The Jewish State

The Knesset this week, by a vote of 62-55, adopted a Basic Law declaring Israel to be the “nation-state of the Jewish people” (in Hebrew, medinat hale’um hayehudi). By the hysterical reaction of the Jewish secularists, leftists and non-Orthodox Jews in America, one would think that Roe v. Wade had been reversed.

The thought arises: isn’t the State of Israel already the “nation-state of the Jewish people”? Isn’t that why it is referred to colloquially as “the Jewish state”? Indeed, I recall hearing once or twice (of course, it was in the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem) that “our hope is not lost,” that the beating Jewish heart yearns to return to the land of Israel, “the land of Zion and Jerusalem,” in order “to be a free people in our land.” Wasn’t that the essence of the Hatikvah and the Zionist movement?

Moreover, Israel’s Declaration of Independence declared (as Declarations are supposed to do) that “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.” (Of course, this is not entirely true. The Land of Israel was not the birthplace of the Jewish people; we actually became a nation in Egypt from which we were liberated by the mighty hand of G-d – and then our nationhood was confirmed when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. But let’s not quibble.)

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”

This assertion was the main predicate for what followed, the dramatic announcement seventy years ago (5 Iyar 5708) that: “Accordingly, we, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Yisrael and of the Zionist movement…by virtue of our natural and historic right…hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

There it is – in bold italics. Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people” is seventy years old. Why are so many Jews throwing a hissy fit?

One anomaly is that, for all the drama of the Declaration of Independence, it has never had the force of law in Israel. Thus, Hatikvah was never Israel’s formal national anthem, nor was the Israeli flag ever officially adopted as the national flag. Both of those entities gained official recognition through this new law. Is that a problem? It might be for Arabs, but both the Declaration of Independence and the new law assure the non-Jewish population of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.” Accordingly, the rights of all citizens are protected (sometimes, it must be said, to a fault), so why the uproar? Surely the Arabs of Israel are aware that they live in a Jewish state, and if it troubled them, could easily emigrate to one of the 23 Arab states in the region.

Some critics have charged that the law is unnecessary, hardly the case in a world where Israel’s legitimacy as the Jewish state is constantly under attack and especially in an environment in which previous advocates of the “two-state illusion” have now abandoned that chimera in support of a “one-state-for-all-its-citizens delusion,” essentially a renunciation of the existence of a particularly Jewish state. Sometimes laws come to reinforce basic values, norms and notions, and it is noteworthy that Israel for the first time in its history – and long overdue – it has adopted an official anthem, flag and language (Hebrew), all reflective of its Jewishness.

And perhaps therein rest the discomfort, discontent and even hostility in some circles to this law. There are too many Jews who see themselves first as universalists and only then –if then – as Jews. They are uncomfortable when Jewish symbols infringe on their universalism, and horrified when actions of the Jewish state (self-defense, for example) “embarrass” them in their social circles. The dictates and value system of Torah having been long eschewed, and exchanged for Western secular liberalism, anything that smacks of being Jewish becomes, by definition, “too Jewish” and even “Charedi.” Their Jewish identity, as noted here in the past, is primarily ethnic, not religious, but even the ethnic identity has to be bland, innocuous and couched in a universal framework.

It is odd, indeed, that a law that seems so self-evident to many is deemed repugnant to others. As Israel becomes more Jewish and religious in population, character and practice, the secular minority has become more shrill, more vocal, and to a great extent, has lost its moorings. What was natural to Ben Gurion – “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael” – has somehow become anathema to his party, no longer his followers in any meaningful sense. Ben Gurion, for all his flaws and his rancorous relationship with the Torah, had Jewish pride. That is not necessarily true of his socialist and secular heirs. Those who fear the Arab reaction to this law would have recoiled from declaring statehood seventy years ago, no doubt mindful of the Arab “reaction” to that provocation.

En route to complete redemption, the men are indeed being separated from the boys, the believers in the Zionist dream from the non-believers, the people of faith from the faithless, and the proud Jew from the pretenders. It is shameful, and of course reflective of the acrimonious partisanship that afflicts so many nations today, that the bill passed by only 62-55. The world that has not fully accommodated itself to Jewish independence in the land of Israel can rant and rave, but who would have thought that nonchalance or opposition to Israel as the “Jewish state” would have so many Jewish supporters? That too is a disturbing sign of the times.

And the recent fiasco involving Birthright, in which young participants brought to Israel on the dime of Jewish communal funds seized the opportunity to abandon the trip to visit with Israel’s enemies, simply underscores the problem of garnering support for a Jewish state in the land of Israel from people alienated from Torah. That dilemma trumps the problem of dealing with a coddled, egocentric generation that feels entitled to anything – including a free trip to Israel – and does not see the moral absurdity of taking someone’s money and diverting it for your own purposes.

As we approach Tish’a B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of both Temples, the temporary loss of our homeland and the weakening of Jewish nationhood, we can celebrate this forceful assertion of Jewish pride, identity and strength, and pray that all Jews join the bandwagon. The era before the final redemption will be tumultuous; in fact, it is already tumultuous. All we can do is hang on, maintain our faith, learn Torah, do mitzvot, reach out to our fellow Jews and pray that the days of sadness and strife are soon transformed into days of joy and peace.




The Children

The acclaimed American author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It should also be true that the mature mind is able to recognize that there can be two conflicting values at the same time that, nonetheless, still require resolution born of compromise. Both suggestions, apparently, will never apply to politicians.

There are two competing values at play in this week’s volcanic eruption of controversy. One value is that it is wrong for strangers to arbitrarily separate children from parents. There are tears, there is trauma, and shame on the parents who put children in that position unless compelled by unavoidable circumstances. The second value is that countries are defined by borders and nations by laws, and countries that cannot control their borders or otherwise regulate immigration see their sovereignty undermined and their way of life compromised. That is the ongoing story of Europe’s collapse.

Is it no longer possible in America to recognize that both are legitimate values? We are taught that “no alien shall draw near to bring the incense who is not the offspring of Aharon, that there never again be like Korach and his cohorts…” (Bamidbar 17:5). How can we guarantee that there will never again be a controversy like the one precipitated by Korach? The commentators explain that the verse means that there will never again be a controversy like that of Korach and Moshe, where one side (Korach) is 100% wrong and the other side (Moshe) is 100% right. Life’s arguments are usually nuanced. Modern politicians don’t do nuance. They seek votes, power and money.

