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.

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.

Daunting or Doable?

It is not in Heaven, such that one could say ‘who will go up to Heaven and take it for us’… For this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it” [30:12, 14].

At first glance Torah observance can seem daunting, filled with myriad rules and regulations governing every aspect of life. It seems impossible for a person to know everything! And in reality, this is true: Rabbi Tarfon says in the Chapters of the Fathers that “it is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate yourself from it.” A person will never know and understand the entire Torah, but rather has a lifelong obligation to study, learn and grow.

This is only true, however, because there is unlimited depth and breadth to the Torah. That which we need to know in the daily course of our lives is well within our limits.

We find a similar concept in secular law: we follow complex legal regulations every day without a second thought, simply because we learn patterns of correct behavior. All of us learn to operate turn signals while we learn to drive a car, and from then on use those turn signals even when turning right at an empty intersection. At least, most of us use our turn signals! When you come across a complex situation that requires greater knowledge (think taxes), then we consult experts and try to follow their advice.

Once you learn to put on the right shoe first and tie the left shoe first, it becomes daily practice, even without learning the deeper meaning behind this behavior that elevates it to the status of a religious act. The Torah enables every person to perform the basic, correct behaviors, but all of the Torah that we learn continues to add depth and refinement to those same acts.

In discussing the Commandment to love G-d (as found in the daily recitation of Shema Yisrael from the Torah), Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chaim (whose Yahrtzeit is today, Erev Shabbos), cautions against simply reading the words without putting them into action. He compares this to a factory foreman who carefully writes the instructions given by the owner into a manual, and then each day gathers the workers and reads through the manual from beginning to end while the machines sit idle the entire day.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is not only the Day of Judgment, but the beginning of a 10 day process of self-reflection, which should spark within us the desire to refine our behaviors during this coming year, to correct what we are doing incorrectly, and further perfect even what we are already doing correctly at more basic levels. There is always room for improvement that always room for growth, yet it is never so intimidating that we can’t get started.

May the coming holidays lead us to greater growth and commitment, to better behaviors that will manifest themselves throughout the coming year. May it be a new year of success, growth, and happiness for us and our families!

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.

Transfer of Leadership

In this week’s reading, Moshe begins the transfer of Jewish leadership to his closest disciple, Yehoshua (Joshua). He “stands him before Elazar the High Priest and the entire congregation” [27:22], in accordance with G-d’s Commandment that he do so, and “you shall give from your glory upon him, in order that all the congregation of the Children of Israel will listen [to him]” [27:20].

People often ask why it is that the initial observant congregations in America were in such disarray. There were several factors, of course. Besides the abandonment of Jewish practice on the boat to Ellis Island, there were many who fell away from Jewish observance when they learned that if you didn’t show up for work on Saturday, you didn’t have a job on Monday.

But Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz zt”l (1848-1910) of Kovno taught us a different reason, when he declined an invitation to become the Chief Rabbi of New York City in 1888. He said that the way things classically happened was that a group of Jews organized in a city, and then sought out a Rabbi to guide the community and preserve Jewish practice, that it not be disturbed. He said that to go organize a new community, to establish a new order with newly-arrived Jews in a new location — that, he said, required a Rabbi like Moshe!

As we see, what eventually grew Jewish communities was not the Rabbi of the synagogue, but those who built day schools to educate the next Jewish generation, as Moshe taught Yehoshua, and in the same way that Yehudah preceded his father Yaakov to Goshen, in Egypt, to (according to the Medrash) build a Beis Medrash, a House of Study (Breishis Rabbah to Gen. 46:28, see Rashi).

And so it remains. Giving our children a strong Jewish education is the singular way that we preserve a Jewish future for generations to come!

You Couldn’t Pay Me to Do the Impossible

Someone shared with me a fascinating story this morning (from the sefer “MiShulchan Gavohah”). The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, served as Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk (Brest, Belarus) prior to the Holocaust, under the hostile Communist regime.

The Communists wanted to “tamper” with Jewish education, with their Jewish comrades (of course) leading the effort. At a meeting, one of these communists stood up and declared that although it was in their power to close the Jewish schools, they would not do so due to their reverence for the rabbis.

Some of the listeners were impressed by this. Clearly, they thought, this secular Jew (who, like all Jews of that era, had had at least a basic Jewish education himself) understood the importance to the rabbis of their unique Jewish schools. He saw “where they were coming from” and would help them maintain Jewish education under the communists.

The Brisker Rav didn’t see it that way. He stood up and said back to the communist: you are like the evil Bila’am!

What did he mean?

Balak, King of Moav, sent emissaries to Bila’am in order that he come and curse the Jews. Bilaam told the king’s representatives, “if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the word of G-d” [22:18].

At first glance, it seems Bila’am is simply explaining the reality to them. But Bila’am was entertaining the idea! The Brisker Rav compared him to an assassin being asked if he could murder the king, and the man responding, “I couldn’t do that for $1,000,000.” If he loved the king he would say, “why would I do such a ridiculous thing?” Instead, the assassin says that the financial incentive isn’t worth the threat to his life — but otherwise he’d be willing to do it.

Bila’am similarly says that going against the Divine Will isn’t worth the money. He is choosing not to do it, but otherwise might want to go against what G-d Wants. This is what eventually transpires: Bila’am goes with the king’s ambassadors, attempts to curse the Jews, and is forced to bless them instead.

“You imagine,” said the Brisker Rav to the Jewish communists, “that you have the power to stop Torah learning if you simply wish to do so. But you are making the same mistake as the evil Bila’am. If it is not Hashem’s Will that it be done, it cannot be done, and you will be no more successful than he was!

