Veiter Simchos

My brother, a rebbe in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel’s Mechina high school, and his wife, the daughter of the legendary Menahel Rav Yosef Tendler, z”l,were recently blessed with two new grandsons. Both were named Simcha Bunim, after my father, hk”m, whose first yahrtzeit will be observed on 20 Kislev.

When I wished my brother and his wife “veiter simchos!” – “further happy occasions! – I wondered if I had inadvertently uttered a double entendre. It turns out I did. My wife and I just returned from Milwaukee, where another bris took place, as our daughter and son-in-law welcomed their new little boy to their family; he, too, is a Simcha Bunim.

I’ve been thinking, as you might imagine, about the name.

Firstly, what exactly is “Bunim”? My father always assumed that it derived from Binyamin, and there are sources that indeed assert that. But another possibility was suggested to me by a brother-in-law’s brother, Tzvi West, who thinks (very plausibly, to me) that, like many double names (e.g. Zev Wolf, Dov Ber, Aryeh Leib…), “Simcha Bunim” may be a vernacular translation added to a Hebrew one. Because, in French, bonhomme means “a good-natured man” or “a man of good cheer.”

If that theory is right, though, both names are uncannily descriptive of my father.

He was renowned for his ready, radiant smile, and over the more than sixty years he served as a shul Rav, countless congregants and strangers alike were greeted with his sever panim yafos. He was a reservoir of friendly, encouraging words for all who sought his counsel.

But simchah isn’t only an interpersonal ideal. We exist for avodas Hashem. And Dovid Hamelech reveals that our lifelong service be done with simchahivdu es Hashem bisimchah. Jewish joy occupies a very high plane indeed.

I don’t know if my father was able to embrace simchah as he fled as a young teen with his family from their Polish town before the invading Nazis in 1939, or when he saw his uncle shot dead before him, or when he and other Jews were locked in a shul that was set aflame (though I imagine he must have smiled when a German army officer – Eliyahu Hanavi, the Jews suspected – passed by and ordered the Jews released). Or if he attained moments of joy during the years he and his Novardok chaverim spent as the guests of the Soviets in a Siberian work camp. But knowing Norvardok’s stress on making the most of every moment of life, it’s entirely plausible.

What I know for fact, though, is how Simchas Torah was his Yom Tov. He rejoiced then with vigor that left anyone who witnessed it astonished. And how delighted he was during his long career to be able to provide a spiritual home for a congregation of Yidden of widely diverse backgrounds and levels of observance.

When my siblings and I were young, it didn’t occur to us that a Rav davening all the Yamim Noraim tefillos (and blowing the shofar) himself was unusual. When, eventually, he trained others to daven for the amud, he took great joy in that, too, and always happily encouraged the new baalei tefillah.

He also undertook the most menial tasks of maintaining a shul with joy. The shul had no shamash, only a rabbi who saw honor in every shul chore.

A congregant recounted seeing him in the shul perched on a 20-foot ladder, changing a light bulb.

“What are you doing?” the man asked him. My father looked down and, wondering at the question, said, “changing a bulb.”

“I know. But why are you doing it?”

“Because the old one burned out,” he explained patiently, with his characteristic smile.

Leaving a neighbor’s shivah house five or six years ago, I was stopped by a gentleman who said he recognized me from a recent chasunah we had both attended, of a relative of mine (the man had a connection to the other family). I confirmed I had indeed been there. He then he took out his phone and said “I have to show you a short video from that chasunah. This zaken was dancing so gracefully, like a young bachur!”

My suspicion of what might be coming was borne out. The video was of my father, well into his 80s at the time, being mesame’ach the chassan and kallah with vigor and joy.

At present, he has five little boy descendants who carry his name (and one little girl who was named Simcha). May they, and, be”H, veiter simchos, herald a new infusion of joy into our world.

© 2017 Hamodia

Peter Beinart’s Orthophobia

Below is my original draft of a piece I wrote for Forward.  The article as it appeared there, though, was substantially edited, and several sentences that I think are important were omitted.  So I share the original here.  The Forward piece can be read here.

