Courtesy of AMI Magazine
Features by Rabbi Avi Shafran, editor at large and columnist.
Dos Yiddishe Mensch
If you've noticed a little less dignity, geniality and nobility in the world of late, it may be because we no longer have Reb Yosef Friedenson here with us.
Reb Yosef's humble bearing, good will and astuteness would have been remarkable in any man. But for a veteran of the Warsaw ghetto and a clutch of concentration camps to have emerged from the cauldron of the Holocaust as so shining a model of calm, forbearance and fortitude is little short of amazing - and something that deeply impressed all who had the privilege of knowing him.
I am among those fortunate souls, and I had the additional honor of working in the same offices as he, at Agudath Israel of America. There were times here and there when he would ask me to do some minor research for him. I tend to overschedule my days and, especially if I'm in a cranky mood, I sometimes feel put upon when asked to do something I hadn't included on my day's agenda. But when the asker was Reb Yosef, no matter how grumpy I might have been a moment before, the very sound of his voice, which transmitted his modesty and eidelkeit (sorry, there's no English word that can do the job), melted any cantankerousness I might have been nursing. I was happy and honored to help him in any way I could. Because of the person he was.
He was known as "Mr. Friedenson" but in fact was a wiser man and more of a rabbi by far than most who coddle that title. He was not into titles but into work, on behalf of the Jewish people.
For more than a half-century - beginning in the Displaced Persons camps after the war's end - Reb Yosef edited a Yiddish publication, which became the monthly "Dos Yiddishe Vort" - "The Yiddish [or Jewish] Word" - produced under Agudath Israel's auspices. Even as the periodical's readership dwindled with the loss of Holocaust survivors over the years, he forged ahead and, until virtually the last day of his life, worked hard to produce the glossy monthly that regularly offered Orthodox commentary on current events, historical articles and rare photographs from the pre-Holocaust Jewish era and the Holocaust itself. He approached his editing duties carefully and professionally, in the beginning of the venture recruiting top-notch writers and doing his own top-notch writing. He once said about his father, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, who edited the pre-war Agudath Israel newspaper in Europe, that he was "bristling with energy and ideas." It was an apt description of himself.
During his final years, Reb Yosef did much of the writing for Dos Yiddishe Vort himself, often under pseudonyms that were transparent to most everyone who read the publication. (No one cared; his own recollections and writings were deeply appreciated by readers.) And the issues increasingly focused on rabbinical figures who perished during the Holocaust, and on pre-war Jewish communities. Special editions were devoted to the Jews of Lodz or Lublin, to the Gerer rebbe or the Chazon Ish. And throughout, there were personal recollections of the war years and accounts of spiritual heroism during that terrible time.
That, in fact, was Reb Yosef's overriding life-mandate: to connect new American generations with the world of Jewish Eastern Europe. He didn't harp on Nazism or anti-Semitism. That there are always people who hate Jews was, to him, just an unfortunate given. It didn't merit any particular examination.
What did, though, was the decimation itself of European Jewry and the horrifying toll taken by the upheaval of the Jewish people on the Jewish dedication to Torah. When he would reference the Germans it was usually to note their perceptive realization that Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish nation. They tried to drain that figurative lifeblood along with their pouring of so much actual Jewish blood. But - and this was what yielded Reb Yosef's victory smile - they failed. He saw the ultimate revenge on the Nazis and their henchmen in the reestablishment and thriving of observant Jewish life, yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs on these shores and others.
He would sometimes call attention to a line from a prayer said on Mondays and Thursdays, the long version of Tachanun. "We [Jews] are like sheep led to slaughter," he would quote, and know well how true that has been over the course of history. But, Reb Yosef would continue, the operative words, the secret to Jewish survival and Jewish identity, lie in the supplication's subsequent phrase: "And despite all that, we have never forgotten Your name."
Reb Yosef never forgot G-d's name, not in the ghettos, not in the camps, not in the office where he toiled for decades to remind others of the Jewish world that was, and that can be again.
And we, for our part, will never forget either him or his message.
LIES, STATISTICS AND NEWS REPORTS
It's rare for light to be cast on the origins of a rumor. But a recent revelation about a charge made against Chuck Hagel before his confirmation as Secretary of Defense does that - and might provide us all some illumination too.
(Contrary to what some have surmised, I didn't and don't feel there is enough hard information about the now confirmed Defense Secretary on which to make a judgment of his attitude toward Israel. As attacks mounted on nominee Hagel, though, I suggested that Jews should think twice and thrice before attacking a public figure for animus to the Jewish state on the basis of pickings as slim as those gathered to criticize him.
Several people, including some pseudonymic letter-writers to a magazine that published my article, took my suggestion that bandwagons are best inspected before being leaped onto as support of Mr. Hagel. I explicitly wrote, however, that he might well not make a good Defense Secretary, and that I can't claim to know one way or the other. All that I pointed out was that, despite a maladroit phrase Mr. Hagel once used - for which he apologized - and unsubstantiated claims of a similar sin, there was no actual evidence for the charge made by some that the man is "anti-Israel" or "anti-Semitic." I pointed out, too, that a Secretary of Defense does not make U.S. foreign policy, and that it behooves us American Jews, in a world containing all too many all too real enemies of Jews, to not imagine, or inadvertently create, new ones.)
An edifying postscript to the Hagel hubbub emerged this week. In the midst of all the sturm und drang over the nomination, a conservative website (a "news source," as it happens, that the angry letters to the editor suggested I consult for my education) reported suspicions that Mr. Hagel had received foreign funding from a group called "Friends of Hamas." The story, of course, spread across the blogosphere with the speed of a brazen lie, which is precisely what it was. There is no such group.
And this week, the tale of how the charge came about was told - by the fellow who originated it, albeit unwittingly.
New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman explained how, digging for a story, he had asked a Republican aide on Capitol Hill if Mr. Hagel's Senate critics knew of any controversial groups that he may have addressed. Had the nominee perhaps "given a speech to, say, the 'Junior League of Hezbollah'… or the 'Friends of Hamas'?" the journalist jocularly queried.
Not realizing that politicians and their aides can be humor-impaired, Mr. Friedman compounded his little pre-Purim joke with a follow-up e-mail to the aide, asking if anything had turned up about that "$25K speaking fee from Friends of Hamas?"
Before Mr. Friedman could say mishenichnas Adar, the website had its scoop.
"Senate sources told Breitbart News exclusively," the report, by one Ben Shapiro, informed its readers, "that they have been informed one of the reasons that President Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has not turned over requested documents on his sources of foreign funding is that one of the names listed is a group purportedly called 'Friends of Hamas.'"
And so, other websites immediately ran with the fiction. For good measure, Mr. Shapiro tweeted the link to his nearly 40,000 Twitter followers. Countless inboxes welcomed the "news"; countless heads nodded knowingly.
Whether or not Mr. Hagel turns out to be a happy surprise or great disappointment, one thing is undeniable: Anyone who values truth - the "signature" of the Divine, in the Talmud's description - must make painstaking efforts to be objective, and eschew the siren-call (to mangle a metaphor) of the bandwagon.
Lies, overt and subtle, large and small, are, unfortunately, the fertilizer (in both senses of the word) of politics today. They are regularly foisted upon us all from every political corner and by both major parties' "activists." We are being gently misled and manipulated whether our source of information is right-wing talk radio or NPR, Rush Limbaugh or Diane Rehm. True objectivity and fair-minded discussion are as rare as Yangtze River dolphins.
And so, if we really insist on having opinions about political matters, we do well to absorb different perspectives, to weigh them fairly and to realize, constantly and deeply, that not everything portrayed as obvious or fact is necessarily either.
A number of years ago, a neighbor of mine, a business professional, shared a secret and a request. He told me that he had been found guilty of a crime - a dishonest financial reporting to the federal government - and was awaiting sentencing. He fully admitted that he had acted wrongly and offered no excuse for what he did. My neighbor is a kind, reasonable, family-oriented and charitable person. I drew on what thespian talents I had cultivated many decades earlier in high school, and feigned not being shocked.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," was all I could say. Then came the request. "Could you write the judge a character reference letter?" he asked.
"Of course," I answered, without hesitation. My neighbor's punishment would have great impact on his future, his family and his friends. Here was a good man who did a bad thing. The judge knew about the bad thing; the least I could do was describe the good man.
And so I did, the next day. I'll never know whether my letter, which acknowledged the crime and sought only to provide an honest assessment of my neighbor as a person, had any effect. He was sentenced to a year in prison and served his sentence.
What brought that memory to mind was the most recent example of "creative" reportage in a Jewish newspaper. "Orthodox Rabbi Defends Jewish Psychiatrist Convicted in… Assaults" read the headline of a report in the Forward on February 8.
Now what kind of stupid fellow, I thought, would defend the abusive actions of a doctor? When I saw the name of the rabbi, however, I realized that the headline had itself probably been abusive, of the truth.
Rabbi Yisroel Miller is well-known as a caring, sensitive, accomplished and respected leader of a congregation in the Western Canadian city of Calgary. He previously served a congregation in Pittsburgh and has been honored with rabbinic leadership awards by the Orthodox Union and the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools; he received a special award from the United Jewish Federation too, for his work to build bridges among diverse groups of Jews. He has authored four well-regarded books of essays on Jewish thought.
Ah, I thought, and now he's defending the indefensible? No way.
No way, indeed.
Upon closer inspection, the Forward piece exposed itself as an example of something less than responsible journalism. Oh, pshaw, let's be straightforward: it was make-believe muckraking.
What Rabbi Miller did, it seemed, was just what I did for my neighbor - and what innumerable rabbis, priests and ministers (not to mention friends, relatives and others) have done out of a sense of mercy and propriety: ask a sentencing judge to take their impressions and information into account when deciding the punishment for someone guilty of a crime.
And yet the article was not only headlined to make it seem as if Rabbi Miller had defended the criminal - which he hadn't done; his letter is explicit and clear about that - but led readers to imagine that he had minimized the crime. The rabbi is introduced in a sentence recounting how the defense attorney characterized his client's crimes as "minor offenses" and how he "then proceeded to read aloud from a letter from… Rabbi Yisroel Miller…[of] Calgary's Orthodox synagogue."
Perhaps, I thought, the article's writer had just somehow neglected to quote whatever part of Rabbi Miller's letter "defended" the accused. I searched in vain. The Forward report included details about the 74-year-old defendant's conviction, and angry comments about him from various people. But the only portions of the letter quoted were the rabbi's plea to the judge for leniency in sentencing the defendant, including his experience of the man as having always possessed a "humble manner," the observation that "The bad does not erase the good" and the fear that "a prison term would be a death sentence" for the doctor (who was reported to be frail and in the early stages of dementia).
So I contacted Rabbi Miller directly, and asked to see the letter myself. He readily sent it to me and it was, as I had expected, nothing more than a plea for leniency. In it, he explicitly declares himself unqualified to opine about the defendant's guilt or innocence and, equally explicitly, acknowledges the "darkness of the human soul" to which even otherwise good people can succumb. At no point in the letter does Rabbi Miller try to minimize the seriousness of the charge against the defendant; at no point does he in any way "defend" him.
I asked the rabbi how he feels about being maligned by a national newspaper. "I myself don't blame the Forward too much," he responded, kind soul that he is. "After all, it's their parnassa [livelihood]."
IRON AND IRONY
A typical offering included a close-up of the deformed face of a Jewish man above the legend "The Scum of Humanity: This Jew says that he is a member of God's chosen people." Another displayed a cartoon of a vampire bat with a grotesquely exaggerated nose and a Jewish star on its chest. In yet another, a Jewish butcher was depicted snidely dropping a rat into his meat grinder and, elsewhere in the issue, the punctured necks of handsome German youths were shown bleeding into a bowl held by a Jew more gargoyle than human. At its peak in 1938, print runs of Hitler henchman Julius Streicher's vile tabloid Der Sturmer ran as high as 2,000,000.
"All our struggles are in vain," Streicher told a Nazi student organization in 1935, "if the battle against the Jews is not fought to the finish. It is not enough to get the Jews out of Germany. No, they must be destroyed throughout the entire world so that humanity will be free of them."
We approach the Jewish holiday focused on the blessedly ill-fated plans of a Jew-hater of old, the Amalekite whose name we will greet with raucous noise each time it's read from Megillas Esther on Purim. Even a passing familiarity with the Purim story is sufficient to know that its villain's downfall is saturated with what seem to be chance ironies; Haman turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and all that he so carefully plans eventually comes to backfire on him in an almost comical way - a theme Megillas Esther characterizes with the words v'nahafoch hu, " and it was turned upside down!"
Such "chance" happenings are the hallmark of the defeat of Amalek, the would-be nemesis of the Jewish People - a fact reflected in the "casting of lots" from which "Purim" takes its name. Chance, Esther teaches us, is an illusion; G-d is in charge. Amalek may fight with iron, but he is defeated with… irony.
As was Julius Streicher. In the days after Germany's final defeat, an American major, Henry Plitt, received a tip about a high-ranking Nazi living in an Austrian town. He accosted a short, bearded artist, who he though might be SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and asked him his name.
"Joseph Sailer," came the reply from the man, who was painting a canvas on an easel.
Plitt later recounted: "I don't know why I said [it, but] I said, 'And what about Julius Streicher?'"
"Ya, der bin ich," the man with the paintbrush responded. "Yes, that is me."
When Major Plitt brought his serendipitous catch to Berchtesgaden, he later recounted, a reporter told him that he had "killed the greatest story of the war." When he asked how, the reporter responded "Can you imagine if a guy named Cohen or Goldberg or Levy had captured this arch-anti-Semite, what a great story it would be?"
Major Plitt recalled telling the reporter "I'm Jewish" and how "that's when the microphones came into my face and the cameras started clicking."
Another happy irony in Streicher's life involved the fate of his estate. As reported in Stars and Stripes in late 1945, his considerable possessions were converted to cash and used to create an agricultural training school for Jews intending to settle in Palestine. Just as Haman's riches, as recorded in Megillas Esther, were bestowed upon his nemesis Mordechai.
There is a good deal more of interest in the life of Julius Streicher to associate him with Jewish traditions about Amalek. But one of the most shocking narratives about him concerns his death. Streicher was of one of the Nazis tried, convicted, and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.
During the trial, Streicher remained true to ugly form. When the prosecution showed a film of the concentration camps, a spotlight was left on the defendants' box for security reasons. Few of the defendants could bear to watch the film for long. Goering nervously wiped his sweaty palms. Schacht turned away; Ribbentrop buried his face in his hands. Keitel wiped his reddened eyes with a handkerchief. Only Streicher leaned forward throughout, looking anxiously at the film and excitedly nodding his head.
Although no proof was found that Streicher had ever killed a Jew by his own hand, the tribunal decided that his clear-cut incitement of others to the task constituted a war crime; and so he was sentenced, along with ten other defendants, to hang.
And hang he did. But not before taking the opportunity to share a few final words with the journalists present at the gallows. Just before the trap sprang open, he blurted out: "Purim Feast 1946!" - an odd thing to say in any event, but especially on an October morning.
The "Amalek-irony" of the Nuremberg executions doesn't end there, either. The Book of Esther recounts how Haman's ten sons were hanged in Shushan. An eleventh child, a daughter, committed suicide earlier, according to an account in the Talmud. At Nuremberg, while eleven men were condemned to execution by hanging, only ten were actually hanged. The eleventh, the foppish Goering, died in his cell hours before the execution; he ingested a cyanide capsule he had hidden on his person.
Even more striking is something reportedly noted by, among others, the late Belzer Rebbe, the Kedushas Aharon. In the Megilla, the names of Haman's sons are written in two columns, an unusual configuration. Odder still, three letters in the list are written very small, and one very large. The large letter is the Hebrew character corresponding to the number six; the small letters yield the number 707. If the large letter is taken to refer to the millennium and 707 to the year in the millennium, something striking emerges. According to Jewish reckoning, the present year is 5773. The year 5707 - the 707th year in the sixth millennium - was the year we know as 1946, when ten sworn enemies of the Jewish people were hanged in Nuremberg, like ten others in Shushan more than two thousand years earlier.
What's more, the Megilla inexplicably refers to the hanging of Haman's sons in the future tense, as if to presage some hanging… yet to happen.
The Holocaust was the tip of an unimaginable iceberg of evil, stretching far and deep into the past. The evil, of course, persists today. But a time will come when Divine irony will end it forever.
AN END TO THE OCCUPATION
Like the repeatedly pummeled victim of depraved bullies who decides it might just be best to stay away from the schoolyard during recess, Israel recently opted to not show up to be judged by the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body with venerated members like Congo, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Malaysia and Qatar.
The UN body and a number of individual countries, including the United States, pleaded with Israel to not be the first country to refuse to appear for an HRC “Universal Periodic Review.” But the Israeli government, in its chutzpah, decided to just say no to presenting itself for assault yet again by a group that has demonstrated a deep and troubling fixation on one political dispute in a world in which, elsewhere, authorities routinely amputate body parts, blithely murder citizens, incarcerate innocent people without trial and look the other way as human beings are enslaved and sold like sides of beef.
The New York Times, predictably, did its own huffing, munificently conceding that the HRC is “not without faults” but asserting all the same that the Middle East’s only stable and free democracy was showing “an unwillingness to undergo the same scrutiny as all other countries” and depriving itself “of an opportunity to defend against abuse charges” – as if anything Israel might possibly say in its defense could magically turn deranged, hateful people into reasonable ones.
An HRC panel’s findings, just released, were telling. The panel, made up of representatives of France, Pakistan and Botswana, contended that the establishment of Jewish settlements in “occupied” disputed territories violated the Geneva Conventions and constitutes a war crime.
“In other news,” as they say, the Washington Post, to its credit, issued a correction to a news story it ran last month that identified the Western Wall as “Judaism’s holiest site.” After being cajoled by the vigilant folks at the watchdog group CAMERA, the paper conceded that the wall, rather, is “the holiest place Jews can pray” but that “Judaism’s holiest place is the Temple Mount.”
The Post’s error is a common one. The BBC has made the same mistake, as have a number of other news organizations. It’s an error worth parsing.
Obviously, the Muslim world has its own narrative, but the history accepted for centuries before the founder of Islam’s great-grandfather was born has it that the Temple Mount, as its name testifies, was the site of Judaism’s central holy structure, first built by King Solomon a millennium before the advent even of Christianity. Hope for the restoration of the Temple as a place of Jewish worship has been a major element of Jewish prayer for the nearly 2000 years since the Second Temple was destroyed by the ancient Romans.
When Israel captured Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, from Jordan in 1967, Jews and others flocked to the Western Wall; copious tears were shed and prayers prayed, as they still are there to this day. But Israel made clear that the Temple Mount itself would remain under the jurisdiction of a waqf, or Islamic authority.
It remains under that waqf’s authority to this day, and while some fringe nationalistic groups demand that Israel assert its dominance over the Temple site, Israel ensures that no such group can take any step to advance its cause. And no respected Jewish religious leader, whether haredi or national-religious, advocates for any imposed change to that status quo.
But every believing Jew knows that, through no military or political effort at all, one day Judaism’s holiest site will no longer host either a mosque, as it does today, or a church, as it did at other points in post-Jewish-Temple history, but a Divinely constructed Third Temple. The one we pray for thrice daily: “And may our eyes see Your return to Zion in mercy” and which will bypass – and undoubtedly come as a surprise to – the United Nations.
In the meantime, however, Jews are enjoined to accept the facts that the Messiah hasn’t yet arrived and that – as if it weren’t obvious – we live in a world often inhospitable to us. We are also enjoined to realize that, in order to merit the Messiah’s arrival, we must turn inward and become the best Jews we can be, kind, charitable and observant – sincerely dedicated, in other words, to the Torah’s laws and teachings. We would also do well, though, to remind at least ourselves, although the thought might confound the Human Rights Commission, that if any piece of Middle East real estate ever deserved the epithet “occupied,” it’s the one just beyond the Western Wall.
ALLOWING WOMEN TO CHOOSE
Well-informed, they say, is well-prepared; and knowledge is power. An exception, though - at least in the judgment of some - seems to be when Jewish women in Israel are contemplating ending their pregnancies.
When an Israeli magazine announced it would bestow an award on a group called Efrat, "pro-choice" advocates (seldom have "scare quotes" been so appropriate) howled in outrage.
Efrat provides women with information about abortion, as well as financial support for mothers-to-be who are under economic pressure to terminate their pregnancies. The group's detractors characterize it as preying on women at an emotionally vulnerable time.
Efrat, however, does not parade with offensive placards in front of medical facilities like some American groups. Nor does it seek to shame women in any way. Its goal is simply to advance "a woman's right to free choice," by providing expectant women who want it with accurate information about medical matters and the development of the lives growing within them; it also offers needy such women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term things like food packages, cribs and strollers. The group claims that, since its founding in 1977, 50,000 babies were born as a result of its work.
Strangely enough, that is precisely part of what irks some of the group's critics. "They're using the woman for demographics," complained a protest organizer, Tzaphira Allison Stern, mixing pregnancy with politics. "Why shouldn't a woman have an abortion?" she asks rhetorically in Efrat's name. "Because we need the baby so there are more Jews, and so there are more Israeli soldiers, so we can defend the land and continue the occupation."
Ms. Stern is also piqued by her assumption that "the organization works only with Jewish women, rather than with Arab, Druse or Christian women, which illustrates that they care only about politics and not about women's health." Like many Jewish charities, Efrat indeed focuses on the Jewish community, but it is in fact open to any woman from any background.
Denigrators of Efrat condemn it, too, for what they allege was the group's role in the death of a young man this past October. Stopped by police after a traffic accident, the distraught man pulled a gun and threatened to kill his pregnant girlfriend, prompting police to shoot him. He died of a wound to the head, and the tragedy, schlepped along a convoluted path, was laid at Efrat's door. Critics claimed that an Efrat employee had convinced the young woman to carry her child to term, which agitated the young man, and hence that the group was responsible for his fate ("death by counseling of another person" presumably). As it happens, Efrat insists that it has no record of any interaction at all with the young woman.
When Israel's two chief rabbis came out in support of Efrat, the opposition grew even more heated, even though Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Yona Metzger made clear that when he opposes termination of pregnancies he is "not talking about a pregnant woman who has psychological, medical or familial reasons" for considering such a move, but rather women who do so "due to financial considerations," which, he explains, is "where Efrat comes in."
The activists, nonetheless, were only further activated. "This is another step in the radicalization of religious figures," declared Hedva Eyal, who runs an abortion hotline in Haifa, "and is part of the discrimination against women that we are witnessing… with respect to their decisions over their own lives and health."
Left unexplained is how allowing women to make fully informed decisions about babies they are carrying - yes, babies; Israel permits abortions even into the third trimester of pregnancy - is discriminatory. An equally over-activated Nurit Tsur, the former executive director of the Israel Women's Network, scoffed that "the Chief Rabbinate… has been infiltrated by haredi elements," as if any authentic Jewish approach condones abortion for financial considerations.
There are many issues where contemporary mores stand in stark contrast with truly Jewish values. But both the modern mindset and the authentic Jewish one are in agreement that important decisions should be made with as much pertinent information in one's possession as possible, and that limiting the acquisition of such information is wrong.
In cases of life and death - even when it may be only potential life that is at stake - the ideal of informed decision-making is paramount, at least in theory. In reality, it seems, some would force it to pay homage to some imagined "higher" feminist ideal, where women are somehow best served by being denied information.
PRISONERS OF PRECONCEPTIONS
Even with protective cover from Senator Charles E. Schumer - as determined a defender of Israel as there ever was - and even speaking only for myself, I hesitate to address the overwrought reaction in some corners to President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. I don't want to be labeled an anti-Semite too.
Not that there wasn't or isn't cause for some concern about Mr. Hagel. He is famously on record as having once referred to AIPAC as the "Jewish lobby," and in the past questioned the wisdom of too hastily employing military force against Iran. But such things - you might want to sit down - do not an anti-Semite or unconscionable isolationist make.
At least not to reasonable eyes. Unfortunately, some tend to the visceral rather than the rational in such matters, prisoners of their own preconceptions. Despite the clear and ample evidence to the contrary, they just can't stop pegging the president as less than committed to Israel's wellbeing, and can be counted on to shoot at anything that moves if Mr. Obama set it into motion. So Mr. Hagel was immediately judged by some as bad for Israel, if for no other reason than that his nominator was the Dark Prince himself. Thus does circular reasoning attain its orbit.
A mindset is a terribly hard thing to move.
Mr. Hagel may turn out to be unsuited for the job of Defense Secretary. But that is a judgment to be made by Congress, based on the candidate's testimony at his confirmation hearings - not by a trigger-happy pundit gallery.
Do Mr. Hagel's critics even know what a Secretary of Defense does?
Hint: He does not make U.S. foreign policy. He oversees the operations of the military and, as part of the chain of military command, is answerable to the Commander in Chief. (Of course, that will hardly reassure those who choose to project their darkest fears onto Mr. Obama; cue the circular reasoning. And so, unfortunately, it goes.)
Particularly irksome is that the media has adopted the moniker "pro-Israel" for what would more accurately be characterized as pro-Likud. Employing the phrase implies that, somehow, anyone who dares to wonder whether every building project in Israel is a geopolitically wise thing to do is somehow insufficiently concerned with the country's future. But not every legitimate right is rightly acted upon. I can understand (although I'm no less irked for the fact) how a believer in Israel as a re-established Davidic Monarchy might see Israel's thumbing its nose at the (admittedly largely unsavory) family of nations as some sort of religious imperative. But that is not the approach of mainstream Orthodox Jewish theology - i.e. the teachings of the universally recognized Torah leaders of past generations and our own.
No, those interpreters of Judaism insist that the Messianic Age is yet to come, and counsel Jews as individuals to embrace modesty, and as a people to demonstrate a degree of deference to the nations of the imperfect world in which we float. Just as Jews in the Middle Ages or pre-Holocaust Europe had to pay (often distasteful but nonetheless necessary) homage to the nobleman or Czar, so do contemporary Jews bear a responsibility to take the feelings - yes, even unjustified, even hypocritical, even evil-fueled feelings - of the rest of the world into account. Even in a world with a Jewish state in the ancestral Jewish land, we are still in exile.
Maybe the Israeli right is right, and there's a rational reason why contested population centers must be expanded, no matter what the United States or European countries say. Maybe there's some larger-picture strategic need to do such things even if they alienate important global players, even Israel's closest friends. But one thing is clear - or should be: Doubting those maybes, as all recent American administrations have done, is no sign of unconcern with Israel, and certainly not of anti-Semitism.
Senator Schumer spent some time with Mr. Hagel the other day, and emerged from their long conversation satisfied that the nominee's views, both concerning Iran and Israel, are in consonance with his own. Mr. Hagel apologized for calling AIPAC a "Jewish lobby."
To be sure, even if the nominee is approved, none of us can know the future. "In no man do I place my trust," goes the prayer taken from the Zohar, advice for the ages. We cannot assume that even leaders who have demonstrated good will toward the Jewish people (or, today, the Jewish state) will always remain the same. But neither do we have the right to indulge in unwarranted panic attacks.
No question about it, it's a dangerous world for Jews and for Israel. But that's all the more reason for eschewing alarmism. We have all too many all too real enemies out there. What we really don't need is to imagine, or create, new ones.
NEVER GOING BACK AGAIN
American politicians tainted by scandal and forced to resign their positions usually explain that they want "to spend more time with their families." Issam al-Aryan, a top advisor to Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who recently tendered his own resignation said he is overly "occupied with my work as head of the Freedom and Justice Party bloc in the Shura Council." He must not lack for family time.
The scandal that attached itself to Mr. al-Aryan was that he had publicly invited Israeli Jews of Egyptian descent to return to their erstwhile home. "Egypt," he told Jews who had fled Egypt over the years, "is worthier of you than Israel," which, he explained, is a "racist, occupying entity."
There was no rush of Egypt-born Israelis to take up Mr. al-Aryan's offer, or for that matter any evidence of even a single Jewish individual who was enticed by the prospect of leaving a modern, prosperous country, not to mention his ancestral homeland, for a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated pit of poverty and political upheaval. What did come quickly, though, was the backlash against the Egyptian politician for his impudent invitation.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan, for example, lambasted Mr. al-Aryan, insisting that "Egyptian Jews are criminals who must be punished for what they did to Egypt and the Palestinians." An associate of Mr. Morsi informed an Egyptian newspaper that Mr. al-Aryan does not represent the presidency's stance and is not an official presidential spokesman.
In the wake of the criticism, Mr. al-Aryan hastened to clarify his message, explaining that his wish for Jews to return to Egypt had only been "in order to make room [in Israel] for the Palestinians," and that, in any event, "there will be no such thing as Israel" within a decade.
Alas, it was too late for clarifications. Mr. al-Aryan came to be convinced that he needed more time if not for his family then for his Freedom and Justice Party duties. Pronouncements in Egypt about Israel these days, he now realizes, are better left to people like Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood cleric Mahmoud al-Masri, who recently told his audience on Egyptian television that "Allah willing, Israel will be annihilated because the prophet Muhammad said so," adding for good measure that "ultimately, not a single Jew will be left on the face of the earth." No Oliver Cromwell, he; the Hitlerian model is clearly his preference.
(Interestingly, comments about Jews made by Mr. Morsi himself recently came to light. In 2010, he referred to the "descendants of apes and pigs," who "have been fanning the flames of civil strife wherever they were throughout their history" and who are "hostile by nature." And he told a rally that year that "We must never forget to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for… Zionists, for Jews." The White House and State Department called the comments "deeply offensive" and "unacceptable." Even The New York Times editorialized that Mr. Morsi's words were "repulsive," "scurrilous" and "pure bigotry.")
Melodiously chanted in the Jewish background as Mr. al-Aryan's travails transpired were the Torah portions read in synagogues around the world, about the original Jewish sojourn in Egypt, the one that came to a famous end with the ten plagues and the exodus.
That first emigration from Egypt, of course, also begat some - how shall we put it? - negativity on the part of the Egyptian leadership of the time. Whether Pharaoh, in leading his army to pursue the Jews he had earlier begged to leave wanted to return them to Egypt (presaging Mr. al-Aryan's ill-fated approach) or to wipe out the Jewish people entirely (providing Mr. al-Masri with yet another historical model), he made his move and met his fate.
Interestingly, despite that determined pursuit and the fact that Egypt enslaved our ancestors for hundreds of years, we Jews are charged by the Torah to "not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land" (Devarim 23:8). We must actually feel a degree of gratitude for Egypt's having hosted our forebears for so long.
And yet, in no less than three places, the Torah forbids Jews from returning to live in Egypt (e.g. Devarim 17:16). There's something about the place, it seems, that contraindicates a Jewish presence.
So Mr. al-Masri needn't fret - at least not about any large-scale return of Hebrews from their ancestral land. He might though, along with Mr. Ghozlan and Morsi, give some cautious thought to the synagogue Torah readings these weeks.
PRAYER AND POLITICS
I was heartened by the responses I received to my essay last week, in which I suggested that Jews of good will on each side of the issue of women's prayer groups at the Kosel Ma'aravi make an effort to empathize with those on the other.
Even as someone who wishes to see the Jewish religious tradition of millennia upheld at that holy spot, I still consider it important to try to appreciate how women used to women's or mixed-sex services might feel in a segregated national Jewish prayer area where the only group services are men's. And I expressed my hope that those women, too, will try to put themselves in the shoes of men who embrace halacha and thus may not hear women's voices raised in song. Where such empathy might lead was not my point; the empathy itself was.
I heard, among others, from several non-Orthodox rabbis who (even though they prefer a different setup at the Kosel than I) expressed their appreciation for what I wrote. Heartening too was that I didn't receive a single communication from anyone in my own charedi community eschewing empathy for those unlike us. (Perhaps that shouldn't have been surprising, but it was.)
Deeply unimpressed with what I wrote, though, was a Reform rabbi on the West Coast. In a blog she writes for JewishJournal.com, Susan Esther Barnes characterized my call for empathy as inconsistent and even "insulting" since I pointedly did not apply it to people like Women of the Wall's leader Anat Hoffman, whose words and actions seem to be weapons wielded in pursuit of a political/social agenda.
It is true, and I made no bones about it. I am unable to summon empathy for ideologues like Ms. Hoffman. While a Jew who (justifiably or not) feels personally pained by the dearth of vocal women's prayer groups in the main Kosel plaza deserves the sincere concern of other Jews, one who is motivated by the social activist cause of undermining Jewish tradition is a different matter. Someone who construes halachic standards at the Kosel as some intentional, nefarious "silencing… of women who comprise half of this nation,"(Ms. Hoffman's words), as a moral wrong that must be fought and vanquished - and who proudly declares that by provoking arrest "we are reclaiming Judaism's holiest site" (ditto) - cannot lay claim to my good will.
My critic insists that the purposeful disruptions engineered by Ms. Hoffman at the Kosel are nothing more than "traditional Jewish prayer," as if praying somehow entails summoning an eager cadre of media to record it (and, of course, its predictable results).
Rabbi Barnes accuses me of "calling heartfelt Jewish women rabble-rousers." But I did nothing of the sort. I called heartfelt Jewish women heartfelt Jewish women. It was rabble-rousers whom I called rabble-rousers.
It's hardly my judgment alone. The presumably non-charedi op-ed page editor of the Jerusalem Post, Seth J. Frantzman, recently wrote that "If Orthodox Jews decided to abandon the Kotel, Women of the Wall would follow them, because it is the Orthodox Jewish method of worship [that disturbs them]… [it is] the need to 'liberate' the Jewish Orthodox women, i.e. colonize them, that unfortunately appears to motivate some of these actions." The group, he contends, "seems too often interested only in itself and its narrow agenda." I would not apply so broad a brush myself, but there is little doubt that there are indeed places that merit the tar.
Writing in Commentary, moreover, respected (non-charedi) journalist Evelyn Gordon, while raising a different issue, makes a similar observation. What, she asks, about "the thousands of women who visit the Western Wall every day not to 'see and be seen,' as Women of the Wall chairwoman Anat Hoffman" described her goal, "but to pour out their hearts to G-d"? Should they be subjected, against their will, to services "conducted in as loud, public and disruptive [a] manner as possible"?
What Ms. Hoffman and like-minded social ideologues want, Ms. Gordon continues, "is to make a political statement." Were they "more interested in prayer than in politics," she suggests, "Israelis might be more sympathetic to their cause."
There are women among supporters of women's prayer services at the Wall who are sincerely interested only in prayer. Those are the fellow Jews for whom I feel, and counsel others to feel, empathy. Their goal is not to "see and be seen" or to "reclaim" the Kosel, but to pour out their hearts to Heaven. And whether they choose to pray at the Robinson's Arch area of the Kosel set aside for vocal women's prayer or quietly alongside their more tradition-minded Jewish sisters in the main plaza's women's section, they, along with all the men there for the same reason, are part of a unified, de-politicized, heartfelt Jewish presence in that peaceful, holy place.
THE "WAR OF THE WALL" SECRET WEAPON
It's easy to dismiss the antics of Warrior of the Wall Anat Hoffman. Her guerrilla gatherings of women in vocal prayer services at the Kosel Maaravi, or Western Wall, in defiance of an Israeli Supreme Court decision and in affront to the traditional Jewish men and women who most frequent the prayer site, are legend. That's largely because Ms. Hoffman, head of "Women of the Wall" and executive director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, makes sure the media are summoned and present to record her activities and detainments, which number eight at last count. She can bank, too, on the support - although some of it is uneasy - from the non-Orthodox American Jewish community.
Even those of us, however, who see danger and disunity in Ms. Hoffman's goal of "liberating" the Wall from Jewish religious tradition - halacha forbids Jewish men from hearing the voices of women singing or chanting - would do well to realize that not all the women who flock to the activist's side are political agitators. Some are surely sincere, and deserve our own sincere consideration.
Imagine a woman raised in a Reform or Conservative environment, who read from the Torah at her bat-mitzvah and for whom services led by women in the presence of men are the norm. When she visits Israel and is drawn to the Kosel she may well feel that something is somehow "wrong," that while many women are present and praying, only men are conducting group services and reading from the Torah. Can we not empathize with her? If we can't, we are lacking. Even misguided feelings are feelings.