Naturally, each of the values presented above is not absolute. Democracies are desirable destinations for the impoverished and the refugee, and the United States has always been a magnet for such individuals, even if immigration policy has changed over the last 140 years and not always been applied consistently or fairly. But only anarchists feel that nations should have no borders, no laws, no enforcement, and no control, and it can’t be emphasized enough that the policy of separating children from parents is not only not new but it also only applies to those who attempt to cross the border illegally. Why this is routinely ignored is baffling only to those who don’t recognize the incendiary hyperbole that is the stock in trade of the political left. Families that attempt to cross the border legally – at the authorized border crossings – are never separated. They are then deported, admitted, or, if a claim of asylum is not readily verifiable, detained together while their cases are adjudicated.

The anarchists do not wish to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, and the disparate treatment of the two, and so their two tactics are appeals to raw emotion and a resort to hurling vulgarities at those with whom they disagree. Neither speaks well of them or their cause. Emotion is usually a poor way to make policy and inevitably leads to bad policy and exacerbates the problem. And cursing one’s opponents, obstructing their lives, or interfering with their meals is an admission that they are either bereft of ideas and the ability to persuade or presume that there is absolutely no justice, merit or logic on the other side. For that, see Korach, above. When mobs are allowed to rule, decent people suffer and civil society deteriorates.
A number of Jewish organizations abetted the anarchists in their public statements, and did not distinguish themselves in issuing anguished cries of protest, however heartfelt, without even a single policy prescription. That too is mere venting but contributes little to the public discourse. Simply saying what cannot be done to avoid one problem, and taking no position on what should be done to avoid a concomitant problem, is not especially wise or helpful. But it plays well in the liberal media who record these things.

Fair people should be able to admit that the forced separation of children from parents is unpleasant and the crying heartrending. This, too, exists on a scale of gradation ranging from the goodbyes on “going off to camp day” (that, too, is traumatic, and I’ve seen it; sometimes the children are bawling, and sometimes the parents are bawling) to the Holocaust (absolute evil). Since this is not the Holocaust – no child is being marched to gas chambers for immediate execution – references to the Holocaust are as appalling and repugnant as they are inaccurate, and another indication of the dearth of reasoning on the part of those who make them. They are used as conversation stoppers – so far removed they are from reality.

Indeed, there is a situation in America where parents and children are routinely and forcibly separated. Last year alone, roughly 4500 young children were forcibly separated from their single mothers who were arrested for committing a crime. If there is no proximate relative, the children are placed in foster care, which is, too often, a disaster. It is horrible, traumatic, and life-altering, but no one says that single mothers should therefore have immunity from prosecution for any crimes they commit in order to spare the children this grievous harm. Actually, I should not say that “no one” says that; I’m sure there are some anarchists who would say that.

The separation at the border is more akin to the single-mother arrest scenario than, certainly, to the summer camp severance, even though the child at the border is liable to be reunited with his/her parents within hours, days or weeks. The arrested mother, sadly, can wind up spending years in prison, disconnected from her children. Reasonable people can differ as to whether the current policy is meant primarily for the purpose of deterrence or only partly, but not on this: illegal immigrant parents should be on notice that capture and separation is a distinct possibility. So why not use a border crossing?

Obviously, as the talking heads and politicians put it, the “optics” of separation are not good. But policies should not be adopted or rejected because of “optics” or in response to visceral appeals to passions. What is being done is unkind – but it is also unkind to allow alien gang members, drug dealers, human smugglers and murderers to infiltrate the country to terrorize their former countrymen who are here legally as well as other American citizens. It should be possible for reasonable people to utilize both their hearts and their minds in formulating policy. But politicians are a different breed and everything – everything – is perceived through one prism: votes.

For all the wailing of the leftist politicians about the “children,” the news today is that two proposed Republican bills in Congress would require that family units (even those crossing illegally) be kept intact and that the President’s border wall be fully funded. This should be a win-win for both sides – children’s advocates should be ecstatic that the young will no longer be wrenched from their parents and that the trigger for those painful separations – the illegal entries – will be drastically reduced or eliminated by a border wall. And yet the current reports are that not one Democrat supports either bill, meaning that they would rather children suffer this pain than not suffer this pain, as long as there is no border wall. It is a cynical ploy for votes – and no mystery why the approval rating for Congress is below 20%. I’m surprised it’s that high.

In this week’s Torah reading, the Jewish people’s journey to the land of Israel was detoured because of the refusal of Edom to allow the tribes of Israel to traverse Edomite territory on their way to the land of Israel. Note that all we wanted was to cross through their land, not remain there permanently, and even offered to pay substantially per capita for that right and for the water they would consume. This refusal had serious consequences, as the people had to retreat southward (away from Israel) and circumvent Edomite territory. This led to despair, frustration, complaints about the lack of water and food, and general discontent among the people.

It was uncharitable, to be sure, but Edom was not obligated to let us pass through, we respected their sovereignty, and moved on to another route. A nation without borders and without laws cannot long endure. Executive orders are temporary and constitutionally dubious actions.  The most liberal American has to reckon with the fact that, by some estimates, more than five billion people on the planet live in poverty, distress or repression, and would love to come to the United States of America and benefit from its freedoms and kindnesses. Obviously, they all can’t, nor can their children.

If there remains a shred of decency in the political class, they will join together and craft a solution that respects both values, builds a border wall, controls legal immigration, protects those fleeing from violence (even aids those troubled countries to quell the violence that makes their citizens want to flee), keeps families together, upholds the rule of law, suppresses the anarchists, restores civil discourse among groups with competing values, and strengthens America and the American values of law, order, liberty and human dignity.

Is that too much to ask?

Maybe, but do it anyway, for the children.

Jewish Identity

    It has occurred to me that most, if not all, of the perennial arguments roiling Jewish life for several decades are the product of one, solitary, substantial and irreconcilable difference in the perception of Jewishness. And it all stems from one verse in the Torah, at the very founding of our nation.

G-d said to us, through Moshe (Sh’mot 6:7): “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” There are two fundamental aspects to the nation of Israel that is often obscured or ignored. We are both a nation and a religion; as Rav Shamshon Hirsch put it, “a religio-nation.” We have both an ethnic identity as well as a religious identity. This conflation of religion and ethnicity is by and large unknown in the world.

