Getting Off the Fence

The incisive question that Eliyahu Hanavi asked his contemporaries (Melachim I 18:21) reverberates in almost every generation in one form or another. “How long will you dance between two opinions? If Hashem is G-d, then follow Him. But if Baal, follow Him. And the people answered him saying, it is good.” But of course, they didn’t answer Eliyahu’s question, which was his whole point in raising it. 

Israeli society has been divided since its origins on one such question which, when elided, places us on both sides of the fence. Is Israel intended to be a Jewish state or a state of Jews? Israel’s scroll of independence, interestingly enough, comes down squarely on the side of a Jewish state (“we are thus proclaiming the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, the State of Israel”).  But the debate rages on, sometimes vehemently and sometimes subtly, and often both simultaneously. 

A state of Jews has no pretense to being based on the religion of the Jewish people. Its value is primarily as a haven for Jews from persecution, surely nothing to dismiss given our bloody history. It tries to embrace the history and culture of the Jewish people, partly to buttress its claim to the land of Israel and partly to serve as a unifying element in a country comprised of immigrants from more than a hundred countries. 

In that state of Jews, the Torah is something to be honored in simplistic, ill-defined manner, Halacha is to play no role in public affairs or in the public lives of its citizens and “Jewish” as an adjective connoting adherence to a divinely ordained set of values, principles and deeds is missing and sometimes suppressed. But let’s face it openly: Judaism without Mitzvot is, more or less, Christianity without its founder. Almost every “Jewish value” articulated by those who profess them but eschew the performance of Mitzvot is essentially indistinguishable from Christianity and most of the world’s religions. So why then is a state of Jews necessary?

The answer we are always given is that otherwise the Jewish people’s existence is in danger. That itself ignores the million dollar question that those who believe in a state of Jews never answer: why is important that Jews survive, especially if we are not going to observe the Torah, and certainly if we have no interest or intention of fashioning a polity based on the laws and values of the Torah? What would the world be missing if there were no longer any Jews? I have heard this question answered in ways that don’t appeal to me. “Look at what we have brought to the world – Waze and the camera pill, technological wizardry and medical innovation, a respect for human rights and the dignity of all mankind.” That sounds great – but cannot Gentiles produce the same creativity? Do not the religions of the world also endorse human rights and dignity? They do indeed, with occasional failures, but those same failures are also attributed by our adversaries, some of them Jews, to Israel.  

 The founders tried to have it both ways. They were focused – rightfully so – in creating an Israel that would be a land of refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, persecuted Jews in Arab lands, and for any Jew who would want to return to his or her ancestral homeland. But they were also mindful of the need to stamp this state of Jews with “Jewishness.” Hence the promulgation of the status quo agreement that ensured the public observance of Shabbat, Kashrut in all public institutions including the military, and Rabbinic authority over personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and conversion. These were concessions, even limitations on personal liberty that would in other contexts encroach on Western, democratic norms, all so that the state of Jews would exist within a Jewish infrastructure. 

There was something for advocates on each side of the fence. 

Eliyahu’s question speaks directly to us. “How long will you dance on both sides of the fence?” Thus, the status quo has become steadily enfeebled over the decades, and with the proposed reforms Israel’s pretensions to be a “Jewish state” are teetering on the brink of disappearance. That it is being orchestrated by people who wear Kipot on their heads is disappointing but unsurprising. Years ago I addressed the phenomenon of the Orthoprax, Jews who observe Halacha to their heart’s content (but no more than that) and yet are secular-leaning in their values and world view. Many such Jews – and this is a general comment, not a specific reference to anyone in particular – prefer the state of Jews to the Jewish state, notwithstanding its inherent contradictions. Typical of this mindset is the repeated notion that service in the IDF, worthy as it is, somehow confers Jewish status on those soldiers. That is a non sequitur masquerading as a cogent argument. The United States is a predominantly Christian country, but military service does not make one an honorary Christian. But advocates here see it differently, reflecting their original error conflating Israeli identity with Jewish identity. That error is only possible, and is exacerbated, by proponents of Israel as a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. 