There are powerful arguments for maintaining the status quo at the Kosel: Halacha is the historical heritage of all Jews. The Kosel is a remnant of the courtyard wall of the Second Holy Temple, where "Orthodox" services were the only ones there were. And permitting non-traditional group services at the Kosel main plaza will invite proponents of atheistic "Humanistic Judaism" to claim their fair share of the area, not to mention "Hebrew Christian" groups seeking their own time-share.
Making the case for halachic standards at the Kosel with reason, though, is one thing. More important than arguments in the end is empathy - on all sides.
For tradition-revering Jews, empathy means not confusing rabble-rousers with heartfelt Jews, not dismissing the feelings of differently-raised fellow Jews of good will.
And for those latter Jews, empathy means trying to feel what traditional Jews at the Kosel will feel if they are compelled by their commitment to halacha to leave the plaza during vocal women's services.
I once queried a young granddaughter of mine about what she brought to school for lunch. She listed an assortment of sandwiches but an iconic one was missing. "What about peanut butter?" I asked. Her eyes widened and she said, "Oh, no. We don't bring peanut butter into the school. Some kids are 'lergic to it!"
The following week I was interviewed on a Jewish television program about the "Women of the Wall." I had not planned to recount my conversation with my grandchild but it unexpectedly sprung to mind and I did. It surely inconveniences children with a fondness for peanut butter, I mused to the interviewer, to be unable to enjoy it for lunch. But concern for the sensitivities of others trumps our personal preferences, as it should. I suggested that sensitivities come in different colors. A halacha-abiding man may not be literally 'lergic to women's chanting. But in a way he is.
No doubt, Ms. Hoffman and others would proclaim that they are equally hurt by being unable to hold services "their way" at the Kosel, that their own tradition is insulted by halachic restrictions. But I think that a sincere, agenda-less non-Orthodox Jew will find the claim unpersuasive.
For more than forty years, the Kosel has been a place - perhaps the only one in the world - where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side. That has been possible because of the good will of non-Orthodox Jews - Israelis and Westerners alike - who, although they may opt for very different services in their own homes, synagogues or temples, have considered the feelings of those who embrace the entirety of the Jewish religious tradition.
Recapturing that good will amid a manufactured and media-seductive "War of the Wall" will not be easy. We Orthodox, though, might begin with empathy for fellow Jews who were raised very differently from us. And perhaps, in turn, that will merit us their empathy as well.
A FILM INFORMS MY SH'MA
As a single young man in 1977, I once found myself in a science museum where I viewed a just released short film that - there's really no other way to put it - expanded my consciousness. It apparently did the same for many others and remains to this day, despite powerful advances in special effects, an impressive work.
Produced the year I encountered it by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, "Powers of Ten" begins with a simple scene, a picnic in a Chicago park. As predicted by the voice-over, though, the camera pulls away from the picnic, at a rate of one power of ten per 10 seconds. The zoom-out continues straight up, so that, in a few seconds, the picnic blanket is but a dot of color against the green expanse of the park, which soon enough, with the camera continuing to soar heavenward, itself shrinks to a speck. Then the viewer sees the outline of Lake Michigan, then North America; the earth's cloud cover next fills the screen, and then earth itself, which itself quickly recedes into the distance. Eventually we see an image of our solar system and then the galaxy to which it belongs, before it, too, becomes but one of many galaxies. The camera seems to fly ever backward, until it reaches the farthest reaches of space.
The effect is visceral, or at least it was for me. It recalled to me how, as a child, I would sometimes lie flat on my back on our lawn on a clear dark night and concentrate my vision on the starry sky until I felt an inexplicable and sudden shock. It was as if the sheer vastness of the stars, of the universe itself, had somehow reached out and seized me; it was a frightening experience, yet one that, when feeling brave, I would occasionally seek out. Although "Powers of Ten" on a screen could not quite evoke that childhood shudder, it visually captured, maybe even more compellingly, the vastness of the cosmos.
The film, which proceeds from outer space to inner space, zooming back in to the picnic and then further, into the skin of a picnicker, into one of his cells and its DNA, then into an atom and an electron, has been recently celebrated on the 35-year anniversary of its release. (Charles Eames passed away the following year, in 1978, and his wife Ray, in an arresting irony, died precisely - to the Gregorian calendar day - ten years later.)
The short film actually plays a role in my life as an observant Jew, thrice daily when reciting the fundamental Jewish credo, the Sh'ma (at morning and evening prayers and before retiring). The Sh'ma declares G-d's transcendence of time and space, and, as we pronounce the word echad ("one") halacha prescribes that we try to conceptualize, to the degree we can, the immensity of the universe - "above and below and in all four directions" (Brachos 13b) - and the fact that the Creator of it all is not of it at all but "beyond" it and in control of it.
One of the ancient Hebrew euphemisms for G-d is "Makom," which literally means "place." The Talmud explains that the word describes the Divine because "the universe is not His place, but rather He is the 'Place' of the universe."
Leaving - even in our imaginations - the dimensions of time and space isn't an option for us mortals. We are like the two-dimensional residents of Flatland, Edwin Abbott's 1884 satirical fantasy world, trying to comprehend three-dimensional existence. There is a reason the Hebrew word for both time and space is "olam," rooted in "ne'elam," which means "hidden."
And yet, we are required all the same to concentrate, as we recite the first verse of the Sh'ma, on G-d's transcendence of time and space. That can be done in an entirely intellectual manner, without any sort of visualization. I find it helpful, though, when I recite the Sh'ma, to try to capture something of the feeling I felt as a child lying on the lawn on those starry nights. Images from "Powers of Ten," as they did 35 years ago, provide me a "visual" to accompany the intellectual recognition of the scope of the olam.
I doubt that the Eamses ever thought of their film as something that would come to invigorate a Jewish religious devotion. But that's what it did, at least for this Jew.
The Time of Your Life
Similar advertisements abound, but this one took the cake.
I've always been simultaneously amused and saddened by pitches for "high-end timepieces," more accurately known as overpriced wristwatches.
Amused, because the most intricate Swiss movements consisting of scores, if not hundreds, of near-microscopic moving parts are no better (and often worse) at keeping accurate time than simple quartz or digital watches available for less than a thousandth the price. And saddened, by the thought that there are actually people out there whose self-image is so fragile (and whose understanding of money's worth is so distorted) that they actually waste large amounts of cash for such status symbols.
Enter now, in the ad I saw, the French luxury goods house Hermès. It is presenting marks-pardon, discerning fashion-conscious folks-with the opportunity to purchase a truly revolutionary timepiece, one that can… make time stand still.
This is not a joke, or at least it's not being presented inaccurately. The ad copy, in its entirety, reads:
La montre Hermès reinvents time and set it to the tempo of your desires.
Press on the pushbutton and suspend time.
Beneath the dial, time continues to run within the heart of the mechanism.
Another push on the button sets the date and hands running again.
Time resumes its march, and you the course of your day.
This exclusive Hermès Calibre is a world première.
In other words, this amazing watch, "Le Temps Suspendu," allows its wearer to pretend that time has ground to a halt (or that his watch is broken). Now of course, the owner of so well-adorned a wrist could as easily opt to just not look at his watch and imagine the same. But let's not rain on this magical thinking (particularly since the ad says nothing about the timepiece being waterproof).
And, perhaps most amazing of all, this wondrous machine can be yours for a mere $17,150. (The steel version, that is. The pink gold one will set you back $36,200.)
Consumer gullibility and the sometimes lack of correspondence between wealth and mental acuity are easy targets. What's interesting here is the appeal to the fantasy, as the ad copy puts it, of setting time "to the tempo of your desires." Of "suspend[ing] time" until you allow it to "resume its march."
Now there is nothing wrong with taking time to relax and let what one is doing momentarily fade out of focus (at least if one isn't driving or operating heavy machinery). Research has even indicated that doing so occasionally not only does not harm productivity but actually boosts it. No less an authority than Rashi, at the very beginning of Sefer Vayikra [Leviticus] (1:1), notes the importance of allowing "revach bein had'veikim"-"space" for reflection between responsibilities.
For that matter, taking even a longer period of time "off" to relieve the toll taken by relentless routine, is not a wrong thing. In fact, there are times when it is precisely the right thing.
But all such digressions, at least from a Jewish perspective, should be conscious utilizations of time, not some imagining that time has been put on hold. King Solomon tells us Bechol drachecha da'ehu - "In all your paths, acknowledge Him" (Mishlei [Psalms] 3:6). What that means, works of Jewish mussar, or ethical philosophy, explain, is that undertaking even mundane actions with the intent to have them indirectly serve a higher purpose renders them holy. One can retire for the night with the sole thought "I'm bushed" or with an attendant one: "By going to sleep, I will better be able, because of the rejuvenation afforded me, to more energetically do meaningful things tomorrow." One can sublimate most anything, from eating to bathing to vacationing, from self-serving acts to Creator-serving ones.
But that is qualitatively different from imagining that to pretend that time is standing still is to somehow accomplish that effect.
Every moment of life-whether used to actually do good or to better prepare oneself for doing good-counts, and presents itself to each of us but once. And it's self-deluding, even dangerous, to imagine that actually wasting time, setting it "to the tempo of your desires," represents some sort of achievement.
Because in the end, as even the ad is forced to acknowledge, "beneath the dial, time continues to run…"
TO ERR IS ESSENTIAL
Students of Daf Yomi will reach it on the seventh day of Chanukah, “it” being a particularly trenchant mishna in Mesechta Shabbos, considering that the following day, “Zos Chanukah,” is identified in the Jewish mystical tradition as the last echo of the Days of Judgment that began with Rosh Hashana.
It’s easy to overlook this particular passage’s implication, but it’s one that is fundamental to life. On the surface, the mishna (73a) deals simply with categories of forbidden actions on Shabbos, including mocheik, or “erasing,” the sister-melacha of “writing.”
The designation of forbidden actions on the Sabbath is determined by which acts were necessary for the building and use of the mishkan, or desert-tabernacle. Where exactly was writing used? The Talmud (ibid, 103b) explains that the gilded wooden beams used for the structure – which was dismantled and rebuilt repeatedly – were inscribed with letters to indicate which beams were to be placed where. (My sukkah and I’m sure many other sukkos benefit from a similar component-designation system.)
And erasing? Well, that, Rashi on the mishna explains, derives from the need to correct errors when the wrong letters were mistakenly inscribed on beams.
Now think: the builders probably took drinks of water during the mishkan-building process; likely they coughed or sneezed; surely they handed things to one another. Yet drinking, coughing, sneezing, and handing over objects are not forbidden actions on the Sabbath. Why? Because they are not, in the end, intrinsic to the construction project. Only actions absolutely necessary for the construction are to be designated as prohibited on the Sabbath. And that means that, if removing erroneous inscriptions is the reason for the Sabbath-prohibition of “erasing,” then errors… must be… indispensable parts of the mishkan-building project.
In fact they are indispensable parts of every successful project. Duke University civil engineering professor Henry Petroski has written several books elaborating on that point, one of them entitled “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” He makes the case that a successful feat of invention depends on a series of failures. Only the commission and addressing of errors, he elaborates, can propel any invention to perfection. “Failure,” Professor Petroski explains about engineering, “is what drives the field forward.”
Errors are part of the project of life itself, no less – a truth bearing heavily on the concept of teshuva.
Among the published collected letters of the late Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, is one he wrote to a student who had shared with the Rosh Yeshiva his despondence and depression over his personal spiritual failures.
Rabbi Hutner’s Hebrew letter digresses into English for a few words—those comprising the maxim that one can “lose battles but win wars,” It is a saying, Rav Hutner writes, that encompasses a deep truth. What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva explains to his student, is not basking in the sunshine of one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly and no matter the setbacks, the battle against our inclination to sin.
Rabbi Hutner notes that Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, (Mishlei, 24:16) teaches us that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up.” That, writes the Rosh Yeshiva, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles—including the failures—are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate victory. If we find ourselves flat on our backs, we must pick ourselves up and resume the war. And, if need be, again. And again.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are long behind us, hardly at the forefront of most Jews’ minds as snow clouds gather. But thoughts of righteousness, sin and repentance are not seasonal; every day of the year brings its own challenges. And so, approaching the final day of Chanuka, we do well to ponder our stumblings, but, remembering Rav Hutner’s thought, to also temper our anguish over mistakes we have made. To understand that failures, even repeated ones, are integral steps toward ultimate success.
To remember why it is that erasing writing on Shabbos is forbidden.
HIDDEN LIGHT IN GAZA?
Beyond all the Arab declarations of animus for Israel, beyond Hamas’ firing of rockets from hospitals and schools, beyond its cynical propagandizing of the resultant civilian casualties when those batteries are destroyed by Israeli jets, beyond the Gazan crowds celebrating the extension of Hamas missiles’ ranges to within reach of Israeli population centers, one image may best capture the jihadi mindset: the dragging of a man’s corpse through the streets of Gaza City.
The executed man was an Arab, like the rider to whose motorcycle his body was tied, like the cheering men atop the other bikes in the macabre motorcade. He, along with several others who were likewise summarily murdered, had been accused of “collaborating” with Israel – i.e. with sending information to the Israelis that helped them identify missile sites or the whereabouts of jihadi military leaders.
The gleeful bikers, in the end, are but an unvarnished representation of a society that seems to suck in hatred and violence with its every breath. They reflect the essence of Hamas, the movement that Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi lauds when he speaks to his people, of the West Bank residents who cheered on the rockets launched from Gaza, of the ostensibly civilized Arab countries whose representatives rushed to Gaza to show their own solidarity with the lusters for the blood of innocents.
At the same time, though the recent conflict also featured heartening happenings, if too few of them. President Obama’s unequivocal endorsement of Israel’s right to defend herself, for example, and his placing of responsibility for the current conflict squarely where it belongs, in the lap of Hamas and other jihadis. It’s not unheard of for an American president to suffice in such circumstances with a mere obligatory call for an end to the violence on both sides. Instead, the president spoke clearly about how “no country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens,” and how “a genuine peace process” must start “with no more missiles being fired into Israel’s territory.”
And then there were the successes of the Iron Dome missile interception program (for which Mr. Obama also deserves our hakaras hatov, as it was expanded by a special allocation he requested and Congress approved in 2010); it likely saved many Jewish lives.
Another, less readily apparent bit of light, though, might glimmer in the ugly spectacle of the motorcycle savages in Gaza City.
It’s certainly entirely possible, perhaps even probable given Gazan society’s cultural proclivity for barbarity, that the unfortunate man whose corpse was so desecrated (in such telling contrast to the treatment of Osama Bin Laden’s remains, which were given an Islam-sanctioned burial-at-sea send-off by American troops) was no Israeli spy at all. He may have been someone on the wrong side of a business deal, or of a marriage agreement, or of a rental dispute. Accusations of helping the Zionist Entity have long been a convenient way in places like Gaza and the West Bank to dispose of inconvenient lives with impunity.
What, though, if the deceased and the others recently executed were in fact helping Israel? It’s not inconceivable. Just as there are operatives in enemy territory during every conflict, there are likely Palestinians who are in Israeli intelligence’s employ. And what if their motivation were not monetary but… a recognition of the depravity of their society, their observation that its hatred gauge is perpetually in the red zone? Could it be that there are thoughtful Arabs in Arab countries, people who aspire to righteousness – not the jihadi-corrupted version but the real deal – who are willing to help Israel target evil people, even at the risk of their own lives?
I don’t know. But even the possibility is a heartening thought. Our tradition teaches us that there are chasidei umos ha’olam, “unusually good people among the nations of the world.”
I’d like to hope that there are members of that special human subspecies among the Arab masses. And if in fact there are, may Hashem bless and protect them.
THE EVIL ELEVENTH
Is child abuse "more common in the Orthodox Jewish community than it is elsewhere? There are no reliable statistics … but there's reason to believe the answer to that question might be yes."
Those words, sandwiching an important admission between a sinister question and an unfounded speculation, were written back in 2006 by Robert Kolker in New York magazine.
Mr. Kolker's "reason to believe" was based on speculation by the New York Jewish Week's Hella Winston, who has since established herself as someone who views the Orthodox community through heavily jaundiced eyes.
Our hearts must ache with the anguish of victims of abuse, especially children. And it's natural for people who have met survivors of terrible things to feel deeply for them, and angry at their abusers. But extrapolating from the harrowing accounts of carefully sought-out victims that abuse, which sadly exists in the Orthodox community as it does in all communities, is somehow emblematic of Orthodox life is like visiting Sloan Kettering and concluding that there is a national cancer epidemic raging.
The New York writer went on to offer an even more offensive, even less grounded, conjecture, protectively qualified by the preface "There are some who believe…" What the safely unnamed "some" believe is that "repression in the ultra-Orthodox community"-namely, dedication to Jewish law and custom-"can foster abuse" [emphasis mine].
That is, put bluntly, an unmitigated insult to Judaism. Jewish life holds high the ideals of family, community, compassion for others, control of anger and passions, and ethical behavior. There will always be seemingly observant individuals who are hypocritical, or who may sadly fail the test of self-control, even with horrendous impacts on the lives of others. But does the existence of corrupt police and unethical doctors indict the professions of law enforcement or medicine?
If any belief system enables immoral and unethical behavior, it is not Judaism but its polar opposite, the conviction that no higher authority exists. While atheists may live upstanding lives, it should be self-evident that denial of a Higher Power and divine laws for mankind leaves a human being with no authority but himself, and no compelling reason-other than getting caught-to shun bad behavior.
These thoughts come to mind in the wake of a recent highly-publicized abuse scandal in England. One Jimmy Savile, a famous entertainment figure who died last year, was posthumously exposed as a serial abuser of children, including patients in hospitals he visited in the course of charitable fundraising work.
The British National Health Service, police, and the BBC all stand accused of turning a blind eye to the man's crimes-which were the subject of a BBC broadcast that the network canceled.
Astoundingly, in Mr. Savile's 1976 autobiography, he did not shy from describing some of his abusive behavior, which clearly crossed the moral and legal line, bragging that had "not been found out."
"Which, after all," he added, in an attempt at humor, "is the 11th commandment, is it not?"
It was a poignant choice of words. Because those who recognize the import of the Ten Commandments respect them as G-d-given, immutable, and binding. The entertainer's imaginary Eleventh is the antithesis of those adjectives. It is the credo of someone who feels he is not ultimately answerable to any being, or Being. And it provides him license to do whatever he finds pleasurable or amusing, no matter the toll on others, or on his own soul.
No, Mr. Kolker and your "some who believe," a religious Jew is imbued with consciousness that, as Rabi Yehudah Hanasi expressed in Massechta Avos (2:1): "An eye sees and an ear hears, and all of your actions are in the record written."
That truth, though, can be occasionally forgotten even by us non-atheists. That is the message of the initially puzzling blessing Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai offered his students as he lay dying, that "the fear of Heaven be to you like the fear of flesh and blood" (Brachos 28b).
"Is that all?" they exclaimed. The sage's response: "If only!"
"Think." he continued. "When a person commits a sin in private, he says 'May no person see me!'."
And yet, of course, he is seen all the same. Jimmy Savile was seen, and so are we all.
HIDDEN LIGHT IN GAZA?
Beyond all the Arab declarations of animus for Israel, beyond Hamas' firing of rockets from hospitals and schools, beyond its cynical propagandizing of the resultant civilian casualties when those batteries are destroyed by Israeli jets, beyond the Gazan crowds celebrating the extension of Hamas missiles' ranges to within reach of Israeli population centers, one image may best capture the jihadi mindset: the dragging of a man's corpse through the streets of Gaza City.
The executed man was an Arab, like the rider to whose motorcycle his body was tied, like the cheering men atop the other bikes in the macabre motorcade. He, along with several others who were likewise summarily murdered, had been accused of "collaborating" with Israel - i.e. with sending information to the Israelis that helped them identify missile sites or the whereabouts of jihadi military leaders.
The gleeful bikers, in the end, are but an unvarnished representation of a society that seems to suck in hatred and violence with its every breath. They reflect the essence of Hamas, the movement that Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi lauds when he speaks to his people, of the West Bank residents who cheered on the rockets launched from Gaza, of the ostensibly civilized Arab countries whose representatives rushed to Gaza to show their own solidarity with the lusters for the blood of innocents.
At the same time, though the recent conflict also featured heartening happenings, if too few of them. President Obama's unequivocal endorsement of Israel's right to defend herself, for example, and his placing of responsibility for the current conflict squarely where it belongs, in the lap of Hamas and other jihadis. It's not unheard of for an American president to suffice in such circumstances with a mere obligatory call for an end to the violence on both sides. Instead, the president spoke clearly about how "no country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens," and how "a genuine peace process" must start "with no more missiles being fired into Israel's territory."
And then there were the successes of the Iron Dome missile interception program (for which Mr. Obama also deserves our hakaras hatov, as it was expanded by a special allocation he requested and Congress approved in 2010); it likely saved many Jewish lives.
Another, less readily apparent bit of light, though, might glimmer in the ugly spectacle of the motorcycle savages in Gaza City.
It's certainly entirely possible, perhaps even probable given Gazan society's cultural proclivity for barbarity, that the unfortunate man whose corpse was so desecrated (in such telling contrast to the treatment of Osama Bin Laden's remains, which were given an Islam-sanctioned burial-at-sea send-off by American troops) was no Israeli spy at all. He may have been someone on the wrong side of a business deal, or of a marriage agreement, or of a rental dispute. Accusations of helping the Zionist Entity have long been a convenient way in places like Gaza and the West Bank to dispose of inconvenient lives with impunity.
What, though, if the deceased and the others recently executed were in fact helping Israel? It's not inconceivable. Just as there are operatives in enemy territory during every conflict, there are likely Palestinians who are in Israeli intelligence's employ. And what if their motivation were not monetary but… a recognition of the depravity of their society, their observation that its hatred gauge is perpetually in the red zone? Could it be that there are thoughtful Arabs in Arab countries, people who aspire to righteousness - not the jihadi-corrupted version but the real deal - who are willing to help Israel target evil people, even at the risk of their own lives?
I don't know. But even the possibility is a heartening thought. Our tradition teaches us that there are chasidei umos ha'olam, "unusually good people among the nations of the world."
I'd like to hope that there are members of that special human subspecies among the Arab masses. And if in fact there are, may Hashem bless and protect them.
AUTONOMY ÜBER ALLES
As with a number of evil ideas, physician assisted suicide can be defended without great difficulty. The magic word for making the case is "autonomy"-the right of individuals to make choices about their future (or, here, lack of one).
That is precisely the argument that was made in Oregon, Washington and Montana, states that have legalized assisted suicide (or, as it has been renamed in Newspeak, "death with dignity").
The same argument has been made (and the phrase enshrined) of late in Massachusetts, where voters will decide (or, as you read this, have decided) whether to approve the "Death With Dignity Act," permitting doctors to help patients kill themselves if they are "terminally ill."
Every life, however, has a terminus. Mortality happens; in fact it's currently the rule. And so, "terminal illness," at least philosophically speaking, is a meaningless term. (Halacha recognizes a state of "in the actual process of dying"-goses-but that concept is of no pertinence here; it is forbidden to kill a goses.) One is either alive or one is not. And suicide is either an autonomy-based human right or it isn't.
It pays to consider some questions here. Why do civilized societies consider a healthy person who wishes to end his life to be terribly misguided? Why do law enforcement and social service agents do their best to intervene when people stand on bridges or window ledges with intent to carry out their autonomous wishes? The justification for doing our best to prevent suicides is based, first and foremost, on the fact that most would-be suicides are the product of psychological depression, a state that is not necessarily permanent, as is (at least until techyas hameisim) death. Depression can pass, and it can be amenable to medical treatment.
That is why animals never willingly kill themselves. (The popular notion that lemmings do is a mistaken one.) Only humans can suffer deep angst.
Another question: Why do we care about someone, depressed or not, who chooses to end his life? Answer: Because the end of a life means the undermining of whatever relationships, accomplishments, and good deeds potentially lie in the death wisher's future. By cutting off that future, he deprives himself, and his relatives and friends and society, of unknown and untold meaningful benefits. He, quite literally, wastes a life.
Which leads to the next question: In the case of a person deemed "terminally ill" who wishes to be helped to kill himself, are the facts above any less true or pertinent? The answer is no.
Despite assumptions to the contrary, the impetus for suicide in such cases is usually, if not always, likewise motivated by psychological depression, just as in cases of suicidal people who are physically healthy. Doctors who assisted "dignified" suicides in Oregon between 1998 and 2009 reported that a mere 22% of those patients were in physical pain or fearful of its onset. The vast majority simply felt anguish over their physically compromised lives or over the toll their lives were taking on their loved ones. Food for thought for anyone who considers a physically healthy person's suicide a terrible tragedy but an ill person's a mere matter of autonomy.
And in 100% of the Oregon assisted suicides, of course, as in 100% of all suicides, those who perished were rendered unable to accomplish anything meaningful after their wishes were carried out.
What meaningful accomplishment could a bedridden, sooner-rather-than-later-to-die person possibly accomplish? To ask that question is to demonstrate a severely limited understanding of human life's import. It doesn't lie in running or jumping or being entertained; nor in traveling or reading or surfing waves or webs. The most meaningful matters any of us ever can access are things like forgiveness, repentance, prayer, commitment, love, and fulfilling what we believe is G-d's will.
If meaningful life is defined as dependent on mobility and physical gratification, then the notion of "autonomy über alles" may make moral sense. But if we recognize that life's true meaning transcends physical activity and sensations, then there is no difference whatsoever between assisting a healthy would-be suicide and one who happens to be sick.
Human life is human life. Whether at its earliest stages or its final ones, it is invaluable.
In slow but clear Hebrew and with an endearingly wry smile, the elderly Jewish lady recalls a trip to America one summer with her sister. At a bank, she recounts, the teller, a young woman, said to her. "Oh, you have numbers on your arms! Yours ends with a '4' and hers with a '5'!" That's cool!"
The bubbeh's smile widens and her eyes seem to twinkle as she recounts her response to the girl. "You're right," she quietly told her in English. "It's cool… It's from another epoch of our life. It's cool."
The testimony is offered in a documentary film, "Numbered," whose US premiere is scheduled for later this month at a Chicago film festival. The film's focus, however, is not so much on the cluelessness of young Americans but rather on the attitudes of different tattooed survivors to the memory-marks they carry day-in, day-out on their arms. And on the recent trend among some young Israelis who seek to perpetuate a connection to the Holocaust and the Jewish people by tattooing their own arms with numbers borne by concentration camp inmates.
According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, such tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941 and in Birkenau the following March. After the war, some survivors whose arms bore the inked record of their ordeals sought to remove the reminders. Others wore them with pride.
A well-known teshuvah, or responsum, by Rav Ephraim Oshry (She'eilos Uteshuvos Mima'amakim, 4:22) advised a woman who wished to have her concentration camp tattoo surgically removed to regard it instead as a badge of honor. It is told that Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, zt"l, the Satmar Rov, once counseled a follower seeking a blessing to go into a shul and find a man with numbers inked into his skin; such a person, the Rov explained, is worthy of providing a meaningful bracha.
But the thought of Jews today electing to subject their bodies to markings like those the Nazis and their collaborators used to dehumanize their forebears grates-or should grate-like a knife run across the edge of a glass.
And indeed, there has been no dearth of criticism of the newly number-tattooed. Their actions have been labeled a fashion-statement hijacking of the Holocaust; characterized as an effort to usurp others' identities; condemned as a trivialization of the horrific.
The contemporary Holocaust remembrance enterprise is, to be sure, deeply inappropriate, but-in the manner of the Berditchever's spirit of seeing good in all Jews-it, or at least the motivation behind it, might be regarded more generously.
Ten young number-tattooed Jews interviewed by The New York Times last month, in the reporter's words "echoed one another's motivations: they wanted to be intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative. And they wanted to live the mantra 'Never forget' with something that would constantly provoke questions and conversation."
Worthy goals, if misguided means. What is mostly missing, though, from all the criticism is what should be the most fundamental one: that a tattoo-even a well-intentioned one-is forbidden by the Torah.
"You shall not make a cut in your flesh for the dead," it states, "and a tattoo you shall not place upon yourselves-I am Hashem" (Vayikra, 19:28). And that prohibition remains even-one might argue especially-if one's intentions are sublime. For the opinion of R. Shimon ben Yehudah in the name of R. Shimon (Makkos 21a) is that the phrase "I am Hashem" implies that the prohibition specifically refers to a tattoo of Hashem's name!
And so an irony practically screams out here. Klal Yisrael is only a nation by virtue of the Torah. Throughout all of the vicissitudes of our history and all the challenges our people has faced, what has always ensured our survival, indeed, our eternal nature, is that which bonds us to our Creator: the study and practice of Torah. Those are the keys to Jewish unity and Jewish eternity.
Pity the newly number-tattooed. Not only are they unintentionally punishing their Jewish souls by their actions, they are undermining the very things-memory, their historical heritage, Jewish peoplehood-that they seek to preserve.
WE DIDN'T BUILD THAT
The current extended silly season called a presidential campaign has certainly provided its share of absurdities. Wouldn't it be nice if all there was to consider were objective facts about the candidates and carefully drawn policy statements by each? If those manipulative and disingenuous political ploys known as ads were outlawed? (I know, I know, we have a Constitution that's very kind to free expression, even of lies and innuendo.) If money and gullibility didn't somehow combine to yield votes?
Instead we have dog stories-that Mr. Romney long ago travelled with one atop his car (albeit in a windshield-equipped animal container-and with Seamus reportedly enjoying the ride); and that Mr. Obama, as a child in Indonesia, had tasted canine meat (a delicacy in a number of countries). And slightly less peripheral but ultimately irrelevant "issues" like the contents of the Republican candidate's personal tax returns and the fact that some Navy SEALS don't support the president's re-election.
Then there are the outright mischaracterizations. Like the portrayal of Mr. Romney's ill-spoken but less-than-horrifying admission to a group of donors that the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax aren't likely to vote for him, as some sort of "let them eat food stamps" disdain for the poor. Or the insinuation that Mr. Obama's statement "If you've got a business, you didn't build that"-a clear reference to the tax revenue-built "roads and bridges" he specifically mentioned-was intended to show disdain for the accomplishments of hard-working Americans.
"You didn't build that" may well prove to be the most memorable sound-bite of the 2012 campaign. One's thing's certain: From a Jewish point of view, it deserves top billing-not as a reminder of our tax dollars at work but read more deeply, as a larger truth that should inform every moment of our every day.
Which is to begin, with its very first moment of consciousness, with opening our eyes and saying the words of Modeh Ani, thanking our Creator for allowing us to awaken. Yes, we were alive and well the previous night, but we have no right to take our continued living for granted. We didn't build it.
Throughout the day, we acknowledge much else we enjoy but didn't build. From the Birchos Hashachar we recite, thanking Hashem for our sight and our clothing and our ability to move and our energy, to the gratitude we offer in the form of blessings we pronounce over the foods that we eat, a Jewish life is saturated with expressions of hakaras hatov, "recognition of the good"-the understanding that when it comes to all that we have and enjoy and use, we didn't, so to speak, build any of that; G-d did.
The concept was imbedded in the very week of creation, as we recently read in the Torah portion. The first rain was held back (Beraishis 2:5) until there was, as Rashi explains, a human being to "recognize the goodness of rain."
Most everything we have we didn't build. That's the meaning of the Talmudic dictum "All is in the hands of Heaven, except fear of Heaven." All our circumstances, including our successes and failures, regardless of how hard we worked, are determined not by us but by our Creator. All we can ever really call our own is our "fear of Heaven"-the way we choose to live our lives with whatever Hashem allows us to have as we pass through life.
The truth is that imagining that we are self-made, that "we built that" is no mere under-appreciation of a sublime truth but the embodiment of a decadent attitude, the one characterized in Devarim 8:17 by the boast "My power and the might of my hand made me all this wealth."
Which boast is followed by the injunction: "You shall remember Hashem your G-d, that it was He Who gave you strength to make wealth."
How rare that a phrase from a political campaign might deserve to be ornately printed on heavy stock, framed behind glass and hung prominently in a Jewish living room. But in this case, Mr. Obama's statement-if not as he intended it-well qualifies for that honor.
MRS. AARDVARK COMES HOME
A time-travelling housefly, transported back to the mid-1980s and spending a Sunday afternoon lazing high on the wall of an ornate living room in a stately home on the fashionable East Side of Providence, Rhode Island, would behold an unusual sight.
Below him would be a group of Jewish children, ages ranging from around three to eight, each holding a stuffed animal. The matron of the house, a meticulously-dressed lady of a certain age and the manor's sole permanent resident, would preside, beaming, over the gathering, and ask the children to put their furry companions on chairs arranged around a table brimming with kosher cookies, chips, and candy.
The fly would be witnessing one of Mrs. Dorothy Fox's "stuffed animal parties" (at which festivities whatever the animals didn't eat would become fair game for their caretakers). After refreshments, Mrs. Fox, a divorcée of many years and someone whose love for children was joyfully reciprocated by the little ones, would take the crew of kids and creatures for a tour of her back yard, which was graced with statues and other interesting things. Leveraging even her name to please her young visitors, Mrs. Fox would encourage them to edit it and call her by more imaginative animal appellations. "Mrs. Aardvark!" they would squeal, or "Mrs. Porcupine!"
From her smile and manner, neither the fly nor the children would ever have guessed that Mrs. Fox (later, Levenson) was facing a most unpleasant situation, the misappropriation of her grave.
What had happened was that the cemetery plot she legally owned, alongside the burial place of her beloved mother, had been used by another relative. A local Conservative rabbi had given the cemetery the go-ahead for the illicit burial. When Mrs. Fox became aware of what had happened, she was devastated. She spoke with her relatives, to no avail. She spoke with the chairman of the Historic Cemetery Commission for the town where the cemetery lay; he investigated the situation, discovered that Mrs. Fox was entirely in the right, and confronted the lawyer for the literal grave-robber, who summarily rebuffed him. She wrote to a relative who was chairman of one of the state's largest companies and well-known for his social conscience and philanthropic undertakings. He wrote back that he had his "own problems and opportunities to deal with" and declined to become involved in the "situation."
Mrs. Fox then wrote to a renowned rov in New York, who immediately called the adversarial lawyer. The latter was forced to admit that his client had done something wrong but sent the rov the language of a Rhode Island statute stating that when an illicit burial has taken place, "after burial there is a marked reluctance on the part of courts to remove" remains.
The rov wrote Mrs. Fox to reassure her that her parents' souls were in no way "unhappy" with the course of events and that, on the contrary, Mrs. Fox's own unhappiness was of concern.
"Serve Hashem with joy," he quoted from Tehillim, and reminded Mrs. Fox that the Talmudic sages considered it meritorious to not react negatively when one feels wronged.
It took Mrs. Fox some time to fully absorb the rov's advice-although her pain didn't prevent her from hosting stuffed-animal parties-but eventually she did. In fact, several years later she left Rhode Island, where she had been born and raised, and moved to Yerushalayim. She spoke no Hebrew and knew few people there. But she said that her "precious Yiddishe neshama" was impelling her to make the move.
Over ensuing years, my wife merited to travel to Israel three times, after the births of grandchildren to our daughters then living there. Each time, she saw Mrs. Fox. Three of our daughters, either living, studying, or visiting Israel, visited her on occasions too. All reported that the Providence-to-Yerushalayim transplant was enjoying her life in the Holy Land greatly. She had, she happily expressed, "come home."
Mrs. Fox, active until virtually the end, returned her precious Yiddishe neshama to her maker this summer (15 Tamuz). She had made plans, "in the event Moshiach doesn't arrive first," for her interment. And she was buried in holy soil.
LIVING "OUT OF THE BOX"
Olivewood is beautiful. It reminds me of Eretz Yisrael and little carved camels; it has a delicate, calming hue. And silver, well, it is pure and shiny and smooth, and brings sefer Torah ornaments to mind. The esrog boxes made of ornately carved olivewood and elegant, glimmering silver are most fitting containers for holding an objet d'mitzvah. My personal preference, though, is cardboard.
Not any cardboard, that is, but my cardboard, the white heavy-paper stock box in which an esrog of mine, many years ago, was packed when I bought it. These days, the standard-issue boxes tend toward illustrated green affairs. The old-fashioned white ones were more bland, but also better canvases on which a child's imagination could assert itself.
