Contemptible Comity

The state of political discourse in these United States today – unfortunately, including much of the American Jewish world (including our corner of it) – was well exemplified in the reactions to something Senator Chuck Schumer of New York did not long ago.

When Long Island Representative Peter King announced his retirement from Congress, some were pleased. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, never one to hide her deeper feelings, tweeted, simply, “Good riddance.”

Mr. Schumer, however, although a Democrat, issued a warm tribute to the soon-to-be Republican retiree, who not only is a member of the other party but someone with whom the senator has strongly disagreed on a number of occasions.

Mr. Schumer tweeted that Mr. King, during his service in the House of Representatives, showed that he “fiercely loved America, Long Island, and his Irish heritage, and left a lasting mark on all 3.”  The senator added, “I will miss him in Congress & value his friendship.”

How… how… how… DARE he?

Well that, at least, was the reaction of many on the livid left.

“Good grief,” read one of the milder social media responses. “Have you lost your mind?”

Most of the more than 10,000 replies to Mr. Schumer from his followers were decidedly negative, and many were quite outraged. Videos of thumbs-turning-downs, eye-rolling and heads shaking “no” flooded into the senator’s Twitter feed. Some commenters suggested that the former Congressman and current fourth-term Senator, as a result of his contemptible comity, should resign.

To be sure, many Democrats have had problems with some of Mr. King’s positions and statements. He voted to repeal Obamacare, opposed the redefinition of marriage and was a fervent supporter of the Patriot Act.

And he once complained that there are “too many mosques” in America, “too many people sympathetic to radical Islam,” and suggested that “We should be looking at them more carefully and finding out how we can infiltrate them.” He also compared football players’ kneeling in protest against racism during the playing of the national anthem to Nazi salutes.

But none of that prevented Mr. Schumer from giving him credit where he felt it was due.

The reaction to Mr. Schumer’s praise of a political adversary was a sad reflection of what plagues politics today, what might be called hyperpartisanosis.. It is no longer enough to disagree or even to engage in verbal duels with one’s political adversaries.  They must be enemies – hated, derided, declared evil incarnate.

And the disease exists on both sides of the current political divide.  One can, for instance, consider Bernie Sanders (or Barack Obama – remember him?) to be woefully misguided about what American policy toward Israel should be.  One can reject totally the idea that a two-state solution – the outcome those two men embrace – is a path to peace in the Middle East. But disagreeing, even vehemently, with that contention, and opposing any move to try to bring such a plan closer do not, or should not, yield to vilifying its proponents or ascribing “Jewish self-hatred” or anti-Semitism to them.

Not every wrongheaded person, in other words, is wicked.

But, of course, the ascribing of wickedness is very much a part of the new blue/red American civil war.  One sees it in the online anger and insults, in the bitterly sarcastic questions lawmakers pose to people “’from the other side” giving testimony, in the chants at protests and rallies. No longer do presentations of arguments and evidence suffice. Contempt and invective must be summoned.

It’s nothing entirely new, of course.  American politics has long entailed a degree of abuse and incivility.  But it seemed that, over the years, things were moving in a more genteel direction.
Alas, it was only an extended blip. Things are worse than ever.

And, as the Yiddish maxim has it, the way that larger society goes, unfortunately, is the way some Jews go as well.

Self-appointed arbiters of ostensible Jewish positions, in coffee rooms and chatrooms, comments sections and letters pages, preach about the unforgivable sins of this or that public figure or holder of a position different from the preacher’s own. There are only black and white; shades of gray are for sissies.

To be sure, there are indeed bad actors in public life, people who well deserve vilification because, well, because they are villains.  But not every black activist is Louis Farrakhan; and not every democratic socialist, Joseph Stalin. What’s more: Not every candidate (like Bernie Sanders) with anti-Israel fans and not every candidate (like President Trump) with anti-Semitic ones is necessarily himself either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

We all know better than that.

Or, at least, we should.

© 2019 Hamodia

Why Jews Worry

Some racial or national stereotypes are outright falsehoods. Mexicans may take siestas (as do many Israelis) during the hottest time of the day, but all the workers from south of the border whom I’ve observed have been exceedingly industrious and hard-working.

Other stereotypes are exaggerations, not fabrications. I think some stereotypes of Jews fall into that category. Some of the mockeries aimed at us may in fact have their origin in high ideals. Penny-pinching, for instance, is just a derisive way to refer to frugality; and frugality bespeaks an appreciation for the worth of every single resource with which Hashem has gifted us.

The Torah forbids the wasting of material or money. “Each and every penny,” Rabi Elazar is famously quoted as saying, “adds up to a fortune” (Bava Basra 9b). And fortunes, we all know, can be put to effective, ideally charitable, use. So, while “penny-pinching” can certainly refer to meaningless, selfish hoarding, it can also be the result of a wise recognition that wasting any resource debases it, and us.

