Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Ask The Rabbi, Part 2

A few months ago, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the second selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Should a person lend any significance to his dreams?

     Well, none of us are Yaakov Avinu or Yosef Hatzadik whose dreams were prophecies, messages from G-d that guided their (and our) futures. Dreams were the typical means of conveying prophecies for all prophets except for Moshe. But even if dreams are not prophecies, and not all are noteworthy, Chazal recognize with extraordinary prescience the importance of dreams.

The Gemara (Masechet Berachot 55b) states that a person only dreams at night of what he thinks about during the day. That is, dreams are a way of reconciling conflicts in one’s conscious life, or giving unconscious expressions to one’s fears or fantasies, or sometimes dealing with a painful reality in a way that is less provocative or distressing. Certainly, it bears mention that (ibid 54a) just like there is no wheat without chaff, so too there is no dream without some nonsense. The true nature of dreams is masked to make their deeper messages more palatable and most will be unremembered and unremarkable.

Occasionally, dreams will enable us to think more intensely about an issue or problem or person or event that is troubling us, and sometimes troubling us in a way that we refrain from thinking about openly. Certainly, the higher our spiritual level, the more elevated will be the substance of our dreams. But one who goes even seven days without a dream is called “evil,” i.e., unfortunate (ibid 14a). Dreams are divine gifts that clear our minds, ease our hearts and sometimes call attention to potential problems that are resolved without us being fully cognizant of it.

Should a person think highly of himself?

  No. And yes.

This calls to mind the two divergent schools of musar – of Novardok and Slabodka. The former, founded by Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, taught that striving for perfection required the internalization of shiflut ha’adam, the lowliness of man – how man is driven by his desires and fantasies and routinely succumbs to sin. Thus, man can only improve by nullifying the ego, which would be accomplished, in theory, by performing acts of self-abasement. Famously, a student would enter a hardware store and request a dozen eggs; the subsequent mockery and humiliation presumably did wonders to rein in the pleasures of the ego.

The Alter of Slabodka disagreed sharply and focused his musar on the recognition of gadlut ha’adam, the inherent greatness of man, created in G-d’s image and with a soul that could apprehend G-d’s wisdom and morality. The descendants of the Avot and the heirs to the illustrious traditions of Israel must have a healthy self-worth. The people that stood at Sinai and received G-d’s Torah must always act in a dignified and refined way befitting their royal status.

In a sense, these are but reverberations of the aphorism of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: “a person should always carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one is written ‘the world was created for me’ (Sanhedrin 37a) and on the other ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Breisheet 18:27). The test of life is to know when to reach into which pocket.”

The modern self-esteem movement is misguided, to the extent that it cherishes everyone, even those devoid of real accomplishment. Life doesn’t award participation trophies, but as Jews, we must know our place – and adorn that place with spiritual achievements.

 

May one use data derived from unethical research (an extreme example of which would be data from Nazi research that used human test subjects instead of lab rats and caused unimaginable suffering)?

It is tempting to think that use of data from the research of evildoers might serve some productive purpose, notwithstanding they are the fruits of the poisonous tree of diabolical sadists. It purports to make the torture and death of the victims slightly less gruesome and gratuitous and perhaps even adds an element of purpose. We should utterly resist that notion.

Even assuming that the science derived is legitimate and not distorted by the twisted minds that produced it, use of that data is grossly immoral and would tend to legitimize what is perverse and insufferable conduct. If the question is asked this way – Should Dr. Mengele be construed as a genuine scientist and researcher? – the answer becomes much clearer.

Judaism has a concept of an object that is otherwise neutral or indistinguishable from other objects but is nonetheless assur b’hana’ah, proscribed from providing any benefit or pleasure to another. In terms of foodstuffs, the issur hana’ah supplements the prohibition of consumption. It is not just that it cannot be eaten or drunk – yayin nesech, for example – it cannot even be given away to someone as a gift. Any type of benefit is precluded. That is how this data should be treated: total ostracism.

To think otherwise is to sanction the worst atrocities under the guise of serving a greater purpose, which invariably cheapens human life and incentivizes mass murderers. Nazis should not be glorified as scientists nor their dastardly deeds rationalized as even a partial good. That is the only way to perceive evil as evil, identify it and then eradicate it from the face of the earth.

