Clueless in Kabul

Clueless Joe Biden’s reference to the United States’ humiliating Afghan surrender and retreat as an “extraordinary success” recalls George Bush’s much maligned “Mission Accomplished” banner from 2003, even if the mission of the ship that flew that banner was accomplished and Bush himself said “our mission continues.” Let’s see if the media lets Biden off the hook, easy to do because he answers press questions infrequently, reluctantly and somewhat incoherently, his representatives dissemble with impunity, and most journalists are his ideological soulmates.

It is a talent, to be sure. Biden could have termed the voyage of the Titanic an “extraordinary success” as well, affirming that “we always knew of potential icebergs and planned for them” and “the heroic crew saved more than 700 people of the 2200 passengers.” If Biden had been emperor of Japan in 1945, perhaps he would have labeled Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “urban renewal projects” while ignoring the devastating loss of life. Sometimes is just best to admit defeat, as Japan and Germany did, and as even the United States did after Vietnam. That is honorable, and enables the vanquished to learn lessons and draw conclusions. Putting a positive spin on a debacle is possible only for people who know they will not be held to account by government, media, or citizenry. It is unhelpful, even weirdly obsessive, the way the American media looks at everything through the prism of elections (2022, 2024) rather than focus on policies, solutions and achievements.

The bottom line is that the United States defeated the Taliban in 2001 and now the Taliban is back in power, with all their brutality and jihadist evil, and again with the capacity to threaten the US or shelter those who would. When American citizens are aghast and ashamed at the surrender, American allies are horrified and despondent, and American enemies are jubilant, it is a safe guess to say that America lost. And when that enemy is dressed in your own uniforms, carrying the weapons you left behind ($90 billion worth of weapons) and riding around in your own military vehicles, feigning that there was some glorious achievement in Afghanistan is delusional.

Biden often intones that the buck stops with him, but that buck actually just pauses momentarily for a photo op before being passed on to any number of more productive foils. Donald Trump is always a handy target; he might have signed an agreement with the Taliban but Biden has overridden every other Trump initiative, so why not this one? The intelligence community failed miserably, presumably the same community (“all seventeen agencies!”) that detected Russian meddling in the 2016 election and failed to detect the Arab terror of September 11, 2001. Notice, by the way, how within days after Biden cited intelligence shortcomings and the failures of his experts, this same intelligence community that bedeviled Trump with its timely leaks quickly leaked the conversation Biden had with Afghani president Ghani asking him to pretend that the situation in Afghanistan is stable and its military prepared. They will get you “seven ways from Sunday,” begging the question (perhaps answering it) of who are the most powerful actors in American politics. And the Afghan government and army come in for its share of blame too but shorn of American air support it forfeited any putative advantage it had over its enemies.

One way to avoid blame that has been increasingly popular is to wrap oneself in the glory of the troops, odd in this case, because many of the troops interviewed are angry and disheartened at the way the withdrawal process unfolded. Another way is to focus on one small element of the debacle – the evacuation of personnel – to the exclusion of everything else and claim that a success. Still another is to deflect, criticizing anyone who notes the chaotic retreat or the terrible loss of life by American forces put by their commander-in-chief in an impossibly insecure position by saying that critics “want to stay in Afghanistan forever!” Certainly, no one wants American troops stationed in a foreign country forever – it is not like Afghanistan is Germany, Japan or South Korea…  But changing the topic from the conduct of the withdrawal to the fact of the withdrawal is a shallow rhetorical trick that is only sustained through repetition each time it is pointed out.

And there is one other way that Biden avoids accountability – donning the mantle of mourning. It has become unseemly and manipulative for Clueless Joe to constantly invoke the memory of his late son Beau, and especially pretending somehow that Beau died in combat. It seems it is done less to be empathetic and more to immunize him against any criticism. But parading one’s old bereavement in the face of the newly bereaved is cynical and selfish unless the mourners request it. Many of the military families whose loved ones were killed in the last week found it off-putting, and Biden tone deaf or, perhaps, just clueless.

That exploitation of mourning is unbearably cynical. Looking back at a more dignified era and more dignified individuals, George H. W. Bush lost his young daughter to leukemia when she was four years old. It was certainly a traumatic event, one which even seventy years later he would recall only with tears. But I do not remember Bush (or his son the president, who lost his younger sister) ever once using it for political and manipulative purposes, referring to the loss in speech after speech in the hopes of shielding himself from criticism. I don’t remember it because it never happened. And I do not doubt that Biden does it because it tests well in polls and is thus entered into the teleprompter that he haltingly reads.

Biden and his inadequacies has become an object of pity across the world. America deserves better but it is not readily apparent how the situation can change. There will be a scapegoat; my bet is that General Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs, finds his way soon to early retirement. It is still inconceivable that Biden can last four years as president but his successor is even more problematic – incompetence exacerbated by arrogance and identity politics. The US looks weak because, sadly, it is weak, with a feckless leadership addicted to printing and spending money, making inane pronouncements and incapable of resolving any societal problem. Wrapping itself in the flag will not deter evildoers across the globe and may just encourage them.

