Gun Wars

The American gun debate has been a dialogue of the deaf for decades and no end is in sight. That is for the simple reason that the two sides each reflect incompatible and irreconcilable views on the matter. To simplify a bit, when one side feels that society would be safer with more guns and the other side feels society would be safer with fewer or no guns, there is not much middle ground that can bridge the differences. One side blames the gun for the crime (as if guns fire themselves) and the other side blames the perpetrator for the crime (as if he could kill people if he didn’t have a gun). And so horrendous tragedies such as last week’s  school massacre in Florida will continue to occur, rachmana litzlan.

Each side retreats to its arguments whenever a horrendous school shooting occurs. One side blames the easy access to guns as so obvious that it brooks no discussion. The other side blames the failure to diagnose and treat mental illness or at least intervene and curb the anger and delusions of the disaffected. There are so many layers to the problem that it becomes difficult even to discuss them or analyze them dispassionately. No one is in favor of providing weapons to the mentally ill; by the same token, we pride ourselves in not stigmatizing mental illness, so how can their rights be restricted? And by whom shall they be restricted? Add to this the collapse of the American family since the moral breakdown of the 1960’s – the plethora of fatherless children, the aimlessness of many youth, the broken homes and the lack of any moral guidance from authority figures (schools, churches, etc.) and one big problem looms. Add to this a culture that glorifes violence spawned by movies , television and video games that make killing look like fun and conscience-free. And add to that the modern drug of “fame” – the yearning to be noticed, to matter, to be significant in the eyes of society – as if that has any enduring value. There are too many losers who act in anti-social ways to get attention; a small percentage of them will turn violent.

It has reached a point where the arguments no longer address the issue at hand and the proposals made by the politicians satisfy a core constituency but would not solve the problem at all. Trying to prevent a school shooting by tightening the terrorist watch list is a non sequitur. Blaming the NRA and their campaign contributions for the presence of gun violence ignores the reality of the Second Amendment and presupposes that politicians would be amenable to restricting gun ownership if only they had the will. But such is false; most politicians – and most Americans – support gun ownership because they believe in the right of self-defense, itself a cardinal Torah principle: “He who comes to slay you, rise up and slay him first” (Masechet Yoma 85b). There is no virtue to allowing yourself to be killed by a criminal.

Defending the Constitution is seemingly as American as apple pie but its sundry clauses – especially in the Bill of Rights – always vex one group or another and is often under assault by government. Just in the last few years, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” of religion clause was assaulted by a variety of Obama administration measures, particularly regarding the provision of health care; many perceive the Trump’s administration’s hostility and verbal assaults on the media as infringing on freedom of the press; and all of us are subjected, and not always legally, to intrusive surveillance, searches and occasionally seizures with little redress, despite the Fourth Amendment.  The Seventh Amendment’s right to a trial by jury sounds great but has not always served the cause of truth and justice.

For better or worse, guns are ingrained in American culture and it is foolhardy to think that the confiscation of 300,000,000 firearms (count ‘em) is feasible even if it were sensible. Some people, naturally horrified by school shootings and the deaths of innocent children, can rail against the prevalence of guns in society but usually will be unaware of the positive roles guns play in the society. The NRA magazine features a monthly column entitled “The Armed Citizen,” in which there are at least a dozen accounts drawn from local media of citizens who saved their own lives (and those of others) by employing a firearm against a hostile entity – intruder, burglar, assailant, rapist, etc. I sense that these accounts weigh more heavily on people’s minds that even the random shootings that, gun control advocates think, should shock people out of their lethargy. Obviously there is a hunting culture in America that uses weapons with much firepower, but since hunting doesn’t speak to me at all (Jews are not hunters) I downplay its role in this debate. Safety first.

If almost everyone is in agreement that someone like the Florida school shooter should not have been able to purchase a weapon, then why can’t laws be crafted that make it more difficult for such malefactors to be denied access and easier for the good citizens to acquire and carry firearms?

It also needs to be noted that, I suspect, most homicides in America are committed with illegal weapons, not ones that are legally purchased. Illegal weapons are easily attainable, even though the average citizen would never seek to acquire an illegal weapon. As such, gun control that is too restrictive leaves weapons primarily in the hands of the criminals and outside the reach of the innocent. That doesn’t seem fair. Nor does it make any sense to argue – as politicians do all the time – that this or that law would have made a difference. Last I checked, there are laws against homicide and yet, somehow, those laws don’t deter homicidal maniacs from killing people. It is not the law as much as it is the person and the person’s capacity and willingness to obey the law.

