Free Speech

     Something curious has arisen in the recent past regarding this matter of the endless arguments without resolution that is a modern affliction. There are many occasions when I will disagree with someone who kindly informs me, “Well, you are entitled to your opinion,” or I will discuss with a third party a particular statement or position someone has that I find flawed, misguided or troubling, and that third party will respond, “Well, he has freedom of speech.”

     It is curious because I never questioned or doubted the person’s right to his or her opinion or the right to express it. What I questioned was the accuracy, wisdom, cogency, veracity, sensibility, logic or plausibility of that assertion. The “right” to say something is a procedural matter that it wholly unrelated to the substance of what was said. So when and how did that become an appropriate rejoinder in a discussion of a substantive issue?

     From one perspective, such a claim is intended to end the discussion. A mind having been made up and thus at present immovable, “he has a right to his opinion” is tantamount to saying “let’s move on.” So rather than further debate the substance, this plea is entered in order to allow the interlocutor to maintain his stance despite its senselessness, errors, illogicalities and untenability. It is still peculiar; given that in a free country people have the right to cling to and profess the most outlandish and erroneous ideas, that fact should go unstated.

      Perhaps, though, that is why this unusual declaration has become so prevalent. The right to hold and express certain views is under assault from many quarters in society, particularly the political and religious left. A recent survey indicated how basic principles of free speech are unwelcome on American college campuses. Thus, “more than half of students (57 percent) think colleges and universities should be able to restrict student expression of political views that are hurtful or offensive to certain students… A majority of students (70 percent) think students should be excluded from extracurricular activities if they publicly express intolerant, hurtful, or offensive viewpoints.” That is ominous but explains the chilling atmosphere on many campuses and classrooms where some ideas are considered beyond the pale – including support for Israel.

      It has become fairly common, even outside campus life, to be impolitely informed that certain ideas are unwelcome and may not be uttered. It often is related to a moral notion, especially a defense of a traditional viewpoint. It has happened to me, usually when people felt their avant-garde, “enlightened” views should be the only ones heard in the public domain. Some feminists have become notorious for this, as well as the advocates for same-sex practices. It never much mattered to me but I would hear from others, including rabbis, who said they agreed with me but could never articulate such views publicly. That’s a shame, because then the mob wins, and this is just one aspect of the cancel culture that has made social discourse so toxic. The right of freedom of speech is not much of a right if those who enjoy it are afraid to use it for appropriate reasons.

     It’s an even bigger shame because, as has been well documented, those professing conservative viewpoints have been largely intimidated into silence. Just to give one example, there are thousands of work places where it is safe to express contempt for the President and unsafe to express any support for anything he has done. Even neutrality is considered repugnant. But extrapolate from there to places where you cannot express support for Israel, and from there to what has become a most widespread phenomenon: the sheer inability of people to discuss politics or religion without descending into vitriol at best and blows at worst. That is a sad commentary on society. I have heard that there are families where certain sensitive (but not personal or familial) topics cannot be raised at any gathering lest reasonable conversation be drowned out by the cries of the moralistic monoliths who can only tolerate their own opinions.

     Words that incite violence or otherwise dangerous are already proscribed, and rightly so. I always laugh when the limits of free speech are described by some pundit as ending at the point of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Justice Holmes prohibited “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Obviously, if the theater is on fire, you are allowed to shout, and then get out.

      It might well be that the faulty citation is quite revealing. The context was “causing a panic” and thereby endangering lives, and such speech should obviously be illegal. But among the unduly sensitive, or censorious, speech that induces “panic” has been transformed into any speech that causes discomfort, offense, pain, hurt or even disagreement with the views of me and my friends. There are naturally religious bans on lashon hara, ona’ah and the like, which are quite edifying, but secular limitations on such speech are hazardous to the survival of any free society even if they come from civilians and not from government.

