Envy Isn’t Jewish

As a typical Jewish child attending a suburban prep school, I lived through the season just concluded with a certain feeling of envy. Most friends and neighbors were celebrating a big, gaudy holiday season, while I and my Jewish friends were left out. They decorated houses and trees, painted shopping malls red and green, and you couldn’t find a station on the dial that wasn’t playing music from earlier generations.

Little has changed, save my attitude. Having learned more about the unique responsibility and privilege of being a Jew, I have nothing of which to be jealous. My own children, growing up with the Jewish education I lacked, also do not suffer the least hint of that envy. We don’t want what they have; we want what is ours.

And it is fortunate that it is so. In the Sayings of the Fathers, our Sages caution us that envy is one of the dangerous traits that “removes” a person from the world. A person consumed by jealousy no longer sees and enjoys the world. He ignores his own blessings, caring only for what someone else has.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem could (and should) be a place of Jewish unity; instead, it has become for some a target of envy. To them, someone else — traditional Jews, whom their leaders impugn as “ultra” Orthodox — have a place for prayer, and they don’t have a place of similar size and prominence. Thus they are jealous — but of what?

Let us step back and be objective.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of Israel’s 6.5 million Jews are traditional or observant. And in another recent survey, the pluralistic Panim organization determined that under 3% of Israeli Jews, or just over 150,000, are affiliated with the American Reform or Conservative movements. Even this is an excessively optimistic figure, given the paucity of liberal synagogues in Israel. But using these numbers alone, it would be excessive for American liberal leaders to demand even 5% of the space afforded to traditional Jews.

And there is another factor. The average Orthodox person prays several times each day, and gravitates towards Jerusalem’s Old City and the opportunity to pray facing the Temple Mount, which Jewish tradition reveres as the holiest site on earth.

The average non-Orthodox Jew, by contrast, prays several times per year. And the Reform movement expressly rejects the Temple Mount as having special sanctity, and calls its synagogues “temples” to supplant it.

So even were their adherents equal in number, the need for space for American-style egalitarian prayer would likely be less than 1% of that allocated for traditional prayer. Take the two factors together, and the most that liberal leaders could reasonably demand is a space 0.05%, one in two thousand of that allocated for traditional prayer.

The government has thus already done far more than objectively necessary. Since the early 2000s, space at Robinson’s Arch has been available for “alternative” prayer services of whatever kind. Several years ago, then-Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennet upgraded the space, creating a new Ezrat Yisrael platform for this purpose.

Usage of that space — or lack thereof — proves the accuracy of the above analysis of need. Whereas the traditional plaza is filled to overflowing several times each year, Ezrat Yisrael has not once been used to capacity, and is rarely used at all.

What, then, explains the demand for a space of similar size and prominence to that used for traditional prayer, given an objective lack of both theoretical and demonstrated need while even the existing, smaller space is left vacant? It defies explanation, unless we acknowledge that envy is a powerful force. “They have it, so we must have it too.”

How much more good would these American leaders do, were they to not increase jealousy but reduce it? Why should Jewish children be left envious of non-Jewish peers celebrating non-Jewish holidays? I’m hardly the first to observe that when someone has a strong Jewish identity and an understanding of our unique national mission — and recognizes our disproportional impact upon civilization and history — it is obvious that we have nothing for which to be jealous.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate Past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, has called this “the most Jewishly ignorant generation in history.” The crisis for American Jewry is not 6000 miles away, but all around us. There is so much that liberal leaders could and should be doing to solve this crisis.

Yet Jewish camps are in decline, and the various educational initiatives launched by Rabbi Yoffie during his tenure have long since flamed out. New efforts are clearly and urgently needed. Synagogue attendance will not increase if the rabbi wastes congregants’ time discussing a site that most have never seen. The intermarriage rate will not decline if rabbis do not teach the privilege of being Jewish.

Liberal Judaism in America will not rebuild from its collapse if its campaigns focus upon jealousy. When Jews are bringing “Hannukah Bushes” into their homes in America, to sermonize about Israel is to “fiddle while Rome burns.”

This piece first appeared in the Times of Israel.

Reform’s Celebration of Lawlessness

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner and Rabbi Yaakov Menken

On Thursday, November 17, Rabbi Joshua Davidson did something truly extraordinary: he prayed the weekday morning service. The synagogue which he serves as Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El in New York City, apparently offers no such opportunity, so what inspired his religious fervor?

Perhaps a better question is whether his fervor was indeed religious. Rabbi Davidson claims that “because the Kotel’s regulations do not permit egalitarian worship, and because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on his promise to create a prayer space there that would, we began our worship on a distant platform over the Southern Wall excavations.”

While this assertion may play well in his Temple and at the UJA, one does not gain allies by slandering them. To Israelis, Rabbi Davidson’s words are not merely false and defamatory, but contribute directly to the anti-Semitic depiction of Israel as a supremacist, apartheid state where only some citizens have rights.

There is no factual support for his claim that the “Kotel” regulations do not permit egalitarian worship. Thanks to overwhelming popular demand, a small section of the Kotel, comprising only one-sixth of its total length, has been allocated for traditional Jewish prayer. During the high holiday season alone, that traditional plaza saw over 1,000,000 visitors, and on multiple occasions was filled to capacity.

For nearly two decades, the Israeli government has provided facilities for egalitarian and other nontraditional prayer elsewhere along that same 1600-foot-long Western Wall. This section was upgraded and dubbed “Ezrat Yisrael” by then-Religious Affairs Minister Naphtali Bennet during the previous government; it features tables with large umbrellas, comfortable chairs, and Torah scrolls under the administration of the Masorti (American Conservative) movement.

