The Orthodox Union Speaks

(This was first published yesterday as an op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish Link)

 

The announcement by the Orthodox Union leadership to enforce the decision of their rabbinic panel on the unacceptability of female clergy is welcome, timely, prudent, proper, and, in today’s environment, courageous. For sure, one would think that “courage” is not required to follow a rabbinic psak; after all, that is what Jews are supposed to do. Ask a question to a rabbi on a complicated halachic matter, get a reply and implement it. “You shall not deviate from what they tell you neither to the right nor to the left” (Devarim 17:11). Nor should “courage” be required to disapprove the notion of Jewish female clergy, something that even Professor Shaul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary characterized almost forty years ago as risible and a “mockery” of Torah.

Yet, it is courageous to decide to follow Torah guidance that confounds modern culture and the ethos of Western life and embrace a truly Jewish perspective on the unique and differing roles of men and women. The OU thereby reinforced the indispensable sentiment that Torah decisions must be made in the Bet Midrash by qualified masters of Torah and Mesorah and not on social media, in op-ed articles, or the musings of bloggers. The latter may be interesting, sincere, heartfelt and even occasionally amusing but they play no role in the methodology of psak or in the discipline of halacha.

In its wisdom, the OU decided to ban female clergy from its congregations and champion traditional Jewish law and practice while offering those handful of currently non-compliant synagogues a “sunset” provision that allows those houses of worship to choose to comply by redefining the role of their female teachers to indicate that they are not clergy or eliminating the positions entirely. It was important for the OU to articulate – as it now has on several occasions – that there are synagogue roles that can be performed by women and that the Jewish people lose when we cannot in a formal way access the talents and brains of half our population. But the preferred assignments clarify that since women cannot according to halacha fulfill many important functions of the rabbinate, the ascription of that title and those roles to women serve ultimately to diminish the very essence of the rabbinate. That cannot be good for the Jewish people.

Certainly, there were some who felt that the OU should ignore the clear directive of the rabbinic panel or otherwise allowed the offending synagogues to maintain their female clergy. But such would have disdained the very notion of rabbinic authority and would have undermined the OU’s outstanding work in kashrut and other Torah fields. It would have disseminated the unmistakable and unfortunate message that rabbinic authority is nothing more than a casual suggestion as to proper behavior and can be dismissed or disregarded at will. And the OU could no more have “grandfathered” these synagogues than it could “grandfather” food products in which non-kosher substances were inadvertently produced and sold; those products are always recalled. Forbearance with these synagogues would have surely tempted others to test the limits of the OU’s steadfastness.

On the other hand, there will undoubtedly be some who feel that the OU should have just expelled the non-compliant synagogues as a more resolute indication of this policy. I disagree with that approach for a number of reasons. Obviously the neo-Conservative proponents of female clergy sought to push the envelope and expand the boundaries of halacha (and then crossed them). But the reaction from the rabbinic world was slow and tepid, and such diffidence encouraged the promoters to continue on their path in the hope that, as they would put it, the facts on the ground will cause the halacha to eventually come around. Had there been a strong, assertive and unified rabbinic response a decade ago, this problem would have been averted. There wasn’t, although there are today new rabbinic organizations and public policy organizations that are not hesitant to articulate true Torah values that have filled the void caused by the reticence of the old, establishment organizations. Simply put, you can’t blame people for following their rabbinic leadership, even if misguided, and they must be given a fair opportunity to unwind their mistake. Consider that in the past the OU had member synagogues without a mechitza and afforded them decades to either comply or resign. It took decades – but that deviation from the Mesorah was eventually rectified. Life moves faster these days, but it is only fair that non-compliant synagogues be given the opportunity to comply.

Secondly, the “sunset” clause puts the ball in the court of the non-compliant synagogues. Having been apprised of the psak of the eminent Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis of the movement to wish they declare allegiance, those synagogues are now empowered to choose the spiritual direction in which they wish to travel. They can, G-d forbid, continue on the path of neo-Conservatism and repeat the errors made by the waning Conservative movement when its heyday began a century ago, or they can resume their rightful place in the Torah world. It’s their choice, as it should be. If they fail to conform over the next several years, they will have expelled themselves from the Torah camp.

Thirdly, some will argue that the OU should not be in the business of monitoring the practices and perspectives of its member synagogues, and I am partially sympathetic to that approach. Orthodoxy is not monolithic and no organization should be in the position of dictating conformity or creating a litmus test of Orthodoxy. Yet, there are times when clarity is essential and the boundaries of a particular ideology must be delineated for that movement to have real meaning, purpose and influence. This is one of those times. Synagogues that employ female clergy, have mixed seating, deny the Divine origin of the Torah, have rabbinic leadership that glorify Western and secular values over Torah values, and frequently disparage the Mesorah really have no place in the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America. To be Orthodox should mean something; it should require conduct, deportment and principles that reflect the Torah as received at Sinai and as faithfully transmitted by the masters of the Mesorah down through the ages and until today. It is more than just joining a team and paying dues but is rather an expression of our deepest beliefs, those that bind us to our Creator and enable us to be part of an eternal people.

Rav Soloveitchik famously expressed that Jews were always provided with a “remnant of the scribes,” the Baalei Mesorah of the last generation who can guide the next. The survival of the Mesorah requires that past and future merge in the present. That is why radical changes are always spurned. It is why the infiltration of modern cultural norms into a Torah environment is so harmful and those norms are naturally rejected. A Judaism that is unrecognizable to the “remnant of the scribes” is not authentic. We are at an inflection point with this new movement and I hope they take this guidance to heart.