The most recent miscreant fell through the cracks and had all the indicia of trouble. Given up for adoption, adopted parents dead, expelled from school for violence, drifting, aimless, no future and no hope – a ticking time bomb ready to explode. In his own demented way, he was crying out for help. Someone who posts on the internet using his real name that “I want to grow up to be a professional school shooter” is begging to be noticed and stopped. That no follow up was done – that he was not found – is outrageous incompetence for which someone should be called to account. A cynic might speculate that had he said “I want to grow up to be a professional school shooter and I have evidence that Trump colluded with Russia before the election” the FBI would have found him within an hour. And the ongoing problem is that had he been found, there are no laws and there is no protocol that could have confined, stopped or deterred him.

There is no one law that will be a panacea, especially in the face of the great dysfunction of the American family. And it is not as simple as saying “we should not allow weapons in the hands of the mentally ill;” is a battered woman suffering from depression under the care of a psychiatrist and threatened by a violent ex-husband “mentally ill” and therefore not permitted to buy a gun to use to defend herself? And there are gradations of mental illness as well, from mild to severe.

What is needed in the long term is a cultural change – a moral renaissance reflected in the “bourgeois values” touted by Professor Amy Wax in an article whose thesis is so self-evident that in today’s climate was considered controversial and offensive – but even in the short term measures are necessary and mostly at hand. Schools are currently soft targets, accessible to one and all, student and psychopath alike. That has to change, and providing armed guards during school hours and searches, screening and profiling for all who enter the school building should be obvious. Such is done in Israel, as is the discreet arming of some teachers who rotate carrying concealed weapons on their persons. That secures the target, reasonably if not perfectly, and greatly enhances the chances of failure of the attacker to achieve his nefarious aims as to deter even the attempt.

As the school shooters have almost all been young males – from their teens to their 20’s – it is clear that males who have been expelled from school for violence, are under the care of a mental health professional, or have exhibited cruel and unusual behavior should be placed on a watch list that denies them access to legal weapons unless they are permitted to do so by a judge upon the testimony of doctors, parents, guardians and the like. Again, this is reasonable but not perfect. So is this: adults who store weapons in their homes and do not secure them sufficiently to prevent their use by murderers should be held criminally liable with a mandatory minimum prison sentence. Ah, isn’t this blaming the victim? Well, sometimes the victim deserves some of the blame. It is not sufficient to say “I trusted him,” “I didn’t know he had a duplicate key,” “I tried to turn him into a responsible adult,” etc. If it happens on your watch, you are liable. That should get the attention of law-abiding gun owners.

It is not fair to punish hundreds of millions of law-abiding citizens because of the despicable acts of a handful of people. Nor should we renounce constitutional rights that have safeguarded American liberties and provided an effective means of self-defense. Nor should we wash our hands and say that nothing can be done because there is no perfect solution. There is no perfect solution – the psychopaths can also acquire illegal weapons, psychologists will claim that putting their patients on a watch list would violate confidentiality and encourage reticence, the fantasy of a gun-free society will always animate some – but a sane society takes elementary measures to keep weapons out of the hands of the disaffected, a sane government focuses its efforts on defending its citizens, especially its children, and rational politicians – interested in more than retaining their seats and its access to the lucre of modern politics – know how to address complex issues with substance, sensitivity and efficacy.

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Literature

The Jewish Press (February 16, 2018) asked a number of rabbis to address this interesting but rarely-discussed question: “Some of the most famous and important works of literature contain passages and themes that are immodest in nature. May a G-d-fearing Jew read these works for the good they contain, or must he forego reading them entirely?”

This is the link to the entire feature: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books/on-the-bookshelf-23/2018/02/16/

These were my thoughts on the matter:

