One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor

Recently, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote in these [Hamodia’s] pages that it is important to avoid partisanship, or what he called the “political sports team mentality.” He correctly criticized those who stick to political positions until they “bend over backward to justify the unjustifiable.”

What he did not say, however, is that observant Jews will be deemed “partisan” simply for following the Torah. One political party has now staked out positions on moral issues so grievously divergent from our own that we cannot avoid being described as “taking sides.”

This was not necessarily the case in the past. But to be a mainstream Democrat today, one must support the public celebration of forbidden relationships and the redefinition of marriage, and oppose reserving school bathrooms for the use of a single biological gender. To an increasing extent, one must also believe that Jews in Israel are stealing “Palestinian land,” a notion derived directly from the ancient canards of anti-Semitism, and employed once again to justify atrocities. This is why Lakewood, NJ provided the widest point spread in favor of the President of any New Jersey town last November.

With tremendous respect to organizations like Agudath Israel which carefully lobby state legislators hostile to our basic beliefs, the vibrant and growing Orthodox community is also obligated to respond to the ongoing chilul Hashem created by the leaders of American liberal Jewish movements, who declare that “Judaism” requires support for the aforementioned violations of Torah and “political” positions that threaten the safety of our brethren in Eretz Yisrael.

Consider, as well, that were today’s version of the Nazi boycott spearheaded by neo-Nazis, no one would join. It is leftist groups that are stirring hatred on campus under the guise of an “Israel” boycott. This being the case, criticism of a President willing to condemn bigotry on “many sides” after the riots in Charlottesville was wrongheaded and counterproductive — in fact, he deserved our gratitude.

It is worth dwelling on this example. Rabbi Shafran asserts the following:

An actual fact is that, at the “Unite the Right” rally earlier this month in Charlottesville, one side was entirely composed of white supremacists of varied stripes but the other was mostly comprised of non-radical, non-violent opponents of white supremacy. And that the former group contained no very fine people.

Eyewitnesses, however, tell a very different story. The New York Times reported the comments of Michelle Piercy, who “drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.” The Times, hardly a right-wing news outlet, described Piercy’s feeling that she and others are subjected to “a harsh double standard that demands they answer for the sins of a radical, racist fringe.” These mainstream conservatives were the “very fine people” to whom President Trump referred and contrasted with the “neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”

The claim that “the other [side] was mostly comprised of non-radical, non-violent opponents” fares no better under critical examination. Isabella Ciambotti, a student at the University of Virginia, observed multiple acts of violence against the “white supremacist crowd,” including an older man beaten with a stick while already down until she “screamed and ran over with several other strangers to help him to his feet.”

The report of Charlottesville resident Rebekah Manning is still more illustrative:

I stood with a group of interfaith clergy and other people of faith in a nonviolent direct action meant to keep the white nationalists from entering the park to their hate rally. We had far fewer people holding the line than we had hoped for, and frankly, it wasn’t enough… we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp… But we didn’t have to, because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I’ve never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time.

From Boston to Berkeley, Antifa used the following weeks to prove the President correct about the bigotry and violence “on many sides.” Thus while it was true, politically, that the President should have specifically called out groups that supported him in the election, his comments were both accurate and helpful to our interests.

So we must question: from where did Rabbi Shafran receive his distorted picture of the reality in Charlottesville? This is not difficult to discern.

Just days after a neo-Nazi drove his car into counter protesters in Charlottesville, there was a much more massive and planned vehicle-ramming attack committed by Muslim terrorists in Barcelona, Spain. Two CNN broadcasters immediately suggested a “copycat” relationship between the attacks — apparently unaware that Charlottesville was the eighth vehicle-ramming attack of 2017, and all of the previous seven were committed by Muslim extremists, all but one in Europe. The idea that Charlottesville provided the model for Barcelona was and remains patently ludicrous, but the media itself has become so partisan that it often cannot report neutral facts.

A nonpartisan stance does not balance objective reality against partisan falsehoods. The fact that Israel attempts to avoid civilian casualties while its enemies celebrate the murder of children is not a partisan, pro-Israel position. Support of comments that call out bigotry and violence on “many sides” is not partisan, either.

And as mentioned earlier, our self-identification as “conservatives” on a host of issues is not, in actuality, partisan, but the unavoidable consequence of being shomrei Torah U’Mitzvos. If we acknowledge that Torah ideas are now understood to be the underpinnings of a first-world society, then stating our true beliefs is valuable shtadlanus as well, good for America and for its millions of Jewish citizens.

This article was first published in Hamodia.

Celebrating the Miracle of Jewish Survival

What is the miracle of Purim?

The great majority of Jewish holidays were mandated at Sinai: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot. Most of the Rabbinic enactments are fast days, times of mourning. So the one other (happy) holiday decreed by the Rabbis is Chanukah, which celebrates a great miracle, a clear sign from G-d, blessing the Jewish response to Greek oppression. Why did the Rabbis, then, make Purim into a holiday?

