Ask the Rabbi, Part 20

(This is almost the fourth year that I am answering questions in the Jewish Press forum entitled, “Is it Proper?” All the rabbinic responses – and more – can be read at Jewishpress.com)

How should we treat friends and family members who intermarry?

There was a time not too long ago when intermarriage was a red line that even impious Jews knew not to cross. And if they did, they were ostracized. That changed approximately fifty years ago, probably because of the skyrocketing number of intermarriages as well as an increased number of other Jews who were also no longer that pious.

The results should have been anticipated. In economics, as in life, you get less of something when you penalize it, and more of something when you subsidize it. Consequently, the more intermarriage becomes acceptable among family and friends, the more they occur, to the extent that most marriages involving Jews in America today are intermarriages. In the non-Orthodox community, the rate of intermarriages is over 70%, an astronomical figure that does not bode well for the future of American Jewry.

As a result, there are incessant demands to tolerate and even celebrate intermarriages. There are constant efforts to reform the Torah, to see the bright side and to remove any remaining stigma. These are all foolhardy and reflect a lack of Jewish commitment and an excess of unconditional love – a concept, unknown to Jewish parenting, that has been fabricated to rationalize acceptance of all sorts of bad behavior.

Friends are ordinarily those with whom one has shared values and interests. It is hard to imagine Jews having shared values with those who intermarry. Dealing with family members is more problematic, as we are admonished not to turn away from our own flesh (Yeshayahu 58:7) and could possibly be a good influence even on miscreants. Certainly, Jews should not participate in intermarriages, whether family or friends. Besides being forbidden, how can any Jew celebrate an event that heralds the demise of the Jewish people?

A relationship should be retained, doors should be kept open, but without acquiescence in a grave sin, which itself sets a bad example for children, friends, and the community. May Hashem spare us such tzarot!

Is it proper to casually sit on the floor (say, to play with one’s children or at kumsitz) when it is not Tisha B’Av? 

There are sources that discourage us from sitting on the floor because that is a sign of mourning. It is not universally accepted and I have only heard of this reluctance on Shabbat, and even then it is rarely observed. And for good reason. 

We need not fear innocuous acts because of a mystical concern that such will engender an undeserved and deleterious fate. That borders on superstition which has a genuine harmful effect on our spiritual state as it removes us from true reverence for Hashem and an appreciation of His goodness. This is certainly so when we do something that is not a sin whose intentions are proper. 

Just the other day I got down on the floor to play with my five year old grandson. I noticed his joy (unexpressed, of course) that we were now on the same level, and I, on his turf. That bond surpasses any fear that we fabricate in the false and frantic hope of manipulating Hashem’s scales of reward and punishment in our favor. 

We should fear only Hashem – and not that sitting on the floor will bring misfortune upon us. Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha – be wholehearted with Hashem. That is our task in life. 

Is It Proper to Own a Gun?

It is proper, it is recommended, but it is certainly not for everyone.

The Torah places a priority on Pikuach Nefesh (preservation of life) and to the extent that owning a firearm enhances personal safety, it is a no-brainer. One enormous caveat is the necessity for licensing, training, safety, and ensuring that the weapon is always properly locked and stored, away from children but available for immediate use.

Our long history has taught us that when government has a monopoly on force, it usually ends sadly for Jews. Dictatorships often first collect the weapons owned by private citizens, the better to execute their nefarious and restrictive policies without opposition.

The rise in Jew hatred in America, words for sure but accompanied by routine eruptions of physical violence, should put Jews on notice that their safety is not guaranteed. As much as we support the police, the authorities are useful when it comes to investigating crimes and making arrests; they almost never prevent crimes. As the old saying goes, “when seconds count, the police are just minutes away.”

Additionally, many jurisdictions today have prosecutors who refuse to prosecute, so attacks on Jews often go unprosecuted and the assailants unpunished, something that is not sustainable in a civilized society. It is important to realize that most gun owners, like most police officers, rarely fire their weapons in hostile situations, and for civilians, merely displaying the firearm most often deters the criminal.

The greatest Jews – Avraham, Moshe, King David, and others – bore arms when necessary to protect their lives and the lives of the Jewish people. We have to overcome the squeamishness that the exile has engendered in Jews. Guns are not for everyone but undoubtedly, if word got out that Jews were armed, the number of attacks on Jews would plummet precipitously.

