Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

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!

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Sins of Coercion

Does the Talmudic category of “ones rachmana patrei,” that “the Merciful One exempts [from punishment one who sins because of] coercion” apply to sins that are not forced on us by our enemies or by circumstances beyond our control? This issue has again risen to the fore by the assertion of a well known American-Israeli rabbi that this concept can be applied to deal sensitively with the plight of practicing homosexuals and has been the source of controversy here in Israel. To be clear, my focus here is not on the quandary of the homosexual, a situation that in our world causes great hardship to individuals and families, demands our sympathy and understanding and has been discussed at length. It is rather on the plight of the rabbinate.

What was suggested is not a new idea and was first proposed decades ago. It was posited, according to a straightforward reading of the statement, that the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual contact applies only to a heterosexual who chooses to engage in same-sex behavior, not the committed homosexual whose only desires are in that arena. As he is, purportedly, wired that way, he cannot be held responsible for his actions and, indeed, G-d would not want to deprive him (or her) of the capacity to find love in this world.

Yet, upon scrutiny, the application of “ones rachmana patrei” to this situation is flawed, misplaced and incorrect, and will inevitably lead to a deterioration in observance of any Jews who are influenced by it. There is the considerable likelihood that such contentions will lead Jews astray in every area of life in which they feel they lack self-control on the one hand or seek passionately on the other. It can and will undermine the very notion of commandment, sin, and repentance. In essence, this methodology of “ones rachmana patrei” can be equally misapplied to Shabbat desecration, theft, violence, adultery, gossip, tax fraud, and any other sin, major or minor. Several points deserve analysis.

Firstly, “ones rachmana patrei” is generally applied when one is forced to sin because of some external coercive element rather than a lack of internal control. The motivating factor is always some outside force and not simply an innate desire that cannot be constrained. For example, the anusim (from the same root; Conversos in the vernacular) were forced to convert and engage in Christian practices because of the murderous hostility of 15th century Christian Spain. The proof text for “ones rachmana patrei” is the case of the naarah ha’me’urasa, the betrothed maiden who is violated in the field against her will. “And to the maiden you shall do nothing; she is not guilty of a capital crime” (Devarim 22:26). As the Talmud (Masechet Bava Kama 28b) explains, she is guiltless, compelled to sin because of the brutish acts of her assailant.

Secondly, the classic cases of “ones rachmana patrei” are noted by Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, Chapter 5) under the laws of martyrdom. One who is compelled by hostile enemies on pain of death to commit one of the three cardinal sins – idolatry, sexual immorality, or homicide – is obligated to forfeit his life and not sin, as those three sins are particularly corrosive to the soul. One can save one’s life and violate all other sins except in a time of religious persecution. Yet, if the person instead saves his own life by committing one of the three cardinal sins, “he has failed to sanctify G-d’s name, but because he was coerced, he is not punished” (Rambam, ibid 5:4). Again, “ones rachmana patrei” requires the coercion of an outside party.

Thirdly, it must be underscored that “ones rachmana patrei” only means that there is no criminal punishment of the offender. It does not at all render the act in question permissible in the first instance. So even if it were true that the committed homosexual is an “anoos,” and thereby not liable to judicial punishment, that would not justify the commission of the acts in any event. They remain prohibited, even if there is no longer criminal liability. An article in the recent Tzohar journal (Volume 41, pages 81-101) reiterated the prohibition against people with same-sex attractions even secluding themselves together; the authors never entertained permitting sinful actions based on “ones rachmana patrei.

Nevertheless, “ones rachmana patrei” is applicable in many familiar areas to us. We are not liable today for not bringing the Korban Pesach, or one in captivity has not violated the Torah by not eating in the Succa on the 15th night of Tishrei, because circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill those mitzvot. Sadly, a person without arms cannot fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin shel yad like a blind person cannot recite Kiddush Levana. One who will die unless he consumes non-kosher food must eat non-kosher food. All are exempt by G-d from fulfilling these commandments because of the situation forced upon them. A license to sin because of tendencies that cannot be controlled is far removed from this concept.

Indeed, a person is only considered an “anoos” after he has made every possible effort to fulfill a mitzvah or avoid its violation – every possible effort. And even then, if he cannot fulfill the commandment, he has to be overcome with regret and sorrow, much like Moshe was when told he could not enter the land of Israel even though he desired to perform the commandments tied to the land. But wasn’t he prevented by G-d and therefore not obligated in those mitzvot? Yes, and so the Alter of Kelm noted that we learn from Moshe that even an “anoos” has to be distressed about his failure to follow G-d’s will (see Rav Menashe Klein’s Mishneh Halachot 17:189, at the end). Again, this was an inability to fulfill positive commandments; a permanent license to engage in a capital prohibition was never contemplated in the absence of any external coercive element.

