Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Democracy in Decline

It is not a happy season for democracies. The American President and the Israeli Prime Minister are under constant, endless investigations, with no end in sight. The British Prime Minister and the French President are besieged, incapable of implementing their preferred policies, whatever the merits might be. Riots abound in both places, and in Germany, where the long-serving Chancellor has lost support, power and is nearing the end of her tenure. Italy and Greece are as unstable as ever.

In each case, the media and hostile special interest groups are obsessed with opposition, resistance, tearing down societal structures and fomenting instability. And by comparison, Russia and China are authoritarian islands of stability, notwithstanding the internal problems of each. But it seems as if each democracy is intent on cannibalizing itself, and many “free” countries have enormously high rates of dissatisfaction with life, government and society. People are always agitated about something. Almost every government leader in democracies across the world is the target of some sustained personal, legal or political attack, without respite. It is the era of permanent investigation and relentless criticism. What was once democracy’s strength – the people’s power to change governments – has now become the symbol of its stagnation and weakness.

It is no wonder that after almost forty years of growth, promoted by the Reagan Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is now on the decline. The Democracy Index, a somewhat tendentious but annual barometer (last measured in 2017) of the state of democracies across the world, finds that there are only 19 full democracies in the world today, compared to 52 dictatorships (authoritarian regimes, as they are politely called). Both the United States and Israel rate as “flawed” democracies, the latter partly for its religious ethos that irritates the secularists who measure these things, but both because of the dysfunctional governments that rule their respective countries. Israel rates well on the level of political participation of its citizens; the United States rates relatively poorly in that regard, tied with Mexico and Bulgaria.

President Trump, no conventional steward of governance by any means, riles up the opposition simply by proposing something. Policies that were once supported by Democrats (e.g., border wall over a decade ago) are now opposed simply because of their proponent. Kicking the can down the road and obsessing over elections (and not the actual tasks of elected officials) are the norms of political life. Money and power (which gives access to even more money) are the coin of the realm. The only area in which politicians excel is in spending money they don’t have.

Israel’s government is in such disarray. The Prime Minister is under threat of multiple indictments and his wife currently under indictment and awaiting trial. Binyamin Netanyahu today serves as the Prime Minister, Defense Minister, and Foreign Minister (and Health Minister, and possibly several other ministries). That is not a successful formula for good governance, effective leadership, astute problem-solving or crisis management. The new elections on the horizon will shuffle the deck but except for the customary one or two new faces who will shine brightly and then flame out, all the cards are still the same.

We are experiencing the veracity of Winston Churchill’s adage that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Why is there such discontent?  A number of points need to be made. The authoritarian countries do present greater stability, less crime, less opportunity, often a keener adherence to traditional values but at the cost of less individual liberty. Lest one think that the benefits outweigh the detriments, there are very few people immigrating to Russia and China, nor for that matter are people from across the world flocking to the most highly-rated democracies – Norway, Iceland and Sweden. European countries have been undermined by waves of Middle Eastern migrants, most of whom have not sought acculturation and still others who have transported such alien values to their new homes that violence and crime have rendered parts of Germany, Belgium, France and Britain off limits to citizens – and to the police. Riots and dissatisfaction abound. Many governments flit from party to party in successive elections, with the voters always voting for change, then either not liking the change or not seeing enough of it. The British and American governments are world leaders in stagnation and paralysis. Most voters resent politicians’ failing to keep their campaign promises, except in America where many people are outraged when the President tries to keep his.

There is such a state of perpetual ferment, unrest and turbulence that the happiest people tune out of public affairs, and only wake up (too late) when some unfortunate policy affects them deleteriously. Democracy has been so frangible that some newer democracies have drifted towards authoritarianism in recent years.

What is going on? The Torah certainly doesn’t incline towards democracy (it favors a benign monarchy) although it certainly doesn’t oppose it. But the era of discontent has been fueled by internal, personal struggles that only play out on the public stage of the politics of the moment.