For example, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims each have a unique religious affiliation but by no means would anyone aver that there is an ethnic identity that binds adherents together. Christians from Africa, Asia or South America bear little in common with each other beyond shared beliefs, just like Arab Muslims are different in many ways from non-Arab Muslims. There is no ethnic identity that links them all together.

Not so with the Jewish people, where religion and ethnicity are intertwined, and always has been. It is one reason why Jews have always taken a keen interest in the welfare of Jews wherever they might be, and why Jews are bound by the Torah to see the land of Israel as our homeland even when we hold citizenship elsewhere. National identity is grafted on to our Jewish identity (historically, that has usually been a graft that was eventually rejected) but the Jewish identity remains paramount. We are part of the Jewish nation, which nonetheless should not be construed as inimical to maintaining kinship with our host nation.

It is that phenomenon of the “religio-nation” that has been under assault for most of the last century and to which many Jews no longer subscribe. Too many Jews have bifurcated the Jewish character  into separate ethnic and religious identities, and one attendant consequence has been the controversies that never seem to end.

The clearest example relates to the hoary and by now hackneyed question of “who is a Jew?” Jewish law is clear that a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. But those who perceive Jewishness as defined simply by ethnic identity (i.e., the presence of some Jewish blood in one’s ancestry) did not hesitate in embracing patrilineal descent or purely formulaic conversions requiring little more than a declaration of attachment, however tepid, to the Jewish people. Usually, it is for the purpose of marriage rather than the fulfillment of a genuine religious quest. The religious component of Jewish identity – the Torah, the Mitzvot, the obligations that bind us to the G-d who designated us as His people – is non-factor.

Thus a Jewish sportswriter breathlessly reported the news that June 8, 2018, was a banner day in our history: “Five Jewish baseball players hit home runs in one day,” a truly remarkable feat. Except for this: all seem to be the product of intermarriages, three are not Jews according to Jewish law, and, of the two sons of Jewish mothers, neither was raised Jewish. Jewish? Yes, if traces of blood are the only indicia of Jewish identity. There is no sense at all of our founding doctrine: “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” All that matters is an ethnic attachment, and that they had a good day at the plate.

In weightier matters, the ruckus over the recognition of a non-Orthodox presence at the Kotel underscores this dichotomy. Even ignoring the obvious point that Reform Judaism does not grieve over the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash nor prays for its rebuilding, what is most telling is that those who are clamoring for access do not perceive the Kotel as a religious site but as an ethnic, cultural or historical one. It is a relic of Jewish history, a solemn reminder of a bygone era, and even a glorious testimonial to our survival. But a religious site, requiring faithfulness to the tenets of that religion? Hardly. Permanent access is sought in order to facilitate ethnic rites of passage – like Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, often devoid of any real religious substance or commitment– rather than as a place to which Jews go to bask in the divine countenance or to sense His presence where it is most felt, in proximity to the Temple Mount and the ruins of the Bet Hamikdash.

It is a mystery why Israelis feel bound to respond to these entreaties, even threats, when they are coming from a place of antagonism to the foundations of the Jewish state. The decline of American Jewish political support for Israel among ethnic Jews is just a symptom of the problem that cannot be rectified by concessions in the religious sphere – Kotel, conversions, institutional support, etc.

Indeed, it is quite telling that divorcing the ethnicity from the religion certainly eradicates the faithfulness to Torah but it also causes the Jewish ethnic identity to attenuate over time. Hence the bizarre but growing phenomenon of Jews who pride themselves as universalists, not particularists, and whose commitment to Jewish life often entails supporting policies that would destroy Israel or obliterate Judaism. That is to say, the ethnic Jew does not need “Judaism” to remain “Jewish,” and will therefore embrace (happily or half-heartedly) cultural aspects of Jewish life stripped of any real Jewish content – e.g., attending Temple on Yom Kippur followed in midday by a treif lunch to “break the fast,” or observing both Jewish and Christian holidays in December and April, something that is seen as very ecumenical, open and tolerant. And it is. It’s just not really Jewish. From this perspective, the average ethnic American Jew’s support for Israel is understandably waning, as Israel is embarrassing him by defending itself and not further surrendering its land to its enemies.

The Jewish world in both Israel and America has to reckon with this divergence in Jewish identity but in different ways. In Israel there must be recognition that those who assert a purely ethnic Jewish identity weaken the claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, which, after all, is based on the Torah and G-d’s will. It is exacerbated by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are not halachic Jews – in other words, classic examples of people with an ethnic but not a religious connection to the Jewish people. The conflation of Jewish and Israeli identity is admirable but misleading; there are many Jews who (sadly) are not Israelis but there are also many Israelis who are not Jews. We blur the difference at our peril.

In America the crisis is even worse. The glorification of ethnic Jewish identity is a Jewish hobby – basking in the achievements of “Jews” of even tenuous association with the Jewish people (athletes, celebrities, public officials) and trying to hide from the ignominious deeds of other such “Jews” of ethnic origin only (such as the miscreants accused of sexual harassment in the last year or so, who have been disproportionately, though of course not all, Jewish).

The greater problem is intermarriage, and the biggest problem with intermarriage is that most American Jews today do not consider it a problem. And that makes sense – if all Jewishness requires is a biological affiliation with other Jews. By this reasoning, any child of one Jewish parent or grandparent will always have Jewish blood and therefore it shouldn’t matter who one marries. And so it doesn’t, and so most American Jews intermarry and assimilate.

The attempt to reach out to these individuals by broadening the Jewish cultural offerings available to them will inevitably fail, as such programs do not conflict with their ethnic Jewish identity; in fact, they reinforce it. The ethnic Jew can also enjoy a bagel, klezmer and even reading the Bible in a totally secular way. But none of that will strengthen the other pillar – the religious component of Jewish identity. Rav Saadia Gaon wrote almost eleven centuries ago the verity of Jewish identity: “Our nation is a nation only by virtue of the Torah.” It is true that there are Jews who embrace the religion but not the national or ethnic attachments that bind us together, but those are really fringe elements. The greater problem today: those Jews who welcome Jewishness but disassociate from Judaism.  They might even support the State of Israel but that tribal sentiment is infinitely more difficult to transmit to children when it is detached from Torah; hence the declining support for Israel among the young, many of whom have been educated in multi-cultural, “progressive” environments where such tribalism is anathema and anachronistic.

Hoping people will love Israel when they don’t love Torah and mitzvot is a tried and true recipe for failure. So many Jews just don’t know what they are missing or what they have abandoned. They have been raised in a heterogeneous environment in which religion is a private matter and ethnicity is the spice of life but not life itself.

