Pathologized Problems

It seems that a good part of my youth was spent in a mental asylum without walls.

At least that’s how some mental health professionals might characterize it.

Among the boys in my neighborhood more than a half century ago was one who would today be called obsessive-compulsive, and another was firmly on the autism spectrum. Yet another seemed chronically depressed, and anxiety plagued another. Yet another would have been diagnosed as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disordered, for anyone unfamiliar with the acronym) – had the diagnosis existed at the time.

I’m not exaggerating. The boys displayed classic symptoms of their respective “disorders.” But the rest of us kids somehow didn’t see the actions or moods or attitudes as emotional disorders, certainly not as mental illnesses, but only as quirks.

And the quirky kids were not medicated; they were integrated.

In fact, appreciated.

Yes, we were kids, occasionally mocking one another, and the quirky ones were occasional targets for joking. But so were the math prodigies, clumsy kids, sloppy kids or sports-obsessed ones. We all had our idiosyncrasies. But no one was treated meanly and everyone was accepted by everyone.

The memory of the “different” boys – all of whom, I suspect (and in some cases know), went on to live productive lives – came back to me when I read of the recent death of Dr. Bonnie Burstow, a Jewish psychotherapist and University of Toronto professor who was known as a major proponent of “anti-psychiatry.”

Conventional psychiatry holds that things like chemical imbalances, sometimes paired with social factors or traumas, are what lead to mental illnesses. Professor Burstow was famous for her claim that “There is not a single proof of a single chemical imbalance of a single so-called mental illness.”

“Do I believe people have anxiety?” she once challenged listeners. “Do I believe that people feel compulsions? Of course. But I believe these feelings are a normal human way of experiencing reality.”

Now, she targeted not only minor emotional or behavioral peculiarities but things like schizophrenia as well. That would seem to be an overreach. Anyone walking on a Manhattan sidewalk knows that there are people who are well beyond quirky, who are seriously mentally impaired and in need of treatment or, at least, supervision.

That said, though, Dr. Burstow’s view on the over-medicalization of emotional illness is a worthy spur to further thought.

Not every oddity of behavior is a sickness. Should our first reaction to a child with a facial tic be to create a “persistent minor spasm malady” and seek drug treatment? Should a kid who is disobedient and rebellious be labeled with a diagnosis of – oh, I don’t know – “oppositional defiant disorder”?

Oh, scratch that. The disorder actually exists, at least in the view of the ever-changing and usually expanding “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or DSM.

That American Psychiatric Association publication is considered authoritative and is used by clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, drug companies and lawyers. (And it’s not delusional to wonder whether those last two categories might have some less-than-humanistic stake in the over-medicalization of emotional challenges.)

Too often missing, as well, from our conception of mental or emotional illness, I think, is the fact that, when it comes to attitudes and behaviors, there are spectra.

There is, for instance, a paranoia spectrum, at one end of which sits a person who is convinced that the CIA has tapped his phones, bugged his home and implanted a computer chip in his brain. At the other, though, is a person with a nagging suspicion that a particular other person or people are ill-disposed toward him. The suspicion may be wrong and unreasonable, but that doesn’t render the uneasy fellow a mental invalid. What’s more, he may be right. As a character in a work of fiction once observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

And aren’t many, if not most, of us somewhat obsessive or compulsive, at least in certain areas? We may not wash our hands fifty times a day, but we might regularly, just as we’ve closed the door to our homes behind us, turn back and go in to make sure we hadn’t left the oven on. And even the regular hand-washer isn’t necessarily in need of treatment. (In fact, he likely doesn’t often catch colds.)

And between the poles on each spectrum are many gradations. As the Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Dei’os explains, people are born with certain sets of “default” middos at or between two extremes: Constantly angry, or never moved to anger; excessively prideful or exceptionally humble; ruled by physical appetites or undesirous of even legitimate needs; very greedy or reluctant to pursue even what he lacks; miserly or very generous; jocular or depressed; cruel or softhearted, cowardly or rash… And there is an entire scale of notches between each set of extremes.

While the Rambam, famously, does employ a medical mashal to characterize “off-balance” middos, he considers them normative human states treatable by contemplation, consultation with wise people and willpower.

