Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

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That past might have been lamentable and might even have defined him in the eyes of the public, but that person has now been replaced by a new person.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…

In Defense of …Shamai

One of the greatest people in our long and illustrious history, and one of the greatest Talmudic Sages ever, is frequently and unfairly dismissed and even disparaged. Who? Shamai the Elder, the contemporary of the great Hillel. Shamai is always compared unfavorably to Hillel, who was known for his kind nature, infinite patience, and big heart. Hillel, in the famous stories recorded in Masechet Shabbat (31a) indulges a variety of nudniks who ask him pointless and even preposterous questions, and is open to converts of all types and with a variety of strings attached. All this while Shamai, conversely, tries to drive them all away with a stick. And even the converts themselves concede that say the sternness and impatience of Shamai almost drove them away from the world of truth. It was the humility of Hillel that brought them closer to G-d.

Yet, Shamai is also the one who taught (Avot I:15) “greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.”  But how is it possible to greet everyone pleasantly – and at the same time be considered a “kapdan” – irascible, pedantic, and short-tempered? The two do not really go together.

Furthermore, humility is such a prized trait in Jewish life, and Hillel’s humility is prototypical. Just look at the way Hillel treated the converts in the several vignettes noted in the Gemara – converts who insisted: “convert me on condition that I accept only the Written Torah…convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot…convert me on condition that you make me the Kohen Gadol (High Priest),” each condition an impossibility in its own way. Yet, in each case, Hillel came and converted them after Shamai forcefully drove them away. Where was Shamai’s “pleasant countenance”? Indeed, where were his good midot (character traits)?

The sainted Rav Yisrael Salanter, who knew a thing or two about midot, wrote (Or Yisrael, 28) that it is a mistake to degrade or malign Shamai. Shamai was a great and righteous person, Hillel’s equal, and our Sages indicate, Hillel’s intellectual superior (Yevamot 14a). True, Shamai was meticulous in his observance of mitzvot, hated injustice and had a passion for truth – all of which would lead people to believe he was a kapdan.. But that wasn’t it at all.

Shamai was also humble, just like Hillel. One who is not humble cannot “greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” To greet someone – anyone – means that you have no airs, you don’t perceive yourself as better than them, you don’t wait for them to speak first because you hold yourself to be above them in the social hierarchy.

Shamai’s inflexibility was rooted in something else. Both Hillel and Shamai were unassuming servants of G-d but they differed on one point: is humility always preferable in divine service, or does humility have to defer to something else – strictness, even dogmatism – when it comes to the honor of Torah?

It wasn’t that one had a congenial personality and the other was disagreeable. Character traits are inborn, even if we are obligated to ameliorate and refine the unpleasant ones. Neither Hillel nor Shamai responded to the converts from an emotional or personal perspective but rather from an ideological one. According to Shamai, when it comes to the honor of Torah, there is no room for humility or compromise. It’s not our Torah; it’s G-d’s Torah. It’s not our Jewish people; it’s G-d’s Jewish people. For a potential convert to come along and insist “convert me on condition” of this or that, that is a breach of the honor of Torah.

Hillel disagreed; humility is always preferable and humility can often erode the objections and even the cynicism of detractors. Nevertheless, the dispute between them lives on. Who is correct – when it comes to the honor of Torah, should we be malleable like Hillel or rigid like Shamai? How we answer that question resolves an issue that has been front and center in Jewish life for the better part of two centuries – what concessions to “modernity,” if any, should we make to keep Jews Jewish, to attract the discontented or the unaffiliated, or to assuage the grievances of sundry groups against the Torah?

The answer is that we need both Hillel and Shamai. When it comes to the honor of Torah, Shamai was right. We cannot compromise on the honor of Torah, on the inviolability of mitzvot, or on basic Jewish values or doctrines. If we do, then the Torah will cease to have any meaning or effect. We cannot chip away at the Torah – change this or dilute that – because then it is no longer a Torah of truth. But when it comes to showing respect for human beings, then we require the humility of Hillel – to see each person as an individual, as a precious soul, to reach out, draw near, and show our love for every Jew.

