Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

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.

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The Intermarriage Ruckus

The Midrash Tanchuma (beginning of Parshat Balak) notes that the nations of the world were also given a prophet – Bilaam – and underscores the difference between that heathen prophet and our Moshe. “Moshe warned the people against sin, while Bilaam encouraged a breach (in moral norms) so as to destroy people’s [spiritual potential].” Moshe’s world, and his Torah, contains moral strictures and eternal guidance; Bilaam’s world is a hedonistic free-for-all that causes chaos to man and havoc for the soul.

Rav Rafi Peretz, the soft-spoken Rosh Yeshiva and current head of the Bayit Hayehudi party here in Israel, raised the ire of the easily ired by terming the intermarriage rampant among American Jews a “second Holocaust.” He was apparently unaware that using the Holocaust as an analogy to anything is the exclusive province of one secular American Jewish organization. Of course, the error in using the term, if it indeed was an error, was that it enabled his intended targets and their defenders to avoid dealing with the substance of his remarks – uttered with love and genuine concern – and obsess over the Holocaust itself. But if he had not used the analogy, then his heartfelt critique would certainly have been disregarded, so let’s get real.

The reference was otherwise unremarkable, as provocative as some deemed it. Analogies of the Holocaust to assimilation and intermarriage have been made for decades, by personalities as diverse as Golda Meir, Emil Fackenheim and scores of kiruv professionals. As I remember hearing it in the 1970’s, someone opined that it matters little “whether a soldier is killed in battle or shirks his uniform and flees the battlefield; both are lost to his nation’s war effort.” We can certainly parse the distinction – the soldier who falls in battle does so advancing the interests of his nation and dies a hero. The deserter is a cowardly traitor. There is a difference in assessment and cause – but the effect is the same. Both can no longer contribute to the country, and in that regard the analogy holds. Assimilation does give Hitler a posthumous victory and the intermarried Jews and their offspring are generally lost to the Jewish people.

So why the indignant attacks on Rav Peretz for pointing out the obvious? Well, these days, pointing out the obvious is a risky proposition, as sundry groups allied with leftist, anti-religious or progressive causes tolerate only one viewpoint: theirs. And one cannot rule out the political dimension, as Israel is undergoing another election campaign and there is an inordinate desire to besmirch the religious parties in any way possible. Just today, a veteran Israeli journalist, known for his anti-Torah views, rhetorically asked an interviewee if Rav Peretz is “chashuch” (unenlightened, in the most charitable definition), because in another fabricated “controversy” he failed to toe the PC line and oppose the only form of psychotherapy banned today for political, not practical, reasons, and despite his claim to have experienced some measure of success with it. Alcoholism and other addictions, anger, depression and the like can be treated (and not always successfully because there are always bad therapies, bad therapists, and individual free will) but only one condition under the sun can never be treated, even if a person wants to seek treatment freely, of his or her own volition. Certainly no one should be coerced into any therapy but prohibiting people from seeking help of their own accord is neither enlightened nor scientific.

And isn’t hearkening back to the culture and morality of Hellenism and ancient Rome the very definition of “chashuch?” After all, it was the darkness of Greece that the lights of Chanuka came to illuminate, to enlighten the world forever with Jewish moral ethics. That is a Jewish approach born of Jewish sources rather than modern sociological and political trends.

So who would be offended by referring to the intermarriage and assimilation as a “second Holocaust,” a “silent Holocaust,” and the like? Could it be the intermarried themselves who have already made their choices and are tenuously connected to Jewish life as it is? As noted, intermarriage lacks the coercive aspects of the Holocaust genocide even if the result is the same. But don’t they know that intermarriage is (was?) a taboo, and the death knell of Jewish continuity? Of course they do.

Politics aside, it would seem that the offended include those who defend, support and have even acquiesced to intermarriage, and number in their ranks a couple of pseudo-Orthodox rabbis, better defined as neo-Conservatives or even Modern Hellenists. There is not a Torah value that they seem to respect when it defies the zeitgeist. The defense of the intermarried as good Jews with holy souls is not just wrong but also counterproductive, catastrophic for the Jewish future. They are overly inclined to assuage the consciences of the intermarried in their modern church of good feelings and love conquers all. But what then happens to Torah and the Jewish people?

As they subtly encourage more and more intermarriage, they are blithely indifferent to one simple rule of economics: Whatever you subsidize (i.e., endorse, tacitly encourage, or reward), you get more of. Whatever you tax (i.e., penalize, oppose, disapprove and reject), you get less of. Do they want more intermarriage? Then they should keep attacking Rav Peretz and all others who refuse to reconcile themselves to this horror-by-choice. But then they will have distinguished themselves as modern Bilaam’s, the sinner’s favorite prophet because he rejects the very concept of sin. Bilaam too believed in all forms of love, free expression, and faithfulness to one’s inner compass, and completely rejected the notion of a divine morality that binds the faithful – and affords them a better, holier, more productive and happier life.