Again, to be sure, there are mental disorders that require intervention, perhaps even including the use of chemicals.

But we do no one a service by ignoring some realities: “Normal” encompasses much more than some may think; psychological states exist on spectra; and people’s natural middos can, sans drugs, be changed.

© 2020 Hamodia

A Misleading Morph

I’ll never forget coming across the phrase “the Holocaust” – complete with the definite article and capitalized second word – in, of all things, a translation of the Mishnah. More unnerving still was that the volume had been published in the 1920s.

The Holocaust?!

Leafing through the old, worn book in the otzar sefarim of the yeshivah in Providence, where I was a Rebbi (and history teacher) for eleven years, and confronting those words, I wondered if I had somehow been transported to an alternate universe.

I hadn’t been, baruch Hashem. (I’m quite fond of this one).

The initially flabbergasting phrase, as a glance at the Hebrew text it was translating revealed, was a reference not to a historical event but rather to a korban olah, what most translations today would call a “burnt offering” – a sacrifice that is entirely consumed on the mizbe’ach. (Holo, in Greek, means “entirely”; caust, “burnt.”)

As it turns out, the more familiar use of the phrase today derived from that earlier usage. It was apparently, and understandably, deemed an apt descriptor for the Nazis’ and their friends’ plan for European Jewry.

All sorts of words also see their meanings morph over time. Many of us can recall when the sentence “My mouse died” more likely referred to the demise of a small furry pet than the failure of an electronic computer accessory.

Another word that has come to mean something entirely other than what it once meant is “Palestinian.” Once, it indicated a Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael.

I discovered that fact as a teenager, when I salvaged a box of coins from a Jewish bookstore that was jettisoning old merchandise before a move. The coins were Palestinian pounds, duly labeled so, examples of the currency used, first, by the British Mandate, from 1927 to May 14, 1948; and then by Israel until 1952, when they were replaced by lirot.

The Palestine Bulletin was the name of the newspaper founded by Jews in Eretz Yisrael in 1925; later it was renamed The Palestine Post. What today is known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began, in 1936, as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

Today, though, “Palestinian” has come to signify Arabs who lived in Eretz Yisrael under Jordanian or Egyptian rule, and their descendants. It is, thus, a most misleading morph.

Which brings me to a new book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. If that endowment chair title doesn’t tell you enough about the man’s sympathies, the subtitle of his book, A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017, should. And you can add his longtime support of the BDS movement to the evidence.

Professor Khalidi sees Israel’s founding as akin to the early American colonization of the land of native North American tribes or to Australia’s appropriation of that continent’s Aborigines’ land.

But the professor’s postulate is a put-on.

While Arabs have lived in Eretz Yisrael for centuries, there was a Jewish presence in the land since Yehoshua’s time, even after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash and the expulsion of most of Klal Yisrael from the land. The Arab presence, by contrast, was anything but indigenous.

What people like Professor Khalidi imply, that Arabs are the native residents of Eretz Yisrael, is, simply put, a fiction.

Many who today claim the label “Palestinians,” in fact, are descended from successive waves of people who came to the area from other places. Like Egypt, from which successive waves of immigrants arrived at the end of the 18th century, fleeing famine, government oppression and military conscription at home.

The 19th century saw further Arab immigration to the land from Algeria and what is now Jordan. Bosnian Muslims, too, came in fairly significant numbers.

Later on, in tandem with Jewish return to the land, employment opportunities drew yet more Arab immigration. As the Peel Report noted in 1937, “The Arab population shows a remarkable increase ….. partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home…”

To be sure, when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, there was a sizable Arab population in Eretz Yisrael. To pretend otherwise is to deny facts. And the desires and aspirations of that population and its descendants who remained in the land should not be ignored. That is why a two-state solution like the one President Trump has advanced, is a necessary part (though no less necessary than the Arab population’s sincere embrace of peaceful coexistence) of ending the conflict in the region.

But v’ha’emes v’hashalom ehavu, “Love truth and peace” (Zecharyah, 8:19). Before peace there must be truth.

And the truth that here needs to be confronted is something that President Trump stated on the campaign trail, that Yerushalayim is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people”; and that his predecessor, President Obama, said back in 2013, that, after “centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide… the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home.”