Well, in case anyone for some reason may have been wondering, Peter Beinart, who recently wrote a piece titled “The Orthodox Should Know Better than to Embrace Hatred of Muslims,” doesn’t follow J.K Rowling on Twitter.

Because if the Forward senior columnist and former The New Republic editor did, he would have seen Harry Potter’s creator’s retweet last year of a haredi (or in the Forward’s pejorative preference, “ultra-Orthodox”) rabbi’s message.

The rabbi shared the fact that he had dedicated his presidential election vote to the American Muslim soldier Captain Humayun Khan – who was killed in combat and about whom his father Khizr spoke movingly at the Democratic National Convention. Then-candidate Donald Trump, of course, was then touting his “Muslim ban.”

The Hasidic rabbi, who serves as a media relations coordinator at the national Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America (full disclosure: I work there too), shared a photo of himself holding his ballot, alongside a photo of Captain Khan and his gravestone. He wrote that he wanted to highlight how Captain Khan’s “devotion makes (religious) freedom possible.”

The tweet was liked almost 12,000 times and retweeted 5,496 times, including Ms. Rowling’s sharing of the photo and message with her 13 million followers. Not one of whom, apparently, is Mr. Beinart, who wrote recently here that “the inability to distinguish jihadist terrorism from Islam fuels American Jewish hostility toward American Muslims” and that such inability is “particularly true among the Orthodox.”

Mr. Beinart must have also missed the story of the haredi director of a Brooklyn soup kitchen who, after the election, rallied support within his community for Muslim Yemeni neighbors who were protesting the new president’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.  The haredi also organized support for a beleaguered local Yemeni-owned bodega, complete with “Shalom/Salaam” posters.

Agudath Israel, moreover, issued a pro-immigration statement about the ban asserting that such a move is acceptable only if intended to prevent terrorists from entering the country, only “if tempered by true concern for innocent refugees” and only if “its focus is on places,… not on religious populations.”

Mr. Beinart could be forgiven for not knowing about the hassidic WhatsApp group that calls itself “Isaac and Yishmoel,” created to enable its members to defend unfairly maligned Muslims.

But some research on his part might have turned up the fact that Agudath Israel’s executive vice president chairs the Committee of New York City Religious and Independent School Officials, which includes representation from the Islamic School Association. And that he has worked with Islamic school representatives on a number of issues before the New York State Education Department. And that, on the national level, he works with Islamic school groups under the umbrella of the Council for Private Education.

Agudath Israel has also joined with Islamic groups in amicus briefs in religious liberty cases, and, along with the Orthodox Union, another major national group, has opposed “anti-sharia” laws.

Is there wariness about Muslims among many Orthodox Jews?  Yes, as there is among many non-Orthodox ones, among many Episcopalians, Catholics and Hindus too.  Is that fair to the vast majority of Muslim citizens, who have no evil designs?  No.  But, unfortunately, the proclaimed world-conquering designs of Islamists and the malevolent acts committed by extremists exist.  The distrust that results is, unfortunately, the responsible Muslim’s unfair burden to bear.

But do Orthodox Jews hate Muslims or seek to harm them?  Mr. Beinart should visit one of the Brooklyn neighborhoods where Orthodox Jews and Muslim immigrants live side by side, day by day without friction.

The Forward columnist compounds his slander of Orthodox Jews by engaging in some Orthophobia, in effect accusing haredim of preventing women from marrying, touting genocide and killing babies.  Yes, you read right.

There isn’t space here to rebut such outlandishness.  Suffice it to say that it is a high haredi ideal to find ways to compel a recalcitrant husband to agree to divorce his abandoned wife; that no people today can be identified with Amalek, and so the biblical injunction to destroy that evil nation cannot be applied; and that metzitza bipeh, the oral suction practiced by some haredim as part of the Jewish circumcision rite, has never been proven to be related to, much less the cause of, any infection in an infant, as three medical/statistics experts have affirmed (http://forward.com/opinion/letters/194118/no-conclusive-evidence-on-circumcision-rite-and-he/) in these very pages.

