Ask the Rabbi, Part 5

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

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

Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?

 It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.

This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.

Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.

We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.

 Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.

For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.

Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.

Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.

It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.

 

Should one dress up for a shiur on Zoom if no one can see anything more than your face and top of your shirt? 

 Do we dress to impress others or for ourselves? Probably both – although my sense is more of the former and less of the latter. Nonetheless, Rav Yochanan (Masechet Shabbat 113a) would refer to his clothing as “mechabduti,” that which brings me honor. Clothing reflects our inner dignity, and can serve, for better or worse, as a source of identification with a particular group or lifestyle.

One can certainly argue that what we wear at home during our waking hours should engender as much self-respect and respect for Torah as if we were appearing in public. There are rabbis who would never remove their frocks even in their homes and even in front of their family. Indeed, one could cogently argue that a person should dress up even for a Zoom shiur – but I wouldn’t make that argument…or dress up in fancy clothing.

Clothes define a person but they can also distort and deceive. The costumes we wear – and we all wear costumes of some kind – often say little about our inner life or spiritual gravitas. They create impressions that are often misleading and sometimes are meant to mislead. We might even be placing too much emphasis on clothing in Jewish life by expecting or insisting – overtly or covertly – that everyone should wear the same color, style and material.

As long as one is not dressed immodestly, I see no problem with Zoom participants relaxing at home in informal garb. We should save our special clothing for shul, tefila and Shabbat, and at home zoom in on the Torah being learned and not the fashion choices of the participants.

 

How does a young woman determine what is or isn’t immodest when it comes to clothing that falls in the grey area of tznius (i.e., the article of clothing is long enough but its overall look is problematic in the eyes of some but not in the eyes of others)?  Does she consult her own conscience?  Ask her mother?  A teacher? 

Certainly there are both objective and subjective elements to tzniut. Often communities will maintain their own stringent standards that would and should not pertain elsewhere. But the common and overarching objective for every person who aspires to tzniut is the desire not to call attention to ancillary aspects of the human being, such as clothing, appearance and the body itself.

Breaches of tzniut are always rooted in a flawed self-definition – people who want to be known primarily for their physical attributes instead of some quality that reflects true human greatness such as one’s intellect, spirituality or moral excellence. Thus, the Torah mandates that a kohen with an obvious physical blemish cannot serve in the Bet Hamikdash, sensing that onlookers will focus on the blemish and the kohen as an individual and not just an agent thereby detracting from his divine mission.

If that is the barometer of tzniut – a conscious decision to be valued by others for the way we express our uniqueness as people and not the way we flaunt our animalistic side – then all three resources are most helpful. The teacher can impart what precisely are the community standards and expectations, just as the mother can flesh out her daughter’s values, thought processes and conclusions. Ultimately, though, children leave home and live on their own so it is critical that they develop the correct notions about body and self-image, about the particular way in which they wish to be identified and to make their mark in the world, and about our responsibilities as Bnai and Bnot Torah.

This is the only way they will learn to make healthy and proper decisions as adults.

The Price of Peace

While my attentions were elsewhere, peace erupted yesterday between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. I didn’t even know we were at war, perhaps because I am just a little more than a week out of quarantine. Personally, I have never had a beef with the UAE, wish them well, and can envision visiting Abu Dhabi someday. It looks like a fine place. But why is “peace” in this region never just the result of realizing that two countries, not contiguous to each other and having no substantive disagreements and many mutual interests, decide to recognize each other? Why does the attainment of “peace” – or in this case, full diplomatic and trade relations – require substantive concessions only of Israel but not of the interlocutor?

Certainly there is a value in formalizing what has already been an informal and symbiotic relationship for several years, born of a mutual antipathy and suspicion towards Iran. Enemies of enemies do become friends. And it stands to reason that similarly-situated nations in the Gulf, who recognize Israel’s permanence, economic and military prowess, and close ties with the United States, will soon follow suit. Nevertheless, this was not simply the recognition of the mutual interests of two nations.

In this agreement, Israel forfeited its asserted intent to annex Judea and Samaria. The claim that such is just a temporary suspension is politician talk; surely in the next election campaign, which may come sooner than anyone wants, PM Netanyahu will trot out his commitment to annex these lands, or at least apply Israeli law to them. And surely his acolytes will believe it. But this is nothing less than the selling out of one’s patrimony in exchange for something that already existed – increasing diplomatic and commercial ties between two nations. It is a steep price to pay and betrays both a political inferiority complex as well as a deficient spiritual attachment to the heartland of Israel, even if we are mindful of Menachem Begin’s dictum that one cannot annex his own land.

