Power Politics

It is no great mystery why the dysfunctional American political system has ground to a stalemate. When two sides to any negotiation lack a common objective, there is no incentive to settle any dispute. President Trump has always prided himself on being the great dealmaker; of course, in business, deals are made because both sides share the goal of making as much money as possible. In the good deal, each side will benefit. Seller, buyer, supplier of raw materials, manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer will all work together, take their cuts, and rejoice on the way to the bank.

Sadly, politics are currently practiced is not conducive to deal-making. The objectives are not money per se or even the general welfare but the solitary goal of power – its the pursuit and attainment. Power is a zero sum game. (Today, of course, one byproduct of power is access to money and the ability to distribute it to cronies, friends and voters, but it is not the money itself that is the goal, unlike the businessman for whom that is the only goal.) If the objective is power, then raw power politics infuses every decision, policy and negotiation, and the only desirable outcome is the weakening, even destruction, of your opponent.

It is odd, indeed, how the game of politics in this democracy and so many dictatorships is played by the same rules. The “people” don’t really matter. I laugh when I hear politicians (on both sides) intone about what “the American people want” or “the American people will not accept.” Such sentiments are risible, as politicians are unconcerned with the American people as such but only with their constituents, and their constituents who vote, and especially their constituents who vote for them. The game is how to achieve power, keep it and expand it.

It doesn’t break any new ground to suggest that politicians as a class are dishonest people but the levels of dishonesty and hypocrisy have reached new nadirs. Politicians (think Schumer and Pelosi, for two) in past years routinely voted for and spoke favorably about physical barriers as indispensable for border security. Now? Well, we know what is happening now, but the only thing that has changed is the name and party of the president. Compounding the problem is that very few of these politicians will allow themselves to be interviewed by journalists who will question them about these inconsistencies.  They prefer the softball questions of the “journalists” who are their ideological patriots. Wouldn’t you love to hear Nancy Pelosi answer this question: “How can a border wall be immoral when you voted for it in the past, and budgeted even more money for it than the President is asking now? When did it become immoral?”

Of course walls work, always have, always will. Many politicians – Pelosi and Obama among them – live behind protective walls. The Kotzker Rebbe could afford to keep his doors unlocked, with a sign out front “lo tignov,” do not steal, as deterrent; he had nothing worth stealing anyway. It is amusing how people who oppose a border wall always seem to live in gated communities. The issue then, obviously, is not security or even a wall – but public relations, votes, and the road to power. It is a sham, played out for the entertainment of the masses. The only people affected by this farce are the workers are temporarily furloughed and unpaid, and the victims of illegal immigrant crime who are permanently murdered or become addicted to the waves of narcotics and opioids that enter this country through the southern border, by air and by sea. (Incidentally, there is something both saddening and maddening about a country with a severe drug problem that is now gung ho on legalizing marijuana.)

Here is a clear example of dishonesty at work: one leftist activist group mocked the President’s reference to Israel’s successful border wall, claiming that the wall that cuts through Judea and Samaria was necessary to prevent terrorist incursions, and that such has not been a problem on the United States’ southern border. True – but that is not the wall to which Trump is referring. Israel built a sophisticated barrier along its southern border with Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula to halt the influx of illegal migrants from the Sudan, Eritrea and surrounding areas. Tens of thousands arrived in the last decade or so, some working in menial jobs but others turning to violence and theft – until the barrier was built. It has been almost 100% effective in preventing illegal migration from the south.

But why let facts get in the way of a good advertisement?

“Hatred distorts traditional norms of conduct” (Midrash Breisheet Rabba 55:8, and cited in this week’s sedra of Beshalach by the medieval commentator Chizkuni to explain Pharaoh’s irrationality). Haters lose their perspective and their reason and renounce whatever value system they previously professed. If Trump is for a wall, Dems must oppose it. If Trump wants American troops out of Syria, Dems become jingoistic proponents of the projection of American power across the Middle East and the world (after decades of opposition to same). If Trump wants to resolve the problem of the CHIIPS (CHildren of Illegal Immigrant Parents raised in America), Dems must oppose any solution. When Obama was pro-Putin, that  was statesmanship; if Trump is pro-Putin, that is treachery. If Trump is protectionist (even to a fault), then the Dems – the party of protectionism! – must present as free traders.

If Trump is pro-Israel, then the Dems have to become anti-Israel. Whoever Trump nominates for any position must be opposed; the simple fact that he nominates them disqualifies them from public service. If Trump negotiates with North Korea, the Dems must oppose it.