An Israel that so waters down Jewish identity that it would confer Jewish status on Gentiles with Jewish blood but no interest in Mitzvot except in the flimsiest sense is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would officially repudiate Shabbat by opening malls and commerce and providing public transportation on Shabbat is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would treat its rabbis as ceremonial functionaries whose opinions on public issues are not sought, and when proferred are ignored, is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would officially desecrate its holy places (such as the Kotel) by allowing egalitarian prayer in defiance of all religious norms is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. Indeed, the latter is the most telling example although by no means the most significant. In a state of Jews, the Kotel has symbolic, historic and cultural value – but no more; in a Jewish state, the Kotel and the Temple Mount are places of holiness, where the divine presence rests, where the past, present and future of the Jewish people come together. 

What is a Jewish state? A state in which the values, ideals and practices of the Torah are realized in the public sphere and encouraged (though not coerced) in the private sphere. It is a state in which religious leaders share the Torah’s wisdom on all issues of the day and are not limited to ritual matters. (In this regard we are witnessing a dual failure. On one hand, the kippa-wearing leadership is doing more to undermine Israel’s status as a Jewish state, and weaken its connection to Torah, than secular advocates ever anticipated in their wildest fantasies. On the other hand, the Haredi leadership has locked itself into a parochial world in which its focus is on securing the interests of their bloc rather than broaden their base to include all Jews. Neither, at this point, is truly representative of a Jewish state. The proof of this is the primary argument used by the reformers to justify their reforms: the Haredim are against them, therefore they must be good. They are wrong – plenty of non-Haredi religious Jews are against them – but they are now inextricably bound to their ideology, if not to their ministries and seats.)

A Jewish state prioritizes the needs of Jews and the settlement of the land of Israel, and feels no need to apologize for that emphasis. A Jewish state seeks to defend Jews wherever they live and doesn’t aver that living in certain parts of the land – even Yerushalayim – is a provocation.  A Jewish state honors the concept of family as we have always known it and extols the roles and virtues of mother and father, son and daughter, rather than redefine them into irrelevance and ignominy. Leaders of a Jewish state speak with pride about the Torah and Mitzvot, about Jewish history and destiny, and about the accomplishments of the generations that paved the way for redemption after emerging from the pit of destruction. They are mindful at all times of the prophetic vision fulfilled before our eyes – and that Israel as haven is simply part of the progression to Israel as the Jewish state envisioned by the Torah. A Jewish state has eschatological significance; a state of Jews could as well but does not necessarily have to advance that objective. 

There is one more troubling element to Israel as the state of Jews which seems to be what the political system is now endorsing, either on the merits or because of shallow, coalition politics. The Torah repeatedly underscores that our residence in the land of Israel is conditional on our fidelity to G-d’s law. There is nothing to indicate that this historical rule has been repealed or that G-d has given our generation a mulligan. I don’t know how G-d’s runs His world. But I do fear that a state of Jews, as opposed to a Jewish state, if it treads down to the path of secularism, will become unworthy of His protective hand which underwrites our armies and its successes in battle. 

In the last quarter century, the steady dilution of Israel’s Jewish identity – in terms of Shabbat, Kashrut, personal status, respect for Torah, etc. – has been accompanied, if only coincidentally, with terrorist explosions in our cities, relentless threats to Jews in the heartland, and retreat from our  biblical centers. Indeed, the failed Oslo process itself was a triumph of those who advocate for a state of Jews while warring against the notion of a Jewish state. A Jewish state has defined and sacred boundaries. A state of Jews need have no contours at all; in fact it doesn’t even have to exist in the land of Israel, as imagined by Mordecai Manuel Noah’s Ararat in northern New York or still inhabited by Jews in Birobidzhan. The riots last May that featured murderous attacks on Jews and wanton destruction of Jewish property (including synagogues and yeshivot, and in the middle of Israel) were perpetrated by Israelis, albeit Arab Israelis. That alone should have forever eradicated the notion that Israeli and Jewish identity are synonymous. Jews were assaulted and their  homes and stores were burned not because they were Israelis but because they were Jews. Yet, rather than lead to a surge in measures that strengthen Jewish identity and the Jewish character of the state, it seems that the riots galvanized those who seek to dilute the Jewishness of the state even more. 