Likewise the stereotype of Jews as worriers. Senior citizens reading this may have memories of telegrams (for you young’uns: they were messages sent instantaneously over distances, like e-mails, but for which one had to pay for each letter of each word). The old Jewish joke had it that a Jewish fellow’s telegram to his family far away read: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”

The Jewish worry-wart stereotype, though, may well have its roots in a deep Jewish truth: there is in fact much about which to worry.

That has always been the case, of course. Whether war or other violence, disease or accident, myriad threats have abounded, and continue to abound. Today, though, we are, or should be, particularly sensitive to all sorts of newer things that can harm us. Cars, guns, terrorists, serial killers and… invisible enemies.

Abba Binyamin (Berachos 6a) describes some such potential dangers as sheidim, demons, and informs us that “If the eye only had the ability to see them, no creature could endure” their sheer multitude.

Most of us aren’t sensitive to the presence of sheidim these days. But we certainly are to microbes – noxious bacteria, viruses and fungi – that are everywhere, and whose onslaughts we only survive because of the workings of our immune systems.

To which we generally give nary a thought. Only when our natural biological defenses malfunction do we – suddenly panic-stricken – recognize how fortunate we had been all that time when things went well.

Our mesorah admonishes us to give that thought constant attention. And no less attention to all the other myriad unseen dangers we face. In Modim, we acknowledge “all the wonders and favors that are with us daily, evening and morning and afternoon.”

From the first words a Jew recites upon arising, thanking our Creator for “returning my soul to me with kindness” – our breathing, after all, proceeded all night apace despite the oblivion of our sleep hours – to the brachah of Asher Yatzar, acknowledging the disasters that would follow were our digestive or circulatory systems hampered – we are guided to be keenly sensitive to the potential disasters that face us continuously.

Thus, the Jewish mandate to recognize always what could go wrong in our lives yields a meaningful disquietude. Which informs the worrier stereotype.

The same readers who remember telegrams might remember, too, the long-ago cartoon character “Mr. Magoo,” whose signature trait was sight-impairment (the caricature would never be acceptable these rightly disability-sensitive days).

Bald, big-nosed and behatted, Mr. Magoo’s comicality stemmed from his constant mistaking of objects for entirely other objects (and occasionally people), and from his encounters with an assortment of life-threatening circumstances, which always ended happily, without the protagonist’s awareness that he had ever been in danger in the first place.

He might be happily driving a car off a cliff overlooking a lake and land on a ship’s deck, only to just drive off the gangplank as the ship docked, to motor along on his merry way, never realizing he had ever left the road.

We’re not really so different. We, too, don’t fully appreciate how every day from which we emerge relatively unscathed was a day during which Hashem protected us from threats of which we weren’t even aware. So, worry away. It’s a very Jewish thing to do. It means we recognize what dangers are out there and, hopefully, to quote Modim again, the nissim shebchol yom imanu, the “miracles that are daily with us.”

The “velt” around us in the U.S. will soon be commemorating a secular holiday that really isn’t so secular at all. Thanksgiving’s religious roots really can’t be denied. Whom, after all, is being thanked?

President George Washington made it abundantly clear when, in 1789, proclaiming the first nationwide Thanksgiving celebration, he characterized it “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty G-d.”

Klal Yisrael has in many ways positively influenced the larger world. The first American president’s words well reflect that fact.

But our recognition of the signal favors of Hashem is a daily, indeed constant, one.

© 2019 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Beware the Burger!

Back in 2002, a Jewish plot was uncovered by an intrepid investigator and publicly revealed on something called the “Aztlan Communications Network,” the teratoid brainchild of one “Ernesto Cienfuegos,” a pseudonymic Mexican-American every bit as fixated on, and deluded about, Jews as any white supremacist or radical Islamist.

The conspiracy, which pops up in some electronic sewers to this day, is the devious “Jewish tax” that inheres, hidden in plain sight from unsuspecting Gentiles, in secret code on food packaging.

Long familiar to us Hebrews of traditional bent, the various kosher symbols, are, of course, indications that the product so marked was produced under the supervision of a rabbi expert in the intricacies of both kosher law and food science.

Mr. Cienfuegos explained, however, that the arrangement is decidedly unkosher; it is a sinister bilking of innocent non-Jews. If companies pay for a rabbi’s service, he unreasoned, the cost must be passed on… discreetly, of course… to consumers.

Moving back into reality, while companies do indeed pay for hashgachos (as they do for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval), the cost to companies is a very tiny fraction of a cent per item. And in likely all cases, the hashgachah-born increase in company market share – which, of course, is the impetus for a company’s desire to carry a hashgachah – actually decreases the price of products.

Nor is Mr. Cienfuegos compelled to buy one brand of gefilte fish over another. If he found the kosher item more expensive, he could simply opt for a brand that was not supervised by a Rabbi (which, one imagines, he would probably prefer in any event).

Anti-Semites, though, don’t like to be confused by facts; they have bigger things to do, like sow hatred and suspicion.

And so, now, enter a new food-borne Jewish plot: the menacing Impossible Burger.