 

 

 

 

A Jewish President

In the year 2000, Senator Joe Lieberman became the first Jew to appear on the national ballot for one of the two top offices in the land. As Al Gore’s nominee for Vice President, many Jews voted for the ticket out of ethnic pride, notwithstanding that most Jews vote for the Democrat in any event. In 2000, four out of every five Jews vote for the Gore-Lieberman slate, among the highest percentages ever recorded. As I recall, there was palpable pride that Lieberman was on the ticket even among Jews who did not vote for him.

Fast forward to 2020. Two Jews – Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg – for the very first time are credible candidates for the Democrat nomination for President, and there seems to be little Jewish pride in the whole enterprise. Few people care about their pedigree, and no one is questioning their loyalty to America (well, at least not because of their Jewishness). Their Jewish heritage seems to be background noise, a part – and not a very important part – of their personal histories and completely irrelevant to the task at hand. If either man is the nominee, a majority of Jews will vote for him, mostly unthinkingly, because he is a Democrat and not because he is a Jew. The pride in Joe Lieberman is dissipated.

What has changed? Is it because Jews have made it in America and so prominent Jews are no longer a novelty? Or is it because Jews have lost it? I sense the latter.

Consider the obvious: the involvement of each man in Jewish communal life. Sanders is a renegade Jew, whose brief stint on a kibbutz more than a half century ago qualifies as his deepest connection to the Jewish people. Bloomberg has been more involved in Jewish life through his philanthropy – he has supported Jewish charities – and because he has lived in New York City for so many decades. Neither man identifies in the least with the biblical vision of the Jewish people as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people chosen by G-d to bear His name, observe His law, and bring His morality to the rest of mankind. Neither man evinces the slightest interest in, or observance of, the 613 commandments that define the life of the Torah Jew.

Thus, it is unfortunate but typical of American Jewry during this era, that Sanders has been intermarried for more than 30 years and has no Jewish children. Bloomberg is divorced from a Jewish woman (her father was a non-Jew) but his paramour since 2000 is also non-Jewish.  With intermarriage devastating American Jewish life to the extent that accommodation with it is making inroads even in the Orthodox world, it is hard to imagine the consequences to American Jewry if intermarriage (or inter-religious relationships) finds its way into the White House, with all the attention that is naturally focused on the First Family. Intermarriage will be so normalized, even celebrated, that the fragmentation and disintegration of American Jewry will be hastened.

One positive byproduct of the Trump administration has been the prominence of religious Jews – in the President’s family, of course, but even among his staff, advisors and appointees. (I hope they somehow compensate for the plethora of Jewish Democrats who have relentlessly waged war against President Trump since before he took office.) But the visibility of a yarmulka and mezuzot in the White House, the respect for Shabbat and the appreciation for the rhythms of traditional Jewish life have been rewarding, and, one can pray, even inspirational to Jews whose faith and commitment can only be strengthened by the presence of faithful and committed Jews in positions of distinction.

It is a sign of how accepted Jews have become in American civic life that the President demonstrates such a comfort level with religious Jews. But that display of Jewish pride would be dramatically reversed in a Sanders or Bloomberg administration, whose connection to Jewish life is, respectively, non-existent and tenuous. How is that connection defined?

Recall as well that Joe Lieberman was an observant Jew, who wore his Jewishness on his sleeve. For sure, his political views were not all Torah based and very much in the mainstream of his party. But he was known in America, and perhaps even most appreciated by Jews, for his forthright and persistent advocacy of the moral notions that are reflective of the biblical Jewish ethic. And he was never ashamed to declare that his morality stemmed from his religious heritage.

For Sanders and Bloomberg, it is clear that their world views are uninformed by their Jewish backgrounds.  Indeed, like many (if not most) American Jews today, their Jewish ties are strictly ethnic. As President Trump is of German-Scottish heritage, Joe Biden’s is Irish, and Elizabeth Warren’s background is still indeterminate, Sanders and Bloomberg are Jews by blood but not ideology. If Rav Hirsch labeled the people of Israel a “religio-nation,” both a nation and a religion, these two candidates lamely embrace the former but completely eschew the latter. Their Judaism is cultural, and thereby misses the essence of our uniqueness.