Is it possible to show honor to Torah and respect for people? Of course, that was the gift and genius of Hillel. But note well that for all his humility and his desire to accommodate the converts, Hillel did not compromise even one iota of the Torah, weaken one standard, or renounce one principle. And that was a remarkable feat and a testament to his spiritual greatness. It is an error to believe that Hillel watered down the Torah to make it more palatable to his generation. Note as well that Hillel was able to succeed with his interlocutors only because they too were humble, deferential, sincere, and willing to learn from him and submit to his authority.

Without Shamai’s firmness, the temptation would be too great to adulterate the perfect Torah in order to accommodate the desires of man. And without Hillel’s sensitivity, Jews with an attenuated commitment could never be inspired and would be lost to our people. Both were indispensable to the furtherance of the Mesorah.

On Shavuot, as we celebrate the Divine Revelation that gave the Jewish people our Torah more than 33 centuries ago, we must contemplate our relationship with the Torah itself, adding a new layer of “acceptance” to our earlier ‘acceptance.” Much of what ails us in Jewish life can be healed if we embrace the ways of Hillel and Shamai, and combine a tenacious grip on the immutable Torah with a gentle embrace of the people of Torah, on all levels.

Then, we will bring the light of Torah everywhere, rejoice in the return of G-d’s sovereignty to His world, and merit true redemption, speedily and in our days.

Chag Sameach to all!

“Culture” Wars – Update

Only in the mind of the modern feminist can an orthodox Rabbi advocate for pre-marital sexual abstinence and be deemed a rape apologist. Such was the peculiar response in some precincts to my “A Novel Idea”

       Arguing over statistics and studies is a futile exercise, as the studies conflict, methodologies differ and even definitions are often imprecise. For those intellectually capable of an open mind, I urge you to read the esteemed social scientist Heather Mac Donald’s cover story in the Weekly Standard (November 2, 2015) subtitled “The Phony Campus Rape Crisis,” which will function as a devastating rebuttal to the criticism that has been directed here, and written in a much stronger manner than was my essay although our objectives were different.

To mention but two “statistics”: one blogger presumed that 23% of my congregants have “likely personally experienced sexual assault.” But “sexual assault,” as some studies, including that of the Justice Department, define it, includes even an unwanted peck on the cheek, an execrable practice still seen in some liberal Orthodox precincts but hardly synonymous with rape except to a certain subset of fanatical activists. Or, “95%” of college rapes go unreported to the police, but they are, apparently, reported to researchers. 95%? And perhaps it is 395%, or 45%?  Perhaps some of these assaults are more akin to the circumstances I explored in my essay (as have others, see George F. Will’s column on a related subject).

To those who persist in citing the “1 in 5 women on campus raped” canard, I refer you to this new Prager University video released this week (as if to come to my rescue!) that debunks this datum. If nothing else, all of the above should allow for a calmer discussion of this matter.

What did I write in my essay, whose every word I stand by? Here’s a synopsis.  The reality is that rape is an abominable crime that is an unimaginable nightmare and deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. To be falsely accused of rape is also an abominable crime that is an unimaginable nightmare for which the lying complainant deserves to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Both are life-altering events and in both cases the victims deserve our fullest support and the victimizers our unmitigated opprobrium. Obviously, instances of rape exceed false claims of rape, and as I noted, “even one is too many.”

That is the black (the former scenario) and the white (the latter scenario) of the matter. But the professional feminists see only the black. There is no white, no other side, the woman is always right, the man is always wrong. In that echo chamber, I am certain, that makes sense. In a world where truth, justice, decency and fairness matter, that contention is risible.

But I addressed both those scenarios only in passing. My focus was on the “gray” area, the “he said/she said” scenario, where the events are fueled by what I termed the culture of promiscuity and entitlement on campus, where the couple had a relationship and often a long term physical relationship, and where “feelings” – especially post facto feelings – matter more than legality or fairness. These are cases where the woman sometimes does not feel like a “victim” for weeks or months after the encounter (usually coincident with a breakup or a conversation with a feminist adviser who convinces her that she was assaulted without consent). These are cases in which there are no witnesses, no evidence, and no corroboration. They exist. They are troubling no matter who is right and who is wrong. But the feminist activists see no “gray.” The man is always guilty. Always.