Some will argue that a truly Jewish state, besides offending non-observant Jews, will always segregate Israel from our Arab neighbors. Neither the former or the latter needs to happen, and the converse is equally plausible. A restoration of Jewish pride in our traditions strengthens our claim to the land and disincentivizes our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters (those who still are of Jewish origin) from further straying. But this is also important to remember. Just like yesterday’s enemies can be tomorrow’s friends, so too today’s friends can be tomorrow’s enemies. And today’s enemies can be tomorrow’s enemies as well. It is not ironic that the conversion reforms designed to dilute Jewish identity are being introduced as the West is poised to enter into an agreement with Iran that will, for all intents and purposes, subsidize Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon. Israelis who are banking on America intervening militarily to thwart an Iranian bomb are living in a dream world. It will not happen, or to be fair, it is unlikely in the extreme to happen. As the Americans like to say, “all options are on the table,” and there the military option will always remain, on the table, like leftovers at a meal that carried on too long. And of you doubt that, please consult the people of Ukraine, beneficiaries this week of heartfelt sympathy and strong words but not much else. 

Strengthening ourselves militarily requires strengthening ourselves spiritually. It requires increasing our commitment to Torah and Mitzvot, not reducing it. It requires bolstering Jewish identity, not diluting it by importing thousands more Gentiles and waving over them the magic wand of conversion. It requires that we internalize that the state of Jews is not eternal. The Torah is eternal, and the Jewish state partakes of that eternity in equal proportion to its fidelity to the Torah. 

I am not a prophet, so I cannot be a prophet of doom. Indeed, so many of Israel’s trend lines are positive that if those could be married to a religious revival, the potent impact both domestically and globally is immeasurable. 

Israel’s founders were probably prudent in deferring to another era these questions of identity. But now that the status quo has been breached and the battle joined, we must choose wisely. Eliyahu’s contemporaries, challenged to choose between two inconsistent beliefs, hesitated until Eliyahu forced the issue and miraculously demonstrated the falsity of Baal. We are not yet privileged to those interventions, but we can still climb off the fence and choose Torah, life, honor, pride and eternity. We can start by asking ourselves, each individual, what can I do today to make Israel more Jewish?

Ask the Rabbi, Part 17

(This is my third year answering reader questions in this Jewish Press forum named “Is It Proper?” Each one, along with my colleagues’ answers, are available at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to reject a shidduch candidate because he or she is Sefardi while your family is Ashkenazi or vice-versa?

Shidduchim should be made in the first instance based on shared values and commitment, as well as complementary personalities. In fact, those should also be the criteria for the second and third instances. And those values stem from the Torah that is the mutual heritage of all Jews, no matter their background or country of origin.

From my vantage point in Israel, the question itself sounds peculiar because almost half the marriages in the country involve couples from different ethnic backgrounds. Most young people today are broad-minded enough not to distinguish between Ashkenazim and Sefardim or Jews who hail from Ethiopia or Asia. If we want to be precise, the differences between various groups of Ashkenazim (Hasidim, Mitnagdim) and various groups of Sefardim (Turkish, Syrian, Moroccan, Yemenite Jews et al) can be just as sharp as that between Ashkenazim and Sefardim.