Though it may be smaller in absolute terms, this space has never been filled, and thus is less in need of expansion. Less than 0.3% of Israelis affiliate with the American Reform or Conservative movement, according to a survey conducted by the pluralistic Panim organization — and, of course, weekday prayer is mostly foreign to them. During the same High Holiday season, the Ezrat Yisrael section stood almost entirely empty.

Rather than conduct their prayers at the space allocated for their use, Rabbi Davidson and his peers brought eight Torah scrolls from the outside and pushed their way into the traditional plaza — purportedly for a weekday morning service that requires only one scroll for a brief reading.

They had no need to enter the traditional plaza in order to conduct their non-traditional, egalitarian service. The only time eight Torah scrolls are carried is while dancing on Simchat Torah. And that is exactly the point: they were not coming to pray, but to dance. They came to provoke and create a disturbance, using eight holy Torah scrolls as props for their political theater.

They were not content to simply protest; they forced their way past the soldiers and police guarding the plaza. Although Rabbi Davidson’s family was safely back in New York, Israelis know that these soldiers — often members of their own families — are putting their lives on the line to protect visitors every time they search a bag. It is also against the law to bring in Torah scrolls, because someone might thus be able to steal one of the scrolls belonging to the Holy Site. To whatever extent Rabbi Davidson was “roughed up” — and those guarding the security barrier tell a different story — this transpired while he was physically breaking past the guards, breaking the law while interfering with the soldiers’ attempts to protect life, safety, and the sanctity of the Torah scrolls Rabbi Davidson claims to revere.

So, no. No one was “roughed up” due to being a Reform Jew, much as saying so delighted anti-Semitic bigots around the globe. Whatever violence transpired was directly attributable to the behavior of Rabbi Davidson and his colleagues.

Israelis recognize political theater for what it is. The current situation was described thusly by Moshe Dann, a former Professor at the City University of New York who has spent the last quarter-century living in Israel: “Unable to achieve their objectives through dialogue, negotiations and good will, without an appreciation of Israel’s distinctiveness and differences, liberal/progressive leaders are turning their communities against Israel.”

This is undeniable. The same Reform leaders also refused to take a phone call from President Donald Trump before the High Holy Days, not long after Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and several colleagues sat down for a friendly chat with Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority. After that meeting, Husam Zomlot, PA ambassador-at-large to the United States, told the Jerusalem Post that “we see eye-to-eye with the Reform movement.” Most recently, the movement explicitly turned against both Israel and America, stating that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the move of the US embassy to that city, must be held hostage to a “peace process” that Abbas refuses to pursue.

If Reform now sees “eye to eye” with a Palestinian Authority that refuses to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, and would withhold recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is clear who has abandoned whom. Is it any surprise that Israelis have lost patience?

The authors are the President and Managing Director, respectively, of the Coalition for Jewish Values This article first appeared in the Times of Israel.

Arguing About Not Arguing

It’s good to have differences of opinion on Cross-Currents. Robust debates between authors here are hardly new, and continually put to bed the old canard about how Orthodox Jews don’t think or have their own opinions. And I am particularly glad that Rabbi Shafran was motivated to have at it one more time, because as we refine each of our opinions, we find ourselves arriving at fewer and fewer differences.

At no point did I say that we should favor leaping onto partisan bandwagons. Rabbi Shafran and I certainly agree that we should not regard any American ideology as our ideal. In early December, there will be a conference on “Jews and Conservativism” at the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York. It’s not for us. We don’t use Judaism to explain why we are conservatives; Judaism is the -ism to which we subscribe. Rather, we all recognize that the Torah forces us to side with conservatives on a host of issues. I believe it is an error to confuse acknowledging this truth with “political bandwagon-jumping.”

To quickly address specifics:

There is no question that Hillary Clinton isn’t the only one whose opinion on marriage “evolved.” I’m not sure why Trump’s suggestion that the 1964 Civil Rights Act be extended to that group is relevant — we are all against discrimination, even against people who celebrate behavior the Torah condemns. But, for us, that also includes opposing discrimination against the religious, which is exactly why Agudath Israel filed its brief in the “Masterpiece” case. Rabbi Shafran surely agrees that most of those joining Torah Jews in supporting the Masterpiece Bakery are conservative Republicans.

I didn’t say that the Democratic Party is anti-Israel. I said that “to an increasing extent, one must also believe that Jews in Israel are stealing ‘Palestinian land'” in order to be a mainstream Democrat. Again, we surely agree on this; Barack Obama said in front of the UN General Assembly last year that Israel should realize that it cannot “permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.” The Republicans passed a party platform stating that imagining Israel to be an occupier is a “false notion.”

When it comes to abortion, it is absolutely true that there are Republicans who have proposed “life begins at conception” standards, and these should obviously be opposed by us. In the current environment, though, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and what those in the “pro-life” camp regard as even remotely achievable would permit abortion in cases permitted or demanded by Halacha. We surely agree that this would be closer to our moral ideal.

I don’t see what argument remains about Charlottesville. The fact that the President’s comments were criticized doesn’t make the criticism reasonable or fair. Rabbi Shafran attempts to distinguish Antifa’s band of goons from the peaceful anti-white supremacist rally, to call only the latter “organized.” But to me that doesn’t make sense. Of course there was an “‘organize-organize’ gezera shava” as he put it: between the neo-Nazis and Antifa. Both were organized and came looking for violence. Along with saying that Antifa was not “organized,” Rabbi Shafran seems to insist that there was no peaceful, non-white-supremacist group there against the removal of the monument. The New York Times implies otherwise. It is clear that President Trump believed otherwise, and it is thus unfair to distort his comments as if he intended to equate peaceful demonstrators on one side with neo-Nazis on the other. It is obvious that he did not do this, in any of his prepared or extemporaneous remarks.