Did Israel make an analogous demand and was there an analogous concession on the UAE’s part? Does anyone believe that if, in exchange for suspension of annexation, Israel had insisted that the Emiratees face Yerushalayim, not in Mecca, in prayer, that they would have agreed? Or what if, thinking smaller, Israel had just sought a commitment that the prayer for the IDF be recited in mosques across the kingdom every Friday, or even just once a month? Probably not.

There is an old story (or two) that plays out repeatedly in Israel’s negotiations over the decades. There is a sense that Israel does not deserve normal relations with other countries, and therefore must always pay a price for an embassy, an ambassador, commercial ties and the like that other nations, that see each other as equals, never do. Embassies are great and “peace” is even greater but we should recognize how frequently over the last decades the Egyptian and Jordanian embassies in Israel have been closed and diplomats recalled over some perceived offense that Israel committed, usually acting in its own interests and self-defense. Those are all symbols; the renunciations of claims are substantive and reveal uneasiness, almost a psychological discomfort, with asserting claims that advance Israel’s biblical and prophetic destiny.

The second historical trope has been Israel’s inability to clearly articulate what political goals it wants to achieve and then seek to achieve them. Its strategic objectives have always been murky (aside from survival) and this haziness has been facilitated by perpetual references to the Americans, and what they purportedly will allow or not allow Israel to do. This has been a mostly false and self-serving narrative, and has certainly been so in recent times. President Trump entered office asking Israel what it wants and has struggled to get a clear answer. Even the move of the embassy and the recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital – and other extremely pro-Israel actions – took longer than expected because of Israel’s hesitations. (A similar dynamic unfolded in the early years of the Bush administration when George W. Bush was ready and willing to move the embassy and fulfill a campaign promise and was dissuaded from doing so by then PM Ariel Sharon.)

Israel politicians have often used the so-called “American veto” in the same way that a child tells his friend that he can’t go hiking because his father won’t allow it, when the child really doesn’t want to go in the first place. It’s a convenient excuse and Israelis have usually accepted it as true. But it is not. Most Americans have only a passing familiarity and fleeting interest in what happens here, and those who do are mostly Christian evangelical supporters of Israel.

The same has now happened with the proposed application of Israeli to Judea and Samaria. It should be outrageous that more than a half-century since Israel’s conquest of these lands, its residents’ daily lives are still governed to a large extent by military, not civilian, authorities, and mundane issues such as building a house or a neighborhood become matters for the military and judicial authorities to resolve. That doesn’t seem very fair or very efficient.

Moreover, it was short-sighted not to exploit the Trump offer of annexation – there will never be a president as pro-Israel and Israelis should be rightly anxious about a potential Democrat ascending to power. It would have been advantageous to pocket that concession – 30% of the land is also something – and then work for the future. I sense that it was domestic politics that precluded this from happening – the Blue/White party with whom Likud shares a tense coalition opposed it – and so the government was more than happy to toss this inedible carrot to the UAE if that would clinch the deal. But it doesn’t bode well for the future.

Israel’s reluctance to proffer a coherent strategy is nothing new. I just finished reading a book about the Watergate era, to which was appended, for no discernible reason, recently declassified memoranda from the Middle East negotiations of the early 1970’s. In one, CIA Director Richard Helms reports on the results of the ongoing secret meetings between King Hussein and Golda Meir (1972). The Israelis insisted on direct, not third-party, negotiations, because “peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations…the King observed ironically that there have now been approximately fifty meetings between Israel and Jordan and the parties are still at square one.” In other words, the whole point of the exercise was not achieving peace – granted, the parties’ positions were far apart – but talking about peace.

Indeed, Helms concluded that “although peace is desirable, Israel can live without it…Things will remain as they are now; and instead of a formal state of peace, Israel believes there will be a gradual drift toward peace since Israel is intent on teaching the Arabs to coexist with her.”

Almost a year and a half later, the Yom Kippur War broke out. There has been much bloodshed since, but one objective has been achieved: much of the Arab world is ready to co-exist with Israel, and not necessarily because they have become Zionists. It is rather because they recognize that it is in their own interests to ally with Israel to confront common foes and build a better future.