And so my old esrog box-or at least its panels, re-attached now to a more sturdy modern box, covering up the garish green-is unique. Its sides and top feature a young child's rendering in colored markers of, respectively, an esrog and lulav; a sukkah; a smiley-face;and (inexplicably but endearingly) a turtle whose shell is a sukkah covered with schach). The artists are now either mothers or "in shidduchim," but some of us like, on occasion, to time-travel. We look at our grown children and see five-year-olds where they stand. The artwork was beloved to me many years ago when it was created; it's no less beloved to me now.
And so, in my own personal ritual, I yearly unpack my new esrog from its sale-box and delicately place it in the one whose panels have enclosed each of my esrogim over nearly twenty years. It's not olivewood, and not silver. Not even gold or platinum. It's more precious than that.
I admit I get some stares in shul. Some may think I'm a cheapskate, unwilling to shell out a few dollars for what they think would be a more respectable container for a holy object, or insufficiently aware of the importance of hiddur mitzvah, the ideal of "beautifying a commandment." Others, though-at least I like to imagine-understand the ethereal beauty of my unusual esrog-box, and perhaps are brought to some memories of their own, and even to some thoughts appropriate to Sukkos.
The word sukkah, sefarim note, can be seen as rooted in "socheh"-"to see" or "to perceive." A sukkah, it seems, can afford us a deeper perspective on life. Most people-and Jews are people too-go through life trying to "get stuff." What storehouses of gold and silver once conferred on their owners is today bestowed by new-model cars and luxurious homes built on the ruins of less luxurious predecessors. But stuff is stuff.
And even those of us who buy used vehicles and live in modest homes are far from immune to the "get stuff" societal imperative. We may apply it differently, limited as we are by reality. But we still feel the push to add to the inventories we'll never take with us.
When we sit in our primitive week-house, though, outside the homes that harbor so many of our possessions, we may find it easier to realize that our accumulations are not essential. We can exist without them. They do not define us. They will one day be left behind for good.
It might seem odd, but that thought-after all, Sukkos is zeman simchaseinu, "the time of our happiness"-is a joyous one. For true happiness begins with the realization of what doesn't really make us happy. Possessions may provide a rush but, like any drug's, it quickly wears off. The soul is not satiated, which is why, as per Chazal, "No man dies with half his desires in hand."
True joy comes from things more rarified than what can be purchased. It comes from our relationships not with things, but with people-our parents and our children, our teachers and our students, our friends and our neighbors.
What we really have in life is not what we own, but what we are.
Some who have seen me walking to shul on yomtov with my reconstituted cardboard esrog box proudly in hand may have wondered why I hadn't opted for a hiddur mitzvah. What they failed to comprehend is that I did.
BAD WEEK FOR THE DNC
The Democratic National Committee, at least from the perspective of Israel supporters, had an exceedingly bad week.
Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was caught in an unpleasant untruth when she claimed that Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren had described Republican policies as "dangerous" for Israel, an assertion Mr. Oren "categorically den[ied]." She subsequently denied making the claim, but her denial was conclusively contradicted by an audio recording.
And then there was the Democratic National Committee platform, which omitted its predecessor-document's description of Jerusalem as Israel's capital (not to mention the phrase "G-d given," in an unrelated context).
When the omission of the Jerusalem language came to light, courtesy of a close reading of the 32-page platform by a Republican operative, Democratic Israel stalwarts were taken by surprise. New York Senator Chuck Schumer was described by Politico as "flabbergasted"; and Newark, NJ mayor and platform committee co-chair Cory Booker called the omission "unfortunate." Although he noted that the platform had been largely written from scratch and was not based on previous ones, he was at a loss to explain the lacuna.
Blue blood was in the water, though, and Republican sharks, not to mention the party's nominees for president and vice president, lost no time reacting. Paul Ryan called the omission "a tragedy" that serves to "undermine our nation's support for Israel." And Mitt Romney called it "one more example of Israel being thrown under the bus by the president."
The president's involvement in the platform change was taken for granted by some, including his detractors in the Orthodox Jewish community, who saw it as an intentional anti-Israel signal by Mr. Obama, ill-advised as such a message would be during a presidential campaign.
Two of Mr. Obama's closest advisors, though, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, insisted that the president had been entirely unaware of the platform language. "He has some other duties and responsibilities," Mr. Axelrod said wryly, explaining that the president had left the platform-writing to others. In fact, party platforms are largely exercises in insignificance. They speak essentially for the committees that prepare them, not presidential candidates, who not only are not bound by their planks but are sometimes even at odds with them. (The Republican platform's no-exception anti-abortion plank, for instance, does not reflect Mr. Romney's stated position.)
Mr. Obama's ostensible complicity in the change was quickly belied, however, when Democratic leaders reported that the president had ordered the platform amended to include the words "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel." (G-d, too, was given His due.) Some Democratic operatives even went on the offensive, noting that the GOP platform omitted previous Israel-related language of its own-namely, a pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While past presidents, like the current one, have issued presidential waivers avoiding its implementation, a US law calls for the country's embassy to be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.)
The entire kerfuffle was just a potpourri of political potshots as usual-at least until the amended Democratic platform was put to a voice vote on the convention floor. When DNC chairman Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles, asked the assemblage to declare its endorsement or opposition to the added words, the enthusiastic "aye"s were not clearly more plentiful than the angry "nay"s. Mr. Villaraigosa sensed the fact and, hoping for a more clear approval, tried the voice vote "one more time," which elicited an equally equivocal response. Ditto on a third try.
Choosing to hear what he had hoped to hear, the chairman then declared that "in the opinion of the chair, two thirds have voted in the affirmative" and announced that the platform had been successfully amended.
It was an embarrassing end to an embarrassing episode for the DNC, and it made clear to anyone who may have labored under a more pleasant fantasy that whatever Israel-unfriendly sentiment exists in the American electorate has found its home in the Democratic party. It may, thankfully, have no evident influence on the current legislative or executive branches of government. But it's depressing nonetheless that the party of FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK has become home to literal "nay"-sayers who resent the idea of Jews controlling the quintessential Jewish city.
JOURNALISM AND SAUSAGES
Some reporters have punished me over the past few years, for doing something they don't like-asking that they pose their questions by e-mail.
Some background: As the media liaison for Agudath Israel of America, I regularly receive inquiries from members of the press about an assortment of issues, mostly about Agudah policies or initiatives but about all manner of things Jewish as well.
Although there are responsible journalists out there, competition for "eyeballs" tends to color, and often distorts, much reportage.
During my early years on the job I freely spoke with any and all reporters, confident that what I thought was my openness and good will would force my inquisitors to treat me, and our community, fairly. I was in for a surprise.
The first few times I was misquoted or my words mischaracterized, I assumed I hadn't been sufficiently clear or that the reporters had made innocent mistakes. Eventually, though, I sobered and realized that some reporters were-are you sitting down?-not really interested in accuracy or truth. They were seeking, rather, some quote to plug into the article they had already written (at least in their heads), on a quest to get some words from me to "massage" or use in a selective way to fit their preconceptions. And disturbingly often, their products seemed calculated to cast the Orthodox Jewish community in an unfair light.
And so it was that I discovered journalism's dirty little secret: Reporters, despite their pledges to provide facts in an objective way, are just as biased and close-minded as mere mortals. And their proffered credentials as purveyors of truth make their biases all the more pernicious.
After confronting that painful truth, I made the decision that, excepting reporters I have come to know as fair-minded and objective, I would generally respond to journalists' questions not in person or by telephone but only by e-mail. That allows me to ensure that my words are well-chosen; I can weigh them, edit them, and re-edit them until I'm satisfied that they are clear and reasonably beyond mischaracterization.
And precisely for that reason, some reporters are miffed by my policy. Written responses, they gripe, are too impersonal and formal. What they really mean, though, is that such responses are too efficient, too clear, and too difficult to manipulate. (What's more, they leave a paper-well, electron-trail.)
And so those reporters punish me. Not to worry; it's nothing as painful as my beloved first grade rebbe's ruler on my fingers when I misbehaved. My penalty consists only of the addition of the words "… responded by e-mail" before whatever words of mine were quoted. It's a sort of whine, like what one hears in schoolyards ("Teacher! Jimmy won't talk to me!"), and meant to convey to readers that a considered written response is somehow inferior to a comment offered in a conversation.
In truth, of course, it's superior. Rare is the first off-the-cuff or conversational comment that is as accurate or informative as a duly considered one. As Leon Wieseltier once remarked about blogs, the idea that our first thoughts are our best thoughts is thoroughly ridiculous.
Even my "e-mail only" policy, however, is no match for a determinedly unscrupulous journalist. This past May, for instance, a reporter "on deadline" for a Jewish paper in New Jersey e-mailed me 13 questions (the norm is one or two), each of which would have taken a good ten minutes to reply to in a complete and clear fashion. I didn't have two hours to offer him that day, and so I apologized and sent him some primary material that included most of the information he sought.
In his article, he informed his readers that I had "declined to directly respond to" and "failed to answer" his questions, leaving the impression that he had posed a simple question or two and that I had been purposefully evasive. Clever fellow.
The "Fourth Estate" is an important part of a free society. But when its members elevate prejudice over principle, the results can be ugly. It didn't take much interaction with the world of media for me to realize that like a sausage, journalism is something whose ingredients you might not really want to know.
Like pretty much all publicity, the heavy reportage of the Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium earlier this month was something of a two-edged sword. Over the weeks since the Siyum, awareness of the event likely inspired many Jews to undertake Daf Yomi and legions of others to aspire to a greater degree of Jewish study and observance. It also brought the very idea of Torah study to the attention of large numbers of our fellow Jews who may have, in reading or watching reports about the Siyum, for the first time confronted Torah study as a real-life ideal.
All the reportage of the Siyum and Daf Yomi, however, also provided grist for some grumbling mills.
"The question is how much depth does one really get into with a Daf Yomi kind of approach," sniffed Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "It's breadth over depth," he pronounced, explaining helpfully, and risibly, to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency how "the Conservative approach to Jewish study tends to be more depth-oriented."
And then there was Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary, who penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal on August 9 about the Siyum and Daf Yomi's implications for non-Orthodox Jews.
He began with a short history of Daf Yomi, quoting Rav Meir Shapiro and acknowledging how the Siyum HaShas, whose first celebration included "only a small group of participants," had now brought "some 90,000" to join in the main event, with "thousands more participat[ing] online."
It constitutes "a remarkable achievement," he writes, "bearing witness to the vitality of Orthodox communities and the impressive network of Orthodox educational institutions that engage Jews in study from childhood through retirement."
So much for the objective, honest assessment part of the op-ed.
But ah, Mr. Eisen continues, Daf Yomi "deprives students of a precious opportunity to raise difficult questions about meaning and truth." He laments that a participant in the program "misses the chance to engage in the traditional back-and-forth arguments over facts and implications that have breathed life into Talmud study for centuries." (Apparently he's never having attended one of the more lively Daf Yomi shiurim out there.)
And-in case you were waiting for the other shoe (the fashionable one) to drop-Mr. Eisen also takes care to add that his critique "is even truer if women are absent from the table as learners and teachers-still the case at most Orthodox lessons."
All the de rigueur lamentation off his chest, the chancellor then turns, finally, to what "the rest of the Jewish world" can "learn from this grand study of the Talmud."
"How," he asks, "can they be offered a sense of community and meaning? What learning could galvanize non-Orthodox Jewish minds, stir our hearts, nourish our souls?"
Good and worthy questions, without doubt. In fact, they are questions we Orthodox Jews should be asking too.
Mr. Eisen's answer begins in a promising enough way. He proposes "a different page for Jewish learning," one that "would cleave faithfully to texts, rituals, history and faith." Beautiful: a Perek Chumash Yomi, or Perek Tehillim Yomi, or a Halacha Yomis. But Mr. Eisen isn't finished. The course of daily Torah study he has in mind is "one that is open to the larger world and bears the impact of modern thinking," one that is "informed by art, music, drama, poetry, politics and law." A "passage from Job," he suggests, "would be accompanied by clips" from a movie about a Jew; "the poetry of Isaiah could be explored side by side with that of the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai."
Note to Mr. Eisen: You're missing something fundamental about Daf Yomi's success-for that matter, about the Orthodox community's success.
There may be times when the larger world's cultural products or wisdom might meaningfully augment a Jew's understanding or appreciation of Torah concepts. But adulterating the study of Torah with contemporary cultural offerings turns it into a sterile hybrid.
Please try to understand that truism, and share it with those who look to you for guidance. May we merit that you all join us for the 13th Siyum HaShas.
WHAT WAS HAPPENING THERE
With a few predictable exceptions, media coverage of the mammoth recent Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium was remarkably positive.
Yes, the New York Times tried hard to find some woman at the event who felt slighted at being seated separately from the men, or who had boldly undertaken Daf Yomi. But it came up empty. (So it resorted to shlepping into its story a liberal rabbi in Riverdale who delivers a Gemara shiur to women, and cited the grumbling of one of the group's members, a 70-year-old feminist, who has been "wrestling" with Talmud's "attitude toward women.")
Similarly, even before the Siyum, Haaretz tried to force a similar angle into its reportage, focusing on what it called "the female revolution in Talmud study," and highlighting a group of 30 women whose members, it reported, have completed a Daf Yomi cycle (well, most of them; a third of the group, it was parenthetically noted, joined in the middle of the cycle).
But the agenda-less media were straightforward in apprising the larger public of what was an unprecedented and astounding event: the gathering of some 90,000 Jews in one arena, under threat of inclement weather, to celebrate Torah. Yes, the Siyum marked the end of the 12th cycle of Daf Yomi, but the gathering was, in the end, a rejoicing in the Jewish heritage. Torrential downpours through the day reminded us all about Who, despite all our meticulous planning, is in charge in the end. But the rain suddenly stopped when the Siyum began, only adding to the remarkable nature of the happening.
I was pretty much stuck throughout in a room where members of the media came and went, gathering information and conducting interviews. I went outside onto the field for Mincha, the actual siyum, and Maariv, but most of the Siyum found me, among several colleagues, "entertaining" guests.
There were notable moments, though, in the press room too. Small things, perhaps, compared to what was transpiring outside on the field and in the stands, but memorable all the same. Like the tall, ramrod stiff, light-haired state police sergeant who mentioned in passing that he had some "ethnic Jewish" blood, since his mother's mother's mother had been Jewish. (Yes, he was informed that that made him fully Jewish.) Or the young, non-observant, Conservative-raised documentary filmmaker who was visibly moved by talking about Yiddishkeit with two observant women, one, a grandmother, the other a great-grandmother and well-known rebbetzin.
And then there was a television reporter's puzzlement at my response to his most basic question about the Siyum: "Could you tell me what's happening here?"
It was every reporter's first question that evening, and my stock short answer "A celebration of Torah study" seemed to bewilder him. "What do you mean by 'study'?" he asked. "And why is it being celebrated?"
He wasn't being difficult, it was clear. He simply couldn't wrap his head around the idea of study as anything but the means to an end. One studies to pass a test, he (I think) was thinking, for a diploma, to advance a career. But celebrate study? What was this study meant to lead to?
I tried my best to introduce him to the idea of study for the sake of study, study as, in itself, a religious devotion. His next question was one I hadn't heard before.
"Do you know of any other religion," he asked, in all honest curiosity, "that treats study in a similar way?"
I'm no scholar of comparative religion, I admitted, but no, I told him, in fact I didn't.
It was a "teaching moment," as they say. But a learning one, too, for me. A non-Jewish reporter had made me more fully realize the uniqueness of the idea of Torah-study as a mitzvah, a devotion, a vocation.
The day of the Siyum was the day Israel's Tal Law's expired, authorizing the state to draft full-time Torah scholars and students into military service. I wished that the members of Israel's Supreme Court, who had brought about that crisis, could have been there in the media room with the reporter and me, and could have, like me, come to more keenly appreciate the uniqueness and inherent value of the lifeblood of Klal Yisrael.
WE ARE NOT THE WORLD
Chanukah is far from most minds these days, understandably. And yet symbols of the societal showdown that yielded its commemoration lie before us.
In a particularly conspicuous "we run and they run" display, the 2012 Summer Olympics-whose roots lie in the ancient Greek games, where religious sacrifices to mythical gods accompanied sporting events-opened mere days before the world-wide celebration of the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas.
As a large crowd in London wildly cheered displays of physical prowess, a stadium an ocean away- itself usually used for running and throwing and catching-became a point of convergence for a large crowd of Jews intent on honoring Torah and its study. (There were large Siyum HaShas gatherings as well, of course, in Britannia, as well in innumerable locations around the globe.)
The close to 100,000 Jews gathered at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on August 1 were honoring people too: Jewish men who, in a demanding endurance test of their own, had applied themselves to "learning Shas"-studying the entirety of the Babylonian Talmud-over seven and a half years. And their invaluable coaches, the wives and children whose encouragement and personal sacrifices allowed those "Shas Yidden" to run their personal marathons.
If the confluence of the two diametric events weren't striking enough, there was the message sent by International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge's refusal to devote a moment at the Olympiad's opening ceremonies to recall the eleven Israeli athletes and coaches killed 40 years ago during the Munich Olympics.
Those of us who had become fully sentient by 1972 remember the drama vividly. It was the second week of the Munich Summer Olympics. Eight Arab terrorists ("militants," in current journalistic jargon) penetrated the Olympic Village and took the Israelis hostage. Two Jews were murdered by their captors there and the nine others on an airport tarmac after German police botched a rescue attempt.
Olympic competition was suspended for a day and then a memorial service was held in the Olympic Stadium. Then-IOC President Avery Brundage spoke, averring that "Every civilized person recoils in horror at the barbarous criminal intrusion of terrorists into the peaceful Olympic precincts," declaring that "we mourn our Israeli friends, victims of this brutal assault," and bemoaning how the Games had become a place for such things.
Then, he added, famously, that "a handful of terrorists" cannot be allowed "to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and goodwill we have in the Olympic movement," and announced that "The Games must go on!" to the loud applause of the crowd.
The current IOC president was asked to mark the forty year anniversary of the Munich Massacre with a moment of silence during the Olympics' opening ceremonies. The Israeli foreign minister backed the idea, unsurprisingly, but so too did the German Bundestag, members of the Canadian and Australian parliaments, about 50 members of the British Parliament, and about 140 members of Italy's parliament. As well as the US Senate and House Foreign Affairs Committee. And President Obama.
Mr. Rogge, however, declined the request, saying that other ceremonies at other times would include remembrances of the murdered athletes, but the opening ceremony of the Olympics was just not an appropriate venue for the injection of a memorial moment of silence.
A well-known sportscaster, Bob Costas, disapprovingly noted the IOC's decision and then paused on-air for a full 10 seconds-an interminable time for electronic media-during the opening ceremonies.
Good for Mr. Costas, and not so good for Mr. Rogge (though he seems like a nice fellow who just felt the need to maintain the opening ceremonies' pomp and joy, unmolested by difficult memories).
And good for those of us, I say, who don't care a whit about the IOC or the Olympics, who recognize that Jews don't need the world to validate us or commemorate what some parts of it have done to us-and continue to do to us, as was most recently evident a mere two weeks ago in Burgas, Bulgaria, where five Israelis were killed and more than 30 injured when a tourist bus was targeted by a bomber.
For my part, I'll take the roar of Kri'as Shma at a Siyum HaShas over anyone's moment of silence.
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
It is painful to publicly criticize something written by a dear friend. But improper public words require a public response.
I have known Chanan Gordon for years and deeply admire his passion to bring all Jews closer to their religious heritage. But Ami's interview of him in a recent issue left me saddened and puzzled.
He pronounces President Obama an "intellectual lightweight," "arrogant," possessive of "a grandiose sense of self-importance" and "a sense of entitlement"; and asserts that his reelection would be a "tragedy." Reb Chanan's credentials for reaching those conclusions are that he attended Harvard at the same time as Mr. Obama, and "was close to people who were close to him." They may even have been in one class together.
Reb Chanan considers it somehow iniquitous that, when at Harvard, Mr. Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review but wrote no articles for it. What's more, he "heard that Obama took pains to recalibrate its ideological disposition." Also, the man who would become president, Reb Chanan asserts, was "not popular" with others at Harvard.
"Reliable sources" are cited, one contending that Mr. Obama cut off communication with two former financial backers-a sign, in Reb Chanan's diagnosis, "of extreme narcissism and being exploitive."
Other "reliable sources" called Mr. Obama's writings at Columbia University "radical at best."
Reb Chanan kindly concedes that he "has nothing on record where [Mr. Obama] says that he's a Muslim." But he asserts, without any specific attribution, that "a common theme in Obama's administration is that he is not a G-d-fearing person."
The only accusations in the interview that even pretend to approach the substantive include Mr. Obama's connection to a radical professor, "Derek Bell" (actually, Derrick)-whom Reb Chanan calls Mr. Obama's "mentor." In reality, the only connection between the men was that, as a student in 1991, Mr. Obama once introduced Mr. Bell at a rally about diversifying Harvard's faculty.
Then there is the "fact" that Mr. Obama "suggest[ed] that Israel go back to pre-1967 borders," which, of course, isn't a fact at all. The president said a final peace agreement would be "based" on the 1967 lines, making clear in the very same sentence that it would include land swaps to ensure Israel's security. The position, in other words, of the past several administrations.
Mr. Obama also, asserts Reb Chanan, "turned his back on Israel in the UN" by "not preventing the Security Council from being addressed by Nadi Pillay," a critic of Israel. Ms. Pillay (whose first name is Navi) is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and cannot be prevented from reporting to the Security Council.
This sort of defamation and misinformation is expected of the Breitbarts and Limbaughs and Michael Moores of our time, whose partisan stocks in trade are misrepresentation and ill will. But they are, or should be, off limits to all of us who know that the Creator's very "signature" is emes, Truth.
Anyone, of course, can disagree with President Obama on any or all issues, even, perhaps, to just dislike him for no good reason. But to not even take into account his boycott of the Durban Conference, his rejection of the Goldstone Report, his backing of the Iron Shield and David's Sling programs (to the tune of $315 million-beyond the $3 billion the US has given Israel annually), his blunt informing of the Arab world (twice) that it needs to accept Israel as a Jewish state, his alacrity in rescuing endangered Israeli embassy guards in Cairo, his condemnation of the Palestinian Authority's denial of the Kosel Maaravi's connection to the Jewish people, and his conducting of the largest joint American-Israeli military exercise in history (not to mention his willingness to kill Islamic terrorists) is to forfeit any claim to fairness-or emes.
Which is not to say that he necessarily deserves a second term. If one considers Mr. Obama's attempts to woo the Palestinians to the peace table, or his economic policies, as outweighing the contents of the previous paragraph one should vote accordingly.
But basing one's vote, or one's judgment, on hearsay, armchair psychoanalysis, or incomplete information is not the way of a thoughtful Jew. And I know that Reb Chanan, who remains my dear friend, is a thoughtful Jew.
ON THE FRONT LINE
Like mosquitoes dive-bombing a rock, a swarm of writers are waging a spirited, ineffectual, attack on human free will.
One observer of the spate of recent books arguing that people are biological automatons, James Atlas, calls the genre a mirror image of the so-called "self-help" literature. These new offerings, he drolly notes, are "Can't-Help-Yourself books."
They follow, and complement, the malignant manna of atheist manifestos that dropped from the publishing sky just a few years back. (In fact, one of the new books is by Sam Harris, the author of one of the old ones.) Denying the Creator opens up new vistas of guiltless behavior. Denying our ability to control our actions erases any residual reservoirs of conscience.
Citing advances in neurobiology, the books make the case that our brain chemicals yield who we are and what we do. Choices we make, their authors argue, derive from our nervous systems, not the "I" that each of us feels is part of our soul. We are, in Mr. Harris' words, "biomechanical puppets."
It is true, of course, at least to a degree, that we are hampered by our biologies, conscribed by inherent limitations in how we act and react to things around us. We are born with (unripe but eventually-to-unfold) personalities, desires, and mindsets.
Even beyond biology, as the Rambam (Hilchos De'os 1:2, 1:7) explains, our disposition-settings can be affected by our environments and the effects of our previous actions. But the "Can't-Help-Yourself" pushers abandon the fields of science for the marshes of wishful thinking when they leap from the fact that there are things human beings cannot easily, or at all, control to the conclusion that, as Mr. Harris puts it, "Free will is an illusion."
The most accessible modern Torah-source on the topic of human will is likely Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, who in the 1940s served as the founder and Rosh Kollel of the Gateshead Kollel in England and later as the Mashgiach Ruchani of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The volumes of his posthumously published writings and thoughts, under the title Michtav Me'Eliyahu, are a bookshelf-staple of Mussar movement devotees and, in fact, any Jew of cerebral bent.
In his writings, Rav Dessler often refers to free will. He conceptualizes the Torah perspective in what he calls the "nekudas habechira"-the "point of choice." His favored metaphor is a battlefield. An invading army, he asks us to imagine, is seeking to advance the line of battle deeper into enemy territory. The enemy pushes back. The territory behind the army is already conquered and secure. The territory beyond the enemy army is currently beyond reach. The dynamic point, the place where gain or loss can take place, is the front line. And that is where the battle must be fought.
Human beings, Rav Dessler explains, are perpetually on a front line facing an enemy: the urge to do wrong. There may be much territory behind us, the yield of battles won; there is little or no temptation to succumb to those distant sirens. And there is always territory yet to conquer, some of it out of reach for the moment, realistically beyond the power of our wills. What matters, because it can be engaged, is the front line, the point where change can transpire, where, with the force of our conscious determination, we can make true choices.
Imagine a person born into a larcenous, murderous environment, raised to take others' possessions and lives at whim, and who has done so many times. His "front line" may be the decision to spare the life of the potential victim he now has in his gun's sights. The murderer cannot be expected to choose, at least now, to become a tzaddik, a kind and perfectly righteous man; that is too far from his current state. What he can do, though, is choose to put his weapon down and walk away now. And if he does that, he has won a battle, advanced in life, made a meaningful choice-and is better prepared to face the next one. With enough time and right choices, he can yet achieve tzidkus.
As we all can, on our own individual front lines.
A FISH STORY FOR THE FOURTH
The other night I noticed something strange about one of the two "oscars" (Astronotus ocellatus) in my aquarium. I bought the fish years ago and it has grown from less than an inch in length to more than half a foot; it's the largest inhabitant of the tank. It was just lazily swimming around as usual, but its mouth seemed to have sprouted some sort of mass.
Coming closer to the glass, I saw that it was no tumor but rather the still wagging tail of another fish, a white gourami, protruding from the oscar's mouth. The larger fish had attempted to swallow the unfortunate gourami, only partially succeeding (at that point; eventually it had more success). My wife, whom I unwisely called over to witness the sight, was fairly appalled. I was more sanguine. It's a fish-eat-fish world, after all. I wasn't happy to lose the gourami, but animals do what their natures prescribe.
The timing of the event was interesting, as the third chapter of Pirkei Avos was designated for study that Shabbos, and the Fourth of July was looming.
The second mishna of that perek of Avos conveys Rabbi Chanina S'gan HaCohanim's dictum that one should pray for the welfare of the government, since were it not for the fear it inspires in citizens, they would swallow one another alive. The Gemara (Avodah Zara, 4a) derives that idea from the prophet Chabakuk (1:14), who compares people to fish. "Just as with fish of the sea, the larger swallows the smaller," the Gemara observes, "likewise among people, were it not for the fear of the government, the larger would swallow the smaller." My personal experience with aquaria over many decades confirms the fish fact, that if it fits in one's mouth, it's food; and my observation of human beings, through history books and contemporary reports, corroborates the rest of the contention.
There are, of course, good people in the world, who have consciences-i.e., awareness of G-d-and would be good even without the threat of punishment by temporal authorities. But there are many others who see the world only through the lenses of their own desires, and whose self-serving, even sociopathic, tendencies are held in check only by the existence of prisons and execution chambers.
Which brings us, indirectly, to the Fourth of July, when the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and our country came into existence. Too many citizens see July 4 as, above all, a legal holiday, a time for summer barbecues and sales, and an opportunity to endanger life and limb with explosives.
For American Jews, at least thoughtful ones, the Fourth is an opportunity to reflect on our wondrous country. While no political entity is perfect and there has been anti-Semitism here as everywhere Jews live (and even where they don't, astoundingly), Jew-hatred has never been part of United States policy. Debates about what the US might have done differently during the Holocaust or about its War years immigration policy aside, there can be no doubting that overt anti-Semitism has never been a characteristic of American policy or conduct, and that our country has been welcoming to Jews and has provided us the same protections as it provides all Americans, not to mention opportunity for social and economic advancement.
Many Torah observant Jews do not embrace the rituals of secular holidays. (Though barbecues are nice; loss of fingers, not so much.) But we all do well to ponder- ideally daily, but at very least on our country's birthday-the gift to our people that is this particular way-station in golus.
Not only because it has absorbed so many members of the tribe, embraced Jews in myriad professions and fields, even as members of Congress and the Supreme Court, out of all proportion to our 2% of the population. (Approximately 8% of Congress, and three of the nine justices, are Jewish).
But also, and fundamentally, because the United States, while not perfect, is a place where the law of the aquarium has been replaced by the law of the land, where upright citizens are not oppressed, and criminals are deterred.
A place, in other words, well deserving of our prayers.
THE CAMP CULTURE
Clocks are turned back in the fall, but only the positions of their hands (or their digits) change. Time's arrow remains, at least for us mortals, resolutely one-directional.
Still, most of us have occasionally fantasized about somehow recapturing something of pleasant times long gone. Like, for me, the summers of my boyhood.
I never attended summer camp, by choice. Today that might indicate some psychopathology ("camp-avoidance syndrome," perhaps? -add it to the ever-expanding list). And maybe it did then. But I enjoyed my campless summers all the same. In fact, I cherished them.
I learned each day, both on my own and with an older chavrusa, a young talmid chochom who ended up becoming a stellar mesivta rebbe -an accomplishment I like to imagine was born of the inner resources he had to summon to hold my attention and teach me a few blatt of Gemara.
But each day also afforded me an abundance of other activities, unregimented and not in the group setting a camp would have provided, but no less enjoyable for their spontaneity or solitude.
One summer, on a lark, I taught myself how to type, a skill that ended up coming in handy when I became a high school rebbe myself (and even more handy in my current profession). Another summer, I undertook origami, or Japanese paper-folding. Not so handy, but fun all the same. I collected and observed live bees, and fired off model rockets. I took long bike rides and, in my teens, occasional part-time jobs. I mowed our lawn and hiked local trails. I played ball with other camp-shy or camp-deprived friends, read a lot, and then read some more.
Did I learn as much Torah as I might have in a camp? Probably not. I didn't visit any amusement parks or waterworks either, or attend any campfire kumsitzes. But somehow I survived the deprivations and emerged from each summer happy, refreshed, and having grown a little as a person.
Although several of our children attended summer camps one or two years here and there, my wife and I never considered the experience de rigeuer, or even necessarily in our kids' best interest. That we generally couldn't afford camp made it easier to not feel a need to "keep up with the Katzenellenbogens." We taught our children that expensive things are seldom important things, and they accepted that truth.
So their summers, like mine, were largely unregimented. And, necessity being the reliable mother of invention, they alleviated their boredom by devising their own ways of keeping busy. As a child care provider, my wife had the good fortune of summers "off" and would treat our children to occasional summer day trips. During my teaching years, I would take them to the park to play. But for the most part, they found creative quarries to mine in their own figurative backyards (and literal backyard).
I realize that today's world is a very different one from the one I inhabited as a boy, even from the one in which our children, now adults, grew up. Children today confront unprecedented educational expectations, social norms, challenges, and dangers. I certainly understand that the sort of long bike rides I took through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the 1960s would not exactly be a wise suggestion for even a suburban ten-year-old today; and that a public library is hardly the healthy environment it once seemed to be.
Still and all, there is much that an observant Jewish boy or girl can do in a summer. Chaburos or chavrusos can be arranged for them. They can explore a musical instrument or machine, or teach themselves to cook or sew or type or draw. They can undertake a hobby (or two), or sample the broad variety of kosher literature that abounds these days -or add to it.
Considerable economic pressures faced by so many in the observant Jewish community these days are exacerbated by the psychological pressures born of once-luxuries relabeled as necessities. Parents' emotional stability and sholom bayis can be negatively affected as a result. There will always be children who need a summer camp experience, because no parent is home during the day or for some other reason. But for some families, summer, with no word following it, might still have the makings of a wonderful time for a child.
THE WRITE STUFF
Sometimes -usually after the New York Times deigns to publish a letter of mine on behalf of Agudath Israel of America -I'm asked how one "gets a letter" published in a (rightly or wrongly) respected periodical.
Well, the first step is to become the spokesperson for a national organization.
Just joking. It may help a letter's chances for publication if it is signed by an organizational representative. But it can also hurt them. In any event, most published letters are from individuals writing as such.
One doesn't, however, "get a letter" published. All one can do is submit a good candidate, one with a chance of striking the fancy of a letters editor. Major publications can receive hundreds of letters a day, from which to choose a handful. There are no shortcuts here (unless the editor is one's brother-in-law). But "Rabbi Shafran's How-To Guide" for writing a letter to the editor, below, might be helpful.
1) Never Write and Send a Letter.
That is to say that, after writing one's letter, one should tear it up (or delete it from the screen). At very least, set it aside for a few hours. Letters always improve with subsequent re-writes, and excesses of emotion in a first draft tend to be softened somewhat-usually a good thing-in a second one.
Long letters, like long sentences (like this one), are more demanding of readers, and trying to address all five points one would like to make when readers only have patience to consider one or two is counterproductive since it is confusing and off-putting, and since most readers in any event tend to just skim letters pages and settle on the shortest, punchiest offerings. Brevity is best.
3) Become The Other.
As one writes-and re-writes-a letter to the editor, it is important to put oneself in the minds of readers. If writing in a non-heimish Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Orthodox Jew? A baal teshuvah? If in a non-Jewish publication, how will it strike a non-Jew? Considering one's letter from an assortment of different perspectives will often inspire a well-chosen change of phrase or word or thought. Engineering a letter to engender empathy or respect isn't always possible; but when it is, it's a good idea.
4) Resist Negativity.
There's a fine line between well-earned indignation and ranting. It's best to couch even deserved criticism in words that earn a reader's consideration rather than inspire him to grunt and move to the next letter.
5) Keep Your Eye on the Prize.
Remember that the overarching, ultimate goal is not to "score points" or even, necessarily, to present an unassailable argument. It is to affect others, to make them think about what you have to say. A point won at the expense of the reader's good will is a tactical loss. Always think tachlis.
6) Write for the Uninformed.
Don't assume that the reader knows what you do. Include a reference to the article or editorial it addresses, and its date. And, if you use a Hebrew or Yiddish word or Jewish concept, include a succinct definition between commas or parentheses.
7) Bait the Editor.
Give your letter something "tasty" to help make it stand out from others the paper may have received on the same topic. It might be an original insight, your special credentials for addressing the issue, some surprising fact, or a bit of humor or cleverness (in which latter cases it should be tried out first on one's spouse).
8) Pay Attention to Packaging.
Substance is paramount but superficialities count. Misspellings or grammatical errors are invitations to editors to file a letter in the "circular file." In addition, a letter to the editor should always include the telephone number[s] of the writer, so that the editor can call to confirm that it was indeed sent by the person signed to it.
Of course, the most important factor of any good letter to the editor is that it has something cogent to say. So before using the checklist above, see to it that your letter meets that requirement. If it does, even if the editor isn't your brother-in-law, go for it!
THE MEAT OF THE MATTER
A number of weeks ago, I became aware of an essay contest conceived by The New York Times Magazine's resident "ethicist"-a columnist, that is, who entertains readers' questions about moral or ethical quandaries they face. The essay assignment was to make, in 600 words, the strongest ethical case for eating meat.
Sitting in judgment to select the winning essay was a panel of judges that included a writer who is a vociferous vegan; and a philosophy professor, Peter Singer -who has advocated not only for extending greater "rights" to animals but for killing severely handicapped newborn human babies.
With judges like that, I didn't really entertain any hope of winning, especially with an essentially religious argument, the one I would make. But, hey, I thought, why not give it a whirl? If only to clarify my thoughts for myself.
Believe it or not, my submission in fact didn't win. More insulting still, the winning essay selected from the 3000 entries, didn't even present an argument at all, but rather a simple assertion. Its essential point was:
"For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks."