The executive and legislative branches are distrusted by large elements of the population. And the federal judiciary has also corrupted itself, issuing injunctions to thwart the President’s will on specious legal grounds and totally ignoring obvious statutory authority; too many partisan judges see themselves as part of the resistance and that undermines faith in the third branch of government. Thus there is across-the-board distrust in every center of authority, with each branch at war with the others. And it is indisputable that the FBI has disgraced itself with shady partisan tricks under color of authority, criminal behavior that, if the sides were reversed, would be the subject of endless investigations and condemnations by the liberal media.

Well, this is not normal and the application of “Hatred distorts traditional norms of behavior and thinking.” It is self-destructive, and corrosive to any nation that lives through it. Politics has always been about power but it usually included an interest on some level in promoting the general welfare of the people. That has disappeared and it is hard to see how the upcoming presidential campaign – whoever runs or whoever wins – will succeed in restoring the norms of public discourse.

There are few real policy disputes. There are questions of degree more than kind. These issues were always handled in the past through finding a number that meets both sides’ needs. The $5B sought for a border wall is a rounding error in the federal budget of more than four trillion dollars. The budget allocates more billions to frivolous vanity projects of various Congressmen than to the border wall. The Postal Service loses more every year than is sought in this request. Politicians remain obsessed with getting favorable coverage from their media sycophants and claiming to speak on behalf of the “American people.”

How can we find a way out of this morass? Declaring a national emergency won’t work as the Dems will run to the courts where the matter will be buried for months or years. So here is a suggestion: Open up the government for one week, beginning this Monday. This way, federal workers can get two paychecks at the end of the week and will be up to date (and not have people realize that citizens can get along quite well without these “non-essential workers”). One week – during which time each side presents proposals and counterproposals. The side that refuses to compromise will be exposed as the side that refuses to compromise.

Does that matter anymore? We will see.

 

(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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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,)

Good News to Share

I share with you two items of interest.

1) I will be leading a tour this coming May (May 13-20) to the Eastern European countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. These places of great historical interest to Jews – in the centuries before and certainly during the Holocaust – shape our world until today.

We will be visiting the cities of Riga, Dvinsk, Boisk, Kovno, Vilna (Shabbat in Vilna) Radin and Volozhin.     All pertinent details are available at http://heritageseminars.org/eventsarchive/congregation-bnei-yeshurun-seminar/

All land arrangements are included. All flight arrangements are made privately, so anyone can join from anywhere. Just arrive in Riga on May 13 and plan to depart from Minsk on May 20.

BUT:   We have only ten spots left. If you are interested, visit the web site and/or email me at Rabbi@bnaiyeshurun.org.   Please join on this unforgettable heritage journey as we will immerse ourselves in the history, culture and majesty of those legendary Jewish communities.

2)   My new book has just been published, volume two of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” (Gefen Publishing, 2018). It was published in Israel and has just recently made it to fine stores everywhere (including Judaica House in Teaneck) and is available as well at https://www.gefenpublishing.com/product.asp?productid=2326 or starting in January at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/9652296503/qid=1141831973/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&v=glance&n=283155

Enjoy!

  • RSP

Abolish the Rabbinate?

(First published December 14, 2018 on Arutz-7 at http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/23155)

A spanking new organization called “Ruach Hiddush – Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel” – has called for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It claims to represent the “rich… spectrum” of Jewish life, even transcending denominational lines. In truth, the few “Orthodox” representatives are not at all representative of anyone Orthodox, could fairly be called “Orthoprax” or “neo-Conservative”, and thus this proclamation is yet another call by non-Orthodox clergy for the elimination of the Chief Rabbinate.

Why would they want to do such a thing? In essence, they strenuously object to the Chief Rabbinate’s fidelity to Halacha, its commitment to the preservation of Jewish identity as defined by tradition, the furtherance of Torah and the promotion of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. They would encourage pluralism, freedom of conscience and legitimacy of any and all views professed by Jews, especially including those having little connection to Torah. They vehemently protest the “monopoly” the Chief Rabbinate has on matters of Jewish status, Kashrut, and interpretations of Jewish law, seeing as it is an unnecessary government entity.

