Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

The New Sadducees

How have the Jewish people arrived at a situation where even the Kotel Hamaaravi, the Western retaining wall of the ancient Temple and the site adjacent to the holiest place in Judaism, should be the source of acrimony and strife among Jews?

The latest contrived controversy was fomented by the government’s withdrawal of an ill-fated plan to formally recognize the southern part of the Kotel as a place for non-Orthodox, mixed prayer services for those Jews who have rejected tradition. Those who have attempted to make the change of decision (back to the status quo!) into a cause célèbre are surely aware but for their own purposes ignore the fact that the same area has been used for non-Orthodox prayer services for several years already. The issue seems to be that the area in question (to the south of the Mugrabi Gate and in front of Robinson’s Arch) has its own entrance and the Reform leadership wants an entrance from the main plaza rather than a separate entrance.

One would not be wrong in concluding, as Naphtali Bennett has said, that the whole tumult is over a door – and where that door should be located. Of course, the Reform leaders are also seeking official recognition of their status. Nevertheless, since the designated area has been sparsely used since its opening – it sits vacant and unused for days at a time, such being the commitment of the non-Orthodox to daily prayer – one would also not be wrong in concluding that the Reform desperately need a controversy to keep their money flowing in, the passions of their declining membership inflamed, and interest in their movement from dissipating altogether. And this is that controversy, and soon they will find another, because the long term projections of their survival are not promising.

There are many people who have concluded – and it is a very American approach in honor of the Fourth of July – that a “live and let live” religious compromise is most appropriate. As Thomas Jefferson wrote while drafting the Virginia statute on religious freedom, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Many people felt “out of sight, out of mind, do whatever you want to do, and just don’t bother me.” There is some merit to that argument.

Yet, we are talking here about the precincts of the Holy Temple, the area closest to the holiest place in Judaism – the Temple Mount itself. There is an obligation of “guarding the Mikdash;” we don’t say “anything goes” in the Mikdash. And even Jefferson’s liberal views on religious freedom do not give me the right to erect a shtiebel in Times Square; there are other concerns and considerations afoot. For sure, other religions protect their holy sites and it is considered uncouth and unseemly to deviate from the norms of those places. Only Muslims are allowed to even enter Mecca, much less worship at the Grand Mosque and it is inconceivable that the Vatican would allow Protestant services in St. Peter’s Square. The pertinent analogy here is really to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where all the Christian denominations fight over inches of space and zealously protect their turf.

Is that what we want for the Kotel? Invariably, if non-Orthodox services at this site are formally recognized, there would be demands within a year or two that the main Kotel plaza permit this alien worship service as well. I can write their brief: their assigned area is separate but unequal, they are relegated to the back of the bus, they are receiving second class treatment, etc. And the High Court would hear the case and rule against Jewish tradition as it nearly always does. But this is the Kotel, and for those who believe in God’s existence it is a special place and not just a tourist site of historical interest.

Obviously, mixed prayer services conflict with the sanctity of the place. Those neo-Conservatives and others who point to the absence of a mechitzah at the Kotel for centuries as justification for leniency today are unknowingly referencing a time when the Kotel was not under Jewish sovereignty and the Jewish people suffered under the yoke of foreign occupiers of the land of Israel. Is that how we should view modern Israel – as no different than when the Mamluks ruled the place? I think not. It is also mystifying and disconcerting that there are organizations that aspire to leadership that instead  choose to take “no position” on these matters, preferring hackneyed calls for unity rather than unequivocally defending the Torah. Imagine if Moshe, in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, had cried out not “Mi LaHashem Eilai?” (“Whoever is for G-d, follow me”) but rather “Why can’t we all just get along?” That is the modern approach but the Jewish people and the Torah world deserve better than that.

And there is the profound irony that the very law of the separation of the sexes during prayer is derived from what took place on the Temple Mount itself! The non-Orthodox, in effect, are insisting on their right to pray adjacent to the place that teaches that their preferred form of worship is a violation of Jewish law. Alas, the irony and the transgression are lost on them. Perhaps basic tolerance requires first respecting the sensitivities of those Jews who still pray daily for the rebuilding of the Temple and whose faith and tenacity regarding Jewish tradition maintained the Jewish people’s connection to Zion during the centuries of exile.

Even sadder is this. A few years ago, Rabbi Berel Wein wrote a short but insightful book entitled “Patterns in Jewish History.” It is uncanny how nothing ever changes in Jewish life except the names and places. The same arguments we have today – within Orthodoxy, with the non-Orthodox, and with non-Jews – we have had since the beginning of Jewish history. We fight over the same things – Israel, the Mesorah, secular education, women, mysticism, work, etc. Again and again the patterns return, and there is nothing new under the sun.

And so it is. It occurred to me while in Israel last week that we are re-living the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were wealthy, influential and Hellenized, and they made the Temple the focus of their activities and their doctrinal deviations. The Reform movement is similarly wealthier on average than other groups of Jews, fancy themselves influential (although, as we will see, the extent of their influence is grossly exaggerated), Americanized, and they are now focused after decades of indifference on claiming a share of the Temple Mount environs. Of course, history never repeats itself precisely and no analogy is perfectly apt. Both the Sadducees and the Reform denied and rejected the Oral Torah, but unlike Reform, the Sadducees at least believed in the divine origin of the written Torah. And the Sadducees disappeared right after the destruction of the Temple because they had nothing else going for them. They were severed from tradition, from the community of faithful Jews and they had lost their Roman patrons.