Apparently I have to clarify my sarcastic remark about “government welfare programs that end up encouraging single motherhood.” Of course it is possible to “support welfare programs that assist a wide variety of innocent poor.” However, there has been a tremendous amount of social decay since welfare programs became popular in the 1960s, when roughly 2/3 of black children were raised in two-parent families; today that has fallen to one-third. There is a great body of evidence that welfare assistance removed so much of the hardship of being a single parent as to make it an “acceptable option.” It is not, as Rabbi Shafran says, that girls chose to be single mothers wanting government assistance. It is that welfare vastly reduced the risk of giving into temptation. People stopped worrying about the consequences of getting pregnant. Yes, we as a society could do better than that, at least ensuring that single mothers do not feel there is a financial benefit to remaining single. I have heard that there are even frum couples that do not marry legally in order to obtain benefits only available to single mothers. Does anyone not see a problem here?

As for immigration, I didn’t say anything about Mexico or India. I did not mock those who support a legal version of DACA, because I do, and I imagine most of us do. What I did (and do) find worth mockery was opposition to Trump’s insistence upon firmer standards for immigration from several hostile states, and imposing a travel ban in the meantime. Across Europe, we see the consequences of unfettered immigration from Arab states where children are raised to be hostile to Western values. There is a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the fact that neighboring Arab states are not accepting Arab refugees from Arab Syria makes the problem worse. But I would disagree that making these refugees our neighbors is the appropriate resolution. And there is every reason to believe that Obama’s “strict” vetting standards were not nearly strict enough, especially given his personal attitudes towards the Arab world.

So let’s get to the final, ultimate question. Rabbi Shafran asks, “does the fact that one political party seems at present more in line with most observant Jews’ feelings about moral or Israel issues mean that there is some imperative to embrace the entirety of that party’s convictions?”

Again, we do not disagree here. This is my point, we have no argument — of course not. I claimed that “there is no one Torah position on gun ownership or tax reform,” and I am sure that for any Torah-based argument for one side, we could have a Torah-based argument for the other.

So that’s not the correct question. The one I would ask is the following: “When we, as Torah Jews, acknowledge that we are perceived as conservatives on a host of issues where the Torah mandates our positions, recognize that Republican candidates will more likely express positions closer to our own on moral and social issues, and publicly express ourselves on these issues and defend these positions and these candidates, is that ‘political bandwagon-jumping,’ or responsible hishtadlus?”

That’s really the only point of contention here.

I join Rabbi Shafran in wishing him and all readers a Gmar Chasima Tova and a blessed year.

Loose Ends

I have to admit that Rabbi Shafran creates better titles. “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor” is no match for “Kashering Elephants and Donkeys.”

But when it comes to the content, I have a few quibbles that I thought worth putting into writing, much as our different perspectives are already reasonably clear. In fact, I would argue that Rabbi Shafran accentuated our differences, as there is now little room for debate about what we must agree is true.

For example, he claimed that I argued that “only ‘one political party’ can rightly be supported by Torah-conscious Jews.” That would have been a controversial statement, especially given the many empirical counterexamples of observant Democrats, plus the philosophical preferences that explain their choices. There is no one Torah position on gun ownership or tax reform. You can support government welfare programs that end up encouraging single motherhood, yet be observant. You can favor unfettered immigration, even from countries where hatred for the West, for individual liberty, and for Jews are all part of the school curriculum, and still be an observant Jew. On balance, one can pull the Democratic lever on the way to Mincha.

But that wasn’t the argument. All I said was that those who support Torah values “will be deemed partisan,” advocating views considered to be Republican rather than Democratic Party positions, no matter the individual’s outlook on all of the above issues. This is both true and obvious.

Less than twenty years ago, US Senate Candidate Hillary Clinton firmly declared that “Marriage has historic, religious and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time, and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.” Does anyone wonder why her position ‘evolved‘? Had she not changed her mind, Bernie would likely have taken the nomination, and it wouldn’t have been close. We, as religious Jews, have positions on moral issues that do not ‘evolve’ and which, as a result, are no longer compatible with the mainstream views of Democrats on those same issues. This is an objective reality with which we must grapple.

Rabbi Shafran minimizes the relevance of this particular example, saying that the redefinition of marriage is “no longer an issue, as it is, for better or worse (worse), not only the Supreme Court-established law of the land but embraced by many Republicans, simple citizens and legislators alike.”

It is the “no longer an issue” point that is incorrect. Yes, it is the law of the land, thanks to a Supreme Court that transgressed its constitutional authority to fabricate a “right” unknown to the founding fathers of the country. But as a result, there are currently multiple cases winding their way through the courts concerning Christian business owners hit with bankruptcy-inducing fines and penalties for their personal religious decisions to not affirmatively support these “redefined” marriages. Yes, they were penalized for shav v’al ta’aseh!

There is an active movement to stifle dissent and require public approval of the Obama Administration position, to the point of terming us bigots for maintaining what the Torah says about marriage, much less what the Gemara implies about a society that would provide official recognition for “redefined” unions. Democrats are not those who will fight for legislative protection of our religious rights in this area.

Rabbi Shafran also challenged my comment that Democrats are turning against Israel; he wrote that “both sides of the aisles in both houses of Congress are staunch and proven defenders of Israel’s security needs.”

My friend Paul Miller, Director of the Haym Salomon Center, provided the best reply. Two days after Rabbi Shafran’s piece was published by Hamodia, and two days before it appeared on Cross-Currents, Paul posted to Facebook a quote which he attributed to a “Washington lobbyist who asked for anonymity:” “If you are a liberal Jew and don’t care about Israel, the Democratic party is your home. If you are a liberal Jew and Israel is important to you, you have a lot to think about.”