In other words, that, with all due recognition of the aspirations of Arabs in Israel and Yehudah, Shomron and Gaza, while there is indeed an indigenous population of Eretz Yisrael, it isn’t them.

© 2020 Hamodia

Pleasing Orthodox Political Palates

For some of us, double-edged swords don’t come more dangerous than the prospect of a Jewish president. The accomplishment would be heartening in a way, and would say much about America. But the reality of a Jewish person sitting in the White House would not please people infected with the derangement we call anti-Semitism. And we have more than enough of that as is, thank you.

To be sure, unless the current Commander-in-Chief is removed from office (not likely) or the Electoral College is abolished (less likely), the race for the Democratic candidacy will probably prove to be only a contest to determine who will be defeated by President Trump in November.

Still, it is noteworthy – and fear-worthy, for the above-mentioned some of us – that, back in the 1950s, two currently viable viers for the highest office in the land celebrated bar mitzvahs.

Both are ex-mayors: Senator Bernie Sanders, of Burlington, Vermont; and Michael Bloomberg, of New York. The former is a populist progressive backed by a strong grass-roots movement; the latter, a savvy, successful businessman backed by an impressive record and the willingness to spend a billion dollars of his own money on his campaign.

And both are touting their tribal credentials, to appeal to Jewish voters.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in synagogues in my life,” Mr. Bloomberg told a packed Jewish venue in Miami last week, “but my parents taught me that Judaism is more than just going to shul. It is about living our values… and it’s about revering the miracle that is the state of Israel, which – for their generation – was a dream fulfilled before their very eyes.”

In oblique criticism of Senator Sanders’ democratic socialism, he joked that “I know I’m not the only Jewish candidate running for president. But I am the only one who doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz.”

Continuing his bombing of Bernie, who has indicated he might withhold military aid from Israel if it didn’t better address humanitarian needs of Gazans, Mr. Bloomberg pledged to “never impose conditions on our military aid [to Israel], including missile defense – no matter who is Prime Minister.”

And, of course, after speaking at length about recent acts of violent anti-Semitism, he attacked Mr. Trump, associating him obliquely, and unfairly, with “racist groups” that “spread hate.”

“A world in which a president traffics in conspiracy theories,” he went on to declare, “is a world in which Jews are not safe.”

For its part, the Sanders campaign rolled out its own Jewy video last week, which began with a clip of the senator, at a J Street gathering last year, proclaiming that “I’m very proud to be Jewish, and look forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country.”

At that gathering, Mr. Sanders declared: “If there is any people on Earth who understands the dangers of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people.” And, in his own swipe at the president, he added: “And if there is any people on earth who should do everything humanly possible to fight against Trump’s efforts to try to divide us up… and bring people together around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people.”

And, although he accuses the current Israeli government of unfairness to Palestinians, he calls himself “somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel.”

Fighting anti-Semitism and declaring support for Israel may please many Jewish political palates, and, b”H, remain pretty much de rigueur positions for any serious presidential candidate.

But office contenders seeking Jewish votes these days would be wise to not ignore American Jewry’s Orthodox segment. It may be a fraction of the country’s Jewish population (around 10%, it’s estimated) but it is a fraction that, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, has more than quintupled over the past two generations, and stands, b’ezras Hashem, to continue its growth.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox. Public policy experts Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel have estimated that, by 2050, the American Jewish community will be majority Orthodox.

We Orthodox, like most other Jews, are greatly concerned about Israel’s security and about rising anti-Semitism. But, in addition to those issues, a major item on our political agenda is education.

We believe in school choice – that parents are the best arbiters of what schools their children should attend, and should not be financially penalized for not choosing public schools. And we consider it critically important that government involvement in determining the content of curricula in private schools be minimal.

Senator Sanders is officially on what we consider the wrong side of both those issues. Mr. Bloomberg, while he has long been a proponent of educational choice with regard to things like public charter schools, hasn’t taken a public position on either of our own educational concerns.

It’s not too late for him to do so, of course, and, as someone who fundamentally understands the importance of educational options, he might come to see the sense and fairness in our positions.

From a political perspective, it would be wise.

More important, though, from a Jewish perspective, it would be right.