The Reform movement is in a free fall, and none of this is any cause for rejoicing. We are losing these Jews in astounding numbers. As the Talmud states, one sin engenders another sin. Removing the mechitzah didn’t drive people to the temples but away from them. Abandoning Hebrew in prayer and other mitzvot further undid the connection of Reform Jews to the Jewish people. Relaxing conversion standards didn’t stop intermarriage but encouraged it and then made conversion into a farce. They then made their peace with intermarriage but permitted patrilineal descent for Jewish status when even diluted conversion was too much. One departure from tradition led to another until today when even belief in G-d is optional in the Reform movement. Anywhere from 30-50% of Reform members today are not even halachically Jewish and, as such, is in no position to dictate to the Jewish world about anything.

The conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees went on for several centuries with occasional and horrendous bloodshed. Thousands were killed on both sides, and one glimmer of good news is that such will never happen in these modern tiffs. But the sad truth is that Reform is disappearing before our eyes, just like the Sadducees did. Their numbers are dwindling and are already inflated. Official membership is low, active membership is even lower, and many who respond to surveys identifying themselves as “Reform” do so as the default classification for those who are totally non-observant. Their power and influence are gone even on the American scene.

Here’s another sad truth: Israel doesn’t need Reform as much as Reform needs Israel. That’s why their threats to withdraw political and financial support are such a bluff.  The Reform movement is essentially a wing of the Democrat Party, now the party of opposition that itself has fallen on hard times. It has little sway with the ruling authorities. Congressional support for Israel is rooted in the justice of our claims and the backing of Christian evangelicals, not the Jews, and the Reform movement has, in fact, been consistent critics of Israel for many years. Indeed, support for Israel is the only aspect of Reform that resembles anything uniquely Jewish; without Israel, Reform is just social justice with holidays and one need not be Jewish to fight for social justice. And much of the money sent by Reform members to Israel supports organizations that are really inimical to the true needs and values of the Jewish state.

To condition their support for Israel on changing the status quo is cynical, even if it were credible. The Reform movement needs Israel, without which their vanishing from the Jewish stage will be hastened. Similarly, they need to build up the Orthodox (Charedim or otherwise) as the enemy; it’s good for business. But I don’t identify as “ultra-Orthodox,” not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most religious-Zionist rabbis also support the government’s decision and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and many others have simply tired of the blackmail to which the non-Orthodox have resorted for some time whenever some issue does not go their way.

And what they need most is something we all need: to acknowledge G-d and His Torah and to surrender to His will. We don’t submit G-d’s law to our scrutiny or approval nor do we sit in judgment of the Creator. Those who deign to sit in judgment of G-d have historically been on the fast track to their own disappearance. Until they learn to surrender to G-d and make His will their will, they will go the way of the Sadducees. That is the lesson of history – for them and for us. It is a sobering thought that we have seen before this movie of the assimilation and disappearance of large numbers of Jews, and we know how it ends. And we also know how it can be stopped. But that will take great people to admit that their path has been misguided, to return to tradition, and make their contributions to Jewish life and the world in a way that is faithful to the Torah that is the heritage of all of us.

Just leave the Kotel alone.

The God Squad

To get right to the point, the obsession with the level of religious observance of the Kushner couple is unseemly, repugnant, embarrassing, and a poor reflection on the critics who are oblivious to the gross violations of Halacha they themselves are committing. Regarding the celebrity couple, every morsel they consume, every outfit they wear, every word they utter and every Shabbat or holiday they observe is accompanied by the intense scrutiny of busybodies whose own knowledge of halachic methodology ranges from woefully inadequate to utterly non-existent. They deserve better, as do the Jewish people and the world., and they should be left alone.

If the couple would suddenly announce that they are no longer “Orthodox” because they find too many Orthodox Jews narrow-minded, provincial, intolerant and judgmental, I, for one, would not blame them. Of course, they have too much class to do that, and in any event, it is foolhardy to eschew the Torah and G-d’s service because of the depredations of some Jews. Fortunately, most of the nitpicking has come not from our world (some has, to our dismay) but from the general universe of Trump haters. The critics generally fall into three categories:  Jews who pretend they are defending G-d’s honor, inveterate Trump haters, and the general media.

The shallowness of the media is unsurprising and therefore not disappointing. But the first category is most troubling – those religious Jews, whoever they may be, who sit back, smirking and smug, passing judgment on the religiosity of others and determining who is or isn’t in the fold, as they see it.

These self-styled guardians of the faith and keepers of the flame – the God Squad – should be aware of the number of violations, sins and misdemeanors that they are committing: lashon hara and rechilut (disparaging talk without any benefit), failure to judge another person favorably, failure to love another Jew, desecration of G-d’s Name,  distorting the Torah, tormenting a convert and failure to show extra love for a convert, inappropriate rebuking of another Jew, not judging another person until you stand in their place, and others. Perhaps they should look in the mirror before gazing out their window at others.

Another group consists of those who despise all things Trump, have lost all sense of reason and balance, and hold everyone in the Trump camp to impossible standards of conduct and even decrying the permissible as forbidden and unprecedented. (E.g., Trump revealed classified information (!) and created a “back channel” (!) to another country! Well, yes, like every administration has had since the beginning of the Republic.) This group’s animus finds its way into the two shrillest sets of critics: the general media and the secular Jewish press.

The general media can be forgiven their ignorance of Torah, Halacha, and the arcana of Jewish observance. As the modern media is overwhelmingly secular and often anti-religious in outlook and practice, the information at its disposal is limited and their knowledge of the facts necessarily superficial. “Car or plane + Shabbat = bad” is the simplest equation and some Jews get dispensations if they know the right people and are important enough. That’s about the extent of their knowledge. One cannot expect any deeper understanding from the general media.

