Gentlemen, Sling Your Mud!

Winston Churchill famously cited the sentiment that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Indeed, while majority rule might in fact be the best system, it can’t be denied that democracy, for all the happy results it has delivered, has also birthed some horrific offspring. It was a popular vote in 1932 that made the Nazis the largest party in the German parliament. And lesser evils have been offered up by majorities in many countries since.

And even leaving aside that a body politic can include majorities with malevolent inclinations, the fact that money seems so crucial to political campaigns’ successes – that, in other words, enough partisan, prejudiced advertisements can effect victories – is itself a major chink in democracy’s noble armor. If large numbers of people are susceptible to the sort of inducements that convince people to buy a particular brand of perfume or beer, what does that say about the electorate’s intelligence?

And then there is a particularly disturbing ailment that seems to have broadly infected political advertising, at least in these United States.

I have in front of me, as I write, two pieces of glossy campaign snail mail ahead of the June 26 Congressional primary election, each from a Republican candidate. (I’m a lifelong registered Republican, thus their vying for my vote.) Candidate A cites Candidate B’s conviction a while back for tax and employment-related offenses, and his flyer bears the large legend “THE RISE OF THE CORRUPT CONVICT CONGRESSMAN FROM THE DEPTHS OF THE SWAMP.”

The other flyer, from the fellow referred to in those all-caps, sports its own capitalized declaration, that a vote for his opponent “IS A VOTE AGAINST PRES. TRUMP” – a most awful insult in my Staten Island district. And, amid other opprobrium, that the other guy “CO-SPONSORED 2 LIBERAL AMNESTY BILLS.” For shame.

The latter candidate also elsewhere slurred his opponent with a truly dreadful insult (children, please stop reading here), coyly suggesting that people vote for “[Candidate A] – Democrat for Congress!”

Before Shavuos, in the West Virginia Republican primary, one candidate, though unsuccessful in his bid, issued a campaign spot accusing “Swamp Captain Mitch” – that would be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is married to a Chinese-American woman – of having gotten rich off of his “China family,” and creating millions of jobs for “China people.”

We are greatly relieved that no Jew people were involved.

Negative campaigning, of course, is nothing new. Although candidates didn’t do active campaigning in those days, during the lead-up to the 1800 presidential election, Thomas Jefferson’s camp accused President John Adams of having a “hideous… character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.

But, at least over more recent campaigns, mudslinging has been on the rise. In every presidential election cycle from 2000 to 2012, campaign advertising was for the most part more negative than in the previous one.

As Mitchell Lovett, associate professor of marketing at the University of Rochester once explained, “It stays around because it works.” Were I a tweeter, that observation would merit an all-caps “SAD!”

As anyone involved in marketing or advertising knows, repeated exposure of a message leads people to accept it as fact. Whether or not it happens to be.

Combine that with an actual fact, that most people know very little about politics – only about two thirds of people can name their state’s governor, about half know that there are two U.S. senators from their state, and less than half can name their congressional representative – and it’s not hard to imagine how democracy might yield disaster.

I’m not advocating, any more than Churchill was, some other system of government. But each election year I wonder what would happen if candidates for office were limited in what their campaign literature and ads could say, if the only information permitted was about the merits of the candidate, not the failings of his or her opponent.

Campaign seasons, in that fantasy world, would be more enlightening and less misleading. But they would also be less interesting, or, at least, less entertaining.

Which is why that scenario isn’t likely to ever become reality. The electorate, I suspect, wouldn’t stand for it.

© 2018 Hamodia

Checking Out… and Checking In

Dr. David Goodall is no longer with us.

The 104-year-old scientist travelled to Switzerland from his home in Australia last week, weary of life and in a wheelchair, but not otherwise disabled or seriously ill, and ended his life. Assisted suicide is legal in the Australian state of Victoria, but only, to Dr. Goodall’s vexation, for the “terminally ill.”

In Switzerland, though, anyone of sound mind can opt to dispatch himself, and Dr. Goodall was assisted in his suicide plans by the groups “Lifecircle,” “Eternal Spirit” and “Exit International,” all dedicated to helping people achieve their demises. A representative of the latter group accompanied him on his trip.

Exit International also, it was reported, launched a funding campaign to help upgrade the scientist, presumably at his request, to business class.

That last, seemingly irrelevant, detail got me thinking. A man is done with the world, about to end his life. But he’d like more legroom.