The inherent and ongoing problem has been the secularization of society that has fostered a loss of meaning in life that causes both the obsession with politics and the disgruntlement with government. With freedom comes responsibility, and the freedoms of democracy have been abused to nurture a climate of irresponsibility that has produced aimlessness, the breakdown of the traditional family, rampant out-of-wedlock births and a steep deterioration in the numbers and state of marriage. Moral commitment has been so enervated that (1) people shy away from discussing traditional morality in public forums, (2) seemingly intelligent people are re-visiting (with straight faces) the definitions of male and female, and (3) the rock of society since time immemorial – the Biblical moral norms that set the standard for human interactions and aspirations – has been eroded and marginalized.

Lost in meaninglessness, some have made a religion of the environment and climate change. The priests of this movement, who warn, threaten and predict doomsday ahead, and, in their initial policy foray tried to raise fuel taxes in France to reduce dependency on oil, received their comeuppance in the form of riots that forced the elitists to back down. Call it the French Reformation, spearheaded by the common folk tired of paying indulgences to the Davos set.

Others think they will find meaning and happiness in the triumphs of their favored candidates or party – only to be disappointed when they win and horrified and apoplectic when they lose. The win brings a momentary high – which of course does not endure because it is utterly insignificant in the course of things. Still others – especially, and surprisingly, young people – are embracing restrictive speech codes to spare themselves from having to suffer from hearing contrary views or words they consider harsh, not realizing that these official encroachments on personal liberty will come back to haunt them. The intrusions of Facebook and other social media outlets into people’s private lives rival that of any dictatorship – except for their inability to erase your real existence (they can erase your artificial one) – and the persecution and silencing of conservative or traditional viewpoints do not bode well for democracies either.

One would think that there would be some satisfaction in voting for the government of your choice – but almost 40% of the American electorate never votes. President Trump won in 2016 with 63M votes, in a country of 330M people; neither candidate garnered even 20% of the population. That is a small percentage, which is not to say that it is Trump’s fault. Turnout was less than 56% – and that exceeded the turnout in 2012.

It has occurred to me over the years that the wrong politicians can make life dramatically worse but the best politicians can only make life marginally better. Meaning has to be pursued in the areas that make life meaningful – our relationship with G-d, our commitment to the greater good, our love of family and friends, our pursuit of good deeds and always seeking the good in other people. Those have always been and always will be the key factors in the contented life: faith, family, community, tradition, values and good deeds. Almost everything else is fluff or distractions.

The disappearance of G-d from public and private life – and the creation of new gods to take His place – has spawned restlessness and despair across what used to be called the free world. It has led to the revival of socialism – the idea that the state and its organs (i.e., others) are responsible for me and my needs because I choose to desist from self-help and productivity. It has led to the robust movement to legalize marijuana across the democracies, although rarely in the autocracies; that too is very telling. It has led to the collapse of traditional morality that was one of the linchpins of a world that seemed more normal and more stable, because it was.

The god of dictatorship was slaughtered in the wake of the evil excesses of fascism and Communism; it seems that the gods of democracy are being slaughtered today, with the leaders in all the well known democracies scurrying about for solutions or even viable approaches moving forward. None are obvious or forthcoming; temporary balms are all that are on the horizon. Churchill was right, and Jews and the rest of the world have always fared better under democracies than under dictatorships. But history has taught us that states are more fragile entities than we think, and many things seem unbreakable until they break.

We certainly pray for the welfare of government, as our Sages taught, but we must seek stability, purpose, and true satisfaction in the private and communal areas of life – not in the public arena.

When all forms of human government fail abjectly, what then is our recourse? Perhaps that, too, is one vital role of Moshiach – to redeem society from its waywardness and relieve it of its bitterness and recriminations. That will be true freedom for all and the triumph of G-d’s kingdom on earth, may it come soon and in our days.