Indeed, the “hookup culture” on campus has created a sense of male entitlement concomitant with some females’ pursuit of unlimited pleasure. It is in that culture that, invariably, women – who, as I noted, have a greater emotional investment in physical intimacy than do men – will over time feel used, abused, scorned and empty. And it is in that culture that, I submit, the problematic area of “he said/she said” is more likely to arise. It is for that scenario that I suggested a return to traditional moral practices, such that are already mandatory for Jews but would even benefit non-Jews. The bloggers who mock that suggestion are playing into the hands of lecherous young men and, ironically, endangering more women both physically and psychologically.

It was in this gray area that I urged a return to the virtues with which religious Jews are quite familiar – no affectionate physical contact between men and women outside the context of marriage. That won’t stop the “black” cases of rape (forcible assault) nor the “white” cases (false accusations), for the most part. But it would stop much of the “gray,” in which consent is unclear or ambiguously given, because the assumption would be, since males are an aggressive breed, that the male assaulted the virtue of the female.

But for the professional feminists, there never is a “gray” area. Men are always predators, women are always saints, and rabbis, always, deserve special calumny if they don’t toe a particular line.

What is most troubling, and quite typical of this genre, is the sheer inability of the feminist activists to tolerate another viewpoint. “On this, there can be no debate! There is only one opinion!” Feminist orthodoxy brooks no dissent (as opposed to Jewish Orthodoxy, whose every tenet, they feel, is negotiable). So their goal is to ensure that only one side of an issue is ever heard. They do this by denouncing any opposition as immoral, shrieking that any dissenter is evil, and trying to intimidate that dissenter into silence, penance and universal obloquy. This is what passes for discourse – forget civil discourse, just discourse – in that pathetic echo chamber of the young and coddled. How sad.

Typically, as they see it, for expressing views with which they disagree, I should be fired from the rabbinate, kicked out of any rabbinic organization to which I belong, tossed from any institution in which I am active, and, for Heaven’s sake, even thrown out of AAA (to which I just renewed my membership, and so will not go down without a fight).

What is even sadder is that, to these activists, men are irredeemable brutes, end of story. My objective, on the other hand, is to preserve the honor of both men and women. Their eager embrace of the “hookup culture” – as long as there is consent – exacerbates the problem, cheapens the nobility of women and undermines the sanctity of marriage.  Their contempt for women, and not just women’s virtues, is breathtaking.

The Talmud (bottom of Sanhedrin 21a) teaches us that after Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, King David’s Sanhedrin decreed that an unmarried man and woman should not be secluded together (the prohibition of yichud). That was good advice then as it is now. It doesn’t mean that they “blamed” Tamar; rather that prudence and common sense dictate not putting oneself in a situation of potential danger. No one ever “deserves” to be raped, as some hideously perverted my words. But do not walk into a field clearly labeled “Danger: Mines!”  Even if the ones who planted the mines would be guilty of causing injury, surely the minefield pedestrian also bears some responsibility for his fate. The mature person takes responsibility for his own actions, a fundamental Jewish principle that I explored in my last book, “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.”

Further irony: these critics are antagonized because they call me a “leader” who should not say these things that upset them;  yet, when I try to take the lead on this particular issue – elevating the moral level on campus so that no one, but especially our young people, is ensnared in that morass – they protest. It sounds like they want “leaders” whom they control and who just follow the script that they write. But those are not “leaders” but followers with a fancy title.

Heeding our moral laws can only benefit men, women, marriages, families and society itself. That was and is my point. The fruitless debate over statistics aside, I would hope that even the professional feminists can subscribe to that.

In G-d’s Name

After Amalek’s sneak attack on the Jewish people soon after the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah declared eternal war against this enemy in a dramatic way: “And he (Moshe) said: ‘G-d places His hand on His throne – as if to take an oath – G-d’s war against Amalek is from generation to generation” (Sh’mot 17:16). Rashi notes that the words for throne and G-d’s name itself are spelled deficiently – kes instead of  kisei and Y-ah instead of G-d’s ineffable name of four letters – in order to teach us that G-d has sworn that neither His name is complete nor His throne is complete until the name of Amalek is completely annihilated (“Ein sh’mo shalem v’ein kis’o shalem”). What does that mean?