Therefore, I applaud the OU on its decision and salute the leadership for its sensitivity and acumen in executing the judgment of the rabbinic panel. I pray that the message sent by the OU clearly defines the outer limits of Orthodoxy, deters some synagogues from deviating from the Torah path in the future, and induces the non-compliant synagogues to come home to their roots, to tradition, to the unity of Israel so together we can glorify G-d’s Torah to our fellow Jews and the entire world.

 

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Changing My Mind

The Gemara (Masechet Sanhedrin 41a) teaches that approximately forty years before the destruction of the second Temple, the Sanhedrin exiled itself from the Chamber of the Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount so it would no longer adjudicate capital cases. This took place, as Rashi comments, when “murderers proliferated.” With a plethora of homicides, the Sanhedrin stopped executing criminals, something that is counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to increase the number of executions in order to preserve civil society rather than eliminate executions altogether at a time when society was in a state of collapse?

Apparently not. When the deterrent is no longer effective, and society is awash with violence, executions will not atone for crimes, deter future crimes and redeem that society. Other measures need to be taken. The system has to be re-thought from the ground up. It is not logical to keep doing the same thing when that no longer has the desired effect.

On a number of issues facing our community, I have changed my mind (a subtle reminder that I am not impervious to reason or good ideas). It has been building for a while and crystallized in the last few weeks. For some time now, we have heard that many of our youth are in a bad way – drinking, drugs, scandalous behavior – all of which have given rise to problems in schools. There have been conferences and seminars, calls for better education and improved communication. And the schools have generally responded to credible accusations of misconduct with a quick but somewhat selective trigger finger – especially in their use of expulsions. A number of people have reported to me about a party that took place recently in the metropolitan area that attracted a lot of teens and involved mass drinking and revelry, with the parents of the host conveniently out-of-town. (There were probably many other and similar parties of which I am unaware.) And the schools have dutifully responded with the range of disciplines at their disposal, and applied to the great variety of offenders under their dominion in inconsistent ways.

I have always been a law-and-order man; schools should have rules just like life has rules because otherwise there is chaos and anarchy. But I think we have gone too far in these situations to the extent that I have changed my mind. I used to think that it was appropriate for schools to monitor their students’ behavior even off campus and react when there is degenerate behavior, and in an ideal world that would still hold true. But I no longer believe that. Schools should monitor what students do on their premises, and that’s it. And off premises? That is the responsibility of the parents. Remember them?

Parents used to have primary responsibility for parenting, discipline, and instilling values in their children. Sometime in the recent past, parents abdicated that responsibility to the schools, and the results have not been pretty. For example: What parent lets a teenager go to a party of teenagers that has no responsible adult in charge? (I say “responsible” because not all adults are responsible.) You would have to be insane to allow such a thing. My children were trustworthy, but I would never let them as teens go to an unsupervised party. My wife and I would monitor, as best as possible, with whom our children would socialize. That is elementary parenting.

Forget the schools. As far as I am concerned, it’s none of the school’s business what happens off campus. It’s the parents’ business – and parents have to reclaim their role. Indeed, parents have many more disciplinary tools in their arsenal than schools do. They should use them, without fear of losing their children as “buddies.”

That being said, I have reconsidered something else. Schools have to stop these willy-nilly expulsions of students, which have become (1) a marketing tool (“Look at us! We expelled two students for unacceptable behavior. Problem solved. Send your children to us!”), (2) a deterrent that has clearly failed given the widespread misconduct that apparently exists and (3) a tacit admission that schools don’t have the time, interest or energy to deal with every child with a problem. I was slow to come around to this but I have realized that was once unthinkable has become normative, and again, quite selectively applied. A few months ago, I was sent a video a few months ago of Rav Moshe Weinberger (the Rav of Aish Kodesh) pleading with principals to remember their own youth. “What were you like when you were 17?” Why are they pretending that all was so perfect that now we can just dispatch Jewish children into the spiritual wilderness? (Listen to the whole shiur, but especially from minute 38 and on.)

My initial reaction was that it is easy for someone not in chinuch to make such a broad statement and encourage such a policy change – banning expulsions – but as I pondered his comments over the course of a few weeks, I realized that he was correct. Teens are teens, and even if the parameters of “acting out” have widened over the decades since I was a teenager, and mostly in very unsalutary ways, I do not doubt that there are today principals and Roshei Yeshiva, teachers and rabbis, who acted as teens in ways that they chalk up to adolescent hijinks. Yet, they – or their boards – do not want to give today’s children the same break or a compassionate hand. I certainly do not lay all the blame at the feet of the principals or administrators who are often confronted with conflicting pressures that cannot all be resolved to the satisfaction of all.

And then I started my research on my “Great Rabbis of the 20th Century” series and to my astonishment, I determined that these giants dealt with the same issues in a much more tolerant, loving and probably effective way. The Alter of Slabodka, for example, never agreed to expel a student. (Keep in mind that Slabodka had its share of students who desecrated Shabbat, who were Socialists trying to overthrow the Czar, who were students in the yeshiva who even rebelled against the Alter and tried to have him dismissed!) Yet, he would tell the Roshei Yeshiva, that we must look and find some good in them. He kept one student around, he told his colleagues, even though he wasn’t much of a student, because he liked to do favors for people. The Jewish people need that also. And when challenged about particular miscreants, he would cite the verse in Kohelet and the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 27:5) thereon: “‘G-d seeks out the pursued;’ even when the righteous pursue the wicked” G-d takes up the cause of the underdog. So find his good quality and help him. Don’t throw him away.