Very nice (especially the "thanks" part, though the writer doesn't say to whom the thanks should be addressed). But I still like my entry better. And I hereby foist it on you:
The Talmud teaches that an am ha'aretz -variously translated as an ignorant or uncouth person-is forbidden to eat meat. The more confounding a Talmudic statement is, the deeper the truth it harbors.
In a sort of parallel to the Darwinian description of things-in hierarchy if not mechanism-ancient Jewish texts speak of the world as comprised of four strata. At the foundation lies inert matter: soil and stones, the sun and the air, water. A level above the inanimate is the vegetative, alive but not sentient. Above that, the animal, mobile and determined. At the pinnacle are "speakers"-creatures with minds and consciences: we humans, the reason, in this view, for all of Creation.
Each stratum, in this philosophy, exists to support the one above it in the hierarchy. The mineral/chemical world nourishes the sphere of plants, allowing them to grow; the green world in turn feeds the animal universe-and the human sphere, the point of it all, partakes of what the lower levels can provide it.
Such partaking need not be limited to eating animals' meat. There are other ways of allowing the animal world to support the human, like using animals for transportation and labor (with due concern for their comfort, a Jewish religious requirement), or their skins after their deaths. But neither does it preclude utilizing animals in the most direct means imaginable: consuming them, in the most literal sense of the word.
When we do so, this worldview teaches, the animal is sublimated, for having nourished a human being who can, in turn, serve a higher purpose. The eaten animals become parts of ourselves, and hence parts of our service to our callings as choosing beings. Thus, to return to the am ha'aretz, someone whose life is insufficiently focused on higher purpose is "forbidden to eat meat." He has no justification to do so.
To be sure, this vision of our world may be shocking to many moderns; it is, moreover, baldly religious. In fact, its religiousness is likely the reason it dismays. But the bifurcation of truth into secular and religious realms is an artificial one. Religious teachings can not only contain truths as deep as science's but often deeper ones.
Eating animals is not only natural for humans but, in a way, part of what makes us human, as it reminds us that we are something more sublime than the animal world below us, that we must act in ways that justify our occupation of the highest stratum of Creation.
ETIQUETTE AND ETHICS
This year, the first day of Shavuos fell on a Sunday. Were there any Tzadukim and Baitusim still around today, they would have been happy. Because those rejecters of the mesorah contended that Shavuos should always be on a Sunday.
That is because those groups, who together comprised one of the two major factions of Jews during the time of the Bayis Sheni, asserted that it would be nice to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: Shabbos and then the single day of Shavuos observed in Eretz Yisroel.
Not that they didn't claim a textual "basis" for their innovation. The Torah, they pointed out, counts the seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuos from "the day following 'the Shabbos'"-which, at least on its face, seems to imply that the count begins on a Sunday, rendering Shavuos, invariably, on a Sunday too.
Despite the Tzadukim's scriptural ammunition, though, the Gemara (Menachos 65b) explains that their motivation was their sense of propriety-it just seemed… proper that Jews be able to enjoy two days in a row of rest.
But Torah is more than the Written Law. Indispensable is the Torah Shebe'al Peh, the Oral Law, to which the Perushim, the other Jewish denomination of the time, remained faithful. "An eye for an eye," according to the Torah Shebe'al Peh, is not intended literally (but refers, rather, to monetary compensation); just as the very meanings of "totafos" and "zivu'ach" (what we call tefillin and shechita, respectively) are unknown without the Oral Law. Likewise, the the word "Shabbos" in the phrase "the day following the Shabbos," does not mean what its simple reading might seem to say, according to the Torah Shebe'al Peh.
"Shabbos," in that phrase, our mesorah teaches us, refers to the first day of Pesach is, so that the counting commences on the following day, whatever day of the week it might happen to be. Thus, Shavuos can theoretically fall on any day. (Our fixed calendar limits the days on which it can fall, but that's another story; and why the first day of Pesach is called "Shabbos," another one still.)
The Perushim stood strong in defending the Torah Shebe'al Peh, and persevered. And so today we celebrate Shavuos on the fiftieth day counting from the second day of Pesach, whatever day of the week it may be. This year, it just happens to be Sunday.
There's a pattern to the Tzaduki approach to Torah. The group also advocated an "appropriateness" change in the Beis Hamikdosh service at the crescendo of the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. The Torah Shebe'al Peh prescribes that when the Cohein Gadol enters the holiest place on earth, the Kodesh Hakodoshim on that day, the incense brought there be set alight after the Cohein enters the room. The Tzadukim said that that didn't seem right, and contended that it be lit beforehand.
"Does one bring raw food to a mortal king," they argued, "and only then cook it before him? One, rather, brings it in already hot and steaming!" Although here, too, they mustered scriptural "support," the Tzadukim's true motivation, the Gemara explains, was what they considered to be proper.
Placing "propriety," or mortal etiquette, above the received truths of the mesorah stands, as it happens, in stark opposition to the stance our forebears declared at Har Sinai: "Na'aseh v'nishma"-"We will do and we will hear." That stance defines our very peoplehood-and is the central message of Shavuos: that we accept Hashem's will even amid a lack of "hearing," or understanding, even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we have a better idea.
The contemporary world has high priests of its own, among them "ethicists" who lay claim to being the best arbiters of what is proper and good. Such hubris is ancient and inevitable. It can even affect some of us observant Jews, leading us to think we know better than the true links to the mesorah, the Gedolim in our midst. But it is, in the end, the polar opposite of what Shavuos stands for, of the foundational principle of Jewish belief.
A PRIEST WALKS INTO A SHUL
Have you ever been to a church service?
Still, I (and perhaps you) have an image of what one is like. And that image, strange as it might seem, is an important one for observant Jews to regularly recall. At least according to the Magen Avrohom and the Chasam Sofer.
There are many different types of churches, of course. Many, probably most, are places of solemnity and high ritual, with congregants maintaining a reverent silence, other than to chant prayers when such is indicated. There are also non-Jewish places of worship, of course, that are loud and boisterous, echoing with "amen!"s and fervent encouragements of sermonizers.
All, though-at least to my imagining, which I have been told is pretty much accurate-are places where petty conversation during services is unheard and unheard of.
Which brings us, or should, to a paragraph in the famous 19th century encyclopedia of halachic responsa, the Sdei Chemed (written by Rav Chaim Chizkiya Medini). It cites (in Maareches Beis Haknesses, 21) the Magen Avrohom and the Chasam Sofer to the effect that any behavior considered disrespectful in a society's non-Jewish houses of worship becomes, as a result, forbidden in Jewish shuls. Even actions that are otherwise permitted by halacha in a shul, if they are shunned as disrespectful in neighboring churches, are forbidden to Jews in their own places of worship.
In a similar vein, the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chayim 66:4) writes that the permission provided by halacha for interruptions to Kri'as Shma and its brachos (to greet certain people or return greetings) no longer applies today, as "now it would be considered irreverent for someone to interrupt [his prayers to greet anyone or return a greeting]."
"We in fact see," continues the sefer's renowned author, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, "that even when a [non-Jewish] minister [sar] comes to a Jew's home and finds him praying, he will not speak with him, and will wait until he has completed his prayer." Here too, it is clear, the etiquette acceptable in society has an impact on halachos regarding prayer, rendering what was once proper improper.
It may strike us as odd that what transpires in a church should have import regarding the halacha of a beis k'nesses. But the presumed reasoning of the poskim cited is that respect is something societally variable; to treat an object or place with halachically mandated respect requires not only actions or inactions codified from the start in halacha but also those that have come to be accepted by larger society. It would be disrespectful, in other words, for Jews to be perceived as less respectful of their places of worship than their non-Jewish neighbors are of theirs. It's hard to argue otherwise.
Perhaps there are churches where congregants "warm up" to services by discussing business or sports or the stock market. Maybe there are others where those present take the opportunity of a pause in the service to gossip or share jokes or bring one another up to date on their families.
But I don't think so.
There are many shuls where proper decorum is the norm. But, as we all know, there are many, too, that reflect less the concept of a mikdash me'at (a miniature Holy Temple) than a shuk me'at.
Some people, kindly, view the laxity of decorum in such shuls with a generous eye, as a sign of the comfort Jews feel in their place of prayer. We feel at home in shul, the "favorable judgment" goes. And indeed we do, and we should.
But even a comfortable "heimishe" shul is still a shul. And even a familiar davening is still a davening. We are comfortable holding a sefer Torah too, but who among us (one hopes) would think of telling a joke or providing a post-game analysis while doing so?
Something to imagine during chazaras hashatz or Kaddish: A priest or minister-or one of their congregants-walks into shul just then. Imagine his expression. Does it show that he is impressed with the dignity of the Jewish worship service he is witnessing? Or is his face clouded over in puzzlement?
I think I've discovered what makes me so uncomfortable about the assertion that global warming is a real and urgent problem.
A front-page New York Times story on May 1 concerned (thanks, Mr. Rumsfeld, for the pithy phrase) a "known unknown": the earth's cloud cover. Specifically, the causes and effects of its extent, altitude, and qualities-which are only very imperfectly understood. MIT professor of meteorology Richard S. Lindzen, the article explains, considers clouds a sort of planetary self-corrective mechanism that can counter the effects of greenhouse gases, the global warming drama's villains.
Predictably, despite his unassailable credentials and the scientific community's ostensible commitment to objectively consider all hypotheses, Dr. Lindzen has been excoriated by many of his colleagues, who, while they concede the enormous effect of clouds on climate, say he lacks proof for his contention and that, by raising the cloud issue, he is acting, in the words of one, in a "deeply unprofessional and irresponsible" manner.
The Times reporter mirrors that negativity, beginning his piece by stating that "a small group of scientific dissenters," having had "their arguments… knocked down by accumulating evidence," have "seized on one last argument," namely, "that clouds will save us." There is a reference to "withering criticism" of Dr. Lindzen and an assertion that the renegade researcher has been "embraced" by "politicians looking for reasons not to tackle climate change." The sneering is subtle, but it's there.
Less subtle was the environmental zeal of Al Armendariz, the erstwhile top Environmental Protection Agency official in Texas, who recently resigned after a video emerged of him discussing how to enforce oil and gas extraction regulations. He suggested the approach of "the Romans," who "used to conquer villages" by taking "the first five guys they saw and… crucify[ing] them," rendering the village "really easy to manage for the next few years."
Of course, neither the hasty dismissal of rational speculations like Dr. Lindzen's nor the over-enthusiasm of some environmentalists like Mr. Armendariz means that climate change isn't real or that we have no responsibility to try to deal with it. We simply don't know. The climate alarm-raisers may turn out to have been modern-day Chicken Littles squawking that the sky is warming. But they may turn out to have been environmental prophets. To be sure, most of the scientific community believes the latter. But in something as complex and long-term as climate change, even a scientific consensus-"groupthink," Dr. Lindzen calls it-is only a contender for truth, not its arbiter.
Still, what those who preach with absolute certainty that our climate is in crisis bring to mind is the late writer Michael Crichton's assertion that people who do not believe in G-d "still have to believe in something that gives meaning" to their lives, and that "environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists."
Environmentalism, he elaborated, posits "an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature," then "a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge"-i.e. technology and exploitation of natural resources-and "as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all."
"We are all energy sinners," he concluded, summing up the new religion's world-view, "doomed to die, unless we seek salvation."
What Dr. Lindzen's contention and the reaction to it have helped me realize is that, whether or not Mr. Crichton is correct, a core credo of environmental zealots (whether or not they also believe in G-d) is the belief that human beings are where the environment buck stops, that we alone can make or break the planet.
Once again: the climate may in fact be in crisis. What discomforts me, though, is the stance of those who insist that they know with absolute surety-which they can't-that it is. And that by lambasting any who dare dissent from their pronouncement, they show unwillingness to even consider the possibility that the world G-d created for us humans may not need our help to stay inhabitable-that, in His wisdom, He may have imbued not only our skin with the ability to heal its wounds, but the earth's to do the same.
FEAR THE FRUM
Were the New Israel Fund a newly landed Martian's only source of information about Israel, he'd likely imagine the country as a cross between Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
In the extraterrestrial's mind it would be a place where women are forced to sit in the backs of buses and the sound of their voices prohibited from being heard. A place where religious extremists eschew democratic values and control the government and national discourse.
(Our Martian would be stunned to actually fix his multiple eyes on Tel Aviv's Rechov Dizengoff-or, for that matter, Jerusalem's Rechov Ben-Yehuda. He'd be stupefied by the unfettered operation of Reform, Conservative, and Messianic places of worship. The Knesset would utterly blow him away.)
The NIF's latest Big Lie took the form of a big ad-a full-color full-pager, in fact-in The New York Times and the Forward. Maybe the latter periodical ran the ad gratis, but the Times charges $175,000 for a color page. Even discounted, it cost the NIF a pretty penny.
Actually, the one it cost is Murray Koppelman, as noted in the corner of the ad. Mr. Koppelman, an Upper East Side money manager, is a major supporter of the group-he has pledged $500,000 in matching donations to it-and is featured on a video the NIF produced.
In the clip, the grandfatherly Mr. Koppelman reminisces about his youth. Shortly after Israel's declaration of independence, he spent time on two kibbutzim and, after deciding that "I don't want to be poor," embarked on what appears to have been a successful career.
During his kibbutz days, though, he recalls visiting Yerushalayim and how "it always distressed me, as I walked through the religious sections of Jerusalem," to see "these women… walking behind their husbands." He wondered "what kind of life they lead" and about their inability to "really show what their capabilities were to do better for the world, rather than just to look up to their husbands, who become their god."
Mr. Koppelman may not be a Martian but he, too, could benefit from a dose of reality. (He can start with a visit to my house.). His imaginings aside, the organization benefitting from his largesse is using it to renew its batty battle-cry that Israel is becoming a theocracy.
The new NIF ad is dominated by a photograph of another ad, on a billboard in Israel. It features a woman's face but only half of it is there, as part of the ad has been torn off. The large words in the NIF ad ask: "WHAT HAPPENS WHEN EXTREMISM CROWDS OUT EQUALITY AND DEMOCRACY IN ISRAEL?" The word "EXTREMISM" is written in such large type that it takes up an entire line, symbolically "crowding out" all the others. (The damaged ad-in-an-ad was itself posted by an NIF-supported group that opposes "gender separation in the public sphere" and supports a "pluralistic" Jerusalem.)
Although no one can know whether the defacing was the work of religious Jews or those who seek to vilify them (such "proxy" vandalism is not unheard of in Israel), the problem here is vandalism, not impending theocracy. And the solution is to catch and prosecute vandals, not to wax alarmist or besmirch a community.
Likewise, when an individual Jew, whether motivated by religious zeal or lesser stimuli, acts improperly, the problem is that individual-not the larger religious community.
Yes, that community's democratically elected Knesset representatives seek to maintain the standards of the Jewish mesorah in Israel regarding things affecting the essential integrity and unity of the Jewish people, like issues of marriage and divorce.
And, yes, observant communities deserve respect in things like the routing of traffic on Shabbos away from their neighborhoods, and even by permitting some buses servicing their neighborhoods to offer separate, voluntary, gender-separated seating. But such accommodations of the observant population do not a theocracy threaten. The model here is not Iran, but the Israel of the past 64 years.
It's painful to recognize, but no less true for the fact: The same sort of intransigent ill will that so many Arabs harbor for all Israelis is harbored by the NIF and its supporters for religious ones.
FOURTH GENERATION SOFTWARE
Having recounted the story in talks and in writing, I apologize if any readers are encountering it here not for the first time. It's actually my father's story; in fact, I only heard it from him when I was an adult (and not a particularly young one, at that).
It was the winter of 1941, the first one my father, may he be well, as a 14-year-old, along with his Novhardoker colleagues and rebbe, spent in Siberia, as guests of the Soviet Union. It was a most challenging season for the deportees, as they had no proper clothing for the climate.
As the youngest member of the group, my father, known then as "Simcha Ruzhaner," after the Polish town of his birth, was assigned to guard a farm a few miles from the kolkhoz, or collective farm, where they were based. The night temperature often dropped to forty degrees below zero, and he had only a small stove by which to keep warm.
One night, he couldn't shake the chills and realized he was feverish. He managed to hitch his horse and sled together, and set off for the kolkhoz. Not far from the farm, though, he fell from the sled into the deep snow and the horse continued on. He remembers reciting Tehillim, knowing that trying to walk to the kolkhoz would mean certain death from exposure. Somehow he forced himself to get up and run after the horse and sled.
Inexplicably, the horse halted; my father reached it and collapsed onto the sled. The horse took him back to the kolkhoz and the next day, shaking uncontrollably, he was transported to a town, Parabek, where there was a hospital.
There, after two days in a fevered daze, the patient began to feel a bit better. As he lay in bed, the door opened and he saw a fellow yeshiva bochur from the kolkhoz, Herschel Tishivitzer, before him, half frozen and staring, incredulous. The visitor's feet were wrapped in layers and layers of rags-the best one could manage to try to cope with the Arctic cold without proper boots. My father couldn't believe his eyes. Herschel had actually walked the frigid miles from the kolkhoz!
"Herschel!" he cried to his equally shocked visitor, "what are you doing here?"
The answer that came is something my father has never forgotten and surely never will.
"Yesterday," Herschel said, "someone came from Parabek, and told us 'Simcha umar,' ['Simcha died']. And so I volunteered to come and bury you."
That degree of dedication of one Jew to another, even in such trying circumstances and for such a reason, is a tribute, of course, to the would-be undertaker. But it is also a lesson to us all about what it means to be a Jew, to be part of Klal Yisrael.
Boruch Hashem, Herschel's services weren't needed, and my father eventually went on, as did Herschel, to emigrate to the United States, where my father became and remains a respected rov in Baltimore. Herschel moved to Boro Park.
Recently, our daughter Chedva and her husband and family moved to a lovely fledgling Jewish community in Ramapo, east of Monsey, called Chestnut Ridge. Among the new acquaintances my daughter made is another young woman, Dini; the two are occasional "carpool partners" and their respective 4-year-old daughters, Shaindy and Tehilla, are developing a budding friendship.
One recent Shabbos night after davening, my son-in-law Yehoshua overheard a guest in shul being introduced as a writer. He was actually the editor of the Five Towns Jewish Times. Yehoshua asked the guest, Mr. Larry Gordon-Dini's father-if he knew his father-in-law, who writes for Ami. Mr. Gordon and I are in fact well acquainted; he often republishes this column in his paper with Ami's permission.
Mr. Gordon's own father-in-law, as it happens, is one Herschel Nudel, may he be well, who was once known, long ago, as Herschel Tishivitzer. The connection between Yehoshua's and Mr. Gordon's respective fathers-in-law quickly emerged.
And so, in a new Jewish neighborhood, great-granddaughters of Herschel Tishivitzer and Simcha Ruzhaner play together.
Rockland County is a long way from Siberia. But in a way, at least for two families, it really isn't at all.
OPEN AND SHUT CASE
The lady on the Staten Island ferry the other day was clearly grunting for my ears.
With my unfashionable beard, dark suit and black hat, tagging me as an Orthodox Jew is pretty much a slam dunk. And, having commuted, along with my beard and hat, on those huge orange floating shuttlecocks four or five days a week for the better part of two decades, I have many memorable (at least to me) stories to tell. I've never gotten around to setting them down in writing (though choosing the imaginary collection's title, "Ferry Tales," was easy).
There was, for instance, the older lady, herself behatted, though hers was a broad-brimmed floral affair, who, standing next to me on the outside deck one glorious spring day, turned to me and beatifically emoted: "Can't you just see him walking on the water?" (I told her, no, actually I couldn't.) Or the young man sitting a row in front of me telling his young lady friend how he had read an article about genetic engineering on humans and that he planned on "gettin' some of them Jew genes for my kid-he be takin' over the world!"
The latest in my parade of memorables, the grunting lady, was clearly trying her hand at a similar one-way communication. She was middle-aged, perhaps a few years younger than I, looked Jewish-my Jewdar is in pretty good form- and was reading a book, a real one, with pages (remember them?). The volume she held was the latest in a series of aspiring exposés of Orthodox Jewish life that have become something of a cottage industry in a part of the Jewish world.
The book, about which I had read, was written by a young woman who turned her back on her somewhat Chassidish upbringing. It was subsequently demonstrated that the author seems to have had an uneasy relationship not only with her family but with truth-committing small errors like falsely accusing a father of having murdered his son. Calling the writer's general view of Chassidishe life jaundiced, moreover, would be like calling Rush Limbaugh inelegant. Nevertheless, the book has been righteously embraced by people who wish to think poorly of the Orthodox world. And that's, unfortunately, a lot of folks.
Including, I came to surmise, the lady on the ferry. She was standing near the doors that would soon open, after we docked, to disgorge the boat's human cargo onto Staten Island at the end of a workday, and she seemed to be holding the book up so that I could see it. And-have I mentioned this?-she grunted. Repeatedly.
It wasn't really the sort of sound one would associate with a burly dockworker. It was more like a subtle rumble, communicating disapproval.
I'm not terribly shy, and I considered acknowledging the lady's nonverbal communication and asking her if she had any questions I might be able to address. I even readied a business card to hand her, in case she wanted to speak by phone at more length. But then I chickened out.
Maybe I shouldn't have. Maybe had I made a polite offer, she would have shared some of her chagrin with me and I could have disabused her of some of the untruths that elicited it. Or explained how some Orthodox practices and attitudes are wrongly regarded in the dark ways in which they are sometimes presented. Or we may have had a civil discussion about some of the things that had ostensibly pushed the writer over the edge (of Williamsburg).
But, in the end, sensing raw anger, I was dissuaded. A more likely scenario, I feared, would have been the reader's channeling the antagonism she felt for Chassidim at me. She might have loudly accused me of accosting her against her will, or made a scene by shouting out some of the more putrid passages from the volume she held aloft like a religious tract. That wouldn't have been good. It would have only spread her ill will to the many bystanders. So I just went my way.
And so, to my ongoing regret, the doors opened and a mind stayed shut.
SURPRISING… AND NOT SO MUCH
After a hail of French police gunfire relieved humanity of the noxious presence of Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old Algerian-Frenchman who murdered seven people, including three children, in cold blood and declared himself ready to enter paradise, his soul must have really been surprised. If, that is, he had a soul and wasn't just some demon in human guise.
Unsurprising for those of us back in this world was the revelation that when Mr. Merah was holed up in a building, his mother had refused to urge her son to surrender; or that, after Mr. Merah's dispatching, his brother told police he was "very proud" of Mohamed and "approve[s] of what he did"; or that the murderer's father plans to sue the French government over his son's death.
Even the act of Lorraine Collin, a 56-year-old high school teacher at Gustave Flaubert High School in Rouen, Normandy, who asked her class to observe a moment of silence in memory of the deceased murderer, was not terribly surprising; it was pretty much par for the contorted conscience course.
What did come as something of a surprise, and a happy one, was the French Education Minister's suspension of Ms. Collin's from her job. Good for him, and may he make it permanent.
Surprising, too, at least to some people, were the words of Eva Sandler, the widow of one of the victims, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, and the mother of two others: 5-year-old Arieh and 3-year-old Gabriel. Amid her unimaginable shock and grief, she had the presence of mind and conviction to pen a public message, thanking "the Almighty for the privilege, short though it was, of raising my children together with my husband."
"Now, "she continued, "the Almighty wants them back with Him." And she urged all Jewish parents to honor her dead family members by loving their children and teaching them to love "their fellow man."
"Parents, please kiss your children," she wrote. "Tell them how much you love them, and how dear it is to your heart that they be living examples of our Torah, imbued with the fear of Heaven and with love of their fellow man."
Which takes us back to the "unsurprising" realm, namely the fact that, while Orthodox Jewish newpapers and magazines, and even secular media, duly reported Mrs. Sandler's striking sentiments, the bereaved woman's words were entirely ignored by the mainstream Jewish media.
Yes, those media that routinely seek out and highlight the worst examples of Orthodox Jews, individuals who commit crimes or show disdain for others, the media that do their best to leave their readers with the impression that such people are somehow normative and representative of the Orthodox community. The media that, it seemed, spilled more ink to recount and re-recount and comment and further comment on an allegedly uncouth Israeli individual's saliva than on Iran's nuclear program.
Those media, for some reason, didn't find Mrs. Sandler's words newsworthy. Why might that be?
Could it be because Mrs. Sandler revealed herself to be a true example of a dedicated Orthodox Jew? And that to bring attention to so refined, faithful, and purposeful an Orthodox Jew would only confuse their readers? After all, it might cause them to puzzle over the fact that there are Orthodox Jews who are truly selfless and deeply caring, who bear even the most unbearable burdens with grace and religious conviction. Could such a person, they might come to ask themselves, really be part of the same community that routinely flouts the law, harbors hatred, and spits on little girls?
Maybe I'm being too harsh. Maybe I missed mention of Mrs. Sandler's sentiments in the Forward and the New York Jewish Week and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's dispatches. Maybe the search engines at the sites of each of those venerable institutions are all faulty, and reports of the bereaved widow and mother's words lurk somewhere out of electronic reach.
Or maybe Mrs. Sandler's words, and the meta-message they send about truly observant, believing Orthodox Jews, will yet appear in those media. It's only been, after all, two weeks since she shared them with the world-at least the part of it that get its news from Orthodox or non-Jewish media.
STRAFING OR SANCTIONS
There isn't a sane person on the planet-at least if evil counts as insanity-who doesn't wish for Iran to be forced to abandon its nuclear ambitions (or to have them vaporized by one or another air force).
Many American Jews-most Orthodox Jews likely among them-feel that the military option is the only realistic one, and that it needs to be employed as soon as possible. Actually, yesterday.
It's an understandable feeling. Iran's president hasn't made a secret of his lust for a world without an Israel, or of his country's progress in producing nuclear material. (Though he has tried mightily to make secrets of the whereabouts of Iran's nuclear facilities and of its less-than-peaceful plans for the uranium it is enriching).
It has become an article of faith for many that economic pressure on Iran is futile, that negotiations will only buy the mullahcracy time. To disagree is apostasy.
In this view, the apostate-in-chief is President Obama. Yes, he declared at last week's American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in Washington that "I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary" regarding Iran. But he is nevertheless inclined to give the unprecedented sanctions that have been placed on Iran some more time to, he hopes, convince the country's leaders to see the wisdom in abandoning their "peaceful" nuclear program.
Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu's trigger finger is itchier. He has insinuated that Israel may feel the need to move militarily against Iran sooner. (And Mr. Obama acknowledged Israel's right to do what it judges it must.) What seemed to emerge from the AIPAC convention and a private meeting between the two leaders is that, despite timetable differences, they were essentially on the same page. Mr. Obama stated baldly that he had no intention of waiting until Iran actually achieves a nuclear weapon. "Iran's leaders should know," he announced at the gathering, "that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Israeli leaders-and not just doves like Shimon Peres but hawks like Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom -were impressed with Mr. Obama's words. "We've never heard such a supportive speech in Israel," Mr. Shalom told Israel Radio.
Our collective fancy is tickled by the thought of an Iran waking up one dawn to the utter destruction of its nuclear program, humbled by a supersonic flock of screaming aircraft raining bunker-busting explosives on every target; followed by other countries rejoicing as a grateful Iranian populace overthrows its leaders and creates a Persian Spring.
But we have to consider another scenario, too, in which an attack is not fully effective, and Iran emerges more determined than ever to see its evil intentions to some sort of fruition; and another, where even after a successful attack, havoc results in the oil market and Americans are paying $10 a gallon at the pump. Most Americans strongly support Israel at present. In, chas visholom, a newly decimated economy, with a Jewish state's actions as its proximate cause, will that support will be quite as… unwavering?
Israel may well wait until the U.S., with its larger bunker-busting bombs and its air bases in the Middle East, is willing to act in concert with her. That will make it more likely that an attack will truly set the Iranian nuclear program back many years. And even should Israel act on its own, there is a chance that the U.S. will join the mission. That may have been signaled by Mr. Obama when he said that, regarding security issues, the U.S. "always has Israel's back"-a phrase usually used when one actor has taken an initiative and the other one helps ensure that it goes well.
One wonders what Torah leaders in Eretz Yisrael have to say about attacking Iran. Politicians may not particularly care; but we should. To my knowledge, the only godol baTorah who has spoken publicly to the issue thus far has been Rav Ovadiah Yosef.
"Don't attack Iran," he declared on Israel radio recently. Pray and study Torah, he exhorted listeners, "and G-d will save the People of Israel."
Ultimate success, in other words, isn't in Mr. Obama or Mr. Netanyahu's hands, but in our own.
MEAT AND MURDER
I have an abiding appreciation of animals. My family has shared living space at one point or another over the years with: a small goat, a large iguana, a beautiful tarantula, an assortment of rodents of various sizes, and scores of tropical fish (the latter our only current pets).
We didn't choose some of those creatures. Several were Purim gifts from talmidim of mine when I served as a rebbe. The boys meant well and I came, in time, to appreciate each present. The only one we didn't keep very long was the goat, which repeatedly escaped from our back yard to feast on a neighbor's lawn. (We sold her-the goat, that is-within a few weeks to a girl who lived on a farm.)
We always treated our animals well-buying and feeding the tarantula the live crickets it craved and making sure the mice and hamsters got their exercise and fresh air. (The untimely demise of that one member of the order rodentia left too long in the sun was entirely an accident, Chana; there is no reason to feel bad.) And I try to be careful, as per the Talmud's exhortation regarding animals, to feed our fish before I sit down myself to dinner.
But my appreciation of all living things is accompanied by the constant realization that human beings are in an entirely different realm from the rest of the biosphere. And that we humans, while we are forbidden to cause unnecessary pain to animals, are permitted to work them and even to kill and eat them (well, we Jews, some of them).
There are, however, those who believe otherwise, that, in the words of PETA's president Ingrid Newkirk, "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."
She's wrong. Only the boy is a boy.
In truth, Ms. Newkirk's conviction is the unavoidable belief of any consistent atheist, whether or not he chooses to be as blunt about is as she.
For if humanity is a mere offspring of random forces (a timely falsehood-it is the Amalakian credo), then humans are no more inherently worthy than any of chance's children. Species are species.
And what follows from the proposition that humans are biological accidents is that right and wrong have no more meaning than right and left. To be sure, social contracts can be made but in the end all that really remains is the cold calculus of survival.
Which is not to say that atheists necessarily engage in amoral behavior, only that their belief can present no compelling essential objection to it.
Equating animals with people can easily lead to the devaluing of human life. That contention, self-evident as it might seem, routinely brings wolf-howls of outrage from people like Ms. Newkirk.
They would do well to consider Meredith Lowell, a 27-year-old animal rights activist who once wrote that she sees nothing wrong with "liberating" animals from fur factory farms and laboratories since "soldiers liberated people from Nazi camps in World War II." She was recently charged in Columbus, Ohio with soliciting a hit man to shoot or slit the throat of a random fur-wearer, according to federal authorities.
The FBI discovered that, under an alias, Ms. Lowell offered money for the killing of a victim of at least 12 years but "preferably 14 years old or older" outside a library near a playground in her hometown. She allegedly e-mailed her hire, an undercover FBI agent, that "you need to bring a gun that has a silencer on it" or a knife "sharp enough to stab someone and/or slit their throat to kill them."
According to an affidavit, she told the covert employee that she wanted to be there when the slaying took place so she could distribute "papers" afterward. She hoped to be arrested so she could call attention to her beliefs and to get out of the home she shared with her parents and brothers who eat meat and eggs and use fur, leather and wool, investigators said.
No, most animal rights activists don't try to kill people. But many nonetheless proudly subscribe to the credo "meat is murder."
And those three simple words harbor a most dangerous conceptual seed.
THE GORILLA'S LESSON
The little boy was petrified, as one might imagine, by the gorilla who sat down next to him at the table in his (the child's) home. I hadn't meant to scare the kid; I was just tired and needed to get off my paws.
It was a very long-ago Purim (the child is now a father and accomplished talmid chochom) and a group of us had rented costumes to use in Purim visits to homes while collecting for a worthy charity. The gorilla suit was very realistic (and very hot).
Sheftel, as I'll call the boy (because it's his name) was around three years old at the time. I was around 19. I felt bad, and immediately removed my head-that is to say the gorilla's.
Sheftel's eyes shrunk back to their normal size and the scream that had lodged in his lungs never made it to his wide open mouth. He saw it was only me.
When, a bit later, I replaced my gorilla head, Sheftel let out a scream. I reminded him from inside that it was only me. He screamed again. I took off the head and he immediately calmed down. I put it back on and, once again, he screamed.
Children, apparently, have to reach a certain stage before they realize that a costume is only a costume, that the person wearing it remains the person wearing it even when he's wearing it. Sheftel had yet to internalize that truth.
Related and more poignant is the lesson of an old Yiddish joke, about Yankel informing Yossel that, unfortunately, Shmelkeh had just passed away. "Shmelkeh?" asks Yossel, "the guy with the oversized ears?"
"Yes, that Shmelkeh," Yankel says sadly.
"The fellow with the terrible skin condition, the rash covering most of his face?"
"Yes," once again.
"The Shmelkeh missing an eye, and with the large wart on his chin?"
"Yes, yes, that Shmelkeh," Yankel confirms.
"Oy!" exclaims Yossel. "Azah shaineh Yid!" ("Such a beautiful Jew!")
Superficial things, we come to realize if we're perceptive, are, well, superficial. Masks, in other words, mask.
The theme of misleading appearances is, of course, central to Purim. Esther, the heroine of the historical happening commemorated on the day, hides her identity from the king who takes her as his queen. Her very name is rooted in the Hebrew word for "hidden," and is hinted to, the Talmud teaches us, in words the Torah uses to refer to Hashem "hiding" Himself, rendering his providence undetectable.
Which it is in the Purim story. The absence of Hashem's name from Megillas Esther reflects the fact that His presence was not overtly evident in what happened. Yet, His "absence" was itself but a mask; Divine providence, in the form of delicious ironies, informs the story at every turn. From Achashverosh's execution of his first queen to suit his advisor and then execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai's happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in Klal Yisroel's salvation; to Haman's visiting the king at the perfectly wrong time… Hashem's presence loudly hums, so to speak, in the background. If anything merits being called The Purim Principle it would be: Nothing is an Accident.
Even the very symbol of meaningless chance, the casting of lots, turns out to be Divinely directed and crucial to the Purim miracle.
Klal Yisrael, too, is "masked." The people seem beholden to an idolatrous, lecherous king, and readily participate in his grand ball where he celebrates, of all things, the finality of the Beis Hamikdosh's destruction, chalila.
But that was, as the Talmud teaches us, a merely superficial stance. In truth, behind the unimpressive Jewish veneer lay Jewish hearts dedicated to Hashem. And when events began to blow like a strong wind, the masks were ripped away. Our ancestors, in their fasting and prayers, showed their true essence.
Is it any wonder that on Purim we wear masks? And make fun-of ourselves and even (good naturedly) of others? What we mock are the masks we all wear, the particular character each of us projects. The mockery declares that such things are superficialities, camouflaging what really matters: the Jewish soul that resides in, and ultimately defines, us.
THE TIMES, IT AIN'T A-CHANGING
I can't pride myself on having a good long-term memory (as my wife can attest, that's an understatement), but a February 1 New York Times article did spur my sluggish hippocampus.
The Times article was about Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood and it noted that "an undercurrent of unease, suspicion and resentment from some longtime residents" remains from the 1991 "riots that exploded between blacks and Hasidic Jews"-as if marauding gangs of Jews and blacks had spent four days attacking one another, when, in fact, the besieged Jewish residents of Crown Heights cowered and prayed as their non-Jewish neighbors attacked them and their property.
My flashback (well, slow dawning) was of correspondence I initiated, as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs, with editors and a reporter at the Old Gray Lady in 2002.
That year, in the context of a court reversal of the federal civil rights conviction of Lemrick Nelson Jr. for the killing of Yankel Rosenbaum during the Crown Heights riots, the Times similarly characterized the disturbances in two different articles, as "violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews."
I telephoned the reporter whose byline appeared on the reports and asked him whether he felt his characterization really reflected what had happened on those terrible days in 1991.
He admitted that his choice of phrase had "not been the wisest." I responded that I appreciated his honesty and was satisfied that a better description of the events would be used in future reports.
Well, he said, he didn't know about that. The phrase, in the end, he insisted, was "not really inaccurate."
"How so?" I asked.
He suggested that some might consider the car accident in which a Jewish driver had hit and killed a black child-the tragic mishap that set off the rioting-to constitute violence.