On Rosh Hashanah, the fate of all individuals is decreed, as well as the fate of nations. “Which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which for abundance?” The world has endured a rocky road in the last year. May this year and its curses come to an end, and may the New Year be filled with blessings for the deserving, those amenable to G-d’s morality and kindnesses.

Repentance for Life

I am delighted to announce that my new book, “Repentance for Life,” has been published by Kodesh Press and is available for purchase at Kodeshpress.com, the finest stores and on line. It is most appropriate for this season of repentance.

Enjoy – and may we all use this time of repentance to come closer to G-d and to each other!

Ask the Rabbi, Part 14

For almost two years, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. Here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at Jewishpress.com

Is it proper for an adult to change his/her given Hebrew name?    

Halacha provides for rare occasions when a person is allowed to change his/her name. Most commonly, we add a name to a person who is seriously ill in an attempt to change the decree. This accords with the Gemara’s statement (Rosh Hashana 16b) that a “name change” is one of four acts a person can perform to have a decree overturned.

Rambam included this procedure as one of the “ways of repentance,” that penitents change their names to indicate that they are no longer the same person they were when they sinned. This is not done routinely – the paperwork alone would be too onerous if we did it annually – but it is common for baalei teshuvah to shift from use of their secular names to their given or acquired Hebrew names. This is the most prevalent type of name change.

The Tzitz Eliezer (20:38) also records a case in which a man was named after two aunts – his non-observant parents assumed it would not matter – and was urged to change his name to something more masculine.

Some people change their names because a kabbalist informs them that their given names are somehow inappropriate (even if they are ordinary Hebrew words and have positive connotations). Ain li esek b’nistarot; this type of esoterica is way above my pay grade. Nonetheless, I would suggest extreme caution before following that path. We should recall that a more effective means of changing one’s mazal is “shinui ma’aseh,” changing our deeds, the essence of repentance. Assuming that a name change without repentance will accomplish anything is to assume that we can fool G-d and activate these shortcuts that bypass the normal modes of reward and punishment. It is far better to change our deeds than our names.

Is it proper for children to ride on scooters and bicycles on Shabbos?

This is a hotly debated area of halacha and there are two factors that must be considered beyond the halachic particulars: the age of the child and the standards of the community.

It is appropriate, if not mandatory, for Jews to adhere to the community standards in dress, custom, observance and deportment. Thus it is clear to me that scooters are more prevalently used on Shabbat in Israel than in America, for example, although undoubtedly Jews who return to America from Israel having seen the use of scooters permit them to their children. It is commonplace in Israel, a rarity in America.

Sefaradic communities are much more lenient in this regard than Ashkenazic communities because of the lenient opinion of the Ben Ish Chai (Rav Pealim 1:25) who permitted riding a bicycle where there is an Eruv. There are many who hold that the Ben Ish Chai retracted this opinion. Nonetheless, most poskim (Ashkenazi and Sefaradi) prohibit riding on Shabbat, primarily because of the fear that the vehicle will require repairs, a forbidden act on Shabbat.

Aren’t bicycle repairs quite uncommon? I thought they were, until last year I spent Shabbat in a Sefaradi community (in the US) where cycling is common, went for a walk in the afternoon, saw a teen with a kippah whose bicycle chain had come off, and who was expressing his frustration in extremely colorful ways. I exclaimed, as the Gemara states (Shabbat 12b): “How great are the words of our Sages!”

Notwithstanding the lenient opinion, it is best to be stringent. But this should not apply to young children, certainly not those who ride tricycles. Once a child reaches the age of chinuch, it is best not to ride bicycles, and even use of scooters should halt by age 10.

Is it proper to daven in public in a large minyan (such as at a highway rest stop or in an airport)?

Yes, assuming that the minyan does not interfere with the movement of others and always remains considerate of the rights, needs and purposes of the people who frequent rest stops and airports. Don’t block the sidewalk or concourse!

That being said, there is a tremendous Kiddush Hashem that is brought about by joining diverse Jews in davening, and especially in unusual places. (I once davened Mincha with a minyan in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. There was no shul in the vicinity.) It makes a positive impression on passersby and can even induce Jews who would not otherwise daven with a minyan (or daven altogether) to participate. It reminds everyone that, wherever we are, our Torah responsibilities come first and our sense of nationhood is predominant. That is a great lesson for children – and for ourselves.

These days, it is particularly worthwhile to reinforce our Jewish identity in public and to proclaim to all our pride in being Jewish and serving Hashem.  As Rema notes at the beginning of Orach Chaim, we “should not be embarrassed in front of people who mock us for serving Hashem.” We are honored and privileged to be able to serve the King. We must not be aggressive in carrying out our duties but nor should we ever shy away from them.