     It is understandable why discussions of religion and politics often bring out the worst in emotional people. Those two areas explore the best way to live, the values we should embrace, and how to implement those in the broader world. People’s opinions in these areas are often informed by their emotions and desires than by facts, texts, and traditions, and you can’t argue with people’s emotions. But these areas are not just the spice of life; they are literally life itself, and how to make the most of it. How pitiable that people can’t listen to and learn from each other and have their views shaped accordingly.

     Whatever opinions you hold, we can put an end to this pointless verbal tic of acknowledging people’s “rights to free speech” as a conversation stopper. The correct response to that is: “Of course they do. I never questioned their rights. They even have the right to be wrong. They even have the right to possess morally, logically, and religiously indefensible positions – but at least they should admit that.”

      That is because we also have the right to be thoughtful people who abandon our mistakes and are glad when they are pointed out. This is especially true in the subjects that are considered the most sensitive – because they are the ones that will influence our souls for good or ill and define our quest for spiritual and intellectual perfection.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 9

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the ninth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

If Albert Einstein were frum, should he have become a rosh yeshiva rather than a scientist?

Oh, would that Einstein have been frum! It is not as farfetched as it sounds. Although raised by parents who were diehard secularists, a young, rebellious Albert kept kosher and observed Shabbat as a nine-year old, to the consternation of his parents (“Einstein,” Walter Isaacson, Page 16). But he soon gave it up, and much else.

Einstein believed in G-d as the Creator but, alas, rejected the notion of a Providential G-d who is involved in history and transmitted a moral code to mankind. Perhaps if he had learned a little more, with the right teachers, he would have understood better that not everything in life can be explained by science.

A frum Einstein, who would have embraced all those ideas, could have engendered an even greater revolution in our understanding of the universe than he did. It certainly would have been more meaningful. A “godless” world leaves man empty and searching aimlessly, without a moral compass, and is ultimately despondent and hopeless. An Einstein who understood not only the grandeur of the universe but the majesty of the G-d who created and governs it could have effected a sea change in mankind and hastened the Messianic era when the world will be “filled with knowledge of G-d.” He could have had a greater impact than do most Roshei Yeshiva.

Our objective in life is to cleave to Hashem and use all of our talents to promote knowledge of G-d and His morality. One need not be a Rosh Yeshiva to accomplish that, and arguably frum educated laymen – lawyers, doctors, businessmen, scientists and others – can succeed in arenas where Roshei Yeshiva do not enter. Like the rest of us, Einstein should have followed his heart and mind into the path of his own choosing – and served Hashem faithfully in that capacity.

Is following sports a waste of time or harmless pleasure?

It would be quite facile to assert that sports are an utter waste of time, although obsessing over who wins or loses and suffering mood swings accordingly is both excessive and foolish.

Interestingly, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook contended that not everything that isn’t pure talmud Torah should be construed as bittul Torah (Ein Aya, Berachot 1:30). It’s impossible to prescribe in precise terms how assiduous each individual person has to be in his Torah study as every person is different.

People have to work, shop, and become involved in life’s affairs, each person to a different degree. Torah, though, is the barometer by which everything is measured and the lodestar that both guides us and refines our character.

Certainly “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam” (Peah 1:1) – Torah study is the equivalent of all the mitzvot and must be one’s primary pursuit in life. But the Rambam notes (perek 5 of Shemona Perakim) that our essential purpose in life – to seek knowledge of G-d – must characterize all our life’s endeavors.

Even indulging in physical or psychological pleasures must be rooted in the desire to be better divine servants: “May all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12). “All your deeds” includes even things we do to relax, boost our spirits, or give our minds a temporary respite from the rigors of Torah study.

That, the Rambam says, includes music, hiking, exercise, and even “looking at pleasant images.” To live and die based on a particular score – or to be “kove’a ittim” for sports – is ultimately vacuous. But as long as the right balance is kept and priorities remain straight, and sports are seen as just an amusing, fleeting distraction, it is indeed a harmless pleasure.

Is it okay for a young man to leave his parents’ mesorah and join another (e.g., for a chassid to become yeshivish, for a dati le’umi/Modern Orthodox Jew to become black-hat, etc.)?