That is the beauty of modern Israel and the reality of Kibbutz Galuyot. Not only is it improper to reject a shidduch on that basis, it is foolish, and not just because marrying outside one’s ethnic heritage broadens the gene pool. It is primarily because it is sorely lacking in Ahavat Yisrael – love of our fellow Jews.

Certainly, navigating the different cultural backgrounds and customs can be a small challenge – but it is also immensely rewarding. Additionally, it reverses the destructive pattern of the exile that divided us geographically, and hastens the redemption in which we will again be one people.

What should one do if family or friends use curse words in conversation?

What are we, a nation of sailors? We are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation!

People usually curse in order to attract attention when they feel they will otherwise be ignored or to underscore a strongly held point. It is like using an exclamation point in the middle (!) and at the end of every sentence! But cursing has become so common that it has lost its shock value – except, of course, in the polite and refined society where Jews should strive to live. Indeed, it has become so prevalent that, in Israel, curse words are frequently uttered on live television and radio, or in ordinary conversation, because they are perceived as American slang, like “OK” or “shopping.” They are not OK, even when stuck in a long shopping line.

Rambam wrote (Moreh Nevuchim Part III, Chapter 8) that Hebrew is called “the holy tongue” because it has no original expressions for the bodily parts, functions and secretions that comprise most of the vulgarity in use and so utilizes figurative language. As such, one who resorts to these words is making constant reference to the animalistic side of life, which does not speak well of where his or her thoughts are. Moreover, the Gemara (Shabbat 33a) states that due to the sin of vulgar speech, troubles proliferate and harsh decrees are renewed. That alone should resonate today.

Children should be admonished. I recall when the threat of having one’s “mouth washed out with soap” did the trick, as I remember hearing people protest that “there are ladies present.” The latter seems unfortunately quaint today. Even family and friends should be gently rebuked as to what is acceptable discourse. We should guard our tongues and our language. Since there are people who preface their vulgarity with “Pardon my French,” I have stopped speaking French.

A holy nation is typified by purity of speech.

Is it proper to name your child after a Biblical figure who is portrayed in a negative light?

There was a time in Israel not long ago when children were routinely named Nimrod or Omri, demonstrating their parents’ awareness of biblical names but little about the nature of the individuals who bore those names (although Omri did have some merit, as he added one city in Israel). Using such names is certainly improper, and thus we do not find Jewish children named Korach or Haman, Datan or Aviram.

Yet there are names that have beautiful meanings but are associated with wicked people. Yishmael is an uncommon name for Jews, even though he repented and even if there was a great Tanna named Rabbi Yishmael. But it means “G-d will hear,” an inspiring thought, and, after all, he was named by Hashem. Similarly, the Gemara (Yoma 38b) notes that the names of the wicked will decay, since no one should use them. It cites the name Do’eg (the tormentor of David) as an example, properly so because otherwise many Jews might be inclined to name their children “worrier.” Tosafot there justify someone named Avshalom, one of the rebellious sons of King David, because he was really Avishalom.

Therein lies the conundrum: what if the name expresses a spiritually meaningful idea but is associated with an evildoer? In such a case there is no prohibition, and as we see, the name Avshalom is widely extant in Jewish life.

In modern times, since Ashkenazim generally name after deceased relatives, it is quite possible to arrest the use of the names of biblical villains, and rightly so. That would be an act of piety. Certainly we should never name a child after the rasha himself but if the name is used because of the idea it represents or because it was used by a virtuous ancestor, it is not prohibited.

Is it proper to brag about your children/grandchildren’s accomplishments to friends or is it better to keep it within the family? What about sharing on social media?

The simple answer is no, and even from Israel I can hear the incredulous wailing of parents and grandparents who view their offspring as “nachat machines” spawned to produce limitless opportunities to gloat over their achievements. Of course, when the ancestors boast, they are not so much taking pride in the child’s successes as they are taking credit for having brought such progeny into the world. It is their accomplishment that demands the notice of others, and many unfailingly (and tediously) insist upon it.