Division at the Western Wall is No Path to Unity

By Rabbi Pesach Lerner and Rabbi Yaakov Menken

The statements from American Jewish movements, the Jewish Agency, and various op-ed writers could hardly have been more repetitive. Following the decision of Israeli PM Netanyahu and his cabinet to suspend the “deal” that would have created a large plaza for mixed prayer at the Western Wall, most rushed to offer opinions no more varied than the news reports, as if there were only one reasonable position that writers (and readers) could take.

Their consistent thesis was that Netanyahu’s decision caved to “political pressure” from the charedi political parties (universally described as “ultra-Orthodox”) and that suspension of the deal was divisive, a rejection of American Jewry. Pejoratives are not merely mean-spirited and divisive in their own right; in this case, they were used to upend the reality.

Neither Uri Ariel nor Betzalel Smotrich, MKs of the Jewish Home party, could remotely be described as “ultra-Orthodox.” Yet both wrote a letter to Netanyahu urging that the deal be scrapped; after it was, Ariel said in a prepared statement that “we succeeded in preventing an unnecessary split among the Jewish people and an attack on the social and religious fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish people.”

So which position unites us, and which divides? Each claims to side with unity, but only one can be correct.

Read the full op-ed at the Jerusalem Post.

The Limits of Human Comprehension

This week’s reading begins with the Commandment to prepare a red heifer for a special purification ritual. The calf was slaughtered and burned and its ashes mixed with water. Any person who came into contact with a dead person had to undergo a seven-day purification process, including having this water sprinkled upon him or her on the third and seventh day. Without this process, one could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple — this is why we may not go up onto the Temple Mount today, because we do not have the waters of the red heifer and thus cannot go through the purification process.

Here, though, we find what is considered the most perplexing rule in the entire Torah: the person who sprinkles the water must immerse himself and his clothing afterward, returning to a pure state only in the evening. In the course of purifying the impure person, he himself becomes impure; we know from our Sages that even King Solomon himself was unable to understand why this is true.

Yet this famous law offers a paradigm for the meaning of “faith” in Judaism. Our belief in G-d and the accuracy of the Torah is not simply something taken on faith; we have the eyewitness account of our own ancestors. The Torah itself asserts that no one else will make this claim, because the idea that our own ancestors, all of them, collectively, experienced a Divine Revelation is so outlandish that such a claim cannot be made unless it is true. As we know (and as Maimonides says), history has borne this out.

What, then, is the place of faith? To us, faith is trusting G-d. The Torah tells us that He is taking care of us — but sometimes this defies our attempts to understand how this could be true. How can it be good for people to undergo sadness and tragedy? Does He really care and watch over us? The answer is an emphatic yes, and we rely upon His guarantee that this is true, whether or not we understand why the situation is in any way good for us.

The perplexing law of the red heifer teaches us that despite our very best efforts, we are not always going to understand why everything makes sense, including how we can reconcile the idea that “everything is for the best” with circumstances around us. This conflict is itself part of the human condition, as surely as the rule of the red heifer is part of the Torah!

The Eye of the Beholder

When Moshe sent the spies into the Land of Israel, he did not anticipate two wildly disparate reports regarding what they would find. An argument breaks out between the spies upon their return: only two of them, Kalev and Yehoshua (Joshua), say that Israel should enter the land. The other spies insist that it is a hopeless effort.

The spies concede that the Promised Land is a “land flowing with milk and honey,” [13:27] and bring back huge fruits to demonstrate the bounty they found there. But, they say, it is all worthless, because the occupants are strong giants. Although Kalev says that Israel can surely succeed, the others push back and insist it cannot be done. They repeat that the population are giants, so much so that they saw the Israelites as if they were locusts. For this reason, the spies insist that it would be better for Israel to turn around and return to Egypt.

At that point, Yehoshua and Kalev stand up and say, “the land through which we passed, to spy it out, is a very very good land!” [14:7] And then they go on to say that if Hashem desires to bring them to that land flowing with milk and honey, then none should rebel against Him, nor should they fear.

What was the point of starting off by telling the people that it is a “very very good land?” The other spies agreed that this was the case! They were the ones who first called it a land flowing with milk and honey, and came back carrying huge fruits. In an argument you focus upon the areas of disagreement, so why should Kalev and Yehoshua underscore how good a land it is?

The truth is that the rest of the spies had digressed from their mission in the first place. At the outset, Hashem told Moshe that he may send spies into the “Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.” [13:2] The spies were supposed to see the land, and decide tactically how to enter. Questioning whether it was possible wasn’t part of the mission statement, because G-d said this is the land “I am giving.” There is no question of whether it was possible. Given that they had digressed, Kalev and Yehoshua realized that they needed to first get the nation to focus back upon the value of their goal, and then tell them to rely upon Hashem’s promise.

They understood that having a “good eye” isn’t merely about how you judge what you see, but what you choose to focus upon. They knew that if the people paid attention to what giants the occupants were, they would be afraid to enter their land. But if Kalev and Yehoshua could convince the nation to pay attention instead to how wonderful a land it was, then the people would be receptive to the message of G-d’s promise that they would inherit it.

We are told to judge every person favorably, to see every person with a good eye. Sometimes, this is best accomplished not by trying to see a particular act in the best positive light, but by looking at the totality of the person. The same individual who got angry and acted out in a particular situation might also be the same person who is incredibly generous with both time and money when someone needs his help. A community cannot be judged by the behavior of a few bad actors, not because we can justify how those individuals behaved, but because those individuals do not represent the community.

Part of the harmful effect of Lashon Hora, gossip about others, is that it inevitably focuses our attention upon a single bad action, rather than the totality of the individual. Our obligation is to look at the bigger picture, seeing that the person cannot be judged by a single misdeed, even if true. When we look at others this way, we inevitably find that we live in a much better world!