And then, he continued, there was the matter of the interaction "between" Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Nelson. The reporter thought he remembered reports of the former in some way attempting to hurt the latter.
Letting honesty get the better of diplomacy, I called such justifications "outrageous" and, insulted, he abruptly ended the call.
I immediately typed up the details of our conversation while they were still fresh in my short-term memory (which still functions fairly well), and then consulted the United States Court of Appeals' "findings of fact" regarding the events that led to Mr. Rosenbaum's murder.
At the scene of the accident, the court found, while some members of an African American crowd attempted to aid the injured, others "began to attack the driver of the car."
"In the meantime, a crowd of several hundred people" gathered, some of whom "complained about Jews… At about eleven o'clock, a bald, African-American man" addressed the crowd; his "angry and aggressive" speech reportedly included the exhortation "Let's get the Jews," a chant taken up by the crowd as it proceeded to riot.
In the ensuing violence, "a group of ten and fifteen people, including Mr. Nelson, then began beating [Mr. Rosenbaum], knocking him to the ground and striking him repeatedly.
"Rosenbaum grabbed hold of Nelson's T-shirt and prevented him from making good his escape… [Nelson] stabbed Rosenbaum and fled."
I faxed the reporter those findings and, when he didn't respond, I sent a copy of the correspondence to the Times' then-Executive Editor, Howell Raines.
A few days later, I received a written reply from then-Senior Editor Bill Borders, who offered a new justification of his own, citing an August 21, 1991 report in his paper describing "blacks and Hasidim throwing bottles and rocks at each other" on August 20.
So it "seems clear," he wrote, that the violence "involved both sides."
Yankel Rosenbaum, however, was murdered on the 19th, before any bottle or rock throwing by any of the area's Jews. And so, I wrote Mr. Borders, the phrase "…he killed a Hasidic scholar… during violence between blacks and Orthodox Jews" was clearly misleading.
More to the point, though, I suggested he consider the case of a man who assaulted a woman and was scratched by his victim during the attack. Would the Times really think to describe such a crime as "violence between Mr. Smith and Ms. Jones"?
I received no response-until, that is, the indirect one on February 1.
CONFESSIONS OF A GIANTS FAN
I'm tapping this out in my office at Agudath Israel of America's national headquarters in Manhattan to the tune, so to speak, of blaring horns, booming drums, and the wild shouting of hundreds of thousands of people 13 floors below my window. It's really annoying.
But it's part of working downtown. Every so often, if a local sports team wins a championship, everyone employed in the neighborhood, executives and grunts alike, have to put up with car and pedestrian detours, rowdy fans, occasional fights (go figure-they're all supporters of the same "cause," no?), and noise, loud and for hours.
Mobs make me uncomfortable. Chalk it up to some genetic Jewish paranoia, a psychological vestige of times when unruly crowds usually meant maiming and murder. And I've never been able to appreciate the good time to be had by throwing shredded paper all around, painting one's face, imbibing too much beer or punching one's neighbor's lights out-all of which seem to be important parts of such celebrations.
I don't even have the requisite American appreciation of grown men playing what amount to glorified schoolyard games, adding enough violence to stimulate the production of androgens without quite crossing the line into pathology. (Sorry for the misleading title above.) I'm flabbergasted by the fact that talented journalists dedicate their careers to describing all the grunting, groaning, and grabbing in eloquent prose; amazed at the fact that news organizations-news organizations!-devote time and pages each day to report on the proceedings; and pained by hearing players laboring mightily to mouth an almost coherent sentence into a microphone.
Listening to the din below and looking out on the sea of parade-goers, I have to wonder if I'm the only person who finds it comical when a news announcer, with a tone of gravity a sane person would reserve for a small nuclear war, intones the latest score or trade, as if something besides money (someone else's yet) actually depended on the information.
My puzzlement gives rein to my imagination, which takes off and flies away. I picture the Canyon of Heroes not as it is today but as it should be, with real heroes. The crowds, in my imaginary parade, are just as large but they are quiet, reverent. And those being driven slowly down Broadway are not Giants in uniform but giants clothed in something more ethereal.
They are people like my father, who spent the years of the Second World War in a Siberian Soviet labor camp, where he and his fellow yeshiva students endured terrible hardships to remain observant, believing Jews, baking matzos in a makeshift oven, studying Talmud on the sly. And, lihavdil bein chaim lichaim, my late mother, who, though she arrived in the United States before the war as a little girl, endured the untimely deaths of her brother and father in close succession, yet became part of the small coterie of observant young Jews in 1940s Baltimore that sowed the seeds that grew into the Orthodox metropolis that is Baltimore today.
And my wife's father, who spent the war in several concentration camps, where he and his fellow religious Jews risked life and limb to maintain what Jewish observance they could, reading the Megilla by heart, creating a makeshift Chanuka menorah, davening, saying Tehillim-and outliving their Nazi tormentors. And his wonderful wife, my own wife's mother, a Swiss national whose family nurtured Holocaust survivors interned in Swiss camps during the war, and who, together with the emaciated but determined survivor she married, moved to a new country, Canada, to start life anew and raise a family.
None of my heroes are physically large; none of them, to the best of my knowledge, can throw an inflated pigskin accurately, or would particularly want to. Their heroism, though, is worthy of the name. It derives from their lifelong dedication to their ideals, and to their determination to nurture further generations of religious Jews. They think about their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren with gratitude to G-d and great pride.
Though not as much as we feel when we think about them.
Here be giants..
CHAREDI LIKE ME
Back in 1961, a man named John Howard Griffin, a white native of Mansfield, Texas, published a remarkable book. "Black Like Me" was his account of six weeks of travel by bus across the deep south-as a black man, which he wasn't.
Two years earlier, Mr. Griffin, with the help of a dermatologist, took large doses of a drug that darkens skin and spent up to fifteen hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp to intensify the effect. He closely cut his hair and even shaved the backs of his hands before setting out to experience what it was like to be black in that era and place. He recounted the "hate stare" he regularly received from whites and the myriad indignities of black life at the time, like the difficulty of finding a public restroom to use.
Later, even as he enjoyed some celebrity for his gambit, he received so many threats to his life that he moved to Mexico.
In a somewhat less brave experiment, two secular Israeli television reporters recently video-documented something similar, beginning with their transformation-aided not by drugs but a professional make-up artist-from typical secular Israelis to bearded, kaftan-ed charedim. With the help of a charedi "consultant" to guide them in matters of mannerism, the two men metamorphosed into an entirely passable charedi pair-and sallied forth to see if, as some have charged-charedim suffer discrimination and worse from non-religious Israelis.
The two undercover reporters walked through and rode buses in secular neighborhoods; they made inquiries about renting a house and about joining a gym.
It wasn't exactly gripping documentary journalism, but it did have its moments of interest. While the pair, at least in the footage included (and, presumably, with a cameraman noticeably present), encountered only politeness from secular Israelis, one would-be landlord seemed to have no explanation for why the asking rent was considerably more that had been advertised. Another person answering the door of an apartment for rent claimed she is only the current tenant and promised to have the owner get back to the pair, which apparently never happened. On a bus, non-religious riders chose to stand rather than sit next to one of the "charedi" men.
None of which amounts to anything more than the softest of bigotry. Most likely just wariness in the face of the unfamiliar. The interactions were all entirely friendly and civil.
Which is what most of us would expect. Israelis can, to be sure, evidence a certain bluntness-often interpreted, at least by Americans, as gruffness. It is likely the product of the general tenor of the Middle-East coupled with the fact that Israelis live daily with the thought that millions of people near and far would like to erase their country-and them-from the face of the earth. But even that bluntness was not evident in the film. The ersatz charedim were stared at here and there, but largely ignored.
Does such a decidedly unscientific experiment indicate that charedim as a group are truly accepted as brothers and sisters by all other Israelis? That they in fact are not belittled, resented, and even hated? No. It just means, at most, that the belittlers, resenters, and haters are a minority, not readily in evidence "on the street." They tend to hang out elsewhere, like at the Knesset and the pages of Haaretz.
Still and all, it's heartening to imagine-and I think it is true-that charedim are not subject to abuse in daily life, even when they venture into other neighborhoods. Most Israelis, even if they have opinions that clash with their charedi co-citizens, are tolerant of those who choose to live more intensely traditional Jewish lives than they do.
And, of course, the same is true in the other direction. While there may be charedim who harbor ill will toward their secular fellow-Jews, they are the exception. In fact, the regularly heard canard that "the charedim" despise other Israelis might be a good topic for the intrepid reporters' next investigative journalism foray outside their studio. They could visit some religious neighborhoods or towns and try to interact with the locals there, to see if they experience any such animus.
And they won't even need any makeup.
OPEN SEASON ON CHAREDIM - AND TORAH
One hopes that readers here are not part of the population that peruses tabloids like the New York Post. If they were, though, they would have seen a recent opinion piece that called Jews "a small minority of the population… granted special privileges" who "wield power disproportionate to their numbers" and whose "behavior violates the law and infringes on the rights of others." Wielding "considerable political clout," and "flexing their political muscle," they represent "a dangerous trend that has been allowed to fester and grow for decades." Jews also receive "special treatment" by those in power and deny "the civil rights of [crime] victims." When criticized, the writer explains, Jews simply dismiss their critics as anti-Semites.
Moreover, the piece reports, Jews represent "a demographic tidal wave" and threaten to become "dominant" in the United States. Warning that it is time to head off the coming misfortune, the writer concludes that our "silence is acquiescence."
Oh, my mistake! It wasn't "Jews" to whom the writer, an "activist" named Ben Hirsch, was referring, but rather "strictly Orthodox Jews." Forgive me.
One wonders, though, how Mr. Hirsch manages to convince himself that there's some qualitative difference between a generic bigot who offers the public a hodgepodge of sinister insinuations, half-truths, and outright lies about Jews as a whole, and a hater like himself who does precisely the same about an identifiable subset of Jews. Does the dilemma even occur to him?
What provided Mr. Hirsch his latest opportunity to besmirch charedim and prejudice the public against them were the allegations several weeks ago of disgusting acts in Beit Shemesh. In classic bigot's style, he parlayed the bad behavior of a few into a tarring of an entire group. He knows his business.
As does another recent op-ed writer, this one in The New York Times. Rabbi Dov Linzer's business, however, is not bigotry but the promotion of a new vision of Judaism, one that many find redolent of the Conservative movement's early days. The dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale in the Bronx, an institution championing "modern and open Orthodox values," Rabbi Linzer was once reported in the New York Jewish Week to have asserted that the Sages of the Talmud were unconcerned with a person's religious beliefs; that, in the article's words, "it was Maimonides who introduced the concept that Jews must adhere to basic dogmas, and even he was not consistent in his demands for such adherence."
Such theological novellae, however, were not the subject of the rabbi's recent offering. He, too, like Mr. Hirsch, was inspired by the reports from Beit Shemesh. (In addition to the sin of their behavior itself, the alleged Beit Shemesh spitters and cursers bear the iniquity-burden of having provided the Mr. Hirschs and Rabbi Linzers of the world with effective ammunition for promoting their agendas.) But the opportunity Rabbi Linzer saw was to sully not so much a group of Jews (although he does his share of that too) but rather a concept, that of tznius, or Jewish modesty.
He begins his piece, which ran under the lovely title "Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud," with the following paragraph:
"Is it possible for a religious demand for modesty to be about anything other than men controlling women's bodies? From recent events in Israel, it would certainly seem that it is not."
He goes on to assert that "the responsibility for controlling men's licentious thoughts" lies "squarely on the men." The notion that women may have a tzenius responsibility regarding their manner of dress, he writes, reflects only "a blame-the-victim mentality." In fact, he informs us, it represents "a complete perversion" of the Talmud. Who knew?
The emergence of such… interesting writing by Jews in the secular media is, of course, disturbing. (Other adjectives occur as well.) It puts one in mind of what Rashi reminded us recently when we reviewed parshas Shemos, that Moshe Rabbeinu had puzzled over why the Jewish People had languished so long in Egypt-until he discovered the phenomenon of Jews acting contemptibly against other Jews. Then he understood.
If any of us are puzzling over why our current exile is so protracted, well, a glance at some op-ed pages can provide the tragic answer.
First time visitors to the Shafran home quickly notice how odd it is. Its walls, that is. Well, what graces them, anyway.
The dining room does sport a few normal things-a framed reproduction of a work of Hebrew micrography (a gift, many years ago, from some beloved students) and a small painting of a pensive man in a shtreimel studying Torah (likewise a gift, from some dear friends). And there is a photograph of Rav Avrohom Pam, zt"l, atop a bookcase.
But the remainder of the wall space, in that room and most of the others, is a hodgepodge of, well, oddball items.
There are photos of children and grandchildren (oddball only in that they are, for the most part, random snapshots from various decades and just taped to the walls in no particular pattern); "parsha pictures"-visual riddles about the weekly Torah portion (changed weekly and drawn by someone who is sometimes accused of being a writer but has never been mistaken for an artist); a framed ticket-stub from a trip to the top of one of the Twin Towers (from a visit my wife and three of our children made to the structure on August 30, 2001-a reminder of the world's unpredictability); and an assortment of inexplicable other oddities, like thank-you, mazel tov, and mishloach manos notes, first-grade writing assignments from small children who are now adults, homemade birthday and anniversary cards; various stick-figure artworks by einiklach, several colorful ones by a very artistically talented little girl who is expecting her third child, bisha'a tova, a photo of a gorilla (don't ask; I don't remember), a photocopy of a Chassidic rebbe's advice (to always remember that "when you are exasperated by interruptions… remember that their very frequency indicates the value of your life…") given to me by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z"l; a list of phone numbers and another one of guests to invite for Shabbos meals; a tree leaf from each of the past 18 autumns. And much more.
One piece of paper taped to the wall over my desk is an elaborately crafted piece of cartoon art that graced a magazine cover many years ago. I honestly don't recall how it came to my possession, but I clearly felt at the time that it deserved a spot of honor, which it does.
It depicts an "antique shop" scene: a large heavy-lidded, bearded man in a t-shirt, a cigar in his mouth and a foam cup of coffee in his hand, sitting in a rocking chair before a table laden with items for sale. In the foreground, a nondescript couple is walking away beaming, having made the purchase of a wholly unremarkable plastic snow-globe with a snowman inside. On the table and mounted on a wall behind the large man are the $5 and $10 bric-a-brac in which the couple had no interest. Among the items: An ancient document bearing ornate script beginning "We the People"; a caged live dodo bird, a first-edition comic book, an old sled with "Rosebud" carved on it; a Ming vase, a photograph of the Loch Ness monster, a pair of ruby slippers… You get the idea.
The cartoon is really the key to all the eclectic, eccentric things gracing our walls. I've been in homes of wealthy people, where the walls were adorned with beautifully framed, expensive, works of art. But I would never consider mounting a Rembrandt in place of the then-seven-year-old boy's homemade "newspaper" reporting that: "A boy crossed the street and insded of him getting hit, he hit a car and the car dide." Or putting a Picasso where a faded homemade birthday card from a little girl (now mother of four) reads: "For a very good man that turns 33." The "newspaper" dispatch and card are priceless. "Real" works of art are, well, snowglobes.
Of course the cartoon's real lesson-perhaps intended by the artist, perhaps just channeled through him-is a powerful piece of mussar, about how easy it is for so many of us, like the clueless couple kvelling over their plastic metziah, to value silly things we have come to amass and remain oblivious to life's truly priceless treasures, there all around us.
PRAYING FOR CONTEMPORARY CAPTIVES
It was over a decade ago, in the wake of a spate of terrible terrorist attacks on Jews in Eretz Yisrael, that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah called upon Jews to recite chapters of Tehillim (they suggested chapters 83, 130, and 142) in shul after davening, followed by the short prayer "Acheinu," a supplication to G-d to show mercy to His people. Many shuls, to their great credit, to this day still dutifully seize that special merit at the end of their services. None of us can know what dangers that collective credit may have averted, may be averting still.
It occurred to me, though, that recent events might well inspire us-not only those of us Jews who look to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah for guidance, but all good-hearted Jews, charedi, "modern Orthodox," non-Orthodox, "traditional," and secular-minded alike-to consider reciting the holy words with special concentration, and the short prayer with an additional, somewhat different, intent.
For we have witnessed of late…
Reports of verbal and physical attacks on innocent Jews, even children, by other Jews who were, ostensibly, dissatisfied with their marks' level of modesty.
The exploitation of media to bring such outrages, and exaggerations of their scope, to the entire world's attention.
Verbal and physical attacks on religious Jews by secularists fired up over the reports.
Astoundingly tasteless demonstrations appropriating Nazi symbols, even the abuse of children by their inclusion in the sick spectacle.
The indiscriminate lumping together by pundits and self-appointed judgment-pronouncers of the irresponsible acts of would-be "zealots" with valid issues like the propriety of voluntarily sex-segregated buses for communities that want them, or of the refusal by Israeli soldiers who, out of religious conviction, do not wish to listen to women singing .
Editorials and opinion-mongering in the press smearing "the haredim" as a group for the alleged acts of a woefully misguided few; attacking Gedolim for not choosing to chastise people who have no regard for them or their rebukes; derogating the very concept of traditional Jewish modesty.
And so, a thought, about what we might consider having in mind during "Acheinu":
"Acheinu kol Bais Yisrael"-"Our brethren, the entire Jewish People"
Our brethren-Let all Jews always remember that we are all, in fact, brothers and sisters-
"Hanesunim bitzara u'bishivya"-"who are delivered into confinement and captivity"
Who are confined and imprisoned by personal attitudes, and blind to the feelings and convictions of others…
"Ha'omdim bein bayam u'vein bayabasha"-"whether they be on the sea or dry land"
Whether they are borne afloat in the world of Torah-study and observance or anchored in a world parched of both…
"HaMakom yiracheim aleihem viyotzi'eim mitzara li'rvacha"-"May the Omnipresent have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief"
May the One Who is present in every Jewish heart release them from their close-mindedness to a state of openness to others and Jewish concern for other Jews
"U'mei'afela li'ora"-"and from darkness to light"
From the darkness of hatred and frustration that yields derision of others (and worse) to the enlightened recognition that fellow Jews, even those one may feel are misguided, deserve respect and care.
"U'mishibud lig'ula"-"and from subjugation to redemption"
From slavery to incivility to the freedom of open minds and hearts-leading to the ultimate redemption
"Hashta b'agala u'viz'man kariv"-"now, speedily, and close at hand"
Not next year, not next month, but today.
And let us say amein.
REB LAZER ELYA'S EYES
Reb Lazer Elya Der Melamed ("the cheder teacher") was born in the late 1850s, lived in Ostrolenka, Poland, and died shortly before the Germans invaded in 1939. I arrived in this world about a century after he did and on a continent he never saw, so I never met him. But I was introduced to him all the same, by my father, may he be well. Reb Lazer Elya was his grandfather.
My father lived for a time with his grandparents while attending a branch of the Novardhok yeshiva in Ostrolenka. He recalls his bar mitzvah there. His parents, living in a town called Ruzhan, had no money for the trip. My father read the Torah and his impoverished grandfather brought some kichel and a small bottle of schnapps to the shul to mark the occasion.
Recently, a Shabbos Sheva Brachos for my niece took place at Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, where the father of the bride, Reb Lazer Elya's great-grandson-my dear brother-is a rebbe. Our great-grandfather was present in a way, through a letter he had written, read by my father at one of the meals.
My father is the administrator of the Baltimore Bais Din and, having served a congregation for more than a half-century, he is the oldest rov in the city. (I like to imagine that health, vigor and mental acuity into one's 80s is in the family genes, although I suspect that my father's daily brisk 3-mile walk and responsible diet may have something to do with it.) He is also an incredibly loving grandfather and great-grandfather. And he has adopted a custom: when one of his grandchildren marries, he presents the new couple with a handwritten, framed blessing-poem, the first letters of whose lines spell out the names of the newlyweds.
His inspiration was a similar gift his grandfather sent in the 1930s to a newlywed grandson of his - my father's second cousin-in America,. On the other side of the poem-page was a letter, the one my father read aloud at the Sheva Brachos.
In it, Reb Lazer Elya acknowledges a gift that his American grandson had apparently sent him on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He then laments how he searched in vain for some meaningful physical gift to send his grandson and so is sending instead the gift of a poem.
(Unlike his grandfather, my father is able to, and does, send his newlywed grandchildren generous gifts. But his poems are the more cherished presents.)
Reb Lazer Elya also expresses his happy surprise that his grandson's wife had included with the couple's birthday gift a note in Hebrew. It made him happy and proud, he wrote, to know that his granddaughter-in-law-in America!-had retained that connection to her religious background.
When the letter was read, it felt as if my great-grandfather were somehow present. What would he think, I pondered, if he were in fact here, if he could survey America today.
To be sure, tragically many European-rooted Jews disappeared into American society, their Jewish identities crumbled into dust that wafted across the fruited plain. But Reb Lazer Elya would surely be wide-eyed at the sight of the "treifeh medina" today.
I imagined him surveying the land he had thought so hopeless a place for Jews that a Hebrew note from its shores gladdened his heart. Seeing Shabbos in the yeshiva, the beautiful children playing underfoot, boys with payos and yarmulkes, girls in modest dresses. The men "speaking in learning" on the lawn. The beis medrash filled with hundreds of others swaying over texts he would immediately recognize. The apartments and houses, and the women inside them tending to their young and saying Tehillim. And I imagined him able to gaze beyond Baltimore, to see not only similar scenes in yeshivos across the continent but other fantasies come to life, entire communities of dedicated, observant Jews in cities large and small across the continent.
We American Orthodox Jews tend to focus our attention, as well we should, on the many problems and challenges we face. Every so often, though, we do well to stop and take stock of all we have. Stop, that is, and try to see our collective community through Reb Lazer Elya's eyes.
BLIND FAITH AND PHYSICS
A recent essay by an award-winning scientist presents a remarkable, and remarkably revealing, picture of current scientific thought about the nature of the universe.
The delightfully named Alan P. Lightman, an MIT professor a major contributor to the understanding of astrophysical processes, titled his piece in last month's Harper's Magazine "The Accidental Universe: Science's crisis of faith." Reviewing the history of theoretical physics, he notes how, "until the past few years, physicists agreed that the entire universe… is generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry… [W]e were closing in on a vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood."
In the words of Professor Lightman's MIT colleague Alan Guth: "Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the feeling was that we were so smart, we almost had everything figured out," referring to the fundamental forces of nature. Professor Guth punctuated that recollection, Professor Lightman recounts, with "a bitter laugh."
The laugh is bitter because of something that "has unsettled some scientists for years"- careful calculations showing that if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe diverged even a smidgen from what they are, life could not exist. If the nuclear force (which binds protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei) were a few percentage points stronger, all hydrogen atoms would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium. No hydrogen, no water; no water, presumably, no life. Similarly, if the amount of something called "dark energy" (believed to fuel the observed expansion of the universe) in our universe were only a little bit different than what it actually is, "matter… could never pull itself together" to form complex atoms.
"The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be 'fine-tuned'," Professor Lightman explains, "to allow the existence of life."
To avoid the conclusion, Science forbid, that our universe was somehow intentionally created for life, some scientists have come to rely on the "multiverse" model, the theory that there are any number of other "universes" parallel to ours, and that ours just happens to have the configurations necessary for the known elements to form, for life to exist, and for humans to ruminate about it all.
Professor Lightman notes that the multiverse approach undermines the very venture of physics as a description of reality, and summarizes the theory: "From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life." Of course, he admits, "we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence."
Nor, of course, disprove it. Thus the multiverse theory absolves its adherents of the need to ponder the fact of the cosmos' incredibly peculiar hospitability to life.
The contention that the complexity and utility of nature point to a Creator-the "argument from design"-has traditionally focused on the earth and its creatures. And has been dismissed by many as refuted by modern theories of biological development.
Now, though, faced with evidence from the cosmos itself that the very fundamentals of physics seem shockingly geared toward life, scientists committed to keeping science pure from metaphysical matters have had to bend over so far backwards that they are virtually snapping in half. Samson-like, they shout, in effect, "Let my physics perish with the Philistines!"
"If, in order to keep a Creator out of our thoughts," they declare, "it's necessary to undermine the entire enterprise of physics, well, then, by Whoever, it must be done! Long live the Multiverse!"
For many centuries no distinction was made between "natural science" and "moral science"-the latter concerning itself with teleology (design in nature), human purpose and a Creator. Both together comprised "science," from the Latin word for "knowledge."
Eventually, however, knowledge was compartmentalized. "Science" came to mean the physical sciences alone, with concerns about other parts of truth consigned to artificially crafted realms like "philosophy" or "theology."
Now, it seems, the physical sciences' very discoveries have pointed their discoverers precisely in the direction of a theological truth. Unfortunately, as George Orwell once observed, it can be a formidable struggle sometimes to see what is in front of one's nose.
PILLORIED WITH HILLARY
One of the many downsides of a world that moves as quickly as ours is that many of us feel we must react to events in "real time" rather than after some research and thought. Leon Wieseltier once wisely remarked that the concept of such immediate reaction (he was speaking of blogs) is predicated on the ridiculous idea that our first thoughts are our best thoughts. Reactions, in other words, are one animal; thoughtful judgments, an entirely different genus.
Enough time has passed-I hope-for a measured, non-knee-jerk, objective look at events of several weeks ago that were very quickly reacted to by many in the Jewish world. The events comprised a trifecta of sorts of alleged anti-Israel sentiment: a speech by the U.S. Secretary of State; remarks by an American ambassador; and the U.S. Secretary of Defense's response to a question.
It didn't help, of course, that a presidential election is looming. Republican candidates led the charge, claiming that the trio of (as they portrayed them) dastardly comments were just proof to their charge that the current administration hates Israel.
The remarks Hillary Clinton reportedly made at a private gathering in Washington were indeed offensive. Ms. Clinton seemed to portray Israel's by-any-standard vibrant democracy as something less. (Let us pause to be thankful that she lost the 2008 Democratic primary.) And she waxed critical of what she perceived as discriminatory attitudes among religious Jews in Israel, evidencing a woeful ignorance of the difference between voluntary separation of the sexes and base discrimination. Those alleged comments yielded a torrent of well-earned chastisement, including a statement from Agudath Israel of America expressing its "chagrin" and contending that Ms. Clinton "seems either unaware or unconcerned with the sincerely held and time-honored convictions of traditionally religious Jews."
The second of the lambasted, however, was a victim, not a violator. U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman had the unfortunate experience of being paraphrased by Yediot Achronot, a notoriously sloppy news organization. Speaking to the European Jewish Conference, Mr. Gutman, a proud Jew and the son of a Holocaust survivor, noted that while classical anti-Semitism-the sort characterized by accusations of well-poisoning and economy-manipulation-is not noticeably on the rise, a new sort of anti-Semitism, expressed in anti-Israelism, is. Yediot implied that Mr. Gutman was engaging in apologetics for the latter. The ambassador did note how such modern Jew-hatred can be fueled by Israel's actions-something no one in his right mind would ever deny-but at no point did he do anything remotely to "justify" such animus, as he was accused of doing by a gaggle of Jewish organizations and writers (and Republican presidential candidates). They all relied on Yediot's report, and on reports based on its reports, rather than take the time to research what Mr. Gutman had actually said.
The condemnations of Mr. Gutman were succinctly summarized by Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, who knows a thing or two about anti-Semitism, as "an awful lot of nonsense."
Finally, there was the comment of U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. At the 2011 Saban Forum, an annual gathering of U.S. and Israeli officials, he was asked if he agreed with the contention that, for peace's sake, Israel should withdraw from territories claimed by the Palestinians. His response was: "No, just get to the [goldarned] table." (Mr. Panetta used a more explicit adjective.) He then repeated the sentence several times, making clear that his admonition was intended for both the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership alike.
Now one can easily make a case for the fact that Israel is entirely willing to sit down at the goldarned, or any, table, that the Palestinians are, as usual, the obstacle to negotiations. But no one has ever accused Mr. Panetta of being unsupportive of Israel. No one could. And his venting of frustration over stalemated peace talks doesn't change that a whit.
And yet, Mr. Panetta and Mr. Gutman were pilloried along with Hillary by talking heads and tapping fingers, the threesome cast as a Treacherous Trio, their strings pulled, of course, by an evil wizard in the White House.
It's easy to rush to judgment. What's less easy but more important is to recognize that factuality and fairness are high ideals, indeed deeply Jewish ones.
ISMS OF A MODERN AGE
I was honestly humbled by the participation of the speakers who preceded me at the Sunday morning session of Agudath Israel of America's most recent national convention.
They were: the venerable Malcolm Hoenlein (whose name, I noted, seems hinted at in the verse "Bnai Tziyon yagilu b'Malcolm"), and the likewise rightly celebrated Professor Aaron Twerski. The topic was "The Lamb Among Seventy Wolves"-the precarious position of the Jewish people among the nations.
Mr. Hoenlein provided a comprehensive overview of contemporary anti-Semitism and geopolitics; Professor Twerski focused on the dismaying import for Jews of the world economic situation.
My assignment was to address spiritual threats to our people.
I suggested that the distinction between spiritual and physical menaces may be illusionary, that the former in fact underlie the latter.
Fighting anti-Semitism, and its illegitimate offspring anti-Israel-ism, must be a priority. At the same time, though, a mesora-attuned mindset must always know that Jews' wellbeing is ultimately not a function of articles, activism or armaments. Those are tools. What empowers them is where we stand, as a community and as individuals, in matters of the spirit.
It should be obvious. Jews comprise 2/10ths of 1 percent of the world's population, a large chunk of which doesn't much like us. How does this sheep even stay alive among a world of wolves? The only answer is Divine protection. And it comes as the result of our merits.
So while evil people engage in physical and verbal attacks against Jews, spiritual forces are fueling the evil. Keeping those spiritual wolves at bay is the key to our safety.
Among the spiritual threats facing us are things like the coarsening of the surrounding culture, which is practically unavoidable, and its new invasion-vehicle called the Internet.
Other challenges pound at the door to our souls, too, like the astonishing sea-change in how society has come to view the idea of a marital relationship, capitulating in mere years to a movement that proudly and loudly rejects one of the fundamental merits of human society. This mindset, which has spread even to some ostensibly Orthodox Jews must be countered by each of us individually, as well as communally.
Then there's what calls itself the "Animal Rights" movement, whose true danger isn't limited to the threat it poses to legal shechita, but lies in its very credo, the idea that animals have rights. We have obligations toward animals, to be sure. But assigning them "rights" leads to obscenities like a book, "Eternal Treblinka," that compares factory farming to Nazi concentration camps.
The perverse overvaluing of animal lives swings in tandem with the devaluing of human life, both at its beginning and at its end. Standing firm on the issue of the value of every moment of human life is imperative.
There are other issues, too, I noted, that Torah-conscious Jews must confront, like the subtle redefinition of kashrus being attempted by the Conservative movement, cheered on by mendacious media; and the promotion of atheism under the banner of science.
These are not so much mere issues as they are full-fledged "ism"s, of a sort with those idolatries Rav Elchonon Wasserman fingered decades ago: Communism, Secular Zionism, and Nationalism. Today we add Scientism, AnimalRights-ism, a Woman'sRighttoChoose-ism, QualityofLife-ism.
Not to mention isms that have already infected the Orthodox world, like rampant Materialism, Feminism, and anti-Gedolim-ism.
And a final, uncomfortable one: Politicism-the pledge of fealty to an American, or Israeli, political party or movement.
Until the arrival of Moshiach, we Jews are charged with accepting the implications of Golus, which requires, as per Yaakov's meeting with Esav, our employment of a delicate combination of intimidation, reason, and submission. Ironically, it has always been Torah-rejecting Jews-Bundists, Communists, secular Zionists-who stood bold and unconcerned with the wider world's concerns, secure in their might and their right. In a strange contemporary reversal, haredim have become the hardliners, with secular Jews more concerned about "the nations."
There may be good reasons for backing the current Israeli administration and its policies. But truly thoughtful Jews, I suggested in conclusion, do well to employ caution here too, since Likudism can be an ism too.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
The latest hope for signs of possible life on other planets lies in the cargo bay of a spacecraft that blasted off from Cape Canaveral the morning of Shabbos parshas Toldos.
The Mars Science Laboratory will deliver a rover aptly named Curiosity to the surface of the Red Planet. Methane gas, which can be emitted by living organisms, has tentatively been detected in the Martian atmosphere, and instruments on Curiosity should be able to confirm the presence of the gas and of other carbon-based molecules likewise considered to be "building blocks of life."
Many scientists assume that life must exist on other worlds. Although science doesn't usually embrace beliefs that have not been supported by observations, the conviction that there is life elsewhere in the universe derives from the creed that chance pervades and governs the universe-that randomness lies at the root of reality.
If probability is the loom on which the universe's fabric is stretched, the creed's canon proclaims, what reason could there possibly be for only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy to alone have spawned life?
This abiding scientific faith assumes something of a miracle, that terrestrial life somehow arose from inanimate matter here on earth. It reveres a trinity: a single-celled ancestor, random mutation, and natural selection. Their interplay, the belief goes, is responsible for the astounding diversity of life on earth.
And so, during the same eons over which time and chance on Earth allowed inert elements to slowly morph into iPods and their owners, countless other worlds should have done no worse. Indeed, may have done considerably better.
Creation, we believing Jews know, was in fact an act of Divine will, not the yield of randomness. Still and all, it isn't unthinkable that rudimentary life on other planets, like the kind Curiosity is looking for, exists. After all, G-d created life here on Earth that remained unseen for most of human history-whether in undersea volcanic vents or Amazonian jungle canopies. The discovery of life on other worlds would hardly challenge Jewish belief.
But intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos? Unlikely, I think. One thing is certain: all efforts thus far to detect it have come up empty.
Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the "Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence"; META, the "Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay"; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting the location of Earth in the galaxy and solar system and what humans look like were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the Arecibo message, which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the "Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay" (BETA) was created, as well as a project harnessing the computing power of five million volunteers' computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Tens of billions of hours of processing time have so far been consumed by the project.
So far, though, nothing.
The dearth of any sign of intelligent life beyond our own planet doesn't prove anything, of course. It's a big universe.
But I'm reminded of what Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev had to say about a verse in the Torah (Devarim, 17:3) concerning a false prophet who will "prostrate himself to… the sun or the moon or to any host of heaven, which I have not commanded." Rashi explains that last phrase as meaning "which I have not commanded you to worship."
The Berditchever had a different approach. The reason one may not bow down to a heavenly body, he explained, is because G-d has not commanded it in any way. One may, however, bow down in respect to a human being-because humans are unique, sublime creatures, beings who have been commanded, who uniquely possess the free will to accept and execute G-d's will.
Intelligent extraterrestrials, I suppose, could have received their own Divine commandments. A planet revolving Alpha Centauri may have had its own Mt. Sinai revelation, or some alien equivalent.
One could, I imagine, "hear" such a thing.
Personally, I think the silence out there speaks louder.
ANNOYANCE AND OPPORTUNITY
The mosquitoes are gone, thank G-d.
Not only the determined one who pestered me one summer morning in shul during davening, but all of her friends and relatives too. Gone for the fall, winter and spring. And if they all decide to take a collective summer vacation somewhere far away next July, I'll pay their airfare. Count me among cold-weather aficionados; I'm averse to heat, humidity, and-especially-mosquitoes. Not only are their bite-sites unsightly and itchy, but some of the species carry dangerous diseases. Okay, maybe not those in these parts, but still.
About that one in shul. I imagined her sent by the soton to prevent my concentration. She hovered before me and I shooed her away. She returned and I shooed some more. I would happily have dispatched her to the big standing water pool in the sky but it somehow felt wrong to deliver a fatal blow, even to a mere insect, in my tallis and tefillin.
I don't claim to have the focus one is ideally supposed to have during prayer. My mind wanders and too much of what I recite evidences more rote than reflection. But I do try to concentrate, especially on the parts of the service that require special attention: Kri'as Sh'ma, the Amida, or silent prayer (especially its first bracha), and Ashrei. The Talmud singles out one verse in Ashrei for special concentration: Pose'ach es yadecha…"You open Your hands and provide the will (needs) of all living things." I always pause there to feel gratitude for having food on the table and walls and a roof to keep the elements out.