     I don’t believe there is a definitive answer to this question, although it is certainly easier just to say “no.” Much depends on motivation, purpose, context, source, and especially the precise nature of the immorality, of which, of course, there are gradations. Perhaps the most important determinant is the message that is being delivered. Ancient and medieval works generally frowned on immorality and as such reinforce a Torah message while more modern and contemporary works often celebrate immorality. Usually, no good comes from the latter and prolonged exposure to values that are antithetical to Torah will eventually dilute the reader’s moral perspective and later his or her practice and commitment as well.
It’s important to note that Chazal (recorded in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 307:16) banned the reading of “divrei cheshek” – loosely, books of romance – as a waste of time that could be spent on more godly pursuits and as a tool that could only increase illicit temptation. Books that might fall under that genre must therefore have some redeeming value. Its prurient aspects must be incidental to its primary message for it to be considered appropriate and worthwhile. Fiction generally, Rav Kook wrote, affords us the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another person’s experiences and thus can broaden our horizons. But not every lifestyle or experience deserves to be investigated, studied or fantasized about and certainly not emulated. So caution must be applied.
That being said, there is one Book that exposes the vices and venality that can permeate human nature and is unsparing in its accounts of our failings.  It is superior to any work of fiction. That Book is the Tanach. And we can rest assured that its moral guidance is always spot on. Anyone who wants to learn about our potential for degradation as well great virtue is urged to study the relevant passages and not just skip over them. They provide a solid grounding in moral instruction and, nevertheless, occasionally put human dysfunction on display. One who is drawn to indulge in problematic works of literature would be well advised to study the works of Tanach instead, especially the chronicles of the early prophets. “Turn in it and turn in it, for everything is in it”( Avot 5:22).

The Winter of our Content

  The great baseball player Rogers Hornsby, still holder of the single-season record batting of .424, once said: “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

       He is not the only one, and this has nothing to do with baseball. It has been an unusually cold winter in much of the United States with temperatures even in New Jersey hovering for weeks near zero degrees. Let the scientists debate the global ramifications; each side offers definitive proof to its proponents of the correctness of its views and the errors of their dissidents. All I know is that it is cold outside, and then it gets colder. I am not even warmed by the realization that our ancestors in Eastern Europe – in Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere – lived through much colder winters although I am certain that added to the general melancholy of life in the Pale of Settlement and places further east.

      There are some people who enjoy the winter, with its beautiful vistas and the opportunity to ski some exotic mountain ranges. All I see is snow that has to be shoveled and ice that has to be avoided lest one encounter some unexpected peril. There are cities in the world that suffer during the winter with only seven hours of daylight, something which can only add to the desolation. Those who enjoy warm weather endure the winter and wait for spring, and those who spend the winter in temperate climes and complain when their thermometer hits sixty degrees find little sympathy in these parts.

     Adding to the gloominess is that we have no Biblical holidays in the winter. The holidays that are recorded in the Torah all occur during the spring and fall when the climate is temperate and the verdant beauties of nature are alive. In essence, the three regalim (Pesach, Shavuot and Succot) are all agricultural holidays, notwithstanding their historical connotations as well. The winter, therefore, should be the time of our discontent.

     And yet, that is the way G-d re-created His world when mankind was redeemed after the Great Flood. G-d promised never again to destroy the world and afforded our ancestors the variety of climatic conditions experienced today by much of the globe: “As long as the earth exists, there will be seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night; it will never cease” (Breishis 8:22). As there is a cycle to life, so too there are rhythms to the year, and in each new setting, we are challenged to be productive, serve our Creator and spread kindness among His creations.

     The winter, its chill and precipitation are all opportunities to praise G-d and marvel at His creation. “Praise Hashem from the earth…fire and hail, snow and vapor, the stormy winds fulfill His word” (Tehillim 148:7-8). Life is not all “mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars” (ibid 148:9). G-d is the Master of nature in all its forms – and the Master of nations as well, “kings of the earth and all nations, princes and all judges on earth” (ibid 148:11).

     The earth lies dormant during winter. It conserves its strength, marshals its energies and finds renewal in the spring. Winter is the time for the earth to regroup. Indeed, the same could be said of the Jewish people. One reason that there are no Biblical holidays in winter is that it is a time for us to regroup as well. We survive the winter, both physically and spiritually. The holidays that we do celebrate during the cold season are Rabbinic holidays that commemorate our survival – Chanuka (our spiritual survival in exile) and Purim (our physical survival). As we marvel at the earth and its capacity to replenish itself and come back to life as the temperature warms, so too we should be astonished (and grateful) for our survival as a nation throughout the bitter harshness of exile. Against all odds, and only with the grace of G-d, have we been able to endure what no other nation has, and both survive and thrive, outlasting great empires that tried to eradicate us.

      During winter, we recoup, carry on, and reflect on our durability and eternity, but we are a people of the spring. We are duly commanded to “observe the month of spring, and bring the Pesach offering to the Lord, your G-d, because it was in the month of spring that the Lord, Your G-d, took you out of Egypt” (Devarim 14:1). The Jewish calendar is built around several propositions, the most important of which is that Pesach must always fall in the spring.