The only hope for this remnant of Israel, denizens of free countries, is to expand the teaching of Torah in a positive, loving way but without making it trendy, a slave to newfangled values, a tool of social justice agendas or anything else that detracts from its divine origin. Only then will its voice reach its intended audience, and all of us will strengthen the identity that G-d bestowed upon us at our founding, as not only a nation among nations but as His nation.

Having Your Cake

The simplest way to view the Supreme Court’s decision in the Masterpiece Bakeshop case as a victory for religious liberty is to consider the reaction had the court ruled against Jack Phillips and the assertion of his religious principles. The celebrations over the marginalization of religion in America would still be going on and the glee would have been unrestrained over successfully ramming down the throats of Americans a coerced acceptance of relationships construed by the Bible as immoral. That Phillips won is – or might be – a turning point in the cultural decline of America or at least a momentary halt to the moral slide.

How did he win? Much has been made of the narrowness of the Court’s ruling, basing itself on the meanness of the Colorado Human Rights Commission towards religious faith. That implies, many have noted, that had the Commission been less hostile – e.g., had it told Phillips “you have a beautiful faith that we love and respect but alas we must rule against you” – Phillips would have lost. That seems a flimsy reed on which to resolve a legal dispute, not just regarding the future but particularly for this case.

It is as if the Court realized that there was something just a little off, a little un-American, about forcing an individual to violate his conscience by coercing a personal performance that celebrates a lifestyle he considers abhorrent but the Court did not know how to worm its way out of the legal morass it had created with its decisions over the last decade. Having long abandoned the pretense that its decisions reflect “law,” “precedent” or even “constitutional jurisprudence” and is nothing more than the articulation of the personal sensibilities of its members (and often just one member, Justice Kennedy), the Court had to find a way to justify Phillips and at the same time not antagonize the cultural elites in the American media industry that have no use for religion or respect for its adherents.

So the Court crafted a convoluted decision that vindicated Phillips – justice for one person – while the real substantive arguments and future battlegrounds were fleshed out in the concurrences and dissent. It is hard to escape the conclusion that America on these issues has moved past the tolerance of “live and let live” (itself an achievement) to the recriminations and nastiness of “my way or the highway” (or fines, sanctions, imprisonment and the like). After all, the case did not involve the denial of emergency medical care but the baking of a cake (and, down the road, flowers, caterers, photographers and other personal services).

That Phillips was sincere in his religious belief meant little to the “liberal” justices who insisted, in one way or another, that his rejection of same sex marriage was too similar to racism (and to one Commission member, Nazism). It deserves to be underscored that what is so scorned now is rooted in the Bible and was considered normal, unremarkable morality for several millennia. And note Phillips’ earnestness, from Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence:

Phillips routinely sacrifices profits to ensure that Masterpiece operates in a way that represents his Christian faith. He is not open on Sundays, he pays his employees a higher-than-average wage, and he loans them money in times of need. Phillips also refuses to bake cakes containing alcohol, cakes with racist or homophobic messages, cakes criticizing God, and cakes celebrating Halloween—even though Halloween is one of the most lucrative seasons for bakeries. These efforts to exercise control over the messages that Master­piece sends are still more evidence that Phillips’ conduct is expressive.”

And for that he was reviled as a bigot.

Kennedy’s meandering decision sidestepped the fundamental freedoms that Phillips has, at least in theory: freedom of speech and religion. Kennedy’s musings in his Obergefell decision – that “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons (emphasis mine) are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives” – would be a nullity but for the ruling (not the reasoning) here. He even averred there that there can be heartfelt objections to same sex marriage that should be protected. Again, from the concurrence:
States cannot punish protected speech because some group finds it offensive, hurtful, stigmatic, unreasonable, or undignified. If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
The First Amendment gives individ­uals the right to disagree about the correctness of Obergefell and the morality of same sex marriage. Obergefell itself emphasized that the traditional understanding of marriage long has been held—and continues to be held— in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world.”

The remaining question is how these rights can be protected in a commercial context. Much was made of the following conundrum: the same Commission that penalized Phillips for refusing to create a cake celebrating an event that violated his religious beliefs dismissed complaints against three bakers who refused (in Gorsuch’s language) because of their “secular principles” to bake cakes that contained biblical inscriptions opposing same sex marriage.

The Conservative concurrences saw the hypocrisy, at the same time recognizing that if freedom of speech is to have any meaning here, a baker should be able to refuse to service any customer through his personal creativity and energy for purposes he considers offensive. The Liberal concurrences distinguished the two cases with unconvincing logic, opining that Phillips would bake cakes for everyone but not same-sex couples, while the other bakers would not bake cakes they considered repugnant for anyone. But such is really  a distinction without a difference; if freedom of speech is limited, then the baker should not be able to approve one message and reject another. And Phillips would not bake a cake celebrating same-sex marriage even if a band of heterosexuals requested it.

The shame of this whole area is not one of the Jewish justices seems to have spent much time over a daf Gemara because a halachic formula that could resolve these disputes easily presents itself. A merchant who serves the public must accommodate that public but there is a difference between the gavra and the cheftza¸ the person and the object. No merchant should have the right to refuse to sell an object to any customer (aside from totally neutral criteria such as a dress code and the like). If the parties herein wished to purchase a wedding cake off the shelf, well, even Phillips had no objection to that and would have sold them the cake.

Phillips objected to the demands on the gavra – the individual – the requirement that he devote his time and energy to a project that he considered sinful. Any merchant or service provider should have the right to decline to provide that service if he or she so chooses.

But, one might ask, won’t that allow a racist merchant to refuse to serve an ice cream cone to a same sex couple because he personally prepares the cone? The answer to that is no, and here’s why. A reasonable objection can only occur in the context of the furtherance or promotion of the objectionable conduct. A homosexual who buys an ice cream cone is not really a homosexual buying an ice cream cone but a person buying an ice cream cone. His sexual preferences are unrelated and irrelevant to the purchase. This is not so when the purchase or service in question – cakes, flowers, etc. – is intended to advocate or celebrate the lifestyle, such as a wedding or engagement party.

Thus, my formula is this: any action that requires the personal services of an individual in furtherance of some objective, cause or lifestyle that he disdains cannot be mandatory in a free society. Then we say to the aggrieved consumer “go elsewhere.” Just like you wish to celebrate your freedoms unimpeded, so too you must allow others to celebrate their freedoms unimpeded.