While traveling once in an Arab country, I noticed that every service station has a little mosque designated for prayer, just as I have seen Muslims in airports and rest stops in America stretch out their prayer rugs and perform their devotions. Obviously, then, we should be proud and fearless in serving Hashem together with our fellow Jews. It is not only proper – it is laudable.

Questions for Rabbi Pruzansky

I am delighted to announce that my new book, “Repentance for Life,” has been published by Kodesh Press and is available for purchase at Kodeshpress.com, the finest stores and on line. It is most appropriate for this season of repentance. As part of the book release, the Five Towns Jewish Times interviewed me, and I present here their questions and my answers.

  1. What inspired you to enter Rabbanus?

It was always a dream of mine from the time I was a young. I had grown up watching my father Wallace Pruzansky a”h and then Rav Berel Wein both practice law and succeed in the Rabbinate. That became my career path as well, as an attorney and then a Rabbi. And I was privileged to learn from my rebbe muvhak, Rav Yisrael Chait of Yeshiva Bnei Torah of Far Rockaway, how to convey the timeless and sophisticated ideas of Torah in a way that would be receptive to modern minds. I owe all of them a great debt of gratitude. My objective always was to open minds to the majesty and profundity of Torah and try to shape the world according to the Torah.

  • What are the most critical issues affecting Klal Yisrael in contemporary society?

We are now suffering the consequences of two generations of assimilation and intermarriage. Both have engendered a loss of Jewish identity (except in a shallow ethnic sense) and a concomitant distancing from Torah, mitzvot and support for Israel. Worse, estrangement from Judaism is perceived as just another choice. In a society where religion itself is not valued, and personal autonomy is cherished, Jewish commitment has become even harder to convey to children. It can only be reversed by conceding there is a problem – we are not there yet, outside the Orthodox world – and then focusing on Torah education and increased observance of mitzvot.

  • To what do you attribute the insidious spread of anti-Semitism?

Jew hatred has been a persistent phenomenon, as the sages taught us, since we received the Torah at Sinai. The face and targets of the hatred change from time to time but it will exist until Moshiach comes. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out quite cogently, Jew hatred was first religious in nature, then it became racial and now it is nationalistic. There are Gentiles – to be sure, not all, and I believe not even most – who resent our existence, our faith, our connection to G-d, our value system, our homeland, our success and our status as the chosen people. They will never be mollified. Education can persuade a small handful of these enemies but most are implacable and uneducable.

  • What can be done to quell this cancer?

Unfortunately there is no cure for what Jean Paul Sartre once called a “passion,” and therefore not subject to rational dialogue. Obviously, priority should be given to Jewish self-defense, especially in an era when the police have often retreated from confrontations with evildoers. What compounds the problem is that Jew hatred – alone among the hatreds of various ethnic groups – has its defenders, apologists and overt supporters. Only attacks on Jews are greeted by some voices, cited by the media, saying that “they deserved it.”

       We should not have any illusions that there is a panacea. There isn’t. Jew hatred will always be a facet of exile and, ultimately, only Aliya solves the problem. That is not because there is no hatred of Jews in this part of the world – we know it exists – but at least in Israel the response to Jew hatred is building the future. It is a positive, affirmative response. In the exile, the response can only be defensive, with survival the sole purpose.

5. Do you feel that we, as Jews, should be more politically active? Please elaborate.

   I have always thought it critical that Jews become active in politics, and not just for parochial Jewish interests like support for Israel or funding for Jewish education. The Torah presents to the world, through the Jewish people, G-d’s morality. We are privileged and obligated to disseminate that to the nations, especially in the current environment in which each person or group fabricates its own values and virtues – many of which are antithetical to Torah. We sell short ourselves and our mission when we are apathetic about the propagation of Torah values. Thus I am delighted to serve now as the Israel Region Vice President for the Coalition for Jewish Values that in just a few years has made quite a difference on the American scene.

  • What was your objective in writing this book?

I wanted to share the thoughts on teshuvah that I had transmitted during the 26 years I was privileged to serve as spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey. Frequently, at the conclusion of my Shabbat Shuvah Drashah people would come up to me and say, “you must publish this!” So, now I have!

  • What are some of its unique aspects?

What struck me over the decades, and I think will surprise the reader, is the multifaceted nature of teshuvah. There are so many areas of life that can be enriched through probing the area of repentance generally. Teshuvah entails more than just feeling guilty, begging forgiveness, and moving on. It is life transforming, and done properly makes us better, wiser, and more thoughtful people. There are 18 essays in the book that encompass many of life’s issues and challenges, and repentance is at the core of all them – ranging from happiness, the ways of peace, love of Jews and the land of Israel to forgiveness, children, suffering, the world to come and fear of sin.

  • What message would you like to convey to my readers?

We are on the cusp of a new world order. The last few years have shaken so many assumptions that we have about life. So much that we have taken for granted has been shattered. The norms of our lives have been upended. We should try to ascertain what the divine message is in all of this and act upon it. Perhaps the ideas contained in my book can facilitate in part our personal preparation for the new era that will soon dawn, we pray, with the coming of Moshiach.