There is, in actuality, a deep connection between Chanukah and Purim, in that both celebrate a reprieve from annihilation. Haman asked to murder all Jews; the Greeks wanted to stamp out Judaism.

And this helps us to recognize the miracle that we celebrate on Purim: the permanent nature of Jewish survival. Not everything is obvious. It doesn’t have to be an open miracle for us to analyze our circumstances and realize that something truly supernatural has transpired.

The very name given to Hadassah, “Esther,” comes from the Hebrew word for “hidden.” It recalls the verses in Deuteronomy [31:17-18], “I will hide My face from them … And I will surely hide [haster astir] My face on that day, for the evil that [Israel] did, for he turned to other gods.” Throughout the Megillah, G-d’s name is never mentioned; our Sages teach that every time the Megillah refers to “the King” without specifying Ahasuerus, we are to read it as referring to both King Ahasuerus and the King of Kings. Purim celebrates a hidden miracle.

In the global context, Jewish survival is perhaps the greatest miracle of all Jewish history. It defies clear historical patterns. Whenever people move to different countries, they gradually integrate, following the beliefs and ideals of the local population. Yet the Jews were different, stubbornly so. On the contrary, it is those who have oppressed the Jews – the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Spanish, and the Nazis (to specify but a few of countless examples) whose ideologies rightly reside in the proverbial dustbin of history.

In the wake of Haman’s decree, the Jews of that era recognized that by participating in the party of Ahasuerus, in which he rejoiced in the desecration of the Jewish Holy Temple and the ongoing exile of the Jews, they were leading to their own destruction. And they changed course. They returned to the unique path that has preserved the Jews through history.

Amazingly, it is the idolatry of Haman and Ahasuerus that has declined. Today the majority of humanity at least purports belief in the Jewish G-d — and throughout the Western world, the principles of ethical monotheism found in our Torah are considered fundamental to development of a first-world civilization.

Anti-Semitism remains what it always was: the revolt of immorality and barbarism against the ongoing, inexorable turn towards the values found in our Torah. The Jews were prophesied to be “a light unto the nations,” helping to spread the moral principles taught by G-d… and that light will always burn.

That is, indeed, a great cause for celebration!

Why So Much Hate?

Why are Jews hated? It comes from this week’s reading. “Why is it called Mount Sinai? It is the mountain where hatred [Sinah] descended upon the nations of the world” [Shabbos 99a].

The Medrash says that G-d offered the Torah to various other nations of that time, but when they found out that the Torah had laws against murder, theft and immorality, each nation chose a reason why they did not want to accept its laws upon themselves.

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein of Torah U’Mesorah gave me a fascinating insight into this Medrash. Wouldn’t it make more sense, he asked, for nations to be bothered by incomprehensible Commandments, such as the laws of the red heifer, which even King Solomon could not understand? Every civilized nation has laws against theft and murder; otherwise you would have anarchy!

Yet what bothered them, he explained, is exactly this idea — that even basic laws, central to civil society, are in G-d’s Hands. Even a king is not exempt, he cannot do as he pleases. The prophets were very critical of David and Solomon, although they, as kings, did so much good, and wrote prophetic works of their own.

A king wants to see himself as above the law, as having absolute power. Everyone else isn’t allowed to steal, but he has eminent domain. Everyone else cannot commit murder, but he is able to call for a royal execution.

This idea, that we are not Kant philosophizing about our own moral requirements, but subject to an absolute standard that we cannot challenge or change, is what they found so offensive. That is the concept that those filled with hatred cannot abide.

Hitler said he was honored to be called a barbarian. His enmity for Jews went along with his enmity for the idea of conscience, which he called a Jewish concept. He even said that he wanted Germans to be ruthless and cruel.

In the end, anti-Semitism is about hatred for an absolute standard of morality. If you’re going to be hated for something, it might as well be for the very best of reasons!

Election Frenzy

To the great surprise of no one, I expect to pull the lever (which is to say, press the electronic button) for Trump. I have a set of reasons for so doing: his support for Israel, his [or, more accurately, his advisors’] economic and foreign policies, and whether the Supreme Court will be populated by justices bent upon determining if legislation is Constitutional, or by justices bent upon changing the law to conform to their own opinions. [As we have seen, justices of the latter variety are far more dangerous to religious communities of all types.]

But what I’ve noticed is that no matter which candidate you support, someone is going to tell you that it is religiously untenable to do so, and that it completely contradicts any claim you might have to being a moral, much less religious, person. The conversation all-too-often turns to direct attacks… and not against the candidate or the candidate’s positions, but at the other party in the discussion. All of these are direct quotes from online comments:

If you support Trump, it’s a “shanda” because you are supporting a “neo-fascist,” a “Nazi” guilty of a host of crimes. You are “attacking Judaism” and, of course, “promoting anti-Semitism.” Orthodox supporters in particular must be racists motivated by “deep resentment… against black folks for their total lack of gratitude or even conscious recognition” of Jewish support for civil rights.

