Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Land of the Unforgiven

The embarrassing spectacle currently engulfing the United States shows no signs of abating and the descent into anarchy is proceeding. The presumption of guilt, the disregard of judicial process, the contemptuous dismissal of the necessity of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (“proving” it to one’s fans on social media suffices), the flippancy with which reputations are ruined never to be repaired, and the intolerance of those who see only one perspective on anything as legitimate and worthy of being heard all testify to the collapse of the social order.

There is something else that adds to America’s current ills, perhaps the root of it all. It occurred to me while listening last week to Dennis Prager’s radio show. His guest was Rabbi Shmuly Boteach and, for a time, the latter’s protégé Roseanne Barr, the comedienne who fell into disfavor last year for racist remarks she tweeted. As an aside, I have never found her act funny or even mildly interesting, nor watched any of her shows, but Rav Shmuly’s point – well taken – is that America has become a very unforgiving nation. There are people who commit a single moral offense and are considered “one and done.” One social misstep and you become a public pariah. He emphasized that Barr went through the Rambam’s four steps of repentance – she regretted her misdeed, verbalized it, confessed it, and committed to the future, and even donated money to black causes. She seems genuinely contrite – and so, he asked, why have Americans lost the capacity to forgive?

It’s mostly but not entirely true. The lack of forgiveness only pertains when the wronged party is a member of one of the established and celebrated victim classes in America, and when the wrongdoer is a member of the class of official oppressors. The former can do no wrong and the latter can do no right. The former cannot even be challenged and the latter is not allowed a defense. But in general, his claim is true. So what has happened to the concept of forgiveness in America? Are too many people are one and done?

Certainly that situation is lamentable but he didn’t quite explain what has happened, which transcends Roseanne and is certainly harmful to society.

The Talmud (Moed Katan 16b, Avoda Zara 5a) describes King David as the man “who established the discipline of repentance,” such that “if an individual sins, he is told ‘go follow the individual.’”    If the community sins, there is a different protocol for repentance, but if an individual person sins, he is told to heed the example of King David who sinned, confessed, repented and was forgiven. King David is the role model for the repentance of the individual sinner.

There are two reasons why America has lost its capacity to forgive. Firstly, because forgiveness requires that there be recognition of something called “sin,” and that is what is most missing from modern society. There can’t be “sin” because sin requires an objective standard of morality, i.e., G-d and a moral code. Repentance presupposes that there is an awareness of sin. What we have in place of sin are artificial social constructs that are dictated by the cultural elites in order to allocate power to their various favored identity groups.

To give one simple example: make an anti-black comment and you are understandably thrown out of civil society. But make an anti-Jewish comment and you get sympathy, support, votes, acclaim, if not even lionization. Thus, at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Bill Clinton can sit a few seats from Louis Farrakhan on the dais with nary a negative comment. (If George W. Bush ever sat next to David Duke at any event, we would never hear the end of it.) The outrage is a bit selective; the double standard is obviously hypocritical.

And the notion that there are certain slurs that some groups cannot say while others can is a moral absurdity. That is no longer a quest for morality or civil discourse but a quest for power. There is no greater power exercised over human beings than the power to control their speech. That is the exercise of brute force. But that is now an accepted element of our world, even though no person should indulge in speech that is harmful to others and no person should get a pass based on group identity.

There cannot be forgiveness in a place where there is no concept of sin, and America has lost its fear and even recognition of sin. Real “sin” is mocked and has been driven underground. Instead of sin, we are told that we each have our own truth, our own gauge of right and wrong and good and evil. So how can forgiveness ever be possible?

And there is a second reason as well why America is so unforgiving – and the contrast with the Torah outlook is striking. The dominant ethos in today’s America is that people cannot change. You are who you are, and that is all. Your personality and values at age 5 or 15 will be your personality and values at age 35, 55 and 75. Dr. Freud, take a victory lap: you won. But what a rejection of the possibility of repentance, and what a dark view of man’s potential!

One of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that people can change. We can change because we have free choice. We can change by learning more Torah, by scrutinizing our personalities, by moving to a different environment, by repenting and by realizing the error of our ways.

Even King David had challenges in life, sins he committed and acts he regretted, but by the end of his life he was a different person. He was no longer the same individual who had his trials when young, even in the early years of his monarchy. That is why he is the paragon of individual repentance. But King David today would be disparaged, demeaned and destroyed for his indiscretions. He would be deemed irredeemable.

Where there is no acceptance of sin, there cannot be forgiveness, and where society denies that people can change, there cannot be repentance. And that has created a sad, bitter, churlish, grumpy, hypocritical – and polarized country. If Jews would ever entertain, much less subscribe to such a philosophy, there would be no point in a Yom Kippur.

But we don’t – and that is why we continue to admire King David, who guides and inspires us until today, and why the world at large, and this troubled society in particular, could benefit from our knowledge, wisdom and moral absolutes.

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The Joy of Teshuva

(First published in the YU Lamdan)

Like many Jews of a certain era, I was reared on stories of the trepidations of the Yamim Noraim – how entire towns in Europe would be terrroized, how people would walk around in apprehension of the approaching Yom Hadin, how every Jew would spend copious amounts of time reckoning with his or her flaws and foibles, how the Baalei Mussar pounded into their adherents the anguish awaiting the unrepentant sinner and his community. I do not doubt the veracity of those accounts but I can state that I do not see it anymore. It is not only that times have changed.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in different ways are both construed as festive days – Rosh Hashana as indicated by Nechemia (8:10) and Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year (Masechet Taanit 26b). Rav Kook’s primary thesis in Orot Hateshuvah was that repentance is supposed to be joyous, not just the outcome of forgiveness but the entire process of repentance. For sure, this was a new idea, and dissented from the more doleful approach of the Baalei Musar. To Rav Kook’s mind, the teshuvah of joy spoke more closely to the hearts of a modern generation. If repentance is not joyful, something is wrong. How so?

Although repentance is a joyous experience in conception, sin or grappling with sin are not. That is why we omit tachanun on any happy occasion, for it doesn’t mention teshuvah at all but rather the wages of sin. “Merciful and Compassionate One, I sinned before you…Do not chastise me in Your anger…my couch melts because of my tears” (Cf. Tehillim, Chapter 6). There is not a word about repentance, only about the damage wrought by sin. Rav Kook wrote: (Orot Hateshuvah 14:7): “All sadness comes as a result of sin, and repentance illuminates the soul and transforms sadness into happiness.”

If happiness is the natural state of the being living in line with its essential nature, then sadness (meaning frustration, discontent, or unhappiness) can only beset a person because of too many actions, thoughts, or traits that are bad for the soul. When the light of repentance emerges, “the pipelines of pleasure and joy are opened.” To encapsulate this in one famous phrase (Orot Hateshuvah 15:6): “Repentance does not come to make one’s life bitter, but to make it sweeter, more pleasant, more true to itself.”

What is the source of this joy? Repentance is the act of renewal or re-creation. We become different people. We always love what is new, so changing one’s name, deeds, and even locale is all part of the joy of the soul in becoming a new creature. If we don’t actually change our names – and maybe we should! – we can feel born again by changing our deeds, habits, location, and routine and especially when it has us in a spiritual rut, celebrating complacency, mediocrity or worse.

For perfect repentance the soul has to maintain two contradictory forces: trepidation and anguish over sin, and confidence and joy over the good, for it is impossible that man should not find some good, even much good, in himself. But even the anguish is productive, a sign that man is healthy, that he knows something is wrong and needs rectification. That is a good thing.

Rav Kook (Ein Aya, Maaser Sheni) wrote that we always have to keep in mind the magnitude of our obligations to God – to do good, to be good and holy, and to perfect our character. But even though we know we are not perfect, and we are to act humbly and contritely before G-d,  “nonetheless these feelings of inferiority should not predominate so that it tramples on his serenity of soul, and robs him of his joy and happiness in life.”

That is the joy of repentance. It is not just the outcome that we are now “beloved, cherished, close to and a friend of God” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 7:6) but in the process itself. It requires that we not just to focus on sin but to contemplate what we have done well.

Perhaps the joy of teshuvah can be internalized only when we realize that repentance is not just a return to God but is really a return to our true selves, to our souls before they were tarnished, to our personalities before the world of falsehood started to contort them. At the heart of that repentance is the recognition that we have tremendous powers and capabilities.

Reb Tzadok even wrote (Tzidkat Hatzadik 154) that just like a person has to believe in God, so too he has to believe in himself, to feel that he matters to God and does not toil or live in vain. We have to believe in our spiritual personalities. Even though we might (might?) sin and become repugnant, we still have the potential to become exalted and escape the shackles of our limitations.