The Sane Middle

 Is there a middle ground between Never Trumpers and Always Trumpers? Never Trumpers disregard any of the former president’s achievements and preferred a doddering, barely coherent octogenarian in the White House to Donald Trump. Always Trumpers are those who, in Trump’s own words, can witness him shoot someone in cold blood on Fifth Avenue and still vote for him. The middle ground, eminently reasonable, can commend Trump for his policy successes and even his political instincts, and still criticize his occasional outlandish statements, rhetorical excesses, obsessions with the last election, and unfortunate choice of dinner guests. The bad he does should not drown out the good that he has done.

     Donald Trump is a complicated person, which is not an earth-shattering observation.

     The good should be undeniable by any objective observer. He presided for most of his presidency over a booming economy, full employment, a relatively secure border, prosperity and peace. No president has ever been more supportive of Israel. The list is well known but at its core was the ability to look at the Middle East with fresh eyes rather than with the stale cliches and overt biases of generations of State Department officials, some of them Jews, who succeeded only in weakening Israel and inflaming the region. Many of those failed and tendentious diplomats do not forgive Trump for his extraordinary successes, and never will.

     But Trump is not a Baal Mussar, never was. He doesn’t think before he speaks or tweets, never did. Occasionally, this redounded to his credit when it unnerved and intimidated America’s enemies, but usually he was harmed by his intemperate statements and verbosity. In retrospect he received poor advice and implemented terrible policies during the Corona pandemic but, to me,  he lost the presidency not through a rigged election but during the idiotic daily press conferences he held that accomplished nothing and showed the impotence of his government. 

     It was this desperate need for attention that I think is at the heart of his Kanye West dinner fiasco. True, the n’kiyei hada’at (scrupulous people) of Yerushalayim would never dine with anyone unknown to them (Sanhedrin 23a) but Trump apparently never aspired to that designation. So his dinner guests were a mentally ill, unbalanced Jew hater and an unknown fascist wannabe. Apparently, Trump was more troubled by West’s desire to run for president (that would be even more of a clown show) than by his anti-Jewish ramblings and bizarre fantasies. 

     He also never apologizes or admits errors of judgment or deed, which again marks him as a non-Baal Mussar, but is prudent given the relentlessness of his haters, the social justice warriors, and his media critics. It might be prudent but it is bad form and unworthy of a morally serious person.

     So the Never Trumpers are ungrateful and the Always Trumpers overindulgent. What does the Sane Middle (i.e., mesuggest?

     Had Trump decided not to run in 2020, he would have been one of the most successful presidents in history, even accounting for the pandemic. Americans would be grateful and even Jews – hard core Democrats though most might be – would have seen the hand of Providence in the election of an outsider (indeed, a TV celebrity) to the presidency – and all for the purpose of recognizing Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital,  Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, the Abraham Accords and a host of other good deeds. Alas, he ran again, in an environment in which election rules were unprecedentedly “fluid.” And so he lost.

     Nevertheless, let’s be clear. His 2016 election was a fluke. He lost the popular vote by a wide margin (sure, lefty California drives up the numbers) but he only squeaked through in the electoral college. A shift of – what do they say? – 55,000 votes in three states would have elected Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a shift of 77,000 votes in three states would have re-elected Trump in 2020 even though he lost the popular vote by an even larger margin. But winning the electoral college while losing the popular vote is like drawing an inside straight. It is a rarity and a poor election strategy. 

     Thus, Trump should not run in 2024. He will lose if he does run, and if he fails to gain the Republican nomination, he will ensure the defeat of the party’s nominee. He cannot win because he lacks sufficient support and those who will not vote for him ever will not vote for him ever. He cannot change that and so cannot win. It is telling, and should worry Republicans, that the Republican presidential nominee has won the popular vote only once since 1988 (Bush in 2004). That’s one win and seven losses. That is a bad record. He can run to raise money but eventually people will see through the scam (fund-raising for candidates but not spending that money, which eventually a candidate can keep for himself). If he drops out, it will be because the money has dried up, no matter to what is otherwise attributed. And it is just as well. Part of the piling on underway because of his ill-advised dinner guests – call it “Trump’s Political Last Supper” – is an unsubtle message even from his erstwhile supporters that it is time he (and we) moved on.

     Always Trumpers, these days a dwindling number, do themselves a disservice by seeing no flaws and by not being objective. Never Trumpers always overreach by manufacturing flaws (racism, Jew hatred) that are untrue and incredulous, and by not being objective. What is Donald Trump, ultimately? He is a character, a media personality, impetuous, impulsive, and not very deliberate – all undesirable traits in a leader – but a man who changed history, who made political breakthroughs that no one could have, who won one election that only he could have won and lost one election that only he could have lost.