And perhaps that should be our approach, in an age in which authority of all sorts is routinely assailed and dismissed. The life of Torah provides us with the best life possible. (Those who seek it elsewhere are attempting to connect to themselves, which might provide some temporary, but not enduring, joy.) A recent study showed that people who attend religious services even once a week have a substantially lower incidence of suicide. That makes sense, because they are part of something greater than themselves and can find meaning in life regardless of whatever personal pain they experience. There are similar studies extant, worth publicizing, as it can help restore people to observance. It is unsurprising that the Torah “restores the soul” and “gladdens the heart” (Tehillim 19:8-9).

It is eerie that a Jewish think tank recently released an exhaustive study of the state of Jewry today – and the word Torah was not even mentioned. The overwhelming focus was on Jew hatred and how to combat it, as if the only reason for the existence of the Jewish people is to confound our enemies who want to destroy us. Thwarting anti-Jewish persecution is a worthy goal – but isn’t enunciating the purposes, objectives, values and uniqueness of the Jewish people, and how to advance those, an even worthier goal? We don’t live just in order not to die. We live in order to glorify G-d and His Torah.

There are many modern maladies traceable to a rejection of Torah. All the various lifestyles that people today have been forced to (wink, wink) celebrate, endorse and legitimize do not alter that basic reality. It is the Torah life and the conquest of our yetzer hara (instinctual drives) that provide us with balance and true happiness, and not our indulgence of every fantasy or passion. We should have compassion for every sinner because we are all sinners, but woe to us if we accept Bilaam’s Torah and his moral guidance. If people only realized what a Torah life truly meant, they would run to it, embrace it, and protect it with their lives – as holy and faithful Jews have done for millennia. And rabbis should never be intimidated into abandoning or concealing any part of the Torah.

It strikes me that persuading anyone to change any position today is beyond the scope of any writer or thinker. Positions have so hardened, and there is no form of human corruption that doesn’t have its ardent defenders. Sinners of all stripes take refuge in that. But sometimes it is important just to articulate basic truths, so the great majority of faithful Jews realize that the real world has not gone completely mad. It is just sort of underground – perhaps waiting for the speedy appearance of the great redeemer.

 

 

The Dangers of Equality

All things being equal, equality is a wonderful thing.  The Torah mandates that “there shall be one law for you, for the stranger and resident among you” (Vayikra 24:22); nonetheless, there are numerous differences in Jewish law in the rights and privileges of a Jew, a non-resident alien, a man or a woman, a child, a Kohen, Levi or Yisrael. Thus, equal treatment under the law is a goal for which we strive, recognizing that differences will arise in which each of the aforementioned parties is advantaged or disadvantaged depending on the circumstances – and that pure equality exists in mathematics but not in life.

Still, the word and concept “equality” so resonate in the American mind that to question its application is a secular heresy. That “all men are created equal” was true but not entirely true was little noted at the time but troubled the American conscience for a century and to some degree until today as well. But we must be mindful of the pernicious effects of the modern “equality” that has come to us in the form of the “Equality Act,” congressional legislation recently passed in the House of Representatives on an entirely partisan vote. It is denominated HR 5 – i.e., the fifth piece of legislation introduced in the House this year.

What could be wrong with the “equality” that is entertained by the “Equality Act?”

The Equality Act aims to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and for other purposes.” It includes all the trendy categories, and focuses on preventing discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, and the like, and certainly some of those goals are admirable. But it goes further, “barring discrimination in foster care and adoption,” meaning that an Jewish or Catholic agency, for example, would be precluded from placing children in homes that professed the core values of those faiths. It prohibits any discrimination in any “public gathering,” the ramifications of which will be clear in a moment.

Significantly, and most troubling, Section 1107 of the Act explicitly states: “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”  In plain English, the religious liberties secured pursuant to RFRA are now in clear jeopardy.

Taking all these clauses in composite, and articulating the true intent of the drafters, this statute has several grievous implications for proponents of religious liberty, all people of faith, and the traditions that accompanied the founding of the USA.

For example, under this statute, feminists could sue to abolish the mechitza in shul, as that partition distinguishes between men and women in a place of “public gathering,” and one that receives some government benefits at that. Others might sue to void separate education in our yeshivot, and if you think that can’t happen, think again. The King David High School in Manchester, England, was just downgraded to “inadequate” as an educational institution – even though its student scores are superlative – simply because the authorities have determined that separate boys and girls classes violates England’s Equality law.

Or, what if a same-sex couple demanded the right to conduct their wedding in a synagogue social hall? The statute as written vitiates any notion of religious freedom, making the First Amendment protection of freedom of worship almost a non-entity. A yeshiva would not be able to prevent the hiring of a transgender male as rebbe, and if it denied him (or her) the job, then go fight City Hall. Or the courts. And while you’re at it, try to deny a drag queen the privilege of serving as Chazan for the yamim noraim.