You may recognize that creation as a non-meat-based patty that claims to be indistinguishable in taste and texture from a traditional hamburger.

But one Joseph Jordan and one Mike Peinovich claim to have uncovered the sordid truth. They announced on “Strike and Mike” – their paywall-protected white power podcast – that the fake meat is, as you may have suspected, part of a Jewish scheme to destroy the white race.

It is an odd accusation (aside from its essential oddness), since the scientist-founder of Impossible Foods Inc. is a lily-white gentleman by the name of Patrick O. Brown. But who knows? Maybe his decidedly un-Jewish name is as fake as his burgers, he has bleached his skin and hidden under his t-shirt lies a tallis katan.

It’s not entirely clear how the newfangled burger ties into the Jewish plot. But it apparently has something to do with the purported dangers of soy and an intent to, as Messrs. Jordan and Peinovich assert, “make it impossible for working people to be able to afford meat, make it impossible for working people to drive automobiles, make it impossible for average people to live in an industrial society.”

And should that case somehow prove less than convincing, Mr. Jordan adds, “They wanna make us into India!”

Making things even more undeniable, he adds that “the new breed of hyper-wealthy Judeo-capitalists in the tech industries especially” want to usurp industries currently run by “goys.”

Mr. Peinovich then provides the coup de grâce: “Oh, you’re not gonna believe this: it’s kosher!”

Oh, no! They’re on to us!

Jew-hatred is so intriguing. Over the course of history, some of it has been of a racial nature. But much, too, has been rooted in religion. Some of it has been political, and some, economic. The target, though, has always been the same.

Human beings connected even rudimentarily to reality should be able to realize that there are no Elders of Zion (at least none who aspire to world control), and no Jews who murder Christians to mix their blood into matzos. And yet, there are, quite literally, millions of people in certain parts of the world who subscribe to such myths. And some who come up with creative new ones, like plots to use hechsherim to bilk the public, or soy to poison it.

While the surprising eruptions of anti-Semitism in unexpected places and the sheer creativity and irrepressibility of Jew-hatred are rightful causes of concern for us Jews, there is also something curiously invigorating about it all.

For it points to what underlies all Jew-hatred: a disorienting suspicion that Klal Yisrael is somehow special. However odd it might seem of G-d, as the famous couplet goes, He did indeed choose the Jews.

What anti-Semites don’t understand, though, is that the mission for which we have been chosen isn’t to subjugate or appropriate but to educate. Keep it under your hat, Ernesto and Joseph and Mike, but Jews are chosen to live lives of holiness, of service to G-d and man, and to serve thus as examples to the rest of mankind.  

In other words, fellas, yes, there’s a plot. No conspiracy, though; there’s only one Plotter.

© 2019 Hamodia

Disinformation Please

The ad accuses President Trump of having paid a $2 million bribe to a Vermont prosecutor for the latter to fabricate a larceny charge against Senator Bernie Sanders.

Despite the president’s vociferous objection to the promotion of an entirely fictitious accusation against him, the social media giant Facebook refused to remove the ad.

Likewise fictitious, as you may have guessed, is the existence of any such ad, whose crafting and publicizing any right-minded person would consider akin to a crime.

Entirely real, though, is an actual video ad Facebook ran that falsely accused former Vice President Joe Biden of having blackmailed Ukrainian officials to halt an investigation of his son, Hunter. “Send Quid Pro Joe Biden into retirement,” the voice-over intoned.

In 2016, Mr. Biden did indeed urge Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, with the threat of withholding U.S. aid. But, as numerous fact-checkers have pointed out, that was the official U.S. government position, not his personal decision, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Hunter Biden.

The video making the bogus accusation was the work of a “super PAC,” or deep-pocketed political action committee. Facebook explained that, although disseminating false information violates the social network’s policies on misinformation, a political leader’s claims, even if they are lies, are inherently newsworthy, and thus immune to removal.

The Biden campaign objected that the falsehood was not made by a politician but rather by a political committee, and thus should have been rejected.

Which, of course, entirely misses the larger point: We are at (or over) the cusp of a presidential campaign that appears bound to be saturated with deceit and disinformation. Voters, beware.

Six versions of the “Quid Pro Joe” ad were targeted to Facebook users in South Carolina, Iowa and Massachusetts, according to Facebook’s ad library. The ad is no longer active, but, in a recent speech to students at Washington’s Georgetown University in Washington, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his treatment of political ads containing falsehoods on grounds of freedom of expression.

“People having the power to express themselves,” he said, “is a new kind of force in the world – a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”

The phrase “power structure” put me in mind of something we read about in shul two Shabbosos ago – the Tower of Bavel. Not all power structures are good ones.

And using the power of mass communication to empower falsehoods would seem to fall in the not-so-good category.

Interestingly, there have been numerous political ads rejected by Facebook. The global media and technology company Buzzfeed’s news division found 160 vetoed spots, submitted by candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and President Trump.

Not one, though, was rejected for containing an untruth, only for things like offensive language and “fake buttons” – nonfunctioning “yes” and “no” click-options, something Facebook, for some reason, doesn’t allow on paid content.