So, too, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz emphasized (Sichot Mussar, 26) that a person who believes in himself can uncover powers and potential that hitherto he did not think he possessed.

All these forces – of simchat hanefesh‘ the joy of repentance, the creation of the new personality and the ability to see the good in ourselves – coalesce on Yom Kippur, the day the second set of luchot were given to us and the day the Bet Hamikdash was consecrated (Masechet Taanit 26b). On Yom Kippur,  we were given all the tools through which we serve God, and every year we celebrate those personal and national tools, and polish them anew.

May we use them well, and in the repentance of joy bring about the personal and national redemption of all Israel.

The Era of Argument

The noted professor Stanley Fish recently published a book, a slim but insightful volume, entitled “Winning Arguments.” Even after concluding the book, I could not determine whether the “Winning” of the title was a gerund (a verb meaning that the book instructed one how to prevail in arguments) or an adjective (that is, which arguments would be the most persuasive in rhetorical combat). And then I realized that it was neither, and that I misconstrued even the word “Argument.” Don’t judge a book by its title, or its cover.

When we think of “arguments” today, it is almost always associated with acrimony, protests, vindictiveness and insolubility. These encompass the riots in the streets, the harassment of people who articulate views that are unpopular with the masses or the advocates who are averse to dialogue and prone to violence, and the sheer inability of people to talk to others with different and certainly opposing views. Even “we agree to disagree” would be a step up in public discourse but a return to that halcyon era seems way off in the future.

The “Arguments” of the title, I think, refer to the classic arguments of yore, advocacy that was free of rancor or insult. A legal argument is typical of the genre. Often judges will say, “we will hear arguments on that matter tomorrow,” which in the current climate would be taken to mean that each side should come prepared to scream, then scream louder, and be bolstered by the boisterous supporters of its side that it had assembled in the audience. Of course, legal arguments mean nothing of the sort but are rather dispassionate discussions of the legal issues at hand in which each side musters all the precedents and logic underlying its case and tries to counter, rationally and orderly, the arguments of the other side.

There was a time when such arguments were not limited to the courtroom but, in fact, people could sit around a table in a social setting, discourse on the issues of the day, enlighten each other, have a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions about life, religion, politics and the like, and remain friends, and even look forward to the next gathering.

Those are the arguments to which Professor Fish refers, and the “Winning,” I assume, means “pleasing, appealing, or charming” rather than “triumphant or unbeatable.” Wouldn’t it be something if we could return to those days when people could have a friendly dialogue, learn from each other, agree to disagree, meet again – rather than fear being ostracized from one’s social circle, rendering one’s children unmarriageable to families of another viewpoint, having water thrown in one’s face, being verbally harassed on the streets, fired from one’s job, and being stalked and maligned as an enemy of society? And those intellectual arguments need not be that much different in kind from domestic or personal arguments – an exchange of views (who’s doing the dishes and who’s taking out the garbage) in which each side’s concerns are heard and addressed.

What, then, is the problem, which, to a large extent, has infiltrated our Torah world as well?

It is largely that modern arguments never end because there is no yardstick that can be employed that will lead definitively to a conclusion. Fish: “We live in a world where God and truth have receded, at least as active, perspicuous presences…absolute authority exists only in a heaven we may someday hope to see…”

We have forfeited the capacity to have reasoned dialogue because G-d’s word has been neglected when it is not altogether being distorted; even truth has been pounded into oblivion. It is not uncommon to hear people today speak of “my truth,” something which is synonymous with their “feelings.” But “feelings” are not truth, by definition subjective, and what we have generally is a passionate exchange of feelings about which there can be no common ground. It is why people – on television and often around tables – just talk past each other, and why we live in “a world of argument.”

To give just one example: we hear repeatedly the famous Torah verse “You should love your neighbor as yourself” used to justify all sorts of things of which the Torah disapproves, because the sentiment expressed is so noble and universal. Yet, one rabbinic explication of the verse is that because we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we have to “choose for him a pleasant mode of execution” (Masechet Sanhedrin 45a and elsewhere).That is, if we must execute someone for a crime, we must choose a mode of execution that causes the least pain. A person guided by feelings might think that a better way of expressing our love for another would be not to execute him at all! But such a person would be devoid of true Torah knowledge and oblivious to the Mesorah. And that is just one example of how G-d’s word can be so trivialized in these modern arguments and truth the first casualty of the rejection of G-d. Loving our neighbors as we do ourselves does not vitiate any of the Torah’s commandments even as it simultaneously influences our performance of many of them.

Towards the end of the book, Fish quotes from another book written twenty years ago by the sociologist Deborah Tannen, always incredibly prescient in her analysis of societal trends. The book was entitled “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words” and it portrayed the impending poisoning of public discourse, in which “your goal is not to listen and understand [but]… to use every tactic in order to win.” People, she wrote, thus “search for the most foolish statement in a generally reasonable treatise, seize upon the weakest example, ignore facts that support your opponent’s views and focus only on those that support yours.”

This is why the word game has become so popular in this genre – finding the one word or phrase than can be construed as offensive and use that as a pretext not to deal with the substance of the contentions that are being raised. It is as obvious as it is phony and hypocritical.

The America of 1998 when Tannen’s book was published was certainly not as polarized as it is today, but the argument culture is alive and devouring us. Witness the people who can no longer talk to each other civilly, friendships that have cooled, relationships that have ended, and all because of this gross incapacity to open one’s mind to the views of another, to agree or disagree pleasantly and to evaluate by the objective barometers given to us – especially in the Torah – what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is contemptible.

Rational arguments are impossible in a world that glorifies the primacy of feelings above all. Where contentions need not be proven by resort to conventional resources (“I don’t have to prove anything; I feel I’m right, I know it in my heart”) then dialogue becomes impossible and we are on the brink of “might makes right.” That can only be followed – and has already been followed – by physical attacks on those with disfavored views, the banning of the expression of certain moral notions in university classrooms, and the creation of an underground where traditional morality can still be taught and discussed out of sight of society’s self-appointed hall monitors and truth suppressors.

Where relativism predominates, true virtue cannot exist. In the wake of its disappearance we find only competing personal “moralities” that cannot enlighten or ennoble anyone. What passes for sophisticated discussion are puerile and vacuous Facebook posts and tweets that sock it to the disfavored.

Jews, whether we admit it or not, live in a binary world. We are presented with the blessing and the curse, with good and evil, with the choice of following or disobeying G-d’s will. Some have forsaken that for lack of faith or the desire to curry favor in the general world, but we abandon that approach at our peril.

There does not appear to be a way out of this morass, short of repentance. Perhaps the only true consolation is the Talmudic statement (Masechet Sanhedrin 98a) that the generation in which the Messiah comes will be either entirely righteous or guilty. It will be a generation in which people simply cannot agree or even dialogue about what is right or wrong or good and evil. The righteous will know they are righteous and have little to do with the evil, and the evil will think they are virtuous and that the so-called righteous are misguided or worse.

If indeed the era of argument is a prelude to the coming of Moshiach, then at least we can (not) enjoy it while it lasts.

 

The Jewish State

The Knesset this week, by a vote of 62-55, adopted a Basic Law declaring Israel to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people” (in Hebrew, medinat hale’um hayehudi). By the hysterical reaction of the Jewish secularists, leftists and non-Orthodox Jews in America, one would think that Roe v. Wade had been reversed.

The thought arises: isn’t the State of Israel already the “nation-state of the Jewish people”? Isn’t that why it is referred to colloquially as “the Jewish state”? Indeed, I recall hearing once or twice (of course, it was in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem) that “our hope is not lost,” that the beating Jewish heart yearns to return to the land of Israel, “the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” in order “to be a free people in our land.” Wasn’t that the essence of the Hatikvah and the Zionist movement?

Moreover, Israel’s Declaration of Independence declared (as Declarations are supposed to do) that “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.” (Of course, this is not entirely true. The Land of Israel was not the birthplace of the Jewish people; we actually became a nation in Egypt from which we were liberated by the mighty hand of G-d – and then our nationhood was confirmed when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. But let’s not quibble.)

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

This assertion was the main predicate for what followed, the dramatic announcement seventy years ago (5 Iyar 5708) that: “Accordingly, we, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael and of the Zionist movement…by virtue of our natural and historic right…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

There it is – in bold italics. Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” is seventy years old. Why are so many Jews throwing a hissy fit?

One anomaly is that, for all the drama of the Declaration of Independence, it has never had the force of law in Israel. Thus, Hatikvah was never Israel’s formal national anthem, nor was the Israeli flag ever officially adopted as the national flag. Both of those entities gained official recognition through this new law. Is that a problem? It might be for Arabs, but both the Declaration of Independence and the new law assure the non-Jewish population of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Accordingly, the rights of all citizens are protected (sometimes, it must be said, to a fault), so why the uproar? Surely the Arabs of Israel are aware that they live in a Jewish state, and if it troubled them, could easily emigrate to one of the 23 Arab states in the region.

Some critics have charged that the law is unnecessary, hardly the case in a world where Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish state is constantly under attack and especially in an environment in which previous advocates of the “two-state illusion” have now abandoned that chimera in support of a “one-state-for-all-its-citizens delusion,” essentially a renunciation of the existence of a particularly Jewish state. Sometimes laws come to reinforce basic values, norms and notions, and it is noteworthy that Israel for the first time in its history – and long overdue – it has adopted an official anthem, flag and language (Hebrew), all reflective of its Jewishness.

And perhaps therein rest the discomfort, discontent and even hostility in some circles to this law. There are too many Jews who see themselves first as universalists and only then –if then – as Jews. They are uncomfortable when Jewish symbols infringe on their universalism, and horrified when actions of the Jewish state (self-defense, for example) “embarrass” them in their social circles. The dictates and value system of Torah having been long eschewed, and exchanged for Western secular liberalism, anything that smacks of being Jewish becomes, by definition, “too Jewish” and even “Charedi.” Their Jewish identity, as noted here in the past, is primarily ethnic, not religious, but even the ethnic identity has to be bland, innocuous and couched in a universal framework.

It is odd, indeed, that a law that seems so self-evident to many is deemed repugnant to others. As Israel becomes more Jewish and religious in population, character and practice, the secular minority has become more shrill, more vocal, and to a great extent, has lost its moorings. What was natural to Ben Gurion – “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael” – has somehow become anathema to his party, no longer his followers in any meaningful sense. Ben Gurion, for all his flaws and his rancorous relationship with the Torah, had Jewish pride. That is not necessarily true of his socialist and secular heirs. Those who fear the Arab reaction to this law would have recoiled from declaring statehood seventy years ago, no doubt mindful of the Arab “reaction” to that provocation.

En route to complete redemption, the men are indeed being separated from the boys, the believers in the Zionist dream from the non-believers, the people of faith from the faithless, and the proud Jew from the pretenders. It is shameful, and of course reflective of the acrimonious partisanship that afflicts so many nations today, that the bill passed by only 62-55. The world that has not fully accommodated itself to Jewish independence in the land of Israel can rant and rave, but who would have thought that nonchalance or opposition to Israel as the “Jewish state” would have so many Jewish supporters? That too is a disturbing sign of the times.

And the recent fiasco involving Birthright, in which young participants brought to Israel on the dime of Jewish communal funds seized the opportunity to abandon the trip to visit with Israel’s enemies, simply underscores the problem of garnering support for a Jewish state in the land of Israel from people alienated from Torah. That dilemma trumps the problem of dealing with a coddled, egocentric generation that feels entitled to anything – including a free trip to Israel – and does not see the moral absurdity of taking someone’s money and diverting it for your own purposes.

As we approach Tish’a B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, the temporary loss of our homeland and the weakening of Jewish nationhood, we can celebrate this forceful assertion of Jewish pride, identity and strength, and pray that all Jews join the bandwagon. The era before the final redemption will be tumultuous; in fact, it is already tumultuous. All we can do is hang on, maintain our faith, learn Torah, do mitzvot, reach out to our fellow Jews and pray that the days of sadness and strife are soon transformed into days of joy and peace.

 

 

Not-So-Smart Phones

The narrative of creation accounts for many details of our origins but obviously not all, so what is included must be of great import. And of course the Torah was not given to us to teach cosmology, science, or even history but rather to teach us morality – not how we came to be but why we came to be, and how we should live. And so the nuggets of information provided about the ancients should catch our attention.

Thus we are taught that Lemech had one son named Yaval, “and the name of his brother was Yuval, the forerunner of those who play the harp and the flute” (Breisheet 4:21). Yuval was the original music man. And Lemech’s other wife Tzila “also gave birth to Tuval Kayin, the forerunner of those who sharpen and craft implements of copper and iron” (ibid 4:22). These facts are certainly interesting, but what’s the point?

And note the contrasts: the Netziv commented that the harp and the flute have dueling functions; the harp soothes while the flute arouses. They are not generally played together, and yet Yuval played both. So too, the instruments that were manufactured by Tuval Kayin could also be put to disparate uses. Tuval Kayin, like his great-great-great-grandfather Kayin, was also a farmer, so he created tools that made the work easier. But Rashi wrote that that he was too much like his ancestor Kayin, who murdered his brother Hevel but was not very efficient in carrying out the dastardly deed, But Tuval Kayin was so named because he perfected the craft of Kayin, manufacturing weapons of homicide like knives and daggers. So too Yuval the music man who used his music for idolatrous worship. What exactly are we being taught?

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a long essay by Nicholas Carr that should wake us up to the realities of the new world and the potential dangers that technology present. We always see the good, the benefits and the advantages in every modern invention but rarely internalize the downside, the struggles, or the changes for the worse, if we even do more than pay lip service to it. And so it is with the ubiquitous Smartphone.

Smartphones have become indispensable; more than half its users cannot imagine life without a product that didn’t even exist less than two decades ago. Traditionally, we have worried about the moral and spiritual dangers that are extant. I, like many rabbis, have railed against people even bringing Smartphones to shul, much less using them during prayer. Sadly, some people just can’t help it, and can’t disconnect from these devices even for a few moments. We have all witnessed people answering emails or texting during the davening (a real embarrassment to the shul and its sanctity as well as an insult to G-d in whose presence they presumably stand) and all been irritated by phones ringing during davening (although, fortunately, it is less of a problem in our parts).  But the essay makes a different and much stronger point: these Smartphones are making us dumb and our children even dumber. And that is a real, and in many venues an uncontrollable, problem.

The advantages are numerous. Smartphone provide with heretofore unimaginable convenience and an ever-increasing array of diversions. Who could have dreamed even a few years ago of a hand-held device that serves as a phone, camera, mailbox, photo album, computer, every newspaper and magazine you want to read, every movie, television show or sports program you want to watch, a calendar, a diary, a siddur, Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch and much more? But Smartphones come at a great cognitive cost, and that’s what the research is showing. Just hearing a ring or a vibration makes it more difficult to concentrate. And when people hear a buzz and don’t check their phones, immediately their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens and their problem-solving skills decline. The ramifications for us will be clear in a moment.

In one study, three groups of students were given a test. One was told to keep their phones on their desks, another in their pockets or purses and a third group in a different room. Those whose phones were in view did the worst, those whose phones were in another room did the best, and those whose phones were present but in their pockets came out in the middle. Their mere presence drains away our mental energy and detaches us from our surroundings.

Obviously, those who people who bring phones to shul will have worse kavana even if the phones are off, and kavana is something with which we struggle under the best circumstances. Even more seriously, schools that allow children to bring their phones are wasting the parent’s tuition money. The children will simply not learn as much, their cognitive skills and ability to concentrate will decline precipitously, and then we will wonder where we have gone wrong. It is also worth noting that the mere presence of a phone diminishes the concentration of all those who see it, even if they do not own it, because it reflects the universe of opportunities, delights and fantasies in the great beyond, which always seem more interesting that whatever one is doing at the moment.

And worse: we are impairing our social skills through addiction to these devices while our children are not developing any social skills at all. Relationships suffer, if real ones at all exist. Smartphones serve as a constant reminder of all the friends we could be chatting with electronically, so they grab at our minds even when we are talking to live people, leaving those conversations shallower and less satisfying. Read “Reclaiming Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle, and you will realize that the ubiquity of Smartphones makes us less productive (even as we think we are being more productive), destroys our capacity for self-reflection, and prevents us from living in the moment with real people. It has spawned a generation that prefers texting to talking and virtual interactions to real ones.

These phones are not just in our hands but they are inside our heads. They hijack our attention and constitute a “supernormal stimulus” such as the world has never before seen. And we remember less, because everything is out there, accessible with a few taps of a finger. But William James, the 19th century American psychologist and thinker, said that the art of remembering is the art of thinking. We encode certain information that enables us to think conceptually, to make intellectual associations. When we stop doing that we create delusions of intelligence, with people feeling they know more but actually know less about the world around them. That’s why so many college students struggle to place the Civil War or World War II in the right decade (or quarter-century) and have no idea how many Supreme Court justices or United States Senators there are.

The only hope – the only answer – is to learn how to disconnect. Shabbat is great for that but it only comes once a week. Shul is even better – twice a day, morning and night. Leave the phone at home, period, or in the car. Carve out disconnect time as well with spouse and children. And parents who send their children to school with Smartphones are forewarned; the phones are smart but the people who cannot disengage from them become dumber. That’s the science.

The Torah introduces these ancients as the pioneers of innovation, which began with them and has not ceased. Yuval’s music brings joy, inspiration and comfort but can also be used for debauchery and idolatry.  Tuval Kayin’s inventions were great for farming but also for homicide and mayhem. It’s not history; we are not accounting for the dates of the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. It’s Mussar, designed to tell us how to control all new inventions but not have them control us. Every invention is morally neutral, with positive and negative qualities. Rashi says that the sons of Lemech failed in their understanding and embrace of the new technology and let themselves be swept away by the immoral possibilities and their potential for evil and dehumanization.

That same potential exists in all of us, until we internalize the notion that everything created is primarily for the glory of G-d and must promote His service.

 

 

 

Succot and the Nations

(This was first published as a front page cover essay in the Jewish Press, October 4, 2017)

     One of the unique features of the Succot service in the Bet Hamikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven bulls on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Succot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world. These bulls served as atonement for their sins which would ensure that they, too, were blessed, with heavenly rain and prosperity. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Bet Hamikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Succa 55b)

     Indeed, who – or what – does atone for the nations of the world today?

     As we celebrate Succot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies. Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a re-direction of its energies and objectives.

     Perhaps even worse than the geo-political nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality than mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the divine will needed to be ascertained and implemented.

      But G-d has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined. For the first time in American history, more Americans today are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that were once considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.

      Something changed dramatically in Western society over the last century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be in the 1960’s.

       Before the 1960’s, sin existed, and all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, but they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them. What was considered scandalous, appalling and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today, and properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40% of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided. Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews – presumably, the possessors and propagators of the divine morality – have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era. G-d’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.

     Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10% of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive. Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by  all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.

      What changed in the 1960’s?

      Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed G-d from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments. Certainly, they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life. To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated several months ago.

      Please allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah, one that is being fulfilled before our eyes, is G-d’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days. “And G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3). Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megila 29a) that G-d, in a sense, returns from the exile with us. “It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”

       Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel. It was the triumph of the Six Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized G-d’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it. If we bless G-d as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.

       But if we posit that during the exile, shechinta b’galuta, the divine presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the divine presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the shechina has receded from the exile, from America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, home to most Jews for almost two millennia. As the divine presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960’s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960’s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory and Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, G-d’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear. As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values and even paying lip service to values, and the loss of shame.

     With a loss of the divine presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a superior morality than the one that G-d offered His subjects, both Jews and Gentiles. It is a new world in which even mentioning G-d in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that intermarriage, which hovered around 5% until the 1960’s, has skyrocketed since.

      Certainly, G-d’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. G-d as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence. But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels. The divine presence never departs from the Kotel Hamaaravi, the western wall of the Temple (Midrash Raba Shmot 2:2). There are times during the year when we feel that G-d is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a) and in our Sukkot. And of course there are remnants of the divine presence in the exile as well. G-d’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even when one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6). But whereas the shechina was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is less and less experienced in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations is declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.

      The Six Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the divine presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal. Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.

      What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. With G-d’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling with faith and tenacity are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries. The very notion of G-d has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the  idea of G-d as Creator, King and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1%.

     One might ask: if this is true, and the divine presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in Israel today in some parts? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege. The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the shechina has precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.

     Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Bet Hamikdash stood, and G-d’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Succot atoned for the nations of the world. “And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?

      Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. That is a momentous event and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3). Currently, the world could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews who remain in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values.  We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.

      It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all of G-d’s creatures. Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Succot past. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with G-d, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation. We celebrate that uniqueness in the Succa, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Succot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with G-d and offer just one bull as G-d celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.

       On Succot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the divine presence to its natural locale, re-commit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world, and nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.

The Hidden Moon

A well known Torah teacher in Israel, Rav Eliezer Kashtiel, asks a familiar question. We generally celebrate our holidays at the full moon, in the middle of the month. Succot, Pesach, and Purim are all full moon holidays. Not only is Rosh Hashana different, but we highlight that difference: “Sound the shofar in the concealment of our festival day.” Which festival occurs when the moon is concealed? That would be Rosh Hashana (Masechet Rosh Hashana 34a). But why must the festival coincide with the moon hidden from sight? And why is our attention called to it?

There is a famous dispute between the Gaon of Vilna and the holy ARI on a sensitive question: is it permissible to cry on Rosh Hashana? The Gaon ruled that one is not allowed to cry, for at the beginning of the second Temple era, Nechemia admonished the people who had come to the Temple for the first time on Rosh Hashana to “go home, eat, drink, for this day is holy to G-d, and don’t be sad, for delight in G-d is your strength” (Nechemia 8:10). Thus, the GRA said, the prohibition against sadness precludes crying.

The ARI disagreed, as recorded by R. Chaim Vital and the Ba’er Heiteiv (Orach Chaim 584:3). The ARI would cry on Rosh Hashana and even said that whoever didn’t cry, it is a sign that his soul is not healthy. That’s the paradox of Rosh Hashana: on the one hand, it’s a happy and joyous day; while on the other hand, it’s a day of solemnity and judgment. Which is primary?

There are several answers that synchronize the opinions of the GRA and the ARI, but here is one. There are different types of crying. There are tears of sadness and there are tears of joy. Sometimes they are commingled, and sometimes they are distinct. And we all know the difference. Rosh Hashana is the only holiday that is celebrated at the New Moon, the beginning of the month, because, like the new moon every month, it symbolizes a fresh start, a rebirth. On Rosh Hashana, we are all children again. We are reborn. We still hear the cantor of our youth that shapes the way we absorb and understand the davening throughout our lives. We still see the sights and inhale the aromas of the homes in which we were raised. We are children again, full of hope and excitement.

What is the sound of the shofar? The whole year we talk to G-d, with words. On Rosh Hashana, we employ the wordless sounds of the shofar, the cry of the infant who can’t say anything or do anything. He just cries. It’s not a cry of sadness or of pain; it’s not the cry of longing for or regret for the past; that will come. It is the cry of the child who yearns for mother and father, for the security and comfort of home; it is our cry to our Father in Heaven that we have returned after being abroad for too long. Please let us in. We cry in joy over the future – like at all beginnings, births and weddings – not over the past. We cry over the journey that took us to distant places, but now we have come home.

There is no moon. The past is the past. We are born again. We just need to be delivered into the new world of the New Year.

The Torah tells us that the two great women, midwives, who ushered in the redemption from Egypt and the founding of our nation, were named Shifra and Pu’ah. In the understanding of our Sages, these noble women were Yocheved and Miriam, respectively the mother and sister of Moshe. So why were they called Shifra and Pu’ah? The Gemara (Sota 11b) says that one was called Shifra because her role was to straighten out (meshaperet) the limbs of the newborn, and the other was called Pu’ah because she cried out (po’ah) to the child to bring her forth into the world.

Shifra and Pu’ah. Those names should ring a phonetic bell in our minds. Pu’ah – crying, cooing. The hundred sounds of the shofar that we blow correspond to the hundred cries (pe’ayot) of Sisera’s mother. And Pu’ah’s mother was Shifra, a word like the shofar itself. The Baal Hatanya wrote that the sounds of the shofar accompany our rebirth. It calls out to us plaintively and seeks our improvement; it urges us to straighten ourselves out. It asks us to renew ourselves, that we cry not tears of sadness – “do not be sad  because the delight in G-d is our strength” –  but tears of joy (even if that too recollects what is missing), tears of hope and anticipation, tears of the newborn, of a reborn soul.

The Slonimer quotes the Toldot Yaakov Yosef who reinterpreted the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that discusses the three books that are open on Rosh Hashana – the books of the righteous, the wicked and the intermediates. The books are open, but we get to inscribe ourselves. We get to choose the book in which we want to be written. What are our true aspirations? Those who crown G-d as King over themselves – every limb, every deed, and every thought – have chosen the book of life. Those who cannot make that commitment are choosing a different book.

If the moon is concealed on Rosh Hashana, it is only to remind us that a new beginning awaits us, if only we want it, if only we are ready for it. May we embark on that new beginning wisely and choose the book of life thoughtfully, and may G-d show us favor and seal us in that book for a year of meaningful life and good health, of prosperity and happiness, and grace our people with renewal as well – to an end to fear and trepidation, and to the beginning of complete redemption.

Shana Tova to all!