With this formula, we respect the right of the religious baker not to be forced to create a cake for a same-sex wedding, the Jewish baker not to be forced to create a cake celebrating Hitler’s birthday, or any provider of a personal service to abstain from doing any act that advances or endorses a particular cause he finds distasteful. Nor does it justify a merchant refusing to serve a black customer on racist grounds – there is no cause there that is being furthered and especially where what is being sought is a product and not a service.

That is the hallmark of a free society.

It all seems so simple, except when we recognize that what antagonizes the new left here is the Mordechai who refuses to bow, i.e., the “Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”

I still remember the days when liberals were the tolerant, open ones and conservatives were always lambasted for their reactionary intolerance and narrow-mindedness. Things have changed dramatically! Perhaps this issue, if approached with good will and broadmindedness, will lead to a welcome phenomenon in today’s America: mutual respect. We will know that day has come when these matters cease to be litigated and people patronize the bakers, florists, photographers, caterers and others who sympathize with their causes, and leave the others in peace.


The Challenge of Gratitude

The following was first published as an op-ed at

The ambivalence of many American Jews to President Trump and his support for Israel is puzzling on one hand and downright churlish on the other.

Consider this: Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who promised to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy to Yerushalayim, never fulfilled those promises, and kept making them anyway. It is as if Jews do not expect promises from politicians to be kept (well, maybe that is not so unusual). But Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who criticize the building of settlements in the heartland of Israel, and some who have even threatened to sanction Israel over it. And they accepted the anomaly of Jews being permitted to build in Bethel, New York or Shiloh, Tennessee but not in the original Bethel or Shiloh. That’s just the way it is – but it is strange.

Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either pay lip service to Israel’s right of self-defense or seek to emasculate it entirely. These presidents routinely decried Israel’s “use of disproportionate force” or urged Israel to accept with equanimity “sacrifices for peace.” The better ones embraced Israel’s right to self-defense in theory but not always in practice, urging “restraint,” caution, and a limited response so as not to offend the terrorists or jeopardize the possibilities for a lasting peace.

And Jews have grown very comfortable with American presidents who have endorsed and even obsessed over the partition of Israel into two states (another partition, it should be added). These presidents have seemed to feel that only the two-state illusion will bring a just and durable peace to the region. That is, only allowing a hostile and irredentist enemy sovereignty over Israel’s heartland and control of its high ground will ensure prosperity and tranquility for the Jews of the truncated State of Israel. Most American Jews were fine with that – because that is what the presidents professed (and some Israeli prime ministers led them to believe) even when the facts on the ground taught the exact opposite.

It bears mentioning that Jews have also grown very comfortable with American presidents who either were troubled by Arab terror (but more troubled by an Israeli response so they drew a moral equivalence between the two) or “understood” Arab terror as emanating from the frustrations of their lives. A State Department spokeswoman once attributed Arab terror to the lack of gainful employment in their communities. So these presidents demanded that Israel should understand it as well, and certainly not “overreact” to the murder and maiming of their own citizens. And we grew very accustomed to the notion that only Israel had to make substantive concessions on the road to “peace,” never the enemy who sought Israel’s dismemberment and dissolution.

We got used to this type of treatment, so used to it that many Jews today are more troubled by an American president who has renounced each of the approaches outlined above than by the presidents who squeezed, cajoled, threatened, criticized, censured, pressured Israel or otherwise failed to keep their promises. It is as if we feel that we do not deserve fair, decent and supportive treatment coming from a friendly president. Too many Jews find it hard to appreciate our good fortune or otherwise express their gratitude to the incumbent president. Of course, not every American Jew is a supporter of Israel and many agree with each of the disquieting and tendentious policies delineated above that were conventional wisdom for decades. But of those who don’t? How do they rationalize their reticence?

However one feels about President Trump, a non-politician to be sure and an individual whose approach to life certainly has its share of idiosyncrasies, the inability of many Jews to show appreciation and gratitude for his current policies towards Israel is inexplicable, even boorish. In their desire to be “super-moral” they have eschewed basic etiquette, something that itself is immoral. And appreciation is also due to his close advisors who share the views of supporters of a strong and proud Israel dwelling in security from sea to river and have been unafraid to promote and implement them.

Finally, American Jews have a president who, holding firm against intense pressure from most other American allies, fulfilled his campaign promise, recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy there – abruptly ending Israel’s bizarre status as the only nation on earth not entitled to declare its own capital. The Trump administration has been unabashed in its support of Israel’s right of self-defense as real and substantive, and has steadfastly refused to second-guess or micro-manage Israel’s defense strategies. The Trump administration has muted any objection to Israel’s settlement policy, a marked change from generations of US opposition and occasionally antagonism to Jews living in Judea (of all imaginable paradoxes) and Samaria, and has even expressed occasional support for those endeavors as Israel’s natural right. The Trump administration has abandoned the two-state illusion in favor of the inspired characterization that the United States will support two states “if both parties agree.” Of course… The Trump Administration, and the outstanding Ambassador Nikki Haley, have afforded Israel complete protection from the hypocrisies and inverted reality of the United Nations.

This is in addition to the renunciation of the Obama agreement with Iran and the ramping up of pressure, sanctions and who-knows-what-else down the road – all to halt an Iranian nuclear program whose expressed aim is the destruction of Israel.

It is inconceivable that Hillary Clinton, had she been elected, would have done any of these things.

Have Jews become so partisan, or has support for Israel declined so much among American Jews, that simple recognition of these facts eludes us? Have we forsworn elementary derech eretz because the president is an imperfect man? Are his critics – and were his election opponents – perfect, all paragons of morality and virtue? How have we become so peevish as a people?

Perhaps there is another problem at play here, one that transcends politics and personalities.

The great Musarist Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote that every person has an erech elyon, a supreme value that transcends all others. What does it mean to have a supreme value? It means a value that is the measure of everything, the barometer by which every consideration in life has to be assessed, and into which all other values have to fit. Think, for a moment, of those Jews more than a century ago who made Communism their highest value. They sacrificed their souls, their families, their interests and their purpose in life to see Communism spread and succeed. In the early years, there were some religious Jews who were Communists – but when the contradictions and the challenges to the integration of Torah and Communism arose, it was the Torah that was abandoned, not Communism. It was the Torah that had to bend or break so that Communism could succeed. Whatever part of Torah did not conform to Communist dogma had to be abandoned.