Sadly, this does not apply to the secular Jewish press. As Jews, they are obligated to study Torah, understand it, practice it and honor it. But their ignorance of Torah is breathtaking and as simplistic as that of the general media. They are more affronted, apparently, by the nuances of some possible rabbinic prohibitions than by any number of gross violations of Torah prohibitions that they routinely celebrate. The litany of sins endorsed, the disparagement of the Torah, and the desecration of G-d’s Name engendered thereby, are of no concern at all. This is despicable and outrageous.

A brief primer on the methodology of Jewish law might be helpful to the layman. Judaism has no system of allowances, indulgences or dispensations. What we do have is a sophisticated system of law and custom that govern our lifestyle that often results in a variety of rabbinic opinions on some issues owing to the disparate intellects G-d granted us. Additionally, the competing values that present themselves in a particular case can often result in different answers being propounded to different people on facts that are similar but not identical. By way of analogy, two people can have the exact same illness and yet the doctor might prescribe two different drugs to those people. Why, you ask? (The media would just blaze the headline: “Doctor prescribes different medication to patients with SAME illness!!”)

The answer is that every question is asked in a certain context, and that context reflects the competing values. Some of the competing values that can intrude on what might seem to the layman to be a straightforward question of “do or don’t” or “permissible or forbidden,” are the potential or actual threat to life or well-being, the avoidance of a great financial loss, the respect we owe other human beings, the public (versus the private) need, an intimate relationship with the governing authorities, the honor of Heaven, biblical v. rabbinic prohibitions, active violations v. passive violations, and a host of others.

One would think that with the establishment of the State of Israel and the ongoing integration of halachic norms into the daily rhythms of a modern state that even secular Jews would develop a greater awareness of how Halacha accommodates the needs of a modern state in an open and natural way. The provision of necessary services does not end when Shabbat starts. It didn’t stop even in ancient times. It is a denigration of Halacha to suggest that a modern Torah state cannot function in the absence of non-Jews or not-yet-religious Jews to provide those services – military, police, diplomatic, medical, nursing, electricity, etc. This should be obvious. Already in ancient times the Sages permitted defending the border on Shabbat against incursions of marauders who came for property and not to take life, as maintenance of the Jewish polity is itself another implicit value. A Jew need not accept being robbed or burglarized every Shabbat even when there is no threat to life or limb. Jewish soldiers and police officers are dispatched to protect streets and parks on Shabbat; we don’t demand that all Jews stay home so as not to require security. These are not violations of Shabbat but actually the fulfillment of the Shabbat laws.

I do not know all the facts and circumstances of the halachic questions that were (or weren’t) asked in the matters herein but nothing I have seen or heard sounds implausible to anyone with knowledge of halacha who lives in the real world and recognizes how halacha applies in that real world. There are some observant physicians who engage in far greater violations of Shabbat on a weekly basis than anything that has happened to our protagonists here, and with less justification, although by no means does that apply to every observant physician.

Every legal system encounters conflicts of laws and values, and all contain mechanisms by which those conflicts are resolved; certainly, Halacha does. Only a person who dwells in an ivory tower and is detached from the arena of activity imagines that real life is free of such tensions. It is important to note that such resolutions are not always uniform – in any legal system – and will often vary based on the slightest difference in facts. That is why Jews are required to ask qualified experts how those conflicts should be resolved and different Jews can get different answers from different rabbis to what seem to be the exact same questions. Those rabbis whose lives are dedicated to the study of Torah and service of the people of G-d are best suited to answer those questions, not the self-styled God Squad.

If the nitpicking and backstabbing weren’t bad enough, the religious critics are unwittingly positing that a full Torah life is inconsistent with a modern state, which is itself a disparagement of the Torah. They might be waiting for Moshiach without realizing that the same issues will exist in Messianic times. Thus the differences in halachic treatment for individuals as individuals and individuals who are serving a public role as well.

We should start minding our own business and worry first about our own piety and practice. “Adorn (i.e., perfect) yourself and after that adorn others” (Bava Metzia 107b). It is very timely and sagacious advice. And this has less to do with one’s feelings about this President and his family than it does with how we show our love for G-d, Torah and our fellow Jews.  These issues transcend the couple in question and apply to many people in sundry communities, and religious Jews especially should be mindful of the pejorative image that can be created through untoward hypercriticism.

Rather than be condescending, vindictive and sanctimonious, we should be supportive, understanding and tolerant. Let us leave the former to the media. The ways of our Torah are the paths of pleasantness, peace and mutual respect.

The Leader Sets the Tone

(The following was published today in the Jerusalem Report.)

Is sin inevitable? We like to think not. In Parshat Vayikra, the Torah details the atonement procedures for a variety of sinners by routinely introducing the sin with the word “if.” “If the priest sins… if the entire assembly sins… if the individual sins…” (Vayikra 4:3, 13, 27). Only in reference to the ruler or king does the Torah insist on the inevitability of sin, as in “When the ruler sins” (ibid 4:22). Why must the ruler sin?

The sin of leadership is predictable.  Lord Acton famously opined: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A person entrusted with power and authority by others often internalizes a sense of his own greatness and invincibility, which is always unwarranted. Errors are covered up, and often mutate into sins and, even worse, Louis XIV’s conclusion that “I am the state.” Sin therefore becomes unavoidable, and undoubtedly the Torah employed the word “when” as a cautionary note to the prospective leader, so he should be immensely careful not to stumble, and also to engender in him at least a little humility.