The Orthodox community’s final crime, in the Beinart courtroom, is having voted in large numbers, and in contrast to the larger Jewish community, for the man currently occupying the White House.  Judge Beinart chooses to interpret that fact as the result of Orthodox anti-Muslim sentiment.

Might it be, though, that many haredim simply recognize that judicial appointments comprise one of the most influential powers any president has? And felt that Mr. Trump’s likely choices would prove more sensitive to our community’s concerns about societal issues and the potential erosion of religious rights in America?

We must plead guilty – forgive us – to the charges of being social conservatives and religious rights activists.  But not to Mr. Beinart’s ugly and incendiary charge.

Of Bump Stocks and Background Checks

The landscape of Devin P. Kelley’s life was a veritable forest of red flags.

Mr. Kelley, who last week shot to death 26 worshippers in a Texas church and wounded some 20 others, over the years was convicted of beating his wife and stepson, fracturing the latter’s skull; faced charges of animal cruelty; had been investigated for threats against family members; threatened to kill his military superiors; was caught sneaking guns onto an Air Force base; and escaped from confinement in a mental health facility.

The Air Force has admitted that it did not, as required, submit Mr. Kelley’s name to federal authorities for inclusion in a national database that would have prevented him from buying firearms from a licensed dealer.

But there is a two-word phrase in the previous paragraph that conveys the fact that, even had every red flag in the killer’s life been noticed, even had more neighbors reported him, even had the Air Force done its duty, the murderer would still have had no problem procuring his murder weapon – a AR-15-style rifle, the same sort used by the mass killers in Las Vegas last month, Orlando last year and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. (It’s also customizable; adding a “bump stock” can turn the semi-automatic into a virtual machine gun. Sweet.)

The phrase? “Licensed dealers.” Federal law does not require background checks for people buying firearms from other private individuals, as takes place regularly at gun shows across the country. Some states require private sale background checks, but most do not. Texas does not.

That loophole, through which any determined would-be killer can easily pass, was decried by past presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to no avail. The NRA argues, with members of Congress nodding their heads obediently, that there are illegal ways for criminals to purchase guns too, so why burden citizens to check a federal registry before selling a semi-automatic rifle to a fellow citizen? One wonders if those congressmen lock their front doors. There are, after all, burglars out there with crowbars.

Asked after the recent massacre about intensified vetting of gun purchases, President Trump responded that the murderer was a “very deranged individual,” and that tighter gun control might have prevented “that very brave person who happened to have a gun” from shooting the killer and averting more casualties.

But that brave man would likely have passed a background check . And, for the record, he didn’t stop the massacre; he shot Kelley only after the killer had left the church.

As to the perpetrator’s mental health, the mentally ill are no more prone to violence than the general population. As Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration put it: “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.”

So why was America’s gun homicide rate 33 per million people in 2009, while in Canada and Britain, it was 5 per million and 0.7 per million, respectively? Why, as a The American Journal of Medicine study last year reported, are Americans 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries?

The only variable that explains the high rate of gun deaths in America is – you may want to sit down – the number of guns in America, and the ease with which we Americans can obtain them.

We make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns, according to a 2015 study by University of Alabama professor Adam Lankford. The U.S., moreover, has some of the weakest controls of any developed country over who may buy a gun and what sorts of guns may be owned.

Yet, despite the events of recent weeks (and months, and years), gun control remains a frightening phrase to many Americans and their legislators. British journalist Dan Hodges noted with tragic resignation: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook [the 2012 attack that killed 20 students at a Connecticut elementary school] marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

The aforementioned Mr. Obama, whose own calls for more gun regulations were stymied by the legislature, reacted to last week’s massacre with a prayer. “May G-d… grant all of us the wisdom,” he wrote, “to ask what concrete steps we can take to reduce the violence and weaponry in our midst.”