Armin Rosen wrote in Tablet Magazine that the “bipartisan consensus is fraying, at least as far as the parties’ official positions go.” On a host of issues, the Republican platform is far more consonant with the pro-Israel position (also known as reality). Contrary to Rabbi Shafran’s claim that an amendment to the Democratic platform calling for an “end to occupation and illegal settlements” was “effectively quashed by the Democratic mainstream,” the vote to defeat it was a less-than-overwhelming 95-73 (57% to 43%), and “CNN reported that the move garnered the loudest negative response of the day from the audience.” Needless to say, the Democrats were nowhere near “reject[ing] the false notion that Israel is an occupier” — that is a quote from the Republican platform.

Rabbi Shafran is surely correct that “there are times when ‘conservative’ values serve Klal Yisrael best, and times when ‘liberal’ ones do.” But we should also acknowledge that beliefs mandated by the Torah are frequently described as “conservative” by American politicos. I cannot think of a case where unquestioned Torah views mirror Democratic, liberal positions, as a counterpoint to our “conservative” views on marriage, gender and “anti-Israel” anti-Semitism which I mentioned earlier. [No, abortion is no exception: prior to Roe v. Wade, laws permitted abortions in cases mandated by Torah, and most “pro-life” politicians would draw lines similar to our own. In that case, as well, our view more closely parallels that ascribed to “conservatives” in America.]

Finally, with regards to Charlottesville, it’s not about what the advertising said. Because there seems to be some confusion, let’s examine the President’s words:

You had people… and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists. They should be condemned totally. You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Two paragraphs earlier he referred to these people, the non-supremacists, as very fine people:

They didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis. You had some very bad people in that group. You also had some very fine people on both sides… You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.

It’s there in black and white: although neo-Nazis should be “condemned totally,” there were also “very fine people on both sides.” It is the claim that the President “seemed to pointedly equate the supremacists and the anti-hate group” that is both wrong and needlessly partisan — even if it is voiced by other Republicans. On those occasions when he did not mention neo-Nazis by name, the President nonetheless called out those who were hateful, bigoted and violent on both sides, vs. those “very fine people on both sides.”

Antifa clearly organized their armed presence in Charlottesville, so Rabbi Shafran’s claim that the only counter-protest was that “organized by a coalition of peaceful rights groups” is simply mystifying. In the succeeding weeks, Antifa, as I mentioned, proved its penchant for violence. In Berkeley, they attacked a “No to Marxism in America” rally with sticks and pepper spray, while using shields decorated with “No Hate” [sic]. The Washington Post described “five black-clad antifa members, each windmilling kicks and punches into a man desperately trying to protect himself.” Do they sound like “very fine people?” Would it be appropriate to condemn neo-Nazis while allowing these violent goons to go unmentioned?

Agreed. “We American Jews who are faithful to Torah must advocate our interests and our ideals, but judiciously.” And we cannot pretend that if we truly do so, we will escape being cast as “partisan.” This is not because we are “partisan cheerleaders,” but because one of the two major parties of our day has departed from our basic values in a host of areas.

Jewish Continuity Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

Long-standing journalistic tradition has it that although writers of articles and opinion pieces may suggest titles for their submitted work, editors have full discretion to use titles of their own devising. So one might imagine that Messrs. Cohen, Gussow and Pinker greeted publication of their recent piece in The Forward with some consternation, finding it beneath the inflammatory title, “Does Orthodox Explosion Signal Doom for Conservative and Reform?

What the authors provided was a thoughtful and cogent demographic analysis of the Jewish community, divided into three relevant groups: the Orthodox, the liberal movements (Conservative, Reform, and smaller denominations), and the “nondenominational” Jews. Among their conclusions are the following:

The number of middle-aged Jews in 2045 or so is destined to be smaller than it is today… We have a surge of nondenominational Jews in their 20s, possibly owing to the fact that so many children of Reform and Conservative parents have eschewed their childhood denominational identities… At least until now, the nondenominational Jews are far from reproducing themselves. Accordingly, they are destined to decline some decades down the road — unless their numbers are replenished by “dropouts” from the religious denominations.

But the truly startling situation is among Conservative and Reform Jews… If current trends continue, then, in 30 years, we’ll see about half as many Conservative and Reform Jews age 60-69 as we have today. And the number of Conservative and Reform children do not reverse the decline.

Turning to the Orthodox, we find wildly different trends. While just 40,000 are in their 60s, we have triple their number — 120,000 — in their 30s. And, perhaps even more astounding are the number of kids aged 0-9. They amount to 230,000 — over five times the number of people in their 60s.

They bring their data to life with the following contrast:

Metaphorically, every 100 Conservative and Reform Boomers have only 56 photos of Jewish grandchildren in their wallets (or smart phones)… If 100 Orthodox grandparents gathered in shul, they could show their friends photos of 575 grandchildren on their smart phones (but not on Shabbat, of course).

Yes, you read that correctly. The Orthodox are projected to have ten times the number of Jewish grandchildren, and to grow six times as large in two generations — while the liberal population is sliced nearly by half.

The data does “tell a jarring story” — simply that the two communities are heading in opposite directions, and at an accelerating rate. That, however, has no relevance to the chosen title hanging over this important content.

The Forward must engage its readers and entice them with catchy headlines, and it is a journal not known for its fondness for the beliefs or practices of observant Jews. But there is something uniquely unseemly about a title implying that Orthodoxy’s gains are somehow related to Conservative and Reform’s losses. One cannot determine whether the editor imagined a thriving Orthodox community to be merely an indicator of liberal decline, or a causative factor — as the article beneath that headline utterly contradicts either implication.

It was once true that there was an inverse relationship between Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism; at that time, immigrants worked on Shabbos (in an era where one was likely to lose a job otherwise) yet prayed in Orthodox synagogues — but their children turned primarily to the Conservative movement. So the decline in Orthodoxy contributed to the rise of the Conservatives, making the latter the dominant American movement for much of the twentieth century. The next generations moved yet further to the left, such that the Reform peaked in the 1970s or 80s.