Nonetheless, all leaders sin, and recent (and certainly, ancient) examples of leaders who succumb to the most pedestrian vices are so numerous as to be commonplace. The people usually are quite critical of the flaws of the leader, if only because the leader often makes decisions that displease some of them. Even if those decisions are correct, the aggrieved party still feels wrongly deprived and roundly disrespected, and decries the injustice of it all. “When” the ruler misbehaves, there will be people who take it very personally and show him little sympathy or compassion.

The great commentator Rashi highlighted the use of the word “asher” (“when”): “From the term “ashrei” (fortunate); how fortunate is the generation whose ruler takes to heart and seeks atonement for his unintentional sins, and even more for his intentional sins” (Vayikra 4:22). How fortunate indeed!

In 1987 an American president publicly admitted a mistake in a manner that has become exceedingly rare since. President Reagan spoke to the nation in the wake of the Iran-Contra Affair and began: “First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration.” In the decades since, “I take full responsibility for my own actions…” has morphed into the passive expression of “mistakes were made;” by whom and for what in particular is rarely articulated. Part of the reason for this obvious flight from personal responsibility is the 24/7 news cycle that harps on any mistake and forever hound the confessor.

A generation in which personal accountability is a cherished value will breed leaders for whom personal accountability is both natural and appreciated. Conversely, a generation that flees from personal accountability – in which individuals routinely try to camouflage their mistakes or look for others to take the fall – will produce leaders who do the same. As the Talmud states (Masechet Arachin 17a) “the leaders mirror the generation, and vice versa.”

The ability to accept personal accountability is thus a telling insight into both the individual politician’s character, and the values of his contemporaries: especially the latter. These days, where the acceptance of personal responsibility has harmful consequences, it is simply more prudent to avoid it, blame others, or change the topic. That should not be, and this weakness afflicts all of us.

The leader sets the tone for his society, and his admissions (that are just recognition of his own limitations) can influence his peers to embrace the same value. It is not only that the leader apologizes, confesses, or concedes his mistakes; it is also that he takes to heart the need for atonement. On his own he realizes the value of accountability for mistakes, and that virtue is desperately needed by all people as well.

Historically, penance was an act of greatness, and leaders who admitted their failings or insecurities were more admired by their peers for their humanity and grace. As the leader does, so do the people; as the people do, so does the leader. “When the ruler sins…” is as much a reflection of the qualities of the ruler and the inevitability of mistakes as it is on the true value system of the people he serves. The average person can avoid sin through vigilance and self-control; the leader is more vulnerable, and rightly so, as he sets the moral tone for the entire society. Knowing the leader will sin, perhaps the people can not overreact to any of his failings. The nation that encourages, even celebrates, the acceptance of personal responsibility by its leaders is a nation that knows how to pursue justice, morality and ethical perfection.

 

Of Nerve and Nerves

The overwrought and hyperbolic response of some American Jewish organizations to the series of threats against JCC’s across the country should now be met with apologies of similar passion. The repeated accusations of misconduct and outright Jew hatred leveled against the Trump Administration should now be withdrawn and must engender forthright and unrestrained contrition. For all the talk about dog whistles, faint signals, hints, alt-right, alt-white supremacists and neo-Nazi nationalists lurking outside the Oval Office, well, it turns out that, no, it wasn’t Steve Bannon, after all, calling in bomb threats to Jewish institutions. Imagine that. Who would have thought??

The news that an Israeli-American Jew, probably a tad off, has been arrested in Israel for orchestrating dozens of phony bomb threats to US centers should put American Jews at ease. But of course it won’t, because the narrative of “rampant Jew hatred fomented by the right-wing government” is too precious to abandon. So far, two people have been arrested for this “anti-Semitic” wave: a black supremacist, anti-Trump journalist with ties to left-wing organizations and an Israeli-American Jew. Only in America!

Come on: will the white supremacist, Trump-supporting, flag-waving American from the boondocks of Kentucky who hired both of them please identify yourself and surrender to the authorities? The concern here is that until the narrative is satisfied, Jews of a certain temperament and political persuasion will not move on. But they should, as should we all, and try to recover some semblance of normal political discourse. Like the resident of Chelm who kept looking for the lost object under the street light “because it’s brighter there,” there are Jews who are obsessed with finding Jew haters in America, the Trump administration, the government and everywhere but where they can really be found.

It should have been noted that we are not living in an age of terrorist threats but of terror, period. Today’s terrorists do not warn their victims. Hoaxes, rare as they are, serve to win attention, disrupt lives and upset the daily course of business. The professional terrorist does not warn because the possibility of detection is almost guaranteed and his real aim – terror and mayhem – will thereby be thwarted. Those who warn are usually psychotics who do not mean to cause any real harm but only seek their moment of infamy when they are caught. That is the pattern notwithstanding that it remains prudent and appropriate to investigate every claim and threat. Fortunately, they were investigated and resolved, albeit not in the way that will calm the nerves or serve the interests of Jewish Trump-haters.

What was imprudent and inappropriate, which is not to say unsurprising, was the avalanche of condemnation of the Trump administration, blaming it for the attacks either directly or indirectly, and accusing it of fomenting Jew hatred, being dismissive of Jew hatred, and then labeling Trump’s denunciation of Jew hatred “insufficient,” “too late,” and indicting him for leading an administration that is “infected by the cancer of anti-Semitism.” When Trump suggested, in his inarticulate way, that the threats might be “the reverse,” he was castigated again, and not for the lack of clarity. But he was right, and maybe that’s what he meant. The media and the Jewish establishment primed the pump for an angry, bitter, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant, unemployed white man. That was woefully wrong; it was the “reverse.”