There are grounds that support the notion that someone who is mentally ill and cannot control himself is not liable for his actions – because “ones rachmana patrei.” It is analogous to the insanity defense familiar in secular law. But there is no indication that the concept of “ones rachmana patrei” is being employed here in this sense, and, as we know, such an assertion in this context would be the epitome of political incorrectness.

Bringing comfort to troubled souls is one of the essential tasks of the rabbinate but to do so by distorting or fudging the Torah’s prohibitions is self-defeating and ultimately destructive. The Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 75a) tells the distressing tale of a man who developed an obsession with a particular woman, such that the doctors said he would die if he did not sin with her. The Sages brusquely prohibited even a private conversation between the two, much less anything more risqué. They did not seek to rationalize his desires because of “ones rachmana patrei.”

To my thinking, a homosexual who cannot alter his behavior but remains chaste because of his religious commitment and faith is absolutely heroic, a role model for all. Perhaps today we lack such role models but at one time we had them. Yosef withstood the blandishments of Potifar’s wife notwithstanding all the good reasons (even some with religious overtones) that rang in his ears, and even though he wound up incarcerated for more than a decade as a result of his demurral. That is strength of character. Yosef is the exemplar of the Jew who is caught in the throes of sensual passion and does not succumb (Masechet Yoma 35b). Boaz refrained from committing any lascivious acts with Ruth, even though it could have been rationalized on some level. And both personalities pale before the superhuman willpower of Palti who did not touch his own wife because of his fear that she was still technically married to David. (I have simplified somewhat; see Masechet Sanhedrin 19b for the details.) Those who can harness the energy of an unquenchable passion and remain faithful to G-d are awe-inspiring. “Let those who love Him be like the powerfully rising sun” (Shoftim 5:31).

Rabbis should be encouraging fidelity to Torah. Rabbis should be teaching Jews about the virtues of self-control and moderation as the keys to faith and happiness. We need not pander to the young generation as if it is hopelessly degenerate and dissolute, as if they can never truly surrender to G-d’s will. Such is the death of Torah and the irrelevance of the rabbinate. Such is the evisceration of the function of Judaism throughout our history. A Jew is called upon to sacrifice; no one was poorer than Hillel (Masechet Yoma 35b) and yet he continued his Torah study in poverty. We would not say “ones rachmana patrei” for Jews who felt compelled to work on Shabbat a century ago (and some even today); commitment to Torah requires sacrifice and that sacrifice is asked of all of us in different ways.

It is disingenuous to claim that Halacha is pluralistic, in the modern sense that there is no one truth. The Talmud characterizes the disputes between the schools of Shamai and Hillel as “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim,” “these and those are the words of the living G-d,” but then concludes that a heavenly echo decreed “the law is according to the house of Hillel.” Yes, there was finality, as there is overwhelming decisiveness and consensus in halacha; it is not an intellectual or spiritual free-for-all. “Anything” does not go. The disputes are always along the margins, in the details of some of the laws and customs. The consensus that dominates halachic practice in the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, Taharat Hamishpacha, Tefila, and other areas is what unites the Torah world. The differences are mostly nuances that have endured for centuries and does at all impinge on our capacity to pray, eat, learn and live together. We can debate how long to wait between meat and milk but not whether a cheeseburger is kosher.

There is a real danger that people will construe themselves as “coerced” by their internal natures – and molest, steal, murder, cheat, gossip and breach all the norms of Torah because, after all, that was the nature with which they were born and, according to modern notions, they are not expected to control and refine. We all are subject to sin, and we all must exercise discretion in not seeking to pry into people’s private lives and judging them accordingly. But it is far better to sin out of lust (and sincerely repent and then stop) than to sin intellectually by writing out of the Torah one or more of its prohibitions. The former is a human being beset by frailties, like all of us; the latter is a heretic.

Similarly, what a rabbi might advise an individual in private is not necessarily appropriate for an entire group or for readers of a newspaper. In fact, sensitivity to the individual is much more important than sensitivity to a group, notwithstanding the modern obsession with “group identity.” It is the individual who deserves our attention, respect, sympathy, not the group with which he identifies or who claims her as an adherent. But our sensitivities and sensibilities should never be projected onto G-d and can never replace the Torah. All we know of G-d’s will is what He told us, and that is what makes the Jewish people special, unique and worthy of His protective hand. We modify, reform or modernize His word and His morality at our peril.