That can be achieved formally or informally; it doesn’t really matter. The formal agreements that enshrine the informal relationships mainly serve the interests of the politicians who love ceremonies and use them to bolster their campaigns. This is another missed opportunity, hidden amid fanfare and bold promises. What awaits is visionary, new leadership that is not trapped in the paradigms of the past and that can advance Israel’s true interests going forward.

 

Mailing It In

If it seems that the opposition to anything President Trump does or says is automatic, absolute and visceral, it is because it is. The sheer contrarianism of his enemies does have the virtue of preempting the occasional bad idea (although I suspect many of those are negotiating tactics, trial balloons or mere venting) but it usually results in the immediate repudiation of meritorious proposals or assertions. Take, for example, the President’s opposition to mail-in voting.

Somehow I suspect that if the President was all-in for mail-in voting, the Democrats would be averring, and vehemently so, that such is a dire threat to the Republic and a devious scheme by which Trump hopes to steal the presidency once again. There is an entire host of issues on which Trump is opposed simply because he is Trump, the Democrats’ demand for American troops to go to Syria and stay there semi-permanently heading that list. This from a party that has vociferously protested the dispatch of American military forces anywhere in the world for decades, and when they have supported it (2002 and 2003) shortly thereafter renounced it.

Of course mail-in voting is subject to fraud because the entire voting system in the United States is replete with the potential for fraud. One case in point will suffice.

For over a decade, eight Pruzanskys have appeared on the voter rolls in Teaneck, notwithstanding that half of them have not lived in Teaneck during that decade. None live there today, and I do not doubt that all eight will still be on the rolls this coming November. A nefarious Pruzansky (granted, an oxymoron if there ever were one) could vote several times and in several places – the old district and the new district, certainly where her last name has changed. Thumbing through the rolls when I sign in to vote, it is easy to notice dozens of names of people who no longer reside in Teaneck and some who have moved on to their eternal reward and yet, apparently, are still poised to perform their citizenly duty if called upon.

The simplest way to rectify this situation is to purge the rolls every five or ten years of people who have left the district either upright or standing sideways. But these attempts (think Georgia in 2018) are always met with cries of “racism,” as if everything related to voting efficiency is automatically an insidious effort to suppress the black vote. An even simpler way of avoiding the specter of multiple Pruzanskys voting where they no longer live is to require voters to produce legal identification when they appear to vote, as one must when withdrawing money from a bank or trying to board an airplane. As you might have guessed, the movement for voter ID laws is also and always shouted down with cries of “racism.”

All this ignores the irony that blacks vote today in higher numbers than ever before but it might help explain the bitter paradox that close to 95% of blacks vote for Democrats in each election even though Democrats have failed the black community in city after city and state after state. And it is true that purging the rolls and requiring identification would limit the number of Pruzanskys who can vote thereby reducing the influence of that endangered minority. Obviously voting multiple times is illegal – but it is rarely caught and even more rarely prosecuted because it is extremely difficult to prove. Three years ago a report indicated that the United States has 3.5 million more registered voters than live voters, and that is probably an underestimate.

Mail-in voting is an invitation to fraud, as much as is on-line voting and early voting. It is impossible to track who is voting, from where they are voting, if they are still eligible to vote, and even if they are still alive. Aside from the known inefficiencies of the post office, the variables are so enormous that it would be nearly impossible to certify a victory or accept a defeat. There is massive potential fraud in ballot-harvesting, in which party hacks go from town to town (or nursing home to nursing home) collecting ballots, “helping” the good citizens to vote (properly), discarding “offensive ballots” and preserving the “good” ones. That tactic is more a certainty than it is a possibility.

To augment this dangerous mix is the looming fear of foreign interference. Throughout the Russia hoax, amid repeated claims that Russian “interfered” in the 2016 elections (something that the US, and really all nations, have been known to do), there was one element that was always missing: what exactly did Russia do to “interfere” in that election? For that matter, amid repeated claims that Russia is again “interfering” in the 2020 elections, what exactly are they doing? It would be worthwhile to inform the public so it won’t be misled again, wouldn’t it? In 2016, apparently, they ran a handful of Facebook ads that were duplicitous, but it would be impossible to extract the needle of Russian propaganda from the haystack of falsehoods that emanate from both parties during any campaign. Besides, Obama’s FBI and CIA did an excellent job on their own of interfering, clumsily and criminally, in the 2016 election.