No wonder there is little excitement in the Jewish world for these two aspirants, no sense of having one of our “own” make it big. Far from embracing their rich and eternal heritage, they perceive it as an accident of birth. While they are wholly different in temperament, policies and even acceptability as presidents, they share in common this constricted approach to Judaism. Judaism as a religion and a national identity are the two legs on which we stand. Remove one, and our distinctiveness withers and disappears and, these days, fairly quickly.

It bears mention that the two do not share the same views on Israel (or on the United States, for that matter). Sanders is overtly hostile and his self-definition as  “pro-Israel” is reasonable only if you characterize as pro-Israel a desire to see Israel divided, weakened and stripped of its Jewish identity. Bloomberg is certainly not hostile; he fits comfortably into the modern Democrat party’s support for an Israel that no longer exists, and for good reason. He opposes settling the heart of the land of Israel and remains wedded to the “two-state delusion.” But that is where the Democrat party is. Sanders’ Israel has the right of self-defense in theory but never in actuality. Bloomberg is more practical on that score, but again, his policies are unrelated to his Jewishness.

Have Jews so made it in America that the prospect of a Jewish president has left people blasé? Or does this feeling emerge because of the nature of these candidates and the realization that, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, the incumbent’s policies are far superior even for Jews? Or is it because their Jewish identity is so tepid that it is hard to connect with them or summon any pride at all?

In truth, ethnic voting is always a distressing phenomenon. Votes should be based on shared values and objectives – not superficial considerations like blood, race, religion or ethnicity. Undoubtedly, if a faithful Jew ever runs for President – a most unlikely proposition – the reaction of Jews will be far different. It is entirely plausible, even probable, that a non-Jewish President can represent the true interests of the Jewish people, and even extend unflinching support to the State of Israel, far better than can any Jewish candidate. The two Jews currently in the running remind us not of the success of the American Jewish community but rather of its decline. That neither will be elected President should come as a relief for multiple reasons.

Ask the Rabbi, Part I

A few months ago, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my take on some of the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the first selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

 

Is it appropriate for men and women to call each other by their first names at work? 

Rebbi Akiva noted that “levity and light-headedness facilitate immorality” (Avot 3:13), to which Rabbenu Yonah deduced the converse: “seriousness and reverence are barriers to lascivious conduct.” Both premises are true and undeniable, and both are challenged in modern society where informality – including calling strangers, elders and co-workers by their first names – is rampant, being perceived, partly, as a great social equalizer.

But informality also breeds frivolity, and that can lower our guard and even lead to the diminution of our moral aspirations. We have to know ourselves, our temptations and our triggers. We also have to delineate proper boundaries in the workplace to avoid the pitfalls of work relationships that expand into improper realms.

Of course, in a workplace where first names are always used – and no one thinks twice about it – it would appear stilted, pretentious and even pompous to refer to others as Mrs. Jones or Mr. Smith. (Consider also the vast variety of honorifics that people might choose to use that would give offense if they weren’t used; the use of first names protect against falling into that snare.) And illicit relationships abounded in earlier times when people addressed each other quite formally; “there is no absolute guardian against decadence” (Masechet Ketubot 13b).

The ultimate guidance, therefore, is contextual. In workplaces where such informality is part of the culture, it is not necessarily a manifestation of excessive intimacy. Indeed, it would reflect poorly on religious Jews if we appeared aloof and addressed others so formally. But certainly Jews should not be the ones to introduce such informality into the workplace; indeed, all would benefit from keeping professional relationships completely professional.

 

Is the desire to be more machmir than one’s father good, bad, or neutral?

The inclination to embrace Halachic stringencies should not be based on one’s relationship with other people, including one’s father, but rather on our inner commitment to Torah and recognition of our spiritual level. The merit of embracing chumrot is ultimately rooted in motivation and not simply performance. Stringencies are laudable when they reflect an awareness of personal deficiencies that require strengthening or safeguards, as well as the maintenance of a level of religiosity in all spheres that warrants special behavior in just a few.

As a general rule, it is better to be machmir in our interpersonal dealings than in mitzvot between man and G-d. The latter can often be employed to mask utter depravity and thievery in other areas, while the former is a better indicator of one’s true religious life.