     We should be appreciative of all the good that he did. And he should know when it is time to recede from the public eye and retire gracefully.

What are the chances of that?

Diaspora Blues

(Published today on Israelnationalnews,com)

     American Jews have every right to complain about, lament, oppose and even support the policies of the Israeli government. What happens here affects Jews in the Diaspora and for many American Jews, their whole Jewish identity is subsumed by the Jewish state. Threats to divorce the State of Israel are heartfelt but hollow because, shorn of Torah and mitzvot, Israel remains for many their only link to Jewishness. Their right to attempt to influence policy is assumed, as is the right of Israelis to consider what they have to say or to ignore it because we are a sovereign country that makes its own decisions.

     That being said, the jeremiads that are gushing forth from American Jewish leaders are a bit overboard – whether about Binyamin Netanyahu’s return to power, Itamar Ben Gvir’s ministerial role, or various legislation being considered to order to preserve and strengthen Israel’s security and Jewish identity. And these Diaspora complaints must be put in perspective.

    It is undoubtedly true that most American Jewish leaders – those of the alphabet organizations that are somewhat redundant, whose missions overlap, who are mostly unelected and represent a small fragment of American Jewry – did not want Netanyahu to prevail and again become prime minister. Having failed to prevent his election, they are now trying to convince the public – and influence the Biden administration – that the only way Netanyahu and Israel should retain their support is if he rejects the will of the Israeli electorate and forms a left-wing government. And if Netanyahu forms a right-wing government as he has promised to do then these leaders (and add to that a few tendentious American Jewish journalists whose support of Israel is always contingent on policies that will weaken Israel both militarily and spiritually) are demanding that he not enact policies that are the natural focus of any right-wing government, especially one comprised of a majority of Sabbath-observing, religious Jews.

      In other words, they didn’t want Netanyahu. Now that they have him, they are seeking that he govern in exactly the opposite manner from which he has pledged to govern. From their perspective, he should fill his government with centrist and leftist retreads and just occupy his seat until a more left-wing government to their liking takes power in the future. When the left is in power, they are charged with diluting Israel’s Jewish character, impairing its security and territorial integrity, and pursuing the two-state illusion. When the right is in power, they should just be place keepers until the left returns.

     There is something wrong with that picture, especially since it utterly disregards the will of the people of Israel.

     Thus, American Jewish leaders are aggrieved that Ben Gvir may have a senior role in the government, even as Minister of Internal Security. G-d forbid that serenity should return to our streets and highways, with wrongdoers – ranging from stone throwers to snipers – punished mercilessly. G-d forbid that illegal Arab building should be stopped everywhere and that real Jewish sovereignty return to the Negev and Galil. G-d forbid that a Jewish-centered curriculum – involving familiarity with the Bible and Jewish life – be restored to the Israeli secular educational system whose students are largely being educated without any knowledge of their heritage and patrimony, Judaism. G-d forbid that laws be passed limiting the Knesset oversight of the undisciplined Supreme Court and repealing the “grandfather clause” of the Law of Return that allows third generation Gentiles to acquire automatic citizenship in the Jewish state. The latter insanity has engendered demands for mass conversions and public Shabbat desecration in commerce and transportation to accommodate this population. Here is a suggestion: repeal that clause and require that all third-generation offspring of Jews who wish to make Aliyah first convert according to halacha in their country of origin.

     These leaders and their media acolytes have joined the chorus that a Netanyahu right-wing government is a “threat to democracy.” If they possessed even a modicum of self-awareness they would realize that the greatest threat to democracy is ignoring the will of the voters and turning elections into a farce.

      For sure, a left-wing government – Jewish in name but not practice or values – plays better in America. American college campuses are rife with anti-Israel activism where supporters of Israel are routinely harassed and threatened without consequence. Many American Jews are convinced that peace will follow the two-state illusion like night follows day and are uneasy with governments who perceive that process as a dangerous delusion. And American Jews are concentrated in states (New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois) where progressivism rules the roost and dominates the media and culture. A proudly Jewish, nationalist Israel is a tough sell in that market. But we need not subvert our democracy – nor should we destroy this wondrous opportunity to build a sovereign Jewish state in the land G-d granted to our forefathers – just because American Jews have largely lost touch with their heritage, are drowning in a sea of intermarriage and assimilation, and are worried about what the Democrats and the New York Times will say. They will always be more comfortable with leftist governments; that the vast majority of Israelis are on the center-right, and traditional or religious, inconveniences and perplexes them.