 

(You can buy Rabbi Pruzansky’s new book, Volume Two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility,” now in fine stores, at Amazon.com or at Gefen Publishing,)

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Scalia Speaks – to Jews

The late, great Justice Antonin Scalia not only led the so-called conservative wing of the Supreme Court for several decades but was also a legal thinker whose opinions, even his dissents, shaped this generation’s jurisprudence, and probably that of the next several as well. He was quite literate, forceful and colorful in his dissents, and was also a sought-after speaker, and some of those speeches have been collected in a book entitled “Scalia Speaks.” So what does this pious Catholic have to teach Jews? A lot.

On a mundane level, he noted in one talk that when he was young and rambunctious, whenever he wanted to go to a place of which he knew his parents disapproved, he would argue his case by pointing out that everybody else was going. (How often do parents hear that?) To which their invariable response was: “You’re not everybody else.”

Jewish parents can certainly take that message to heart. One of the challenges of modern life, and in particular warding off the harmful effects of much of modern culture that is as vacuous as it is tawdry, is to teach our children that they are not like everybody else. We are part of a nation that was set aside by the Creator to embody and promulgate His moral code, a code that most of the rest of the world rejects or ignores. So, yes, we cannot just immerse ourselves in the totality of Western culture and kasher it by giving it a Jewish flavor. We are called upon to be different, to set an example for others, and to revel in what Scalia called the “apartness” that he felt as a young Catholic. That “apartness” meant that activities that were perfectly permissible for others were not to him – and in our context, for us.

The bulk of the book, though, focuses repeatedly on the revolution that Scalia effected in Supreme Court jurisprudence, an odd sort of revolution in that he sought nothing more that to restore the theory of law that had governed the Court since its inception until, say, the early 1960’s. It is what legal thinkers call “originalism,” essentially calling for faithfulness to the original text of the US Constitution. Obviously, he was not completely successful, but the problem itself is one of the primary reasons for much of the polarization and dysfunction in American politics today.

Scalia noted repeatedly that he did not perceive “originalism” as trying to ascertain the original “intent” of the Framers of the Constitution (a somewhat esoteric if not mystical process) but rather the original “meaning” that they ascribed to those words and clauses. For example, the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” could not have meant capital punishment because such was permissible and routinely executed when the Constitution was enacted. There can be no constitutional right to an abortion because such was illegal in colonial times when the Constitution was adopted. Military chaplains cannot be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion because such existed in Washington’s army and when the republic was established.

All these and other changes have come about, and engendered tremendous unrest in society, because of the theory of the “living Constitution,” the notion that the Constitution must reflect, to quote one of Scalia’s nemeses (Chief Justice Earl Warren), “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” (In the most extreme iteration of this idea, former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak held that Israel’s High Court must decide its cases “according to the views of the enlightened community in Israel,” enshrining a judicial tyranny in which the Court has the last word on every aspect of political and social life in Israel that it wishes to address, and I mean every, while willfully ignoring the views of religious Jews whom he considered to be unenlightened.)

There are several problems with this approach. For one, “evolving standards of decency” or “the views of the enlightened community” are both subjective and undemocratic. They essentially take a judge’s personal predilections and carve them into law – without public support or legal authority. They make the judges into the law itself, rather than have judges interpret the law.

Secondly, as Scalia points out with typical sarcasm, this attitude towards the superiority of modern mores suggests that “societies always mature; they never rot. This despite the twentieth century’s evidence of concentration camps and gas ovens in one of the most advanced and civilized nations of the world.” So beware those who wave their personal opinions on a banner and proclaim them to be the views of “enlightened” people, and woe to those who do not share those opinions.

Thirdly, the Bill of Rights was enacted to protect minority rights from majority tyranny, and the resort to the subjectivity of the “living Constitution” undermines that very notion, as we have seen. The Supreme Court (in Kelo, in which Scalia dissented) grossly interfered with private property rights simply because the government decided it had more lucrative ways as to how that property could be used. Or, note how the Court’s narrow decision discovering a constitutional right to same-sex marriage very quickly – and predictably – resulted in attempts to suppress the rights to freedom of religion and expression to traditionalists, whether bakers, florists or others.