Communism is dead (except on a few American college campuses and in North Korea) but was replaced by several other  “–isms.” A century ago, secular Zionists made Zionism their primary value, and tossed out parts of the Torah that they felt impeded the realization of the Zionist dream. (That notion still exists but the number of adherents has dramatically fallen) In another iteration of this phenomenon, there are radical feminists today who evaluate and scrutinize every aspect of Torah to ascertain what conforms to feminism and what doesn’t – and the latter has to be discarded. That is their erech elyon, their supreme value. Rav Wolbe wrote that some people make money their erech elyon and for others it is the pursuit of honor or pleasure or children. As if to say, my pursuit of pleasure or my children’s happiness comes first – even above the Torah.

It is so difficult to break away from that mindset; but, Rav Wolbe noted, for the faithful Jew there is nothing in the world that we value as much as we value G-d and our relationship with Him and our fidelity to His will. That is always the erech elyon of the faithful Jew, who posits that G-d and His Torah are the primary values and every other value is subordinate. G-d is always at the top of our ladder of values, or is at least supposed to be, and whatever else a Jew values in life – justice, peace, wisdom, even feminism and Zionism, etc. – must fit into the hierarchy of values that places the Torah as supreme.

For too many Americans, hatred of Donald Trump has become their erech elyon – the one principle that dominates their lives, their every breath, waking moment and productive endeavor. They live to “resist,” whatever that means. As Chazal taught us, both love and hatred “disrupt the normal course of things.” We act differently, uncharacteristically, and sometimes even perversely, when we love or hate something too much, even irrationally.

But hatred of the President should not trump derech eretz, and ingratitude has a way of eventually biting the ingrate. Who’s to say such pro-Israel policies will continue indefinitely – and who’s to say they should, given the ungratefulness of the putative beneficiaries? Many American Jews dreamt that one day a genuinely, no-holds-barred pro-Israel president would emerge and embrace policies that many of us have been advocating for years. And now that it has happened, and while it is happening, isn’t elementary appreciation in order?

Unless we have grown so accustomed to maltreatment and criticism that we believe we deserve nothing but perpetual obloquy, it is. And it behooves us to demonstrate it, especially since G-d’s will is executed in mysterious ways and often through the most unexpected agents.

Here’s one Jew who is immensely grateful to President Trump. May his love of America and Israel continue – to the benefit of both countries.



Six Additional Knocks

Rav Soloveitchik’s 1956 address, Kol Dodi Dofek (The Voice of My Beloved Knocks), is legendary for its articulation of the shared destiny and shared fate of every Jew, and the distinctions between the two, but even more for the section on the six divine knocks on the door of history that was occasioned by the establishment of the State of Israel. The Rav began this part of his address as follows, in free translation:

Eight years ago, in the wake of the night of horrors punctuated by the terrors of Maidanek, Treblinka and Buchenwald, in the night of gas chambers and ovens, the night of concealment of God’s countenance, the night when the Satan of doubt and destruction reigned and sought to drag the Lover from her home to the Christian Church, the night of endless searching  for the Beloved, in that night the Beloved materialized and arose. The Lord who hides in the glorious unknown suddenly appeared and began to knock on the door of the tent of the oppressed and sorrowful Lover that turned in its bed due to the spasms and sufferings of Gehinnom. Out of these beatings, and as a consequence of the knocks of the Beloved, the State of Israel was born. How many times did the Beloved knock? It seems to me we can count at least six knocks.”

And then the Rav listed the six knocks, synopsized here, the modern revelation of      G-d’s hand in history. “First, the knock of opportunity was heard in the political arena… No one can deny that from the standpoint of international relations, the establishment of the State of Israel, in a political sense, was an almost supernatural occurrence. Russian and the Western countries together supported the idea of the establishment of the State of Israel, perhaps the only recommendation on which they united. I tend to believe that  the United Nations was created only for this purpose…”

Second, the knock of the Beloved could be heard on the battlefield. The small Israeli Defense Forces defeated the powerful armies of the Arab countries. The miracle of the “few defeating the many” happened before our eyes. Even more astonishing, God hardened the hearts of Yishmael and directed it to go to war against the State of Israel…”

         “Third, the Beloved began to knock as well on the door of the theological tent and this might be the strongest knock of all. I have emphasized several times when speaking of the land of Israel that all the claims of Christian  theologians that God deprived the Jewish people of its rights in the land of Israel, and that all the biblical promises regarding Zion and Jerusalem refer, in an allegorical sense, to Christianity and the Christian Church, have been publicly refuted by the establishment of the State of Israel as false assertions that have no substance or root.”

          “Fourth, the Beloved knocked on the hearts of the bewildered and assimilated youth. The divine concealment in the early 1940’s confused the minds of Jews in general and the young in particular. Assimilation grew and the push to escape Judaism and the Jewish people reached its peak. Fear, despair and ignorance caused many to abandon the Jewish people… Suddenly, the Beloved knocked on the hearts of these perplexed youth, and His knock…slowed, at least, the process of escape.”

“The fifth knock of the Beloved is perhaps the most important of all. For the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the shocking discovery that Jewish blood is not hefker. If the Jew- haters term this “an eye for an eye,” we will agree with them. If we want to preserve our national-historical existence, sometimes we have to interpret “an eye for an eye” 

          “The sixth knock that should not be ignored was heard when the gates of the land were opened. A Jew who flees from an enemy country now knows that he can find a secure refuge in the land of his ancestors. This is a new phenomenon in our times. Until now, when Jewish populations were uprooted from their places, they wandered in the wilderness of the nations without finding a refuge in another land… Now, the situation has changed.”

From the perspective of more than six decades later, the fourth and fifth knocks have proved challenging. Assimilation is as bad or worse today than it was then, and the expression of Jewish identity as having only ethnic but not religious significance has allowed too many Jews to abandon Judaism and still support the State of Israel. Of course, some of Israel’s loudest critics are also Jews.

And recent events have underscored the difficulty the world has with the fifth knock: that Jewish blood is not hefker – ownerless, insignificant and unrequited. Responding to Israel’s forceful defense of its border with Gaza against encroachment by a hostile, bloodthirsty enemy intent on Israel’s destruction, the self-styled moralists who cannot hide their Jew hatred lamented that no Jews were killed, as if some macabre form of chivalry demands casualties on both sides of a conflict. Fortunately, Israeli leaders ignore those calls but such ethical deformations are commonly applied to Israel, and only Israel, by its foes.