Worthy, to my lights, of a national amen.

© Hamodia (in a slightly edited version)

Agudath Israel of America: “Jewish Pluralism” Undermines True Jewish Unity

In advance of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s address to the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, that group passed a resolution on “Jewish pluralism” in Israel, opposing a bill to enshrine a single conversion standard in the country and asserting that the Israeli Government’s decision to freeze an agreement about the Western Wall has “deep potential to divide the Jewish people.”

It is sadly ironic, although not surprising, that leaders of heterodox movements that have in fact undermined true Jewish unity and continuity by inviting intermarriage and breaking away from the Jewish religious heritage have of late been lecturing others about Jewish unity.

More disappointing still are the unity-cries of the Jewish Federation movement.  The historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened.  Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.

The Jewish Federations of North America, moreover, has traditionally sought to represent all of American Jewry, but here it entirely ignores the feelings of the substantial and growing American Orthodox community.

The Reform and Conservative movements, despite their great efforts over decades, have few adherents in Israel. Most of their members do not visit or settle in Israel, nor do they visit the Western Wall in large numbers.  And yet their leaders seem prepared to offend the religious sensibilities of their Orthodox brethren, who regularly visit and move to Israel, and who come to the Kotel to pour out their hearts to G-d there.  A holy place should not be balkanized, nor wielded as a tool to advance partisan social goals.

And the patchwork of standards for conversion that exist in America has created an Ameican Jewish landscape where those who respect halacha as the ultimate arbiter of personal status cannot know who is in fact Jewish.  Creating in Israel a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples,” as is the tragic reality in America, would not foster unity but its opposite.

To our dear Jewish brothers and sisters, we say: Please do not push for changes at the Kotel that will only cause discord and pain to the vast majority of Jews who worship there. And please realize that the conversion standards that have ensured Jewish unity for millennia are the only ones that can preserve it for the future.

The Price of Tea in Uzbekistan

As commuters made their way home from lower Manhattan last Tuesday evening, the police presence was strong, complete with heavily armed officers, helicopters and dogs. At that point, no one knew if the man currently charged with ramming a truck into people on a nearby bike path, killing eight and injuring twelve, was part of a larger terrorist plan or a lone wolf.

The show of vigilance may have made people feel safer. It may even have made them safer, since a broader police presence can, in the event of a terrorist act like last week’s, prevent worse outcomes. The unfortunate fact, though, remains that it is simply impossible to prevent evil people from doing evil things.

To be sure, we must make what reasonable efforts we can to prevent depraved people from entering our country, from plotting to commit violent acts and from carrying them out.

But the carnage caused by Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov is illustrative of how it isn’t really possible to prevent malevolent individuals – who proliferate so easily these internet days – from wreaking havoc when they choose to.

The accused Manhattan killer was in the country legally, holding a green card, a beneficiary of the “diversity visa lottery,” by which approximately one million foreigners have been awarded legal permanent residency in the U.S., despite having no relatives here or special skills.

President Trump was quick to blame that program for the recent attack, and claimed that New York Senator Chuck Schumer was at fault. The senator was indeed one of those who helped create the program in 1990. He was also, though, among senators who proposed to end it several years ago.

But the issue of the visa lottery has as much to do with what happened in Manhattan last week as it does with the price of tea in Uzbekistan.

The truck terrorist (I’ll drop the “accused”; the fiend has expressed joy over and pride in what he did) seems to have been radicalized after his arrival on these shores, apparently when he wandered from job to job and didn’t land the one he wanted. When he was chosen in the 2010 visa lottery, he was subject to the same vetting procedures as any immigrant, and raised no concerns. Someone approved to immigrate because of special skills or relatives here can also become radicalized.

As can someone born here. The nonpartisan think tank New America tallied the citizenship status of 418 individuals accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in the U.S. since 9/11, and found that fully 85 percent of them were either U.S. citizens or U.S. legal residents – about half of them born American citizens.

And then there is non-jihadi violence against innocents, like last month’s attack in Las Vegas, where a born American killed 58 people and wounded 489. The very day after the more recent terrorist act, a gunman (with no connection to Islam, much less Islamism) walked into a Colorado Walmart and nonchalantly killed three people. And then, this past Sunday, a man shot 26 people to death at a Texas church.

Some, frustrated at the lack of a good blamee (well, it should be a word) for last week’s attack in Manhattan, consider the company that rented Mr. Saipov a truck to bear some responsibility for his actions. But on what grounds should he have been refused? His name? His beard? His religion? His country of origin? Anyone with a valid driver’s license and a credit card can rent a vehicle. Did that fact facilitate last week’s violence? Surely. Can it be applied selectively without violating federal law? Just ask a lawyer.

Restricting immigration may be a good idea (though if Uzbekistan is blacklisted, that will affect the Bukharian Jewish community still there). Careful vetting of foreigners entering the country surely is. But neither notion is a solution to terrorism. Nor, although a fine idea whose time has long arrived, is tougher gun control.

I have come up with several theoretical but entirely workable ideas for sneaking weapons onto public transportation, including onto planes (no, I’m not telling). I imagine similar ones have been conceived by people inclined, as I am not, to killing or maiming innocents.

So what is the solution to terrorism? A secret: There is none. And no one, or thing, to blame when evil is wrought.

There are prudent steps to be taken, yes. But if we think any or all of them can prevent bad people from doing bad things, or that some policy or law is at fault when they do, we fool ourselves.

We might better ponder a passuk: “If Hashem will not guard a city, in vain does its guard keep his vigil” (Tehillim 127:1).

And recognize the import of its message.

© 2017 Hamodia

 

The Pitfall of “Orthopraxy”

Amid the abundance of good Jewish writing these days, it would be a challenge to declare any single article particularly outstanding. But a remarkable recently published essay merits such a distinction. And it was written by a teenager.

His name is Eitan Gross, and he describes himself as “a normal Modern Orthodox kid, who goes to a normal Modern Orthodox school” and who grew up “in a mainstream Modern Orthodox world.” And who has “a big problem with Modern Orthodoxy and where it’s heading.”

Eitan (whose maturity merits a “Mr. Gross” but who I suspect would be uncomfortable with such formality) explains that he has been able to sample much of contemporary culture and to benefit from secular studies even as he has studied Torah and learned “what it means to be a Jew.”

But, he laments, he has come to witness “hypocrisy and internal contradiction” in his community.

The metaphor he chooses is poignant: “Living in a Modern Orthodox world is like letting an alcoholic shop by himself in a supermarket. The supermarket has many sections filled with healthy foods, but it also has a section dedicated to wine and other alcoholic beverages… chances are that he will not be able to get out of the store without approaching the section.”

“Modern Orthodoxy,” he continues, “provides many opportunities for positive effects on our lives, like the healthy foods have on a person. But it also hasn’t put up enough boundaries for us to avoid the alcohol, or evils, that the secular world has to offer.”

“We,” he asserts, referring to Modern Orthodox teens, “are high school students before talmidim. We are aspiring sports players before yearning Talmud scholars. We are college graduates before yeshiva bachurim. We are Modern before Orthodox.”

And he sees some Jews in his orbit treating halachos “as if they are a checklist – Say Modeh Ani, check. Wash hands, check. Then go to davening, look on my phone and wrap my tefillin before Aleinu because I’m so eager to get on with my day, but it still counts because I said Shema and Shemoneh Esrei, right? Check.”

And the results yield Jews “living an uninspired robotic Judaism, or falling off the derech altogether.”

Eitan suggests a renewed “emphasis on the truth of the tenets of Judaism, as well as an inspirational approach that creates a yearning and desire in the student to be closer to Hashem.”

He’s right, of course.  But not regarding one thing: his assumption that the need for such emphasis exists only in his community.

What about those of us in the “non-Modern Orthodox” world? Yes, we may be less invested than Eitan’s peers in the surrounding culture, but we are far from unaffected by it. And are our own priorities always ordered as they should be? As to rote observance, are we ourselves immune to the “Jewish checklist” syndrome? Is our distinctive dress, as it should be, a uniform, or at times a costume?

In a Dialogue essay four years ago titled “Observant but Not Religious,” Rav Aharon Feldman, the Baltimore Rosh Yeshivah, wrote that despite the “rejuvenation of Torah observance among Jews… something so utterly central to our existence as Jews continues to go wanting in the lives of many: the emotion of the heart, the focus and forethought of the mind, the commitment of the spirit.”

Rabbi J. David Bleich, a Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshiva University’s Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, wrote in a similar vein, bemoaning the “different form of Judaism” that has come to assert itself, an “Orthopraxy” that is “based upon practice rather than belief.”

It’s that reflexive observance that allows an otherwise observant Jew to speak to his Creator with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, they would elicit laughter. Such “mechanical Judaism,” if unarrested, can allow for unethical business practices or other issurim; or, more mundanely, to cut others off in traffic or speak rudely to people.

Falling into rote behavior is human nature, of course. Few of us always fully concentrate on what we’re saying to Hashem, nor do we always carefully enough weigh our every action and interaction on the finely calibrated scales of Torah propriety. But it’s vital to at least consciously aim at the highest Jewish ideals, to know when we’ve lapsed, to be pained by the fact. And to consciously endeavor, as Eitan suggests, to embrace the desire to be closer to Hashem.

The local Jewish newspaper where Eitan lives declined to publish his essay. That’s unfortunate. There is much his community could learn from it.

Much that all of us can.

© 2017 Hamodia

The Art of the Decertification

What does President Trump’s decertification of the Iran deal mean, and what does it mean?

That wasn’t a mistake. There are two questions here. What exactly it is that the president did, and what does it herald for the world’s future.

What he did:

Back in 2015, then-President Obama approved the international agreement to restrict Iran’s advancing nuclear program. But the deal wasn’t an actual treaty, which would have required Senate approval. Skeptical lawmakers wanted to assert some sort of control over the accord, and so Senators Bob Corker (yes, that one) and Ben Cardin helped pass bipartisan legislation, the Iran Nuclear Review Act (INARA), requiring the president to certify important aspects of the deal to Congress every 90 days.

Heeding the advice of his foreign-policy advisers, President Trump did so twice. When the third deadline arrived this month, though, he opted not to, claiming that Iran is violating the terms of the agreement – or, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified, its “spirit.”

While United Nations inspectors, the other parties to the deal and even top Trump administration officials (including Mr. Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford) maintain that there haven’t been substantive Iranian violations of the deal, and that Iran’s nuclear program has been halted for now, the president, who repeatedly denounced the deal during the presidential campaign, concluded that, nevertheless, the time has come to force its renegotiation.

He could have just pulled the U.S. out of the deal – a president created it, and a president can extinguish it – but instead opted to simply not certify the agreement, punting its fate, at least for now, to Congress.

And so we’re brought to the second question: What does the president’s recent action mean – for the future?

It’s not hard to make a case that, despite its abiding by the terms of the deal, the Iranian regime is belligerent and dangerous. It has gone full speed ahead with its ballistic missile program (which falls outside the nuclear agreement) and is deeply involved in murderous mischief in places like Syria and Lebanon. It has harassed American ships in the Persian Gulf and underwritten Hezbollah’s operating budget. It credibly competes with North Korea for first prize in the category of malevolence.

Still, insisting on major new concessions from Iran – which President Trump wants Congress to do – or pulling out of the Iran deal altogether, as he has threatened to do if Congress fails him, could result in a colossally sticky wicket. Right off the bat, it will provide Iran an excuse to fully resume its nuclear weapons program. The mullahs have already gone ballistic in the literal sense with their missile program; they might well be expected to do the same in the phrase’s figurative sense.

Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already announced that “If the U.S. tears up the deal, we will shred it.”

A mere two years ago, U.S. and Israeli intelligence measured the breakout time for an Iranian nuclear weapon in weeks. Currently, due to the deal, that can is kicked down the road at least 15 years (by which time Iran may have a new, less lunatic leadership; and, if not, the military options considered two years ago can be reconsidered). Should the deal be abrogated, though, we’re back to 2015.

Then there is the expected fallout from the U.S. reneging on an agreement, even one that isn’t an actual treaty. Russia and China, as signatories of the Iran deal, will question whether the United States can be a reliable negotiating partner, at a time when cooperation among the major powers is vital in fighting radical Islam. And if there currently exists any hope that diplomacy might mitigate North Korea’s designs, there won’t be then.

So the president is taking a serious gamble, with much at stake.

Ironically, though, the very recklessness that Mr. Trump seems to project could win him the endgame here. Because it is at least conceivable that Iran’s leaders, for all their bluster, in fact feel endangered by a seemingly unrestrained American leader who openly threatens his country’s enemies with utter destruction.

Part of what propelled Mr. Trump to the presidency was his proclaimed success as a dealmaker. Might his Iranian gambit turn out to have been a shrewd move that yielded not World War III but long-term security for the civilized world?

We must hope it will and, more important, be mispallel that lev melech here will be firmly b’yad Hashem (Mishlei 21:1).

© 2017 Hamodia

Two Apologies, One Disagreement and a Reiteration

In an article for the Jewish feminist group JOFA, Dr. Noam Stadlan objects to what I wrote in the Forward about the Orthodox Union’s stance on women being appointed as Jewish clergy.

His objections are several, and I will respond briefly to each below.  But, as explained a bit further below, the doctor glosses over the most salient, central point of what I wrote.

Dr. Stadlan is correct that I did not acknowledge the fact that there are Orthodox circles where women study Talmud. My apologies for that omission, but what texts are appropriate for formal teaching of women was not my topic.

Whether any recognized poskim consider it proper for women to speak before men was likewise not my topic. My en passant reference to women speaking to women was written from my personal experience (though not only in “haredi” shuls), and I apologize here too if it inadvertently insulted anyone.

I strongly disagree, though, with Dr. Stadlan’s stark judgment that it is somehow out of bounds for someone like me who looks to haredi poskim for guidance to offer an opinion about a challenge faced by a “Modern Orthodox” organization committed to halacha. I think, on the contrary, that it reflects a feeling of concern for other halacha-respecting Jewish communities than one’s own.  (Incidentally, as the bio at the end of my Forward piece indicates, I wrote my piece as an individual Jewish blogger, not in the name of Agudath Israel, which is mentioned only afterward for identification purposes.)

Most important, Dr. Stadlan seems to misunderstand the essence of what I wrote.  I did not set out to make a halachic case “against the ordination of women.”  I am not qualified as a posek, and would never arrogate to write as one.  It may well be the case, as some writers cited by Dr. Stadlan assert, that a “halachic case can be made for the ordination of women.”

What I wrote – and this is the central point Dr. Stadlan somehow misses – was that the question of women rabbis, which may be a legitimate one and is certainly one of great societal import today, was responsibly placed by the Orthodox Union before poskim to whom it looks for halachic guidance.

There is, pace Dr. Stadlan, no Jewish concept of halacha divorced from recognized poskim qualified to apply halachic principles (and, yes, meta-halachic principles no less, which have always been and remain very much part of reaching authoritative halachic decisions).  Whom one turns to for a psak is one’s own business, but acknowledging that there are widely recognized and respected poskim in various communities (be they “centrist”, “yeshivish”, or any particular flavor of Chassidic) is not a “no true Scotsman fallacy”; it is the very essence of how halacha has been applied over history to new circumstances – and how it must be responsibly applied today.

Sullied Reputation

The rioting last month in St. Louis following the acquittal of a white former police officer who killed an African-American man, like all rioting in the wake of unpopular verdicts, was ugly and unjustifiable.  While the majority of protesters were peaceful, some hoodlums broke store windows and threw rocks at police.

The city’s acting police chief, Lawrence O’Toole, came under fire for stating, after calm was restored, “I’m proud to tell you the City of St. Louis is safe, and the police owned tonight.” Georgetown law professor Paul Butler retorted that if “the police actually are in charge, if they actually own the night, that’s a police state, not a free country.”

He’s wrong. Empowered police are essential to a free country.

The Mishnah (Avos 3:2) teaches that governments are what prevent anarchy, and thus deserve our tefillos. And law enforcement officers are the front line of maintaining the peace.

What spurred the largely peaceful protests, though, shouldn’t escape our attention.

The police officer acquitted of murder, Jason Stockley, and his partner chased a suspected criminal, Anthony Smith, who had fled in a car.  The officers slammed their SUV into the suspect’s car. Officer Stockley got out and fired five shots, killing the suspect. A handgun was taken from the car after the shooting.

The police vehicle’s dashboard camera, however, shortly before the chase ended, captured Mr. Stockley seeming to say that he was “going to kill this [expletive].” At trial, the officer said he could not remember saying that.

Prosecutors also argued that the presence of Mr. Stockley’s DNA – and the absence of Mr. Smith’s – on the retrieved gun proved that Mr. Stockley planted the weapon on the suspect’s person. (More than 40 criminal cases have been dropped in Baltimore alone after police body cameras show officers there allegedly planting evidence.)

The judge, though, noted the lack of any direct evidence of wrongdoing; cited court testimony that the absence of someone’s DNA on a gun is not conclusive; and opined that for a person engaged in criminal activity to “not [be] in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

I won’t second-guess the judge.  He heard all the testimony and saw all the evidence, and I didn’t.  But it’s understandable why the outward facts of the case led some in St. Louis to voice their displeasure.

Police officers facing criminals they believe are armed need to make split-second decisions, and cannot be expected to pause to meditate on their situation. Still and all, police misconduct happens.

Like it did in the bloodless but still deeply disturbing case of Fred Watson, who was sitting in his car in a Ferguson, Missouri park in 2012 when a police officer approached, searched the man’s car without permission and wrote him more than half a dozen tickets.  Among them was one for not wearing a seatbelt, even though the car was parked; and one for offering a false report – because Mr. Watson identified himself as “Fred” instead of the “Freddie” on his license.

Mr. Watson, a Navy veteran and cybersecurity expert, is black. According to his account, when he protested the citations, the white officer pulled out his gun and told him: “I could just shoot you right here and no one would” care.

A case of “he said, he said”?  Maybe.  But the officer’s record shows that he pistol-whipped a 12-year-old girl in the face in 2006, and in 2007 struck another child in the face with something metal before falsifying a police report.

Meanwhile, Mr. Watson said that the city’s five-year-long prosecution caused him to lose his security clearance, resulting in his being fired from his well-paying cybersecurity job. Last month, without explanation, Ferguson prosecutors dropped all charges.  Better late than never.

It isn’t always white on black mistreatment, either. This past July, a black police officer in Coney Island ordered a white man, Raymond Crespo, to pick up a cup his friend had knocked from his hand. When Mr. Crespo didn’t, the officer threw him against a door and then threw him down and dragged him along the ground – all captured by a surveillance camera. Mr. Crespo filed a complaint.

The next day, Mr. Crespo says, the officer, in plainclothes, sought him out, asked him why he had made the complaint and, revealing a gun in his waistband, said, “Do you know what I’m going to do to you?”

There is no inconsistency in both wholeheartedly supporting police and being deeply distressed by police misconduct.  Quite the contrary, for those of us who truly value the dedication of law enforcement personnel, the irresponsible yechidim in their ranks are all the more loathsome, for they only sully the good reputation of the vast majority of police, unfairly but surely.

© 2017 Hamodia