      We were once assured that enshrining equality before the law would not prejudice the rights of religious people. That turned out to be a canard, and the only lingering doubt is whether or not proponents of these laws knew from the beginning that they would focus their legal firepower on recalcitrant religions after the passage of those laws.  Anyone who thinks this cannot happen with the Equality Act should read about the ongoing, endless saga of Jack Phillips, who is still being sued (now for the third time) for his refusal to create personalized cakes for a variety of couples to whose union he has moral and religious objections. And one should be aware that even the Supreme Court did not narrowly rule in his favor on grounds of his freedom of religion but on his right to free expression. That these consumer-activist demands encroached on his religious liberties was of interest to the majority decision but was not the holding of the court.

Some might say “let them sue,” which is reasonable and even the American way. But even if those plaintiffs sue and lose, the annoyance, expense and consumption of time and energy defending a lawsuit can easily hamstring, derail and in some cases even bankrupt a merchant and certainly a religious institution. We should assume that such lawsuits will be filed in far left states that will automatically rule in favor of the “aggrieved” parties, forcing the defendants into the even greater and debilitating expense of multiple appeals, or the dilution or compromise of their religious values.

None of this is accidental or unknown to proponents of these measures. Their hatred for the religious traditions that proscribe their behaviors is palpable and their desire to impose their values and lifestyles on everyone else – once known as the “majority” – is limitless. Their quest for legitimization demands that the law not only “protect” them but that it also trample on and erode the rights of religious people. Advocates of traditional morality – laws that defined civilization for millennia – are their sworn foes. Any thought, word or deed that disrupts their objectives, enunciates moral verities, or challenges their assertions must be suppressed, and those who utter them must be denounced, ostracized, and then tarred and feathered.

Jews take care never to count people but rather words of a verse, hands or (in Biblical times) shekel coins because to count individuals one, two, three, four implies that we are all the same. But we are not all the same. Each person is unique, and as individuals and not merely as part of a group.

The “Equality Act” transforms religious people into citizens who are less-than-equal, whose moral aspirations must be denounced and whose Bible needs to be amended. The good news is that there is no chance that this bill will pass the Senate or be signed into law by President Trump. But we will rue the day if and when Democrats regain control of Congress and the Presidency, awash as they are in the identity politics that vest all rights in groups but not in individuals.

And not even all groups; people of faith have no standing under this bill. And if it ever passes, America will no longer be the same and we will realize too late the gross inequalities created by this Equality Act.

The War on Truth

“The world only endures in the merit of those who restrain themselves (and do not respond) during times of strife” (Masechet Chulin 89a).

How quaint that must sound in modern times, especially in an era notably marked by acrimony, recriminations, libel, slander, gossip, name-calling and outright lies. Not responding to an insult, slur or accusation is considered foolhardy and unmanly, and tantamount to an admission of guilt. Similarly, the Torah’s injunction against lashon hara, speech – even if true – that tends to disparage the reputation of the subject in the eyes of the listener, is particularly eccentric these days, honored only in the breach thereof. We can and should try but even if we succeed, the culture is so awash in personal vilification that it is impossible to remain above the fray.

From “deplorables” to “losers” and everything in between, modern discourse has become so coarsened that there is no obvious way to reverse this onslaught, partly because it is also entertaining. Wikipedia specializes in underscoring and exaggerating peccadilloes, errors, misstatements, and the like that often results in a caricature of its subjects. Worse, it relies primarily on media accounts, which are often half-baked and half-witted attempts at furthering someone’s agenda, and occasionally will publish information without source or citation – in other words, totally made up or heard by A from B who read it somewhere.

Truth is the first casualty of war but truth itself has become just another version of a narrative. We tend to believe and propagate anything good about someone we like and anything bad about someone we don’t like; objective truth is not really relevant. This is perhaps the greatest failing of today’s advocacy journalism.

Take one recent example – a well known declaration by a prominent individual, debunked but still extant – and we will understand the dangers that abound.

The whole world knows that two years ago President Trump called “some” Nazis and white supremacists “very fine people.” Even Joe Biden referred to this in his campaign announcement. For this, the President was lambasted as a Jew-hater, a dog-whistler, and a closet neo-Nazi himself – all risible, tendentious and false accusations. But of course, he said no such thing, as those who listened to that press conference and read the transcript with an open mind and a clear eye can easily ascertain.

In the wake of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia back in August 2016, Trump said this in response to a “journalist’s” question: “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group.  But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.  You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did.  You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”

     Moments later, he added, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” 

How did that become “Trump supports Nazis, deems some of them very fine people?”

There were actually four groups in Charlottesville that fateful day: the two major groups represented people advocating for the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks and people protesting against the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks. Those were the two groups who had come to demonstrate and, indeed, there were “very fine people” on both sides. That debate is an especially vexing one, with cogent arguments on both sides that has been addressed here. The removal of General Lee’s and other Confederate statues has, as predicted, engendered the demand for the removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and even George Washington and other legendary American heroes. But we can whitewash all of history by erasing the memories of imperfect people because, after all, we are all imperfect. Christopher Columbus, Peter Stuyvesant and even Martin Luther King all had their sins and prejudices that could lead to their public expunction by the self-anointed League of Perfect People which sits in judgment of everyone.