It has been 62 years since the Rav’s address, time enough to humbly suggest another six divine knocks – six more indications of the hand of G-d in the history of Israel.

First: the capture, trial and execution of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust. The Mossad tracked him down in Argentina and in an operation whose success still defies comprehension, abducted him in May 1961 off a Buenos Aires street, and hid him for more than a week until they could spirit him out of the country to face trial in Israel. Naturally, the New York Times condemned the operation (as did the United Nations), oleaginously opining that “no immoral or illegal act justifies another.” (The Times failed to acknowledge that it had never saw fit to condemn the Holocaust while it was occurring.)

For sure, the operation was dangerous, heroic and nearly flawless in execution but the broader point was historic. It was a declaration by Israel that the state represents all Jews – and all of Jewish history. Even though Israel did not yet exist during the perpetration of the Holocaust, it saw itself now as the custodian of the history of the Jewish people. When President Yitzchak Ben-Zvi rejected Eichmann’s clemency request, he tellingly cited in the margin of the document the verse from I Samuel (15:33) that described the death of Agag, king of Amalek and tormentor of Jews: “Samuel said: ‘As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women.’ And Samuel decapitated Agag before the Lord at Gilgal.” That Israel defied the world and deputized itself to execute justice against the enemies of the Jewish people was an crucial assertion of its national identity.

Second: the great and stunning victory in the Six Day War of 1967. The Arabs had endeavored to eradicate the State of Israel and drive its citizens into the sea, long before there were any settlements that could serve as the predicate of their current enmity and deceptions. There has been much revisionist history in recent times about Israel’s advantages, including the claims by some that prevailing over the Arabs was a foregone conclusion. Those who remember the mass graves dug in Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim at the time think otherwise. It was an incredible, odds-defying triumph, with Israel handily defeating seven powerful Arab armies while outgunned, outmanned and out armed, and tripling the size of its territory in less than a week.

For sure, most Israeli governments in the ensuing decades celebrated the awesome miracle by attempting to divest itself of the fruits of victory, and most of the land captured has sadly been surrendered already. But that doesn’t detract from the divine gift (that we have failed to fully appreciate). As recorded by Rav Yaakov Filber, a leading disciple of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, in his work “Ayelet Hashachar” (1974):  “If the redemption of Israel was just the fruit of our deeds, we would still

be dwelling in the tiny Israel of 1967, just like if it was up to the government alone we would have long ago abandoned our heartland to foreigners.  Anyone who penetrates to the depth of these events will sense, and each day  it becomes clearer, that even as we build the State of Israel, develop its economy… forge its army and play diplomatic games, none of these establish the course of events. Behind them stands the divine might that forces us to advance in accordance with His sublime plans for redemption, as the Midrash states, ‘I am asleep from redemption but God is awake to redeem me.’ As Rav Kook wrote, God is the Master of war.   “The illusion that our fate is only up to us was burst in a number of days…  Divine Providence did not concede that the Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Hevron and  Jericho… should not be within the borders of Israel. And if the government of Israel aborted the redemptive process at the “Green Line,” and no one would give the order to the IDF to advance in all directions, … then Providence emerges to compel those who dwell in Zion to redeem the homeland. No force in the world can arrest the wheel of redemption of Israel, and there is no complete redemption without the complete land of Israel.”

Third: the raid on Entebbe on July 4, 1976, a moment that will never leave those who lived through it. It was another spectacular rescue. The IDF flew several thousand miles through mostly hostile territory to liberate 104 Jewish hostages seized by Arab terrorists on an Air France flight from Paris to Israel. The Jewish hostages were not all Israeli citizens; yet, Israel proclaimed to the world that it saw itself as responsible not only for Jewish history but also for Jews of the present and future – and wherever they might be. I was in Israel then; the sense of unity and love for all Jews was overwhelming. Israel would risk the lives of its own citizens to save Jews anywhere. (Naturally, the UN condemned the feat, with the former Nazi Kurt Waldheim criticizing this “serious violation of the national sovereignty of a UN member state.” He was untroubled by that same UN member state harboring terrorists and their hostages.) The rescue was another divine knock – G-d’s presence was tangible in the unbelievable achievement.

Fourth: the ingathering of the exiles. One of the most breathtaking, and seemingly farfetched, visions of the ancient prophets of Israel has come to pass in our day. The Torah itself referenced it :“Then the Lord your God will restore your captivity and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it. And He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers” (Devarim 30:3-5).

Many other prophets, such as Yechezkel (Ezekiel) prophesied similarly: “I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries and I will bring you back to your own land” (Yechezkel 36:24). Seventy years after statehood, Israel boasts the ingathering of Jews from more than 110 countries, from every part of the globe. And since “even the beneficiary of the miracle doesn’t always recognize the miracle” (Masechet Nidda 31a), we don’t often attribute the appropriate significance to this momentous, and divine, act, staggering in its implications. G-d kept His word, and is still engaged in the task of “dragging each Jew by the hand to the land of Israel” (Rashi, Devarim, ibid).

Fifth:  The Torah revolution. If the Rav saw the slowing down of the processes of assimilation, we have seen the renaissance of Torah in the modern era. For all the criticism of Israel from many Haredi circles, the State of Israel remains the largest beneficiary of Torah study on earth, and more Jews today are studying Torah in the land of Israel than at any point in Jewish history since we left the wilderness 3300 years ago. This accords with yet another prophecy of Yechezkel: “I will sprinkle pure water on you and you will be purified, and I will purify you from all your impurities and idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will place within you a new spirit. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Yechezkel 36:25-26). What is his “new heart?” Radak comments: “it is a listening heart, a ready spirit to receive God’s words with love.”

This process was even abetted by the “Foundations of Law” adopted by Israel in 1980 during the Menachem Begin years that called upon the courts to decide difficult legal matters without precedent “in the light of the principles of freedom, justice, equity, and peace of Israel’s heritage.” True, the secular objection to “Jewish law” was duly watered down to “Israel’s heritage;” but what is “Israel’s heritage” but Torah? It certainly trumps Ottoman law. The Torah has been reborn, and all modern questions can be perceived through its prism.