So, as far as Facebook is concerned: Fake buttons, no way; fake facts, no problem.

I’m not naïve. Political ads have, of course, always sought to mislead, at least in the sense of presenting one side of an issue without acknowledging the argument for the other side. That’s the prerogative of parties and PACS, which, after all, pay good money to present their cases. Critical thinking will always be an essential part of citizens’ weighing of arguments.

But asserting that Medicare for all or universal gun registration or building a border wall is a good idea or a bad one is one thing. Contending falsely that a president bribed a prosecutor or that a former vice-president used his power of office to block prosecution of his son, or that “the Jews” were behind the 9/11 attacks is in another category altogether.

To its credit, Facebook recently removed from its platform four foreign-based networks – including one linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the group indicted for interference in the 2016 presidential election – that were targeting Mr. Biden’s current quest for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

But shouldn’t domestic shenanigans by candidates of any stripe be subject to similar treatment?

In defense of Facebook’s “lies by politicians are acceptable” policy, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications Nick Clegg compares the social media platform with its more than 2 billion global users to a tennis court.

“Our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height,” he explained. “How the players play the game is up to them, not us.”

No, Mr. Clegg: If you’re providing the court and broadcasting the game, you need to make clear to the players that smashing your opponent over the head with your racket simply isn’t an acceptable move.

© 2019 Hamodia

Amino Acids and Us

Like many 60-somethings, I remember being informed in grade school of the imminent solution to the mystery of life.

Triumphantly, teachers described an experiment conducted by two researchers, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, in which molecules believed to represent components of the early Earth’s atmosphere were induced by electricity to form some of the amino acids that are components of proteins necessary for life.

Soon enough, we were told, scientists would coax further artificial formation of primordial materials, proteins themselves and even, eventually, actual life – some single-celled organism like the one from which we ourselves (our teachers dutifully explained) were surely descended.

A half-century later, however, we are left with nothing – not even a pitiful protein – beyond Miller-Urey’s original results.  And even that experiment is now discredited by scientists as having gotten the original atmospheric soup all wrong. 

Whatever.

The Miller-Urey memory is an important reminder of how, with all of science’s unarguable accomplishments, every generation’s scientific establishment is convinced it has a handle as well on the Big Questions.  And of how much more common hubris is than wisdom.  It is a thought well worth thinking these days.

No one denies that species, over time, tend to retain traits that serve them well, and to lose others that don’t.

But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new trait within a species – things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times – have never been witnessed.  There isn’t necessarily anything in the Torah that precludes them from happening, or being made to happen artificially.  But the solemn conviction that they have occurred countless times and by chance remains a large leap of… well, faith.  Which is why “evolution” is rightly called a theory (and might better still be called a religion).  

Scientists, to be sure, protest that billions of years are necessary for chance mutations of DNA, the assumed engine of Neo-Darwinism, to work their accidental magic.  A lovely scenario, but one whose hallowing of chance as the engine of all is easily seen as a rejection of the concept of a Creator, Judaism’s central credo.

It also begs the question of how the first living organism might have emerged from inert matter.  Spontaneous generation is generally ridiculed by science, yet precisely that is presumed by the priests of Randomness to have occurred – by utter chance, yet – to jump-start the process of evolution.

What is more, the first creature’s ability to bring forth a next generation (and beyond), would have also had to have been among the first living thing’s talents.  Without that, the organism would have amounted to nothing more than a hopeless dead-end.  No DNA, after all, no future.  And so, a package of complex genetic material, too, would have had to have been part of the unbelievably lucky alpha-amoeba.

And yet to so much as express doubts about such a scenario is to be branded a heretic by the scientific establishment, the Church of Chance.

The issue is not “Biblical literalism,” a decidedly non-Jewish approach.  Many are the p’sukim that do not mean what a simple reading would yield; our mesorah is the key to the true meaning of the Torah’s words; and there are multiple levels of deeper meanings inaccessible to most of us.  The words of Braishis hide infinitely more than they reveal – which is only that the universe was created as the willful act of G-d, and that the biosphere unfolded in stages.  Details are not provided.

The issue is more stark: Are we products of chance, or of G-d?

Jewish belief, of course, is founded on the latter contention, and, as a result, on the conviction that there is a purpose to the universe we inhabit, and to the lives we live.  That what we do makes a difference, that there is right and there is wrong.

Is the very notion of good and evil an illusion, an adaptive evolutionary strategy that provides human beings some cold biological advantage – or does our innate conviction that some human actions are proper and others not reflect a deeper reality?  

If humanity’s roots lie in pure chance, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left.  The game is zero-sum. Either we are here by chance or by design.  Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is.  And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

Opposing the promotion of a particular religion in American public schools is a worthy stance.  But, at the same time, there is simply no philosophically sound way of holding simultaneously in one’s head both the conviction that we are nothing more than evolved animals and the conviction that we are something qualitatively different. 