      We are adjured “do not forsake the Torah of your mother” (Mishlei 1:8), which is often explained as an admonition not to discard the customs of our parents. That is admirable – but this question relates to deviating from a particular Mesorah that is not halachic or even necessarily behavioral.

      The notion that there is only one acceptable Mesorah or only one path that truly conforms to G-d’s will is a prevalent error in the Jewish world. There are various approaches in the Torah world that obey halacha, are rooted in the Mesorah and are invaluable to the integrity of the Jewish people. To assume that we all have to think or look the same way does not enhance but rather denigrates, even trivializes, our divine service. It promotes a robotic form of observance that is difficult to transmit to children.

     One great canard always circulated about Orthodoxy is that it is monolithic. The opposite is true! There is greater diversity in Orthodoxy than in non-Orthodoxy. The Gemara (Taanit 31a) states: “Rabbi Elazar said in the future, G-d will arrange a circle dance of the righteous, and He will be sitting among them, and each and every one of the righteous will point with his finger, as it says, ‘Behold, this, is our G-d…’”

      Rabbi Akiva Eiger commented that in a circle, everyone is equidistant from the center where, in this parable, G-d “sits.” In the future, the righteous will realize that each might have had different approaches – Chasidic, yeshivish, Modern (in the sense of being shomer mitzvot in a Western milieu), religious Zionist, etc. – but each one intended to serve G-d sincerely, and each was equidistant from the Center.

     As long as everyone observes the mitzvot, we need not wait for the “future” to realize this.

Minds Made Up

     Why is it impossible today to convince anyone of anything they don’t already believe?

     I have found this to be so at least for the last decade. People’s positions have hardened and most are impervious to reasoned analysis. Even being shown how their arguments are logically flawed, factually incorrect or intellectually unsustainable makes absolutely no headway. Providing examples of their assumptions being proved dead wrong falls on deaf ears. I have been told by too many people whose views were just incorrect or whose opinions I saw as misguided and subject to adjustment based on facts or the disproof of their assumptions something along the lines of: “You are a good debater. I can’t debate you. But this is my opinion and I am sticking to it.” Whether or not words like this are uttered to you, this sentiment is widely held and happens more than we care to admit. It seems as if people would rather donate a vital organ than change their mind about something.

     It doesn’t even matter if the subject at hand is politics, science, history, sports, religion or some other weighty topic. People would rather disengage from a dialogue in which their beliefs might be challenged or refuted than actually confront them, defend them or change them. How did we arrive at such a stage, in which minds are so made up that true dialogue is dead?

     One answer often suggested, and it strikes a chord, is the lack of mutual respect accorded to contrary viewpoints. The oft-repeated trope is that many people on the left perceive people on the right as not just wrong but evil, whereas many people on the right perceive people on the left as fools. It is hard to have a rational conversation with people for whom you have such disdain, although, in truth, it is always tempting to try to educate the fool; that is why people on the right have become the great defenders of free speech. It is distasteful, even morally repugnant, to try to educate people whom you believe are irredeemably evil; hence the contempt on the left for the Western norms of free speech. If people on the right can only articulate “hate speech” (defined as anything with which the left disagrees) then such “hate speech” must be banned. It certainly should not be confronted in any type of discourse, public or private.

     But I think the problem is even deeper than that.

     Leo Tolstoy wrote (The Kingdom of God Is Within You) that “the most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

     Too many people don’t know what they don’t know, and what they think they know is often wrong but so entrenched in their personalities and value systems that a refutation of those notions followed by a transformation in their thinking would be unbearable. They are thus subject to confirmation bias, assimilating only those points, vignettes, anecdotes or studies that validate their thinking and rejecting (sometimes not even hearing or even entertaining) all others.