I don’t know what they did or if they did anything, but what is to prevent Russia, China or any sophisticated country with malicious intent from fabricating election ballots, completing them, and mailing them to the authorities? This can be simplified even more since the popular vote total does not matter at all; it is the individual state totals that matter. So what is to prevent a disreputable foreign government, or a malevolent domestic political group, from fabricating ballots in selected swing states –Pennsylvania, Michigan, et al – and holding those duly postmarked ballots in reserve and in sufficient numbers to swing a narrow election weeks after Election Day? The correct answer is nothing, and that is probably why this election will be dirtier than most, which is saying a lot, and more inconclusive than most. And given the pandemic and the economic crisis in the United States, the last thing that America needs is a dispute election and even more instability.

To be sure, it should be troubling to all moral people that many voters do not expect an honest election and many partisans prefer a dishonest one if the outcome is to their liking. And it need not be mentioned that looking for honesty and integrity in politics is generally a fool’s errand. But truth is a great value, as is peace; there can be no peace when the truth is trampled and dishonesty is privileged. It will exacerbate the breakdown of society in the US currently underway and render its healing – if it even can occur – that much more difficult to achieve.

And the ramifications of that for American Jews –and for all good Americans – are worth contemplating.

Aliya

Last week my wife and I made aliya after more than six decades of life in the United States. We are officially Israeli citizens, which affords me the right to criticize the Israeli government without being told to move here if I want to have a say, and the right to denounce American Jews for remaining in the fleshpots of the exile. But I’m going to hold off on both for the time being…

It would be easy to make Aliya if we were fleeing persecution but that is not the case, notwithstanding that rabbis have always been among the most persecuted Jews, and usually by other Jews. But that is not why. It would be easy to make Aliya if America had become unlivable, a place without a long-term Jewish future, and one can make a compelling argument that the handwriting is presently on the wall waiting to be read. Nonetheless, when I announced to the shul eighteen months ago that we would be making aliya in July 2020, the United States was peaceful and prosperous, President Trump was cruising to a (narrow) election victory, and pandemics, economic collapse and race riots were not even on the horizon. That we left amid all this turmoil in American life is a coincidence and not the proximate cause of our departure. In any event, “coerced Aliya” (running from something) is not as salutary or enjoyable as “voluntary Aliya” (running towards something). We are in the latter category in fulfillment of the verse in Shir Hashirim (1:4), “Moshcheini, acharecha narutza.” Pull me and I will run after You.

It would be easy to make Aliya if our children lived here – and two children already do, with grandchildren, but two still live in the US with grandchildren. We have experienced the range of emotions, of farewell and reunion, as can be expected. It would be easy to make Aliya if I was out of a job and had nowhere else to turn, but that would also be untrue. I could have stayed. It was a l’chatchila choice (ab initio, even granting the long time abroad), not a b’diavad (post facto).

Politically, it turns out to have been a lateral move. I went from one country (the USA) where leftists and anarchists are daily and violently protesting the government’s failure to deal effectively with the Coronavirus and where the media elites despise the head of government to another country (Israel) where leftists and anarchists are daily and violently protesting the government’s failure to deal effectively with the Coronavirus and where the media elites despise the head of government. Like I said, a lateral move.

So why make Aliya now? And the simple answer is: it was time. Personally, professionally, and ideologically, it was time to make the move that is the mandate and destiny of all Jews.

For one thing, the future of the Jewish people is in Israel rather than anywhere in the exile. If the events of the last few months (or century) have not demonstrated that, then nothing will ever be sufficiently convincing. The exile is drying up around us. More Jews live today in Israel than in the rest of the world combined. Moreover, after millennia of persecution, punitive measures, and harsh restrictions directed against Jews generally and specifically those who wanted to dwell in the land of Israel, today there is no Jew in the world living in a country from which he or she cannot freely emigrate and come live in the land of Israel. And if there are (Cuba?), there are just a relative handful. That is a divine gift.

It was time to be a player in the grand game of Jewish life rather than just a highly interested and vocal spectator. And I do not doubt that for all the dedication of rabbis, teachers and professional leaders in the Jewish world – and for all the vast investments in Jewish infrastructure that makes the United States such a hospitable and pleasurable exile – life in the exile is a holding pattern. We are trying to hold on to something – powerful in its own right and indispensable for almost two centuries – that cannot be sustained in perpetuity. We are not building as much as we are trying not to fall. We are walking on a ledge rather on solid footing. And now this is true not only spiritually but also physically and politically.