I can see both sides without calling pro-statue people racists and anti-statue people troglodytes.

There were two other groups in Charlottesville that day – the white supremacists and their Antifa counterparts. Both sides came with hatred and violence and both were only tangentially related to the statue demonstrations. Thus, there were many people who supported removing the statues who were not associated with Antifa and many who opposed their removal who were not neo-Nazis.

It is clear that Trump referred to the first two groups as those containing “very fine people on both sides,” and not at all to the Antifa-White Nationalist rioters. So how were his remarks distorted to make it appear as if he was praising Nazis? How, indeed. It is because that suited the narrative of his enemies who assume the worst about him and find confirmation everywhere they wish.

Of course, the President often says colorful, off-color and regrettable things – but honesty dictates criticizing him for what he does say and not mangling what he did not say in order to further an agenda.

Nonetheless, all this reinforces another societal norm: if you have to explain, you have already lost. Leaders are admonished: “Sages, be careful with your words… (Avot 1:11). But that doesn’t give anyone a license to distort, disfigure, or twist someone’s words, propound them in the most negative light possible, or just lie about them.  And there are dozens of such examples among public figures and even in our private lives, where the tendency to believe the worst about people is too accepted and further inquiries about the disparaging information are deemed unwarranted or unnecessary.

That this has become almost a sport further degrades our lives and compels us to adhere ever more closely to the norms of communication mandated by the Torah. But it also confirms the observation of the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho: “Don’t waste your time with explanations: people only hear what they want to hear.”

In Local News…

(This article appears in condensed form in this week’s Jewish Press.)

It is an overstatement to suggest that the Jewish community in Teaneck is embroiled in controversy, which some media outlets have been trying to promote. It is perhaps inevitable that key elements of the story involving the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County’s new by-law excluding from membership any rabbi who hires a woman in a clergy capacity have been misunderstood, distorted or fabricated. The decision taken was natural, proper, justified, halachic and important, and done in a way that reflected respect, collegiality and sensitivity. It was a decision that affirmed traditional Orthodox practice and the community norms that we wish to propagate and teach.

No one has been expelled from the RCBC nor is anyone being threatened with expulsion. My esteemed colleague from Netivot Shalom whose decision to hire a female clergy-in-training sparked this discussion and clarification, remains a member in good standing of the RCBC. Not only was there a full airing of all views and opinions before a vote was taken, the by-law officially goes into effect this September so as to not prejudice the woman who was retained temporarily in the clergy role. More significantly, to spare him any embarrassment or disrespect, it was agreed that the decision would not be broadcast to the public. Even the media hoopla with which the announcement of the hiring was originally made would not be countered in any public forum, out of professional respect. It is lamentable that this courtesy was not reciprocated and proponents of female clergy ran, as is their wont, to social media in order to protest this obvious articulation of the Mesorah.

No one is being expelled. If my colleague chooses not to comply by September, then he resigns from the RCBC but I sincerely hope we never reach that stage. The RCBC is a professional rabbinic organization that, like any professional organization, sets standards for admission and membership. We have other by-laws. In 2006, we passed by-laws that affirmed that no RCBC rabbi can officiate in a shul without a mechitza or at a funeral without tahara and tachrichin. None were pressing issues at the time or now, but we felt it important to establish this clarity. At the same time, we approved by-laws that required semicha from a recognized Orthodox yeshiva or Orthodox rabbi for membership, and also declared that “no RCBC member synagogue may permit women to receive aliyot to the Torah in any form or in any circumstance, whether as part of the regular davening or not, and no RCBC member Rabbi in good standing may permit such a practice in the synagogue in which he serves.” At the time, nobody even dreamt that we would one day have to spell out the inadmissibility of female clergy in our shuls, so it was not addressed.

The objective of these by-laws adopted in 2006 was “to preserve, promote and foster the cause of traditional Orthodox Judaism in line with the Mesorah of the Jewish people…and to protect the integrity of the RCBC Rabbi and further the interests of Torah Judaism.” The instant decision was taken with the same goals in mind and for the same purpose: the RCBC is obligated to establish its criteria for membership as well as demarcate for the community what is construed as the religious norms that we should and do profess.

Interestingly, I first addressed the issue of female clergy in these pages (“The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate, Jewish Press, August 7, 2013). Since that time, the mainstream Orthodox community has coalesced and made its position on this matter crystal clear. The mainstream Rabbinical Council of America pronounced female clergy incompatible with the Mesorah. The mainstream Orthodox Union pronounced female clergy incompatible with the Mesorah. These are the representative institutions of Modern Orthodoxy. The larger Haredi-Yeshivish world deems female clergy so beyond the pale of Orthodoxy that it almost never addresses the issue.

The pursuit of female clergy has been the objective of the Open Orthodox, whom years ago I more properly termed “neo-Conservatives” for their unfortunate attempt to repeat the mistakes of the Conservative Jewish movement of a century ago. It is important for the RCBC to conform to the standards of the mainstream Jewish world with which we identify and to underscore for our community that this is normative Orthodoxy. It is. Female clergy is not a Torah concept, and no amount of lobbying, social media posts and “unlikes” on Facebook will change that. Torah doesn’t work that way.