At first thought, hey, why not? But on second one, his preference struck me as oddly relevant to the issue of assisted suicide itself, which has been legalized in several states, and which a bill before the New York State legislature proposes to do in the Empire State.

Needless to say, we must oppose such “progress.” While it is hard to argue against personal autonomy, permitting people to enlist doctors to end their lives opens a Pandora’s box of horribles.

Among them, as my Agudath Israel colleague Rabbi Mordechai Biser recently testified before the New York State Assembly Health Committee, are pressures patients would feel from doctors or family members to choose suicide; the inequalities of health care delivery systems that tend to discriminate against the poor, handicapped and elderly; the psychological vulnerability of the severely ill; and the risk of misdiagnoses.

He also spoke of “the historical disapprobation of suicide… one of the pillars of civilized societies throughout the generations”; and noted that, in many cases, better treatment of pain or depression could dissuade a patient from seeking death.

All true, of course. But I find myself pondering… that business class upgrade. I think it signifies – at least in this case – an attitude about life that is the antithesis of the Jewish one.

I remember once being asked by a reporter about Judaism’s stance on a certain “woman’s right.” I explained that Judaism isn’t about rights, but responsibilities. There could be no more basic a Jewish truism, of course, yet the reporter found it astonishing, admitting that she had “never thought of life that way.”

I tried not to let my own bewilderment at that statement show, but the fact that so fundamental a Jewish concept had been eye-opening to the reporter was, well, eye-opening to me.

It shouldn’t have been. The operative principle of so many people’s lives today is the pursuit of possessions, comforts and, yes, rights. They ask not, to paraphrase JFK’s speechwriter, what they can do with the gift of life, but rather what the gift of life can do for them.

And so a man about to end his life is understandably concerned, even until that end, with extra legroom. Chap arein.

Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, once recounted the saga of a young Jewish man who, in a swimming accident, became a quadriplegic.

The handicapped man had told Rav Weinberg how the first twenty-odd years of his life had been  spent enjoying athletics, and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death.

Now he was hampered by his condition not only from swimming but from so much as scratching an itch on his own. He could not even, he discovered, kill himself, which he desperately wanted to do. And no one would help him achieve his desire.

Frustrated by his inability to check out, he was forced, so to speak, to check in – inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If his life is indeed now worthless, he reflected, then was swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really all that defined its meaning before?

That question led him to the realization that a meaningful life is independent of a physically active one. And he was led, in time, to his forefathers’ faith. Later, he mused that his paralysis had been a gift; for without it he would have remained a mere swimmer.

Dr. Goodall never realized what the ex-swimmer did about life, and was gratified to be able to spend a few of his final hours in business class.

© 2018 Hamodia

Mutcheh-ing the Mullahs

Did you hear about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s revelation that Iran is cheating on the deal it made in 2015 with six major world powers?

Well, if you did, you misheard. Or were misled.

Several news organizations seemed to make that erroneous claim, and the situation wasn’t helped by a White House communiqué contending that the news from Israel exposed the fact that “Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons program.”

The statement’s “clerical error,” in the words of White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was later amended, with “has” changed to “had.” How tragically droll had World War III resulted from a single letter typo.

What Mr. Netanyahu in fact revealed was a large cache of documents (55,000 pages, and 183 compact discs) that, he explained, had been obtained and spirited out of Iran by Mossad (that grinding sound you’ve been hearing is the manic gnashing of mullahs’ teeth). The voluminous material, as described by the Israeli leader, revealed some previously unknown former Iranian nuclear sites, and showed that Iran, despite its insistence to the contrary at the time the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was enacted, had indeed earlier pursued the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

That revelation is less than shocking. Nobody, including in the Obama administration, believed that Iran hadn’t aspired to nuclear weaponhood. The Shiite government was known to have had a program, “Project Amad,” with that specific aim, which continued until 2003.

Four years before the nuclear deal was signed, an International Atomic Energy Agency report explicitly noted the existence of Project Amad,. And, shortly before the deal, even then-Secretary of State John Kerry, one of its architects, nodded to Iran’s bald lie about its past activities, politely explaining that “we are not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another.”

In fact, it was precisely the recognition of Iran’s nuclear aspirations that propelled the powers to push for a deal, in order to put brakes on the mullahs’ objective. As British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson noted last week, “The Iran nuclear deal is not based on trust about Iran’s intentions; rather it is based on tough verification.”

President Trump campaigned on a promise to trash or renegotiate that “worst deal ever” (an appellation it apparently shares with NAFTA – they must have tied for first place), and has now pulled the United States out of the agreement.

Some observers have speculated that Mr. Netanyahu’s dramatic unveiling (quite literally; he pulled a curtain off exhibits) of the material taken from Iran and demonstrating the country’s deceitfulness was intended to prepare the way for Mr. Trump’s pulling the U.S. out of the deal.

But the revelation might also have been aimed more poignantly at the Iranians themselves, to put them on uncomfortable notice that not only is what everyone knew but couldn’t prove in 2015 now proven, but also to apprise them that Israel has the means to infiltrate secure locations within Iran (even within Tehran, where the documents had been hidden) and help itself to what it likes.

Which discomfort might just help Mr. Trump succeed at forcing Iranian leaders to agree to terms that would allow the U.S. to enter a new agreement with them. The hardliners in the Iranian government who opposed the deal all along are condemning the American about-face, saying “We told you so” to the relative moderates. But if they are sufficiently nervous about what might happen next within its own borders, it might just be a bit less resistant to “persuasion.”

What’s more, the president’s bravado – or, in his critics’ eyes, volatility – arguably helped intimidate North Korea, even though the outcome of that country’s inscrutable leader’s overture to his southern neighbor remains to be seen. Might Mr. Trump’s swagger (which his new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has declared is returning to American foreign policy) convince Iran to better… understand things?

President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain futilely lobbied Mr. Trump to not re-open the deal. Iranian hardliners are clamoring for Iran to abandon the deal itself and resume its nuclear program. But the nation’s mullahcracy certainly appreciates the deal’s lifting of some economic sanctions. Might it conceivably accept tightened terms if some means can be devised to allow it to save face?

Neither reasonability nor flexibility, though, are among the current Iranian government’s strong points, and even if a typo, thankfully, didn’t result in war, pushing the mullahs too far could.

Let’s hope – and be mispallel – that it won’t.

© 2018 Hamodia

(This column has been edited to reflect events of days since it was published.)

A Tale of Two Speeches

I had the honor of making two public presentations in recent days, one to second grade students at the impressive Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield, Michigan; and the other, to students and members of the public at the University of Maryland.

The first gig was dearer to me, since the members of my audience were people not set in their ways and thus open to my message, which was about what makes kids kids and grownups grownups. (The boys shared various ideas and I, mine: Awareness of Consequences – hey, it’s never too early to learn a new word.) But the class has a wonderful Rebbi and really didn’t need my own input.

By contrast, the audience at the second presentation, which was sponsored by the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, included many middle-aged and older members, less open to changing their attitudes, which are largely and unfortunately detached from the Jewish mesorah. They were proud Jews, to be sure, but with an assortment of misguided notions of just what living Jewish really means.

And yet, from the sentiments conveyed by attendees who approached me after my participation in a panel discussion of whether there is a divide between American Jews and Israel, the presence of an unabashedly Orthodox participant in the day-long program was appreciated. And I am grateful to Professor Paul L. Scham, the institute’s executive director, for inviting my participation. Especially since other parts of the day included a strident speech by the president of the New Israel Fund and what struck me as an attempt to upholster the deck chairs on a theological Titanic by the head of the American Reform movement.

On the panel, I attempted some humor to convince the audience that underneath my black suit (and sefirah-overgrown beard) was a normal human being. Then I made a serious case, that a connection to authentic Judaism empowers dedication to the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael – and that the demographics of the American Jewish community, which indicate a clear waning of non-Orthodox movements and a waxing of Orthodoxy, heralds a stronger pro-Israel future American Jewry.

And I took the opportunity to assert that the true preserver of the Jewish people, and the true ensurer of its integrity and unity is our mutual religious heritage.

In that context, I highlighted groups like Partners in Torah, and the way they non-judgmentally bond Jews through the study of traditional Jewish texts. I cited the example of my wife, who has for years studied weekly by phone with an intermarried Jewish woman in Arizona whom she has not yet met.

I knew I wouldn’t likely convince those present who were long invested in Reform or secular Jewish culture. But planting seeds, I learned from my years in chinuch, is always a worthy thing. Sometimes seedlings sprout down the line.

The best part of such conferences, though, is the opportunity they present to speak with Jews whom I would otherwise not likely ever meet. I cherish those chances to engage fellow Jews very different from me in friendly conversation. (And there’s always the amusement afforded by the reaction of the inevitable question about my college alma mater; when informed that I just managed to graduate high school and thereafter studied only in yeshivah, the questioner seems shocked that I speak English competently.)

The most memorable conversation I had at this particular conference was with a lady somewhat older than I and with a very serious demeanor who recounted an experience she had had over Pesach, on the street of a Florida city where she had spent the holiday.

She described how she went for a walk on the first day of Pesach, in clothing suited to the climate, and saw a man, whom she described as “a Satmar Chassid in a big fur hat,” coming toward her from the opposite direction.

“And I said to him,” she told me, “‘Gut yontiff.’”

My “justification mode” kicked right in and I prepared to explain to her how there are different norms in different communities, and that some Jewish men, out of tzenius concerns, don’t address women directly, and how, in other circumstances, surely, the gentleman would have acted differently…

But as my head was churning out the hasbarah, she continued her story, describing how the man stopped, smiled at her and – here she imitated the man’s motions – bowed to her three times, and heartily said “Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov!”

It was worth all the time and shlep and speeches just to hear that account.

© 2018 Hamodia

The Lonely Man of Politics

James Comey Jr., the former director of the FBI and author of the new book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” truly stands out from the crowd.

Not only because the man is 6’ 8”tall. But because he may well be the most reviled person in American politics today.

In our grossly polarized society, most personalities on the political scene, even if only on the sidelines, like Mr. Comey, are embraced by one squad and reviled by the other. Team mentality reigns, and the body politic is reduced to cheering or booing fans. Only face paint is missing.

And so it is something of an anomaly to observe a personality who is booed all around. Mr. Comey has achieved that status.

The Blue Team considers him (not unreasonably) to have played a part, perhaps a decisive one, in the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections.

On October 26, 2016, two weeks before the presidential election, then-FBI director Comey learned that his agents had discovered a trove of emails on then-Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer between the Democratic candidate and Mr. Weiner’s then-wife Huma Abedin (yes, a lot of “then”s here). Mr. Comey felt he had to inform Congress that the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s use of private e-mail servers when she was Secretary of State was being reopened due to new information. He decided that to not reveal the new information would be misleading of Congress and the public

Mere days before the election, he informed Congress that “Based on our review [of the new material], we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July.” That was when he had announced that the agency “did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information” but that “there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Speaking last week to comedian/political commentator Stephen Colbert about those actions, Mr. Comey admitted that he knew his decision would deeply upset “at least half of partisans,” but that “it never occurred to me we would [upset] all of them.”

But upset them all he did, and Mrs. Clinton famously went on to lose the election, further incensing her supporters. New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently referred to Mr. Comey as having “made reckless and harmful disclosures and proclamations about the Clinton investigation while not whispering a word about the concurrent investigation into the Trump campaign.”

For his part, Mr. Comey feels he had no honorable choice but to do what he felt his position required of him. The Brookings Institution’s Benjamin Wittes characterized Mr. Comey’s quandary: “Charge Hillary Clinton and you will regret it. Don’t charge her and you will regret that too. Explain your reasoning and you will regret it. Don’t explain your reasoning and you will regret it. Inform Congress of your actions immediately before an election, and you will regret that. Don’t inform Congress and you will regret that too… The steps you take to remain apolitical will make you political.”

Team Red, for its part, reviles Mr. Comey for whatever it was that made President Trump fire him last May; and now for his book, which is highly critical of the president.

What prompted the FBI head’s firing is not entirely clear. At first, Mr. Trump said the termination was on the recommendation of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Later he insisted he had made the decision on his own. The day after the firing, he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that he had “just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job” and added “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

What is clear, though, is that Mr. Comey is not, to put it mildly, enamored of Mr. Trump, and doesn’t hide his feelings in his recent book. He likens the president to a mob boss, judges him “unethical and untethered to truth” and characterizes his leadership as “transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty.”

No way to win friends in Red America.

Maybe it’s my decades at Agudath Israel, over which time I regularly witnessed (and continue to witness) decisions made on high principle attacked from opposite corners. Maybe advancing age has tempered me, à la a poet’s declaration, “So goodbye cut and dried/Nice to have known you/But something went awry/And I’ve outgrown you.”

But– leaving aside the actual political issues – I can’t help feeling admiration for a player who does what he feels is right even if it means being booed by all the fans.

© Hamodia 2018

Chastened by a Midrash

I don’t find it terribly hard to be tolerant of others’ political points of view, even when they are far from my own. I try to be mindful of the fact that, as Chazal put it, just as people’s faces are different from one another, so do they see things differently (Berachos 58a and Bamidbar Rabbah, 21:2).

Where I have a hard time with tolerance, strangely, is in shul.

I’m intolerant of phones that weren’t turned off before their owners entered a beis haknesses or beis medrash, and of the treatment of places of tefillah as frum Jewish men’s clubs, venues for telling jokes or discussing the stock market. I’m prejudiced, too, against onversations during chazaras hashatz or when the Torah is out, and bristle at the idea that shul during davening is an appropriate place and time to check e-mail.

I know I should just feel saddened, rather than upset, by such things. But it’s hard.

I also get distressed by the way words of tefillah and, especially Krias Shema, are rushed through, slurred or mispronounced.

Over the years, I have davened in dozens of shuls, and, even today, attend at least six different minyanim over various times of the week. In many, thankfully, there is great dikduk (dikDUK, that is, as a Gadol once corrected someone who asked why yeshivos don’t stress the rules of Hebrew grammar) in pronouncing the words of tefillos.

After all, the halachah is clear about the need to clearly articulate words, particularly with regard to Krias Shema, and, what’s more, to focus on the meaning of what we are saying, especially in the first passuk of Shema and the first brachah of Shemoneh Esrei.

Thinking about what we are saying doesn’t come naturally, though, when one is readingwordsasiftheyareallconnectedtooneanother. And I’m sorry, but it’s simply not possible to recite all the words of Aleinu, as is so often supposedly accomplished, in 30 seconds.

I gripe to myself, too, about words that should not be connected but are, like (v’hameivinim yavinu – the informed will understand) hameshuleshes baTorah, or mitzur dvash. And don’t get me going about the singing out of an amein chatufah on Rosh Chodesh at the same time as the shliach tzibbur says the word bashalom before beginning Hallel.

And, as to misused mil’el and mil’ra… Oy, as I say, I’m intolerant.

Several years ago, though, a siman in the Aruch Hashulchan I was learning force-fed me a modicum of tolerance, at least with regard to word-slurring.

The Aruch Hashulchan, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, of course, served as a Rav in Belarus but was also a posek of encyclopedic knowledge and expertise. His main work is a presentation of the laws of all four chalakim of the Shulchan Aruch in a clear and comprehensive style.

And in Orach Chaim, siman 62, se’if 1, regarding Krias Shema, he writes:

Even though, as explained, one needs to articulate every letter properly, if one read it and didn’t do so… he has fulfilled his obligation and needn’t read it a second time…[If one skipped words entirely], he certainly has not fulfilled his obligation… but if he merely didn’t articulate similar-sounding letters or confused a [shva] na and nach…he has fulfilled his obligation…

And obviously, someone who has a speech impediment, like those who cannot pronounce a resh properly, or a shin, or who pronounce a gimmel as a daled… since he is speaking as he usually speaks [he has fulfilled his obligation].

And what is more, the Midrash Chazisa [on Shir HaShirim] says on the passuk “v’idiglo alai ahavah,” “And His banner over me is love” [Shir HaShirim 2:4]: Says Rav Acha, “[Concerning] an unlearned person who reads ‘ahava’ as ‘eiva’, as in ‘viahavta,’ pronouncing it ‘viayevta,’ [thus radically changing its meaning], Hashem says ‘And his liglugo [mockery] is for Me love’.”

What an astounding midrash. Rav Epstein goes on to note that those who pronounce an ayin and an alef the same way (as most of us Ashkenezim do) are likewise saying very inappropriate things when they read words like “l’avdecha” or “va’avaditem” as if they contain alefs.

So even we who fancy ourselves knowledgeable and as having earned our right to be error-intolerant are far from perfect in our own pronunciations. (And in my experience, only the Bais Yaakov-educated are sufficiently erudite to distinguish between shva nas and shva nachs.)

Coming across that Aruch Hashulchan and the midrash it quotes was a learning moment for me. And ever since, when I hear an utterly, even comically, mispronounced word in shul, I remind myself that Hashem is not intolerant of the error. He even regards it as an expression of love.

© 2018 Hamodia