     Invariably, these leaders and a handful of their followers will wail, briefly, and then continue to weigh in on Israel’s policies that run counter to their agenda. I have been reading and hearing of the breakdown of relations between Israel and the exile since the 1970’s whenever a right-wing government takes power or introduces some Torah-themed legislation. This elegy has had a long and distinguished run and is still going strong. But strengthening Israel’s Jewish character can only benefit Diaspora Jews; even those now distant from Torah may deduce that they have gone too far and that, at a certain point, their Jewish identity does wither and die. Some won’t care but I think most will care and want to reconnect to their heritage and birthright in a meaningful Torah way, and not just in an ethnic way. In that regard, only a proudly Jewish and nationalist Israel can be a beacon for Diaspora Jews, not an Israel which only humors its ethnic Jewish culture but does little to encourage Torah observance.

     There is one matter that should be rectified. American Jewish leaders usually only meet with Israeli politicians or with groups whose agendas parallel their own. They have little knowledge of the lives of Israelis, most of whom love and/or respect the traditions of their ancestors – and even those who are not completely observant. Ensconced in their luxury hotels during their brief visits, they have little knowledge of the pride Jews here take in their Judaism and what plucky little Israel has accomplished in its seventy-five years of existence. They should meet real Israelis, notwithstanding that Israelis will be shocked to learn that most marriages involving American Jews today are intermarriages (surely including some of these leaders or their children). They should meet real Israelis, and they will learn that a truly Jewish state  is not only possible and within our grasp, it is almost here, and needs just the tweaking and nurturing that this electorate expects and for which it voted.

      We should listen to the Diaspora voices respectfully but theirs is not the last word on Israeli statecraft, governance, or policies, not least because they did not want the right-wing and religious parties to win. Actually, that last word is ours, the voters, who excitedly await the first coalition in Israel’s history that is comprised of a majority of religious Jews.

Fear of Ben Gvir

(First published yesterday at Israelnationalnews.com )

  As the media would have it, American Jews have overnight been afflicted with BenGvirPhobia, an irrational fear of newly re-elected Knesset Member Itamar Ben Gvir who is poised to play a prominent role in the incoming Israel government. One would think that American Jews might grapple first with real fears– of incessant attacks on Jews in the streets of American cities, rising crime, runaway inflation,  a secular society inundated by an immoral and un-Jewish culture and value system that threatens to undermine Jews’ ability to live in America and raise their children to be pious Jews, assimilation, intermarriage, and a host of other problems.

     Instead, we are informed that American Jews and many among the alphabet soup of American Jewish organizations are petrified of Ben Gvir, what he (in their mind) represents, and the mortification he might cause them in progressive circles. Undoubtedly, much of this anxiety is being drummed up by the media in order to taint the political environment and especially to pressure Binyamin Netanyahu to jettison some of his right-wing coalition partners in favor of Benny Gantz and his center-left “National Camp” party. Gantz has ruled that out but that might just be his opening ploy in negotiations. And even if some of his partners are implacable “Never Bibi’s” – like Gideon Sa’ar or Ze’ev Elkin – and would never sit under Netanyahu, that would not necessarily inhibit Gantz who could spin his move as “saving the nation from Ben Gvir.” And if the “National Camp Party” collapses as a result of this split? Well, the small Israeli political parties routinely come and go, here today and gone tomorrow, resurfacing with almost the same cast of characters under a new name and banner. The Machaneh Hamamlachti – it was a bad name anyway – might have already outlived its usefulness.

      For his part, Netanyahu has made a career of such double-dealing, campaigning on the right and forming his governments and executing his policies from the center, even left. In fact, he is a master at it, betrayed only by the vast number of enemies and “Never Bibi’s” that he has accumulated over the years. He would glibly explain that this back-stabbing maneuver of abandoning the Religious Zionist Party is unfortunately necessary to prevent America from signing a nuclear deal with Iran, or some such other excuse. It really depends on the final count, and whether or not Netanyahu can reach 61 mandates with Gantz and without Betzalel Smotrich and/or Ben Gvir, who can also be divided, representing, as they do, two separate parties.

     The good news is that all Netanyahu’s coalition partners have their eyes open and know how the game is played. The better news is that the numbers might not be there to allow this duplicity to again occur, in which case the government will be solidly right-wing plus, instead of centrist, which is another word for being pulled in opposite directions, with incoherent policies and festering problems the inevitable result.