And no way to avoid the fact that when children are taught to embrace the one, they are being taught, ever so subtly, to shun the other.

© 2019 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

(First published in 2006, edited slightly here.)

The Nazis Knew

A dear friend who had a secular upbringing and maintains an irreligious outlook took issue, gently, if a bit cynically, with something I had written for Aish.com, a website that reaches out to a broad swath of Jewish readers.

The article was about R’ Yosef Friedenson, a”h, the longtime editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, the Yiddish-language periodical published for many years by Agudath Israel of America. “Mr.” Friedenson, as he preferred to be called, survived the Holocaust and was a keen historian, meticulous journalist, eloquent speaker – and one of the nicest people I have ever met. I had the pleasure of his company for some twenty years in the Agudah national offices in Manhattan.

In my tribute to R’ Yosef, I included a story from his recent, posthumously published collection of memories, “Faith Amid the Flames” (Artscroll/Mesorah).

At the start of World War II, when Poland had been overrun by the Nazis, ym”s, Mr. Friedenson was a 17-year-old living with his family in Lodz. One day, two German soldiers burst into the family’s apartment.

At one point, they demanded the teenager identify the stately tomes on the bookshelf.

He had no reason to lie. “The Talmud,” he answered.

“At the mention of that word, they became like mad dogs,” Mr. Friedenson recalled many decades later. “They threw the holy books on the floor and trampled them, ripping them to shreds with their heavy boots.”

And when they had left, the young Yosef asked his father why the Nazis had responded so viciously.

“They don’t hate us as a people,” was the response. “They hate us because of our holy books. What is written in them is a contradiction to all they stand for, to their outlook and corrupt mentality.”

My friend was suitably impressed with my description of Mr. Friedenson. “Nice memory,” he e-mailed me, “of what sounds like a remarkable man.”

But, he continued, “I’ll take a pass, out of respect, as to the assertion that the Nazis hated Jews because of the content of books the former almost certainly never read.”

My friend found it hard to imagine that the Nazis’ hatred was qualitatively different from the antipathy of various ethnic or national groups toward others. His materialistic outlook attributed no specialness to our mesorah and, hence, no rationale for how a movement based on power and paganism might find Torah a mortal threat to its success.

I can’t prove otherwise to him, but shared something to buttress Mr. Friedenson’s father’s observation, a memorandum discovered by the noted Holocaust historian Moshe Prager, a”h.

It was sent on October 25, 1940 by the chief of the German occupation power, I.A. Eckhardt, to the local Nazi district governors in occupied Poland. In it, he instructs German officials to refuse exit visas to “Ostjuden,” Jews from Eastern Europe.

Eckhardt explains that these Jews, as “Rabbiner un Talmudlehrer,” Rabbis and Talmud scholars, would, if allowed to emigrate, foster “die geistige erneuerung,” spiritual revival, of the Jewish people in other places.

So it seems that it wasn’t just Jews whom the Nazis hated, but Judaism. In fact, writing in 1930, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s chief ideologue, denounced “the honorless character of the Jew” – his take on the idea of personal conscience and devotion to the Creator – as “embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch.”

The “spiritual renewal” that the Nazi memo author so feared, baruch Hashem, despite the best evil efforts of the movement he championed, has in fact come to pass.

Torah-committed Jewish survivors helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other shores, rebuilding Jewish communal and educational institutions and fostering shemiras hamitzvos and, yes, Talmud study, in new lands. The scope and enthusiasm of the Siyum HaShas is powerful evidence of that.

Daf Yomi, of course, was introduced by Rav Meir Shapiro in 1923. It isn’t known how many attended the first or second Siyum HaShas. But, amazingly, right after the Holocaust, in 1945, thousands of Jews in Eretz Yisrael, the Feldafing Dispaced Persons camp and New York united to mark the third Siyum HaShas.

The 1968 Siyum at the Bais Yaakov of Borough Park drew 300 people; by 1975, at the 7th Siyum, five thousand celebrants gathered at the Manhattan Center; and, at that gathering, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah permanently dedicated the Siyum HaShas to the memory of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

The 1990 Siyum filled Madison Square Garden’s 20,000 seats. In 1997, the Siyum required both Madison Square Garden and the similar-sized Nassau Coliseum.

In 2012, the 12th Siyum Hashas filled MetLife Stadium with close to a hundred thousand Jews – joined at a distance in countless other locales by thousands of others.

The Talmud and its lehrers had emerged victorious.

Ironies abound on the path to that victory. Perhaps none, though, as astonishing as the format of a new publication of “Mein Kampf” in its original German, the first edition of Hitler’s rambling, anti-Semitic imaginings to be produced in Germany since the end of World War II.

Intended for scholars and libraries, it is heavily annotated to provide the elements of the screed with their necessary context.

The critical notes, however, are not presented in a traditional manner. The academic team that prepared the edition decided for some reason to instead “encircle” Hitler’s words with the deconstructing annotations.