That morning, as I said that verse, I thought of how Hashem provides even the most rudimentary level of the life-pyramid, the plant kingdom, with its needs. Mere days earlier, on a hike with my wife in upstate New York, I had spied a truly strange plant. It was only two or three inches tall, and both its stem and the tulip-like flower at its head were entirely, strikingly white. How, I wondered when I stooped down to examine it, did it get the energy to fuel its little life? Plants generally rely on chlorophyll, which is green, to absorb energy from sunlight. Not this organism. Intrigued, when we returned home, I did some research and discovered that I had come across the rare monotropa uniflora, also known as the Ghost Plant, a perennial native to parts of Asia, North America and northern South America.
It apparently generates energy is a complex way, by hosting certain fungi that are, in turn, symbiotic with trees-meaning that the little white plant gets its fuel second-hand and "refined," from the fungi, which in turn received it from photosynthetic trees.
"Provide the needs of every living thing" indeed, I pondered that morning, marveling how fitting a niche-organism monotropa was to have in my mind when those words were on my lips.
But the soton wouldn't have it. While I tried to conjure the image of the strange white plant and think about the Divine blessing of its ability to absorb recycled sunlight, the posuk of Pose'ach was interrupted by the high pitched whine of the blood-sucker near my ear, heading west toward my nose. More shooing, more hovering, more shooing.
I realized that concentration in tefilla isn't necessarily supposed to be easy. Why should it be any less subject to obstacles than any other valuable endeavor? Still, though, I wished that this bug would just stop bugging me already, and let me focus on important words.
Somehow, and with no small amount of embarrassment, it was only after davening that it occurred to me that my aerial adversary, trying her best to find a place on me to land, puncture my skin with her thin proboscis, and relieve me of some of my blood was only trying herself to partake of what G-d had provided in the world for her sustenance-or, more biologically precise, the sustenance of the young she carried.
She had in fact been the perfect boon for contemplating the verse of "You open Your hands…" In my annoyance, I had missed an opportunity.
IS ANYBODY THERE?
Remember Terri Schiavo, the "vegetative" Florida woman who, as a result of her husband's insistence and a court order (over her parents' objections), was removed from life support and died in 2005?
"Vegetative" patients-people who, due to disease or accident, are unresponsive to stimuli-are considered by many to be less than truly alive.
Last year, though, a group of European scientists employed something called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which shows cellular activity across brain regions, to demonstrate that four patients in a group of 54 diagnosed as vegetative were in fact hearing and thinking-and could actually communicate-answering yes-or-no questions about their lives-through mental effort.
And now, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet has published a study demonstrating that three severely brain-injured people thought to be in an irreversible "vegetative" state showed signs of full consciousness when tested with a relatively inexpensive, widely available method of measuring brain waves. The researchers used a portable electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which picks up electrical brain activity in the brain's cortex, or surface layer, through electrodes positioned on a person's head.
The research team gave 16 "vegetative" people simple instructions, to squeeze their right hands into a fist or wiggle their toes when they heard a beep. The tasks were repeated up to 200 times.
In healthy people processing those instructions, the EEG picked up a clear pattern in the premotor cortex, the area of the brain that plans and prepares movements; the electrical flare associated with the hand was distinct from that associated with the toes.
Although the three supposedly vegetative people could not move their fingers or toes, their brains showed precisely the same electrical patterns.
Of course, even in the absence of evidence of any brain activity detectable by machines we have now no one can know what degree of consciousness persists in a body unable to move. But a diagnosis of "permanent vegetative state" can make it lawful to withdraw assisted nutrition and hydration-in other words, to starve the patient to death.
A different issue is "brain death"-a diagnosis of irreversible cessation of all brain function, which modern medicine and secular law consider sufficient to permit the "harvesting" of organs before removal of life-support. In the eyes of halacha, can such a patient, whose heart is still beating, in fact be considered a warm corpse?
Some rabbis say yes. But many of the most prominent halachic authorities, including Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l, and yibodel lechaim, Rav Yosef Elyashiv, disagree. Leading halachic lights in the United States who concur with those poskim include Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi J. David Bleich.
(Halacha, to be sure, does not always insist that life be maintained; in some cases of seriously ill patients, even those with full brain function, it even forbids intercessions that will prolong suffering. But Judaism considers life precious, indeed holy, even when its "quality" is severely diminished. And so, halacha does not permit any action that might hasten the demise of a person in extremis. And, needless to say, it forbids removal of vital organs from a patient not deemed by halacha to be deceased.)
Back in 2005, Princeton University Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer was asked by The New York Times what today-taken-for-granted idea or value he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years. He responded: "the traditional view of the sanctity of human life." It will, he went on to explain, "collapse under pressure from scientific, technological and demographic developments."
The professor, unfortunately, is likely right about society's regard for human life-particularly as life-spans increase, insurance costs rise, and demand for transplantable organs intensifies. Human beings run the risk of morphing from holy harborers of souls into… commodities.
Ironically, though, Singer may be wrong about technological developments. As events of late have shown, the creative use of technology can upend our assumptions about things like "vegetative" patients, and act as a brake on the "progress" of the commoditization of human life.
Would an EEG have yielded any sign of consciousness in Terri Schiavo's unresponsive body? Doctors say it is unlikely, that her brain was likely too deeply damaged.
But of course we'll never really know.
RUNNING, RACISM AND RESENTMENT
When I recounted seeing a small group of unusually dressed men in shul last Sunday in Staten Island and realizing that they were trying to catch a minyan before participating in the New York Marathon (which begins in that borough), my daughter asked me if any of them had a chance of winning the race.
"Nah," I said. "It'll be a Kenyan." Four of the New York race's past ten men's race winners, after all, hailed from that African country. Actually, make that five now. (Congratulations, Geoffery Mutai.) A fellow Kenyan came in second.
My daughter's face, I thought, evidenced some surprise, as if I had espoused some rank racism. So I explained that Kenyans seem particularly physically endowed for long-distance running. Kenyans, that is, and Ethiopians (another citizenry with disproportionate wins in marathons) who belong to the lithe and limber Kalenjin tribe.
If believing that different populations have different abilities constitutes racism, I guess I am a racist. But the word's pejorative meaning is more properly reserved for assigning negative human character traits-like dishonesty, laziness, drunkenness, or untrustworthiness-to particular racial or ethnic groups. People have free will, of course, and every individual should be judged on his own merits.
Recognizing that there are differences in aptitudes among different peoples, however, should be no more objectionable than noting physical differences, like the fact that Hutu tribesmen are stocky and relatively short while their Tutsi neighbors are lanky and taller. Or that one doesn't come across many Ashkenazi (or for that matter Sephardi) fullbacks.
Even excellence in mental attributes, like the commonly perceived abilities of Asians in mathematics, or of Jews in business or science, should not be seen as insulting others. Even if the perceptions are accurate, they are of limited import.
The Torah refers to the Jewish people as "a wise nation" but that doesn't mean we're all intellectually gifted. Even Jews who aren't the brightest candles in the menorah have a Divine mission on earth no less precious than the Rogachover down the block. And Chazal's honorifics customarily run not to words like "genius" or "brilliant" but to ones like "righteous" and "G-d-fearing." That's what counts.
It's plausible, of course, that Chinese or Jewish intellectual accomplishments-or Kalenjin dominance of marathon running-are due to something other than genes; cultural and environmental factors certainly play important roles. What's more, even fact-supported stereotypes are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as gene pools become more jumbled with each generation.
Still, some population-associated abilities remain, and some people seem to have a hard time with that. They waste precious time feeling bad for themselves and resentful of others, losing sight of a grand life-truth: It doesn't matter what abilities we possess; what matters is what we do with them.
Similarly, some people of modest means resent the more affluent. They may suspect (as do some affluent people themselves) that prosperity is the result of superior intelligence. (This, despite the ample and readily available evidence to the contrary.) As believing Jews, though, we should know that economic fortunes are determined wholly by Divine will; they ultimately remain beyond logic and inscrutable to us mortals.
Which thought leads, inevitably, to the Occupy Wall Street protests.
Some among the crowds in lower Manhattan and their counterparts in other cities may well have worthy complaints and clear goals. But what one hears most loudly and most commonly (as even a few minutes at Zuccotti Park were more than enough to demonstrate to me) is simple resentment of the fact that wealthy people… are wealthy. Why, many protesters seem to be saying, and angrily, them and not us?
What a sad way to waste life. Instead of identifying one's own blessings and setting oneself to the task-the privilege-of utilizing them as fully as possible for as long as possible, those demonstrators self-immolate in the heat of their anger over not being someone else.
But they are a good spur for the rest of us to remember that what matters in this world is not what we have, physically or monetarily, but what we choose.
Most of us wouldn't waste a millisecond envying a Kenyan's speed or stamina. None of us should waste even half that time resenting what someone else has.
EXERCISING THE EMPATHY MUSCLE
Politicians are often subject to derision, often for good reason. Recently, though, a Catholic cleric hurled an unusual and creative insult at local politicos: They are like Jews.
Edward Gilbert, the leader of the Catholic Church in Port of Spain, the capital of the southern Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, made the comparison between elected officials and "the original Jewish people," explaining that Jews, at least in ancient times, cared only about their own.
"The Jews were compassionate and caring to the people of their nation, to the people of their race…," Archbishop Gilbert reportedly said during an October 24 religious ceremony commemorating the 225th anniversary of the Roman Catholic presence on Trinidad. Christianity, he proudly asserted, "universalized the concept of love."
Predictably, the Anti-Defamation League protested the sermon, calling Mr. Gilbert's statements "a disturbing repackaging of ancient anti-Jewish canards and supersessionist beliefs." The American Jewish Committee chimed in with chiding of its own, contending that "such prejudicial comments not only reflect personal ignorance, but also ignorance of the teaching of the Catholic Church since Nostra Aetate." That was a reference to the Vatican II declaration repudiating the centuries-old "deicide" charge against all Jews, stressing the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, and reaffirming the eternal covenant between G-d and the People of Israel (though it does not, of course, renounce the essential beliefs of Christianity).
Personally, I wasn't insulted by the Archbishop's characterization, even if he meant to include contemporary Jews. Because caring for one's own is eminently defensible. In fact, it's the only way to truly care for anyone.
Not much effort is needed to profess true love for all the world; but to actually feel such love just isn't possible. Gushing good will at everyone is offering it to no one.
That is because, by definition, care grows within boundaries; our empathy for those closest to us, to be real, must be of a different nature than our concern for others with whom we don't share our personal lives. Boundaries are what make those beloved to us… beloved to us.
Every person lives at the center of a series of concentric circles, the smallest one (in a healthy dynamic) encompassing parents, spouses, and children; the next circle out, other family members and friends; the one beyond that, members of their ethnic or religious groups. At a distance removed from that is a larger circle of human beings with similar values. And further out still, the circle containing the rest of humanity.
It is perfectly proper that we feel, and demonstrate, our deepest concern for the circle closest to us. More: it is the only way to achieve genuine care, providing us the ability to bestow it, if in a less intense form, upon those in the next circle out, and, in turn, on those beyond it.
Nothing demonstrates the danger of "universalizing the concept of love" better than the religion Mr. Gilbert represents. For all Christianity's claim to have expanded its affection to all of humanity, early Church history was characterized by the vicious intolerance demonstrated by early "fathers" and emperors; the Middle Ages' Crusades left swollen rivers of blood; and, a few centuries later, Reformation battles between Catholics and Protestants added millions of corpses to the body count.
Perceptive Jews and non-Jews alike understand how essential it is that ethnic or religious groups show special concern for other members of their "tribes." They sense what to some may seem counterintuitive: it is precisely the intense empathy we feel and express for our "inner circles" alone that enables us to feel genuine, if somewhat less acute, concern for those in more distant ones. People who focus their deepest feelings on those close to them are those most likely to truly care about their fellow citizens or wider circles still. Exercising the "empathy muscle," so to speak, provides the ability to feel-less intensely but more genuinely-concern for people who are not close to us.
So while the Trinidadian cleric may have been attempting an insult, he inadvertently provided his listeners-and all who were reached by media reports of his words-something else: a valuable opportunity to ponder how caring works.
BEWARE OF ORTHODOXY!
The latest Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded last month to Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman for his discovery of "quasicrystals."
In the 1980s, the Israeli chemist noticed something peculiar as he examined a glowing hot metal he had cooled. The diffraction pattern that formed in the metal, unexpectedly, indicated atomic order, as in a crystal. And yet the symmetry seemed different from that of any known crystal.
When Professor Shechtman brought his observation to the head of his research lab, he was directed to a basic textbook on crystallography and told to read up on the subject. When he insisted that he had seen something new, he was asked to leave his research group.
Undaunted, he submitted a paper on the topic to the Journal of Applied Physics. It was rejected. Celebrated chemist Linus Pauling said that Shechtman was "talking nonsense" and that "there is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."
What became apparent with time, though, was that the professor had indeed discovered a new type of crystal, one that forms regular patterns, but whose patterns, unlike in all other crystals then known, never repeat. Now the stubborn scientist has a Nobel to help assuage any residual bad feelings.
Even more stubborn than Professor Schechtman, though-and to considerably less happy ends-are scientific orthodoxies, like the one he challenged.
A world that progressed beyond idols of stone and wood has naturally sought new objects of veneration. Some have been political systems, the various "isms"-nationalism, Nazism, Communism-that have plagued societies in recent centuries; others are isms of a different ilk, like atheism or scientism, here defined as an unyielding reverence for currently regnant scientific dogmas.
Among the "Ani Ma'amins" of scientism today are big beliefs like "human-caused global warming" and "the evolution of all species from a single ancestor" and "the existence of extraterrestrial life"; and smaller ones like the inherent value of all medical screenings.
Actually, scratch that one. Last month also brought the news that The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the federally mandated independent panel of medical experts, had concluded that PSA testing, which screens for prostate cancer and whose importance has been an article of medical faith for years, does not in fact prolong life for the average American man; and that it "is associated with harms related to subsequent evaluation and treatments, some of which may be unnecessary."
In 2009, the same respected group stunned the nation by recommending against routine mammography screening for women under 50. A Journal of the American Medical Association article that year pointed out that a successful screening program should result in an increase in the number of early cancers, followed by a decrease in the number of late-stage cancers. That has not happened, however, in the case of mammography screening.
Even some big isms have taken some big hits. The widely embraced notion of an impending "population explosion," for instance, sensationalized by German scientist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book "The Population Bomb," predicted worldwide famine within twenty years as a result of rising birth rates and limited resources. Hundreds of thousands, Dr. Ehrlich prophesied, would starve to death by 1988. (He advocated spiking the world water supply with sterilizing chemicals.)
Now, it may indeed turn out that the earth is warming dangerously as a result of human activity, that life thrives on other planets, and even, as Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch considers possible, that G-d created species through a process that began with a single cell.
And it is undeniable that science, in its pure, objective form, is a revelation of Divine wisdom, a most valuable means for understanding, appreciating, and exploiting nature.
But it is always worthwhile to remember that scientific orthodoxies have been toppled by new discoveries, that the endeavor of science progresses by replacing theories with better ones-in turn, subject to future revision. To realize, in other words, that skepticism of accepted notions is the very core of the scientific method.
Professor Shechtman himself put it well. "The main lesson I have learned over time," he said, "is that a good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he reads in the textbooks."
A MODERN-DAY PATRIARCH
The first notice, shortly before Rosh Hashana, came from "Tehilla." The subject box of the e-mail read: "Baruch Dayan HaEmet/URGENT, YOSEF PASSED AWAY!" and the message began: "I can't believe this rabbi. I can't believe he has left us. He was so concerned for me and my family…."
Tehilla is not her real name. She is a non-Jewish resident of a Muslim country, and is married to a Hindu man. But she is a "Noahide," a person who has accepted the Torah's universal "Seven Commandments" for humankind. In fact, she studies the works of, among others, the Chofetz Chaim, and pines for the day for when her adult sons, who are following in her path, will find wives ready to do the same. And for Moshiach's arrival.
Yosef was Yosef ben Shlomo Hakohen, an American-born Jewish returnee to Judaism (his original family name was Oboler) who lived in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and who made it his life's work to bring Jews closer to their heritage and to be a source of encouragement and direction to non-Jews who have found their way to realizing the Torah's truth.
And so the anguish at Yosef's unexpected passing was felt not only by Tehilla but by countless people around the world, in the strangest of places, who had benefitted from his writing-and, in many cases, his personal interaction with them.
I never had the honor of meeting Yosef in person but knew him from numerous electronic conversations we had. He was a remarkable man. In fact, I had begun asking him about his background and work, hoping one day to make him the subject of an Ami interview. Now, sadly, I can share only the few facts I came to garner; and, incomparably sadder still, not in an interview but an obituary.
Yosef, the child of leftist social activists, discovered Torah in his youth and was captivated by a deep desire to reach out to Jews who shared his parents' convictions, to help them better understand the true raison d'etre of the Jewish nation. "I wanted," he wrote me, "to help them to understand that it is through the study and fulfillment of the Torah that we make our contribution towards a better world."
In 1995, Feldheim published Yosef's "The Universal Jew: Letters To a Progressive Father From His Orthodox Son," telling the tale of his parents' dedication to the poor and underprivileged, and about his own personal journey, which led him to dedicate his own life to outreach. The following year, in a Jewish Observer article entitled "And He shall turn the Hearts of the Fathers to the Sons," Yosef reprised some of that story. And he established "Hazon-Renewing Our Universal Vision," a study program/Internet resource that touched untold numbers of hearts and minds.
In one of his many communications to his followers, Yosef quoted Rav Avrohom Yoffen, zt"l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Bais Yosef-Novardok, as noting the significance of the fact that our forefather Avrohom is the archetype of both kindness toward others and intolerance for idolatry. The latter, he explains, is based on a belief that various forces in nature are in competition with one another. That antagonism, he continued, is paralleled in, and connected to, human beings' alienation from one another. Avrohom Avinu embraced lovingkindness to counter that disaffection, and he fought idolatry to undermine its root cause.
That well describes Yosef's life-mission itself.
On Yom Kippur, "Tehilla" lit a yahrzeit candle for Yosef, who left no blood-relatives.
I remember how she expressed her feelings about meeting and corresponding with Yosef and other Jews who have offered her encouragement and guidance. "With all the sufferings [the world has] inflicted on you all," she once wrote, "I still cannot fathom how magnanimous you all are in being a light to all nations.
"After meeting your people [by e-mail], I cannot understand how such a warm, compassionate and humane people can be so persecuted and so misunderstood.
"All I can pray is when Hashem decides it's time for all your sufferings to be over, He will show us Gentiles the compassion we failed to show you all."
"Soon G-d is going to say 'enough' to your tears…"
And to hers as well, may the day come soon.
I Love THE U.N.
I love the United Nations. Yes, I know, the General Assembly was well and memorably described by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a "theater of the absurd." Actually, a better metaphor might be a tribe of savages, or, perhaps, a zoo.
But that leads to the reason for my affinity for the world body, namely, how wonderfully the menagerie brings to life the metaphor of the Jewish People being the lone sheep among 70 wolves-the State of Israel serving as the contemporary stand-in for Klal Yisrael. Particularly evocative was how, recently, one of the wolves, bedecked in ill-fitting sheep's clothing (pleading victimization even while allied with a particularly bloodthirsty fellow beast), received thunderous applause for rejecting his Jewish neighbor's offer of peace. Mr. Abbas, of course, should have lost all credibility when he embraced Hamas. (Not that he dares set foot in Gaza; even wolves fear bigger wolves.) Instead, he gets ovations from fellow predators and the various vultures that keep their company.
Shortly before the Palestinian leader announced his opting for confrontation over negotiation, another creature-this one part loon-shared again his imaginative take on history, which lacks a Holocaust but includes the United States attacking itself in 2001. And, of course, Mr. Ahmadinejad reprised as well his view of Israel as the contemporary world's resident evil.
The perfect time for gaining perspective on such things is Sukkos; the perfect place, sitting in the sukkah, gazing up at the schach.
Avraham Reisen, a Yiddish poet who died in 1953, left a voluminous body of short stories and poems. Only one, though, is regularly recited these days-and mostly by observant Jews. It's sung to a plaintive, moving melody whose composer is unknown to me. The song is familiar to many from immigrant parents or grandparents. Remarkably, the strains of "A Sukkeleh," no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.
Based on Reisen's "In Sukkeh," the song concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical.
Several years ago, I translated it into English; it's not a perfectly literal translation but I tried to remain faithful to the Yiddish original's rhyme scheme and meter. It has been published before, so my apologies to any Ami readers who may have already seen it. But I wanted to share it with those who may not have, since it's really about, well, Klal Yisrael and the United Nations:
A sukkaleh, quite small,
wooden planks for each wall,
lovingly I stood them upright;
laid thatch as a ceiling
and now, filled with deep feeling,
I sit in my sukkaleh at night.
A chill wind attacks,
whistling through the cracks;
the candles, they flicker and yearn.
It's so strange a thing
that, as the Kiddush I sing,
the flames, calmed, now quietly burn.
In comes my daughter,
bearing hot food and water;
worry shrouds her face like a pall.
She just stands there shaking
And, her voice nearly breaking,
says "Tattenyu, the sukkah's going to fall!"
Dear daughter, don't fret.
It hasn't fallen yet.
The sukkah's fine; go banish your fright.
There have been many such fears,
for nigh two thousand years;
yet the little sukkah still stands upright.
It was reassuring that, before the General Assembly, Mr. Netanyahu was so polished and blunt with the wolverine delegates. And that President Obama spoke so strongly about Arab violence and about the Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael. (And it was nice to find out shortly afterward that our government has quietly sold Israel "bunker-busting bombs," which can really come in handy sometimes.). But we mustn't forget that Klal Yisrael's safety, in the end, doesn't hinge on world leaders or world-class ordnance. The less-than-substantial schach symbolizes both our vulnerability and our true Source of protection: Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.
Let the wolves bay and the vultures circle. With our repentance, prayer and charity, the sukkeleh, as it has for millennia, will continue to stand.
G-D POSITIONING SYSTEM
I rode the brake and we descended the single-lane dirt path slowly, feeling the vibration of pebbles under our tires turn into the audible crunch of good-sized stones. My wife and I had embarked not long ago on our annual short summer vacation in search, as usual, of a hike in a forest to a waterfall. We were, we thought, close to our goal.
The particular falls on our agenda this year were clearly not going to be any match for the stunning double-drop Kaaterskill Falls (made all the more rewarding by the steep climb required to reach it) or Paterson, New Jersey's unexpectedly impressive Great Falls. But the difficulty of even finding Buttermilk Falls was inspiration of its own. We had spent most of an entire day driving through the southern foothills of the Catskill Mountains trying to locate our quarry, which, although immobile, had proven elusive.
We knew it wasn't the larger falls by that same name, nearly 200 miles to the northwest. But, somehow, neither our standard GPS nor my personal one (my wife's first name is Gita) had managed to guide us smoothly to our destination. Here we were, though, finally, on Buttermilk Falls Road, although it seemed a less than promising avenue.
We passed a rusted-out 1940s-era truck, which had been turned over the decades into a large planter for an impressive assortment of weeds. And then we watched a parade of ramshackle dwellings prominently displaying "No Trespassing" signs pass by outside our car windows. One notice read (honestly): "Trespassers Will Be Shot. Survivors Will Be Shot Again." It somehow captured the spirit of the surroundings.
The prospect of puncturing a tire on this clearly "residential" dead-end and finding ourselves at the hospitality of the locals was enough to convince us, with no evidence of any waterfall in sight, to do a slow, careful three-point turn (avoiding the deep, foot-wide running ditch on either side of the road) and head gingerly back to the paved road from which we had turned onto the unappealing artery.
It turned out that Buttermilk Falls Road, at least that one, did not in fact lead to Buttermilk Falls. (This was upstate New York; why would it?) The falls were fifty-odd miles' drive and a short forest hike away. Eventually, we reached our goal.
The roundabout way we got there, though, and the one-flat-tire-away-from-disaster situation we experienced, made me think about Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato.
Well, not about him, astounding a personage as he was, but rather about his most famous work, the Mesilas Yesharim, or "Path of the Just." Specifically, its first chapter, in which he introduces the idea, familiar to many but still counterintuitive to some, that human beings are created to receive pleasure.
He describes the world as a place filled with transient joys, to which we are attracted because of our pleasure-seeking natures. But many of those joys in fact distance us from the ultimate pleasure intended for us; our pursuit of them leads us away from our goal.
The ultimate pleasure for which our souls pine is closeness to G-d, and it is only fully obtainable in a world beyond this one. And while all sorts of paths here beckon us, holding out shiny diversions for our consideration and promising true gratification, they are barren roads, even dangerous ones. We need to navigate our lives around them, and trod tried, true paths, not those that may lead to places we may think we wish to go but really do not.
The truth is that all thinking people over time come to realize both that we are pleasure-seekers and that the satisfaction of our desires-no matter how we may feed, clothe, entertain or pamper ourselves-remains frustratingly out of reach. So many roads that seemed so very promising turn out to be such total disappointments.
While we are still fortunate to occupy this world of doing, though, we always have the ability to execute our personal three-point turns. As I recall the sound of the stones underneath our car on Buttermilk Falls Road that day, I imagine the vibration as the sound of Elul approaching.
PASSPORTS, PROVISOS AND PHOTO CAPTIONS
When you stop to think about it, the fact that so much of the world's attention-not to mention so much jealousy, anger and irrationality-has for so many years been so keenly focused on so small a piece of real estate as Yerushalayim is astounding.
Actually, in a certain way it's enthralling too, demonstrating as it so powerfully does how special the geographic epicenter of the Jewish People-the dynamo of holiness that sanctifies the rest of Eretz Yisrael-is, today no less than ever.
Over history, many empires claimed sovereignty over the quintessentially Jewish city, site of the batei mikdash, the central Jewish Holy Temples; and many marauders overran it. Now, to add to all the indignities visited upon the Holy City over the millennia, Jerusalem is being summoned to appear before the United States Supreme Court.
Well, okay, not exactly. What the High Court will be considering is the passport of a Jerusalem-born boy. Menachem Zivotofsky's parents, American citizens, requested of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv that "Israel" be listed as the country in which their son entered the world. Then-President George W. Bush had mere weeks earlier signed a bill directing the U.S. State Department to do just that upon parents' request.
But Mr. Bush made clear at the signing that the law "impermissibly interferes with the president's constitutional authority to conduct the nation's foreign affairs." That proviso, in which Mr. Bush essentially rejected the authority of the law he signed, was reminiscent of the executive orders issued by every sitting president since 1998 that, despite the 1995 "Jerusalem Embassy Act" mandating the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the move would not actually happen. The justification for the orders is the need to "protect the national security interests of the United States." The guardedness, in other words, is seen as necessary to preserve the government's claim of objectivity with regard to any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
And so the State Department maintains that U.S. passports of individuals born in Jerusalem list only the city's name, without anything appended.
In 2003, the Zivotofskys sued the State Department on behalf of their son, and that litigation-dismissed, and then resurrected on appeal-is what the Supreme Court will begin to consider next month. An alphabet soup of Jewish groups have jumped into the fray with "friend of the court" briefs, almost all in support of the Zivotovskys. An exception was the American Jewish Committee, whose representative contended that while it does consider "West Jerusalem" to be part of Israel, it believes that "all issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict have to be settled at the negotiation table."
In the meantime, the Obama administration came in for some criticism on the issue. The New York Sun's website reported recently that photographs posted on the White House website that had carried captions referencing "Jerusalem, Israel" had been altered to read simply "Jerusalem." The changes were presumably an effort to avoid the captions being invoked in the upcoming Supreme Court case-although photo captions obviously have something less than legal import.
In response to an inquiry, a White House official said the "U.S. policy for more than 40 years has been that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final-status negotiations between the parties. As in prior administrations, the White House photo captions should reflect that policy."
Indeed, the White House site's captions during the Bush years also omitted "Israel" in at least some Jerusalem-datelined photos. Former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams told the Washington Post that the White House during those years "did not have a hard-and-fast rule" for statements and press releases about identifying Jerusalem as being in Israel.
In the end, the Supreme Court will decide what it will. And Israel will negotiate what it will. And believing Jews everywhere will continue to know what we have always known: That, whatever any court or any country might contend, Yerushalayim, the city Jews have faced in prayer thrice daily for thousands of years, is the heart and home of Klal Yisrael.
In fact, maybe that phrase is what passports should put after Jerusalem's name.
The recent suggestion by the rabbi of a West Coast Orthodox congregation that one of the birchos hashachar (morning blessings) recited each day by Torah-observant Jews be eliminated-he sees it as insufficiently enlightened-is a reminder of an unpleasant but pressing task facing the Jewish community: To define the word "Orthodox."
Words are mangled with disturbing regularity in the Jewish world. Jewish "observance," once a clear and descriptive term, has become relegated to relativity. After all, isn't a Jew who faithfully follows his clergyman's prescription of social activism as the essential Jewish mandate… observant? He or she would certainly say so.
Adding the word "Torah" before "observance" doesn't help much either. A Reform leader, after all, once famously proclaimed his movement's wholehearted embrace of "Torah, Torah, Torah!"-undermining in six syllables more than 3000 years of a word's synonymity with the very concept of revealed law that Reform theology unabashedly renounces.
"Mitzvah" has been turned on its head too. The Hebrew word for "commandment" has degenerated in many circles to mean "good deed" or even "what any particular person happens to think is a good deed." The same aforementioned Reform rabbi once advised that every Jew "must examine each mitzvah [in the Torah] and ask the question: 'do I feel commanded in this instance…?'" Now, feeling commanded and being commanded may not be mutually exclusive, but they are hardly one and the same.
Rounding out the abuse of words are chimeras like Conservative "halacha" and a Reform "Kollel."
The word "Orthodox" has always been a lexical haven for Jews who affirm the divine origin of Torah and are committed to the entirety of our mesorah-traditional Jewish religious beliefs and practices-and the integrity of the halachic process as it has existed for millennia. Although the "O-Word" was originally imposed on believing Jews by others, we have worn the label proudly; it implies faithfulness to the past and willingness to stand against the winds of societal change. And it has allowed us to set ourselves apart from all the contemporary parallels to the Second Temple period's Sadducean movement-to borrow a comparison from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l.
In recent years, though, even "Orthodox" has been subjected to the Silly Putty treatment. People with ordinations from Orthodox institutions have invoked the imagined power of their pieces of paper to render "kosher" whatever the Zeitgeist or their own overly open minds have inspired them to embrace. Thus we have an "Orthodox rabbi" who prides himself on exemplifying what the Torah forbids as toeiva ("repugnant"); another who deigns to "ordain" women; now one who self-righteously declares that he can no longer "take G-d's name in the context" of one of the birchos hashachar, and who "suspect[s], at this point in history, that it constitutes a Desecration of the Name."
There is desecration here, yes, but not where the rabbi sees it.
Many Orthodox Jews, understandably, are reluctant to focus on attention-seeking rabbis seeking to boldly go, so to speak, where no Orthodox rabbi has gone before. But we ignore such things at our peril. Or, better, at the peril of forfeiting the last adjective signifying commitment to the Jewish mesorah.
Laying precise boundaries between unorthodox and unOrthodox is not simple. There have been Jewish innovations that were endorsed, in fact impelled, by Gedolei Yisrael-the Bais Yaakov movement perhaps the most striking one.
But when a contemporary rabbi, particularly one who has not yet garnered the wisdom that comes with many years of living and learning, proposes to reject an element-any element-of the Jewish mandate, there can be no question about his having relinquished the right to call himself Orthodox.
And no question, either, that any Orthodox rabbinic group to which he may belong, and any Orthodox congregational body with which his synagogue is affiliated, has an obligation to defend the word Orthodox, and to summon the courage to do what it has to do.
COMPROMISING ON “PRINCIPLE”
“Those are my principles!” famously declared Groucho Marx. “And if you don’t like them, well… I have others.”
Principles are important, to be sure. But Groucho wasn’t entirely wrong. There are principles… and there are principles.
For a believing Jew, of course, religious principles are sacrosanct. And there are high principles, many in fact derived from Judaism, that have come to be embraced by much of humanity.
But there are also things that people, including religious Jews, may call principles but which are really just preferences, inclinations or stances. And it is important to keep that distinction, well, distinct.
What musters that thought is the language that flowed forth after the agreement between President Obama and Congressional leaders on a budget deal. Commentators pontificated about this politician “standing on principle,” that one “abandoning his principles,” a third being sent to the principal’s office (okay, maybe not).
That undeserved elevation of economic and political views to high principle yielded much rhetoric. Vice President Biden was reported to have said that tea party Republicans had “acted like terrorists,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) called the deal a “Satan sandwich”; and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) labeled those who disagreed with his position “arsonists.”
The New York Times editorialized that the deal represented “capitulation to… hostage-taking demands.” Columnist Tom Friedman called the tea party the GOP’s “Hezbollah faction.”
The vitriol was a bit much. But, of course, it was over matters of principle—at least in the eyes of the vitriolic.
The one word that was treated as an expletive was “compromise,” which, of course, in the end, well described the deal. It was the ninth word (the nine including “Good afternoon, everyone”) uttered by President Obama in his brief remarks announcing the agreement; and he repeated it several times.
To some, the compromise was lopsided, hence the anger at the president from within his own party. But a compromise it was, and it had to be.
In Judaism, compromise is no uncouth word; it is in fact something of a high principle itself.
The Shulchan Aruch, Jewish law’s mainstay-text, states: “It is a mitzvah to ask litigants at the start [of their case] ‘Do you wish [for the case to proceed through] strict law or compromise?’… Every court that regularly delivers compromises is praiseworthy.” (Choshen Mishpat, 12:2)
Thus, the coming together of two parties, each of which agrees to not stand on “principle” (i.e. position), is the Jewish ideal. Likewise when it comes to “principles” like one particular economic theory over another, or this political philosophy vs. that one: the praiseworthy path is compromise.
Every special day on the Jewish calendar is a “learning moment,” an opportunity to glean a keener appreciation of the concept that attends it. Tisha B’Av is past, but as we move on we should carry its message: The evil of baseless hatred, the sort of factionalism and infighting that preceded the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdosh, or Holy Temple.
Our Orthodox Jewish world today has its share of the same, of course, which is surely why the Temple has not been divinely rebuilt. And while true Jewish principles may never be compromised, many contemporary disputes are based on illusory “principles”—personal positions, not timeless truths.
We approach a happy day, Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Jewish month. It is a day of rejoicing, the Talmud teaches, partly because of the breaking down of barriers between Jews. So many contemporary barriers masquerade as principles. Recognizing that they are not, and appreciating compromise, are worthy things to carry from the ninth of the month to the fifteenth. Not standing on personal “principle”—whether with our spouses, our friends, our business partners, our employers, or our employees—is key to reversing what we mourned on Tisha B’Av.
Because the willingness to compromise is a true Jewish principle.
THE HEAVENS ARE THE L-RD'S
Those of us old enough to remember July 20, 1969 - when human beings first walked on the moon - recall, too, our sense of amazement over the "one small step for man "that came to mark the day for posterity.
The technical accomplishment was formidable. The Apollo 11 spacecraft transported three men from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the moon, and two of them stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility, a dry bed on the lunar surface.
For some, it was wholly the technological feat that yielded the awe. The "giant step for mankind," to them, meant that now nothing could stand in the way of further space exploration, that further giant steps - which they assumed were inevitable - would soon enough include a permanent outpost on the moon, a human presence on Mars, even flesh and blood forays into realms beyond the solar system. Humans could, and would, conquer the heavens.
Today, more than forty years later, a considerably more modest mood has settled on would-be intergalactic conquistadores. No feet have disturbed lunar dust since 1972. Space travel disasters, dangers posed by radiation in space, and budgetary constraints born of wars and social needs have combined to effectively remove colonization of the moon from the United States' agenda. Men on Mars remains a mere science fiction trope. Even the space shuttle program has now been shelved.
Others in 1969, though, while they were duly impressed by what human minds and hands had built and accomplished, felt an awe of a deeper sort. It was essentially the same astonishment born of looking - truly looking - at any part of what the world calls nature, of seeing - truly seeing - the night sky even from here on earth, or the sun, or clouds shifting shape. It was the awe of watching a baby explore his own new world, or begin to talk or walk; of leaves turning in the fall; of a spider spinning a web; of a wound, miraculously, healing. To be sure, the awe that summer day in 1969 was newly writ large, in images of an alien landscape, of bootprints in ancient dust, of a brilliant blue earthrise. But the shiver it inspired was, to sensitive people, the same yir'as harome'mus - awe before creation's Creator - accessible everywhere. To those observers, the space program's subsequent deceleration was but a reminder of the limits placed upon us mortal creations.