Both my father and grandfather a”h were fond of quoting the verse from Mishlei (27:2) “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth; [let a] stranger, and not your own lips.” Once we internalize that we are primarily boasting about our offspring because they are extensions of ourselves, the ethical harm is patently clear. The Chayei Adam wrote (in his introduction) that a person should never praise himself for his deeds because it will lead to haughtiness and other execrable traits. The same should apply to those within our family.

Social media is particularly detrimental in this regard because it magnifies the arrogance a thousand fold. Generally, this type of casual bragging reinforces to the child that the most important and worthwhile objective is to be noticed, to receive public acclaim for something – and if not, it is as if it never happened and has little value. That is an appalling message to teach children.

It is best, and more rewarding, when others tell us the accomplishments of our offspring, which we accept humbly and graciously. Even among immediate family, it is preferable not to boast as such will invariably lead to jealousy. Positive reinforcement should be offered privately.

Of course, I am tempted to carve out an exemption for my children and grandchildren… But it is bad form, practice and midot.

War by Another Name

     Let us posit that violence against innocent people, or damage to the property of other innocent people, is wrong, criminal and worthy of punishment. Such has been inculcated in all decent people since our earliest youth. Much has been made in the last few months of alleged “settler violence” against innocent Arab residents of Judea and Samaria and undoubtedly some of these alleged actions have occurred. Critics and moralists contend that this violence has threatened Israel’s international standing, ruined its good name, undermined the settlement enterprise and reflect the poor education and abandonment of Torah values by these Jewish miscreants.

       Less discussed, and seemingly less disturbing to these critics and moralists, have been the incessant attacks on innocent Jews and their property for many years, and something that persists on a daily basis. Hardly a day goes by without the stoning of Jewish vehicles, physical attacks on Jews, the burning of their fields and property and the encroachment on their (and state) land. The lawlessness in Judea and Samaria has extended to the Negev and the Galil, with the government evincing little desire to arrest it and a profound interest in making the problem go away by acquiescing to it. These crimes are documented and available to all, although they only receive media attention if there is a death or serious injury involved. Conversely, Jewish perpetrators of minor crimes are castigated and hunted down, while Arab perpetrators of major crimes are rarely pursued.

      In the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood of Yerushalayim just this week, one Jewish resident’s car was torched for the ninth time. Crimes against Jews and their property usually go unprosecuted and unpunished, as if they were taking place in Manhattan and not Yerushalayim, Israel’s eternal capital. The theft of vehicles in central Israel that are then driven and disappear into Ramallah – a veritable plague – is not even investigated. How do we understand this blatant discrimination – and is all the hand-wringing justified?

     One persistent problem is the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phrase coined in the United States to reflect the paternalistic attitude on the left that civilized behavior cannot be expected from what they deem to be the lower classes. Where theft, plunder and violence are construed are normal modes of expressing frustration or ways of idling away time on a boring day, then we cannot expect any better or more productive forms of behavior. Few dare to express this openly but it underlies the anger against violent Jews but not against violent Arabs.

     Additionally, there remains the prevalent notion on the left that Israel is an occupying nation, which after all prior Israeli governments essentially conceded during the disastrous Oslo Accords. As such, Arab violence tends to be rationalized but is always understood. Jewish crimes, such as they are, are never tolerated, born as they were in the original sin of victory during the Six Day War. Thus the disparity in treatment lingers and distorts our perception.

      Nonetheless, there is a more fundamental misconception that needs to be addressed. Jewish settlers are castigated because of their alleged perpetration of crimes. The law bans attacks on people and property, and to the extent that these actions occur, they are violating the law and are subject to punishment. But there is another way of approaching these matters, one that strikes me as essentially true, that puts an entirely different perspective on these events, and one that behooves us to understand well.

     Rather than analyze these actions as alleged crimes that should be adjudicated in the criminal justice system, what if we perceived them to be what they really are: belligerent acts that are taking place in the context of an ongoing war? For that is indeed what they are.