We can understand that G-d’s throne is “incomplete” in the sense that His kingship is not recognized by all as long as evil is extant. A king whose authority is not heeded is less of a king. As long as there is a nation or people extant whose ideology is grounded in not fearing G-d, then G-d’s throne is deficient. But what does it mean “His name is incomplete”? G-d’s name is His essence; how could it be incomplete? Said another way, G-d’s throne reflects our perception of Him – as King. But His name is not dependent on our perception. So how could His name – Y-ah instead of YKVK – ever be deficient?

A second question worthy of analysis is this: why does G-d have to wage eternal war against Amalek? G-d is G-d; He can eliminate Amalek at any time, from the inception of their history and until today? Why must G-d’s war be an eternal one?

For sure, Amalek has always existed, lurking in the shadows of history, and emerging at various points to attempt to weaken or destroy us. And Amalek exists today as well, certainly as an ideology of an implacable and baseless hatred of the Jewish people

This will not change, and there is nothing we can do to change it. We do not provoke their hatred, as much we enjoy castigating ourselves. Even if our Sages perceived the occasional sin or flaw that prompts an Amalekite attack, nothing justifies it from Amalek’s perspective. Amalek’s initial offensive against the Jewish people was a suicide mission; after all, G-d had just saved us miraculously at the Red Sea and in the process destroyed the army of the most powerful empire in the world, Egypt. It made no sense, not any more than the plethora of Muslim suicide bombers today – first against Jews and now against Jews, Christians, Europeans, Americans and other Muslims – makes any sense.

It makes no sense, just like the hatred of Jews in Europe (where so few Jews live) makes no sense, like the hatred of Israel and Jews on many college campuses makes no sense. The BDS movement that targets Israel as the only human rights offender in the world, and not just the worst, because there is no movement to boycott, divest and sanction any other nation on the globe, that cause is as inexplicable as it is evil. One would think that presumably intelligent people would occasionally ponder the hypocrisy in their own actions, their moral corruption, and the ethical decay that should be eating away at them. But they don’t.

None of it is rational; it makes no sense. It is not supposed to make sense. Consider Sartre’s classic definition of Jew hatred as a passion – not even an idea but a “criminal passion.” It’s not at all rational. Jews are often quick to find something within us to blame because that, at least affords a measure of psychological security.  Oh, that’s why they want to kill us. So if I don’t do that, then all will be good. It’s a common but horribly wrong approach.

Rav Shlomo Aviner once wrote that we should never delude ourselves into thinking that if we satisfied our enemies’ desires, if we surrendered our land to the Arabs, if we gave them whatever they wanted, they would be transformed into lovers of peace and pursuers of peace. The Maharal (Gevurot Hashem, Page 236) wrote that Lavan wanted to murder everyone associated with Yaakov, even Lavan’s own daughters and grandchildren; Pharaoh of Egypt wanted to murder every Jew at the Red Sea; and so it goes. We are not like other nations who have enemies for a reason – there is territory or resources that others covet, there is an ideology that others want to uproot. “Israel has haters and enemies for no cause,” no reason, no justification, and no explanation. That is the ideology of Amalek. They hate the Jewish people because we are the Jewish people.

G-d’s war with Amalek is eternal because He has given all man free choice. Just like we are given free choice in deeds, so too we are given free choice in thought. And ever since G-d created man, or at least soon after in the generation of Enosh, man has free choice to deny G-d, to distort His name, and even worse, to perpetrate the greatest evils in His name.

What does it mean that “His name is incomplete until Amalek is destroyed”? G-d’s name is “incomplete” when it is distorted, when it is misused, when it is taken in vain, and when it is defiled by those who claim to be His followers but in fact are His enemies. The three deadliest words in the English language are “in G-d’s name,” because in G-d’s name the worst atrocities have been justified. The two deadliest words today in Arabic are “Allahu Akhbar,” i.e., “God is great.” What should be a sublime and exalted praise of G-d is too often the prelude to the torture and murder of innocents, from Yerushalayim to New York, from San Bernardino to Bali, from Paris to Brussels. G-d’s name is incomplete when evildoers can decapitate or detonate the innocent and invoke “god” at the same time. That is an incomplete name.

G-d’s name can only be complete when all creatures honor it with life not death, with integrity not corruption, with mutual respect not hatred. His name is complete only when every nation and every individual can be described as “G-d –fearing.”

In the final stage of the process of redemption, the false ideas about G-d will crumble, along with the nations that embody them. The hypocrisy, dishonesty and venality of those who oppose the G-d of Israel and therefore the people of Israel will all reach epic and unfathomable levels. This too shall pass, and the joyous holiday of Purim that reminds us of both the struggle and the triumph in the past will be a harbinger of the day when G-d’s name will again be complete, when “G-d will be One and His name will be One” (Zecharia 14:9).

 

 

 

New Leadership Needed

Not long ago, someone asked me why we do not say Tehillim in shul after davening because of the “situation” in Israel. (We recite Tehillim every afternoon as a prayer for the recovery of the day’s wounded.) I answered with a question: if a poor person approached you and said he was starving, and you had food or money to give him, would you say Tehillim for him or give him the food or money? He answered, “of course, I would give him the food or money.” I continued: “Well, G-d has blessed the Jewish people with sovereignty over the land of Israel, and blessed the State of Israel with guns, tanks and planes. G-d has made the Jewish state the eighth most powerful country in the world (according to the Indian group that measures these things). If the government – for whatever reason – chooses not to use their guns, tanks, planes and power against their enemy that dwells within, and instead chooses to subject their citizens to the threat of daily attack, then what exactly do you want G-d to do?”

Make no mistake about it – I am pro-Tehillim in a misnagdic way. But the person who is ill and spurns medical treatment and prefers to rely only on Tehillim is (Ramban aside) acting improperly. Prayer without our own efforts is hollow; our own effort without prayer is disjointed. Passivity in the face of danger is usually criminal.

One can certainly disagree with the theology but one point should be indisputable: G-d generally gives every individual the tools to deal with whatever problem arises. Certainly in the instant case, it is so. There are many such tools available. After seven years in office, PM Netanyahu has run out of steam and is failing to provide the most basic needs to his society – to use the tools at his disposal to protect them and to defeat the enemy. That failure of leadership – of vision, ideas and implementation – means that it is time for him to go. With the government on the verge of collapse anyway for unrelated missteps or internal politics (It clings to power by one seat), it is timely to appreciate his accomplishments in several spheres and graciously usher him into retirement.

Of course, that won’t happen, as the Israeli voting public is as malleable as is the American voting public. Both respond to powerful speechmaking regardless of what follows, and no one in Israel today gives a better, tougher, more impressive speech than Binyamin Netanyahu. In the next campaign, he will promise security and how only he knows how to deliver it; he will vow that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon, and how Yerushalayim will not be divided, and how the settlements will grow, flourish and prosper under his rule as never before and as only he can. And he says it with such passion that few seem to realize or care that every promise is false. And they are made in campaign after campaign, as Israel continues to elect right-wing governments that implement leftist policies.

Take the latter, for example. Israel is routinely criticized by the Obama Administration, the European Union and the United Nations for building settlements in the “occupied lands.” It was the cause of Hillary Clinton’s 45 minute tirade against the PM several years ago – building apartments in the northern part of Israel’s eternal capital city. The world regularly and repugnantly equates the building of settlements with Arab terror, excusing Arab terror by explaining that Israel provokes it by building settlements. The world is on a campaign to boycott products from the settlements in Judea and Samaria, beginning with mandated labeling, as recently ordered by the Obama administration accompanied by the falsehood that this was an old policy. (Perhaps Israel should insist that American products come labeled with “Made in Occupied Indian Territories.)

And the sad reality is that there is very little building in the settlements at all. There has not been a new settlement built in decades, and even natural growth has been limited. The Defense Minister retains control over building in Judea and Samaria, and every single act of construction needs his permit – which he is loathe to give.  Even legally purchased properties – good Jewish money given to Arab sellers eager to sell, profit and move on – are disapproved. In Hevron, just a few weeks ago, Jews were expelled by the IDF under orders from the Defense Minister from a property that had been bought, paid for and registered. Now they are in limbo – they can’t move in, and of course they can’t get their money back from the Arab seller. Right-wing government…Likud…sure.