© 2020 Hamodia

The Guard Protecting the Shul

Security for Jewish institutions – shuls, schools, community centers and organizations – has understandably been at the forefront of many minds and agendas in recent months. Agudath Israel of America, where I serve as public affairs director, has been instrumental in securing considerable federal and state funds to help protect places where Jews gather.

I remind readers that I write in this space only as an individual, not in my organizational role. In that role, though, I’ve fielded a number of inquiries from the media and public about the security issue. Two recent ones stand out, because they made me think – something that, while not always easy, is highly recommended.

The first communication was from an irate gentleman who wanted to know why, if the Agudah has in fact helped secure security funding for schools like the one his children attend, he was being asked by the school to contribute to a parents’ fund to upgrade the institution’s safety, presumably for yet additional security measures. I suggested to him that his question, a reasonable one, would best be directed to the school administration.

The second was from a rightly respected mechaneches whom I’ve known for many years and who just wanted to sound out my opinion about whether certain safety concerns or actions, like some being considered by her children’s basically secured school, might be going a bit overboard.

As I say, the two questions made me think, about the fundamental Jewish concept called bitachon.

“Trust,” is how the word is usually translated, but, of course, it means something both more subtle and more weighty. It means keen recognition of the fact that, while we are enjoined to make normative efforts to earn our livings, raise our children and accomplish our goals in life – including protecting ourselves from potential harm – ultimately, it is not our actions that yield us any success we experience, but rather the will of Hashem.

Consider a thought experiment: A shul, worried by recent acts of violence against Jews, hired an armed guard to stand at its entrance, and a would-be intruder with a weapon is thwarted by the alert and quick sentry. Needless to say, the fellow deserves the congregation’s thanks. And hiring him may have been the right thing to do, part of the proper hishtadlus – human effort – to be made these days.

But what in fact saved the mispallelim?

Hint: The answer isn’t “the guard.”

Hiring the man, assuming it was a necessary part of hishtadlus, may have been part of the collective merit that brought about the happy ending, or the attack’s failure may have been merited by other good deeds. But what protected the shulgoers was not, in the end, any mortal guard, but the Guardian of Yisrael.

Recognizing – internalizing – that Jewish truth is imperative. In fact, it is essential to our safety.

Rav Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu, first chelek, page 188, in the original edition) cites the common expression “We’ve left nothing to chance” and calls it a contemporary version of the boast “My strength and the might of my hand has created this victory for me” (Devarim, 8:17).

He calls the “leave nothing to chance” attitude one “of conceit, apikorsus and idolatry.” And he asks all who consider themselves maaminim to consider if, perhaps, “even in their own hearts” there might dwell some residue of such kefirah (his word).

Can we even think that an armed guard is a true protection against an intruder? Can’t a clever terrorist plan, chalilah, to shoot a guard from an unseen perch before proceeding with his nefarious aim? A pair of guards might be hired, to avoid that possibility. But what if there are two terrorists acting in tandem, one for taking out each of the guards? As the Gemara says in a different context, ein l’davar sof, “there’s no end” – here, to the security “arms race.”

Most of us would readily concede that hiring a small militia to surround a shul and arranging for police helicopters to hover constantly overhead would be an unreasonable choice, a misunderstanding of hishtadlus and an insult to bitachon.

And most of us would consider, at least in our day, locks on a large shul’s doors to be prudent. When it comes, though, to armed guards – and certainly armed congregants – or to bulletproof glass or to evacuation drills, things are not necessarily so simple. More, here, is not better; in fact, as per Rav Dessler, it’s worse.

Properly balancing bitachon and hishtadlus is a complex venture, one best left to poskim and manhigim with the Torah knowledge, experience and sensitivity to guide us.

But hitting the right such balance, which may, of course, yield different decisions in different times and in different places, is vitally important.

Because not only is tilting too far in the direction of bitachon dangerous, so is tilting too far in the direction of hishtadlus. And, in the end, balancing the two properly is what truly ensures our safety.

© 2020 Hamodia

Incendiary Devices

“BLACKS NEED TO RESPECT JEWISH AUTHORITY,” reads the stark, all-caps message on Telegram, an instant messaging service. The word “JEWISH” is reverse-color emphasized.