Those two diametric responses evoked by the first moonwalk - human hubris and awe of the Divine - long predated that event, of course; and they persist today as well. There remain among us those who stand in astonishment at human intelligence, dexterity and imagination, and proudly imagine that man is master of all he surveys. And then there are those who recognize that man, no less than the rest of nature at whose pinnacle he stands, is but testimony to an infinitely greater object of veneration, to Whom, in the end, all truly belongs.
Interestingly, the mission of one of Apollo 11's precursors, Apollo 8 - the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon - yielded its own examples of both perspectives. The astronauts on the craft took turns reading a translation of the first verses of Genesis, broadcasting to all of the world's human beings the Torah's account of Creation.
And, as a result of that choice of message, a famous atheist of the time, Madalyn Murray O'Hair - who was responsible for the U.S. Supreme Court's outlawing of prayer in public schools (and who was murdered in 1995 by an employee of the American Atheists organization she founded; and who was denounced by her son as an 'evil and lawless' embezzler and tax cheat) - responded by filing a lawsuit over, as she saw it, that unconstitutional injection of religion into a governmental program.
The lawsuit, O'Hair v. Paine (1970) bounced around for a while but finally, in one of the more lasting and delightful legacies of the moon missions, it reached, and was dismissed, by the U.S. Supreme Court. "The motion to dismiss is granted and the appeal is dismissed," the decision read, "for want of jurisdiction."
WHERE LESS CAN BE MORE
“Can she have a cookie with a Pentagon-K on the box?” the voice on the phone asked and, after receiving my polite but negative response (a Pentagon-K?—now the Defense Department’s in the kashrus business? Who knew?), responded, “Fine, I’ll leave those in the cupboard.”
It was the sort of conversation (emphasis on “sort”) that my wife and I had more than occasionally during the 1980s and early 1990s, when we lived in a city with only a small Jewishly observant community, and our children’s friends included not only other frum (observant) kids but children from less-observant families. The parents of those children knew that our kosher standards—whether regarding food, activities or entertainment—were different from theirs. And when our kids visited their homes, our less-observant neighbors—no less than we did for their visiting children with food sensitivities or allergies—took pains to make sure all special needs were fully accommodated.
Some might consider that situation clumsy, uncomfortable, even dangerous. But to us it was invaluable. We are grateful to G-d that we were able to live “out of town” for so long and only moved to New York (compelled by circumstances) after most of our children’s formative years.
Admitting that fact tends to raise eyebrows—at least those of people who never actually lived in a small frum community. “Come on,” the eyebrows’ owners respond, “you don’t mean to say that an environment with fewer frum Jews and Jewish educational opportunities, with more challenges to observance and more “foreign” influences, is superior, do you?”
Well, put that way, I’m hesitant to respond. But still and all, there are advantages to precisely such an environment.
Yes, in a large observant community, there are like-minded people pretty much everywhere you look, synagogues of all manner of custom; Maariv, or evening-prayer services at any hour of the night, meat restaurants and pizza places and kosher bakeries galore. Men’s and women’s yeshivos and seminaries of varied stripes, ritual holiday objects available seasonally on street corners, choices of study partners and observant neighbors, study halls and Torah classes. There are wedding halls and, may their services not be needed, Jewish burial societies.
And yet, the other side of the scales holds treasures of its own, some of them even born of the lack of religious amenities.
Variety may be the spice of life, and religious customs are certainly important. But when the numbers of “shul Jews” in a community are only sufficient to populate one or two places of prayer, Jews of different stripes have no choice but to worship among others whom, were they all living in a big city, they might never have met, much less bonded with as friends. Dearths of eateries are offset by increases in invitations for celebrations and Sabbath meals.
Torah classes and study partners? Well, out-of-town does mean fewer opportunities. But more impetus, too, to take advantage of what is available (and less ability to lay low and think no one will notice). Being an integral part of a necessarily cohesive, small community, moreover, rather than a nameless member of a large one demands of a Jew that he or she not only write a check to the burial society or Eruv Committee but become an actual, active participant in such endeavors.
It is true that large observant communities can provide a measure of healthy insularity from the surrounding culture. But hard as the residents of religious neighborhoods may try to keep “the city” at bay, it will always have ways of infiltrating our enclaves. And metropolises tend to cook up the worst stews of challenges to Torah mores and proper behavior.
Smaller cities are hardly oases of healthy mores and manners. But the challenges they present are of a different order than those of New York or Los Angeles. Traditional values and civility are less rare, and more readily inform public discourse and behavior.
Out of town living isn’t for everyone. But Jews in the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods of frumdom could do worse than consider—if their work and family circumstances allow, and their spouses agree—the thought that leaving the plethora or shuls and bakeries behind and becoming important members of less endowed environments might just turn out to be the best decision they ever made.
Rabbi Avi Shafran
"Just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else" was the eminent twentieth century psychologist H.J. Eysenck's judgment of scientists. "And their unusually high intelligence," he added, "only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous."
A recent example of scientific unreason stands out, both for the renown of the scientist involved and the irony of where his bias led him.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was one of the most celebrated, influential and widely-read scientists of his time. In his 1981 book "The Mismeasure of Man," about the measurement of intelligence, he presented the work of 19th-century physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton as Exhibit A for how racial preconceptions can prejudice scientific research.
Morton, seeking evidence that the Supreme Being had created human races separately, used mustard seeds (at first, then buckshot) to meticulously calibrate the volumes of hundreds of skulls of Caucasians, Asians, American Indians and Africans. He indeed found a pattern of size differentials in the brain cavities of the various groups. Reanalyzing the data anew, however, Gould concluded that the earlier scientist had misrepresented his findings, and accused Morton of believing that the groups with the smaller cranial cavities were intellectually inferior.
This month, however, a study published in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, Public Library of Science Biology, asserts not only that there is no evidence that Morton held any racial biases but that Gould, not Morton, had misrepresented the data. Researchers re-measured 308 of the skulls Morton had collected, and found that Morton had actually underreported the extent of the differences he found.
Gould's charge that Morton had "unconscious[ly] finagl[ed]" circled around to bite him in the back.
Of course, Morton's premise that races were created separately is not what the Torah teaches (although a tripartite humanity does emerge after the time of Noach, generated by his three sons). But his research was conducted honorably. It was Gould, propelled by his antipathy to the notion that there may be brain size differences among races-which might be used to support racist beliefs-who (consciously or otherwise) fudged the data.
Scientific hubris is of more than mere academic import. Had Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich had his way in 1968, the world would have seen compulsory birth control, in the form of spiking water supplies with sterilizing chemicals. That was the year Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb," in which his disdain for the number of babies being born led him to predict worldwide famine within twenty years without such measures.
Practiced as it should be, the endeavor of science is sublime. What it yields can not only increase understanding of the world and improve lives but deeply inspire. A science book evidencing an awe of Creation and a recognition of human limitations can be a veritable work of religious inspiration.
But, as more traditional Jewish texts explain, only someone who has overcome the preconceptions, desires and imperfections of character to which we all play host can truly perceive the world with clarity. The rest of us-even scientists-are subject to misjudgments, hampered as we are by our prejudices.
Nowhere in science, perhaps, does bias so blind as with regard to evolution.
Species, over time, retain traits that serve them well, and lose others that don't. The ill-adapted don't survive; the advantaged do. That's simple, and seen.
But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new limb or organ within a species-things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times-have never been witnessed or reproduced. Ditto doubly for an organism emerging from inert matter-a "spontaneous generation" that evolution proponents assume began the process.
The solemn conviction that life appeared by chance and new species evolved from other ones countless times remains a large leap of… well, faith. Which is why "evolution" is rightly called a theory-and might better be called a religion.
As a faith that hallows chance as the engine of all, Evolutionism may owe less to objectivity than to a subconscious desire to reject the concept of a Creator.
And all the militant insistence on its truth should remind us all of Professor Eysenck's words.
Contests aren't really my thing. I don't buy lottery tickets or wager on sports (or, for that matter, even know much about them; until recently I thought Miami Heat was, well, a straightforward description, with the upper-case "H" a nod to the humidity).
Once, though, nearly thirty years ago, I put my name into play for a truly special prize. It was a long shot, I knew, but the payoff was so unusual and so tempting, I figured (as regular gamblers must do regularly) that, hey, it was a minor investment and could bring a huge return.
All that the investment entailed was sharing some personal and medical information with a government agency. And writing an essay, about why I wanted to travel into space-the prize.
The contest, announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, was open only to teachers, and I hoped that my position teaching Talmud in a Providence, Rhode Island yeshiva high school qualified me. If not, I would invoke the Jewish History classes I taught too. (And I wondered if the administration might somehow know about my vote for Mr. Reagan in 1980.)
I have no clear recollection about what I wrote in my essay but I think it included something about the religious nature of my teaching, my desire to experience the wonders of the universe from a new perspective and relay the same to students, and an appropriate verse or two from Tehillim or Psalms.
Whatever. Amid over 11,000 other entries received for the Teacher in Space Program, mine wasn't likely to be the one selected. And it wasn't.
Despite the long odds, though, I was disappointed. "Was it my essay?" I thought, regretting not having secularized it. Maybe the few extra pounds I had confessed to carrying (and carry with me still)? Most likely I just didn't stand out in any meaningful way from the thousands of other would-be astronauts.
So I nursed my wound, such as it was, consoling myself with the words of the Tannaic-era personality Nachum Ish Gamzu, who would regard every travail with joy, verbalizing his reason with the words "This, too,"-the meaning of the words gam zu-"is for the good."
You may know the end of the story-at least the story of the Teacher in Space Program. (The end of my story, I thank Hashem daily, hasn't yet arrived.) The teacher chosen for the space flight was Christa McAuliffe, and she was one of the seven crew members who perished aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, when, 73 seconds into its flight, the craft broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean.
Arriving for an early afternoon class that day, a student told me the terrible news. Like all Americans, I was dumbfounded and deeply saddened. All I thought of at that point was the tragic loss of seven brave souls; I had long put aside the memory of my bid to be the first teacher in space. Only hours later did it dawn that that the ill-fated flight was the one that, two years earlier, I had so wanted to take. From there, it was a short mental hop to the realization that my disappointment at having "lost" my bid to be the first teacher in space had been not only silly and childish but, in retrospect, for the good, at least my good.
The truth of "this, too, is for the good" comes most clearly into focus when we come to see it play out in our lives-and if we're perceptive, we all can see it abundantly. But Nachum Ish Gamzu's credo applies even when we don't come to realize how what seemed disappointing or worse was actually for our benefit. We make brachos, blessings, not only on good news but on the opposite as well.
The recent final flight of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program is what recalled my quest to slip the surly bonds of earth, reminding me of Nachum Ish Gamzu's wise attitude. Now comes the harder task of internalizing the reality of its truth even when the "for the best" might never be perceived within those earthly bonds.
WHAT AMERICA GETS
Many people seemed happy to treat President Obama's speeches last month on the Middle East and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's before Congress as some sort of sports tournament, rooting and scoring and declaring winners and losers. There were even inspections of each player's stats, not the tallying of runs-batted-in or touchdowns but rather the parsing of subtle phrases and revisiting of other players' records.
Some in the stands saw in the innings of addresses an American president trying to restart negotiations in order to derail the potentially disastrous establishment of a Palestinian state in the United Nations planned for September; and an Israeli leader arrogantly misrepresenting what his American counterpart actually said, publicly and rudely chiding him. Others saw a cold American president all-too-ready to compromise Israel's security; and a triumphant Israeli leader speaking hard truth to haughty power.
Among those rooting for Mr. Netanyahu and booing at Mr. Obama was Walter Russell Mead, a Bard College professor of foreign affairs and humanities, and editor-at-large of The American Interest.
Whatever the merits of his cheers and jeers, though, a few paragraphs of Professor Mead's essay on the declamation competition, concerning the warm response Mr. Netanyahu received from Congress, bear quoting:
"Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that [G-d] favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that [G-d] favors and protects America.
"It means more. The existence of Israel means that the [G-d] of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race. For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.
"Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don't 'get' Israel also don't 'get' America and don't 'get' [G-d]."
There's something embarrassing about the fact that declaring belief in the Divine is crucial for an American political candidate while for most Israeli leaders mere mention of Him seems off-limits. But Mr. Mead's observation is poignant. Even if many Israelis and Israeli leaders telegraph a kochi vi'otzem yadi ("My strength and the power of my hand") mindset, most Americans and their political representatives see a Higher Power at work in the world. And see Israel and the Jewish people as worthy of their concern and hope.
That should give us all pause. We are in galus, to be sure, in exile from our land-and, worst of all, from the relationship to the Creator we once merited. But as the stages and venues of our exile have unfolded, the way-station called the United States of America has proven itself unique. Yes, there are Jew-haters here too. But the overwhelming aggregates of both our country's political establishment and its populace are well-disposed, deeply so, to Jewish citizens and to a Jewish state halfway around the world.
And so, while we may be tempted at times to succumb to the coarseness of American political debate, allowing disagreement to devolve into derogation; or tempted to afford laws of the land less respect than they deserve (in the eyes not only of government but of halacha), it behooves us all to stop and control ourselves. And remind ourselves how fortunate we are, in a world where hatred of Jews is widespread and visceral, to live in a land that provides us not only freedom and protection but concern and respect.
Remembering that is not corny or jingoist. It's an expression of what may be the most fundamental Jewish high ideal, hakaras hatov-in its most literal sense: recognition of the good.
ANTI-MILAH ACTIVIST'S JEWISH PROBLEM
Two new twists emerged in the West Coast wars against bris milah, or circumcision, recently. The bid to outlaw the practice in the seaside city of Santa Monica, just north of Los Angeles, was dropped by its promoter, Jena Troutman. And the measure that would outlaw circumcision in San Francisco and fine violators up to $1000 was placed in a new and harsh light as the result of two deeply offensive comic books promoted by one of the proposal's main supporters.
The San Francisco proposal received the nearly 8000 signatures required to qualify it for the November ballot, despite the fact that, while it would exempt cases of medical necessity, it explicitly applies its prohibition to circumcisions performed for religious reasons.
That fact led some to charge from the start that an undercurrent of anti-Jewish and/or anti-Muslim sentiment ran swift and strong beneath the proposed law. The comic books, written by Matthew Hess, the founder of an anti-circumcision group in San Diego and a vocal backer of the San Francisco proposal, certainly lent graphic evidence to the suspicion-and drew broad public outrage.
Produced last year, the comics feature a square-jawed, blond, blue-eyed and grotesquely muscular "superhero" fighting forces of evil, in this case parents who wish to circumcise their sons-and, especially, mohelim, or ritual circumcisors. The latter and their cohorts are rendered in bizarre, garish fashion, with sinister multitudinous-toothed grimaces, knives at the ready, and sinister white space where their eyes should be. Scenes include depictions of terrified babies and brutal doctors covered in blood; and the evil protagonist of one of the publications is unambiguously labeled "Monster Mohel."
The imagery is more than passingly reminiscent of Nazi-era graphic publications that promoted ugly myths about Jews, like Der Stürmer, the product of the fevered and perverse imagination of Julius Streicher, who was tried at Nuremberg for his promotion of Jew-hatred and then hung for his crimes.
One of the comics in the series also conjures more subtly anti-Jewish themes, as when a character complains that the "pro-circumcision lobby" has "all of the well-connected doctors and lawyers" in its pocket.
Bay Area Jewish community leaders reacted with indignation to the comic books.
"The imagery in these cartoons is offensive and anti-Semitic," said Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). "To imagine that the person who produced this is a principle organizer of the measure to criminalize and ban circumcision in San Francisco is alarming." The legal language of the San Francisco initiative is in fact reportedly based on text first published on Hess's website.
"This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low," said Nancy Appel, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
In fact, the attention garnered by the crude comics may have played a major role in the withdrawal of the proposed circumcision ban in Santa Monica. "It shouldn't have been about religion in the first place," Ms. Troutman, the force behind the erstwhile proposal, told the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal, implying that charges of anti-Semitism, most loudly raised as a result of Hess' comics, had made her reconsider her quest.
Hess, who calls himself a "human rights activist," defended his graphic work as being "neither anti-Semitic nor anti-physician." But those "who cut innocent children," he said, "will be drawn like the villains that they are."
Even before the offensive comics were uncovered, though, there was much and widespread determination in the Jewish community to fight the anti-milah measures. Not only were strong statements issued by national Orthodox organizations like Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union, but an organized initiative under the umbrella of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council was undertaken locally-and encompassed parties beyond the Orthodox.
Jewish individuals, moreover, who spoke out against the proposals, also hailed from different parts of the Jewish communal spectrum. Santa Monica's mayor, Richard Bloom, for instance, announced that he was staunchly opposed to the ban that had been proposed for his locality, and stated that he plans to work with other political leaders to challenge the ballot measure in San Francisco.
And a Los Angeles-based urologist, Dr. Samuel Kunin, who has taught at the (Reform) Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the (Conservative) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, promised that, should the San Francisco ballot measure pass, he would make the trip up the coast to perform the first illegal San Francisco circumcision.
The broad defense of bris milah is intriguing. Non-Orthodox movements have abandoned many parts of the Jewish religious heritage and deeply changed others. One would expect something less than enthusiasm among non-Orthodox Jews for something as challenging to a contemporary mind as circumcision-the injuring, after all, as the anti-circumcision advocates never tire of shouting-of an innocent baby who is not making the choice of the procedure himself. To be sure, there may be health benefits and likewise, to be sure, an infant's nervous system has not likely developed full sensitivity to the pain of a cut. Most eight-day-old baby boys fall asleep shortly after their bris milah. But, all said and done, why would Jews affiliated with movements that have abandoned not only entire areas of halacha but entire verses of the Torah hesitate to jettison a Jewish practice that seems to a simple mind to be "barbaric" (as the early Reform movement in fact labeled it)?
There can be only one answer, and it represents the silver lining of the current assault on milah: The pinteleh Yid, the essential spark of the Jewish soul, even when clouded over by a rolling fog of contemporary mores and sensibilities, is not easily extinguished. It perseveres, it persists. It lays down a line in the San Francisco Bay sand and refuses to countenance its crossing.
The latest marchers in the long parade of horribles anxious to murder in the name of a religion of peace are two feckless young men, Ahmed Ferhani, 26, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20, natives of Algeria and Morocco, respectively. They were arraigned last week in New York on charges of plotting to blow up synagogues.
Mamdouh, according to prosecutors, is on tape saying he hated Jews; and Ferhani, according to the complaint, planned among other things to use hand grenades; and relished the thought of "pulling the pins and throwing them into the synagogue."
That image- now, thankfully, confined to harmless words in court papers-conjured in my mind a similar one, of another time, another synagogue, and other hand grenades.
It was in 1943. After more than three years of German control over France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function. That December 10, however, the Lyon Milice, the Vichy government's shock troops, decided to put an end to Jewish worship in the city.
The shul's rabbi survived the war to tell the tale, which is recorded in a book about Klaus Barbie, the infamous "Butcher of Lyon" (and the title, in fact, of the book, by Brendan Murphy - Empire/Harper & Row, 1983). A member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the sanctuary that Friday night during services. Armed with three hand grenades, he intended to lob them into the crowd of worshippers from behind, and to escape before the explosions. After silently opening the door and entering the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi (who stood facing the congregation), he pulled the pins.
What he saw, though, at that moment, grenades armed and the crowd of Jewish men standing with their backs toward him, so shook him that he froze, wide-eyed and uncomprehending, for a crucial moment, managing only to toss the grenades a few feet before fleeing in shock. Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but not one was killed.
What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the sudden, unexpected sight of his intended victims' faces, as the congregation, as if on cue, turned as one on its heels to face him.
The would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at "bo'i b'shalom," the last stanza of Lecha Dodi, when worshippers traditionally turn toward the door to welcome Shabbos.
Talk about timing.
I'm not a fan of happy-ending or just-deserts stories. So many of them simply aren't true or, at very least, are not definitively sourced or corroborated. Even many of the most famous tales may be fictions. (Stories don't become more factual with repetition.) What's more, every story that doesn't seem to end happily or neatly testifies no less loudly to G-d's plan. Hashgacha, or Divine Providence, is every bit as operative in the missed plane that didn't end up crashing as in the one that did.
But when an account appears not in an inspirational speech but in a well-researched history book, duly detailed and dated, well, it can't help but draw our attention. Not as a "fortification of belief" but as special cause for us already-believers to feel keener gratitude to the Creator for His kindness.
The story of the Lyon shul often visits my mind on Friday nights in shul, as I myself turn to welcome Shabbos. Its ending is compelling reason to give thanks, even 68 years later, to the Shomer Yisrael, the Guardian of the Jewish People.
As is the nipping-in-the-bud of the plans of the North African terrorist wannabes currently sitting in detention. (And, if their guilt is established, may they remain there for many years to come.)
No mortal can identify the special merit of the Lyon worshippers. Maybe it was the fact that the city's Jewish community had provided sanctuary for Jewish refugees from other parts of France. Maybe it was the very fact of the synagogue stubbornly continuing to hold services during such trying times. Or something else, unknown. Or many things. But merits there were.
And no mortal can know where the next plot against Jews is currently being planned. What we can know, though, is that we have a Guardian. And that we must strive to merit His protection for the future.
THE HELICOPTER LEFT BEHIND
I think that now, weeks since the mortal remains of this generation's most reviled mass-murderer were offered to fish and crustaceans, it's safe to bring up an important Jewish thought that should have occurred to us all in the wake of the operation at Abbottabad.
No, nothing to do with its ethical merit or legality; formal procedures and qualms have no place when it comes to removing a clearly dangerous object, animal, or person from the world. Nor is it with regard to the jubilation seen in some places following Bin Laden's killing; there are moral grounds for celebrating the demise of evil.
What may not have received sufficient contemplation was something else: the helicopter left behind.
Two Black Hawks were reportedly employed in the raid on Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. One experienced some sort of trouble and made a hard, damaging, landing. The commandoes tried to destroy the damaged chopper before leaving the compound on the other helicopter, apparently concerned that the Pakistanis might learn some secrets from the cutting-edge technology of the now-abandoned aircraft.
But there is something valuable in the wreckage from which we might all learn-or, at least, be reminded of: Things can go wrong.
That was a thought that surely reverberated in the minds of President Obama and his advisors as they awaited word of how things had proceeded during the raid. After all, when Jimmy Carter sent helicopters to the Iranian desert in 1980 to rescue the Americans then held captive in Tehran, one crashed en route; one turned back; one malfunctioned; and, the mission aborted, yet another plowed into a transport plane, killing eight soldiers. The servicemen involved in the mission were from Delta Force, the Army's equivalent at the time of "Seal Team Six."
And in fact, in an interview last week, Mr. Obama admitted being struck with the fear of failure. "You think about Black Hawk Down," he said, referring to the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, in which eighteen U.S. Army soldiers lost their lives. "You think about what happened with the Iranian rescue. And I am very sympathetic to the situation for other Presidents where you make a decision, you're making your best call, your best shot, and something goes wrong…"
That fear, of course, dissipated when the report came in of the "double tap" (Seal slang for one bullet to the chest, another to the face) and the prominent EKIA (enemy killed in action). But recognition of what can go wrong shouldn't ever dissipate. Fear should unfold like a flower into gratitude.
Which, in turn, should be directed Heavenward. Yes, we owe the President kudos for not putting Bin Laden on the White House back burner, and for risking a confrontation with Pakistani forces to get him. (One hopes some of the more thoughtful Obama-bashers among us were able to summon a smidgen of good feeling for the commander in chief's determination and decision.) Ditto for CIA Director Leon Panetta. And we have to deeply appreciate the skills and, more importantly, the grit and bravery, of the Seal Team Six commandos.
But what we have to do above all is to remember that an errant gust of wind can wreak havoc on a low-flying aircraft's ability to generate lift; electrical and hydraulic systems can and do malfunction; rotor blades crack; and human error happens.
And then we have to realize that the fact that none of those things took place-and that Bin Laden hadn't booby-trapped his room and wasn't protected by a dozen bodyguards and wasn't wearing a suicide vest-are all the result of siyata diShmaya, Divine assistance.
It's a realization that should inform our every humdrum day, for any day can easily be interrupted by things that make us pine dearly for humdrumness. A realization that a Jew should feel in his or her heart and even verbalize, clearly and without embarrassment, at every large or small turn of life that goes the way we hoped it would: Baruch Hashem.
ROMAN RITE LEADS TO JEWISH THOUGHT
Roman Catholic rituals aren't usually even a small part of my family's Shabbat table discussions but a recent Sabbath meal was an exception, granted in the spirit of revisiting an ever-timely Jewish concept.
The late Pope John Paul II was recently beatified by his church. Beatification is a stage in the process by which the Church renders a person a "saint." For a candidate to attain that stage, a miracle performed by the candidate has to be documented and accepted by a special Vatican committee.
Many, it seems, are the miracles out there. John Paul himself beatified more than 1300 people and canonized 482 saints during his tenure; and the current pope has beatified 790 and canonized 34. (Of course, every breath we take and move we make are miracles, but that's not what the Church has in mind here.)
To advance the cause of John Paul's canonization, evidence was proffered that a French nun had been miraculously cured from Parkinson's disease after praying to the pontiff shortly after his death in 2005. (Yes, Catholics pray to dead people, as intermediaries; for a Jew, that would constitute a most grave halachic offense.) The testimony was notarized and the miracle certified, despite grumblings from some corners. ("Did the prayers for this nun exclude the invocation of any and all [other] recognized saints?" one conservative Catholic publication asked with suspicion.)
Supernatural interventions have played a great role in Jewish history, of course. But-although many Jews are not aware of the fact-Maimonides clearly that they do not, and cannot, prove anything at all.
He points out (Yad: Yesodei HaTorah, 8:1) that there is simply no true way to distinguish a Divinely-sanctioned miracle from trickery or sorcery; a wonder may be wondrous, but it might also be an illusion. And so, any belief founded on a supernatural sign is, in the end, inherently flawed.
(The requirement that a prophet establish himself or herself by, among other things, performing a miracle or making a miraculous prediction, Maimonides explains, is a purely technical requirement, and does not imply that inherent meaning lies in miracles. [ibid, 7:7])
The wonders recounted in the Torah-even the parting of the Red Sea we recently revisited on the Seder nights-are not, Maimonides explains, demonstrations of G-d's existence but rather expressions of His love for His people.
The sea split, he continues, so that the Jews leaving Egypt could escape from the pursuing Egyptians, not to prove G-d's existence. The manna fell from heaven not as a theological statement but so that the people would not starve. Even seemingly demonstrative miracles like the ten plagues are interpreted by the Talmud and Midrash as messages, not mere manifestations.
The distinction may seem subtle, but it's not. We know G-d not because of any miracle but rather because He communicated directly with our ancestors at Mt. Sinai, a carefully preserved historical fact we will soon celebrate on Shavuot. That was no mere miracle, but an actual interaction, a mass meeting of the human and Divine-the only such interaction in human history.
That, explains Maimonides, is why, when G-d tells Moses to lead the Jewish People from Egypt, He adds: "And this is your sign that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve [Me] on this mountain," referring to Mt. Sinai.
That mass revelation fifty days after the exodus from Egypt is what established, beyond all doubt and suspicion, that the miracles the people had witnessed had not been trickery or sorcery but expressions of the love and concern of the Creator, Who was now introducing Himself directly to their minds and souls, and gifting them with the Torah.
It's, admittedly, strange that a Catholic rite brought me to reflect anew on the difference between a religion that "proves" things by "miracles"-indeed is based on them-and the incontrovertible truth to which we Jews are heir. But the difference is well worth pondering as we continue our "count-up" to this year's commemoration of the day we met the Creator.
WHITE HORSE, RED RIBBON… YELLOW JOURNALISM?
Rabbi Avi Shafran
"Oy," said the fellow at afternoon services first of the "intermediate days" of Passover. "Did you see the front page New York Times story about Kiryas Joel?"
I had, I confessed. As Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs, I'm supposed to keep tabs on the media, even during days when freedom from the wider world's machinations and mischief is the Jewish order of the day.
My interlocutor elaborated on his groan. "They did a real job on the place," he said. "Not good, not good…"
I understood how distrust of the media combined with a standard-issue dose of Jewish worry could easily yield such an assessment. After all, the article's headline called Kiryas Joel, the Satmar community about 50 miles northwest of New York City, "A Village With the Numbers, Not the Image, of the Poorest Place" in America. And the piece noted that "about half the residents receive food stamps and one-third receive Medicaid benefits and rely on federal vouchers to help pay their housing costs."
Moreover, it quoted an assemblywoman representing an adjacent district who has demanded an investigation into why Kiryas Joel received state and federal funds for a 60-bed postnatal maternal care center. Residents, she said "may be truly poor on paper [but] they are not truly poor in reality."
And then there was the sociology professor who generously admitted that he "cannot say as a group that they are cheating the system" but does think "that they have, no pun intended, unorthodox methods of getting financial support."
Still and all, the article acknowledged that crime is "virtually nonexistent in Kiryas Joel"; highlighted the assistance provided the needy by members of the community; noted that rates for stays at the postnatal center are not covered by Medicaid, and that "poorer women are typically subsidized by wealthier ones"; and described economic opportunities undertaken by locals. And it ended-the final lines of an article are the most important ones, as they "bring it all together" for the reader-with a quote from the village administrator, who pointed out that Kiryas Joel has "no drug-treatment programs, no juvenile delinquency program, we're not clogging the court system with criminal cases, you're not running programs for AIDS or teen pregnancy. I haven't run the numbers, but I think it's a wash."
The Talmud, in fact, teaches that poverty brings out the best in Jews, that it is "beautiful" for them, "like a red ribbon on a white horse" (Chagiga 9b). The article presented no evidence that Kiryas Joel's residents were anything but honest and needy, and deserving of what social largesse our wonderful country makes available to the materially deprived. In fact, it showed how poverty and beauty can dovetail.
Yet it wasn't only my shul friend who was unhappy with the report. So was someone far from the Orthodox world.
Ron Kuby is a well-known criminal defense and civil rights lawyer. New Yorkers with the questionable habit of listening to talk radio know him as a left-wing pundit who co-hosted a popular program for eight years. About 15 years ago, he contacted the Agudah about a legal issue of common concern and, after that interaction, over subsequent years I occasionally wrote to chide him about on-air comments he had made. We have carried on a lively conversation ever since. We often differ, but I have come to consider Ron a cherished fellow Jew and true friend. (For his part, he has called me his rabbi-although I'm not entirely sure what it means to be a self-declared atheist's clergyman.)
When he saw the Times article, he was chagrined by what he regarded as its tone, and wrote me. "The writer," he opined, "calls the poverty 'invisible' because no one appears to be suffering…" It's as if, he continued, the reporter was upset at Kiryas Joel's residents. "How dare these people devote their lives to Talmud (and producing children) and be happy while being broke! How dare they not have cars! How dare they receive charity from their co-religionists…!"
A better article, Ron continued, would have come from "a deeper meditation on the nature of a life well-lived."
We agree on that.
BLACK LIKE US
The Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839) probably never saw a black person. There weren't likely very many in 19th century central Europe. But he certainly knew they existed. After all, they are mentioned in a verse, the one that opens the haftarah of the Torah portion Kedoshim, which will be read this year on the first Shabbat after Pesach. There, Kushites-Kush is generally identified as a kingdom in central Africa-are a simile for the Jewish People.
"Behold, you are like the children of Kush to Me," the prophetAmos (9:7) quotes the Creator addressing His nation.
"Just as a Kushite differs [from others] in [the color of] his skin," comments the Talmud (Moed Katan, 16b), "so are the Jewish people different in their actions."
One might assume that the intention of that explanation is simply that, while most people often act thoughtlessly or selfishly, Jews, if they live as they should, do otherwise, planning their every action, concerned about their obligations to the Creator, and to others.
But the Chasam Sofer's interpretation of the Talmudic comment (he apparently had "the righteous" in place of "the Jewish people") goes in a different direction, and makes a point as fundamental as it is timely.
"It is well known that every Jew is required to observe all the mitzvos. But there is no single path for them all. One Jew may excel in Torah-study, another in avodah (service, or prayer), another in kindnesses to others; this one in one particular mitzvah, that one in another. Nevertheless, while they all differ from each other in their actions, they all have the same intention, to serve G-d with their entire hearts.
"Behold the Kushite. Inside, his organs, his blood and his appearance are all the same as other people's. Only in the superficiality of his skin is he different from others. This is the meaning of '[different] in his skin,' [meaning] only in his skin. Likewise, the righteous are different [from one another] only 'in their actions'; their inner conviction and intention, though, are [the same,] aimed at serving G-d in a good way."
There are two messages to glean here. One-which wasn't intended by the Chasam Sofer as a message at all, but as a truism-is that people of different colors are only superficially different from one another. What lies beneath our shells are the same veins, sinews and organs, no matter our shades.
The Chasam Sofer's novel message, though, is that there are different ways, no one of them any less essentially worthy than any other, of serving G-d.
All too often we fall into the trap of thinking that we, or our children, must follow a particular trajectory and land in a particular place in life. But when the rabbis of the Talmud teach that "just as people's faces all differ one from the other, so do their minds," they are informing us otherwise, that there are different, equally meritorious, trajectories, different, equally praiseworthy, landing places for different people. It's not just that people are dissimilar and will choose a variety of vocations, excel in a variety of fields, and establish individual priorities. It's that in all our diversity of vocations, fields and priorities, we can be entirely equal servants of the Divine.
Consider Rabbi Broka, who, the Talmud recounts (Ta'anit 22a), was often accompanied by Elijah the Prophet, and once asked him whether in a certain marketplace there were any people who merited the World-to-Come. The individuals Elijah pointed to turned out to be a prison guard who made special efforts to preserve prisoners' moral integrity and who interceded with the government on behalf of his fellow Jews; and a pair of comedians, who used their humor to cheer up the depressed and defuse disputes.
One wonders if the parents of those meritorious men felt disappointed at their sons' choices of professions. Or whether they realized that there are, in the end, many paths that can lead to the World-to-Come
SPRINGTIME FOR HAMAS
It wasn't reported in The New York Times or Washington Post for some reason, but on March 19 Hamas security agents raided the Gaza offices of Reuters, seized reporters' cameras, beat an employee with a metal bar, and announced their intention to throw another (employee, that is, not metal bar) out a window. What brought about the theft, assault, and threatened defenestration was the fact that a reporter in the building had filmed a demonstration taking place on the street below.
A demonstration, it should be noted, in favor of reuniting Hamas, which is pledged to Israel's destruction, with its current rival Fatah, which administers the West Bank and is, at least in principle, at peace with Israel.
Mere days later, the atmosphere had clouded-maybe cleared would be a better description. First, an advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that his boss considered unity with Hamas so important that even the withdrawal of American aid to the Palestinian Authority-currently hundreds of millions of dollars annually-would not derail a planned re-alliance of the two Palestinian parties.
Then a prominent Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, visiting Egypt for the first time since its former President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, announced that Egypt is actively involved in forging a reconciliation between his group and Fatah. Shortly thereafter, the Arab League moved to endorse the effort, offering to host the necessary talks.
It's springtime for Hamas. And the season has never smelled so bad.
The end of March brought us something else too: Hamas' and Fatah's reaction to reports that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)-the UN arm that provides services to "Palestinian refugees"-was planning to include a short study of the Holocaust in its schools' human rights curricula. The notion that the 200,000 children in UN-funded Gazan schools and thousands more in other UNRWA-administered areas might be apprised about what happened to the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s was apparently too much for the Palestinian parties to digest.
"Playing with the education of our children in the Gaza Strip is a red line," Hamas Education Minister Mohammed Asqoul declared, adding that that his group would block any such plan "regardless of the price."
Zakaria al-Agha, the leader of Fatah in Gaza and a member of Fatah's central committee, put it baldly: "Teaching the Holocaust to Palestinian students in U.N. schools is unacceptable." The Associated Press reported that approximately a dozen Gazan schoolteachers who were interviewed decried the plan too, and "warned of rebellion" were any attempt made to implement it.