Certainly, this topic has been exhaustively deliberated. The discussions have been held, the papers have been written, the research is complete, the decisions have been taken, and this issue has been settled. Now the time for choosing has begun – on which side of the Mesorah do you wish to situate yourself? For almost all traditional Jews, the choice is obvious.

The small minority that tragically chooses otherwise are knowingly separating themselves from the Torah world, no different from all the movements in the past that had what they thought were grand ideas to reform, conserve, secularize or modernize Judaism. They are knowingly cutting themselves off from the life force of Torah Judaism, rejecting the almost unanimous views of halachic decisors of today. That is an enormous tragedy, and one that can still be averted. The patron of a restaurant declared treif by a hundred rabbis and kosher by one should be well aware of what he or she is eating.

For sure, this decision does not at all detract from the importance of women’s Torah study or the invaluable contributions women make to Jewish life. May both continue and bring blessing to us all. But it is important to acknowledge that every role or endeavor in Jewish life is subject to the guidelines and parameters of Halacha and Mesorah.

There seems to be an attitude among habitants of the political/religious left, especially some millennials, that if they do not get their way, it means that a full and honest discussion of the matter at hand was not conducted and that “conversations” must continue until everyone else comes around to their viewpoint. That is not only intellectually dishonest, it is actually intellectual bullying, apropos for the social media world but wholly inappropriate for Torah discourse. The redundant articles saying the same thing week after week in the futile hope of mainstreaming the idea of female clergy is a public relations stunt, not a serious argument.

And the younger generation of rabbis must learn that, occasionally, defense of and advocacy for Torah requires forcefulness and decisiveness. No one should seek conflict but nor should rabbis ever viscerally shy away from it because the critics will be loud and frequently abusive; that too is an essential part of leadership, especially when critical matters of the Mesorah are on the agenda. As the Gemara (Ketubot 105b) states, a rabbi who is universally liked by his community, it is not because of his superior qualities but rather because he doesn’t reproach them in spiritual matters. (Of course, a rabbi who is universally disliked has other problems!) Rabbis must stand for something or they will fall for anything and acquiesce to everything. An organization that does not enforce its regulations is really inconsequential, and a kashrut organization that promulgates rules it does not enforce should inspire confidence in no one.

Teaneck is unique among Jewish communities for its homogeneity. Many people are members in several shuls. We are typified by rabbis and laymen who are comfortable in the Western world, have higher education, a strong commitment to Halacha, and are religious Zionists. None of our shuls are outliers, and it stands to reason that almost everyone would be comfortable davening in any shul. The differences in our shuls are subtle, nuanced – not striking or conspicuous.

We don’t want that to change. Many Orthodox Jews would not daven in a shul that has female clergy, just like many rabbis would not want to be part of a rabbinical organization that condoned female clergy. Some voices have suggested that the RCBC decision was an act of disunity at a time when Jews need greater shows of unity. That, too, is a polemical, not a substantive, argument, but nothing could be further from the truth.

We always need unity, even as it has been an unachievable quest since Sinai. But who has acted here in a disuniting and disruptive way? It would the ones who breached the consensus, not the ones who preserve it; it would be the ones who deviated from the norms, not the ones who uphold them. The responsibility for maintaining unity cuts both ways – but especially obliges those who carve out their own path and stray from the road on which we all travel.  In a world in which the Mesorah is under attack, and Torah values are, as always, challenged by the zeitgeist, those who hold firm and clarify the ideals of the Mesorah should be applauded, not lambasted. Indeed, that has been the reaction of most of our community, strong feelings from a vocal minority aside.

No one wants a resignation of any rabbi from the RCBC and I urge my colleague and his shul to respect the will of the majority, comply with this decision and remain part of our greater community. If a colleague decided, either under pressure from his membership or because he believed in its halachic propriety, to remove the mechitza in his synagogue, few would question the automatic resignation from the RCBC such would entail. Female clergy is the “mechitza” of our generation. Obviously it is the domain of any professional organization to determine its standards for membership, but it is equally critical that we elucidate to our community – again, and in conformity with the decisions of the RCA and OU, not to mention the rest of the Torah world – that lo zu haderech. This is not the proper way. Undermining the Mesorah has never kept Jews in the fold, all good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. And to “grandfather in” something that is in its infancy is, frankly, bizarre; it is just playing a game that is designed to avoid a serious, mature discussion of the issue, and a lucid, unequivocal resolution as well.

Much has been made of this alleged encroachment on rabbinic autonomy, particularly in a rabbi’s own shul. I certainly subscribe to that, but there are limits to that principle as well. If shuls in one community together ostracized a recalcitrant husband for refusing to give his wife a Get – depriving him of synagogue honors and stripping him of membership – it is unlikely that today’s promoters of “rabbinic autonomy” would salute the rabbi who violates the consensus and grants privileges to that ignoble man, whatever good reasons he can adduce. No one lives on an island, and as the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 4:6) notes, no one can drill a hole under his seat in a boat and claim that only he is affected by it. There is strength in community and this decision aimed to reinforce that ideal. But if the decision is somehow weakened or vitiated, then the Mesorah community will be undermined and respect for rabbis, always a challenge in the Modern Orthodox world, will disappear. And rightly so.