The message came from a fake account, like similar racist sentiments from similarly nonexistent “Jewish” users that flooded the social media giant Twitter a few months back.

A tweet, for example, from the fictional “Elaine Goldschmidt” who, “frightened by the string of anti-Semitic attacks,” bemoaned the fact that blacks (the tweet uses a much-reviled slur) “were supposed to be on our side. Now we have lost control of them.” The photo used in the profile was lifted from the account of a Scottish woman, Janey Godley, who, when she found out, was not pleased.

The tweet garnered hundreds of “retweets” and “likes,” including one, ostensibly from the unsubtly named, fictional “Ari Shekelburg,” who addresses “Fellow Chosen Ones…”

Welcome to 2020.

When first notified of the misleading and inflammatory messages, Twitter responded that “we didn’t find a violation of our rules in the content.” Soon afterward, though, the company reconsidered, and suspended the disingenuous account.

The social media incendiary devices above are samples of the work of white supremacists seeking to intensify anti-Jewish feeling in parts of the black community, and to sow the same among more educated blacks who may currently harbor no hatred for Jews. As one anonymous message on a site associated with white racists observed about one anti-black canard maliciously attributed to a Jew, “Posting this on black twitter would definitely stir the hornets [sic] nest.”

The bad players play both sides of the game, too, sharing concocted anti-Semitic sentiments by African-Americans or presenting actual ones as more representative of blacks than they truly are.

What apparently inspired the trolls was the fact that, while the Pittsburgh and Poway killers were white, more recent attacks on Jews, like the murders of Jews by a black couple in Jersey City, the attempted murder of Jews in Monsey last month and the obnoxious actions of some Brooklyn goons, were perpetrated by African-Americans.

What an opportunity, the race-baiters realized, to stoke the embers of hatred, to “divide and conquer” the two groups they most despise, Jews and blacks.

They mustn’t be allowed to succeed.

It was heartening and surprising to read of how Al Sharpton condemned the recent attacks on Jews, saying he was “terribly disturbed” by them, “particularly because they were perpetrated by members of the African-American community.” Mr. Sharpton, of course, was accused, and not without reason, of employing bombastic rhetoric that helped fuel the 1991 Crown Heights riots, in which 29-year-old Yankel Rosenbaum was surrounded by a large group of young black men and fatally stabbed.

Also heartening, and not surprising, were the words of Bernice King, the daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chief executive of the nonprofit King Center, who described the Monsey attack as an assault “against a people and a promise.” She tweeted that she was “praying for our Jewish family members” and encouraged “us all to refuse to adjust to anti-Semitic stereotypes and to rhetoric/language that dehumanizes,”

“We can’t pretend,” she concluded, “that hate is dormant.”

Radio host Larry Elder, also African-American, decried the fact that African-Americans are constantly being told that Jews are becoming wealthy by exploiting them, and asserted that “all this anti-Semitism coming from the black community against the Jewish community” shows “ignorance [of] the role many Jews played in the civil rights movement and as freedom-fighters.”

It might be futile to hope that black leaders’ exhortations will be able to cure the sort of cluelessness leavened with animosity toward “the other” that infects urban youths like the Brooklyn hoodlums who amuse themselves by harassing innocent Jews. Unfortunately, the diametric, odious messaging of rabble rousers like Louis Farrakhan strikes a more resonant chord in the imaginations of witless belligerents.

There will always be demagogues, Hitler wannabes like the “Nation of Islam” leader, and they will always manage to attract those whose aptitudes for critical thinking are no match for their susceptibilities to mental poison.

But one thing we can, and should, do is not let those vile actors and their gullible followers become the image in our minds of the larger African-American community.

If we do, we only play into the hands of our, and its, worst enemies.

© 2020 Hamodia

Through Jewish Eyes

Maybe you know the old Yiddish joke? Back in pre-war Minsk, Shmerel and Berel are having a conversation. During a pause, Shmerel suddenly remembers a bit of bad news he has to relate.

“Did you hear about Yankel the barber in Pinsk?”

“No,” Berel says haltingly, having picked up an ominous signal from the way the question had been asked.