Intensive Jewish education and commitment reversed Orthodoxy’s decline; today neither an Orthodox nor liberal upbringing feeds into the other in significant numbers. Although it may be true that many Jews from non-Orthodox families adopt Jewish observance each year, their numbers are at most a minor factor in the decline of the non-Orthodox movements. Cohen, Gussow and Pinker don’t even mention this aspect. And, perhaps tellingly, those who drop out of observance after obtaining a day school education rarely join either of the liberal movements. So the growth of Orthodoxy and decline of liberal Judaism are independent phenomena.

Not only are the Orthodox not contributing to the implosion of liberal Judaism, but they are in the forefront of efforts to hold it back. Among the identity-enhancing Jewish activities suggested by the authors are several in which Orthodox Jews help to inspire non-Orthodox youth and young adults: Jewish day schools, Chabad on campus, Hillel, and trips to Israel. Olami on campus and Orthodox-run websites like Aish.com, Chabad.org and Torah.org are but a few other examples. While Orthodox teachers and guides in these programs would readily agree that full Jewish observance might be the ideal outcome, they would also tally anyone who commits to building a Jewish home as a “success,” and acknowledge that this is the far more likely outcome of their efforts.

The American Jewish population is not a zero-sum game; one community’s failure to perpetuate itself cannot be blamed upon the other. Several of the reasons for Orthodoxy’s burgeoning growth were beautifully described by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in her op-ed which appeared the same day — none of these come at the expense of liberal Judaism. If the prognosis for Conservative and Reform Judaism is “doom,” it is not because of Orthodoxy, but despite Orthodox efforts to help their more liberal brethren to stanch their losses.

President Trump Is Right, Again

President Trump was roundly criticized for failing to call out neo-Nazis or the KKK by name in his first statement on the tragic violence in Charlottesville last weekend. Even many others in the GOP, including Marco Rubio and Orrin Hatch, indicated that the President should have been specific.

Yet the fact that the planned rally turned into a very two-sided violent melee is undeniable. And here’s what the President said:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society.

The words others found offensive were: “on many sides.” Why, they demand, didn’t the President immediately condemn the neo-Nazis and the KKK by name? When pressed on this, the President replied:

“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”

The President is right. The presence of odious hate groups on one side does not excuse violence by hate groups on the other. But the left prefers to pretend that left-wing hate doesn’t exist, rather than addressing it.

Maxine Waters responded to the President by tweeting, “No, Trump. Not on many sides, your side.” This is both factually wrong and profoundly dangerous.

The problem with condemning the Nazis or KKK is that it is simply too easy. Just days earlier, a friend and colleague criticized a particular organization as being so weak that it could make no public comment on any issue “except to condemn Hitler.” The only people who don’t regard Nazis as evil are other Nazis.

The question which we should be asking is: why is the left whitewashing Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa?

Of all these groups, the Neo-Nazis, the KKK, BLM and Antifa, which one called for violence against police, which manifested itself in shootings of law enforcement officers in Texas and Louisiana? Which of these groups threatens free speech on college campuses in this country, violently preventing students from hearing opposing views?

I don’t know about you, but I consider policies and procedures that facilitate the disproportionate murder of young black men to be racist. And although every police force must police itself and remove racism from within its ranks, BLM’s hateful agitation has not only led to murdered police officers.

In Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 led to riots and the politically-motivated prosecution of six officers (half of whom were black themselves) for following what was standard procedure at the time. This led to police being afraid to do the aggressive work necessary to get illegal guns off the street before they are used.

The results can only be described as horrific. 2015 was the most murderous year per-capita in Baltimore history, with 2016 coming in second. 2017 is on track to exceed both. And in all three years, young black men have been hugely overrepresented among the victims. A 10-month-old baby nearly died in her car, which remained locked following the murder of her 26-year-old father in May—until a police officer heard her cry.

The fact that the officer was white shouldn’t even deserve mention. The killing fields of Baltimore are a violent white supremacist’s dreamland, thanks to BLM.

But the media won’t talk that way. The left prefers to imagine that BLM is a civil rights movement, solving a real problem. And this is hardly the only example of left-wing “human rights” causes serving as convenient cover for anarchy, hatred and violence.

If we are going to tear down hateful monuments, we should not start with statues of Robert E. Lee, whom most historians consider to be no more racist than many Northerners of his day. We should start with the Arch of Titus in Rome, celebrating the military victories of that Emperor. After all, the Arch focuses specifically upon the plunder of Jerusalem, and the desecration of the treasures of its Holy Temple. It is an indisputable celebration of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

But that is exactly why it should not be removed. We need to remember our history, in order to avoid repeating it.

Which of the following statements has incited more murders in 2017: “Heil Hitler” or “Free Palestine”?

Again, the answer is obvious. Everyone knows that Hitler was a Nazi. But all too many people forget that “Palestine” is the name given to the land of Judea by the same hateful invaders who built that Arch, in an attempt to sever the connection between the land and those whose home it truly is. Forget that Palestine is a name birthed from barbarism and ethnic cleansing, forget that it was nothing more than a distant province to its Arab rulers, none of whom possessed it within the past 500 years (save for a brief period of Egyptian control in the 1830s), and you can make “Free Palestine” sound like a civil rights movement.

But what does it really stand for? Consider that there are dozens of unquestioned occupations around the world, in places like Tibet, Chechnya, and even Northern Ireland. But only one call for “justice” is used to justify the murder of children.

There is hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. It is easy to recognize the hate of 50 years ago; it takes discernment to recognize the hate of today, especially when the left is deliberately masking the hate groups in their midst.

The President should have named all of the hate groups involved, or none. The President was right the first time.

An earlier version of this article was first published in American Greatness, and discussed on the editor’s radio program.