      There are wars that are fought with armies, aircraft, tanks and infantry, all of whom share the objective of weakening the enemy’s aggressive capabilities and/or seizing the enemy’s territory. A war for territory is effectuated with the advance of one’s forces on to the enemy terrain, seizing it and holding it. The loss of a nation’s land to its adversary signifies it defeat. That is the traditional type of war fought since time immemorial.

     There is a war going on today in the land of Israel but it is not being fought with armies, aircraft, tanks and infantry. It is a war (also over territory) that is being fought with bullets, stones, Molotov cocktails and matches. In Judea and Samaria, every Jewish vineyard that is torched and every Jewish field that is laid waste is a victory in battle for the enemy. Every dunam that is illegally seized and farmed – in the Negev and Galil, as well – is territory that is intended to be lost to the Jewish people, and in the short term is lost. Every attack on a Jew in an outpost is an attempt to remove him from our land. Every military destruction and evacuation of an outpost is a victory to the enemy because it is land lost to the Jewish people and state.

     It matters not at all whether land is seized by an army – or by farmers and shepherds, by stone throwers and arsonists. It is all land that is lost to the State of Israel. Since the enemy has no viable military option, all that remains in their militant toolbox is the opportunity to disrupt Jewish settlement and to commandeer as much land as they can before the Jews wake up. If they wake up.

      The grievous error that is being made is adjudicating the acts of the settlers as crimes that need to be prosecuted rather than defense of the homeland. To be sure, wanton acts of violence against innocent people are unpleasant and unseemly, but war too is unpleasant and unseemly. It was Cicero who said that “In times of war, the law falls silent.” His point does not preclude the existence of conventions that attempt to regulate the conduct of war but rather to assert that conduct in war does not fall under the jurisdiction of the civilian criminal justice system.

      The current conflict is not perceived as a war but instead as a series of unfortunate crimes by misguided youth because our government has an interest in the latter assessment and none in the former. If we understood that a war for territory is being fought right now then the government would have to take affirmative steps to protect Jewish land, promote settlement, encourage vigilance, and weaken the enemy. (In fact, the early Zionist settlements over a century ago developed in just such a way.) But neither this government nor the prior one is interested in that, preferring to try to keep a lid on a boiling pot even as land is lost, sovereignty is diminished, and most unfortunately, in the absence of effective governance, people are compelled to defend themselves and engage in a private war on behalf of the nation. That is a long term formula for chaos – but Israeli governments have long been noted for prioritizing short term “stability” (even if it appears feckless) over long term instability.

       Prosecutions don’t work, as normal people will always defend their lives and property, and rightly so. No one will show restraint in the face of relentless assaults on people and property. Similarly, appeasement also doesn’t work, as if the problem will wither on its own (or be displaced by newer and worse problems). Paralysis that results from fear of bad press, tendentious UN resolutions or riots is appeasement.  Ideally, the government should assert itself and its sovereignty over the land of Israel it is sworn to protect. It is futile to pretend that a struggle over the land of Israel is not occurring before our eyes, one that we can win or lose. Leon Trotsky may have been wrong about many things but about this he wasn’t: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

    Israel can fight the war (a low level conflict that is surely preferable to the alternative), deny the war or fight the people who are fighting the war (the current policy). But denying the conflict will not make it disappear nor will it dissuade those constantly assaulted from defending themselves. The downside is that violence often begets more violence in which even more innocents suffer, and uncontrolled violence is simply chaos. The upside is that this is a war that is fought and won not with guns and tanks but with fields and houses, by farmers and shepherds.

     Perhaps it is our fate today to be a light onto the nations in the appropriate manner of waging asymmetric wars. But it is surely a “war” that can be preempted if it is “fought” cleverly, with determination, insight, and moral strength. And this will render vigilante justice superfluous and unnecessary, and our light can then illuminate the world in the pursuit of justice, peace and godliness.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 16

(I start a third year answering reader questions in this Jewish Press forum, now renamed “Is It Proper?” Each one, along with my colleagues’ answers, are available at Jewishpress.com)

Is it proper to jaywalk?