“He’s not here anymore,” Shmerel says, using a Yiddish euphemism for someone recently deceased.

“Oy!” exclaims Berel, “You mean Yankel, with the huge round nose?”

Shmerel nods a sad yes.

“Yankel who has only one eye?” Again, a confirmation.

“Yankel with that big scar across his cheek and the pimples?!” Another sad nod.

Ay, yai, yai,” moans Berel. “Azah sheineh Yid!” (“What a beautiful Jew!”)

The story came back to me at the Siyum HaShas. Let me explain.

When people, as so many did, came over to me in various places to congratulate me, a veteran Agudath Israel staff member for a quarter of a century, for the amazing event, I responded, entirely honestly, that my main role was standing out of the way of the many unbelievably dedicated and talented people who did the real work, like the Agudah’s executive staff, the young women who spent days and late nights taking orders and processing tickets, the devoted community askanim and technical facilitators.

(Actually, I do take credit for offering the idea, a year or so before the Siyum, of including chemical hand warmers in the swag bags. You’re welcome.)

I wasn’t even really at the Siyum, at least not as part of the crowd. My perch was in the press box, high above the gathering, a floor dedicated to members of the media, with whom I was charged to interact.

I answered many questions but mostly just steered representatives of the Fourth Estate to members of the tzibbur whom they could interview about Daf Yomi and the Siyum.

One of my few on-camera moments, as it happened, was responding to a German television crew’s question, born of recent events, about what the Siyum means in the context of all the recent anti-Semitic violence. I straightforwardly pointed out that Jews are long accustomed to hatred and adversaries, and are long trained in perseverance. I wonder how that played in Munich.

It was, though, when I watched several reporters intone into their microphones about how so many Jews “read a page of Talmud” daily that Shmerel and Berel appeared before my mind’s eye.

Because the joke about them, of course, is a pointed one. And its point is that we Jews see things differently from other people. To us, beauty is truly anything but skin deep.

And so, when we look at a true Daf Yomi talmid, we don’t see someone “reading a page” of a text. We see someone who, for 2711 days straight, has engaged not only with very complex material, but with holiness itself.

Where a reporter saw “reading,” we saw reverence.

Many journalists wanted to tie their stories about the Siyum into a narrative about the aforementioned violence against Jews we’ve endured of late. They saw “a flare up of anti-Semitism.”

Jewish eyes, though, saw the latest manifestation of “Esav sonei l’Yaakov,” the wages of galus and a message that we need to improve our avodas Hashem.

During a particularly poignant part of the Siyum program, tribute was paid to a man named Mendy Rosenberg, who, despite being severely limited by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), successfully undertook to complete a full Daf Yomi cycle despite a prognosis that didn’t allow him anywhere near the time needed, and, despite eventually having to communicate with his chavrusa through eye movements alone. Reporters saw a broken man doing the best he could. Jewish eyes saw an amazing hero, a gibor chayil and powerful role model for mesirus nefesh.

And when a group of Holocaust survivors were introduced to the approximately 90,000 people at MetLife Stadium and to countless others in myriad venues linked to the proceedings, the media saw the last human vestiges of a world that once was. Jewish eyes, though, saw superhuman connections to our mesorah, which they carried out with them to us from the furnace of Churban Europa.

When the camera was aimed at the Masmidei HaSiyum youngsters, who had participated in the Siyum by undertaking limudim of Gemara, Mishnayos or Chumash, the reporters saw lovable little boys. We saw nothing less than the Jewish future, a, be”H, bright one.

And, finally, when the observers from the outside saw, and dutifully reported on, the “record crowd” in the stadium – not only were the stands fairly full, but the playing field held many more people, including the Rabbanim on the dais, Daf Yomi Maggidei Shiur and many others – Jewish eyes saw, well, Klal Yisrael.

No, not all of it, but enough of it to perceive something else invisible to many observers: the vibrancy, dedication and passion of the collective Jewish neshamah.

Berel would understand.

© 2020 Hamodia

Abhorrent Action at a Distance

Direct physical attacks on Jews have, and for good reason, unfortunately, dominated the news in recent weeks. But there have been other kinds of attacks on innocent people who are perceived to be Jewish. Like the one committed against Kurt Eichenwald.