Similarly, Rav Ovadia Yosef said in an interview a year before he died that it is forbidden to expel a child from yeshiva. I quote: “Even if there is a student who behaves inappropriately, it is still forbidden to throw him out of school and instead we must exercise extreme patience… If we are patient with this student, one day he can grow up to be a talmid chochom. And if we send him away from the yeshiva where will he go? To a secular school and then what will become of him?”

And then he added: “What, are you throwing away a rock? These are precious souls! If you throw a child away, do you know what will be? Are you ready to take responsibility for what might happen?”

And in Rav Yissachar Frand’s Dvar Torah this week (the second essay) he made the same point. If all these great rabbis are addressing this issue, it tells me that there is a problem in Baltimore, Israel, the Five Towns, New Jersey – and everywhere else.

And who are we throwing away? The children of the Avot and Imahot of our people. Like Rambam says (Hilchot Sanhedrin 25:2), even the lowliest among us are “the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, the armies of G-d who took us out of Egypt with a great might and a powerful arm.”

I’m not an extremist. If a child is endangering another child, that is different. But short of that, there are other measures. Educate. Discipline. Suspend. Make a child repeat a class or a grade. (The thought alone of paying an extra year’s tuition will get the parents’ attention.) But don’t throw them away. G-d also took these children out of Egypt.

I would rather send my children to a school that deals with its children with problems than to a school that pretends it doesn’t have any children with problems.

And what should parents, now once again responsible for their children’s behavior, impress upon them? During the years of bondage in Egypt, we never lost our identity, our dignity, our sense of self-respect. We always knew, in the statement of the Mishna (Masechet Shabbat 111a), that “all Israel are the children of kings.” We are all princes and princesses. We never let the Egyptians, those debauched pagans, define us. We endured them, survived them and triumphed over them, and then the sense of inner freedom naturally emerged from us. It cannot be suppressed forever – in any of us.

That is the message for us and for our children. They should realize that all the attractions and allures of the world mean nothing compared to the great privilege of being part of a royal people. They need to be taught that when they act like reprobates, they have first and foremost let themselves down.

There is no greater deterrent to mischief than the realization that some conduct is beneath them and unworthy of them, of who they are supposed to be. When that realization sinks in, we will merit only blessings from all of our children.

 

 

For a specific message, I share with you a note sent by two dedicated parents in our shul to their teenage son and daughter, who both accepted it with love.

“As tonight is New Year’s Eve, I understand you both have intentions to go sleep by friends… We need to have a crystal-clear understanding of what our expectations are…

We are very trusting parents and feel we have made our values clear. I don’t think I need to repeat them. However, I recognize that despite your good intentions you might find yourselves in a situation you did not expect. There have been an alarming number of instances where underage drinking has taken place. I think some clear guidelines need to be established. If these guidelines are not 100% clear, or you have ANY questions now or in the future, I expect you to follow the rule of “when in doubt do without…” So here are our basic guidelines…

Under no circumstances may you go to a house (or any public place like a hall or hanging out on a street etc.) where you know in advance there will be alcohol being served. I get that sometimes these things occur and you don’t know about them in advance. So… if you are somewhere and after the fact alcohol is being served then I expect you to leave… We will pay for your Uber, no matter how far it is, if you can’t secure a lift immediately. No lingering, no phone charging, don’t even wait in the house… If it’s cold or raining then put your jacket on and wait at the entrance until your lift gets there. Further, I need a text IMMEDIATELY that you are in this situation and are following these directives and where you are going.

On that note… I pay lots of money every month for you to have WORKING cellphones. You get to enjoy using them pretty unencumbered (meaning I don’t totally dictate what you can and cannot do on it, even though I pay for it…) the quid pro quo (what I get in return) is 100% access to your whereabouts… You are my children and I am responsible to make sure you are safe, so like it or not I need to know where you are. So, if your phone “isn’t working” or is off or you have no service, I need to know where you are going BEFORE you go and WHEN you are going to be home or the next acceptable location. This is BEFORE you leave. There was a time many centuries ago when kids didn’t have cellphones. I know it’s crazy to imagine but it’s true. The above rules worked for thousands of years… your generation has not earned the right to be independent and “aloof” without parental knowledge or consent…

Needless to say, if there are other “inappropriate” things going on, under the same conditions as above, for example smoking, illicit behavior (look it up if you aren’t sure what that means) or even at a home where there is chilul Shabbat etc. the same standards apply. You need to leave!

Finally, there is a curfew EVERY night. Understandably on non-school nights that time can be later. But it is not fair to me who sleeps with a phone next to his ear to go to bed not knowing that all my children are safe and at home at an appropriate hour. I prefer to be the LAST one asleep AFTER all my children are tucked in bed and sleeping. I understand that it may not be realistic all the time. But that needs to be the exception and not the rule. If you aren’t 100% sure how this applies to you then please get it clarified, in writing.

If for half a second you are thinking that these conditions are unfair or unrealistic then I am sorry… Please don’t confuse the fact that we trust you with the fact that we do not want you in an environment where the above goes on. Those are our values and until you are independent (out of the home and supporting yourselves) we make the rules.

To summarize:

1) You may not go anywhere you know inappropriate activities will be taking place.

2) If you are somewhere and this is happening you need to contact us immediately and leave.