If you support Clinton, you are an “un-kosher Rabbi” who endorses “an anti-Israel Treif candidate for President… with the Chazzer Feesel Clinton.” If Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU supports Clinton, “can we now trust the OU on kashrus?”

If I seem to have more anti-Trump material, this is true. As Scott Adams of Dilbert fame points out, Clinton supporters are more likely to steal the sign off your lawn, deface your bumper sticker, or accuse you of racism and hate speech. They are more prone to use insults and labels on social media. [The anti-Clinton examples above come from a single individual.]

But my point is that it is equally inappropriate on any side, especially coming from a fellow Jew.

Is there an exemption from the obligation to be Dan L’Kaf Zechut, to judge every person favorably, because there’s an election campaign going on? If you are incapable of seeing why a rational, intelligent, religious individual might have completely rational reasons for supporting either candidate, the problem lies within you, not the target of your ire.

Certainly, there are serious issues involved. But in the end we know Lev Melachim B’Yad Hashem, that “The heart of a king is like a stream of water in the hand of Hashem, wherever He wishes, He will direct it.” [Proverbs 21:1]

Life and civilization will go on. Yes, elections address important issues, but a blatt Gemara (page of Talmud) addresses more important issues. And somehow we manage to fight over the latter while building friendship rather than enmity. It should be that way with every argument!

True Vision

space_eye-space_universe_photography_wallpaper_mediumThe reading this week begins, “See I have placed before you today the blessing and the curse” [Deut. 11:26]. This is said in the singular form, rather than plural, and the Ba’al HaTurim explains that this statement, “see,” was made to each and every individual. Each of us has the blessing and curse lying in front of us, the ability to choose between right and wrong.

This does not mean, however, that the correct choice is always obvious. The same reading also discusses the possibility of a false prophet, coming to guide us to idolatry, even proving to us that his false god has real power:

When there shall arise among you a prophet or dreamer of dreams, and he shall provide you with a sign or wonder; and this sign or wonder shall come to pass as he told you, saying, ‘let us go after other gods which you do not know, and let us serve them.’ Do not listen to the words of this prophet or this dreamer of dreams, for Hashem your G-d is testing you, to know if you love Hashem your G-d with all your hearts and with all your souls.
— Deut 13:2-4

Throughout our lives, we are confronted with opportunities to choose the good — yet the good may not be immediately obvious. Sociologists talk about the “bandwagon effect,” in which even truly bad ideas are adopted at an increasing rate the more they are adopted by others.

A senior at Brown University wrote an article this week in which he advised incoming freshmen to “prepare yourself for insane anti-Semitism.” The movement to boycott Israel is a direct descendant of the Nazi boycott (via the Arab boycott, which predates 1948), it leads directly to anti-Semitic slurs and acts against individual students, yet it is adopted as a “moral” movement by people who have not bothered to look and discern the truth.

How often are we fooled, in our own lives, by things which appear moral or correct to others? Are we “going with the flow,” or are we looking at and evaluating the blessing and the curse?

This is the challenge of our reading, and it lies before each and every one of us.

True Peace

In this week’s reading, G-d gives Pinchas His “Covenant of Peace.” He also makes Pinchas, Aharon’s grandson, part of the Kehunah, the priesthood. [As he was born prior to the anointing of Aharon and his sons, Pinchas did not become a Kohein until this point. Rash”i, Bav. Zevachim 101]

This seems an extraordinary response to a violent act. Pinchas killed Zimri, head of the tribe of Shimon, and the Midianite woman that Zimri openly took into his tent to encourage immorality. We can understand how this deed might “turn away the wrath” of G-d towards Israel, but how can it be called peaceful?

The Medrash teaches that when G-d wanted to create man, He first consulted with the angels — as the verse says, “Let Us make man” [Gen 1:26]. And when He did so, the angels argued with each other, divided into opposing camps.

In Psalms [85:11] we read: “Lovingkindness (Chesed) and Truth (Emes) ‘encountered’ each other, Righteousness (Tzedek) and Peace (Shalom) ‘kissed’ each other.” The word for ‘encountered’ is similar to when Yehudah approached Yosef to fight over the fate of their brother Benyamin [Gen. 44:18], while when Esav ‘kissed’ his brother Jacob [Gen. 33:4], the Medrash teaches that he intended to kill him.

In the argument, Chesed said that man should be created, because he would do acts of lovingkindness. But Emes said that man should not be created, because he will be filled with falsehood. Tzedek argued in favor, because man would do righteous deeds, but Shalom said no, man would be full of arguments and strife. So what did HaShem do to resolve the argument? He took Emes, Truth, and cast it to the ground!

The Kotzker Rebbe was known for his sharp, penetrating insights. And he asked, how does this resolve the argument? G-d “threw Emes to the ground.” It seems unfair, and besides, Shalom is still arguing against the Creation of Man. So how does removing Truth solve anything?

And he answered: “without Truth, Peace is easy!”

But of course, as he also observed, peace without truth is a false peace.