Mr. Eichenwald is an award-winning journalist who has written for the New York Times, Newsweek and other major media, and is the author as well of several books. He is also an epileptic, something he has compellingly addressed in some of his writings. And he has been critical of President Trump. Those last two facts dovetailed, regrettably, in a bad way.

After writing in 2016 about what he considered looming improper conflicts of interest in the then-president elect’s international business affairs, the Dallas-based Mr. Eichenwald experienced a flood of online vitriol and threats from people who felt that his criticism of Mr. Trump merited such reaction. It wasn’t the first time he had experienced such internet “trolling.” But spleen venting, while always ugly, is usually harmless.

It wasn’t, though, on the evening of December 15, 2016. One of Mr. Eichenwald’s less constrained critics, using “@jew goldstein” as a moniker and aware of Mr. Eichenwald’s medical condition, sent the writer an electronic graphics interchange format file (or GIF), an animated image. GIFs are usually intended to amuse, but this one, which loaded automatically, had a less benign objective.

The GIF, whose sender added his judgment that Mr. Eichenwald “deserved a seizure,” consisted of a series of bright flashes in quick succession, something that is known to trigger epileptic attacks in those, like Mr. Eichenwald, who are vulnerable to them.

The alleged culprit is one John Rayne Rivello, a Marine Corps veteran from Salisbury, Maryland. A search warrant turned up an internet account he maintained that featured, among other things, a screenshot of a Wikipedia page for his alleged victim, which had been altered to show a fake obituary with the date of Mr. Eichenwald’s death listed as Dec. 16, 2016.

Investigators also found that Mr. Rivello had sent a message to likeminded friends, outlining his plans and stating “I hope this sends him into a seizure” and “let’s see if he dies.”

Mr. Eichenwald didn’t die that day, but the previous evening, when he received the GIF, “he slumped over in his chair,” according to his attorney, Steven Lieberman. “He was unresponsive, and he probably would have died but for the fact that his wife heard a noise – she’s a physician – and she pulled him away from the screen and got him onto the floor.”

Mrs. Eichenwald called 911, took a picture of the strobing light on her husband’s computer and called the police.

Mr. Rivello was originally charged in Maryland for “assault with a deadly weapon” and, briefly, by the Northern District of Texas, under a federal cyberstalking statute.

First Amendment concerns were raised about the possibility that Mr. Rivello was being improperly targeted just for being a bigoted dimwit, which isn’t itself illegal. So the cyberstalking charge was dropped and he was re-indicted in Texas on lesser assault charges.

Mr. Rivello and his lawyer are reportedly still planning on mounting a defense on First Amendment grounds.

That claim is, or should be, easily rejected. The fact that the harm he inflicted was an expression of a political position is no more a defense of the assault than it would be had he punched Mr. Eichenwald in the face. The punch may communicate a message, but it isn’t protected by the First Amendment.

The larger, and novel, question is: Can an “assault” be committed at a distance?

From a Torah perspective, it most certainly can. It isn’t mere rhetoric or poetic license when Chazal refer to things like lashon hara or publicly embarrassing someone as damaging, even killing. Assault needn’t leave any physical trace at all. Such non-contact assaults aren’t halachically actionable, but they are considered criminal all the same.

Damage inflicted on a person by fire, though, even when the fire resulted from negligence – all the more so when set maliciously – is indeed actionable (see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Nizkei Mammon 14:15). I don’t profess to be a posek, but it certainly seems at the very least arguable that sending an electronic signal may constitute something analogous.

In any event, Mr. Rivello’s case will of course be adjudicated by American, not Jewish, law.

It has been clear for some time now that contemporary secular law needs to evolve to meet challenges posed by new technologies like the internet.

Mr. Rivello’s next hearing is scheduled for January 31. Unless he decides to just plead guilty, his case might prove a good opportunity to rein in some cyberspace miscreancy.

© 2020 Hamodia (in an edited form)

Not-So-Good People

Like many identifiably Jewish Jews, I’ve caught my share of catcalls, Nazi salutes and threats. And read the rantings of people like Louis Farrakhan, David Duke and Richard Spencer. I can’t say I’m nonchalant about such idiocies, but a certain jadedness, for better or worse, eventually kicks in.