Even worse, when one generation’s liberal judges wrap themselves in the mantle of “enlightenment” or “progress,” they unwittingly prompt another generation’s illiberal judges to grant similar substance (and infallibility) to their own decisions, and that is harmful to democracy.

The US Constitution, in an inspired way, has a mechanism to deal with injustices, and even with “evolving standards of decency.” It is called the amendment process, and it is inherently democratic, if a bit slow. But unresolved moral issues from the founding – slavery, for example – were dealt with first through war, of course, but then through passage of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Note as well that the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 granted women the right to vote – through a reasonable democratic process – but it would not have dawned on the Supreme Court to “find” the right to vote in the Equal Protection Clause.

A more reasonable and judicious approach to modern controversies – abortion, same-sex marriage and the like – would be similarly to subject them to the democratic process, state by state, or when appropriate, through Congress. Having the Supreme Court issue decrees from on high as if these matters are now settled has distorted the democratic process, incensed about half the population, and transformed the nominations process for Supreme Court justices into a political circus, and understandably so. Justices are no longer interpreting the existing law but are supposed to make the law, shape the law, create the law and bring about the social changes that the “enlightened public” desires. In effect, they too have become politicians, and that also undermines the integrity of the Court.

We need not leap too far to perceive how the same dynamic has torn apart the Jewish world and left us factionalized and divided. The non-Orthodox movements have long interpreted the Torah based on what they deem to be the “evolving standards” of secular society. In roughly less than two centuries, these “enlightened” folk abolished the laws of kashrut and Shabbat, transformed the synagogue by removing the mechitza, imposed female clergy on the Jewish public, and adopted a steady list of liberal social causes as if they were mandated by Torah and even though most are proscribed by the Torah.

But while the Constitution is man-made and fairly subject to human amendment, the Torah is of divine origin. Its mitzvot are “adjusted” at our peril. These heresies have naturally inspired massive assimilation among their adherents, as the Torah has become so malleable as to be meaningless except as a source of platitudes. Even more troubling than the decline of non-Orthodoxy is the enormous rise in the number of unaffiliated Jews, today a plurality in American life. Why remain connected to a Judaism that just mimics and reinforces one’s political conclusions? Instead, they “have abandoned the source of the living waters to dig for themselves broken cisterns that cannot contain any water” (Yirmiyahu 2:13).

Justice Scalia speaks to us as well. It is uncanny, but perhaps not surprising, how the deformation of American jurisprudence has paralleled that of Jewish jurisprudence (or vice versa) and with very similar consequences. One hopes that the recent additions to Supreme Court (opposed in apocalyptic terms by so many Jews!) will restore the constitutional balance and the supremacy of democracy, and that Congress should get back to the business of legislating. But we must hope, pray and do everything in our power to reach out to our fellow Jews, disappearing one by one into the mists of assimilation, the fog of intermarriage and the haze of Jewish ignorance, to reclaim their heritage, bolster our people and hold on to their eternal destiny.

Lies to Power

Rav David Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, was our guest this past Shabbat, and his Friday night talk made abundantly clear his passionate love for every Jew regardless of station in life or level of observance. Of course, one would have naturally thought the opposite based on the tendentious, fanatical and demonstrably false story peddled by the media in the wake of the massacre of the Pittsburgh Jews HY”D, since retracted but for which no apology has yet to be offered. It is an object lesson in the current low state of the fourth estate. (i.e., the press).

The lie emerged from a misreading of an interview in Makor Rishon, utterly distorted by a writer for Haaretz known for her rabid anti-Orthodox and anti-Torah biases, and peddled by a gullible media conglomerate in America all-too-willing to besmirch rabbis.