The sixth knock: Israel as the Start-Up Nation. To the consternation of the world (and its neighbors), Israel has become an economic and technological powerhouse, and even an exporter of energy. Again, Yechezkel envisioned this day: “But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near. For I will care for you: I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown. I will settle a large population on you, the whole House of Israel; the towns shall be resettled, and the ruined sites rebuilt. I will multiply men and beasts upon you, and they shall increase and be fertile, and I will resettle you as you were formerly, and will make you more prosperous than you were at first. And you shall know that I am the Lord” (ibid 36:8-11). As the Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 98a) notes, “there is no more explicit manifestation of the end of days than this, as it is stated: “But you,  O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near.” Maharsha adds: “As long as the Jews are not on their land, the land does not yield its produce accordingly, but when it begins again to yield its produce in abundance, it is a sign that redemption is near and that Israel has returned to its land…In the future trees will yield its fruit daily… And this is something miraculous…”

Certainly this means more than oranges. Rav Kook wrote that we have to expand and innovate appropriately in all worldly matters, both in natural things and in labor, because “God made everything for a purpose.’ Our national life is only complete when we are able to harmonize technology and Torah. It could be no other way. The return of the Jewish people to our natural habitat enables us to bring the Torah to its full expression, which benefits the world immeasurably. Soon, the world will realize that as well.

If the hand of G-d re-entered history in a dramatic way in 1948, its visibility has only increased in the ensuing 70 years. There have been setbacks, to be sure, and almost all self-inflicted, but the settlement and flourishing of the land of Israel, the proliferation of Torah and the ingathering of the exiles, and the recognition by the world of Israel’s role as the repository of Jewish history and the place of Jewish destiny, has sanctified G-d’s name and blessed our generation.

May we appreciate our blessings and our Benefactor and always do our share in furthering His will and our national destiny until the era of complete redemption dawns.

The New World

Sometime ago we hosted a young couple for Friday night, Leil Shabbat, dinner. At a certain point, there was a knock on the door and the young couple was startled by the sound. I answered the door, took care of business, returned to the table and asked the couple why they jumped when they heard a knock.

They replied that no one knocks on a door anymore; it is considered impolite. The proper etiquette is to text when you have arrived and the host will come and open the door.

In a world where a knock is considered impolite, ringing a doorbell will be construed as an act of war.

There are many variations on this theme, all reflecting the reality that communication between people has been transformed in the last decade or so. Obviously, no sentient person writes letters anymore, even though hand-written letters from family or friends once served as a delightful gift in the mail and in some cases a treasure to retain.  But who uses the postal service anymore for anything that is important?

Even the preferred form of modern communication shifts perceptibly from time to time. Email has been supplanted by texts which have now been replaced by WhatsApp. I’m sure WhatsApp has been switched for something else about which I have yet to be informed. And just as well. I maintain, and people try to reach me, at three email accounts, a WhatsApp, a home and study phone number with an answering machine (how dated!), an office number, and a cell phone number with voice mail and text capability. If anything, the multiplicity of contact points has rendered me less available rather than more; who can monitor, much less follow, so many instruments, and even sporadically, much less constantly?

There are unfortunate byproducts to these new rules. I have learned that it is currently gauche to pick up a phone and call someone.  The unexpected telephone call is considered a gross intrusion on one’s privacy. Rather, it is more sophisticated and deemed proper today to text (or email) someone that you would like to talk to them on the phone. This has engendered three consequences. Most of the time the phone rings, the calls are from unwanted telemarketers; it can take hours to retrieve the message asking for a phone conversation, usually about something that could have been resolved in seconds had a call been placed in a timely fashion as in days of yore; and even more time is wasted clarifying the time of the call and the phone number at which the call is to be made. It is all so unnecessary – and impersonal.

What’s more unusual (by my way of thinking) is that there is tremendous reluctance for people to leave a message on the aforesaid answering machines or voice mail. Leaving a message – i.e., burdening my digital life with vocal expressions of the identity, time, and reason for the call – is apparently tacky, if not repugnant. This attempted but failed communication often produces this awkward dialogue at some later date: “I tried to call you.”

“Did you leave a message?”


“How am I supposed to know you called?”

“You are supposed to check your ‘missed calls.’”

“How am I to know that you wanted me to call you back?”

“Well, why else would I have tried to call you?!”

Where I come from – a world that no longer exists – that is not considered a genuine “I tried to call you.” Strange as it sounds, still the best way to reach me is to pick up the phone and call. Leave a message if I don’t answer. I will get back to you as quickly as possible. It’s direct, personal and effective, and has been since Alexander Graham Bell’s time, or shortly thereafter. (And let’s not even get started with people who call only to speak to the answering machine or voice mail, and sound annoyed when the phone is answered. Perhaps they should have first texted permission to call.)

Now I am learning that even emails are considered passé, to be used only to exchange jokes, stories and invitations, and replaced by informal and ultra-modern forms of communication that I don’t think I have and know that I don’t want.

What is gained by the newfangled conventions is the capability of reaching people across the globe with whom you would be unlikely to have any connection, but what is lost is real contact with real people in real time. The sound of a voice conveys depth of emotion more than any emoji can and holding a letter is genuine and enduring, and has the inherent value that an email will never have, no matter how long it is saved in a cloud. Clouds do dissipate, eventually. “The reward is proportionate to the effort,” our sages taught us (Avot 5:23). Writing and calling demand more personal engagement that emailing or texting; the latter is so ephemeral that it barely registers. The 150 or so daily emails I receive are less meaningful than the one letter I used to get. It is no wonder that with all the advantages of modern communication, and the ubiquity of our electronic personae, people are lonelier than ever and cry out more for human connection. Trying to have a meaningful discussion on a serious topic – spouses or parents and children – via text or email is an exercise in futility and frustration.
Jews are still required (for the time being and likely for the foreseeable future) to gather together every day for prayer. Virtual associations do not suffice. It is the group that forms the prayer quorum – but it is in that group that the individual truly shines and is more valued that in any other context.

We should celebrate those moments of true contact, with family, friends, and our co-religionists, as they will define our lives and be remembered more than the entire range of email addresses, internet links, social media profiles and texting numbers that we can muster, and that we often hide behind.

I am sure there are other new rules of which I am unaware that I routinely violate. No matter. It is not as if these rules are decrees of the Men of the Great Assembly. If you want to reach me, just call; don’t ask permission and don’t write. And, of course, even a better way to find me is to knock on my door. If I am home I will (probably) answer – but I do promise not to be startled or offended.