There are times, though, when even I am astonished by a particularly outrageous demonstration of mindless Jew-animus. Like Jersey City school board member Joan Terrell-Paige’s now-deleted Facebook comment, posted mere days after the murderous December 10 attack on the kosher market in her locale by two terrorists, one of whom had shown interest in a Jew-disparaging black sect. (One of the murderer’s favorite videos shows a Black Hebrew Israelite preacher telling a Jewish man, “The messiah, who is a black man, is going to kill you.”)

Ms. Terrell-Paige implied that, in effect, the killings had been brought about by “brutes in the Jewish community” themselves.

She charged that Chassidic newcomers to Jersey City had “waved bags of money” before black residents in order to buy their homes.

Leave aside that the Chassidim who have relocated from Brooklyn to Jersey City are decidedly not well-to-do; and leave aside, too, that asking a homeowner if he’s interested in selling a house isn’t illegal or oppressive. Leave aside as well the fact that the city enacted, with the support of its Chassidic residents, a prohibition of door-to-door solicitation.

Consider only the utter asininity of blaming innocent victims for the hate-driven actions of the racists who murdered them.

As if the arson of her words wasn’t sufficiently destructive, Ms. Terrell-Paige added fuel to her fire, too. “What is the message they were sending?” she asked, referring to the murderers. “Are we brave enough to explore the answer to their message? Are we brave enough to stop the assault on the Black communities of America?”

One wonders how the valiant lady would have reacted had someone asked her, in the wake of the violence perpetrated by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, to be “brave enough” to consider what message those haters were sending by punching and kicking peaceful protesters (and injuring several and killing one with a car). If someone had suggested that she be “brave enough to stop the assault on White communities of America?”

Nearly as tone-deaf as the school board member’s post was the reaction to her mindlessness by a group that includes local and state legislators and calls itself the Hudson County Democratic Black Caucus.

“While we do not agree with the delivery of the statement made by Ms. Terrell-Paige,” the group announced judiciously, “we believe that her statement has heightened awareness around issues that must be addressed.”

No, dear Caucus, the only issue that must be addressed is black anti-Semitism.

That phrase, of course, isn’t intended to implicate the larger African-American community, any more than the phrase “white anti-Semitism” implicates all Caucasians.

It simply acknowledges the sad reality that Jew-hatred exists not only in the fever dreams of racists who hate blacks but also in the delusions of some of those they hate.

The group of legislators and community leaders of color did pay proper homage to the need to maintain good relations between “two communities that have already and must always continue to coexist harmoniously.” But that sentiment is belied by the rest of its statement’s cluelessness.

What the group needed to do after reading Ms. Terrell-Paige’s obnoxious words was not to speak of “issues” to be addressed but rather join Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco, Ward E Councilman James Solomon, New Jersey State Democratic Committee Chair John Currie, Board of Education Trustee Mussab Ali, and Assemblymen Nick Chiaravalloti, Raj Mukherji and Gary Schaer in their call for Ms. Terrell-Paige’s resignation.

As to the “issues” that the Hudson County Democratic Black Caucus says “must be addressed” – presumably those posed by the influx of Chassidim into Jersey City – let’s indeed address them.

Among the freedoms Americans are afforded is the right to live where they wish. The arrival of Jewish residents to a depressed neighborhood, moreover, is likely to contribute to the good of longer-term residents. There will be healthful food available (like some of that sold in the grocery that was turned into a scene of carnage), crime will likely decrease and property values rise.

Back in 2017, the New York Times featured an article about demographic changes, including those in Jersey City. It quoted a Jewish woman, identified only as Gitti, who expressed appreciation for her non-Jewish neighbors.

“They told us when we have to put out our garbage, and they introduced us to their pets so we shouldn’t be afraid of them,” she said. “They’re nice people.”

Eddie Sumpter, a black neighbor around the corner from Gitti’s home, who was able to buy a bigger house by selling his previous home to a Chassidic family, said he welcomed the newcomers.

“We live among Chinese. We live among Spanish,’’ said Mr. Sumpter, who works as a cook. “It don’t matter. People is people. If you’re good people, you’re good people.”

Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear, not everyone is.

© 2020 Hamodia