The headline – “Rav Lau refuses to call Pittsburgh synagogue a Bet Knesset” – was simply false. As Makor Rishon reported, when its reporter tried to induce negative comments about Conservative Judaism in the wake of this horror (and how absolutely inappropriate was that?), Rav Lau responded, seemingly in shock, “Mah zeh meshaneh b’aizeh Bet Knesset oh nusach haim mitpallelim?!” – What does it matter what synagogue or text they were praying? There it was, the words “Bet Knesset,” hiding in plain sight, one might say.

The reporter persisted, trying then to extract another headline, “so you’re saying it is a Bet Knesset?” To which the follow-up question would have been: “so why doesn’t the State recognize them? Why aren’t they recognized as legitimate according to the halacha?”

This was an appalling attempt not to solicit Rav Lau’s thoughts and feelings on the murder of Jews but to focus the inquiry on the nature of the religious observance of the victims. The line of questioning was so inappropriate that Rav Lau protested – and pointed out its rudeness and irrelevance, reiterating that these people were Jews, in a publicly-identifiable Jewish place, engaging in all the formalities of prayer and seeking “closeness with G-d.” His answer was right on key to media questions that, in context, were so discordant and tasteless: taking a moment that symbolized Jewish unity and our common fate and trying to exploit it to stoke the flames of controversy and division.

But how can it be that a heartfelt identification with the murdered Jews of Pittsburgh became a dismissal of this synagogue as a synagogue and supposedly an insult to the victims?

There was a time when the primary role of journalists was to report the news. They attempted, often at great hardship, to ascertain the facts and provide those facts in a cogent narrative to the reader. That ended almost fifty years ago. Today, most journalists see their role not as reporting the news but as shaping the news. There is no objectivity; there is only an agenda that they seek to promote. They are not reporters but advocates, and the causes they advocate are so dear to them (in the Jewish world they include radical feminism, hatred of Torah, hatred of Israel, etc.) that reporting falsehoods that advance their agenda is seen as simply  a means to serve the greater good, as they perceive it.

There was a time when journalists prided themselves on their courage in speaking truth to power. Now, too many pride themselves on speaking lies to power if their personal political or religious preferences are thereby served. This is causing untold harm to society for several reasons.

People tend to believe what they see in print even if experience – especially recent experience – should have taught us otherwise. The internet is an intellectual jungle and a moral swamp. The lies that are promulgated with astonishing frequency – here is one: “the Tree of Life Congregation that Shabbat was hosting a brit milah of the offspring of two men,” a lie that caused several fringe rabbinic figures to declaim sheer foolishness – are used as click bait, to grab the eyes but also leave a deleterious imprint on the mind and soul.

A reader has to be even more skeptical about what a journalist writes than the journalist is supposed to be when interviewing a politician or public figure. Or a better idea: simply stop reading outlets or individuals who traffic in falsehoods as a matter of course.

It is as if the laws of lashon hara (evil talk) have been repealed. Classically, lashon hara is defined as information (even true) that tends to disparage another person or will cause his or her reputation to be diminished in your eyes. The public’s “right to know” is not a Torah concept or value. There are a tiny number of general exceptions to this rule –allowances for averting danger or to alerting people to potential harm in shidduchim or business – but most modern journalism is an ethical free-for-all that sees ruining people as a sport and acceptable for the cause.

Indeed, two of the complainants against Brett Kavanaugh have in recent weeks recanted and admitted that they concocted lurid accusations in order to derail his nomination and gain attention for themselves. That is bad enough, and they should be prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned (which will never happen); what is worse is how the media breathlessly reported these allegations that smeared an individual only because it suited their agenda. That is a gross corruption of the freedom of the press; it is possible to have a press that is too free.

Today, it is agenda that governs, not news or facts. And the pursuit of an agenda has now induced several Knesset members to demand that the Israeli government formally recognize the non-Orthodox movements, elevate their stature, and deem them legitimate expressions of Judaism because of the events in Pittsburgh. Talk about striking while the iron is hot! But the grievous attack on our fellow Jews in Pittsburgh, one that has shaken all Jews to the core, does not change the truth of Torah one iota. There were intermarried Jews who were murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust; we do not then permit intermarriage in their memory. There were Jews who (rightly) saved their lives during the Holocaust by eating non-kosher food; that doesn’t mean we commemorate them by eating treif. It is an intellectual non sequitur but the agenda matters more than logic or the eternal truths of Torah.