Few will deny that America has experienced two terrible traumas in the last five months, both unpredictable but both bearing an imprint that will leave a long term mark on American life. The Coronavirus pandemic exposed the greatest vulnerability in America today: the polarization that is itself an epidemic. The hatred of the President has reached self-destructive proportions, in which his legion of political and media enemies would rather see the country collapse further than recover even gradually. The tirades about Trump’s failures to halt the pandemic or economic dislocation are vociferous, and inversely proportionate to the suggestion of any alternative plan or approach. It is particularly unctuous, which is to say typical of politics at its worst, to criticize every policy without offering even a hint of how you would have done it differently or better. So they do what politicians love doing – printing money and claiming credit for distributing it to the voters, and trying to WIN at all costs.

What is most damaging to American society is the growing notion among the elites – not the mob of racists and anarchists – that America was conceived in sin, nurtured in criminality and has no redeeming value. In the turbulent 60’s, the elitist institutions protected themselves against the anarchists. Today, the corporations, media and universities join hands with anti-American anarchists to stifle liberties like freedom of speech, assembly and worship in the name of some higher dogma, and routinely purvey lies, untruths and distortions of reality – in order to both protect and encourage the anarchists and, it can’t be denied, win an election. “Systemic racism,” all the rage today, is an indictment without any possible defense (to defend against it is itself racist); it is a cudgel more than it is a complaint.

Opposing sides that no longer share common values, a definition of truth or reality or even rules of speech cannot interact. When one side of a debate is perceived by the other not just as wrong but as evil and immoral, public discourse ends and mob rule begins. That the mob now rules – anarchists destroying private or government property, assaulting innocent people in the streets, attacking the police, “canceling” those who disagree with them (the latter, woefully predicted by Orwell) – will only be tempered and then only momentarily if President Trump is defeated in November. And if he loses by a whisker, amid allegations of voter fraud abetted by mail-in ballots, harvested ballots, forged ballots, and on line voting in key swing states, then all bets are off and the hostility will no longer be unilateral. And if Trump wins, as is eminently possible given the lies people tell pollsters and the fear of expressing public support? There will be even more violence. Uneasy times are ahead.

Jews should especially take note of this because we are in the unenviable position of being perceived as part of the privileged white establishment by the minorities who are now protesting across the country but not by the privileged white establishment itself who see Jews as outsiders. Jews will have no natural allies in the coming struggle, which will come as a shock to liberal Jews who think their liberalism and historic support for civil rights inoculates them from the disruptions ahead. The liberal Jew of old –tolerant, open, respectful, and supportive of even anathematic views like the right of Nazis to march in Skokie – is a dinosaur, because that type of liberalism has disappeared. The Democrat party of old, the church (or synagogue) of most modern Jews, no longer exists. It too pays obeisance to the leftist mob, and is unsympathetic to Israel and to the Jewish ethos, not that most Jews realize it.

In the best sense, none of that is a reason to move to Israel, although it might be the tipping point in people’s otherwise positive decision. Jews have an unblemished record of staying in the exile a bit too long and paying a heavy price for it. But more importantly, we all recognize certain basic truths about Torah and Jewish life. The long prophesied “Kibbutz Galuyot” (ingathering of the exiles) has not only occurred but is actually entering its final stages. Jews from over 130 countries today live in Israel. The return to the land of Israel, itself a biblical prophecy, is something that we now take for granted. Most Jews alive today cannot envision a world without the Jewish state of Israel. Even in quarantine (where I now find myself, in escalating tedium, life on hold), I realize that centuries of Jews would have given their right arms to be able to quarantine in the land of Israel.

It is not without its problems. As I am sure I will note in the coming years, many of the afflictions of the more modern, leftist, faddish elements of Orthodoxy, and its neo-Conservative offspring, exist here as well, along with the clamor for a more malleable mesorah and elastic morality. There is much to do here, especially in warding off the displacement of Jewish morality by Western morality. But these are the problems of growth, of building the future, rather than trying to preserve the past.

I feel blessed that I am able to be here, as I feel blessed to have succeeded in my careers in the exile. Even as a rabbi, I never hid the fact that Aliya was both a Torah value and an imperative, even if it was against my interest in saying so. I certainly don’t disparage the USA or its people, or my Jewish brothers and sisters there. I was the beneficiary of prior generations who not only built the wonderful Jewish community of Teaneck but who constructed the edifice of American Jewish life that enabled survivors and refugees to rebuild Torah after the horrors of the Holocaust. For that, I will always be appreciative of America, its history, its aspirations and the haven it provided to Jews and others.

Nonetheless, we should not let our gratitude and nostalgia for the past cloud our vision of the present and future. With blessings from Israel!