It is certainly inadvisable for any person who cherishes life, the preservation of which is a fundamental Jewish value.

From a halachic perspective, there is a principle of chamira sakanta me’issura (Masechet Chullin 10a), we apply greater stringencies to dangerous situations than we do to legal prohibitions. As such, we have to be even more careful of not endangering ourselves than, for example, of avoiding non-kosher food. And we need not even entertain the principle of dina d’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is law,” which generally doesn’t apply when the law in question is not enforced. And jaywalking is certainly not enforced.

Yet, there is an even greater standard that should inform our judgment: the rule of common sense. We are mandated to be a wise and understanding people, a nation that uses its wisdom and common sense to find appropriate responses to life’s questions when the Shulchan Aruch does not address them specifically. This is one such example. Traffic regulations, as irritating as they can sometimes be, are designed for our protection. They generally work. “Crossing at the green and not in between” is not just a ditty we (should) teach children but something that makes sense and saves lives.

It goes without saying (all right, I’ll say it) that far more pedestrians in Israel are killed every year by vehicles than there are victims of terror. Of course, not all these pedestrians are jaywalking but vehicles are such a prevalent danger that we need to take special heed – not only not to jaywalk but even to look both ways before crossing at a green light.

Is it proper? Don’t even think of it.

Should a person stop someone from telling a racist joke?

No one should tell, hear or tolerate a racist joke. But why stop there?

No one should tell a joke about any ethnic, religious or national group. No jokes about blacks, whites, Hispanics, Poles, Turks, Russians or Asians. No jokes about Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or Zoroastrians. No jokes about parents, husbands or wives, in-laws, siblings, and certainly not children. No jokes about men or women or any other permutation that people with vivid imaginations have today fabricated.

There should be no jokes about occupations – whether rabbis, lawyers, doctors, carpenters, bankers, plumbers, teachers, postmen, soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, first responders, second or third responders and not even jokes about those who don’t respond at all.

No license should be given to members of one group to poke fun at their own. Jews, for example, should not tell jokes about litvaks, yekkes, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Galician, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Yemenite, Moroccan, Syrian, Ethiopian, Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian or Libyan Jews.

There should be no jokes about pets. Dogs, cats, hamsters and fish apparently have feelings too. No jokes about inanimate buildings (the builders might take offense) nor jokes about trees, fields or flowers (which, after all, were planted by someone).

Jokes that are intended to be mean-spirited, cruel, humiliating or bullying should never be uttered.

In short, we must ban all forms of humor, lest someone, somewhere, sometime be offended. Perhaps we have arrived at that enlightened stage already? And aren’t we better off for it? Maybe not. Maybe we all need to relax a little, not to be so uptight, laugh once in a while, be kind, sensitive and tolerant, and not succumb to the intolerant word police who are ready to arrest and prosecute anyone even slightly jocular – because tyranny of thought is no joking matter.

Is it proper to play board games on Shabbat? 

The halachic answer is simple, even as the hashkafic answer is a bit more complex. One must always bear in mind that the purpose of Shabbat is to provide us with a day that is set aside for tefilah and Talmud Torah, for prayer, Torah study, time with family and friends and a complete break from the mundane activities of the weekdays. It is not a day to be frittered away in pursuits whose primary purpose is to kill time, even if they do provide moment of pleasure.

That being said, the answer in the first instance must age, background, temperament and spiritual potential. Children will certainly have fewer limitations because they are not yet of age to appreciate the sublimity of Shabbat. Thus, it is horrendous if children, teenagers for sure, find Shabbat boring or stifling because, lacking a mature spiritual sensibility, they cannot find any permissible outlet for their energies. Similarly, there might be adults as well who struggle to observe the laws of Shabbat but persevere. They too need an appropriate venue to provide Shabbat enjoyment.