We are a big tent but every tent has flaps and must be secured to the ground so that each gust of wind doesn’t blow it away. That ground is the Mesorah, and fealty towards it helps to produce God-fearing men and women who are the cornerstone of Jewish life and the foundation of the Jewish future. We want all Jews to be in that tent, and together hasten the day when all Jews will see and embrace the beauty of Torah without grievance and are faithful servants to the Divine will.

The Oldest Hatred

There are persistent and credible reports that the oldest hatred – hatred of Jews – is back, with a vengeance, and is escalating throughout the world. For sure, some of the statistics are inflated by organizations that are in the business of monitoring Jew-hatred. And there are overt instances of Jew hatred that are ignored by these same organizations for partisan, political reasons, as they try to curry favor with their ideological siblings at the expense of distorting their mission and business model. (I still hate using the expression “anti-Semitism,” as I have yet to meet a Jew who defines himself as a “Semite.” The term itself is an obvious attempt to minimize this hatred.)

Is it true that Jew hatred has returned? Or is it more possible that it never left?

I tend to believe the latter. After all, the Sages were quite clear that Jew hatred has been our fate since we left Egypt (if not before), and certainly since we received the Torah at Sinai. Sinai was so named, the Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 89b) because from there, hatred (sin’ah) of the nations towards us descended to the world. We are different, have always been different, and maintain a set of divinely-ordained values that sets us apart from the world, and that the world – in whole or in part – has always struggled to adopt. It is no surprise that Jew-hatred endures.

It is likely true that the communication revolution of the past twenty years brought much Jew-hatred out of the shadows. The aftermath of the Holocaust drove many Jew-haters under cover. It became decidedly unpopular to openly stigmatize and denounce Jews. But the internet has allowed the most fringe parties on the planet to disseminate their odious ideas in many regards, and Jew hatred is no different. The ranting of otherwise obscure people is given undeserved prominence and thus, like many poisonous weeds, grows and grows.

Nevertheless, Jew hatred today is not generally typified by assaults on certain aspects of Torah and not even on the occasionally misdeeds of Jewish miscreants. It is located and (in many cases) shielded by masquerading as hatred of Israel.

So here’s the time to pull the mask off this new incarnation of the oldest hatred. How often do we hear that to be anti-Israel is not to be conflated with being anti-Jewish, that not every criticism of Israel is necessarily reflective of (all right, I’ll say it for effect) anti-Semitism? Too often, because the reality is that Jew hatred today is most often disguised as hatred of Israel.  And yes, to hate Israel is to hate Jews, and to be anti-Israel is to be a Jew-hater of the traditional, historical sort. Complaints about the nation state of the Jewish people have succeeded complaints about the Jewish people. Make no mistake about it, and the next time you read this disclaimer – “just because I am against Israel doesn’t mean I am a Jew hater” – answer promptly: “Yes, it does.”

How do we know and how can ascertain when this new Jew-hatred presents itself? Clearly, there are people who criticize Israel out of love – they want it to be more Jewish, more assertive, more protective of Jewish life, and less accommodating to its enemies. That is not hatred of Jews but love of Jews. But here are a few helpful hints that expose modern Jew hatred in its guise of just being anti-Zionist.

People who maintain that the State of Israel has no right to exist are Jew haters, period. Besides rejecting the Bible, they are promoting the notion that only Jews – of all peoples on the face of the earth – have no right to a national homeland.

People who support the BDS movement to encourage (and in some cases, to actively legislate) the boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning of Israel – and only Israel, of all the nations on the globe – they are Jew-haters, period. They are positing, without any evidence supporting their proposition and with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the State of Israel is the greatest threat to world peace today, undermines world stability, and is a source of great harm to other nations. This is not just preposterous and anti-Zionist; it is rank Jew-hatred that has accompanied us throughout our history. Any person or group that is uninterested in the cruelty and viciousness of any of the world’s dictatorships, and sees absolutely no need to BDS any other country in the world except for Israel is a Jew-hater, pure and simple.

People who complain about Israeli checkpoints that inconvenience Arabs entering Israel and apprehend terrorists are Jew haters, not just anti-Israel partisans. That is because they are maintaining that Israel, alone among the nations on the earth, has no right to physical borders, to control its borders, to exercise sovereignty over its land or to deter Arab terrorists from murdering innocent civilians. The mere assertion that Israel is not allowed to act as other sovereign nations act is Jew-hatred; the elementary rights that all other nations exercise simply do not pertain to the Jewish state. That is Jew hatred.

People who demand that Israel, alone among the nations on earth, has no right to retain the territory in its homeland that it captured in a defensive war but must surrender it in order to create another  hostile Arab state in the region are Jew-haters. They are applying to Israel standards that they do not apply to any other nation on earth, all of which captured its territory at one time in defensive (and sometimes offensive) wars. The proffering of rules that apply only to Israel is an explicit indicator of Jew hatred, and must be exposed as such.