In order to have true peace, there must be truth. Pinchas acted to ensure that all who knew of Zimri’s sin, rather than be lured into duplicating that crime, instead would follow the path of truth — the path of G-d. Peace between Israel and their G-d is True Peace, and that is what Pinchas hoped to ensure.

Pursuing Peace and Straightening the Record

By Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org

The recent op-ed by Yair Sheleg, “Israel’s battle for peace between religion and state,” is troublesome in several ways. While he portrays himself as a dispassionate analyst, it is clear that Sheleg’s essay intends, on the contrary, to inflame passions—and he is not above inverting the record in order to do so.

The editor’s note added by JNS.org is revealing. In lieu of “haredi,” the writer used the pejorative term “ultra-Orthodox,” prompting this editorial disclaimer. In an era when we express sensitivity and consideration towards minority populations, we allow them to choose the terms of their own identity and avoid negative bias. The writer affords the haredi community no such consideration, using a modifier, “ultra-,” that is universally negative when used to describe a movement or community. The Israel Democracy Institute claims to be nonpartisan; the director of its Religion and State program belies that, at least with regards to Jewish religious affairs.

Second, the premise of the op-ed directly contradicts Sheleg’s statement to the media, made in his professional capacity. His opinion piece claims that “the ultra-Orthodox have launched a new offensive;” speaking to the New York Jewish Week, however, he noted that “the ultra-Orthodox are in a defensive position” (our emphasis added), merely wishing to preserve the status quo that has governed Israeli practice since its founding.

In this case, the pejorative term “ultra-” is both offensive and inaccurate. Consider our own example. One of us holds a doctorate in not-for-profit organization systems, and served as executive vice president of the national Young Israel movement for more than 25 years. The other earned a BSE in computer science from Princeton University, architects a family of prominent Jewish websites, and, not incidentally, identified with the Conservative movement into adulthood. Both of us live in the United States, where we frequently interact with Reform and Conservative leaders and members both personally and professionally. Neither of us exemplifies the stereotypical image evoked by the term “ultra-Orthodox.” Groups like Women For the Wall, the women’s group acting to preserve traditional practice at the Western Wall, are certainly not led by “ultra-Orthodox.” 

The vast majority of religious nationalist leaders and members all strongly oppose the changes advocated by Sheleg—and, given his position, he is surely well aware of this. Thus the “ultra-” label is not merely pejorative, but a facile attempt to reframe the conversation to avoid the real issues.

Why are the American liberal movements pushing for major changes at the Western Wall at this time? The question gains potency given a demonstrated lack of need. More than a decade ago, these movements were allocated space at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel; three years ago, then-Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett unveiled a new, greatly expanded “Ezrat Yisrael” platform in response to demands from these same movements. 

Since that time, this space has never been filled. Not once. Most of the time it sits completely empty; only when the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Shlomo Amar, conducted a private service there did the leaders of these movements respond with possessive outrage. 

To anyone with even minimal knowledge of the differences in belief and practice of traditional and non-traditional Jews, the reasons for the disuse of Ezrat Yisrael are not difficult to discern. Neither movement prays for the restoration of the Holy Temple upon the Temple Mount, and the overwhelming majority of liberal Jews do not pray daily at all. They are not coming on aliyah, neither are Israelis interested in their revisions of Judaism—there are less than 100 liberal congregations in all of Israel, serving less than 0.4 percent of the Jewish population.

Liberal leaders themselves acknowledge that they are demanding the government spend millions of dollars and irrevocably compromise archaeological sites simply for “recognition.” If so, one must ask why they are willing to disrupt the attitude of American Jews towards Israel in order to make these demands at this time.

Recent Pew Research Center surveys provide the answer: the American liberal movements are collapsing here in their North American home. They claim to represent the dominant voice of American Jewry; certainly, they must accept primary responsibility for the 70-percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews, and the failure of the plurality of Jews under age 50 to identify with any Jewish denomination. Only 25 percent of American Jews are members of a Reform or Conservative congregation, and their median age is 55. They have lost the next American-Jewish generation.

Why are these movements spending an inordinate amount of time and money to change Judaism in Israel, rather than educating and influencing their youth, working to guarantee that their grandchildren care about Judaism? If they truly care about the Jewish future, they will not besmirch Israel with unfounded accusations of limitation on Jewish practice, but encourage their own to visit or even live there, and learn for themselves—both about Israel, and about Judaism.

This is all the more true when it comes to Sheleg’s second topic, the issue of Jewish conversion. The State of Israel adopted traditional standards to determine Jewish identity in order to preserve Jewish unity: so that the grandchildren of Orthodox and liberal Jews might marry without serious investigation of each individual’s Jewish heritage. The liberal movements have already necessitated this in America, with sometimes tragic consequences. Importing this to Israel will permanently divide the Jews of the Jewish state.