I am saddened by the reality of people suffering with the allure of sin and illicit desire as I am by the implications of a distortion of Torah law. Jews in this situation deserve our sympathy and our help, but also our honesty. And if rabbis do not preach G-d’s values, and do not speak the language of right and wrong, permissible and forbidden, then who will?

 

 

 

The Tribal Order

The nation of Israel was not formed as one bloc but rather divided into twelve different tribes with a common mandate and destiny. Such was noticed by the heathen prophet Bil’am who lifted his eyes “and saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes” (Bamidbar 24:2). It impressed him so much that he uttered words that accompany our daily entry in shul: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, and your sanctuaries, Israel.” What exactly did Bil’am see in our tents that was so “good”?

Rashi comments that Bil’am saw Israel dwelling according to our tribal formation, and he perceived that “each tribe [was] living by itself and not commingling, and that the entrances to their tents were not aligned so one person could not look into the home of his neighbor.” Such a nation he deemed worthy of having the Divine presence rest on it.

A few verses later, Rashi reiterates that Bil’am noticed that our tent entrances were not aligned, and perhaps there are two different points being made. One response was engendered by the tribal formation and the other by our tents. The entrances to the tents were not aligned for purposes of modesty and privacy. Too often people are tempted to find out what’s going on in someone else’s house; thus, this safeguard was enacted. Jewish law prescribes where we are allowed to build doors, windows, balconies and the like so as not to encroach on the privacy rights of others. We let others invite us in; we don’t intrude or insert ourselves where we do not belong. That is the definition of the “good tent.”

But Bil’am also saw us dwelling according to our tribes, each tribe to itself, and each entrance staggered so we don’t peer into the next tent. This is not modesty but propriety and broadmindedness. To peer into someone else’s tent means to scrutinize their conduct, to search for the slightest non-conformity, to seek out and highlight the differences, especially the failures or departures from the norm, that very often and improperly agitate and perturb us a little too much. The point is that all Jews are not the same. We were not formed as a linear, one-dimensional nation. If we were, then we wouldn’t dwell in tribes, and we would have our “entrances aligned,” all Jewish homes would look alike, sound alike and act alike. And that is not so and has never been so. We are a nation of tribes.

Among the most hollow, vacuous and pointless expressions we hear again and again is the call for unity. It sounds good – but unity occurred only happened at Sinai when we received the Torah. Indeed, if we were meant to have an imposed unity on the Jewish people, we would not have been divided into twelve tribes, nor would it be praiseworthy that Bil’am “saw that all the tribes lived apart and did not mingle.” We would all have to live together, do the same things in the same way, and never deviate. But each tribe has its own path and we glorify our own path and dismiss others out of ignorance. In effect, there are twelve paths to G-d, and each tribe represents a different one. I cannot emphasize enough that I am not referring to halacha here. The opposite is true. Every legitimate path – bar none – has to be faithful to Jewish law. But to think that there is only one way, or even that my way is necessarily better, holier or closer to G-d’s will, is a mistake. And so we are told not to “peer into the tent of our neighbors.”

This requires further explanation, so here is an example. In Israel today, there is a revolution taking place in the Charedi world, what is being called the rise of the “Charedi middle class.” There always were wealthy Charedim who subsidized most of the rest – but now there is a middle class that today has its own organizations, culture, websites and publications. They are more at home in general society even while not fully partaking of it. There is a multi-million dollar industry of advertising to the Charedi community, now that there are Charedi consumers who work (more than 50% of Charedi men of working age now work) and spend their earnings as they wish. Communities evolve.

I recently read an article on this phenomenon, and the author noted that when R. Simcha Elberg (longtime editor of Hapardes) visited Bnai Brak for the first time in the 1960’s, he dubbed it the “olam hachumros,” the world of stringencies. He did not mean it pejoratively as some people might take it, but descriptively, a world that chooses the most stringent interpretations of halacha in every aspect of life because they choose to limit their interactions with the rest of society. But he notes that traditional Jewry was never like that; it is something unique.

Is that approach wrong or a distortion of the true Torah? No; it’s just different. That’s a tribe, even if it’s not my particular tribe.  We have room for a tribe of machmirim who deserve our respect even if others choose a different way – and as long as they also realize there are different ways within halacha (and, again, I am not at all referring to the neo-Cons who proclaim themselves Orthodox but deviate from Orthodoxy in law, practice and ideology because of their absorption of modernist and non-Jewish trends). It is not better to be stringent, just like it is not better to be lenient. Halacha is case and fact sensitive, but even more importantly each religious grouping is just a different tribe.