Dan Michman, head of international research at Yad Vashem museum in Israel, described how, as a result, the pages would appear.

They will, he said, “look like the Talmud.”

© 2019 Hamodia (in shortened form)

No Escape

“We used to spend a good two hours here… chaos,” Palestinian construction worker Imad Khalil explained to National Public Radio’s Daniel Estrin. “Today we arrive and we immediately pass.”

The worker was marveling at the efficiency of “Speed Gate,” a facial recognition technology that has done away with crowds and individual inspections by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints through which Arab day laborers must pass from Yehudah and Shomron to work in Israel proper. Nearly 100,000 Palestinian laborers cross such checkpoints daily.

Where the technology is in place, the workers now need only place electronic ID cards on a sensor and stare at a camera. Panels then open to let them through.

Palestinians wishing to work in Israel have for many years been photographed and fingerprinted, in order to ascertain that they have nothing in their records to indicate they’re a threat to anyone.

Having soldiers ascertain identities of crossing workers created long lines and frustrated people. The new facial recognition software allows workers’ ID cards to immediately connect to a biometric database and confirm their identities in an instant.

Israel is also building a database of its own citizens, and already uses similar facial recognition technology for passport control at Ben Gurion airport.

As might be expected, human rights advocates are upset by the effort, seeing it as helping perpetuate the current political status quo and as a violation of individuals’ privacy.

Omer Laviv of Mer Security and Communications Systems, an Israeli company that markets the technology to law enforcement agencies internationally, had four words in response to such anxieties: “Security concerns override privacy.”

Several thousands of miles to the west, in New York City, the city’s police department use of identification technology is likewise being criticized by privacy advocates.

The department has not only built a giant facial recognition database and loaded thousands of arrest photographs, including of children and teenagers, into it, but was recently revealed to have accelerated the collection and storage of criminals’ and suspects’ DNA, obtained from cheek swabs or even from coffee cups, water bottles or cigarette butts harboring trace amounts of suspects’ saliva.

There are currently more than 80,000 genetic profiles in the city database, begun in 2009, an increase of 28 percent over the past two years. Scores of violent crimes have been successfully prosecuted based on collected DNA.

The criticism, from groups like the Legal Aid Society, has focused on the fact that some 30,000 of the profiles are of people, including minors, who were only suspected of crimes, but never convicted.

Some civil liberties lawyers contend that taking someone’s DNA without probable cause to suspect that they did something illegal violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The legitimacy of that assertion depends on the meaning of “searches and seizures.” DNA and facial recognition technology were things unimagined, likely unimaginable, to the Constitution’s crafters.

But is there anything qualitatively different between fingerprinting a suspect – or just photographing him – and recording the patterns of his DNA? While DNA identification is not, in many cases, at all as indisputable as most people assume – there are a number of issues that can render it less than conclusive – it is certainly a most useful tool in better focusing investigations that can lead to more decisive evidence.

And there can be little doubt that not only does “searches and seizures” in the Fourth Amendment need a modern definition; so does the word “unreasonable.

There may well be activists who maintain that street cameras should be considered unlawful, or who shun EZ-Pass or GPS technology because they consider such things, which identify users’ locations and movements, dangers to individual privacy. But, justified in their fears or not, they are blowing hard at a hurricane.

Because, like it or not, we no longer have private lives, at least not in the sense of being invisible to a plethora of commercial, governmental or law enforcement entities. Cameras on the sides of buildings, and inside them, abound. Anyone with a driver’s license or passport has surrendered information to authorities, and anyone who uses the internet is shedding dribs and drabs of facts about himself to untold numbers of commercial and other interests.

That might dismay some people, but it is, in the end, a simple fact of modern life. And leveraging technology to fight crime – as long as it is done responsibly and with recognition of new tools’ limits – doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. Even if a youngster’s DNA is on file in a police database, well, youngsters grow up, after all, some of them, sadly, into violent criminals. And a means of identifying a perpetrator of a crime is something beneficial to society.

For Jews who recognize the truth of the Jewish mesorah, the new technologies can serve to remind us that, as Rabi Yehudah Hanasi stresses in Avos (2:1): “An eye sees and an ear hears…”

And, particularly apt, with the Yamim Nora’im still fresh in our memories, “…all of your actions are in the record written.”

© 2019 Hamodia

A Lesson About Love

I used to pass the fellow each morning years ago as I walked up Broadway in lower Manhattan on my way to work. He would stand at the same spot and hold aloft, for the benefit of all passersby, one of several poster-board signs he had made. One read “I love you!” Another: “You are wonderful!”

He seemed fairly normal, well-groomed and decently dressed, and he smiled broadly as he offered his written expressions of ardor to each of us rushing to our respective workplaces. I never knew what had inspired his mission, but something about it bothered me.

Then, one day, I put my finger on it. It is ridiculously easy to profess true love for all the world, but a sincere such emotion simply isn’t possible. If one gushes good will at everyone, he offers it, in fact, to no one at all.