The contention of these Knesset members is as farcical and publicity-driven as it is insincere. They supported recognition of the heterodox movements the day before the massacre just as much as they did the day after the massacre. So spare us the false piety, as if the murderer compels us to destroy the Torah even as he destroyed the lives of eleven Jews.

Is it possible that the halcyon days of journalism never existed? It could be that facts were always filtered through the reporter, and what was transmitted or omitted was always prejudiced by the reporter’s personal predilections. Maybe – but at least they tried to hide it and pretend they were objective. Perhaps a reporter’s byline should contain his or her top three favorite causes and voting preferences so their writings can be evaluated accordingly.

It is true, as the left often claims, that not every criticism of a leader is Fake News, but there are many criticisms that are clearly Fake News. The mere fact that the term Fake News resonates with the public reflects both its pertinence and its accuracy and underscores the problem of modern journalism.

There is a reason why many journalists (although I’m sure not all) are held in such low esteem today – lower than the President or even Congress. Most of us are still inclined to afford some credence to something that is in print (or on the screen) right in front of our eyes. But having experienced these lies myself, and having been present at events and then read media accounts that had little to do with the event I just witnessed with my own eyes and ears, I know that our initial instinct should be to doubt, disbelieve and then reject much of what we read or hear.

It will change when journalists just report the news and not try to interpret it for us. It will change when there is full disclosure of the journalists’ biases and pet causes. It will change when people stop reading, listening to or watching agenda journalism. It will change when people protest the shaming of good people and the propagation of lies, half-truths and distortions about them.

That is to say, it will not change anytime soon.  So caveat lectorum. Reader beware.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ark of History

The two great individuals of ancient times – Noach and Avraham – had different personalities, were treated differently by G-d and their contemporaries suffered wholly different fates. Noach’s world was destroyed – the generation of the flood – while Avraham’s – the generation of the dispersion – was saved but scattered. Some explain the difference by highlighting one particular facet: Noach’s contemporaries were evil towards G-d but absolutely hideous towards each other, whereas the generation of the dispersion got along well with each other even though they rebelled against G-d. A society that is corrupt, immoral, depraved, angry, bitter, acrimonious and hostile towards anyone who is slightly different cannot long endure and cannot be saved.

Traditionally, we understand the difference between Noach and Avraham, and the implicit criticism of Noach, in that Noach made no effort to reach out to his generation. He was content to save himself, and did, while Avraham lived among his contemporaries, interacted with them, gained their respect over time, and influenced multitudes – he was the “father of a multitude of nations.”  But there is more to it than that

Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rav of Har Bracha, dealt recently with the following question: there are many moral and halachic challenges in the Israeli army today, some of them quite intentional as the remnants of the secular, progressive Israeli world attempt to impose Western culture and values on young draftees, especially religious ones. Given that, the questioner asked, aren’t the Haredim justified in trying to avoid those problems that carry with them a real risk of diluting one’s level of religious commitment if not eradicating it entirely?

To be sure, the Haredi world has changed substantially, and several thousand young Haredim now enlist every year, but the question focused not on numbers but on attitude. How should we deal with the spiritual dangers implicit in exposing impressionable young Jews to potentially heretical ideas and decadent environment?

Rav Melamed answered that the primary goal of haredim, and of exile Jews in general, was always hisardut, survival. Survival was everything – both physical survival and spiritual survival. To survive in the exile requires walls, and even occasionally, an ark, some secure, impregnable facility (or lifestyle) that removes us from the mainstream of society that is always beckoning, always enticing, and too often successful in luring us away from the world of Torah.