In the end, it is clear that Sheleg’s statement to the media is notably more accurate than his opinion piece: there is no “ultra-Orthodox offensive,” but rather an effort by liberal movements to enact drastic changes in Israel to draw attention away from their self-inflicted decimation at home in America. It is incumbent upon them not to try to change Israeli Jews in a way that draws them away from Jewish tradition, but to change American Jews in a way that draws them towards it. That should be, after all, the goal of any Jewish movement.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox online journal. Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.

Love Me… Or Else

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner
The Jerusalem Post

“A love which is dependent upon something – when that ‘something’ is gone, the love goes with it. But an independent love will never cease.” [Chapters of the Fathers, 5:16]

A recent survey commissioned by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism claimed that one in three Israelis “especially identify” with that movement. This astounding finding perplexed many observers, as – according to that same survey – only half as many Israelis had so much as visited a Reform congregation even once during the previous five years.

With real support from Israeli Jews, Reform and Conservative leaders would have little difficulty changing the nature of Jewish prayer at the Western Wall – Knesset parties serve constituencies, and would gladly enact modifications demanded by their voters. Instead, American liberal leaders are making threats: at a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), warned of a “major rift between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel” if their demands are not met.

The heads of the American Reform and Conservative movements believe that Jewish love for Israel comes with terms and conditions, and that they control the American Jewish heart. They are inflating their importance on both sides of the Atlantic, and placing naked self-interest ahead of the unity of the Jewish People.

To be certain, they did not attempt to convince Israeli leaders of widespread local support. There are fewer than 75 Reform and Conservative congregations in the whole of Israel, including those open only on holidays. In the aggregate, they serve less than 25,000 congregants – under 0.4% of Israel’s 6.3 million Jews. There are more Orthodox synagogues in Tel Aviv, the “secular capital” of Israel, than seats in its lone Reform congregation.

Instead, they assert that “Diaspora Jewry” shares in their demands. Even ignoring the predominance of traditional Orthodox synagogues everywhere outside North America, this is a specious claim: according to the Pew Survey of 2013, only 25% of Jews in the US are members of a Reform or Conservative congregation. They have lost the allegiance and involvement of the American Jews they claim to represent.

The majority of the less than 250,000 American Jews visiting Israel each year – and the vast majority of olim – are Orthodox. Of the remainder, the majority are on Birthright Israel or others visiting for their first time. One is left with a vanishingly small number with any interest in changing Israel’s entirely different Jewish culture.

The Pew Survey of Israeli Jews published this year noted that the American concept of Jews divided into “denominations” or “streams” is foreign to Israeli Judaism, which remains far more traditional. Responding to their impartial questionnaire, less than 5% of Israelis identified with either US liberal denomination: the overwhelming majority chose “Orthodox” or “none.” And even so-called secular (“Hiloni”) Israelis are more likely to engage in Jewish observances – such as lighting Sabbath candles, holding a Passover Seder or fasting on Yom Kippur – than adherents of American liberal movements.

This being the case, American Reform and Conservative leaders should be less concerned about Israeli Jewish practices, and more concerned about those of their own congregants. Successive surveys show sagging Jewish affiliation over time in America, while just the opposite is true in Israel.

Without focused effort by liberal leaders, the Diaspora’s troubling Jewish decline will continue to accelerate within their movements, and the Jewish future will be found only in the yet more rapid growth of Orthodoxy. The median age of those identified with liberal denominations is now 55, while that of Orthodox Americans is 40 and swiftly dropping. The intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews has reached over 70% – for the Orthodox, it is stable at 2%. According to the Avi Chai Foundation, only 5% of American Jewish children receiving a full-day Jewish education attend Reform or Conservative schools.

To the extent that Jewish allegiance to Israel has become conditional rather than integral for American Jews, this is the sad consequence of that same lack of commitment. According to the Pew Survey in Israel, 68% of Israelis feel a common bond with their Jewish brethren in America, and three-fourths believe that we share a common destiny. Yet only 43% of American Jews now believe that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.

The American liberal movements are also openly at odds with the Israeli consensus regarding Israel’s security needs. Rabbi Jacobs also served on the Board of Directors of the pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund. He was at the forefront of those who pressured Prime Minister Netanyahu to stay home, rather than address the US Congress regarding Israeli opposition to the “Iran deal.”

A growing number of supporters of the anti-Israel BDS movement on campus are young progressive Jews, in love with liberal ideals and blithely ignorant of the ugly history of anti-Semitism. Are these among the American Jews who might “rupture” with Israel over the issue of Jewish prayer?

Israel’s multifaceted Jewish community has demonstrated its commitment and success in ensuring a common Jewish future; it is inappropriate for American Reform and Conservative leaders to demand changes. They cannot presume to speak for American Jewry, and the Prime Minister should recognize that “love” contingent upon meeting demands is no love at all.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.

Gone to the Gorillas

On Saturday, a 4-year-old child got away from his parents and crawled over a barrier. Sadly, he tumbled 20 feet and was killed. This was reported on page 20 of the local news and buried on a few local websites, but nowhere else. The parents blamed the people responsible for the barrier and filed suit, while the other party insisted they were not to blame. Those few who read the news reports sighed about the tragic accident, and moved on with their lives. No one called the mother negligent or horrible; no one picketed the other party.

WCPO_Harambe_Cincinnati_Zoo_silverback_gorilla_1429037871541_16763037_ver1.0_640_480We know so little about this story that I’m not even sure it happened. Probably something like this did somewhere in the civilized world, but we don’t know about it because no one paid attention — we all know of similar stories from the past, even the recent past.

From which we learn that society now cares more about the life of a gorilla than the life of a young boy.

Because something quite similar to the above did happen on Saturday, but the boy wasn’t actually harmed, at least not seriously. He fell, however, into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. One of the gorillas, called Harambe, came over to him and initially seemed to care for the child, but then grew agitated and dragged him away from people. After several minutes trying unsuccessfully to calm Harambe, the animal care team realized the child was in imminent danger, and shot the gorilla.

“Animal rights activists” held a vigil at the Cincinnati Zoo. Never, in the 143 years since the Cincinnati Zoo opened, has anyone previously entered an animal enclosure — and most zookeepers are reluctant to shoot the animals under their care. But they are taking the zoo to task, claiming, of course, “excessive force” — that it should have been possible to retrieve the child unharmed from an agitated 450 pound gorilla if they had simply asked nicely enough.

A different school of thought launched a petition at change.org calling for “the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.” The undersigned even “actively encourage an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents!” And this petition crossed the 400,000 signature mark during the time this post was written. Not only are newspapers displaying the names and the pictures of the boy’s parents, Deonne Dickerson and Michelle Gregg, but they are discussing the father’s “criminal history” as if this were somehow relevant.

Those of us who have actually been parents should know how ridiculous this all is. Michelle and Deonne have four children, the littlest of whom was not delighted to learn that mommy thought it was time to leave the zoo. During the moments that it took to attempt to mollify her, the four-year-old dove for the barrier — and, yes, a four-year-old is going to find his way past reasonable barriers if he puts his young mind to it. Anyone who thinks this requires parental negligence has never parented. Or, it is as my own young son suggested: people are holding vigils and signing this petition because they know the gorilla was more intelligent than they are.

Chazal tell us that when Migdal Bavel, the Towel of Babel was under construction, the people cried if a brick fell and broke, but they didn’t cry if a person fell and was killed. It seems beyond illogical. If nothing else, a person is able to make and carry more bricks, so why wasn’t the death of a person at least as important as the brick?

But here it is: hundreds of thousands of people, none of whom would have blamed the mother of a child who escaped her attention and fell to his death, are calling for Gregg to be held responsible because her child’s fall led to the death of a gorilla.

The entire Western ideal of care for animals, of course, comes from our Torah. But once taken outside of a Torah context, that same principle can be horribly misused. We know that a human life is of infinitely greater value than an animal life — and fortunately the staff of the Cincinnati Zoo does as well. Not so, apparently, hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and elsewhere.

Addressing Dishonesty

I must admit, I’m disappointed. [Even more so with the response… see update at bottom.]

When Rabbi Adlerstein and I started Cross-Currents, I used to read various critical responses to my essays on several blogs. It was not long, though, before I realized that to read them was foolish — there are some bloggers who will quite reliably insist that the sun rises in the west simply because an observant Rabbi has said otherwise. [This is the same reason Rabbi Avi Shafran declines to publish comments to his essays.] Since then, people have occasionally written to ask why I offered no response to various online critiques and rebuttals, and “a waste of time” has been my inevitable answer.

shutterstock_220973980.0There are some, though, of whom you expect more. And last night, someone asked me to look at a post by a moderately well-known writer and blogger. You’ll all know who he is, but I’m not going to link to the post for a different (yet similar) reason than I didn’t link to the viral video of yesterday — I hope he’ll regret posting it, because he should, even if he doesn’t yet.

This is personally disappointing because we used to be friends, and I persisted in believing that we were. On one of his early trips to Baltimore to talk about zoology and Torah, he stayed in our house. His best line was when my wife said that “bats aren’t bugs,” and he immediately recognized the source: “I am expert on two things. Zoology, and Calvin and Hobbes.”

Even after his books were condemned by Gedolim, he remained a client — our work for other Jewish organizations led to doing commercial web hosting, and although I have sold my interest, I believe he’s still using that service. So whether or not I agreed with him, we were hosting his rejection of the ban. This remained true even after I was asked by Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, to review Rav Meiselman’s book, “Torah, Chazal and Science,” for the journal Dialogue.

Now although Rav Meiselman doesn’t name names, it was obvious to whom he was referring when he wrote in his preface that:

A spate of books and articles and a nonstop discourse in the blogosphere have attempted to introduce a radical new theology and proclaim it compatible with classic Jewish belief. Most of this literature has been sophomoric at best. In general it has not been written by people trained simultaneously in Torah and science, whereas the topics dealt with often involve complex issues, calling for expertise in both.

So I understand why he wasn’t too pleased with the book, and that he probably wouldn’t enjoy my favorable review. But you know, that’s how things are sometimes, and the truth is best served when we don’t involve our personal animus or emotions.

As it happens, my review included addressing criticisms found in two other reviews, both critical of Rav Meiselman’s position. One of those critical reviews was written by the person who took over publication of the banned books after they were dropped by their previous publisher, and with whom I’ve collaborated on several matters. I carefully expressed my feeling that “when a person starts off with such an obviously negative perspective, it is that much more important to base criticism upon clear errors or contradictions, and reference other, more neutral sources to support his position.”

And in that case, we apparently succeeded in avoiding personal conflict. That reviewer wrote to me that he welcomes criticisms of his writing and looks forward to future cooperation in the many important areas where we largely and/or entirely agree.

Not so, apparently, when it comes to the blogger’s opinion of my review. There is no reason for disagreements to involve falsifications or straw man arguments, of course, but what upset my friend were the personal attacks. I may indeed be a “charedi polemicist,” but in context it didn’t seem that he meant that as a compliment. And what ended up happening is that in his effort to make me look foolish, he either falsified my words or those of Rav Meiselman, or mocked the words of the Rambam — all of this in a post entitled “Adulating Dishonesty.” One is reminded of the old adage found in the Gemara about projecting one’s own defects onto others: Kol HaPosel, B’Mumo Posel, all who invalidate use their own defects to do so.

In the first paragraph, the blog asserted that Dialogue “coincidentally” has Rabbi Meiselman on the editorial board. This is incorrect, and the blogger cannot use a non-fact to imply collusion or censorship (the word “coincidentally” can only be read in context as insinuating that this was anything but coincidental). While Rabbi Meiselman was a member of the Rabbinic Board governing previous issues, and was so listed on the inside front cover of those issues, he is no longer listed — for he left the board prior to the compilation of the current issue. He had no input or control regarding any part of my submission. His former membership of the Rabbinic Board cannot serve to impugn the credibility of a review written after his departure.

The second paragraph, though, was what surprised me. I will address this in detail, so that the reader may see for him or herself. Here is the paragraph in question from the blog post (minus the last sentence, which transitions to the main sections):

Some of Rabbi Menken’s eager adulations of Rabbi Meiselman’s book are hilarious. For example, Rabbi Menken notes that an example of Chazal’s advanced knowledge of the natural world is that they presented Pi as being three, because this must have been because they knew it was an irrational number and cannot be expressed exactly!

There are no additional words related to this subject in the blog post; this quote is both complete and entirely in context. The clear implication of his words is that Chazal presented Pi as being three, and that I or Rabbi Meiselman (or both) suggested that it “must have been” that Chazal knew that Pi was an irrational number — projecting current mathematical knowledge back into the distant past in order to excuse a coarse estimate, and then using that very projection to tout Chazal’s prescience. This, of course, would be ludicrous, and an apt target for rich mockery. And that is indeed his point, to use this as an example of “hilarious” adulation.

Yet here is what I actually wrote:

The author [Rav Meiselman] cites many similar cases in which Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures. For example, the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle (pi) is an irrational number, meaning it cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers. This was only established by contemporary mathematicians in 1768, but the Rambam explains that the reason why Chazal used the approximation of 3:1 is because the actual ratio cannot be stated definitively in any case (p. 154).

Nowhere did I suggest that it “must have been” that Chazal knew that three was merely an approximation of Pi, which they knew to be an irrational number. What I wrote is that the Rambam said that this was so. And the Rambam, of course, said this many centuries before mathematicians achieved the same understanding.

And here, further, is the referenced passage from page 153-154 of Rav Meiselman’s book:

Let us begin with the example of Pi, which we referred to in the course of an earlier discussion. This number, which is both irrational and transcendental, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It seems that one of the first definitive statements of its irrationality in recorded history is that of the Rambam in his Peirush Hamishnyos. In contemporary mathematics this fact was only established by the German mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert in 1768.

The Rambam gives no source for his information. Scholars have presumed that he deduced it from Talmudic passages in which it is implied. In fact, the Rambam seems to say so almost explicitly. He writes that Chazal use an approximation for Pi rather than a fraction because it is irrational. This seems to imply that if Pi were rational there would be no justification for instituting a legal approximation rather than the appropriate fraction. The very fact that Chazal did so indicated to him that they knew it to be irrational.

Again, the idea that Chazal knew three to be a rough estimate for Pi, which they further knew to be an irrational number, is attributed directly to the Rambam. Rav Meiselman provides extensive footnotes throughout his book, and includes the text of the Rambam’s Pirush HaMishnayos, Eruvin 1:5, which shows the attribution to be accurate, in two notes on page 154. Note that as the Pirush was originally written in a Judeo-Arabic dialect and later translated, there are minor differences between the text of Rav Meiselman’s footnotes and the text as found in the back of Maseches Eruvin in a Vilna Sha”s. But please don’t believe my translation, you are invited to do your own of either version:

You must know that the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is unknown, and impossible to express precisely. And this is not due to our lack of understanding… [rather] it is by its nature unknown, and cannot be fully known… but it is possible to estimate… The best estimate used by academic scholars is a ratio of one to three and 1/7… And since this will never be entirely understood except by approximation, they (Chazal) took a large number and said that anything that has three in its circumference has a diameter of one, and they relied upon this in what was required for measurements in the Torah.

If we translate his language to that used by mathematicians today, the Rambam said that Pi is an irrational number, as Rabbi Meiselman wrote — “a real number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers, i.e. as a fraction… irrational numbers, when written as decimal numbers, do not terminate, nor do they repeat.” [Pi is the paradigm used in the Wikipedia article.] It can never be fully known. Supposedly mathematicians have reached 12.1 trillion digits.

So here is why I am disappointed:

Did I say that Chazal presented Pi as being three, because “this must have been” because they knew it was an irrational number? Of course not. Did Rabbi Meiselman? Once again, of course not — and we know the blogger has Rav Meiselman’s book, because he says himself that he is “steadily working through” its contents.

Rather, it was the Rambam who said so, 600 years before modern mathematicians reached this same conclusion. In the Rambam’s time, this statement was hardly projecting “current knowledge” back onto Chazal, because even then the nature of Pi remained unknown. On the contrary, the Rambam’s statement itself is evidence that “Chazal possessed knowledge of the physical world beyond what was known to other cultures.”

So the author of the statement found so “hilarious” by the blogger is: the Rambam.

The reader of the blog post in question is led to mock the very idea that Chazal knew Pi to be an irrational number — in other words, to mock the words of the Rambam.

I cannot speculate upon whether the blogger actually read and comprehended this portion of Rabbi Meiselman’s book before erecting his straw man and leading the reader to mock a profoundly insightful statement of the Rambam. I don’t see, though, why it is relevant. Whether deliberately or through negligence, he led the reader to mock Divrei HaRambam!

What I can say is that I hope this 2000-word exercise is helpful and enlightening to some readers, and at least explains both my disappointment and why I will decline to address such things in the future. It’s clear at this point where the dishonesty lies.

[His response is yet more saddening and revealing. First, the writer posts a picture of Voldemort with a caption reading “he who must not be named.” Even some of his supporters termed his initial post attacking me “rabid,” but because I did not want to descend to his level, and condemn him while naming names, I’m apparently to be criticized for that too. It’s no surprise, really.

In his latest essay, he makes unsourced claims about Greek and other knowledge in order to portray the Rambam’s statement about Pi as a common insight: “But it was known to be irrational long before” Lambert proved it, he says.

History says otherwise. Lambert’s colleague Leonhard Euler believed that Pi was irrational, but could not arrive at a proof. It was Euler who got Lambert a position at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Later, Lambert arrived at a proof for Euler’s belief. So the blogger’s claim is simply not correct.

The Rambam, on the other hand, says categorically that it is impossible to arrive at an exact value of Pi, 600 years earlier.

And once again, the blogger does not read the Rambam. He says “Rambam surely didn’t get it from the Gemara, or he would have said so.”

I’m sorry, but this is simply breathtaking. I know that he has no formal training in any scientific field, but I did think he possessed a yeshiva-level familiarity with Jewish sources. Yet everyone at that level knows that the Rambam in particular was unlikely to provide source references, even in Halachic areas. This is true even in the Mishnah Torah, and all the more so his Pirush HaMishnayos. No one who has read even a few Perakim of Rambam could support this blustering assertion.

But furthermore, the Rambam quite clearly states that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, independent of the question of the Rambam’s source for this information — although, once he tells you that Chazal knew it, there is no longer much of a question. He says: “and since this will never be entirely understood except by approximation, they (Chazal) took a large number.”

In order to avoid this, he offers another demonstration of his penchant for straw man arguments:

Rambam says that Chazal knew that Pi was irrational, and therefore used an approximation. This is a reasonable position. Yet Rambam does NOT say, however, that the fact of Chazal using three proves that they knew it to be irrational.

That is correct, and no one said otherwise. The Rambam says that Chazal knew it to be irrational and therefore used three. That is what Rav Meiselman wrote, and what I wrote.

Understand that Chazal were not afraid of fractions. In order to indicate the length of lunar months, an hour is divided into 1080 portions, because a lunar month is 29 days and 12 + 793/1080 hours. Note that 792/1080 is 11/15 — but Chazal needed greater precision!

It is as the Rambam says, and as Rav Meiselman understands him: in this particular case, there is no precise value. No matter what estimate one uses for Pi, it will remain an estimate. Anyone with a piece of string can tell that Pi isn’t 3 — on the contrary, had Chazal used a more precise estimate such as 3 and 1/7, people like this blogger would have held it up as evidence that Chazal didn’t know math.

Yet further evidence of Chazal’s wisdom!

I think we’re done here.]