Under those circumstances, games provide a healthy vehicle if they do not involve a violation of halachah. Chess (or checkers) are permitted by many poskim (beginning with Rema in Orach Chaim 338:5), as is Scrabble if the letters remain loose and are not affixed to the board. Monopoly and other games that involve play money or keeping score are frowned upon, although some clever people keep score by using pages in books. More specifics need to be discussed with your local Rav.

It is worth reiterating that playing these games should be a temporary pause from the more spiritual pursuits of the day – and not the focus of Shabbat itself. That focus is properly divine service and the perfection of our souls.

Is it proper to shun traditional fried foods on Chanukah (latkes, sufganiyot) because of health concerns (not due to any specific existing condition)? 

Two points should be made at the outset. Firstly, anyone with particular health issues should discuss them with a healthcare professional before eating any food that might be problematic. Secondly, eating must be done in moderation. Anything in excess has the potential to be harmful. By the same token, abstaining completely from the occasional pleasurable food might, for some people, significantly impair their enjoyment of life. 

Many Jews, in particular, struggle with healthy eating. We sit down to at least two major (Thanksgiving style) meals per week, that is, every Shabbat. And those meals are often supplemented by a sumptuous Shabbat kiddush, not to mention the many smachot to which we are frequently invited at which, in effect, several meals can be served in one sitting. “V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem” is both a halachic mandate and a major concern. And there are specific times of the year in which the foods that symbolize the holidays and evoke important ideas can pose health concerns.

 The best, and to me the most reasonable, approach is to strike the right balance. Abstention can lead to frustration and even overeating when our willpower weakens. But pure indulgence and a blithe disregard for good eating habits is deleterious in both short term and long term. That “God watches over the simple” (Tehillim 116:6) is true but small comfort when repetitive risky behavior – in defiance of Torah norms – has its inevitable consequence. 

For most people, eating one latke or sufganya is tolerable, will not jeopardize their health, and will add to their enjoyment of Chanukah. Wolfing down mass quantities is inadvisable and is glutttony masquerading as some sort of religious fulfillment. We must learn to exercise self-control in all aspects of life, especially eating. 

Is it proper to embark on a long trip (whether by car or otherwise) on a short Erev Shabbos?

Chazal distinguished between a person who is traveling for a mitzvah or business reasons and one who is traveling for pleasure. The former can generally depart on Erev Shabbat, the latter cannot. Nonetheless, it should be underscored that it is rabbinically prohibited to place oneself in a situation in which Chilul Shabbat is possible. That constraint applies to everyone. Observance of Shabbat is such a fundamental principle of Judaism that forethought is indispensable even before Shabbat so an unforeseen event does not derail us.

Thus, a person who embarks on a two hour journey 90 minutes before Shabbat starts is an obvious sinner. He cannot claim that pikuach nefesh (preservation of life) justifies his subsequent Shabbat violations. Similarly, one who embarks on a two hour journey exactly two hours before Shabbat is reckless and if he doesn’t make it in time, he is also a Shabbat desecrator. Enough time must be allowed even for short trips, not to mention long ones, that the effects of accidents, traffic, delays, storms and breakdowns are considered. In these situations, always be a pessimist and not an optimist, especially since there is also a mitzvah to enter Shabbat with peace of mind, not harried from a frenetic and intense journey.

Just recently, two people flew from South Africa to Israel, landing on Friday, in order to fulfill a Mitzvah. The exaggerated vagaries of the Coronavirus caused a change in the entry regulations while they were en route. When they landed in Israel, they were turned away and forced to board a return flight to South Africa on Friday night. The rejection was despicable, to be sure. But when it comes to Shabbat, never assume! Travel on Thursday – or leave early Friday morning for a two hour trip. The sanctity of Shabbat deserves no less.