But such an attitude has no place in Israel. There the goal is not mere survival but rather living the complete Torah life, and that requires Torah study, observance of mitzvot, a state, an army, a government, industry and commerce and agriculture and much else. It requires living a complete life according to the Torah, and through that, the model Torah society is built.

I think Rav Melamed is both wise and correct – but what about Jews in the exile today? What ensures, or facilitates, our survival, with G-d’s grace? There are two possible models that we can follow, one follows Noach’s lead and the other the path of Avraham.

The first is to build an ark, to segregate ourselves, interact with others as minimally as possible, and wall ourselves off in the hopes of surviving the onslaught of spiritual allures and dangers that lurk around us. That was Noach’s approach.

The other model is Avraham, who lived in Elon Moreh, and Egypt, and Hevron, and had to go to war, and befriended Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, and tried to understand and help the evildoers of Sodom, and who had to deal with Pharaoh and Avimelech and the other debauched creatures of his day. Avraham shepherded his flock with them, made treaties with them, tried to educate them about the true G-d, and saw himself as part of his society, not aloof or estranged or above it all. And they recognized that as well, as the children of Het later said to him, “you are a prince of G-d among us.”

We could certainly stop here and say that the lesson is to be an Avraham rather than a Noach, and it is probably true and good advice, but even that is not dispositive. There is a danger in being an Avraham as there is in being a Noach. Neither was completely successful – Noach was certainly unsuccessful as his whole world was destroyed, he became a hermit and recluse after the flood and his descendants did not always adhere to his values. But even Avraham, our forefather and hero, he too had his share of frustrations and setbacks. There is a price to be paid in mingling with Sodom and the Philistines and the other degenerates who were his neighbors. His own son Yishmael was a casualty, as was Esav his grandson.

In truth, we live in a more open world today, and the Haredim live in a more closed world, but we each have our share of successes and failures. We all walk a fine line, even dangling on a precipice. It seems that the Haredi world loses some of its youth because of failed segregation; sometimes the highest wall is not enough, especially in a world in which there are incessant intrusions on our lives every minute and wherever we are. But we lose some of our youth because of failed integration: when we do not convey well enough the need for a wall of some height, for some barriers and moral limits; when we fail to teach our youth that we are not all the same and that we need to carve out for ourselves a special, spiritual place; when we fail to inculcate the notions of obligations and responsibility rather than privileges and feel-good spirituality.

Too much segregation doesn’t work, like too much integration doesn’t work. What is too much integration? One secular Jewish paper recently headlined that “Jewish” groups are upset about Justice Kavanaugh’s stance on Jewish issues and fear for the future. So what are their “Jewish” issues? Not Jewish education and tuition tax credits, and certainly not assimilation or intermarriage, of course not Israel, and not even his position on religious liberty matters. No – these left-wing Jewish groups are worried that Justice Kavanaugh is “wrong” on these four “Jewish” issues: abortion, immigration, sanctuary cities and affirmative action.

But I cannot quite determine what makes those Jewish interests; they are secular, political controversies that are roiling American society. We can certainly have opinions on them, and not just the one opinion mandated by the left-wing elites. They are not Jewish interests per se – but I do understand why those who think that way are rapidly disappearing from the Jewish world with a tenuous connection maintained only by a fluid definition of what it is to be a Jew.

So if neither segregation nor integration fully works, then what are we to do? And the answer is: both! We have to know when to segregate and when to integrate, when to get involved and when to step back. And above all, we must follow the sagacious guidance of Isaiah the prophet who said long ago (54:2): “Broaden the place of your tent and stretch out the curtains of your dwelling place; do not hesitate.”  We have to reach and not completely wall ourselves off. But also: “lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs.” We have to make sure that our tent is in order, firmly attached to the ground, before expanding outwardly. A tent that is not rooted is blown away by the first stormy wind that drifts over us.

The more rooted we are and the deeper our commitment, the more we can expand. First we plant roots, and then we spread out, and we will thus merit the realization of the eternal covenant and the promise of complete redemption, speedily and in our days.

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.

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.