3) When you aren’t where we know you will be you need to tell us before you leave where you are going (if your phone isn’t or won’t be available).

4) We expect you home for curfew (if you aren’t sure when that is then it’s a lot earlier then you think…) IF you want to extend your curfew you need to ask BEFORE you even leave the house AND get an answer.

We love you and care about your health and well-being. We have many more years of experience and have had other teenagers before you. I know that “times change”. We have and can be flexible, when appropriate but most of the above are guidelines with zero flexibility.

One more thing. Needless to say, participating in any of these acts themselves isn’t allowed… I am referring to the drinking, smoking and illicit behavior. In those areas we do TRUST you guys and you have not let us down. As you get older we recognize that the peer pressure to “try this” or even hold a drink or cigarette (not even inhaling) will likely occur. These social pressures can be overwhelming. We know it’s out there. We know it’s not isolated. We don’t want to question your judgment or question our trust… It’s VERY hard to always “do the right thing…” but that is why we TRUST you…

 Please acknowledge and accept these guidelines.

All good advice!

 

 

The Book of the Upright

To the consternation and dismay of Yosef, his father Yaakov “maneuvered his hands” to place his right hand on the younger son Efraim and not the first-born, Menashe, when Yaakov blessed both of his grandsons. Yosef protested, and Yaakov explained that he knows exactly what he is doing. Menashe will be great, but “his younger brother will be even greater and his name will be renowned across the nations” (Breisheet 49).

Efraim’s greatness, as Rashi explains, is that the world be astounded when his descendant Yehoshua stops the sun and the moon in the famous battle for the land of Israel that occurred at Bet Choron.

Indeed the narrative of that event is one of the two times in the Bible in which the book of Breisheet is referred to as “Sefer Hayashar,” the Book of the Upright. When Yehoshua defeated the Emori¸ the most powerful tribe in the land of Canaan – G-d rained on them heavy stones from heaven – Yehoshua beseeched G-d for the sun to stand still. And it did, for almost a full day, an event recorded in contemporaneous accounts of the Aztecs and the Incas, as “the day the sun didn’t rise” (read all about it in my “A Prophet for Today, Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Yehoshua;” if the sun doesn’t set in Israel, it won’t rise in the Western hemisphere). And the book of Yehoshua records (10:13): “And the sun and the moon stood still until the nation took vengeance on their enemies, behold this is written in the book of the upright.” Rashi there quotes the Gemara (Avoda Zara 25a) that the “book of the upright is the book of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.” And where is this event recorded in that book? “It is written in the Torah, as Yaakov told Yosef that the descendants of Efraim would fill the nations” with discussions of their miraculous exploits.

Two questions are worth asking: why were our forefathers called “yesharim” – the upright – such that the book of Breisheet bears this name? And why was this miracle of the sun standing still in Givon so profound that even Yaakov referred to it prophetically? The truth is that it was unnecessary. The Emori were already defeated, and the miracle did not directly affect the tide of battle. Some say that Yehoshua stopped time because it was Friday (we all know the feeling of wishing the sun would stand still Friday afternoon) and he didn’t want any of the battle to carry over into Shabbat as he was now fighting for the Givonim. So why was this important?

Rav Eliezer Kastiel notes that no nation on earth has been able to sustain its nationhood and homeland without war. It’s just the way it is. And in war, each side thinks it is right and just, and usually the victor thinks it is more right and just than the loser. But this war was something else – the war for the land of Israel was the ultimate in justice and righteousness. So much so that Yehoshua wanted nature itself to testify to the world that something unnatural – the Jewish people separated from its land – was about to be rectified. Only nature itself could verify to the world that the Jewish people were home. The rotation of the earth stopped – and only restarted when this climactic battle for the land of Israel was concluded. Creation began anew. It is as if nature itself waited for the Jews to come home and establish their kingdom based on divine morality and integrity.

When it comes to “uprightness,” the world is still waiting for the Jewish people to be uniformly exemplars of rectitude. Count me in the group of people that thought Shalom Rubashkin was railroaded, selectively prosecuted, and punished more harshly because he was Jewish. And I even wrote about this injustice years ago. (See here for wonderful article about the history of this case.) But count me as well among those who found the singing, dancing and drinking celebrating his release a bit unseemly. This was justice being done – for which we should all be grateful, especially to the President – but not a hero returning home after victory in combat overseas. Notwithstanding his personal qualities, he is not Yosef Mendelevitch or Natan Sharansky. This is when we have to remind ourselves that tzni’ut (modesty) is not limited to sleeve length or skirt length but is a way of life, a value system. “Walk humbly with your G-d” (Micha 8:8). Bentch Gomel and go home to family and friends proud that you conducted yourself with dignity and faith even in prison. But it is not as if someone just discovered the cure for cancer or won the World Series.

The book of Breisheet is the book of the upright because it tells the story of our forefathers who were paragons of integrity. That is how they made their reputations, so to speak, among their contemporaries and that is their primary legacy to us, their descendants. There is a difference between yashar and tamim, upright or wholehearted. The Maharal (Netivot Olam 2:11) writes that the tamim know instinctively what to do; they walk with G-d without any calculation. Their ethical sensitivity is innate.  A yashar is different. His ethical sense is honed by his sechel, by knowledge, by wisdom. He thinks before he acts – like Yaakov who “maneuvered his hands” with intelligence – and hones his moral compass.

There are very few temimim. We have to strive to be yesharim.