Furthermore, chumrot in one area often lead to kulot in others, the simplest example being stringencies in dress or kashrut that nurture arrogance and the pleasures of the ego. That is not a good trade-off as it tends to degrade the life of the soul rather than enrich it.

That being said, our fidelity to the Mesorah generally demands that we adhere to the customs of our ancestors. We don’t create the Jewish world anew simply by being born. Of course, if what some perceive as chumrot are actually the simple halacha that for some reason was disregarded by the parents, then we are permitted to observe the essential halacha. But where halacha is not violated and it is a matter of minhag or hanhaga, then one-upmanship within the family unit is even more unsettling that it is outside the family.

 

Should a person avoid the company of someone who constantly swears but is otherwise a decent fellow?

  Yes.

To constantly use vulgarity but otherwise be a decent person is a contradiction in terms, sort of like shoplifting daily but otherwise being scrupulously honest or eating a cheeseburger every day for lunch but otherwise keeping kosher. No “decent” person can habitually perform acts that are definitively indecent.

Chazal frequently noted the concept of “lashon nekiya,” literally “clean speech” and employed euphemisms when discussing intimate matters, activities or parts of the body. Indeed, Rambam stated (Moreh Nevuchim III:8) that one reason Hebrew is referred to as “the holy tongue” is because it has no original scatological terms. And despite the tawdriness that is drowning modern society – one can hardly walk on the street today without overhearing shameless and voluble profanity, with some words creatively featured in the same sentence as a noun, verb and adjective – Jewish society must be characterized by high standards of personal morality and purity of speech.

Lowly individuals, those who lack self-control in many areas of thought and deed, often cannot help but verbalize their unconscious fixation on lecherous matters by recurrent references to it. But we are adherents to a faith that demands discipline in thought, deed and speech.

The writer Edna Buchanan once said that “friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Friends should reflect our deepest values and encourage our better natures.  While no one is perfect, and true friends will inform each other of offensive conduct rather than indulge or ignore it, socializing with those whose values are antithetical to ours can only lead to the dilution of our own moral aspirations. If rebuking doesn’t work, then it behooves us to eschew the coarse companion and find another, more exemplary, social outlet.

 

 

Lumping It

Language always evolves. New words and phrases are coined, enter general usage, and reflect the spirit of the times – for good or less-than-good.

So it is with two phrases that recently infiltrated the culture, one I first heard more than a year ago and one that I encountered just last month.

The first has become a cause célèbre in certain parts, with passionate advocates and detractors: “cancel culture.” Count me among the detractors. “Cancel culture” is the attempt to ruin someone’s career or life because of words they utter or positions they hold that challenge the world view of the aggrieved. The cancellers try, in effect, to “cancel” the person – negate his or her existence, erase them from society, and deny them jobs, audiences, friends, and vehicles through which they disseminate their views.

This first appeared more than forty years ago (although it wasn’t called by this term), and it is still its primary application, in the effort to prevent people with whom the activists disagree on one point or another from speaking – at a college, a private event, or any public forum. It is the antithesis of free speech, which by the explicit admission of the cancellers should not pertain to any speech with which they disagree. I recall when this was the fate of Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick in the early 1980’s for her pronounced foreign policy views against Communism and totalitarianism and for a strong America. (The nerve!) She was banned from some campuses and harassed at others. In the last decade this has become the norm on too many American campuses.  Speakers, almost always conservatives, are either banned or their speeches are disrupted by rude behavior designed to make the event unpleasant enough that listeners leave or the speaker leaves. Several speakers – political scientists and professors, mostly – have been physically assaulted. In sum, freedom of expression has been suppressed, which itself has exacerbated the polarization in society. “Free speech for me and not for thee” is the death knell of American civilization.

This suppression is often accomplished by pressuring the hosts to cancel the event and convincing the proprietors of the venue that violence will likely ensue if the event is not canceled.  Often, threats of violence are made, and the pusillanimous cave in. Or, concerted efforts are made to force employers to fire the speaker or, in the entertainment industry, not to hire the offender to perform. In the latest manifestation of this lunacy, there are states in these United States that boycott other states, outlawing official state delegations from visiting or spending money in states whose policies annoy them. These left-wing states – such as California or New York – have authorized boycott of other states, such as North Carolina and almost ten others. The main irritants are state laws that conform to reality in defining males and females (how outrageous!) and laws that restrict in some form the provision of abortions.