By definition, care must exist within boundaries, and our love for those close to us – our families, our close friends, our fellow Jews – is of a different nature than our empathy for others outside our personal lives.

What is more, and somewhat counterintuitive, is that only those who make the effort to love their immediate families, friends and other Jews have any chance of truly caring, on any level at all, about all of mankind.

The thought, it happens, is most appropriate for this time of Jewish year, as Sukkos gives way, without so much as a second’s pause, to Shemini Atzeres (in the Gemara’s words, “a Yom Tov unto itself.”)

While most Yamim Tovim tend to focus on Klal Yisrael and its particular historical narrative, Sukkos, interestingly, also includes something of a “universalist” element. In the times of the Beis Hamikdash, the seven days of Sukkos saw a total of seventy parim-korbanos offered on the mizbei’ach, the bulls corresponding, says the Gemara, to “the seventy nations of the world.”

Those nations – the various families of people on earth – are not written off by our mesorah. We Jews are here, the Navi exhorts, to be an example to them. A mere four days before Sukkos’s arrival, on Yom Kippur, Yidden the world over heard Sefer Yonah, the story of the Navi who was sent to warn a distant people to do teshuvah, and who, in the end, saved them from destruction.

Similarly, the korbanos in the Beis Hamikdash, the Gemara informs us, brought Divine brachos down upon all the world’s peoples. Had the ancient Romans known just how greatly they benefited from the merit of the avodah, Chazal teach, instead of destroying the structure, they would have placed protective guards around it.

And yet, curiously but pointedly, Sukkos’s recognition of the value of all humanity is made real by the Chag that directly follows it, Shemini Atzeres.

The word atzeres can mean “refraining” or “detaining,” and the Gemara (Sukkah, 55b) teaches that Shemini Atzeres (literally: “the eighth day [after the start of Sukkos], a detaining”) gives expression to Hashem’s special relationship with Klal Yisrael.

 As the well-known Midrashic mashal has it:

A king invited his servants to a large feast that lasted a number of days. On the final day of the festivities, the king told the one most beloved to him, “Prepare a small repast for me so that I can enjoy your exclusive company.”

That is Shemini Atzeres, when Hashem “detains” the people He chose to be an example to the rest of mankind – when, after the seventy korbanos of the preceding seven days, a single par, corresponding to Klal Yisrael, is brought on the mizbei’ach on that eighth day.

We Jews are often assailed by others for our belief that Hashem chose us from among the nations to proclaim His existence and to call on all humankind to recognize our collective immeasurable debt to Him.

Those who are irritated by that message like to characterize the special bond Jews feel for one another as hubris, even as contempt for others.

The very contrary, however, is the truth. The special relationship we Jews have with each other (yielding ahavas Yisrael); and with Hakadosh Baruch Hu (yielding ahavas Hashem) – the relationships we acknowledge in particular on Shemini Atzeres – are what provide us the ability to truly care – with our hearts, not our mere lips or poster boards – about the rest of the world.

Those deep relationships are what allow us to hope – as we declare in Aleinu thrice daily – that, even as we reject the idolatries that have infected the human race over history, “all the peoples of the world” will one day come to join together with us and “pay homage to the glory of Your name.”

© 2019 Hamodia

Who We Are

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder.  They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a shul on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who had received no Jewish chinuch from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, “You know, I used to be a Jew.”

“Really?” said Wilder, straining his neck to look up at his companion. “And I used to be a hunchback.”

The story is in my head because we’re about to recite Kol Nidrei.

Kol Nidrei’s solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended shul on the eve of the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  It is a cold soul that doesn’t send a shudder through a body when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, evocative melody.  And yet the words of the tefillah – “modaah” would be more accurate – do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the last of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.

They speak instead to the annulment of nedarim, vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Nedarim, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them.   And so, we rightly take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows.  So, that Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of neder-making isn’t entirely surprising.  But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of distant places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions.  The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most of us today face no such pressures.  To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage.  But few if any Jews today feel any compulsion to shed their Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one’s essence.  Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are.  We make pacts – unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant – with an assortment of mastinim: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us.  The Amora Rav Alexandri, the Gemara teaches (Berachos, 17a), would recite a short tefillah in which, addressing Hashem, he said: “Master of the universe, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us? The ‘leaven in the loaf’ [i.e. the yetzer hora] …”  What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less?  Could its declared disassociation from vows reflect a renunciation of the “vows”, the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves?  If so, it would be no wonder that the recitation moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur. 

When the Beis Hamikdosh stood, Yom Kippur saw the kiyum of the mitzvah of the Shnei Se’irim.  The Cohen Gadol would place a lot on the head of each of two goats; one read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed as a korban; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to “sins and iniquities” being “put upon the head” of the Azazel goat before its dispatch.  The deepest meanings of the chok, like those of all chukim in the end, are beyond human ken.  But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our aveiros are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be “sent away,” banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, ym”s, had, despite his secularist life, declared: “I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew.”