Our forefathers, like all of us, were placed in challenging situations that demanded rigid adherence to a core set of values as well as the consciousness that they were always standing before G-d. We have those set of values in our Torah toolkits, even if we don’t always embrace them fully. What we need more of is the consciousness that we are always before G-d, and the occasional hostility of those biased against Jews does not change that.

This is the test of our lifetimes. It is the measure of our personal lives and of the homes and communities that build. Like nature waited for the Jewish people to return home and ratified it in Givon and the valley of Ayalon, so too nature and the world await our natural embrace of integrity as the essence of the Jewish personality. Then the world will again by astonished by our goodness and the day of G-d’s kingdom on earth will be ever closer.

 

 

 

The Obvious

To quote Menachem Begin, “Sometimes the obvious needs to be said.”

That’s the initial reaction to President Trump’s courageous and long-awaited announcement that the United States, after seventy years of indecision, has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Well, of course, it is, and has been since King David designated it as such more than 3000 years ago. Even more, it has been so since G-d decreed that Jerusalem would be the world center of the divine presence and implanted the Jewish people there to safeguard the city and proclaim His word to mankind.

All credit goes to President Trump for overcoming the naysayers in his administration and across the world, fulfilling a campaign promise (something that still shocks the average American) and acknowledging that the declaration “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel” is not just an applause line at a generation of AIPAC conferences. Seventy years of vacillation is a long time. It means that if Choni the Circle Drawer (see Masechet Taanit 23a) had fallen asleep in 1948 with part of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty  but with the United States renouncing Israel’s declaration of Jerusalem as its capital so as not to pre-judge final status negotiations, and awakened today with all of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and the US still rejecting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in order so as not to pre-judge final status negotiations, no one would blame him for wanting to take a sleeping pill and crawling back under his blanket. Nothing would have changed in seventy years, especially the empty rhetoric of diplomats.

So, who would oppose such an obvious iteration of reality? Who would mourn such an historic recognition of Jewish rights to Jerusalem? It seems like almost everybody. Almost.

They fall into several groups.  First, those who make a living from fostering a “peace process” that by definition can never end, no matter the facts on the ground and the reality Above. These are the people who supported the catastrophic Oslo surrenders, the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif and the facilitation of the Iranian nuclear program. They include people who deny Jewish destiny in the land of Israel and would prefer the State of Israel not exist, although it is still considered impolitic (except on college campuses) to state that publicly. They include diplomats from across the world, and most of the pointy heads in Foggy Bottom, who find Israel to be, at least, an international nuisance, and so routinely castigate Israel at the United Nations and global conferences. For them, Israel’s right to exist is always tenuous, and they have determined that Israel should remain the only country on the planet denied the right to designate its capital city. They include the radical Arab world that will never recognize Israel’s existence except as a means to weaken it and then destroy it.

To them, America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has “destroyed the peace process,” which is a lot like saying the NY Giant’s restoration of Eli Manning as starting quarterback has “destroyed” my chances of leading the team to victory this Sunday. There is no “process” and there is no “peace.” If anything, acknowledgment of Jerusalem’s true status shatters some radical Arab fantasies that Israel’s existence is temporary and tentative, that the Jewish presence there will just slowly wither away. If anything, it pours cold water on some Arab dreams and is a wake-up call to Israel’s detractors as to the direction in which history is moving.

The second group consists of those who fear Arab violence in the wake of this decision. These well-meaning people are often inclined to give Arabs a pass for lack of self-control, thereby rationalizing and fomenting such violence. But “three days of rage” have really been “three generations of rage,” if not more, and succumbing to such blackmail is as understandable as it is pathetic. “The eternal people are not afraid of the long road,” as the song goes, and the voices who fear this decision because of the potential consequences would similarly have opposed (and like-minded people did oppose) the declaration of statehood in 1948. A proud, free nation asserts its just rights and privileges, and especially when those rights and privileges are rooted in the Torah, the Prophets and G-d’s eternal promises to His people. A nation of slaves, exiles and dependents lives in fear of the present and future. “Mi she’maamin lo mefached: those who believe are never scared.”

The third group is composed of leftist Jews who have abandoned their connection to Jewish destiny. The dogmas of the left have captured them and any action that strengthens Jewish destiny and our possession of the land of Israel is anathema to them. They have forgotten Jerusalem, their right hand has lost its cunning, their tongues cleave to their palates because they have not lifted Jerusalem above all their delights, especially the joy of hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the donors who sustain their organizations. They have sold their souls for the porridge of the acclaim that is garnered by Jews who turn on their own people, which is not to say that they are not sincere in their misguided beliefs.

The final group? The Trump haters who assume he can do no good and who will long resent that he was the president who recognized Jerusalem, rather than his predecessors (Clinton, Bush and Obama) who promised to do the same but never did. Once you posit that someone can never do anything good, then, by definition, anything done is not good.

To be sure, statements of the obvious are obvious but that does not mean they are not welcome and appreciated – nor do they mean that they come without a diplomatic price or at least a request for one. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should not produce any demands for good-will gestures or concessions on Israel’s part, which will certainly be the approach of the old hands at State who must be railing against this decision. It should not be used to revive empty negotiations that are only designed to weaken Israel and not be construed as a means to resuscitate the two-state illusion, the Holy Grail of peace processors. Indeed, even President Trump announced his support for two states, “if agreed to by both sides,” which is quite an “if” and thus should not be construed as an endorsement of that chimera.

The decision should stand by itself, as “our feet stood firm at the gates of Jerusalem” (Tehillim 122:2). It should be perceived as a reaffirmation of the victory of Chanukah, which, after all, celebrated the liberation by Jews from the Hellenists of the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple that radical Arabs  and haters of Israel today (including Arafat and his followers, and UNESCO and their fellow travelers) deny ever had any connection to the Jewish people. That, alone, is an arrow in the eye of Satan.

Those who deem restatements of the obvious are unnecessary most likely do not pray every day or express their love for spouses, parents and children. Those, too, are obvious sentiments, but the sensible and sensitive individual knows that uttering things that we know are true is good for us and good for the listeners. It sets the record straight, and here it attempts to correct an historical absurdity, not to mention an historic injustice. The recognition is even more important than the location of the embassy for it recognizes what is natural and right, and everything else follows from that. It is a proclamation that rivals that of Harry Truman in 1948. With much of the world and the US State Department vehemently opposed to Israel’s declaration of independence (the revered George Marshall threatened to quit if Truman acted and even to vote against him that November), Truman announced that he would recognize the nascent state of Israel.

History eventually came around, more or less, as it will to this announcement. Gratitude is in order. If people clamor for something for years, and then finally are granted their wish, it behooves them to show a little gratitude to the President who kept his word, remained resolute despite the pressures, and who changed the direction of history.

This is a joyous day. The decision should be embraced by all those who love Jerusalem and Israel, and may they be rewarded with the fulfillment of the prophetic vision: “Seek the peace of Jerusalem, those who love it shall find serenity” (Tehillim 122:6).

Anatomy of a Smear

As if on order, no sooner had I written “Life with a Smear” when we were presented with a real life example of a smear – a deliberate and conscious attempt to manipulate and distort the words of a public figure in order to shame her, force an apology, get her fired and ruin her life and career – all for the purpose of gaining some petty, partisan, political advantage.

The other day, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely purported to “disrespect” and “outrage” “all of American Jewry” (these are actual quotes from her critics) by articulating basic truths of which most American Jews are aware. Asked why there is a disconnect these days between much of American Jewry and Israel on diplomatic issues, and how such matters as the “Kotel” controversy have angered such a large part of American Jewry, she answered that Israel is the homeland of all Jews, “of all streams,” and every Jew should come live here and thereby influence Israeli society. But, she added, most American Jews are “not understanding the complexities of the region,” as they are –and here are the phrases that allegedly ticked off the self-appointed leaders of the branches of American Jewry that are in such a steep decline – “people that never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, going to Iraq. Most of them have quite convenient lives. They don’t know how it feels to be attacked by rockets.”

If we parse her words fairly and objectively, it is clear that her sentiments are true and indisputable. Most American Jews do not have children serving as soldiers, Marines, in Afghanistan or Iraq. That is obvious, and I would speculate that most American Jews don’t even know someone who serves in the American military or served in Iraq or Afghanistan. (I do – a young former congregant was a Marine who fought during some of the harshest combat in Fallujah, Iraq, and I was proud to officiate at his wedding at which he wore his full dress uniform, replete with sword, and of course a good number of chaplains.) But most don’t, and that is true today of most Americans.

This is not because American Jews are selfish, uncaring, unpatriotic or disloyal. In truth, we are underrepresented in the American military according to our percentage of the population, but that has to do mostly with the underrepresentation of particular socio-economic brackets in the American military and the underrepresentation in the military of sections of the country where most Jews live. The higher socio-economic bracket to which one belongs and the more liberal the area of the country in which one lives, we find the lower the rate of participation in the military. This is true for Jews and non-Jews. We can quibble whether this should be so but not whether it is so. It is, and so it has been since the United States abolished the draft 45 years ago. (Parenthetically, only 25 % of the current members of Congress have served in the military, compared to close to 80% of the congressmen in the 1970’s.)

What Tzipi Hotovely said is absolutely true.

But this is how a smear works: Rick Jacobs, the leader of Reform Judaism who has become an open foe of a strong, proud, traditional Israel, castigated her for being “ignorant and ill-informed,” because, as he said, “my father served with distinction” in the American army. Indeed – we honor his father’s service! – but she did not say that Jews have never served in the American military (“never send” is not the same as “never sent,” and even that phrase was clarified), but rather that most Jews “don’t” serve in the American military. Note the verbal legerdemain – pretending her remarks were a blanket statement about the past rather than a comment on the present. That is rank dishonesty, and he should be ashamed of himself for engaging in it.

The point is not whether his father served or even whether he served (I assume he didn’t; he and I both came of age after the United States switched to an all-voluntary military). When there was a draft, Jews were drafted and served like any other citizen; American Jews fought in World War II in a greater proportion than our share of the population. I’ve walked the grounds of the American military cemetery at Normandy. The Stars of David that mark the graves of the dead American-Jewish soldiers stand out, if only because the thousands of crosses are arranged so neatly. But they are there, in almost every row. She was speaking about current events, how most American Jews today are detached from a military life, and how that surely taints their views on Israel where fighting in the military in an existential conflict that will not end is part of life and the expectation of almost every teenager. And she is correct – so correct that I would be curious to learn how many of her critics, or her critics’ children, have fought in the American military.

Here’s another shameful smear: the accusation that she was disrespecting all those young American Jews who go to Israel and enlist in the IDF. Again – smear. Distortion. Misrepresentation. Lie. And this is how it works – did she mention lone soldiers? Did she mention the IDF? Of course not. Look at both her words and the context. In our community, many dozens of youngsters over the years have enlisted in the IDF, and we are proud of all them. But have any of them fought in Afghanistan or Iraq? Not to my knowledge…   So this is a blatant effort to willfully distort her words. She made no reference to the IDF – so how can she be accused of disrespecting those who fight in the IDF? But this is how the smear game works – more verbal sleight-of-hand – denouncing someone for what was said and is true by attributing to them things that were not said and are false.

There are two real problems at play here, and Minister Hotovely is responsible for neither of them. The officialdom of the heterodox movements is uncomfortable, even resentful, of a successful woman who is proudly Jewish, proudly religious, proudly traditional, proudly Israeli and proudly right-wing.  She undermines several of their persistent narratives about Orthodoxy and traditional life in Israel. Seeing the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel wearing a shaitel must gall them. Too bad – for them.

And the bigger problem is this: with the heterodox movements in a free fall, both in terms of raw numbers as well as influence in American politics because of their persistent liberal bias, they need an enemy to energize their base. They need periodically – these days, it’s every few weeks – to find a scapegoat, an accusation, an insult or a cause to get their people riled up. It can be the Haredim to whom they attribute all sorts of mischief and ill-will. It can be the Kotel, where suddenly – literally, suddenly, after many decades – the status quo of exclusively traditional prayer bothers them. It is as if they woke up one day and realized – or contrived – that the status quo must bother them. It can be the non-acceptance of their conversions, their rabbis, or their modes of worship in one form or another. It can be the growth of the settlements or a forceful response to Arab terror or Gazan rockets. But it is always something.

That is why even an apology from Tzipi Hotovely, which she proffered because that is the way the smear game is played (and shame on the Prime Minister for not standing behind her), will not suffice for the complainants. They want her and her kind out! It is not her but what she stands for that irritates them. She is a constant reminder of what they too could have – with their children and grandchildren – if only they would return to the honest study of Torah and the true observance of mitzvot. That is why they seem to be perpetually aggrieved and always cross about something going on in Israel.

When many Israelis speak of “American Jewry,” they conjure to themselves a benign image of Jews who proudly love and support Israel, feel a deep emotional bond, and constitute a solid bloc of the type of encouragement and cooperation that one can expect from family. Would that it were so – but those days are long gone, sadly. Most American Jews today are unaffiliated – they do not identify as Orthodox, Reform or Conservative. They don’t feel that bond with Israel that their parents and certainly their grandparents did, most by far have never even visited Israel, and the ranks of American Jewry (including the heterodox movements) have been decimated by intermarriage that has obviously sapped their identification with Jews and the Jewish State. And the heterodox movements are permeated with Western ideas and values that occasionally conflate with Jewish ideas and values, but not always, and they can by and large no longer tell the difference.

The cause of Israel struggles today on college campuses because too many young Jews are cut off from their Jewish identity. The more the Jew is disengaged from Judaism, Torah, mitzvot and Jewish values, the more he or she will be disengaged from Israel. It is a tragic but accurate formula – that is why Minister Hotovely was banned by a “Jewish” group from speaking at Princeton – but there is little that Israel can do to reverse that trend. Identification and support for Israel will result from an enhanced sense of Jewish identity but those young Jews who are estranged from Israel have already embedded another identity and set of values and priorities. That is what has to be reversed and at this the heterodox movements are ill-equipped as they have long fostered an alienation from Torah.

That is why they force themselves to be outraged, manufacture slights and insults, and are avid players of the “Gotcha Game,” in which they monitor every single word of their targets in order to find the one word that they can wrench from context, cast in the most negative light or otherwise twist and falsify – all so that they can show relevance to their dwindling flock and their fellow travelers in the secular media. This is the smear game in action.

It would be edifying if Israelis truly understood what is happening in American Jewish life, paid less attention to the instigators of insincere indignation, and more attention to those Jews whose Jewish children and grandchildren will be building Torah, supporting Israel, making aliya and preserving the future of the Jewish people. And, of course, it would be an absolute delight if all Jews – of every stripe and background – did the same, and in so doing brought the era of redemption closer.

 

Life With a Smear

The world is awash in gossip, slander, endless accusations, the intentional dissemination of rumors and innuendo, and reckless disregard for propriety, the norms of justice and the proper redress for wrongs, imagined or otherwise. Trial by media is the new normal. Trial by judges or juries that require the adduction of evidence and witnesses and proof beyond a reasonable doubt or even by the preponderance of evidence is passé, old-fashioned and behind the times. They are certainly less effective in destroying the lives and reputations of the targets whose guilt might not be proven in a conventional manner. For all the sanctimonious talk about progress and modernity, one might wonder whether or not duels were a more civilized form of resolving disputes than this is. Note: I am not calling for the re-institution of duels.

Jewish law is quite clear and in marked contrast to the perverse culture that surrounds us. One is not only prohibited from believing lashon hara (defined as any statement, even true, that tends to disparage the reputation of the subject) but one is also obligated to justify or interpret favorably even criminal or unseemly actions that we view with our own eyes – much less those we hear about from others. Jewish leaders, from the time of Moshe until today, have often been subject to cruel and despicable slander. All, obviously, were baseless, and all were intended to denigrate and marginalize them and reduce their influence in Jewish life.

The smear has become routine in public discourse and the saga of Judge Roy Moore is just the latest example. I have no truck with Judge Moore and no idea whether or not the accusations of vile misconduct against him are true. I will make two predictions (always risky but nonetheless): he will not become the Senator from Alabama and the day after he drops out or loses the election his accusers will disappear from the public eye never to be heard from again. For even his most vociferous (and even sincere) opponents must concede that the sole purpose of these accusations is not to find justice for the alleged victims but rather to achieve some petty, partisan political goal. But this is nothing new.

Recently, the acclaimed investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson wrote a book entitled “The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control  What You See, What You Think and How You Vote.” It is an enlightening and frightening tale of the extent to which modern politics has become a game of money and power but a game that is fueled by lies, falsehoods, accusations, allegations, rumors, innuendo, and anything that can manipulate the gullible public in providing money or votes for a particular candidate or leave them disgruntled enough that they simply do not vote for the candidate to whom they would naturally incline. (After all, despite the protests to the contrary about the importance of voting, any candidate would rather have you stay home and not vote than go out and vote for the opponent.) Hence, politics has become a bi-partisan sport of character assassination and simply….lies.

This has always existed to some extent but it has reached new levels with the capacity to reach massive numbers of people in mere seconds and the rigorous scientific study of words, phrases, images and particular charges that sway particular voters. Campaigns have become nothing more than the steady drip of innuendo that, like the kikayon of the prophet Yonah, make a brief splash and then disappear overnight. Her book is filled with numerous examples, and even admissions of the players that this is the game they play. Remember last summer when the news blared that Melania Trump came here as an illegal immigrant and worked without a visa, and candidate Donald Trump was lambasted for his hypocrisy in marrying such a person? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t – but it was all fabricated, simply made up, all her papers were in order. It’s the exposure of this “breaking news!”  that mattered to the disseminators – the instinctive impression on the listeners – and not whether the charge was false or FALSE. It was actually TOTALLY FALSE. That is just one of dozens of examples she cites.

So too – in my lame attempt to be bi-partisan – the persistent allegation that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not in the United States. Very interesting, but few noted that such (even if true) would not have disqualified him to run for the presidency as long as his mother was an American citizen. This was born out by the 2016 election when a handful of diehards pointed out that Ted Cruz was, in fact, born in Canada. Indeed, but he remained eligible because his mother was an American citizen. From a Constitutional perspective, it matters not whether you were born in Canada or Kenya. But that too was fake news, designed to tarnish the candidate rather than educate the public.

Attkisson traces the birth of the modern smear movement to the “borking” (yes, it became a verb) of Judge Robert Bork whose nomination to the Supreme Court  was rejected by Congress because of tendentious and repugnant accusations raised against him. But it has risen to a whole new level. Do not think for a moment that modern journalists pound the pavement and wear out their shoes trying to uncover dirt on candidates; that might have happened long ago. Today, most journalists are partisans (many reporters and columnists coordinate their writings with the campaigns they support!) and they are fed opposition research by those campaigns and do little background investigation about them. The slightly ethical will at least try to interview the accusers; the less ethical will just publish accusations that have already been disseminated on the internet, on the grounds that if it is on the internet it is already newsworthy. As consumers of news, we are fed narratives that have no connection to truth and myths that shape or reinforce our voting patterns. The examples are legion and I recommend the book. She quotes the Nazi propagandist Goebbels: “It would be possible to prove, with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned, that a square is in fact a circle.” And, as Jews learned all too well, “A lie told once remains a lie but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Donald Trump was a master at deflecting the dirt thrown at him by flinging dirt at his accusers and his opponents. He did this during the campaign, and now as well. Allegations  against him of Russian “collusion” are simply turned against Hillary Clinton and her Russian “collusion.” (Full disclosure: I have met and spoken with Russians more than 100 times in the last year, almost all in shul. Nevertheless…) Obviously, Trump was successful in navigating this swamp, but the swamp has only deepened.

How does it work? Attkisson defines a smear in this way: “In simple terms, it’s an effort to manipulate opinion by promulgating an overblown, scandalous, and damaging narrative. The goal is often to destroy ideas by ruining the people who are most effective at communicating themThe smear business is interminable and eminently profitable…Imagine trying to focus on your job or family while professional smear artists engage in a 24/7 operation to discredit and controversialize you. To them, it’s second nature. They’ve perfected their techniques. They maintain a constant pressure. Their slander alienates your bosses, clients, colleagues, and the general public. They isolate you from your support system. Eventually, your own family and friends start to wonder about you. You feel the icy chill of distancing from those you consider closest.

And right from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”  For sure, such tactics have seeped into the Jewish world as well, and the agendas that are hostile to Torah do not hesitate to “controversialize” their adversaries or to lie, distort and malign in order to achieve their goals.

For the world, Sharyl Attkisson concludes with this synopsis: “For now, one thing you can count on is that most every image that crosses your path has been put there for a reason. Nothing happens by accident. What you need to ask yourself isn’t so much ‘Is it true, but Who wants me to believe it—and why?’

But Jews have to ask even more potent questions: how seriously do we take the Torah and its admonitions against lashon hara? How do we ostracize purveyors of lashon hara in our community and in the media? How do we erase from our minds the negative images that lashon hara imprints? How do we protect the innocent and potential victims against possible abusers without drenching ourselves in lashon hara? And how do we inculcate in the religious public that civil disputes are the province of Bet Din and criminal accusations are the province of the secular court system – and not the media, in either case?

Life with smears is the inevitable consequence of trial by media and the inundation of our world with lashon hara. We should rise above both and set an admirable example for the rest of society.

 

 

Not-So-Smart Phones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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