Now it turns out that these threats were not at all related to Jew hatred but the product of one sick mind who was trying to win back his Jewish ex-girlfriend and another – a Jew – of equal derangement but unknown causality. In other words, the “reverse” of what people expected. Can we now expect apologies from the Jewish organizations that were so quick to condemn? We should insist on it.

There is something ennobling about accepting responsibility for error. It is mature, cathartic and humbling. It adds credibility when real problems arise. Jewish organizations that cry “anti-Semitism!” too frequently forfeit whatever credibility they still have. America is a country remarkably free of Jew hatred and Jewish life here has been blessed. That is not to say it will always remain so – the exile is the exile – but to pretend it is a cauldron of Jew hatred is false and offensive.  Forget the “statistics” and walk the streets, breathe the air, shop in its malls and meet its people.  Stop looking under the streetlight. Repetitive, false accusations of Jew hatred against innocent people with whom one has a legitimate political disagreement will eventually foment Jew hatred. To accuse government officials of Jew hatred because of political disagreements is repugnant. It must stop. The promiscuous use of the “anti-Semitism” charge is a sign of weakness, not strength, and whatever potency it had at one time has already been diluted because of the flippancy of its flingers.

Let’s be clear. Are there non-Jews who might not like some Jews? Sure. Even more clear: are there Jews who don’t like some other Jews? Sadly, yes. Neither is “Jew hatred,” the irrational passion that has infested too much of mankind since Sinai. Let us then make sure that those accused of Jew hatred have real animus against Jews. That requires left-wing Jews to reconcile themselves to the reality of President Trump and disagree with him civilly. Without animus. Without unfounded accusations. And without conflating immigration or health-coverage policy disagreements with Jew hatred.

The Coalition for Jewish Values (where I serve as Senior Rabbinic Fellow) earlier this week – even before the arrest in Israel – condemned the specious accusations of Jew hatred being lodged against good Americans. We must realize that politics comes and goes but the Torah’s values are eternal. All Jews need to return to the values of Torah – of respect for others, of a commitment to justice and self-preservation, of the dignity of all people and of a relentless fight against evil.

It is unseemly, disgraceful, immoral and counter-productive to hurl unfounded charges of Jew hatred, and that applies to both liberals and conservatives. Worse, too many Jews have developed the tendency to deny obvious Jew hatred in front of their eyes because the sources of that Jew hatred are favored or fearful groups, or political allies, and, instead, falsely attribute Jew hatred to their political foes in an attempt to score points and diminish their influence. Jews should really stop doing that – both because it is simply wrong and because it is completely ineffective and self-defeating.

A good start would be if all the Jewish organizations that lambasted the Trump administration, whose statements, in the end, did not matter one whit in terms of these particular crimes, would just apologize for overreacting and pledge to be more responsible in the future. If for nothing else, when and if a real white-supremacist Jew hater ever emerges again r”l, their claims will be taken more seriously.

And Jews all over should just calm down and prepare for Shabbat and Pesach.

The Majority

Torah jurisprudence is based on the principle of “majority rule.” If we routinely followed minority opinions, the Torah would fragment into many Torot and we would cease to be a unified people. Of course, the unity of Torah was much greater in ancient than recent times because of the finality of the Sanhedrin’s judgments. Nonetheless, in matters that affect the klal, we have been able to sustain the oneness of the Jewish people by maintaining uniform standards. Thus, observant Jews can daven in any shul, regardless of nusach, as long as there is adherence to basic norms. The presence or absence of a mechitzah is one classic dividing line.

Although we are taught to “follow the majority” (Shemot 23:2), what happens to the minority opinion? The Lubavitcher Rebbe (on that verse, as recorded in the Kehot Publication Society anthology, 2015 edition) offered three possibilities of understanding the majority-minority dynamic: the majority opinion simply outweighs the minority opinion, the minority opinion is nullified, or the minority unites with the majority and moves forward together. (Rav Kook, interestingly, argued that the majority view prevails not just because it is numerically superior but because the sheer numbers mean that more potential opinions, sevarot and viewpoints were entertained.)

The Rebbe then explained how it is that the minority unites with the majority. There are two possibilities: the minority defers to the opinion of the majority because that is what the Torah demands, even though they remain unconvinced; or the minority, understanding the Torah rule, reconsiders its position until they become convinced that the majority, were, in fact, correct. Of these two scenarios, the second one is the ideal and fosters true unity among the Jewish people, a unity that emerges from a deep sense of humility and kavod talmidei chachamim.

Last month’s OU declaration on the prohibition of female clergy in Jewish life, authored by seven distinguished Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva, clearly reflects the overwhelming consensus of rabbinic thought on the matter. This is a matter that has been obvious for millennia and has only become an issue of late because of trends in the secular society. But the reaction of advocates of female clergy has not followed either model delineated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Among the small cohort of activists, there is a refusal both to defer to rabbinic authority as well as a reluctance to re-evaluate their position. Among the professional activists, many have taken to penning daily op-ed pieces, as if psak is influenced by social media on the one hand or by passionate redundancy on the other. It is not, of course, but as modern start-ups use “crowd funding” to raise seed money, these activists have created something like “crowd-paskening within their echo chamber. This is not only divisive but dangerous.

The psak ratified what was conventional wisdom and Jewish practice since Sinai, something that even Reform Judaism recognized until the 1970’s and Conservative Judaism until the 1980’s. Reading the literature of those times and the relentless (but ultimately futile) opposition of the JTS Talmud faculty to women’s ordination is proof both of the motivations of the activists – a cause driven by currents blowing through the secular world – and the obviousness of the prohibition. I have addressed the reasons for the prohibition at length in the past; suffice it to say that the requirement for a mechitzah in shul is less grounded in the sources than is the prohibition of female clergy. And we know how the mechitzah issue played out in Orthodox life.

Today, rabbis from every wing of Orthodoxy, probably representing over 95% of Orthodox Jews, if not more, oppose the notion of female clergy. In the words of one dear colleague, “this science is settled.” To be sure, there will always be deniers who insist that the data is not being understood properly and they have an approach that no one ever considered before, but they are in a distinct minority and they are unfortunately treading on hazardous ground.

Years ago, I wrote of “The Rise of the Neo-Cons,” and the renaissance of the ideology that spawned the birth of Conservative Judaism and its eventual disengagement from traditional Orthodoxy, Torah observance, and today, real influence in Jewish life. Many of their early ideologues were Orthodox rabbis, some were fine talmidei chachamim, and all, I’m convinced, were sincere in their quest to save Torah for American Jewry by modernizing it and conforming it to what they perceived to be the people’s desires. They had a good run but the movement eventually foundered on a lack of authenticity and commitment to the Torah, such that today it is almost indistinguishable from Reform Judaism. The modern neo-Cons, I fear, are making the same mistake, and compounding their errors with the obstinacy of rejecting the opinion of the vast majority of their colleagues. There is no sense, at present, that there is any reconsideration or unification with the majority opinion. Some, disciples of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, are openly disdainful of his opinion, and some have embarked on a shameless campaign to discredit the Rav as an authority, not realizing that they are discrediting themselves in the process in addition to disrespecting one of the bearers of the Mesorah in the last century, a deed condemned the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8).

This week brought even more proof that they are leading their small flock into a minefield of heresy. One female ordainee opined that it is about time that halacha reconsider the normative rule that dates to Sinai that women do not count for a minyan. Say what you will, but this was one of the predictions of the JTS faculty that opposed female ordination: that the next step inevitably would be changing the structure of the minyan, and so it was, and is. And the “reason” is also predictable: the assertion was that in a society where women count in everything, how can they not count for a minyan? This is a compelling argument in the small part of the religious world that measures every halacha and minhag by secular values to assess whether it passes muster, and if it doesn’t, it has no merit. But few religious Jews, frankly, employ Western values as the barometer by which they measure the worth of the Torah. The justified fear is that those who do will not remain religious Jews for long.

One by-product of the refusal of the minority to follow the opinion of the majority is that it undermines rabbinic authority – i.e., theirs. Their small band of followers will follow them only insofar as the band agrees with their decisions but will renounce any deviations from their pre-determined conclusions. If rabbis reject the consequences of “lo tasur,” why shouldn’t their laity? The results are very democratic but not very halachic; nor are they sustainable. That is a simple historical truth.

With the OU statement, the matter really is settled. Those who insist on going forward anyway will not be causing a schism in the future but are causing one right now. To have shuls in which Orthodox Jews would not enter because of the presence of female clergy is an act of self-excommunication. Those who continue to insist that the whole world is wrong but they’re right – or are praying for an “eilu va’eilu” outcome – are cheating their followers and ultimately robbing them and their children of their heritage. We know the end of this story, so why go down that road?

There have been occasions when I asked a “she’elah” on a particular issue and was puzzled or disappointed in the psak. But I followed it regardless. If I wanted to rely on my own opinion, I wouldn’t have asked. That deference is what the Torah seeks. Think of the contribution advocates of female clergy could make, and the worlds they would save, if they announced that they accept the psak and will find a way to comply. That would show greatness, true leadership and love of the Jewish people.

 

Time to Chill

Here in Israel, one is conscious while standing at every intersection to be wary of “rammers” who are looking for a quick entry to paradise at the expense of your life and limb. The possibility of peace is not even on the horizon, and Iran continues in a stealthy way on its path to develop nuclear weapons. The region is in turmoil. And yet, with all that, Israel is an oasis of tranquility. Israel just ranked fifth, sixth or eleventh – depending on the survey – on the global indices of happiest nations, in each case ahead of the United States. People here, for the most part, are calm, happy, living their lives, basking in the beauty of the land, its natural development, its spiritual resources and the opportunities that G-d has provided our generation.

From this vantage point, the same cannot be said of Americans, who appear to be constantly agitated and uneasy when some are not altogether threatening or carrying out acts of mayhem. The recent election campaign, and perhaps even the last decade, created intense polarization that apparently will not readily abate. And the levels of intolerance have escalated to proportions that are unprecedented in living memory, and if truth still matters, it must be underscored that the intolerance is coming almost exclusively from the political and religious Left. They should look in the mirror and take stock.

At UC Berkeley a few weeks ago and at NYU more recently, conservative speakers who were invited to campus were harassed until they could not speak. At Berkeley, protesters started fires and burned buildings as part of the freedom of expression that they deny others. This censorship has become routine on campuses of higher “learning” and others places where people who could formerly be described as “liberals” resided.

Conversely, I recently attended a conference in Yerushalayim (mainly of right-wingers) at which a panoply of politicians spoke, among them Yitzchak (Buji) Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor Party. He said some preposterous things that evoked laughter from the audience, but no one heckled, and he even received polite applause when he concluded, not for what he said but for coming to say it. A subsequent speaker noted the contrast to last spring’s Haaretz conference in Tel Aviv where Minister Naphtali Bennett was invited to speak, and as soon as he opened his mouth, he was heckled, shouted down, told to leave by unruly members of the audience who simply did not want to hear what he had to say. He was only able to continue when he told the left-wing audience that “you will not be able to silence me,” and the police came to escort the demonstrators out. If you have examples of right-wing censorship, please share them. I can’t think of any recent ones.

Of course, I have enjoyed this same type of pathetic, pitiable intolerance myself by a small band of radical, non-Orthodox feminists who take issue with something or another that I have said. They have called for protests and cancelations to some of my speeches as well and simply lie when they don’t get their way. I have addressed conferences at which they claimed I was banned from speaking, and no protesters showed up at any of my recent talks in Israel. Their calls for boycotts fail so miserably that after their recent attempt was publicized, I was invited to speak at five additional shuls and Yeshivot in response to their risible intolerance. I happily complied. And the nice crowds that attend are always put off by their sheer arrogance and methods so whatever their cause is, if they indeed have a cause, their tactics are counterproductive.

The broader question is: from where do they derive the hubris, the small-mindedness and the crudeness to try to prevent people from speaking? On campus after campus, there is a wave of insularity that has created a class of young people who cannot abide an opinion different from theirs, and refuse to allow others to hear it. They have even threatened professors who do not silence students who express views that challenge the political correctness that has become their godless gospel. Colleges have become less places of knowledge than venues of indoctrination where dissenters are persecuted. What has happened?

The Midrash (Breisheet Raba 8:5) records that when G-d decided to create man, the angels were divided on the propriety and wisdom of such a creation, a hybrid of the spiritual and the animalistic. “Kindness” suggested that man be created because he would perform acts of kindness in the world, while “truth” insisted that it was a bad idea because man was full of lies. But “G-d took truth and threw it to the ground,” and created man.

But “G-d’s seal is truth” (Masechet Shabbat 55a). How could He discard truth as if it is meaningless?

In “B’ahava Ve’emunah”(“With Love and Faith”), one of the popular Shabbat handouts in Israel, Rav Natan Kotler has serialized an analysis of issues relating to Mesorah and machloket in Chazal. Last week, he answered the above-referenced question as follows: There are two types of truth (citing Likutei Halachot, Ribit). There is “emet metakenet,” a refined truth that is open to all ideas and can garner something from everyone. That type of truth forges a society that is tolerant and welcoming, and in which the truth emerges as a distilled composite of all ideas. In a sense, it echoes Rav Kook’s explanation of how “Torah scholars spread peace in the world” (Ein Aya, to Masechet Berachot 64a). They succeed by hearing all sides, by seeing all points of views, by engaging in dialogue and discussion before deciding a particular issue. Even when some opinions are rejected, as they should be, that type of “truth” is still favored by G-d.

Nevertheless, there is also an “emet harsenet,” a destructive truth, wherein people see only their opinions and never entertain the possibility that their approach might be wrong. Proponents of this destructive truth negate all other views and outlooks and will even try to suppress all who disagree with them. This has been the way of dictators throughout history, this is the type of “truth” that G-d threw to the ground so that man could be created, and this type of “destructive truth” is the stock-in-trade of the left-wing elements that are plaguing the Western world and wrecking any refined form of public discourse.

On so many issues that have engendered so much unrest, unhappiness and distress on the political and religious left, is it really possible to maintain that there is only one opinion? That there is no other possible opinion? Whether the issue is the merits of President Trump, immigration, abortion, affirmative action, building a wall, fighting Islamic terror, national security, law and order, police conduct in the inner cities, female clergy, and a host of others, can any honest, rational person contend that there is only one possible view? Theirs on the left? That there is no other opinion that can be considered or uttered in civil society? What misguided petulance. That is the “destructive truth” that we are currently witnessing. Isn’t it healthier to see both sides of a debate, even if one side then is found to be more appealing, logical or even correct?

One can agree or disagree on any issue, but the notion that there is only one possible conclusion that may be spoken in public – the subtext of the activist left – has left American society on the brink of disintegration. And nothing more nullifies the traditions of free speech and the values of the Torah than this type of rank bigotry.

This is where the “Hitler” narrative always enters the picture. The plethora of people on the left who regularly call this person or another “Hitler” are essentially saying that their ideology is pure evil, and no further discussion is needed. There is no other side. There is nothing to talk about, no possible nuance, and nothing missing in their analysis. Pure evil.  These comparisons are not only odious and facile but they also tend to diminish the real evil of a Hitler, may his memory be blotted out.

Even supporters of President Trump concede that he has uttered his share of foolish, repugnant and insensitive remarks to which people have rightly taken offense. People are allowed to take offense, even though there is not yet a constitutional right guaranteeing that no American will ever feel offended. So take offense – but then move on! Raise your children, take care of your homes, go to work, learn Torah, do mitzvot, do something productive. Again, at this great distance, I look at the “protests” on American TV from these left-wing groups and marvel at the vacuity of it all. It accomplishes little except for the momentary pleasure of venting but is completely futile in the real world. Conservatives suffered through two Obama terms but I don’t recall riots, protests, prayers for his failure and an inability to function normally in the world. Conservatives didn’t need safe spaces, coloring books or crying towels. Has the American spirit been so infantilized that people collapse emotionally at the slightest disappointment?

Rav Kook wrote (Shmoneh Kvatzim, 2:22) that people who look favorably on others, whatever their views, are calmer, enjoy life more, and gain an appreciation of other people with whom they might not necessarily agree. The more we love other creatures of G-d, the better off we are and the closer we are to G-d as well.

I would reckon that the vast majority of Clinton supporters/Trump opponents have moved on. They may be wary of the new administration but do not want it to fail. But the activists who enjoyed years of ideological authoritarianism and political despotism over their foes do not want to accept that time, politics and the world have moved on, and partly because their tyranny of ideas was so abhorrent to the American ethos.

It’s time for everyone to chill (even just a little), take a deep breath, form a loyal and productive opposition if warranted, find common ground on whatever issues are possible, and develop a little openness to the views of others. They might learn something, and they might indeed start enjoying life again. It is not healthy – physically or spiritually – to always live on edge, ready to crumble at the slightest irritation.

After all, life is short, and it is unfortunate to go through life angry, miserable and tormented by the politics of what is, even now, a prosperous nation living through peaceful times. It might even help the United States nudge a few places higher on the international happiness index.

 

The Psak

It was long in coming but the psak banning the institution of female clergy in Orthodoxy by the seven distinguished Roshei Yeshiva and rabbis, and its adoption and publication by the Orthodox Union, settles this most contentious matter that has riled Orthodoxy for over a decade. It is now clear that “women rabbis” are incompatible with Orthodoxy and the line has been plainly drawn. No number of op-eds or Facebook posts that resound off the walls of the echo chamber in which they circulate can change that reality, and those who are faithful to Mesorah and Rabbinic authority will, of course, comply if they wish to remain within the traditional camp of Israel. That deference, admittedly, is not typical of advocates of this deviation from Jewish tradition, and perhaps that is the heart of the problem.

Henceforth, Jews are on notice that the embrace of female clergy places them beyond the pale of Orthodoxy as assuredly as rejection of mechitza did for prior generations. The similarities between the two issues, and their resolutions, have already been discussed here. The remaining question is the disposition of those OU shuls – less than a handful, to be sure – that currently have female clergy. What should happen with them?

There are several possible approaches. The worst would be inactivity, or a tacit acceptance of the situation as is, because such would undermine the viability of the psak and do little to discourage continued departure from this basic Jewish norm. Ideally, the women in question regardless of their title – their sincerity is assumed – can be reassigned to perform the tasks customarily associated with the role of teacher, and without the new nomenclature that has been more of a distraction than a benefit. If they wish to teach Torah there are a number of ways within Halacha that this can be accomplished and their talents can be fully utilized.

One additional approach might be borrowed from the mechitza struggles of the past, and that would be to officially “grandfather in” those shuls that currently run afoul of the psak, with the understanding that no new OU shuls can embark on this path and at a certain point in the future these same shuls will conform their practice to the dictates of halacha. That has the distinct advantage of abruptly halting the deterioration of standards and commitment to Torah that this deviation has engendered but the disadvantage of acquiescing in the current violation for an indefinite period.

This approach is similar to what the OU did with the non-mechitza shuls in the distant past. There was a time when hundreds of shuls that were OU congregations did not have mechitzot but were otherwise Orthodox in practice and deportment. Beginning in the 1960’s, these shuls began to fade out as a result of the enhanced observance of Torah that began to spread through the religious Jewish world. Those shuls then either installed mechitzot (thereby becoming fully Orthodox) or, unfortunately, declared their allegiance to the non-Orthodox movements, with all the corrosion of Torah values and utter loss of Jewish commitment and even identity that the latter has wrought. Today there is not one OU shul without a mechitza, and it is inconceivable that there will ever be another. This is neither a critique of the past nor gloating over the present but simply recognition that the Torah world has an inner compass, guided by the gedolim, which enables it to distinguish between acceptable innovations and objectionable deviations. Such is not only faithful to Jewish law and tradition but also maintains a semblance of unity among the Jewish people.

If shuls that are in violation of the psak are “grandfathered in,” the question then becomes, to paraphrase Chazal’s queries in Masechet Gittin, “Mah Hi b’otan hayamim?” What would be the status of those shuls while they were still in substantial breach of Jewish law? Could – should – a religious Jew daven there? In the mechitza cases, a sense developed over the decades that these shuls were, for lack of a better term, “Orthodox-lite” or even just “traditional,” the latter being a praiseworthy adjective that, in retrospect and because of these deviations, became something of a pejorative. (Personally, I still like the term “traditional,” as defining one who follows tradition. How could that be bad?? The irony is that “traditional” came to describe those who did not follow tradition (!) completely, and became just another example of how modern life has taken certain words and co-opted them for meanings far from their previous usage and common understanding.)

As there were Jews in the past who would not daven in a shul without a mechitza even though it otherwise professed its fidelity to the Torah, there are undoubtedly Jews today who would not daven in a shul that featured female clergy regardless of its other merits. That is a sad state of affairs, and just another illustration of how divergence from tradition is so divisive to Jewish life.

Most Jewish organizations wade into controversy quite infrequently and difficult decisions are generally enacted and implemented at a glacial pace. It is not implausible that the “grandfathering” policy will be tacitly adopted as the path of least resistance. It might not sit well with the current communities that have strayed from tradition to be perceived as “not quite Orthodox.” But they will then have the choice of pertinaciously clinging to a course of action that the overwhelming majority of the religious Jewish world has deemed to be beyond the pale but that they retain because of its appeal to a value system that is alien and often hostile to Torah, or rejoining the fold and conforming their behavior to the tradition of Sinai that binds together all good Jews. I pray that they choose the latter and do not deepen this schism in Jewish life.

Kudos to the Orthodox Union for making this stand, taking this decision, and following the practice of generations of seeking rabbinic guidance on the complex moral and religious issues of the day. Every mainstream Orthodox organization, including TORA, OU, RCA, Young Israel, Agudah and others and representing probably 98% of American Orthodoxy, has announced its rejection of Jewish female clergy. The avalanche of articles antagonistic to the decision and the dearth of articles supportive are less a hint of where the people really stand than an indication that, for almost all Orthodox Jews, this conclusion was rather obvious and long overdue.