Mr. Kahn may never have attended shul for Kol Nidrei.  But perhaps a seed planted by a hunchbacked humorist, and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism, helped him connect to something of the declaration’s deepest meaning. 

© 2019 Hamodia

A column from 2010: Great Expectations

Thoughts of consequence can sometimes arise from the most mundane experiences, even a headache.Opening the medicine cabinet one day, I was struck by a sticker on a prescription container.

“Not for use by pregnant women,” it read.

“And why not?” part of my aching head wondered.

Because, another part answered, a fetus is so much more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than a more developed person.  Partly, of course, because of its very tininess, but more importantly because it is an explosively, developing thing.  While a single cell is growing to a many-billions-of-unbelievably-variegated-cells organism in a matter of mere months it is easily and greatly affected by even subtle stimuli.

Which thought led, slowly but inexorably, to others, about the creation of the world – the subject, soon, of the parshas hashovua – and about the beginning of a new Jewish year.

“The Butterfly Effect” is the whimsical name science writers give to the concept of  “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” – the idea that beginnings are unusually important.  A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow – or an error of a single digit at the beginning of a long calculation – can yield a difference of miles, or millions, in the end. For all we know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world yesterday might have set into motion a hurricane in the Atlantic today.

The most striking butterfly effects take place during formative stages, when much is transpiring with particular rapidity. Thus, the label on the medication; the gestation of a fetus, that single cell’s incredible journey toward personhood, is strikingly responsive to so much of what its mother does, eats and drinks. The developing child is exquisitely sensitive to even the most otherwise innocent chemicals because beginnings are formative, hence crucial, times.

Leaving the realm of the microcosm, our world itself also had a gestation period, six days’ worth. Interestingly, just as the initial developmental stage of a child takes place beyond our observation, so did that of the world itself. The event and processes of those days are entirely hidden from us, the Torah supplying only the most inscrutable generalities about what actually took place then. Thus, Chazal applied the posuk “the honor of Hashem is the concealment of the thing” (Mishlei, 25:2) to the days of creation. Honest scientists admit the same.  E.A. Milne, a celebrated British astronomer, wrote “In the divine act of creation, G-d is unobserved and unwitnessed.”

Despite our inability, however, to truly know anything about the happenings of the creation week, to think of those days as a gestational time is enlightening.  It may even help explain the apparent discrepancy between what we know from the Torah is the true age of the earth and what the geological and paleontological evidence seem to say

Consider: What would happen if the age of an adult human since hisconception were being inferred by a scientist from Alpha Centauri, using only knowledge he has of the human’s present rate of growth and development?  In other words, if our alien professor knew only that the individual standing before it developed from a single cell, and saw only the relatively plodding rate of growth currently evident in his subject, he would have no choice but to conclude that the 30-year-old human was, in truth, fantastically old. What the Alpha Centurion is missing, of course, is an awareness of the specialized nature of the gestational stage of life, the powerful, pregnant period before birth, with its rapid, astounding and unparalleled rate of development.

If we recognize that a similar gestational stage existed for the universe as a whole at its creation – and the Torah tells us to do precisely that – then it is only reasonable to expect that formative stage to evidence a similarly accelerated rate of development, with the results on the first Shabbos seeming in every detectable way to reflect millions of years of development, eons that occurred entirely within the six days of the world’s explosive, embryonic growth.

Rosh Hashana is called “the birthday of the world.”  But the Hebrew word there translated as “birth of” – haras – really refers to the process of conception/gestation.  And so, annually, at the start of the Jewish year, it seems in some way we relive the gestational days of creation.  But more: those days are formative ones, the development period for the year that is to follow.  Beginning with the “conception-day” of Rosh Hashana itself and continuing until Yom Kippur, the period of the early new Jewish year is to each year what the creation-week was to the world of our experience: a formative stage.

All of which may well lend some insight into a puzzling halacha.

We are instructed by the Shulchan Aruch to conduct ourselves in a particularly exemplary manner at the start of a new Jewish year. We are cautioned to avoid anger on Rosh Hashana itself.  And for each year’s first ten days, we are encouraged to avoid eating even technically kosher foods that present other, less serious, problems (like kosher bread baked by a non-Jewish manufacturer), and to generally conduct ourselves, especially interpersonally, in a more careful manner than during the rest of the year.

It is a strange halacha.  What is the point of pretending to a higher level of observance or refinement of personality when one may have no intention at all of maintaining those things beyond the week?

Might it be, though, that things not greatly significant under normal circumstances suddenly take on pointed importance during the year’s first week, because those days have their analogue in the concept of gestation?

Might those days, in other words, be particularly sensitive to minor influences because they are the days from which the coming year will develop?

Observance and good conduct are always in season, but our mesora teaches us that they have particular power during Rosh Hashana and the Aseres Yimei Teshuvah – that we should regard these days with the very same vigilance and care an expectant mother has for the rapidly developing, exquisitely sensitive being within her.

Let us seize the days and cherish them; they are conceptual butterfly-wings, the first unfoldings of a new Jewish year.

© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran