times to effect His plans for all mankind.

The Sensitive Rabbi

Is there such a thing as being too sensitive?

The question itself will be deemed by some as lacking sensitivity! But even as the heart tells us “no” – one cannot be “too” sensitive – the mind teaches us that, yes, there is sensitivity that is counterproductive, and harms both protagonist and subject. Intellectually, we realize that, at times, compassion, sympathy and sensitivity can be misplaced. The parent who succumbs to a child’s cries for endless pieces of candy is acting as compassionately as the surgeon who refuses to make an incision in his patient to avoid causing him pain, and as unwisely. Neither is acting as a parent or surgeon should.

As the famous comment of our Sages (Kohelet Rabba 7:16) taught, “One who is compassionate to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the compassionate,” a truism confirmed repeatedly in recent times, especially here in Israel. While our default position must be sensitivity, there are times when we must limit or even overcome those natural instincts in order to maintain our value system and properly serve G-d. Unlimited compassion is far better than the opposite but can be equally destructive.

Admittedly, this notion is a tough sell today. We are living through an era in which the pull of the heart matters more than the conclusions of the mind, feelings more than facts, and perception more than reality. This is true in politics, race relations, the wars of the sexes, and a host of other issues. Truths, even obvious truths, must be suppressed, and that is the world we live in. But the ascription of spiritual gravitas to “feelings” threatens to transform the Jewish and general worlds beyond recognition, undermine the Torah, render parenting more difficult than it already is, and distance us from G-d.

Certainly, rabbis are called upon to show sensitivity constantly, which is understandable, but therein lies the modern dilemma. One of my colleagues recently suggested that rabbinic responses to a number of issues have been colored by the conflation of the role of the rabbi with that of the social worker or therapist. (That is not entirely surprising. I once asked a non-Orthodox rabbi what led him to become a rabbi, seeing as he did not believe in the divine origin of the Torah, and he told me that he saw himself as a “social worker with a better title.”) But while a rabbi engages in therapy of sorts, he is not a therapist, nor is that his primary role.

Thus, this colleague noted, a therapist rarely offers value judgments to his client. His function is to listen, empathize, connect with the emotional world of the patient and try to help him/her navigate the unstable terrain on which the patient walks. Value judgments are usually inappropriate and often unhelpful. Conversely, rabbis (clergymen, generally) are expected to give value judgments. They too must seek to understand the emotional world of the person, but that world, rather than benign, is governed by our relationship with G-d. Indeed, the rabbis’ world view – unlike that of the therapist – is ideally always shaped by the laws and values of the Torah. The proffer of values need not be heavy-handed but can never be completely discounted or ignored.

If the therapist’s principal task is to help the person become psychologically healthy, the rabbi’s role is to help the person become spiritually healthy. The therapist tries to get the person right with the world; the rabbi tries to get the person right with the Almighty. Obviously, there are areas that overlap, but there are also boundaries that should not be blurred even if the ways we negotiate that arena may differ from case to case. The rabbi – unlike the therapist – must eventually speak the language of “permitted, forbidden, can, may, should, should not,” and if he doesn’t, he has not merely improperly conflated the two roles but he has essentially vitiated the rabbinic role. That is done sometimes for good reasons – a desire not to cause pain or an excess of sensitivity – and sometimes for bad reasons – a craven need for popularity or a fear of bad press among the opinion-shapers of today.

Rabbis and rabbinical organizations have been wrestling for some time with a number of issues in this genre. More often than not, this has resulted in confusion, not clarity, as political correctness clashes with halachic correctness, and some rabbis willfully act more as therapists and social workers (if not social trendsetters) than as rabbis. Thus, the halacha is usually black and white – after all, that is why it is called Halacha, the way we walk – and no amount of hand-wringing or pressure will change that. There are limits beyond which the halacha cannot go. Is that insensitive? It is not meant to be, but one can argue that honesty shows greater respect for the other side than a faux sensitivity that raises expectations that will never be met.

There are approaches to sins and sinners that most rabbis use that do not require denial, acceptance or vilification. Here’s one, mine, and quite common: we are all sinners but I do not have to delve into each person’s private life to ascertain their level of religiosity. Why is it anyone’s business? It is certainly not my business. What is unacceptable is the glorification of the sin, its public advocacy and its celebration – and that applies to a host of sins. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:5) says that one who publicizes his sins against G-d is brazen, and so there is virtue in concealing such sins from others. Such a person is a Jew who is in as good standing as any other Jew. That is the difference between the sinner, which we all are to varying degrees, and the heretic, who denies that what he is doing is divinely proscribed.

Of course, that requires the rabbis to use the language of “sin,” which, it seems, the rabbi qua therapist has been loath to do. Sin is a sign of human frailty. It is our constant but unwanted companion in life. But the notion of “sin” presupposes that there is an objective morality (of divine origin) that distinguishes between right and wrong, moral and immoral. A rabbi who fails to use the language of sin has ceased to function as a rabbi. Similarly, a rabbi who encounters a person addicted to a certain sin – and there are numerous possibilities; consider the rageaholic who is prone to violent outbursts – and discourages that person from seeking help to overcome that addiction has acquiesced in the sin and failed as a rabbi. The treatment might work and it might not work, but foreclosing the option is irresponsible and insensitive. It can even be spiritually devastating.

To be fair, the rabbinic model of the Hasidic Rebbe is more aligned with the “rabbi as therapist” than the so-called “Lithuanian” model, if only because the Rebbe serves also as a father figure to his followers. It is easy to imagine a Rebbe telling an individual with lascivious tendencies that he should do whatever Mitzvot he can do and not define himself by the sin, and such is right and proper. It would be inconceivable, though, that the Rebbe would not also gently remind his interlocutor that his conduct is nonetheless a sin, and offer ways to overcome it. But we cannot deny the more common model symbolized by Moshe himself, that of “yikov hadin et hahar” – let the law bore through the mountain. The Law is the Law is the Law. That is Torah truth but also most unwelcome in the parts of the Jewish world that prefer nuance to truth, and gray to black and white.

There is something even off-putting about a discussion of integrating sinners into the community. When have we ever had a community that did not have sinners? Indeed, the Gemara (Kreitot 6b) states that “any public fast that does not include the intentional sinners of Israel is not considered a public fast.” Being inclusive of sinners is routine; we should not pretend it’s revolutionary.

What compounds the problem is the obliteration of all traditional moral norms in society, especially during the Obama years, which has made even the promotion of traditional morality something akin to a hate crime. Often, the appeal to the heart strings is palpable – the quest for love, happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction in life. “Does G-d want to remove from some people the possibility of love? Does G-d want to deprive any person of happiness or physical gratification? Does G-d not want people to be who they are?” Those may be powerful questions, but ones that we need not necessarily fully answer, except to say this: the Jewish laws of sexual morality and Kashrut are chukim (Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6), which defy simple understanding. They are decrees from G-d that bind the faithful even if we do not fully comprehend them or their particulars. As such, they are the primary means by which we show our fidelity to G-d and our commitment to the way of life He assigned to us in His wisdom, compassion and love. They connect us to G-d, as indelibly as letters engraved in stone. That will not change.

To some people today, the utterance of simple truths is utterly unacceptable. They seek not a dialogue but a monologue enforced through threats and intimidation. But truths, uttered or even unuttered, still remain truths. Providing a forum to air one’s pain is, indeed, sensitive, but when one later encounters the brick wall of G-d’s law, the collision will be even more jarring. There is a better way – mutual respect and mutual sensitivity. That is, mutual respect, not just for the struggles of all sinners but also respect for the integrity of G-d’s law and the limits He imposed on us. And mutual sensitivity, especially for those faithful Jews who try to observe the Torah amid personal sacrifice and against the current of modern society, and even for rabbis who will not pander to the modern ethos or always make people happy but rather strive to bring all people closer to G-d and serve Him and His people with faith and honesty.

That is being truly sensitive to the primary objectives in life of every living being. We should try it.

 

The Wisdom of Kotzk

So what was a born and committed mitnaged (me) doing several weeks ago at the grave of Rav Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the celebrated Kotzker Rebbe? Kotzk is a small village in central Poland, where the Kotzker Rebbe set up his Hasidic court in the second quarter of the 19th century, and our Heritage tour stopped there and visited the tiny Jewish cemetery where his grave is located. Indeed, the Kotzker is the Rebbe that mitnagdim can most appreciate, because he favored the primacy of Torah study above all and disdained the traditional trappings of the Hasidic court, the claims of miracles and wonders, and even the customary veneration of the Rebbe. His end also had its dark and very human side.

At his grave, I shared and explained some of his more famous aphorisms, all of which contain wisdom and insight that can benefit Jews today as well. Here are some of my particular favorites.

The middle of the road is for horses.” Human beings have to ascertain all the facts as best they can, and then decide. This is especially true of leaders, spiritual and/or political. One can choose the right side or the left side, but one must choose, at least in theory. These days, only the theory remains. So-called “leaders” are prone to nuance, obfuscation, endless debates and committees, seeing all sides and then choosing none, one compelling reason why malaise and apathy are so prevalent. Decisions are often avoided so as not to offend anyone – echoing Disraeli’s famous quip: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” – with anarchy and ineptitude the general result.

The Kotzker had it right, as did General Patton (“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way”), but it is a hard sell in a world where “leaders” live in fear of laity, are forced to follow and then pretend they are courageously blazing new trails. (A distinguished rabbi who was with us explained the Kotzker’s statement as referring to the Rambam’s “golden mean,” which is not the midpoint between two extremes – the realm of the horses – but similar to the third vertex of a triangle that draws from the other two. That could be, but I still prefer my interpretation.)

Where is G-d to be found? Wherever you let Him in.” Jews have suffered for centuries from approaches to Torah that seek to confine G-d to comfortable places that will not impinge on our desires or that sought to conform the Torah to modern, Western values that are often antithetical to Torah but, strangely, are perceived by many people as superior to those of the Torah. Thus the ongoing efforts to legislate certain sins out of existence or re-define Jewish law and lore so that they satisfy modern sensibilities. Such endeavors are often presented as attempts to bring us closer to G-d but they are more accurately understood as feats of self-worship, with references to the Deity as a flimsy and transparent cover. G-d can be found in surrender to His Torah, in the voluntary abnegation of our desires that conflict with His stated will. And that is “letting Him in,” to our minds, hearts and deeds.

I could probably revive the dead but I prefer to revive the living.” There is no greater wonder than the resurrection of the dead – but reviving the living might be more challenging. Habit, the great strength of the committed spiritual life, is also its bane. If we do something today – pray, wear tefilin, eat kosher, etc. – simply because we did it yesterday, then our spiritual life has ossified and teeters on the brink of irrelevance. Such can lead people who are observant in their private lives or synagogue activities to lie, steal, commit other crimes and think nothing of it.

Religious man struggles first with maintaining the daily commitment but then with infusing that commitment with vitality and enthusiasm. That is a challenge, but where is it written that we are not to be challenged? In fact, the opposite is true. In a similar context, the Kotzker stated: “Just to (by rote) fulfill one’s obligations? Not at all! Either everything or nothing,” which takes us back to the middle of the road and the horses. If you’re going to do something, do it right, and do it right the first time and every time (within the limits of human frailties).

The Jewish people could use a little revivification of the living – to minimize the sense of routine and maximize the excitement of Torah life and the opportunities that have blessed our generation. One reason why that has become more difficult in recent times is this:

I am requesting that you not sin, not because it is forbidden to sin but rather because you should not have enough leisure time to sin.” Modern man has a lot of time on his hands, and we do not always fill that time in the most salubrious ways. The technological advances of the last century have eased the burdens of sustenance and alleviated the household chores that consumed much of our time and energy in the past, but they have also created different burdens and new obligations. Certainly, some of the social movements that have transformed the world in the last half century are the consequences of these advances that arose detached from any moral constraints or at least in a society where moral restrictions were perceived as archaic.

We have the opportunity and the means today to increase our Torah study, performance of mitzvot and pursuit of the good far more than did past generations, and yet many will argue – and with merit – that we are more disconnected from G-d than prior generations and less governed by His will. So, too, many will argue cogently that we have much greater means today of interacting with other people and yet many feel more, not less, disengaged from real, live human beings. Witness the number of people who walk the streets or sit at public events staring at their Smartphones, as if what is elsewhere is always more important and interesting that what or who is right in front of them.

Well, the Kotzker’s wish that man have no time to sin is the polar opposite of today’s reality, and how then we use that time defines our real values in life.

I can tell you what not to do. What to do, each person has to ask himself.” Of course, the Kotzker was not talking about the performance of the positive commandments but rather the expression of one’s personality and goals in the world at large. Our Sages state (Berachot 58a) that just as no two people look alike, no two people think alike. Every personality is different, and so every human being adds a different dimension to existence. Often, people will seek out the advice of others to find out who they are. That is a risky venture, often compromised more by the advisor’s biases or predilections than what the questioner really is or wants to be. Deep down, most people know who they are and what they want to be, even if it takes time to act upon it or to actualize it. But there is nothing that is more personally fulfilling than finding one’s role in life and carrying it out to perfection (or as close to perfection as man can come).

Finally, “You don’t love fish. If you loved the fish, you would not have killed it and cooked it on a fire.” Modern man tosses around words like “love” as if they are stray pennies found on a street in China. Often, love of “something” is just self-love projected outward. We don’t love “fish,” we love what the fish does for us, how it satisfies our appetites and pleases our palates (fish lovers, only). True love is love of the other for what the “other” is – spouse, especially – and not what that other does for us, what needs they satisfy or how they can be used. Love, as the term is commonly used, is much more utilitarian than we like to think; that is why so many marriages today are perceived as disposable, a short-term exchange of pleasures and comforts mutually agreed upon until the provision of pleasures ceases or one finds better accommodations elsewhere. Whatever that is, and however common that is today, unfortunately, one thing that it is not is “love.” Love remains a relationship of giving, not taking, and that is applicable to love of G-d and love of man.

Of course, there are many more such aphorisms of the Kotzker Rebbe, and straight Torah insights as well, even if the Kotzker himself never compiled them in a book. But wisdom is always beneficial, and the wisdom of Kotzk in so many ways still speaks directly to our generation.

If only we would heed it…