     Part of the problem is the existence of “alternate facts,” a phrase unwittingly coined by Kellyanne Conway and mocked by the left-wing media but something, properly understood, that has a ring of truth to it. This is what she meant: people only internalize the “facts” that support their positions and do not recognize the flaws, weaknesses or questionability of those facts. For example, much has been made about the imperative of following the “science.” But what if the science is in dispute? Many scientists tout the effectiveness of mask-wearing during the current pandemic, but others argue and say its effects are positive but limited. Non-transmission requires other factors beyond, and more important, than mask-wearing.    

     Scientists differ on whether or not people with antibodies can be re-infected. Scientists differ on the effectiveness of the hydroxychloriquine protocol, with formal studies bashing it and case studies (I personally know people whose lives were saved by it) endorsing it. Obviously, one’s opinion about these “facts” is influenced by the politics of the matter.

     “Alternate facts” are also fueled by the rise of the self-appointed expert class who presumably know more than the rest of us. Their errors, though, are doozies. In late February, one well known expert, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a top Obama/Biden aide, decried the “overreaction” to the Corona virus and predicted the “warm weather” of summer would end it anyway. He is still advising, opining, and dictating. Not to pick on him, but he is typical of the expertocracy that are as wrong as often as they are right and almost never held accountable for their mistakes. But their mere existence provides the argument that their acolytes are seeking and precludes any dialogue. After all, the science has spoken.

     In another and less polemical or sensitive realm, social science studies that are endlessly circulated by a lazy media have been routinely exposed as bogus. In the language of the trade, it is called the “replication crisis,” because as many as 70% cannot be independently duplicated. They make a big splash upon release, shape people’s attitudes and even values, and turn out to be based on gossamer. Thus, “people who are more analytical are less likely to hold religious beliefs.” Bogus. Or, “students exposed to a text that undermined their belief in free will were more likely to engage in cheating behavior.” Bogus. Add to this list the studies that “prove” that coffee is harmful or not harmful, that low-fat, high-fat, low- carb, high-carb diets are good or not good.

     Part of the problem is small sample size, another is the need to be published (which gets the author fame and more money for grants) but the biggest problem is that the researchers are “searching” for the answer they want, and they almost always find it even if they have to fabricate the conclusions.

     And then, many of the easily replicable studies are replicable because they are so obvious, to the point of being frivolous. Take the recent study that offered the stunning revelation that “children of intermarried Jews grow up with a very weak Jewish identity.” Gee, who would’ve thought that?! I could have saved the sponsors of the study a lot of money. This notion too has been confirmed by a study published this past August: “Laypeople Can Predict Which Social-Science Studies Will Be Replicated Successfully.” You can’t make this up… or maybe you could. Who knows if that study is accurate!

      The idea of “alternate facts” exists in the Torah world as well. The citation of an opinion, no matter how obscure, is accepted on the religious left when it justifies their predetermined conclusion. “I follow Rabbenu Simcha – but only on this!” The recent travesty of the media trumpeting “Orthodox” rabbis performing same-sex marriages is a perfect example. No “Orthodox” rabbi would do that, any more than he would officiate at an intermarriage, endorse the consumption of pork on Yom Kippur or embrace the Trinity as Jewish doctrine.

      When each side to a debate possesses “alternate facts,” reasoned dialogue becomes impossible. And when the “alternate facts” are based on personal stories of hardship and struggle, often very compelling stories but not objective facts at all, then it becomes impossible even to relate to the other side, much less convince or be convinced by them.

     The existence of “alternate facts” has also played a role in the rejection of the concept of objective truth. Each person can possess his or her own truth if there really is no truth – and then go try to persuade them that there is. It is a dialogue of the deaf. Additionally, there was a time not long ago that reasonable people could disagree on issues without making their dispute personal and therefore irreconcilable. It was not just the matter of disagreeing without being disagreeable but mostly that there was a distinction between what is considered “business” and what is “personal.” I certainly had that in the rabbinate for many decades and was blessed with it in Teaneck (we didn’t always agree but it was never personal). Those lines have been blurred, partly because of the determination that some Torah ideas are intrinsically immoral, G-d forbid, and those who express them are beyond the pale. One who holds the “wrong” views on women’s issues, for example, can easily be castigated as benighted, unworthy or worse.