It has been noted frequently that Mizrachi communities always studied Torah differently than in Ashkenazi communities, and halachic norms and emphases were also different. The Israeli Charedi is markedly different from the American Charedi, just as the American ModO increasingly has less and less in common with the Israeli dati leumi. These are all tribes of Israel.

One thing that we have learned over the course of history is that the religious eco-system is very finely balanced. You pull a little too much here and something unravels there, which is part of the Lakewood problem we are dealing with these days. If the only goal is Torah study, then you might tend to cut corners somewhere else in order to sustain it. If a college or higher education is deemed evil and unacceptable, thereby impairing one’s earning potential, money for self-sustenance will have to be acquired in some other fashion. On the other hand, if Torah study is not a primary value at all, then there is a tendency to cut corners somewhere else and our minds become littered with Western, non-Torah values that we talk ourselves into thinking are Torah values. And when college or higher education is perceived as a value in its own right, and not simply as a means to earning a living or gaining a broader perspective on life, there is no shortage of Jewish souls that have been lost treading that path. College attendance poses risks if you go and if you don’t go, unless you remain in a Yeshiva environment and that too is not a panacea.

Similarly, Lakewood may possess one set of problems but it is unlikely their rabbis are often asked, for example, about the propriety of attending intermarriages or same-sex marriages, a phenomenon to which some ModO rabbis, to their discredit, are increasingly amenable. That, too, is a price paid for indulging the modern culture and ethos.

Since there is no perfect system, we all have to learn from each other. Jews who mock the foibles of any group are really mocking themselves, a most distasteful, self-defeating and even masochistic tendency. Each tribe, like each individual, is a different composite of virtues and vices, of mitzvot and aveirot. No one is perfect – and that is why it is wrong and frivolous, even arrogant, to peer into someone else’s tent and demand that he conform to my standard, my stringency or my leniency. We are twelve tribes. There are tribes that emphasize Torah study, prayer, acts of kindness, modesty, public service, settlement, military service or the like, and historically it was always like this. Some people need stringencies to survive spiritually while others would be crushed by them, just like there are some who could benefit from a stringency or two but don’t embrace them because they are too comfortable in their spiritual skins, are at peace with their flaws, or often assume incorrectly that what they perceive as a “stringency” is actually the essential law.

To say that everyone has to be like me or like us is as foolish as saying there’s nothing we can learn from any other tribe. All are wrong. Each person must dwell under the banner of his tribe but all the tribes have to reflect fidelity to Torah. Our entrances are not aligned so that if we peer into someone else’s tent, our perspective is necessarily skewed. One comment of Rashi refers to modesty in our interpersonal relations but the other refers to the mutual respect and tolerance that all Torah Jews in all our different groupings – Ashkenaz and Mizrachi, Yeshivish and non-Yeshivish – and, indeed, all Jews, must have so we can grow together, learn from each other and strengthen each other.

And of our brothers and sisters who have rejected Torah and Mitzvot and created ideologies that rationalize their non-observance and, these days, defend even intermarriage, assimilation and opposition to Jewish rights in the land of Israel? Those who are still halachic Jews are part of the Jewish people but I fear for their future. Their numbers are dwindling even as their proclamations and threats become shriller. Are they, too, a tribe? I think not; it would be awkward to define a tribe of Israel as non-observant deniers of Torah, Mesorah and sometimes even G-d’s existence. But they are certainly part of the existing tribes, albeit less faithful and committed. They must find the leadership and the inner will that bring them back to Torah observance and full participation in Jewish life, and perceive themselves as valued members of the great odyssey of the Jewish people rather than as a bridgehead for the reformation of Judaism according to Western and secular values. That has undeniably been a road to oblivion. Witnessing it should evoke in us tears of anguish and openness to outreach and acceptance.

It is not unity that the Jewish people require but rather love – love of each other because of our diversity and not despite it, love of each other as individuals and as one nation that transcends our differences and even our flaws. Sin’at Chinam (baseless hatred), the Netziv wrote, is hatred for another because he is slightly different than you. Such hatred destroyed the Beit Hamikdash and has prolonged our exile. Ahavat Yisrael is the cure for all that ails us.

In so doing, the world will again look at us and admire our tents, our diversity and our common objective of bringing glory to G-d and His Torah and we will usher the world itself into the era of complete redemption.

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.