       The Jewish people have been given up for dead many times by our enemies, almost disappearing into the wintry frost of the ghettos and the Gulag. Yet, our national existence parallels that of the spring. The nations of the world have their moment in the sun of summer and then they disappear. We are eternally young, a people of spring. Even during the darkest and bleakest moments of winter, we still dream and remember. If the winter is the time when creativity and growth are stifled, it can nevertheless also be the springboard to even greater growth when it passes.

       Rav Kook wrote that the Exodus from Egypt will always be spring, not just for us, but the world’s spring as well. We are responsible for the blossoming of the national idea and charged with ensuring that the nations use their political formations for good and not evil. Like the seed of winter that disintegrates before it achieves new life, we must always have before our mind’s eye that the darkest times are only preludes to the fulfillment of our national destiny in the spring.

      As King Shlomo wrote: “Behold the winter has passed, the rains have come and gone, the blossoms have appeared on the land and the time of your song has arrived” (Shir Hashirim 2:11-12). May we soon merit the full blossoming of our redemption.

The Immigration Wars

Is there a uniquely Jewish approach to immigration?

Obviously, Jews have benefited from liberal immigration policies, such as existed in the United States from 1880-1923, and suffered grievously from restrictive immigration policies in the years before and during the Holocaust. But Jewish Law proscribes even the entry of, for example, idolaters, to the Land of Israel, much less their permanent residence. Gerei Toshav who by definition embrace the Noachide laws are welcome, to a point determined by the society. That sounds reasonable.

To read some of the statements of the Jewish left, one would think that Jews support unlimited immigration, as if every person on the planet has the right to live wherever he or she chooses to live. That is certainly a compassionate sentiment, albeit unrealistic, and compassion that is not tempered by realism is harmful and foolish. It is as if the Treaty of Westphalia that established in 1648 the ground rules of the system of nation-states is as dead as the Oslo Accords. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we are in a post-national world where defined borders and distinct national identities no longer matter but wishing it so does not make it so. Indeed, the restrictions built into Jewish Law on residence in Israel for foreigners is designed to maintain the unique character of the Jewish polity that would be diluted by the residence of large numbers of aliens; we are, after all, “the fewest among the nations.”

Nowhere is this dilemma highlighted more than in the current debates over illegal immigration in the United States and the presence of illegal migrants in Israel. Naturally, the leftist spokesmen who habitually distort the Torah’s view on any issue that intersects with their political positions favor what appears to be unlimited immigration to America (although they won’t call it that) and have recently criticized Israel for endeavoring to deport some 40,000 migrant workers from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan who escaped to Israel looking for work but have also brought terror, crime and general misery to the Jews of South Tel Aviv where they disproportionately reside. We are sympathetic to the plight of the refugee and all refugees, i.e., people fleeing persecution, deserve temporary havens until permanent places of residence can be found. But not every person who leaves his country of origin is a “refugee” as classically understood and as naturally evokes the sympathy of Jews and all decent people.

For example, people who leave their home countries that “lack infrastructure, opportunity and stability” (to “paraphrase” President Trump) are not necessarily refugees who are entitled to a haven in their country of choice. Thus, in Israel, the migrant workers sneaked in to the country to seek greater economic opportunity, certainly understandable from their perspective. But every nation has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens and when uninvited newcomers threaten to unravel the social dynamic, a country is obligated to protect itself. In Israel’s case, it built a wall on its southern border that reduced illegal migration by 99%, part of the impetus for the Trump approach and a rebuke to those who say that walls are obsolete. They are not, even in America’s case where so many illegal immigrants just overstay their visas. But a wall is certainly a necessary step to prevent the entry of contraband and to reduce the number of illegals who cross the border.  And there are plenty of poor Israelis who need job assistance and public support, and a nation that defines itself as a Jewish state must seek to retain its character. That means providing temporary asylum and then return to a country that is more culturally and religiously homogenous to the entrants.

The situation in the United States is more complicated as it defines itself as a nation of immigrants, and no nation has been more receptive to immigration than the United States. But the inability of people to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration is as astonishing as it is farcical. By the tenor of the debate, an observer would assume that anyone opposed to illegal immigration is opposed to immigration generally. That is a canard, one that is bolstered by the semantic games played – played extremely well – by the left. In the recent past, the term “illegal immigrant” has become a pejorative and replaced by “undocumented immigrant,” as if the problem is mere paperwork. By that logic, shoplifting is just an “undocumented acquisition,” a shopper frustrated by the failure to exchange the right paper (i.e., money) with the merchant.

The more recent past has seen advocacy for the “Dreamers,” another inspired euphemism that refers to children brought here illegally as minors by their illegal immigrant parents. The euphemism is a marketer’s delight; who could be against a “Dreamer” but a nasty troglodyte? If they would be referred to by a more accurate moniker, such as CHIIPS (Children of Illegal Immigrants ParentS), somehow their cause wouldn’t seem as fetching.  And this is so notwithstanding the sympathy that any normal person has for their plight, brought and raised here, Americans in all but name.

What exacerbates this debate is the extremes on both sides that reflect dueling values. It seems odd that neither side recognizes that there are competing values that must somehow be accommodated and can only be accommodated through reasonable compromise that should leave both extreme camps somewhat unhappy but most people gratified that a permanent solution has been achieved.  Not to oversimplify too much, but at its core, the conflict pits chesed (kindness) against tzedek (justice).

Thus advocates of unrestricted immigration present as paragons of compassion and morality, support stable families, dismiss crimes of illegal aliens as aberrations and unrepresentative of most illegals, and recognize that these immigrants often do work that Americans spurn and thus help the economy and the business climate. That is by and large true, although it doesn’t account for the anguished sense that one vicious crime committed by someone who should not be here is one too many, and it totally ignores the unfairness implicit in rewarding lawbreakers (illegal immigrants) while penalizing foreigners who applied for immigration through regular channels and are waiting their turn to immigrate lawfully. To reward lawbreakers by granting them amnesty incentivizes more law-breaking, and to grant even temporary relief without taking elementary measures of self-defense (such as a wall, increased security along the border, an end to chain migration and the like) is an exercise in futility as it just encourages even more illegal conduct.

These advocates also reject the notion that there is a particular American identity, and so do not mind that new immigrants (especially illegal) often do not make even the slightest effort to assimilate into the American culture and value system such as was common among our immigrant parents and grandparents. To them, talk of an “American ethos” is a synonym for “white supremacy.” Whatever that is supposed to mean, it is perceived as a compelling argument that should stifle all debate. But part of the polarization that has roiled America for almost two decades has been engendered by the diminution of an American “character,” and avoiding this issue will only make the situation worse and potentially irreparable. It is ironic that some of the loudest advocates for unlimited immigration to America are also some of the loudest voices castigating the country and its citizens as racists, sexists, xenophobes, etc., which begs the question: why would anyone want to live in such a country? And yet people still want to come – by the millions.

By the same token, proponents of restrictive immigration policies sometimes do not recognize the abject conditions that exist in some of these countries that “lack infrastructure, opportunity and stability” that drive myriads of people to want to leave their birthplaces, homes and sometimes families to seek opportunity in the United States. It is as if they don’t realize that America remains a magnet for the rest of the world, and what is often considered a “problem” here would be a blessing in much of the rest of the world. They should also recognize the humanitarian interest in formalizing the status of the CHIIPS; there is something awry when – as has happened – a CHIIP on active duty in the US military can face, or his parents can face, deportation.

Immigration can be boon to a country even as it can also undermine social harmony. Every new wave of immigration brings with it a criminal element; even immigrant Jews in the early 20th century had a criminal underworld although we outgrew it after several decades. (Look it up: there were Jewish mobsters who would not murder on Shabbat out of respect for their observant parents.)

A zero tolerance policy is in order for illegal aliens who commit crimes. Otherwise, the compromise being suggested strikes me as fair: a big wall that prevents infiltrations and smuggling, increased security at the borders, legalizing the status of the CHIIPS (or Dreamers) over time even allowing full citizenship if appropriate after a decade or more from the bill’s passing, and even finding some legal status for the current illegals whose only crime to date was crossing into America illegally.

Of course, it’s not perfect. Law and order proponents (“yikov hadin et hahar”) will be dismayed by rewarding any illegality. Unlimited immigration proponents will cry foul at any restrictions or limitations on full acceptance of non-citizens as citizens. In the broad middle, a solution is to be found that aspires to fairness and justice, and effects the proper balance between chesed and tzedek.

The partisans can keep fighting about this issue for a few more decades or leaders acting in good faith (if there are any left) can act. Which is more likely? We will see.

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.

 

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.