It is important to note “cancel culture” is a one-way street. The cancellers are almost always on the political and cultural far left, and the victims are almost always conservatives with traditional views. There are foreign policy affronts that engender these efforts to “cancel” people – such as support for a strong America or a strong Israel. But usually the offenses are failures to toe the leftist line on social issues, all of which leave one open to the hackneyed accusations of racism/ bigotry/ misogyny/ homophobia/ Islamophobia, etc.  and sometimes all of them together. It is a select list of victims and grievances, and it is not easy to win a nomination to that list. Hence the growing discomfort – on the far left and the far right – with inclusion of Jews on this list, notwithstanding the recent spate of physical and verbal assaults on Jews in America and Europe. Too many writers are still too quick to blame the Jews for provoking attacks on themselves, something to which no other group is subject.

Social media, an altogether unconstructive phenomenon in any event, encourages these purity tests by indulging in the second phrase, one I just heard last month: “hate reading.” No, not “hate speech,” but “hate reading.” That is the process through which one scours the writings or words of a particular individual in order to extract the one word or phrase or idea that defy the conventional norms of these cultural imperialists. In the best circumstances, words are lifted out of context. More generally, words, sentences, expressions, themes and entire essays are just misconstrued. It is not just that the main point is missed but rather that the ideas are outright distorted, positions never articulated or even contemplated are assailed, and the process takes on the appearance of a grotesque farce. Radicals of all sorts, including radical feminists, are skilled in this. It is the snippet that is highlighted and twisted, publicized through (un)social media, and their false narrative takes root in the public domain.

The weak (or perhaps the prudent?) then decide to stop writing or speaking, and the field is abandoned to the passionately misinformed and the enemies of tradition. The latter make absolutely no effort to engage the speaker or writer or refute her ideas. There is no substantive argument. Hate reading and cancel culture only target the individual. It is as if their ideas are beneath contempt. Or perhaps proof enough that they are just beyond refutation.

“Hate reading” is characterized by the utter disregard for what the person has actually said; it is indeed just a search for, and often the fabrication of, the word or phrase that “triggers” (hey, there’s another newfangled concept) the easily offended. Nothing is heard or read with an objective mind but only read in order to get aroused and enraged.

How did American society descend to these depths wherein so many people just hate read, sit in judgment of those with whom they disagree and try to destroy them rather than respect their right to express and disagree? How can it be that so many people go to college and are actually traumatized by hearing views that differ from theirs? And especially in a society that prided itself on free and open debate, on the exchange of views and opinions, and on the right to disagree without being disagreeable? How did disagreement become inherently disagreeable?

The answer is multi-faceted but it occurred to me not long ago that, in the wake of all these new phrases, we lost some oldies but goodies. I recently told some millennials that when I was young, there was a popular expression in the schoolyard:  “if you don’t like it, you can lump it.” They conceded that they had never heard that expression, which, to me, was a crying shame.

That is one way to deal with disagreements, insults, arguments or opinions that diverge from yours: “if you don’t like it, you can lump.” It is of disputable etymology, but it worked! You don’t like it, so you don’t like it. Move on. No two people should ever agree on everything – or one of them is superfluous. So get over it. Let the other person have his views. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person” (Avot 4:1). “Cancel culture” and “hate reading” have reinforced the echo chambers that divide us and cause nothing but grief and agitation.

And one must never succumb to the pressures of the cancellers. There have been two times, I think, when groups attempted to cancel me for some grievance they had. Both failed – essentially because they were told to “lump it,” albeit in other words. You would be surprised at the effectiveness of telling haters to “lump it.” They are nonplussed – and quickly move on to more amenable targets.

Our Sages taught us that “just like no two people look alike, no two people think alike” (Berachot 58a). Just as people’s different faces – even ugly ones – should not bother us, so too even their views (ugly or even just different) should not bother us.

“Lumping it” is a good antidote to both hate reading and cancel culture. When they learn to lump it, or are forced to lump it because they are otherwise ignored, even pitied, we can regain some normalcy in American life and go back to arguing with each other in peace – and with mutual respect.

 

The Banality of Impeachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Modern Orthodox Jew: Two Models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eternal Scourge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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