No Apologies Necessary, Rabbi Gordimer!

Rabbi Gordimer, with all due respect, you’re mistaken. You didn’t have any explaining to do. You were gracious in your apology, but you cannot truly offer penance when you have done no wrong. What you wrote wasn’t revolutionary, wasn’t offensive, and, honestly, I think most of us understood your intent quite well. You have now assuaged one who misunderstood you, but your original critique still rings true.

Full disclaimer: I am neither a student of the Rav, nor more than casually familiar with his oeuvre. My father-in-law was considered one of his brilliant talmidim in his day, but we did not have long discussions about his Rebbe’s opinion on various subjects. So I approach this discussion as an outsider. That means I can look at general principles that arose in your discussion far more than I could hope to address anything unique to Rav Soloveitchik. So it is in that vein, with full disclosure of my limitations, that I contribute my thoughts.

You wrote:

… when dealing with master disseminators of Torah – rebbeim – one cannot sever their temporal existence and their writings from their eternal and living legacies. One must look to the closest disciples of a Torah disseminator to determine his focal impact and long-term emphases, and to understand the traditions, insights and attitudes he transmitted and exemplified.

The only thing you said with which one could possibly quibble is the phrase “when dealing with master disseminators of Torah.” I believe that what you wrote is true of any writer.

One who reads a teacher’s books or essays is obviously going to remain a distant second to that scholar’s “closest disciples,” those who studied under his tutelage for several years, when it comes to correctly portraying the thoughts and beliefs of their teacher. The only exception to that rule would be a student who deliberately misconstrued his teacher’s positions — and the remedy to that is found by looking at what other close associates and students have to say. From everything I have heard from others, your essay reflected the consensus, rather than the positions of an outlier.

What you wrote was no insult. No one was declared “unfit.” What you found at issue is the very reason why we are told not merely to study the works of Talmidei Chachamim, but to be “meshamesh,” which is perhaps poorly translated as “serving” them. A Shamash is not an Eved. In modern terms, Executive Assistant would be a more accurate term. By being close at hand, by listening even to the ordinary dialogue of a person, one learns things which cannot be gleaned from books. And Chazal exhorted us to have this experience with Sages, in order to learn to emulate them — to learn to think as they do.

And as I said, the disparity between readers and close associates is not limited to “master disseminators of Torah.” Rabbi Gordimer, you are a prolific writer, so I’m certain you can identify instances where your own written work has been misunderstood and misconstrued. I am sure that you can identify times when various readers ascribed to you motivations, emotions, and implications which you simply did not possess at the time. I’ve certainly had this experience often enough (yes, my writing can be inadequately clear. But still).

These are often exercises in projection: someone angered by something I wrote (although considering how I studiously avoid controversial topics, I cannot understand how that happens) might describe me as “angry.” On at least a few of those occasions, I remember chuckling as I was writing the “angry” comment. [I do laugh at my own jokes, and even sarcasm. It’s a problem.] In fact, I now fully expect someone to comment what a fool I am to not recognize that I write about contentious topics, although I think my sarcasm was obvious. It is simply all too easy to read what one wishes to see in the writings of another.

I have heard more than once that the Talmud is deliberately cryptic for this reason. As we know, a neophyte cannot simply sit down with a Gemara and start reading. Rather, it requires years of training to be able to so much as read through a page on one’s own, even to understand which type of punctuation is implied at what point, where a sentence begins and ends, and whether it is a question or answer. While Artscroll may have removed much of the guesswork, one still needs a great deal of assistance to comprehend what the page intends to tell you.

As I said, I understand this to be no accident. Rather, Rav Ashi and Ravina wanted to preserve the Oral Law, yet require that a student acquire the skills necessary by learning with a teacher. Rebbe Yochanan did precisely the same; in fact, the Yerushalmi is still less comprehensible to beginners. They all recognized the very danger that is the topic of our discussion. The chain of our Mesorah is not a trail of books.

In his response to you, R’ Avrohom, Prof. Kolbrener wrote: “Confining the legacy of R. Soloveitchik to that ever-contracting circle, the batei midrashim, is a much surer way of ‘killing off’ the reputation of the Rav, and consigning his legacy to antiquarians and the already converted.”

I believe this very revealing quote confirms that the phenomenon I mentioned earlier is relevant here. Prof. Kolbrener fell into the trap of reading the material in a way that confirmed what he wished to find.

With no embarrassment, I had to look up “antiquarian.” It means a person who studies or collects antiques. And let’s be honest: to one who looks at physical age, a 3300-year-old document is an antique. The Talmud is an antique. The Mishnah Berurah is called “recent” yet is a century old, and, like more modern halachic literature, builds upon earlier conclusions and applies very ancient principles to new situations. These are the “antiques” under discussion in this context.

In other words, Prof. Kolbrenner believes it would “kill off” the reputation of the author of Halakhic Man to leave his legacy in the hands of those studying Halakha. Need I say more?

Yes. Because he also defined the Batei Medrash as “that ever-contracting circle.”

He certainly didn’t mean this in any physical sense. It is well-established that the number and size of batei medrash is growing, and following an exponential curve at that. The Mir in Jerusalem was a single Beis Medrash a generation ago; now there are five buildings. A plethora of new institutions have opened and expanded at the same time, all over Israel and the United States. It’s easy to understand why there are housing issues in Lakewood, because hundreds of newly-married couples rent their first apartments there every month.

So it seems apparent that Prof. Kolbrener intends this in the sense of diversity of thought. This is an astounding statement, because there are now hundreds more teachers for these thousands more students, and all of these new teachers bring their own methodologies and opinions along with them — unless one believes that all of this expansion has been accompanied by increasing rigidity in terms of what types of thoughts are “acceptable.”