Of course, that is the nature of government of any sort: a monopoly on the provision of services and the safeguarding of public trusts. Israel’s tax authority has the monopoly on tax collection, just like local zoning boards have a monopoly on how big your home extension can be. Israel’s army has a monopoly on defending the State, and the Transportation Ministry has a monopoly on the determination of speed limits. One could cogently argue that there should never be any monopolies at all; such a person is called an anarchist and no doubt will attract much support, at least initially. There are plenty of people who would love to be freelance tax collectors, zoning inspectors, generals, race car drivers on public roads, or control any other government interest. Similarly, the proponents here desire anarchy in conversion, marriage and divorce, kashrut, and every other realm of Torah – including mitzvot and Judaism’s fundamental principles. That is not a formula for success or Jewish continuity.

Their appeal is a modern form of “kill the ump!” They don’t like the “three strike rule,” preferring more flexibility and openness, perhaps four or five strikes for those who find three too restrictive. They don’t like the strike zone rules that give the umpire too much discretion and control – even a “monopoly” – over the game. They would prefer baseball without umpires, letting the players police themselves and make up the rules on the fly. Nice try; even the most hardened players and managers know that is not a viable option, even if we don’t necessarily have to agree with every single call.

I know Rav David Lau personally and have witnessed up close his limitless dedication to Torah, his love of every Jew of whatever background and his tireless execution of his duties. His days are impossibly long, and each day includes supervision of the Chief Rabbinate’s Court system, the kashrut apparatus, the personal status issues, ceremonial appearances and teaching Torah in all parts of the country, sometimes visiting three, four, five places in one day and night, to encourage Torah observance, love of Israel, and tolerance, and to spread the light and joy of Torah. His critics should envy his merits.

But the suggestion that the Chief Rabbinate be abolished engendered this thought: what if, instead, the Reform Rabbinate would be abolished?

It is by now incontrovertible that the Reform Rabbinate has been a catastrophe for the Jewish people. From its very origins, it has brought nothing but a renunciation of mitzvot, assimilation, conversion to Christianity and the attenuation of Jewish identity. The early Reformers in Europe switched Shabbat to Sunday, brought an organ into their temples and eliminated the mechitza. A wave of assimilation and conversion followed.

In America, it is enough to recall the treifa banquet on July 11, 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the first very graduating class of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform ordination school, was feted with clams, crabs, shrimp, and frog legs – all washed down with a dairy dessert. The temples had mixed seating (one Reform rabbi termed the mechitza an abominable “cage”), organs, confirmation ceremonies, a new prayer book that intentionally omitted calls for the return to Zion and the coming of Moshiach. Kashrut restrictions and Shabbat observance were nullified (the leading Reform rabbi of the 19th century mocked what he called “kitchen Judaism”), the marriage and divorce rites were radically altered and bore no resemblance to any Torah requirement.

Their modern descendants, sad to say, are not much better. Most Reform rabbis do not believe in the existence of G-d, nor do they accept that the Torah is divine or that the mitzvot are obligations and not mere suggestions. They do not feel bound by the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith. It is they who are largely responsible for producing an intermarriage rate of more than 70% in the American non-Orthodox world, as well as widespread ignorance of any true Torah concept. One is hard-pressed to find any four-generation family of so-called Reform Jews who are all still Jewish. And these are the rabbis that this new group – including the aforementioned Orthoprax rabbis – wishes to entrust with Jewish destiny and the future of Torah in Israel. Having failed miserably on the American scene, they now wish to export their failures to Israel – and become offended when they are excluded from the decision-making processes in the Jewish State. They have destroyed the company and now insist on a promotion and a raise. As they say, only in America…

I know several Reform rabbis. By and large they are decent people, mean well, and don’t at all realize the harm they are causing. They feel they have to find a way to accommodate the intermarried, without the self-awareness that they are perpetuating and exacerbating the problem. Their sermons are almost exclusively limited to elements of the Democrat Party platform (abortion rights, immigration rights, gun control, etc.) occasionally spiced with some railing against the Orthodox establishment for not considering them Jews. Of course they are Jews – that canard has been losing steam for almost two decades even as it is still uttered routinely – as long as the mother is Jewish or they are properly converted (something that is increasingly the problem).

If the Reform rabbinate would be abolished, I don’t doubt that a steady stream of Democrat political operatives could fill in on Shabbat mornings and deliver timely sermons that would be well-received by the audience. Everyone knows that if they are looking for Torah, they will not find it there.

Instead of abolishing the Chief Rabbinate, something that would cause untold harm to the Torah world, the Jewish people and the State of Israel, perhaps we should consider abolishing the Reform rabbinate. Only good would result and many Jews would clamor to reclaim their Jewish identity and their rightful share in G-d’s Torah.

Am I serious? Of course not! This is a parody, as I assume the call by “Ruach Chiddush” for the abolition of the Chief Rabbinate is also a parody.

And if they are serious, and their proclamation is not meant as parody?

Well then…

Golf Lessons

(First published in Bnai Yeshurun’s “Kehilatenu”)

I don’t play golf. I once played a full eighteen holes with my late father-in-law, which was certainly a great bonding experience but left me wondering why otherwise sane adults were chasing a little white ball across the countryside – and in the brutal summer heat of Florida, no less. That question has never been answered to my satisfaction. I also realized my handicap was driving and putting. (I felt more comfortable tossing the ball in the air and swinging at it baseball style, and also made better contact.)

Nonetheless, my respect for golf, and golfers and at least one particular golf club have grown immensely, leading me to believe that there is much we can learn from golf about life, sanctity of place and respect for others.

One of our swinging members (that’s golf) was a guest recently at a fancy club and showed me their rules, and golfers take their rules VERY seriously. For example, all club members are immediately apprised of the cell phone policy, which reads, in part: “Cell phones…shall be placed on “vibrate” or “silent” setting while on Club property.” (Note that Club is capitalized.) Obviously, it is considered uncouth to have one’s phone ringing on Club property; such could, Heaven forefend, interfere with a drive or a putt, with the unfortunate consequence of costing someone a stroke at a crucial point in the round. Can’t have that happen!

It is not only the ringing of the phone that disturbs fellow players and has been banned from the Club; it is also talking. You want to talk? Such is allowed in “Parking lots; Pool area (excluding dining and tennis viewing areas); Clubhouse restrooms; Locker rooms excluding common sitting and dining areas)…”  You get the point. This club (sorry, Club) takes its decorum very seriously.

There are places on the grounds where you can discretely text. “However, members are expected to ensure that such use does not infringe upon other members and guests. Such infringement would include distractions from dining, recreational activities, or affecting the golf pace of play.”

This is a Club that knows its purpose in the world, treats its hallowed grounds with dignity and its members with respect.

If the restrictive cell phone use wasn’t enough, the dress code strikes one at first as quite starchy:

When visiting the Club, members and guests will be expected to dress, at all times, in a refined and appropriate manner… Attire and personal appearance shall be in good taste and mindful of the Club’s traditional atmosphere. Excessively revealing clothing which might be offensive to other members or guests is not permitted. The Club strives for a refined and elegant appearance at all times.

Since what is construed as “refined and appropriate” dress cannot be left to the whims of individual members, certainly not these days, the guidelines are quite detailed. For men: “Business attire is always appropriate including Sports jackets, slacks, collared dress and golf shirts. Shirts must be collared and tucked in at all times.” And then this: “Jackets and ties are optional.” (Well, you can’t win them all. It’s not a shul, after all.) Denim jeans, tee shirts with printed slogans, shorts, and the like are verboten.

For women, denim jeans are banned, along with open midriffs, short hemlines (defined as “no more than three inches above the knee”), tank tops and similar garb.

This is one serious place, and yet they charge thousands of dollars for membership and fees and I am sure they have a waiting list to join. So what is it about golf that people will abide so many rules, even concoct them on their own, not just to play the game but also to police the territory on which their game is being played? Why does a Golf Club demand a “traditional atmosphere” and can such a designation ever pertain to something that is not a Golf Club, or would that be considered too intrusive, too cumbersome, and too objectionable to many people?

Perhaps it is the place, set apart from daily mundane use and therefore worthy of special treatment. Those who enter its grounds should feel different, as if it is a place that affords them a special connection with a different, higher reality. Perhaps it is the game itself, a game that requires great concentration even though (or maybe because) its performance is so repetitive, and occurs usually in the company of other people, friends and family. When the group defines the environment, especially regarding proper deportment, there is a sense of elevation in bring there and an increased sensitivity to those who have joined as well.

Why, if I didn’t already have such a place in my life, I might be inclined to take up golf as well, and spend time at the Club for a few minutes of escape and deeper connection. But I would trade the quest for a hole-in-one for the pursuit of the Holy One, any day of the week.

Happy Chanuka to all!

(NOTE: Through our shul, I am leading a tour of Eastern Europe – Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus – from May 13-20, 2019. The main cities we will visit include Riga, Dvinsk, Boisk, Vilna, Kovno, Radin and Volozhin. We have very few spots left. Anyone interested should contact me at Rabbi@Bnaiyeshurun.org as soon as possible.)

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.