     And what if Netanyahu has sincerely repented, changed his ways, and will first embrace his natural coalition partners, as he should and as the voters expect? Then there will be a stable right-wing government for several years (depending on the verdict in Netanyahu’s interminable trials). That right-wing government should deal forcefully and cogently with the Iran threat, undo the damage of the educational system that has been committed to obscuring the riches of Judaism from our elementary and high school pupils, repeal the Avigdor Lieberman tax hikes that were primarily intended to hurt the Haredim, crack down on Arab terror and those who foment it, reclaim Jewish sovereignty in the Negev and Galil, halt illegal Arab building there and in Area C of Judea and Samaria, expand Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria thereby immediately lowering the cost of housing, limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and pass the Override Law, further integrating Haredim into society, and most importantly of all, reverse the attempts to diminish the Jewish character of the State and the Jewish identity of its citizens, and quash the threats to Torah, the traditional Jewish family, the public observance of Shabbat, and the proper observance of Mitzvot such as Kashrut, conversion, military service, and others.

     That is a full plate for any administration.

     Above all, the new government can restore Jewish pride in the land of Israel. In that regard, the Religious Zionist party including Ben Gvir has a significant role to play. The influence on the Diaspora could be immeasurably constructive. American Jews should not fear a proud Jew or a Jewish state that is proudly Jewish. Indeed, this can assist American Jews in regaining their spiritual footing which has been wobbly for decades. There is nothing wrong – in fact, it is an unmitigated good – for American Jews to see ministers with kippot who take their Judaism seriously, who are committed to the Torah, the State, Jewish self-defense, the study of Torah and mitzvot, and whose policy prescriptions – for economics and social programs, for foreign affairs and culture – are grounded in Jewish law and values. It has happened before but it needs to be appreciated and magnified.

      That is a good thing and for American Jews it could be a wonderful thing. I don’t doubt that the more alienated a person is from Torah, the more he or she will fear Ben Gvir and the specter of a strong Jew unafraid to assert Jewish rights – and unafraid of bad press while doing it. Certainly, Ben Gvir – like all politicians, journalists, and public figures – has said things in the past that he regrets, retracts, or wishes to clarify. That is a sign of growth, not opportunism. Decent people should embrace it.

     To be sure, the Democratic Party to which most Jews belong with a passion others reserve for their religion, will be unhappy with Netanyahu, Ben Gvir, and any right-wing government. Its sole Mideast foreign policy objective is to strengthen Iran with money and a nuclear capacity while weakening Israel through the two-state illusion and sowing internal unrest (and claiming that all this is strengthening Israel and weakening Iran). These Jews, devoted to the Democratic Party, have the chance to support a strong, democratic and Jewish Israel by influencing their party to accept the demographic realities in Israel and the decisions of our electorate. They certainly should not, as the liberal and left-wing American Jewish organizations have already begun to do, urge boycotts of Israeli politicians and promise to provide cover to the Biden administration if it does so. They will only further marginalize themselves, sow a greater rift between secular American Jews and Israel, and impair even more their attachment to Judaism.

     The fear of Ben Gvir is overblown. Even thinking that one person can have such influence on Israeli politics – a media obsession here for months – is overblown. The Israeli political system remains deeply fragmented. Since 1996, the ruling party in the coalition has always fallen short of 40 seats (by contrast, from 1948-1996, every ruling party had at least 40 seats). The same is true with this election. Perhaps one way to change that dynamic is for a government…to be successful, to restore serenity and prosperity, to bolster Jewish identity, and reinforce and expand relations with neighboring Arab states. What should be discouraged is the return of those incessant demonstrations and street blockages that became a ritual during Netanyahu’s last few terms and impaired domestic tranquility and people’s quality of life. Give it a rest, man.

     And for the first time, a majority of Israel’s coalition government (assuming no additions of parties outside the right-wing bloc) will be comprised of religious and observant Jews. They will have the special privilege of serving and the solemn obligation of comporting themselves with dignity, nobility, and integrity, rising above the pettiness of politics to illuminate the polity with the wisdom of Torah. Heaven forbid that they should be perceived as out for themselves or just their constituents. Instead, they should be seen as representatives of Torah to the nation and the world. That is no small task.

     It is an astonishingly significant moment and opportunity. To be sure, the Religious Zionist Party should take the lead in that sphere, and its leaders Smotrich and Ben Gvir are well positioned to assume that role.

     There is no need to fear Ben Gvir or anyone else. As Rav Yosef Soloveitchik exhorted, one who fears God need have no other fears. If the current government, led by its religious majority, succeeds in increasing reverence for Heaven through its dedication, successes, and policies, our society will be transformed for the good.

     Let us pray for the new government’s success and well-being, for its accomplishments will benefit the people who dwell in Zion and bring glory to the Torah.