     Finally, minds are made up because, for all intents and purposes, we all live today in an echo chamber of our own creation. (Not me! I’m happy to say that I’ve changed my mind on a couple of things. Like the old saw goes, you should have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.) In the United States it is certainly true. The political division reflects a physical division in the country. Most people live in states that, for example, voted overwhelmingly for Trump or Biden. People now live among their own (certainly in the Jewish world it is like that also), thinking and acting in similar ways, and sharing values and religious beliefs. The coasts tend to be secular and progressive, and the heartland is called the “Bible Belt” for a reason. In New York and California, the free expression of religious ideas is under attack and religious worship is not fully valued by the state.

      The explosion of media has allowed people to get their news from the source that bolsters, but never challenges, their opinions. The “other side” is not presented, as much as it is ridiculed – and, I will say it, the exception being the news programs on Fox News. (The other networks generally offered a Democrat who hates Trump, and for balance, a Republican who hates Trump.) In the prevailing environment, most people therefore simply do not know what they do not know, few have an interest in finding out, and they will never discover that what they “know” just might not be so. Minds can never change as they do not have access to other information that might cause them to change.

     There is a handy solution, which is not to say that it is simple. Seek the truth rather than an intellectual triumph over the other person. Be prepared to act on that truth, for that is intellectual and moral honesty. Be open and intellectually curious. “Who is wise? He who learns from all people” (Avot 4:1). You cannot learn anything while talking to people with whom you agree. So seek out people with whom you disagree, engage them, do not demonize them or their views, and the free and open exchange of ideas and opinions will be refreshing. Focus on facts more than feelings, and rather than refer to numerous studies that prove nothing, can’t be replicated and are often just tendentious, search for moral clarity in the Torah and the Talmud.

      It is there. It is real. “Uncover my eyes so that I may behold the wonders from Your Torah” (Tehillim 119:18). And remember that we are “all presumed blind until G-d enlightens us” (Midrash Breisheet Raba 53:14). We might surprise ourselves and even better our world.

The Way Forward

    Should President Trump concede for the good of the country, recognizing that there is just a 1-2% chance the results of the election will be overturned by the Supreme Court, if these cases ever get there?

    Of course not, and here’s why.

    It is not only that protracted litigation will make it more difficult for Democrats to pull off the same illegal shenanigans and steal the two Senate seats in Georgia headed for a runoff, although that would be sufficient on its own. It is that cheaters should never prosper or, if they do, they should be called to account for it. It strikes me that irrational hatred of Donald Trump was so great that well over 85% of Democrats would have no objection to winning this election even if cheating was the only way, and I would love to be proven wrong.

    We have had prior experiences with Democrat presidential cheating to victory. It is widely assumed that the 1960 election was stolen for John Kennedy over Richard Nixon by 100,000 votes of dead people, primarily from Illinois but also some from Ohio. Nixon was gracious and conceded the next day knowing he was robbed, doing it for the good of the country, not that he received any credit for it. American politics doesn’t reward losers, only winners. In 1960 the country was divided but was not as bitterly polarized as it is today. (Don’t even mention Bush-Gore in 2000. It wasn’t Bush who failed to punch through the chads on the voting cards, thereby invalidating them.)

    It is clear that Democrats are such passionate partisans that they will vote long after they shed their mortal coil. And who says “the dead do not know anything” (Kohelet 9:5)? Apparently they care quite a bit. Here are the credible reports of cheating:

  1. corpses voting (Nevada, Michigan, et al);
  2.  tens of thousands of ballots delivered to presumably-closed counting facilities at 4:00 AM (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia);
  3.  election officials filling in blank ballots and stamping them “Received” (Michigan);
  4.  poll watchers denied access to watching polls, despite court orders (Pennsylvania);
  5. election officials illegally calling Biden voters who had wrongly filled out their ballots and helping them re-vote (Pennsylvania);
  6. voters at the polls discovering that someone had already voted for them (Arizona);
  7. non-residents voting (Nevada, Arizona) and voter rolls never updated used to generate multiple ballots (several states);
  8. voters who never voted and yet had someone vote for them (Arizona, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania);
  9.  voters told to use a writing implement that would disqualify their ballots (Arizona);
  10.  election officials illegally covering the windows of their facilities so they could not be observed (Pennsylvania, Michigan);
  11.  Trump ballots thrown out and not counted (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia);
  12. statistically-impossible numbers of Biden “voters by mail” – in some cases, 100% of vote batches went for Biden (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin);
  13. computer “glitches” that switched thousands of Trump votes to Biden votes (Michigan, and a dozen other states);  
  14. Rogue intelligence officials mucking around the system; and others.

    The interested can easily find videos and affidavits that document all of this.

     Note how the criminality took place in a select number of states. It is astonishing how easy it is to pull off and how difficult to thwart. There were many states that were definite Trump territory and definite Biden territory, and others that were likely Biden and likely Trump. Cheating in those states is a waste of time. Mass cheating is only necessary in a small handful of states, with one or two states set aside for more modest cheating as an insurance policy.

     Thus, Democrats knew that Trump could not win without Pennsylvania and Georgia, and would need Ohio, Michigan or Wisconsin (even two out of three) for a margin. The states therefore that most lend themselves to widespread fraud are those controlled by Democrats at all levels (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin), with Georgia a runner up because of the Democrat domination of Fulton County. That is why unbelievable numbers for Biden were produced in Philadelphia (literally, produced) and Atlanta that overwhelmed all other vote totals. These are districts where you can find thousands of votes for Biden (and Obama) and not a single vote for a Republican.

    The fraud was widespread, obvious, criminal and embarrassing. What is worse is that there is nothing that can be done about it. There really is no remedy. Sure, a handful of people will be prosecuted for election fraud, and nothing will come of that. Each state could appoint a different set of electors but the chance of that happening in Democrat controlled states is 0%. In theory, the Supreme Court could rule that the fraud in any given state was so overwhelming as to invalidate their electoral votes, which, if sufficient in number, would leave both candidates short of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. There is about a 2% chance of that happening, and most likely, the Court will rule that there was evidence of fraud but not enough to impugn the integrity of any state’s vote, and the results will stand.

     At that point, after the Court rules, President Trump should announce that he was robbed, the election was fraudulent and a disgrace, as he predicted, that Biden is an illegitimate president, but that he will honor the decision of the Court because that is the American way.

     The Democrats and the media they control will cry foul, ironic in light of the refusal of the Democrats to ever acquiesce in the results of the 2016 election, and further insincere given Hillary Clinton’s advice to Biden just last month that he should “never concede defeat.” Republicans well recall the “resistance” that arose the day after the election of 2016 and never stopped. They have plotted coup after coup – including this election – and finally succeeded.

    Trump will leave office as the most successful one-term president ever. He will be bashed for at least 1-2 years, as the Dems will blame all unsolved problems, including Corona, on him. Meanwhile Trump should continue holding rallies, energizing the base, keep Biden’s feet to the fire, blast him for refusing to accept an unrehearsed, spontaneous series of questions from the media, criticize him when necessary, castigate the media for their palpable bias and harm to their profession, return to business  – and announce that he will not run in 2024.

     When Biden’s policies inure to the detriment of American Jewry, they will spin it as positive. In the end, the Jewish vote didn’t count for much, as their states are solidly Democrat. Their party will abandon them long before – but long before – they will abandon their party.

     The people have spoken, and then some. Such is life. H. L. Mencken wrote almost a century ago that “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” We shall see.

A confident G-d-fearing Israel will fare quite well if it learns again to say “no” when appropriate. We could be having new elections here next March but we are well situated, with G-d’s help, to withstand a Biden/Harris administration.

     And across the ocean, G-d bless America?

     Better:  G-d help America.