So Israel finds itself in the worst position: blamed for building settlements while not actually building settlements. The logical response should be, well, if Israel is being blamed anyway for building Jewish homes in the heartland of Israel, they might as well do it. At least deserve the calumny!

These travesties could be overlooked if the Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, was at least fulfilling his assigned task and maintaining security. But he is not, all his bluster and tough talk aside. Jewish blood is spilled in the streets of Israel on a daily basis, and this week, non-Jewish blood as well – an American student from Vanderbilt University, graduate of West Point, tours of duty with the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, met his untimely fate in Jaffa, stabbed to death by an Arab terrorist. And what is done to take the war to the enemy, to change the dynamic, to secure Jewish rights in the land of Israel in perpetuity, to assure that innocent people can walk the streets of Israel without threat of being stabbed, speared, gored or shot?

We know much more about what is not done. Last week, a Cabinet Minister in Israel recommended that the families of terrorists be expelled from Israel. That suggestion was shot down: it can’t be done, collective punishment, etc. Another recommended that the bodies of the killed terrorists not be returned to their families for a hero’s burial; that, too, can’t be done. It’s not nice, and it will only rile them up even more. (That the terrorists currently hold the bodies of two murdered Jewish soldiers doesn’t seem to matter.) Destroy their homes? It takes years, and that too is collective punishment. The new Attorney-General recently said that if the family turns in the terrorist, their home will be spared (otherwise, they won’t turn them in). In other words, more immunity from retribution; the terrorist murders innocent people, he will be caught anyway within a short time, if alive, but the family can save their home by having him arrested. How convenient, how foolish, and how much does that incentivize terror?

Both the Chief of Staff and the Defense Minister recently criticized those who kill the terrorists who are committing their terrorist acts. “There is no need to empty a magazine on a 13 year-old girl with a knife.” Spoken like people who never walk in public without being surrounded by six bodyguards. Perhaps they don’t realize that pedestrian traffic on the main streets of Israeli cities is way down in the last half year. Only those without a choice – without any other options – walk freely but cautiously. And the Prime Minister speaks eloquently about the perseverance and tenacity of the Israeli public, of the fortitude that has seen Jews through tougher times, and how Jews should not give in to fear but continue to move about the land of Israel without restraint. Spoken like someone who never walks in public without being surrounded by twelve bodyguards, and with a square kilometer of streets around him closed to pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

This is classic politician talk: idle praise of the constituents distract from his failure to act.

There are many Arabs who are employed by Jews and so have easy access to stores, malls, roads, etc. and then exploit this compassion to murder their employers and customers. The prudent suggestion that Israelis stop hiring Arabs was also rebuffed – unfair, will provoke more terror, bad for the economy, etc. The Arabs and their leftist Jewish sympathizers have become adept at discouraging any possible means for deterring or preventing Arab terror, except for their favorite one, surrender. The law, and a bizarre notion of morality, is a powerful weapon in the terrorists’ arsenal.

There are many measures that could be taken, especially in a Middle East racked by turmoil and instability, that could greatly ameliorate the problems. But, as noted here in the past, the Netanyahu government has taken a conscious decision to tolerate a certain number of dead and wounded Jews (and non-Jews) in order to achieve ephemeral policy goals. And despite Netanyahu’s efforts to court the American non-Orthodox establishment through formal recognition and carving up the Kotel, the Reform and Conservative leadership and base would be the first to turn on Israel if any effective measures were ever taken to suppress and then eliminate Arab terror. After all, war has to be antiseptic, bloodless, compassionate and quick, or liberal American Jews will be offended; we can’t allow that…

The bottom line for the Israeli impotence is this equation: can’t + can’t + can’t = won’t. And this equation:  Won’t + won’t + won’t = Jewish blood spilled on Israeli streets every single day. Netanyahu and Yaalon have run out of ideas. They should be thanked for their service and move on. The time has come for new leadership – a leadership of proud and faithful Jews who will prioritize the preservation of Jewish life, the Torah and the land of Israel. That new leadership can take all measures necessary to quell the threats to the safety of the Israeli citizen, and the public relations will take care of itself.

The only question is how many more Jews must be murdered or maimed until this is done. Perhaps we should be saying tehillim – that G-d in His mercy should send us righteous and wise leaders in the short term, or maybe even the Messiah in the shortest term.