None of them need worry. Holocaust education no longer seems to be on the UNRWA's plate, if ever it seriously was. The agency's representative in Jordan was quoted by a paper in that country as asserting that no curricular changes, in the end, were being planned.
Witnessing such unhidden contempt for history puts one in the mind of recalling part of President Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo. After declaring that America's "strong bonds with Israel" are "unbreakable," he took pains to remind the Islamic world about the Holocaust. Noting that he was headed the very next day to Buchenwald, "part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich," he pointedly pointed out that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was greater "than the entire Jewish population of Israel today."
And he continued, equally pointedly, that denying the Holocaust "is baseless, ignorant, and hateful," and that "threatening Israel with destruction-or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews-is deeply wrong."
Some observers criticized Mr. Obama for, as they chose to see it, eliding the inherent Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael. (Presumably he should have quoted the first Rashi in the Chumash.) But, to less jaundiced ears, his words were a worthy rebuke of Arabdom's willful ignorance and Jew-hatred. Not to mention, a worthy introduction to his main point: "Palestinians," he said, "must abandon violence."
Should Hamas' fetid springtime indeed bloom, and we become witness to the recreation of its unholy alliance with Fatah, one hopes Mr. Obama will well recall Hamas' foundational pledge to destroy Israel, the Palestinian non-narrative of the Holocaust-and his own trenchant words in Cairo.
A SONG FROM BEYOND
My dear mother, of blessed memory, has been gone for 22 years. Her yahrtzeit, the Jewish anniversary of her passing, 22 Adar I, fell on a Shabbos this year, several weeks ago. All who knew her will readily testify that she was one of the kindest, most caring people they had ever met. Despite her transplantation from Poland to the U.S. as a little girl, and then the loss of her grandmother, a brother and her father when she was a teen, no scars of those challenges were ever evident in her interactions with people-the moment she met you she began caring for you-and she was the most wonderful mother any child could ask for.
And she was present at our Shabbos table on her yahrtzeit this year. She even taught my grandson a song.
Two year old Shmuel, who was visiting with his parents and little brother, is an adorable, rambunctious little boy; to his good fortune, his propensity to display his impressive pitching arm and ability to break things have been divinely counterbalanced with preternaturally blue eyes and a smile that could melt Pharaoh's heart. He's a quick learner too.
At one point, someone at the meal claimed to be directionally challenged, needing to consciously think about which way was right and which was left. I smiled as I realized, and explained, how I came to have a split-second recognition of which way is right.
When I was a little boy, probably a bit older than Shmuel, I would accompany my mother on Shabbos afternoons to the shul in Baltimore's Lower Park Heights neighborhood where my father, may he be well, was rabbi. There, she would host a gathering of neighborhood children for snacks and songs and stories. One song has remained with me over the more than half-century since. It consisted of the verse "Kol rina viy'shua bi'oholei tzaddikim; yemin Hashem osoh choyil": "The sound of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; Hashem's right hand does valiantly" (Tehillim 118, 15). And, in the song, the word for "right hand"-"yemin"-was repeated with gusto thrice, each time with everyone thrusting a right fist into the air.
And so, I recounted, I need only think of the word yemin and my right arm starts automatically to move. I demonstrated the song and the motion, much to the amusement of Shmuel, who then shouted "Yemin!" three times, complete with hand motion. As we all laughed, I realized with a start that, my goodness!, my mother had just reached through the years-on her yahrtzeit no less!-and taught her great-grandson a song.
Of course, I think she is constantly teaching him, many other more important things as well. Every time I am moved to do something kind or considerate, I know it is her legacy (bequeathed to her no less by her parents) that I am, if imperfectly, embracing, and hopefully passing on to others. My wife and I, and our children-Shmuel's mother among them-along with their spouses are all links in a chain of generations, passing on the Jewish beliefs and values we have absorbed from our forebears to the young with whom we have been entrusted. In fact, being such links is arguably our most important role in life. And whether we're adequately filling it should be our constant concern.
More recently, my wife, perhaps in the spirit of chaos associated with the season, invited Shmuel's parents to leave him with us for the Shabbos before Purim, an offer they couldn't refuse. We had a wonderful time hosting our grandson. He managed to break only one child-proof gate, open only one child-proof cabinet (though several times) and drop just one book into the aquarium. (My wife's quick move prevented Shmuel's socks from following.)
That Friday night, when I returned from shul, the house was very quiet. Shmuel had been put to bed, but hadn't yet fallen asleep. To soothe him and ensure that he didn't climb out of his crib (something in which he has considerable expertise and experience) and wreak havoc, our daughter was sitting in the darkened room with him. He was babbling quietly, probably planning his mischief for the next day.
While we were waiting for the babble to fade to the peaceful slow breathing of well-deserved sleep, my wife excitedly motioned to me to come closer to the bedroom door, which was slightly ajar.
And then, bringing me a rush-and a smile leavened with a tear-I heard what she had: "Yemin!" Shmuel's little-boy voice was piping. "Yemin! Yemin!"
ICE STORM INSIGHT
There are surely many stories that can be told about the challenging winter from which we are (we hope!) emerging. Mine is about as mundane as they come. But it came with a lesson, at least for me.
It was the morning after a night that had layered a sheet of ice over much of twenty states, including New York. I arose earlier than usual, to allow extra time to get to shul for morning services. I bundled up, opened the door and stepped outside. After three steps, I turned on my heels and, slowly, gingerly, returned to the house.
During one of the season's previous eruptions of inclement weather, I had hurt my back shoveling snow. I was in excruciating pain for weeks thereafter, weeks that included the day of the ice-storm. I realized that were I to hazard even the block and a half walk to the closest shul, the chances of my slipping and falling-with repercussions to my back I preferred to not imagine-were considerable.
"Well, this, too, is for the good," I consoled myself, invoking the Talmudic personality Nachum Ish Gamzu's credo as I retreated defeated. And, in its way, it was.
The house was quiet and I took my time donning my tallit and tefillin at the dining room table. I took out my siddur and began to pray.
It was a deliberate, unhurried prayer. I was able to say every word distinctly, able to pay closer attention, to stop and think at every blessing and beseeching, to truly connect in a way that so often eludes me in the synagogue.
And yet, it was without a minyan, the required quorum. Which is not the way a Jewish man should ideally pray.
There are two seemingly unrelated things called "Yud Gimmel Middot"-literally, "13 Measures." One is a list of thirteen aspects (or, as commonly rendered, "attributes") of G-d's mercy, based on words in Exodus (34:6-7) that begin with G-d's name stated twice (with a pause signaled between them, representing, the Talmud says, one's different relationship to the Divine "before he has sinned and after he has sinned and repented").
The other "13 Middot" refers to a list recited daily in the prayer service. This list, cited in Rabbi Yishmael's name, enumerates the hermeneutical rules by which Jewish laws are derived from the Torah's verses. Some of that methodology, which is more descriptively known as the "13 Middot Through Which the Torah is Interpreted," is logical, some of it not obviously so; all of it, though, comprises a sacred part of the Oral Law itself.
Isn't it odd that both the expressions of G-d's mercy and the hermeneutical principles number thirteen, and both are described as "middot"?
Most of us have paused at the fact that, at least from our limited perspective, G-d seems to present two very different "faces": on the one hand, He is the Merciful Lifegiver, the Forgiver of sin and Bestower of blessings; on the other, the Lawgiver.
The Creator is both "avinu" and "malkeinu," our Father and our King-both merciful Parent and summoning Sovereign.
That may be the subtle implication of the "13 Middot" oddity-that the Source of mercy and forbearance is the very same Source of law and obligation. Divine mercy and Divine law are inseparable facets of the same Unity. The demands of Divine law are born of Divine love, inseparable from it; they reflect G-d's concern for our own ultimate wellbeing.
And so, while my minyanless morning brought me to a feeling of closeness to the Divine I too seldom manage, the requirement of praying with a quorum remains incumbent (even if, on occasion, it cannot be managed).
Were G-d only a father, then I would choose to worship Him at home. But He is a king, too, and has decreed otherwise.
So now what I have to strive toward-and analogies, I imagine, abound for us all in our individual daily lives-is to bring some of the specialness of my ice storm service into every prayer recited, less leisurely but more properly, with a minyan in shul.
I'm hesitant to put my Mama Jean story in writing. There's so much improper imbibing on Purim, so much regarding of "lib'sumi" (to become tipsy) as license instead of mitzvah.
But the story's too good, and its message too meaningful, to leave unshared.
"Mama Jean," as she liked to be called, was the cook in a small yeshiva where I studied many, many years ago. She was a very large, very jovial, very middle-aged ethnic Italian from "the other side of the tracks." While she was serving us pasta with meat sauce, her son was serving a life sentence in San Quentin.
Her first year with the yeshiva brought revelations to both us and her. We learned about fresh oregano. And she learned about strange Jews. How they could feast so incessantly on Sabbaths and holidays, eating odd things like cholent, and how they suddenly ate nothing at all on fast days.
When Purim was imminent, we thought Mama Jean should be prepared for yet a new strangeness. Gingerly, we told her about breaking the fast after Taanit Esther, about the festivities of that night and the next day, about the festive meal, about how some might be drinking a bit more than they otherwise might. She wasn't fazed and not only prepared a royal spread (and special punch) for the yeshiva but watched the singing and dancing from the kitchen throughout the day.
It was a wonderful Purim, what I remember of it. What I clearly remember, though, was an early morning later that week. My mind is sharpest in pre-dawn hours, and I had entered the yeshiva's beis medrash, or study hall. well before morning services.
Expecting an empty room, I was startled to see a formidable form sitting on the floor before a bookcase at the back of the hall. Mama Jean was oblivious to my arrival, deeply engrossed in an English holy book that had been on a shelf.
When she sensed my presence, she was startled, and I apologized. "But Mama Jean," I said, "What are you doing here?"
She stood up and smiled sheepishly. "Avi," she said. "I'm thinking about becoming Jewish."
Mama Jean struck me as an unlikely convert (and, to the best of my knowledge, never became one).
"Why?" I asked, sincerely curious. "Purim" was her response.
Her elaboration has remained with me for decades since. "Over my years," she explained, "I've seen a lot of people plenty drunk. But I've never seen so many people so drunk… without a single fight." All that she had seen at the yeshiva, she explained, was friendship, joy, laughter, tears, and religious devotion.
Mama Jean, I realized, had sensed what the rabbis of the Talmud teach: that a person's true character is evident in "his cup"-in how he acts when intoxicated. She had perceived Klal Yisrael.
The Talmud (Shabbos, 88a) teaches that something was missing when our ancestors received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, something only supplied centuries later by the Jews in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther.
Because the revelation at Sinai involved an element of coercion: "G-d held the mountain over the Jews' heads like a gigis (a barrel)." Explains the Maharal: The powerful nature of the experience, the terrifying interaction of human and Divine, left no opportunity for true free choice.
And for years that "coercion" remained a moda'ah, a "remonstration," against the Jewish People. Until the Purim story. Then, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive G-d's presence where it was not obvious at all. Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, they recognized it as G-d's message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance. And by choosing to see G-d's hand, they supplied what was missing at Sinai, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was-and is-wholehearted, sincere and pure.
When I think of my early morning conversation with Mama Jean, I think of the Talmud's image of G-d "holding the mountain over their heads," and, especially, of the phrase "like a barrel." What's with that? Is a mountain overhead not frightening enough? Who ordered the barrel?
A gigis, however, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.
In Pirkei Avos, we are taught not "to look at the container, but at what it holds." I suspect that advice may apply here. The Jewish nation's reaction to coercion may not reveal its truest nature; what does, though, is how we express our dedication in a state of mindless purity.
THE SILICON EMPEROR'S NEW SOUL
"A donkey loaded up with books." That's the term the Chovos Halevovos (Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekudah) uses to describe a scholar who has memorized much information but lacks the judgment, character and/or human insight to transform what he carries into wisdom.
Donkeys bray and smell bad. Computers whir (at least if they have fans or rotating hard drives) and are odorless (though some keyboards are redolent of coffee). But donkeys and computers share two things in common: Each can hold much, and neither approaches being human.
The media minions were gushing of late over the performance of an IBM computer that bested a pair of bright and well-versed human beings in a game show competition that tested knowledge in a broad array of areas. Christened "Watson," the computer brought to the podium a 15-terabyte data bank of facts. And it answered questions (or, better, supplied questions to proffered answers or hints, the conceit of the game show, Jeopardy!) with aplomb.
Just as it was programmed (by humans, of course) to do, "Watson" zeroed in on key words in the clue, combed its mega-memory for associations and, if its program rated the result sufficiently likely to be correct, sounded the game buzzer in a tiny fraction of a second. The flesh and blood contestants didn't really stand a chance.
Hosannas sounded from all directions. The accomplishment was hailed as a quantum leap toward Artificial Intelligence, the holy grail of some scientists who believe that a machine can be constructed that is indistinguishable in its cognitive abilities from a human being.
What Watson made me think of, oddly, was PETA, "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals."
The silicon scholar and the extreme animal rights group might not seem to have anything to do with each other. But both foster the same disturbing and deeply wrong notion: that human beings are not an utterly unique part of creation.
PETA morally equates animals with humans. Its "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign compared the killing of chickens and cows to the murder of men, women and children. Its president memorably lamented that "Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses."
Watson's inventors and promoters exhibit no such mental aberration. For all I know, they may well enjoy a good steak. But all the same, a subtle offense lies in the Artificial Intelligence crowd's notion that a sufficiently advanced computer could achieve consciousness, sentience, self-awareness.
Because it, too, presupposes that humans are not qualitatively special beings, that, in our essences, we ourselves are just fantastically well-engineered pieces of software.
But we're not. We may share our basic biologies with the animal world; and elements of our information-processing abilities may be mimicked (even bested) by machines. But we are neither wallabies nor Watsons. We don't just feel; we emote. We don't just compute; we conceive. We don't just act; we choose. Our reflections in a mirror mimic us too. But they're not us.
There's a Purim thought here.
Because Amalek stands for meaninglessness. From an Amalekian point of view, the world is, as they say, what it is; nothing more. It offers no reason to imagine that we are something beyond animals who speak and wear clothes (and so what?) and analyze things (though not even as well as computers). No reason to consider that there is good and bad, right and wrong, or some plan for history.
Klal Yisrael stands for the very opposite, the conviction that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, that they can consider and communicate not just wants, like animals, but ideas, concepts, truths. And that a nation was chosen to be an example to the world of a human being's highest aspiration, holiness.
And so let's be wary of Watson, or at least of Watsonism. And, amid all the cheering of the silicon emperor, let's declare unabashedly that he has no soul.
THE CULTURAL JEW WITHIN
Rabbi Avi Shafran
It's a term often used for members of the tribe who see their membership as essentially ethnic in nature, informed by things like culinary choices, celebration of the Jewish calendar's holidays (though not, to them, holy days), and-at least for some-certain political leanings: "Cultural Jews."
They may attend synagogue on special occasions, in particular on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, on the anniversary of a parent's death-and even recite the Kaddish-not because they perceive spiritual power in those days or that Kaddish but mostly because… well, because that's what their parents or grandparents did. Because that's what Jews do. Tradition, so to speak, for the sake of tradition.
Another kind of cultural Jew, less commonly acknowledged but not altogether rare, is the cultural Orthodox Jew.
That would be one who doesn't limit his Jewish expression to gefilte fish and Chanukah but rather eats only foods graced with the best rabbinical supervision and drinks only Jewish-processed milk; who wears a black hat or fur one, and even a long coat; who prays with a quorum regularly and sends his children to yeshivot and may even attend Torah classes; but who does it all for much the same reason as his less Jewishly active counterparts: Because that's what Jews-in this case, Orthodox Jews-do. It's not that he doesn't believe in the Creator. It's just that he doesn't give Him much thought-even while living a seemingly intense Jewish life.
Of course, valuing our forebears' traditions, dressing like them, adopting Jewish family customs, are undeniably important. But when the trappings of observance are essentially all that there is, when they aren't accompanied by a consciousness of why they are important, what's left is mere mimicry, paraphernalia in place of principle.
That there are "Cultural" Orthodox Jews helps explain otherwise baffling things, like how an Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices, cheat, steal or abuse. Or, more mundanely, how he can cut others off in traffic, act rudely, or blog maliciously. Or, for that matter, how he can address his Creator in prayer with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, they would elicit laughter-or pity, for the apparent impairment.
To be sure, desires, compulsions, selfishness and greed are always at work. But the check for such spiritual adversities is consciousness of G-d; and in some seemingly observant Jews it appears to have gone missing. Their observance is a Fiddler on the Roof sort of "Tradition!"-miles wide, perhaps, but mere millimeters deep.
The phenomenon of Cultural Orthodox Jews should discomfit us. After all, mitzvot, commandments, and Jewish customs are a Jew's spiritual nourishment; but awareness of the Divine is-or should be-the very air we breathe.
Which leads to something even more painful to ponder: Don't even we who think of our Jewish consciousnesses as healthy and vibrant lapse at times into our own sort of temporary "cultural Jewish" modes? Do we always think of what we're saying when we recite a blessing on food (or even take care to pronounce every word distinctly)? Are our observances truly religious, or do they sometimes devolve into rote? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety?
The celebrated thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) maintained that most of what we do, including our mitzvot, contain mixtures of motivations-including peer pressure, selfishness and the inertia of habit. When the rabbis of the Talmud observed that "from lo lish'ma [ulterior motives] comes lish'ma [pure, Divine-directed intent]," Rabbi Dessler maintains, they mean that we are charged with elevating the pure motivation in our actions above the other intentions, intensifying it, making it the prominent factor in all that we do.
In truth, all of us live on a continuum here, some more aware of the Divine, of reality, some less. The challenge-for us all-is to transcend whatever degree of "cultural Jewishness" we may harbor, and allow our lish'ma to come to the fore.
SCANDAL UPON SCANDAL
Rabbi Avi Shafran
The other day, a reporter contacted me at Agudath Israel of America-I serve as the Agudah's public affairs director-about the Conservative movement's planned offering of an "ethical seal" of approval for kosher foods, intended to assure consumers that labor, animal welfare, consumer rights, and environmental impact standards are being adhered to by the producer. Why, he asked, hasn't the seal been endorsed by the Agudah?
I politely explained that, while anyone can pursue whatever "seal of approval" they wish, there are government regulations regarding the things the ethical certification would cover, and agencies charged with enforcing the rules.
In any event, though, I added, labor, consumer and environmental concerns exist regarding all products and services. And since the seal at issue is being offered only for food (and only for kosher food), it misleads Jews by giving the false impression that kashrus is dependent on such social concerns. It has in fact been described by some of its advocates as a "redefinition of kashrus."
The reporter then asked how I could believe that governmental regulations are enough "even in light of the Agriprocessors scandal."
Maybe when a slaughterhouse is at issue "seeing red" isn't the best metaphor to use. But I had to make an effort to remain polite.
"The only 'Agriprocessors scandal'," I replied, "is the scandalous way the government prosecuted the company and its CEO"-how, after all sorts of wild accusations, including abuse of workers, cruelty to animals, and drug manufacturing, the only charges successfully brought against Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin in the end involved misstating his company's assets" in the process of obtaining loans (which he always repaid fully, at least until the government onslaught bankrupted his company). Similarly scandalous, I added, is the wildly excessive 27-year prison sentence he received.
I pointed the reporter in the direction of civil and legal rights organizations-including the American Civil Liberties Union-that have filed "friend of the court," briefs in support of Mr. Rubashkin and his demand for a new trial.
Whatever backers of the "ethical certification seal" may claim, I explained, the Rubashkin case provided it no warrant. Evidence failed to show that Mr. Rubashkin had knowledge that any of his workers were illegal immigrants, or that he knew that any of them who turned out to be underage were anything but what their documentation represented them to be (and what they physically seemed to be).
And so, invoking an "Agriprocessors scandal" to justify some need for an extra-governmental "ethical certification seal," I asserted, is cynical opportunism, a scandal upon a scandal.
The reporter had been treating allegations as facts, having swallowed whole what colleagues of his have served up over the course of the Agriprocessors saga-in particular, the journalist who in 2006 first shone a harsh light on the slaughterhouse. In a series of articles for a Jewish newspaper, his front-page stories cited shocking allegations of worker abuse. The reports were followed in 2008 by a federal raid on the plant, the deportation of hundreds of illegal aliens who had presented false documents, and the filing of criminal charges against Mr. Rubashkin and others.
In a 2009 Wall Street Journal column, that reporter righteously reveled in his "scoop," and, his cloak of ostensible objectivity falling to his ankles, revealed his antipathy for the "bearded Orthodox rabbis" who "buzzed around the Agriprocessors plant" making sure kashrus laws, but not ethical norms, were being observed.
He has since moved on, to a large West Coast newspaper. Reminded of all the misery his reportage brought in its wake, I wondered if, at this point, he has any regrets about the focus he brought on Mr. Rubashkin. And so I located his new e-mail address and posed the question.
The message didn't bounce back, so the address must be correct. So far, though, I've received no reply.
But maybe he's on vacation.
PUNDITS ON PLUTO
Nicholas Kristof was intoxicated.
That’s not a value judgment. It was The New York Times columnist’s own self-assessment in a February 1 column, his inebriation the result of having been amid a crowd of Egyptian protesters against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the end of January. No alcohol was involved, of course; the crowd was overwhelmingly Muslim. The contact high was, and remains, entirely political.
The square, Mr. Kristof recounted, which in the past had been a place of unruly behavior, had “lost its menace and suddenly become the most exhilarating place in the world.” And the reason was because of the hope he inhaled from “the brave men and women of Tahrir Square,” the “peaceful throngs pleading for democracy.” The participants, in other words, in the “Days of Rage” demonstrations that in subsequent days led to Mr. Mubarak’s resignation.
The Times columnist cited Egyptians he found “everywhere I go” insisting that “Americans shouldn’t perceive their [the Egyptian revolutionary] movement as a threat”; and found it “sad that Egyptians are lecturing Americans on the virtues of democracy.”
He does recount a modicum of menace in some of the sentiment he heard. A medical student tells him that “Egyptian people will not forget what Obama does today. If he supports the Egyptian dictator, the Egyptian people will never forget that. Not for 30 years.” (The student didn’t have long to wait; President Obama quickly endorsed an exit from power for Mr. Mubarak.)
Mr. Kristof thinks that “the protesters have a point” about initial American “equivocation” over the rebellion in Egypt, though he allows that “maybe I’m too caught up in the giddiness of Tahrir Square.” Yes, maybe.
On the same day, Kristof’s colleague at the Old Gray Lady, Roger Cohen, nursed some optimism of his own, citing “the immense distance traveled by Arabs over the past month” and seeing a harbinger of hope in the fact that “the one big subject [Arabs] are not talking about… [is] Israel.”
“For too long,” he writes, perceptively enough, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the great diversion, exploited by feckless Arab autocrats to distract impoverished populations.
“Now, Arabs are thinking about their own injustices. With great courage, they are saying ‘Enough!’”
Not one to allow an opportunity to criticize Israel fall through his hands, though, he notes that the “fast-growing economy and institution-building [in] the West Bank is an example to the dawning Arab world—and would be more so if Israel helped rather than blocked and hindered.”
But he sees hope all the same that a “representative Egyptian government” could emerge from the Cairene crowds, even if they turn out to be “less pliant to America’s will”; and that it might come to carry “a vital message for Arabs and Jews: Victimhood is self-defeating and paralyzing—and can be overcome.”
There must have been some sort of Stuxnet-like virus infecting the brains of the paper of record’s pundits. The giddiness born of the sight of hundreds of thousands of angry Egyptians seemed to have spread even to the page’s “conservative” columnist, David Brooks. In his own column that same day, he kvelled at the “surge of patriotism” expressed by the Egyptian demonstrators, part of a “remarkable democratic wave.”
“More than 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings over the past few decades,” Mr. Brooks asserted, something about which, he contended, “we should be glad.”
I am not sure to what nations he refers, but what I am sure of is that democracy, for all its wonderful potential, is not a guarantee of anything other than the concretization of a populace’s will.
And that, whatever the identities of those “more than 100 nations,” the most prominent mass expressions of collective will that come to mind are the 2006 Gaza elections that put Hamas in power there, the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 and the rise, a mere 50 years earlier, of the Nazi party in Germany.
THANK YOU, DR. MURRAY
Writer and educator Dr. Erica Brown penned a thoughtful piece for the New York Jewish Week on January 25, in which she addressed the concept of Jewish peoplehood.
"The niggling tension of Judaism as a nationality, ethnicity and faith," she writes, "continues to stump many who have tried in vain to capture what it means to be Jewish."
She recalls Leon Wieseltier's charmingly nebulous take on the matter: "To be a Jew is to be a Jew. It is its own thing. Its own category; its own autonomous way of moving through the world…"
And the late Tony Judt's: "I participate in no Jewish community life, nor do I practice Jewish rituals… I am not a 'lapsed' Jew, having never conformed to requirements in the first place. I don't 'love Israel'… But whenever anyone asks me whether or not I am Jewish, I unhesitatingly respond in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise."
In the end, alas, Dr. Brown likewise offers no solution to the question of what Jewishness means.
Someone who did, though, at least tentatively, was political scientist and writer Charles Murray-who, as it happens, is not himself Jewish. Several years ago, in Commentary, he dared to raise one of the few issues still considered impolite these days for public discussion: Jewish intelligence.
Dr. Murray reports that "the average Jew is at the 75th percentile" of the IQ scale and that "the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else." Others, moreover, have noticed that a number of world-changing ideas, both religious ones like monotheism and scientific ones like relativity, have their roots in a certain ethnicity.
After exploring a number of theories addressing the anomaly, Dr. Murray asks why "one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?"
His conclusion, perhaps tongue somewhat in cheek:
"At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are G-d's chosen people." [The hyphen is mine.]
I don't know, or much care, whether or not intelligence plays any role in Klal Yisrael's chosenness. In any event, anyone who has been around the block knows many members of the tribe who are far from brilliant, even some who might be a few tractates short of a Talmud, so to speak. But even if smarts are in fact evident in the Jewish aggregate, they are peripheral to the essence of our chosenness.
Because what we Jews are chosen for is, in the end, to serve the Creator-with our intellects, yes, but also with our hearts and our bodies-and, by doing so, to be examples for all humanity. And that is the secret that puzzles and discomfits those who wonder at their inexplicable feelings of Jewishness.
It's easy for those of us who well recognize that secret to lament the dearth of its recognition in the wider Jewish world. Easy to bemoan the obliviousness of so many Jews to the fact that the Jewish essence is the Jewish mandate to serve the Divine.
But the lamentation deserves to be tempered with some exultation, too, over the fact that Jews whose lives are so distant from our own, who live estranged from much, even all, of Jewish observance still feel the inchoate pull of their Jewish identity, even as they admit to having no understanding of it at all. The fact that a Tony Judt, despite consciously shunning Judaism, when asked about his Jewishness "unhesitatingly respond[s] in the affirmative and would be ashamed to do otherwise" should fill us with awe.
And with determination, to do all we can to fan the tiny flame that is the Jewish soul, flickering defiantly deep in the hearts of fellow Jews who may not look or live like us but who are parts of us all the same.
SWEARING OFF THE "U" WORD
- Time to Dump a Pejorative Prefix,
The word "ultra," one dictionary informs me, is Latin for "the far side." Well, there are certainly days when I feel I have wandered into a Gary Larson cartoon. But most of the time, my life, like the lives of most "Ultra-Orthodox" Jews, is pretty unremarkable,
So, isn't it time the media, which seem so often to focus on traditionally observant Jews, substituted another term like "haredi"-a nonjudgmental word denoting devotion-for the one they currently favor, which other lexicons define as "excessive," "immoderate" or "extremist"?
Okay, we do dress a little strangely by contemporary standards. Our men and boys wear hats or yarmulkes; our married women keep their hair covered (no veils, though!). Our clothing is modest in a way that tends to stand out, especially in the summer. Our men tend to favor black. But, hey, so do many chic dressers.
And we're fundamentalists too, I suppose, at least in the sense that we hold some strong fundamental beliefs: That there is a Creator with a plan for mankind; that He revealed Himself at Sinai, communicating the Torah's text and the keys to interpreting its meaning; and that ultimate reward and punishment await all human beings-although we tend to dwell less on the details of heaven and hell than on those of good and bad. (Not that all of us are always good. We may be haredim but we're still human.)
And yes, from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, our lives are governed (or should be) by the directives of Jewish religious law, or halacha. We pray, eat only kosher food, observe the laws of the Sabbath and holidays. And I'm pretty sure if the media knew what we pay for certain fruits and branches before Sukkot or for hard flatbread before Pesach, they might indeed consider us on the "far side"
Most reactionary of all, we tend to shun what passes for music, entertainment and popular culture these days. We even have the chutzpah to buck the contemporary assumption that witnessing thousands of enacted murders and other immorality on screens is benign.
But most haredim are familiar, some even conversant, with the larger society around them, not to mention technologically adept. Haredim are gainfully employed in high-tech fields and in the business world. Nor do we lack for doctors or lawyers, plumbers or electricians.
To be sure, many of our young men opt for full-time Torah study after marriage and most Orthodox men in the business and professional worlds devote at least part of their days to studying Torah. And all of us sacrifice much in the way of financial security for the sake of the Torah education of our sons and daughters.
But does that affirmation of the Jewish religious heritage, that following in the footsteps of Jews over the millennia, make us "extremist"? Considering the other candidates for that word today?
It's time we began registering our chagrin with public editors and ombudsmen of periodicals we come across that insist on our "Ultra-ness," and ask them to put the "U-word" out with the cat. The pejorative prefix not only unfairly marginalizes us but sends a subtle message: That way-the way of dedication to the Judaism of the ages-lies madness.
Any open-minded person of good will who has ever interacted with haredim knows otherwise. Our community is warm and caring, well-evidenced not only in the lives of countless of its individual members but by the sheer number of haredi community services and organizations that cater to the needs of the sick, bereaved, and destitute.
The haredi ideal-absorbed continuously through our Torah-study and encouraged regularly by our religious leaders-is to strive for perfection, with regard to our relationships both with the Creator and with His other creations.
There is, of course, that small matter of our holy war. But ours aims to vanquish only the inclinations that lead us to be selfish, snide and sinful. And our weapons are Torah, prayer and introspection.
Maybe that is radical these days. But calling it the "far side" of normalcy doesn't say much for the new normal.
MESSAGES IN THE MAYHEM
You'll log many a mile to find someone more disapproving than I am of the anger and vilification that characterize so much of American political discourse. But to lay the tragic January 8 shooting rampage in Tucson on the doorstep of politicians or pundits is silly, and no less incendiary itself than any firearms metaphor. To be sure, political opponents should not be compared to Nazis or have crosshairs superimposed on their faces. But because such things are ugly and sophomoric, not because they induce violence.
Yes, there have certainly been politically and ideologically motivated murders, but much mayhem has also been visited on public servants by actors impelled not by creed but craziness.
And delusions were clearly the demons prodding Jared Lee Loughner. Teachers and fellow students of the alleged Tucson killer at the community college he briefly attended were sufficiently concerned by his odd behavior, inexplicable bursts of laughter, non sequiturs and bizarre tirades to have raised alarms with the administration, which asked him to leave the school. His philosophy professor said that Loughner's "brains were scrambled" and that he had never once brought up politics in class. The shrine discovered in Loughner's backyard, complete with skull and candles, rounded out the picture of a deeply disturbed person, not some earnest observer of current events pushed over the edge by political ads.
But that doesn't mean that there isn't societal soul-searching to be done. There was a time, after all, when the disgruntled, disenfranchised and demented chose to express themselves by standing on soapboxes and ranting. Guns, knives and explosives were no less available to them than they were to the angry workers, teenage school-shooters and wild-eyed conspiracy theorists who have spilled so much innocent blood at workplaces, campuses and shopping centers in more recent years. Why have so many citizens, whatever their emotional state, turned these days to murder to make a point? More important: What does the turning say to America?
Any Jew who received a proper Torah education has internalized the subtle but sage concept that, although we are not prophets, we do well to seek in tragic events some message about how we might improve our behavior.
No, it isn't, as some simpletons assume, precise cause and effect that we seek, but some message, some pointing to where we might stand to improve. Our country would benefit these days from a similar searching of the national soul.
Even if the Tucson shooter is a nutcase, in other words, his horrible act can and should serve as an impetus for politicos, pundits and all Americans to more carefully consider our patterns of speech (and "our," dear Democrats and Republicans alike, means "our," not "their"). Political epithets may not yield violence, but incivility still coarsens society.
There may, though, be another introspection-ripe place pointed to by the disregard for human life that has woven its way into American society.
Because a subtle waning of respect for life, particularly at its beginning and end, has been evident in our society over recent years.
Well over one million abortions, for instance, take place each year nationwide. It was recently reported that fully 41% of all pregnancies in New York City this year were "terminated."
American ethicists have made pronouncements about what constitutes "quality of life," advising medical personnel when further care of patients is "futile." "Brain stem death," where activity in higher parts of a brain might still be present, has become an enthusiastically embraced criterion for the removal of vital organs.
Princeton Bioethics Professor Peter Singer considers "the life of a newborn" to be "of less value than the life of a pig" and advocates for the euthanasia of severely disabled infants.
Asked by The New York Times in 2005 what value he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, he responded: "the traditional view of the sanctity of human life."
People like Jared Lee Loughner may already be ahead of that treacherous curve.
And America needs to begin blocking the road.
GETTING A SECOND OPINION
Back in the 1970s there was a one-of-a-kind, short-lived magazine called "Schism." It contained nothing but reprints of news articles from widely diverse sources. It was an eye-opening periodical, as it laid bare a plethora of perspectives well beyond those available in mainstream newspapers and newsmagazines of the time.
Some of the viewpoints - I recall in particular several emanating from Arab and Asian countries - were infuriating; the lenses through which the writers viewed the world were weirdly distorted. Others, though, made a reader think a bit, even question some assumptions. Whether the issue was the war in Vietnam or gun control, it was deeply educative to be exposed to different points of view. One was able to at least "hear" even opinions with which one, in the end, disagreed.
Today, of course, it is easy to find very different perspectives on any issue, if one is inclined to seek them out. Few, though, do. It's more common to hear people these days say "Oh, I don't read that" or "I never look at him" - simply because the "that" and the "him" represent points of view at odds with those of the speaker. And so political conservatives don't dare miss Rush Limbaugh; and liberals hold tight to their copies of The New York Times. They are all poorer for not realizing that greater gain is to be had from meeting another point of view than from exulting in having one's own opinions duly seconded.
Needless to say, there are ideas from which we, as observant Jews, rightly insulate ourselves. The focus here, though, isn't on things heretical or licentious, but rather on social and political issues.
Most of us have some opinion about, say, the death penalty. But thoughtful people, whatever their conclusions, realize that there are entirely legitimate arguments to be made on both sides of the issue.
Why should taxpayers be burdened with keeping horrible people fed and housed? Do such people even deserve to live? Executions deter other would-be criminals, and can provide victims' families a measure of solace.
Yet, killing any human being, no matter how dismal an example of the species, is a grave deed. And mistaken convictions have sent innocent people to their deaths.
Some dismiss the first set of points as callous and pandering to a lust for revenge. And some dismiss the second as weak-willed and overly sensitive.
Thoughtful people, however, don't dismiss either. They acknowledge the validity of all the points. And then they simply weigh them on the scale of their consciences and make, if they choose, their personal judgment.
What brings the thought to mind is the reaction some readers had to a column that appeared in this space several weeks ago. In it, I sought to stress the importance of having all the relevant information when taking political positions - using President Obama's record as an example, pointing out a number of laudable, but largely unrecognized, decisions he has made regarding Israel and religious rights.
Among the large number of responses to the essay I received were some from people (admirers and detractors of Mr. Obama alike) who related that they had indeed been unaware of the information I had cited, and who thanked me for the essay's message. Others seemed to miss the message but praised or berated me (depending on their personal feelings about the president) for "defending" Mr. Obama.
My intention, though, was not to judge the president one way or the other, only to point out that judgments require - and so often lack - all relevant information. The vehement negative responses, though, reminded me of a different, if related, imperative of reasoned discourse: the willingness to recognize that different people can have different perspectives.
The Gemara teaches that "just as people's faces all differ, so do their attitudes." The Kotzker is said to have commented on that truth with a question: "Can you imagine disdaining someone because his face doesn't resemble yours?"
One hopes no one could.