Without apology, that would be mistaken — actually, it defies logic. New teachers from diverse institutions mean increased diversity of thought. The surfeit of students means that it is easier, not harder, to gather a “critical mass” of them around a new set of ideas, whether or not they were ever previously considered acceptable. [See, for example, Open Orthodoxy, committed to beliefs that R’ Avi Weiss himself said were not permissible less than two decades ago.]

It is the same circle. It’s called the “dalet amos of Halacha,” and it’s not getting tighter. It’s just getting a lot more crowded. To an ever-increasing extent, Jews are recognizing that our place is within that circle. Which, even for those minimally familiar withRav Soloveitchik’s writing, we recognize as the central topic of Halakhic Man.

The Philo-Semitic President

First published in the American Spectator.

The Orthodox Jewish community is still reeling from the slapdown President Trump gave reporter Jake Turx in his press conference several weeks ago. Turx is the first senior White House press correspondent to work for an Orthodox journal, Ami (My People) Magazine. There are fewer than 100 reporters permitted to attend the daily briefings, and Turx even got to ask the President a question.

But no one gave Turx a microphone, and the President couldn’t hear him clearly. He thought he was being asked to defend against charges of anti-Semitism… again. This ridiculous calumny has dogged him since he began his campaign. Trump was piqued and he dismissed the question. Turx was frustrated by the experience, and so were Orthodox Jews. As TAS columnist Jay Homnick jested, “Trump let My People go and Turx let My People down.”

In truth, the man who really let my people down is Steve Goldstein of the Anne Frank Center, who is the paradigm for those in the Jewish community who have done their best to fan the flames. Director of an organization pledging “mutual respect,” Goldstein repeatedly calls the Trump Administration anti-Semitic, using flimsy claims that collapse upon rudimentary fact-checking, both in his Facebook posts and his confrontation with Kayleigh McEnany on CNN.

He and others of his ilk were strangely silent when the previous President called Judea “Palestinian land,” declaring invaders from the Arabian Peninsula to be the indigenous population of the only homeland of the Jews. They expressed no outrage when Berkeley students chanted “we support the intifada,” or when those at Columbia recently declared that “resistance is justified, when people are occupied.” Arab “resistance” is, of course, murdering civilians, a tactic that no one condones unless the victims are Jews. Yet these Jewish liberals were silent in the face of obvious hate.

From the beginning, Trump has surrounded himself with Jews who observe classical Jewish practices. David Friedman and Jason Dov Greenblatt are not merely hired hands, but close friends of the President. Trump traveled to Queens to visit Friedman when he was sitting shiva — in a snowstorm. He does more than “tolerate” his Orthodox grandchildren; Jared Kushner is one of his most trusted advisors. Turx himself said the President has done “unprecedented” outreach to the Orthodox Jewish community.

So if supporters of the anti-Israel “J Street,” such as Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, are opposing Friedman for Ambassador as a “zealous partisan” and claiming his boss is an anti-Semite, one must question: do they honestly believe Trump doesn’t like Jews, or are they offended that Trump’s inner circle includes so many who take Jewish tradition far more seriously than they do?

Anti-Semitism is far too serious a matter to be used as a partisan political weapon, and academic justification of barbarity is vastly more dangerous than memes created by “alt-right” Trump supporters. To those a wee bit more objective, this administration is shaping up to be the most philo-Semitic since George Washington wrote his letter to the Jews of Newport.

Team Trump tried to stop the anti-Israel UNSC resolution of last December, and convinced the UK to block the statement of the French “peace conference.” He appointed Friedman as Ambassador to Israel and Nikki Haley to lead the mission to the UN. Her first post-Security Council press conference was both a memorable smackdown of UN duplicity and double standards and a pledge to confront them:

The Security Council is supposed to discuss how to maintain international peace and security. But at our meeting on the Middle East, the discussion was not about Hezbollah’s illegal buildup of rockets in Lebanon, it was not about the money and weapons Iran provides to terrorists, it was not about how we defeat ISIS, it was not about how we hold [Syrian dictator] Bashar al-Assad accountable for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

No, instead the meeting focused on criticizing Israel, the one true democracy in the Middle East. I am new around here, but I understand that’s how the Council has operated, month after month, for decades. I am here to say that the United States will not turn a blind eye to this anymore.

We have not seen anything similar since Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the UN resolution likening Zionism to racism to be “an infamous act” and an “obscenity.” That was in 1975, under President Gerald Ford.

The UN’s hyperfocus upon Israel has far less to do with conventional international politics than irrational anti-Semitism, and Donald Trump seems to know this well. If Trump is what an anti-Semite looks like, I’ll take “anti-Semites” like him over “friends” like Obama any day of the week — and twice on Shabbos.

UPDATE: Since publication of this piece on American Spectator, several additional things have happened:

Education Secretary DeVos strongly praised Agudath Israel for its “leadership and commitment” working to ensure that “every child, regardless of where they live or their family’s income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education.” As reported by the Washington Post, AI tweeted that this meeting was “truly historic.”

The Trump Administration proposed a budget with massive cuts” to State Department funding, threatening aid to nations around the world, but specifically preserving aid to Israel.

Haley once again condemned a UN statement for anti-Semitic bias (without saying so) using language unheard of since Moynihan:

The United States is outraged by the report of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). That such anti-Israel propaganda would come from a body whose membership nearly universally does not recognize Israel is unsurprising. That it was drafted by Richard Falk, a man who has repeatedly made biased and deeply offensive comments about Israel and espoused ridiculous conspiracy theories, including about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is equally unsurprising. The United Nations Secretariat was right to distance itself from this report, but it must go further and withdraw the report altogether. The United States stands with our ally Israel and will continue to oppose biased and anti-Israel actions across the UN system and around the world.

And during a recent US-Israel meeting, the Jewish touch wasn’t merely providing Kosher food — the diplomatic service had to facilitate Mincha so that one of the participants could say Kaddish. That person was Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to Israel.

O-WOW Calls to End Prayer at the Wall

Originally published in HaModia.

In an unexpected moment of courtroom drama, Dr. Susan Weiss, attorney for the “Original Women of the Wall” (O-WOW), conceded last week what many observers have long recognized: that far from advocating for women’s rights, their agenda is to obstruct observant Jews attempting to pray.

When the “Center for Women’s Justice” filed suit last year on behalf of O-WOW, their stated claim was that the women of O-WOW merely wanted to pray in their own fashion — including reading from a Torah scroll in the women’s section. Preventing them from doing so, they argued, violated Israel’s anti-discrimination laws.

Their day in court revealed a very different interest. Judge Elyakim Rubenstein asked their lead attorney, Dr. Susan Weiss, what sort of alternative site might be acceptable to the group. She replied that in her view, none was necessary. Rubenstein then asked what she would do, were it up to her. She responded:

In actuality, there wouldn’t be a mechitzah (divider) there at all, and I would send all of them to their synagogue. Perhaps I would earmark certain hours for them … It needs to be a public plaza. ‘All of them’ includes both observant women and those women who want to wear tzitzis.

She went on to say that the Wall is not a synagogue, and should not be treated that way. Rather than arguing that women should have Torah scrolls at the wall, she in essence argued that no one should.

Leah Aharoni is co-founder of Women For the Wall (W4W), an organization created by women who pray at the Wall regularly and object to the disturbances created by O-WOW and Women of the Wall. Just recently, W4W requested to join in the case as respondents, because, she said, “they are ignoring the sincere desires of the much larger group that seeks to maintain the tradition of prayer at the Holy Site.”

Regarding Weiss’ statements in court, Aharoni commented that “this confirms what we have said from the beginning, that they are not advocating for women’s rights. Rather, they want to deny observant Jews the ability to pray at the Wall.”

A look back reveals that this is not a new argument. O-WOW is comprised of the majority of the initial, core supporters of Women of the Wall (WOW). And in previous years, Anat Hoffman, head of WOW, suggested herself that her ultimate agenda was to prevent Orthodox prayer at the Holy Site. She told Channel 2 that a day would come when people would look back and say about the Wall, “there used to be a mechitzah here all the time! You don’t believe it.” And before Natan Sharansky proposed a new section, she told a Florida audience that she would be open to “timesharing,” for the Wall to be open six hours a day as a “national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men.”

Hoffman directs the American Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, described by writer Jonathan Rosenblum as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” This is entirely in accordance with the expressed interests of both WOW and O-WOW. But the Reform movement — an insignificant minority in Israel, comprised of Jews who do not pray on even a weekly basis — landed upon an even better option: to demand a site equal in size and prominence to the current plaza, used by hundreds of thousands of Jews who pray three times a day.

This is what precipitated the split between WOW and O-WOW. O-WOW’s primary interest is to force their practices upon observant women, while Hoffman now claims that WOW “is the right group for bringing about change in Israel, but not the right group for bringing about change in the Orthodox world.”

The end goal of all three groups — WOW, O-WOW, and the American Reform movement — remains the same: to change the Jewish character of the Jewish State. Hoffman told the BBC that the fight at the Kotel is merely a stepping stone on the path to changing marriage, divorce, and burial in Israel.

Aharoni’s focus, however, remains upon the here and now. She stresses that what O-WOW proposed to the Court is not merely offensive to the observant Jews who stream to the Wall on a daily basis. “For most visitors,” she said, “the idea that they can go to the Wall at any hour of the day or night, any time of the year, and find people pouring out their hearts to G-d … that is a critical part of the experience.”

This experience would be denied to millions of Jews, if the 50 members of O-WOW and WOW were to have their way.

“You Stole Our Land!”

risk boardThis week’s Haftorah discusses Ammon coming to wage war with Israel. There was a man named Yiftach, who was the son of a concubine, rejected by his half-brothers. He had moved away, but was a natural leader — many gathered around him, though they were not exceptionally knowledgeable. The verse even calls his followers “empty people.”

Nonetheless, with Ammon coming to fight them, Israel needed a leader, and they turned to Yiftach to lead and defend them. He sent Ammon messengers, asking why they were about to fight. What was the problem?

The message came back: “You stole our land!”

The land in question was an area which, many hundreds of years earlier, had been the subject of a war between the Ammonites and the Emorites. The Emorites won that war, and had lived in that land for centuries.

Then, as Yiftach explained to the King of Ammon, the Nation of Israel came up from Egypt and crossed the desert, hoping to enter their Holy Land. They asked permission of both Edom and Mo’av to pass through, and both nations refused them permission. So they went further north, avoiding the land of Mo’av, and sent messengers to Sichon, leader of the Emori, king of Cheshbon.

Sichon was not content to simply refuse permission: he gathered his army to war with Israel. Given no choice, Israel fought back and defeated Sichon… at which point the land became theirs. This land was on the east side of the Jordan River, where the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe stayed and lived. It was part of their inheritance.

The King of Ammon demanded land which they had lost fighting a war with the Emori, which had belonged to the Jews for hundreds of years, and was part of their Divine Inheritance. So Yiftach said to Ammon, you keep what your idol Kemosh gave to you, and we’ll keep what the L-rd gave us, and we will have peace between us.

The king of Ammon refused, waged war against Israel, and lost.

It is interesting that the King of Ammon is never named. Apparently, his name is not relevant. The idea that the Jews are stealing something from the non-Jews is a classic anti-Semitic trope, which recurs in different times throughout history under different names. Of course, I suppose we’d be hard-pressed to find another example of people claiming that the Jews are stealing Judean land from migrants from another land… oh, wait…