Finally, people who claim that they cannot be Jew-haters because they are Jewish themselves, and think they can thus condemn Israel with immunity from the charge of Jew-hatred, are Jew-haters in one of the worst but too common manifestations of the oldest hatred: the self-hating Jew. The self-hating Jew hates himself or herself but also hates other Jews as well. This, sadly, is a well known phenomenon in Jewish history. Being Jewish doesn’t inoculate a person from possessing the scourge of Jew-hatred. Some of the worst Jew haters in history were Jews, descended from Jews, or had Jewish blood in them – and fought madly and violently to erase their Jewish identity.

Perhaps in one of the most whimsical expressions of this dynamic, there are Jew haters today – several American politicians stand out – who are quick to claim Jewish ancestry from Conversos or others in a lame attempt to distract from their Jew-hating policies and pronouncements. If only they realized that some Jew-haters are Jews, and some are even Jews who wear the garb of pious people and observe some of the mitzvot, they would spare us their resort to this tripe, a defense that convicts rather than exonerates its advocates.

I suppose it’s a good thing that Jew-haters try to conceal their Jew-hatred under the façade of just being anti-Israel; that means that it is still considered disreputable in most circles to be construed a Jew-hater. And yet too many Jews have adopted this hackneyed cliché of “being anti-Israel is not at all being anti-Jewish” in order to shelter their home team politicians. It is undeniable that the Democrat Party has become home to some of America’s most prominent Jew haters, and most Jews – confirmed Democrat partisans to their core (for some it is their primary identity) deny it, defend it, trot out the cliché, or reproach Israel for eliciting this Jew-hatred.

Note that the Republican Party has ostracized Rep. Steve King for remarks he made that were probably more out stupidity than venality.  When he asked rhetorically, in an interview, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he was roundly and unanimously condemned by all Republicans, stripped of his committee assignments, and urged to find another line of work. (For the record, if his question had only mentioned “Western civilization,” it would have been fair and unremarkable. But “white nationalist and white supremacist” have been offensive terms, I think, since…forever.)

Yet, Democrats have been cozying up to the rabid, blatant Jew hater Louis Farrakhan for several decades. He is feted at their gatherings, featured in pictures with a host of Dem politicians (including Barack Obama), sought after for advice and (tacit) endorsements. And seldom is heard a discouraging word – from any Democrat politician, and certainly no Democrat legislator is sanctioned, Steve King style, by the Dem leaders.

It is the Democrat Party that is today the home of Representatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and others –all openly, shamelessly and fearlessly anti-Israel and hence anti-Jewish. They are supporters of BDS, in some form deniers of Israel’s right to exist, and essentially reject the lawful sovereignty of the State of Israel over its homeland. And rather than repudiate such representatives as Omar, Steve King style, she was rewarded with a seat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, notwithstanding her anti-Israel and thus anti-Jewish animus, and even her advocacy for leniency for members of ISIS who hailed from Minnesota.

This is not your grandfather’s Democrat Party, but too many Jews are stuck in the past, and too many Democrat supporters of Israel, some Jews themselves, have been cowed into silence. They give a pass and turn a blind eye to obvious anti-Israel expressions and policies if they originate with someone who has a (D) after his or her last name. That does not bode well for the future.

Some organizations – the ADL stands out – are fixated on the Jew-hatred of the white supremacists while whitewashing the Jew-hatred found on the radical left, in part of the black and Muslim communities and their favorite political party. Honesty in their approach would be a welcome change. Others struggled mightily to camouflage the overt Jew-hatred found in the radical feminist movement and their marches. Some, to their credit, prioritized their Jewish identity and walked away – but others did not, the “cause” being greater than their pride and dignity as Jews.

One way to overcome their inhibitions, and speak truth to the new power base in the party, is to decry this new manifestation of Jew hatred, to say unabashedly that, yes, hatred of Israel is hatred of Jews, without vacillation, hesitation, and weaselly obfuscations.

Indeed, that might help maintain support for Israel as a bi-partisan value – and help confront and eradicate this newest incarnation of the oldest hatred. Jew-hatred must be called out – whether it emanates from the left or the right, Democrats or Republicans, Jews or non-Jews.  It will be challenging, but as Rav Avraham Kook famously stated: “The purely righteous do not just complain about evil but increase justice.” The diminution of Jew-hatred (elimination is a fantasy) will go a long way in creating a society and a world with justice for all. It begins with eradicating the contrived distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.

It is one and the same.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)

The Wages of Sin

The Second Lady of these not entirely United States, Karen Pence, is being lambasted by the “enlightened” media for her decision to teach again in a Christian school that unabashedly professes biblical values. The school’s main crime seems to be its endorsement of marriage as the uniting of “one man and one woman in a single, exclusive covenant union.” This has aroused the ire not of advocates for polygamy but those for same sex marriage, apparently still unaware that the Bible repudiates those relationships. The reaction should send a chill down the spine of every faithful Jew. Karen Pence has committed the modern sin (one of the only sins still on the books) of embracing traditional concepts of sin; alas, the abolition of all forms of biblical sin is now deemed by the purveyors of today’s culture as sophisticated, liberating, avant-garde, and trendy.

She might be today’s target – but religious Jews are in their gun sights as well.

Most American Jews today are, sadly, unaware of the Torah’s morality, conflate it with secular progressivism at its worst, or reject it in whole or in part. Advocates for the new morality clamored for several years to have their seat at the table; having gained it, they now seek to drive traditionalists out of the house entirely. Increasingly, people of religious faith find their views mocked and scorned in the public domain, and accused of being haters by real haters of G-d, tradition, morality and common sense. All this was predictable. The quest for legitimacy was not simply about rights for some but about eradicating from society all traditional norms and public expressions thereof. Will it be long before religious schools are threatened by the government with revocation of their charters and denial of any government funds (even for religiously neutral activities) if they continue to teach certain biblical passages that reflect the moral mandates by which mankind lived and civilization prospered for thousands of years? It will happen, sooner rather than later.

This poses a particular dilemma for Jews. This will not be the first exile in our history in which the primary assault was on Jewish values. The so-called “Greek” exile, in which Jews in Israel were threatened by Hellenistic dominance, culminated in the rebellion whose victory is celebrated on Chanuka. That threat was almost entirely spiritual. Jews were allowed to live in the land of Israel with a functioning polity and Temple – as long as Hellenism was embraced. Greek culture was pluralistic in that sense. G-d could take His place among the pantheon of other gods, G-d forbid. To pious, faithful Jews, that was unbearable, and worth a war.

Its successor Roman culture similarly challenged Jewish values, even as Rome conquered the land of Israel, destroyed the Temple, exiled most Jews, and sought to suppress the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvot. These cultural assaults on Jews were almost non-existent during the Christian and Muslim exiles, as both embraced biblical morality in some form but were antagonized by the Jews’ persistence in clinging to the Torah and not converting to their updated versions of the Torah. The hostility was physical, personal and religious, even as we shared similar values, more or less.

The 20th century saw again the rise of cultural challenges to Judaism, where the ethos of the Torah itself came under assault. While America was mostly accommodating, Europe collapsed under the weight of Nazism and Communism. The Nazi hatred for Judaism and Torah paralleled its barbarous hatred for Jews. But before and after the Holocaust, it was the Soviet Union that concentrated the brutal organs of its dictatorship on waging war against the Torah and those Jews who studied it and followed its precepts. The attempt to eliminate all traces of religion – and of the Torah as the source of all morality – was pervasive and relentless. The banning of the Jewish calendar, the teaching of Torah and even the Hebrew language, the prohibition on the performance of mitzvot and even the acknowledgment of fidelity to G-d greatly offended the state authorities who, as good atheists usually do, worshiped themselves and the works of their hands.

The Nazi system was destroyed seventy- five years ago and the Soviet Union imploded thirty years ago, but hatred of G-d and His morality has surfaced again, as it always must somewhere, in the form of new morality that has made personal freedom and individual autonomy the highest of all values. That notion is barely tolerable – but what has made it intolerable is the demand by these advocates of freedom that their freedom takes precedence over the freedom of others. Their insistence on living as they choose to live –marrying whomever they want, flaunting their lifestyles however they want – pales before their demand that everyone else accept it, embrace it, love it, promote it and utter nary a dissenting word.

And those who still dissent, nonetheless, will be shamed and victimized, pilloried and persecuted – from the bakers, florists and photographers who have had their personal autonomy trampled to the religious Jews and Christians whose expressions of faith and commitment to traditional morality mark them, in the thinking of the new Torquemadas, as haters and bigots.

All they lack is the official machinery of state power to enforce their doctrines at the point of a bayonet or under threat of riots and mobs that will harass every school, student, storekeeper or servant of G-d who resists and doesn’t comply. That is what they lack. So far.

George Washington said that “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” The United States was founded, and became a haven for Jews and others, because of its firm commitment to the freedoms of speech, worship, religion, press, assembly and association. Those freedoms are being endangered by the progressive mob – and by the silence of those who have been intimidated by that mob. Undoubtedly, this clash of cultures is at the core of the polarization and discontent that is roiling America. The positive outcome of this clash is that leaders of various faith communities, whatever our other differences, have bonded together to confront this threat to universal morality and these attacks on religious faith. Again, to quote George Washington, “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

It is not unforeseeable that the culture and values of modern America may become so antithetical to Jewish life as to negate any benefits this exile provided in the past. It might make living a complete Torah life so difficult that many more Jews will be swept away by this torrent and divine service driven underground – as has happened to us before. Ironic, indeed, if this exile ends not because of a wave of physical persecution and limits to our freedom but by the excesses that freedom without responsibility, unmoored from its biblical origins, engendered, proliferated, inundated and  overwhelmed this land, from sea to shining sea.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)