An article I wrote about the growth of the Orthodox community in Israel and in the U.S. appeared at Fox News today, and can be read here.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got into a dustup with a television personality and a movie star, many of us felt reasonably secure assuming which side was likely more Jewishly authentic. And since the disagreement involved Israel’s relationship to the Jewish people, all the more so.
Sometimes, though, reasonable assumptions must give way to history and hashkafah.
The ruckus began with Mr. Netanyahu’s statement that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.” That declaration – like the Knesset’s passage last year of a new Basic Law titled “Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People” – was regarded by some as compromising Israel’s democratic spirit. And it drew fire not only from the political left and celebrities but even from people like Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
In his dissent, Mr. Rivlin emphasized Israel’s “complete equality of rights for all its citizens,” and that “there are no first-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters… We are all represented at the Knesset.”
On one level, the argument is mere semantics. Mr. Netanyahu does not deny Arab Israelis’ right to vote or be represented in the Knesset. And Mr. Rivlin surely subscribes to Israel’s foundational self-definition as a “Jewish State.”
That self-description, of course, is no more a violation of democratic principles than Tunisia’s or Morocco’s self-definitions as Muslim states; or Argentina’s or Sweden’s or England’s as Christian ones.
But it’s election season in Israel, and it is to Mr. Netanyahu’s advantage to portray himself as an adversary of Arabs. His camp has popularized the phrase, “Either Bibi or Tibi” – a reference to Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi – even though the prime minister’s actual challenger is the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz. (I’m personally rooting, as are Israel’s religious parties, for Bibi, just describing a campaign reality.)
And yet, the “Jewish state” controversy touches on an important issue worth some renewed contemplation by Jews committed to mesorah.
Before the founding of Israel, there was opposition among Gedolei Yisrael to the idea of Zionism, the quest to establish a Jewish state. The reasons for the opposition were several and compelling; here is not the place to expound on them. After Churban Europa, though, the horrifically altered situation brought the Gedolim who guided Agudas Yisrael to adopt what might best be characterized as a non-Zionist stance.
With Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, those Gedolim decided that the state should be appreciated for what it was but essentially regarded as a political state like any other, even if one founded by and for Jews. Rav Reuvain Grozovsky, zt”l, eloquently expressed the Agudah philosophy in his concise but persuasive kuntres Ba’ayos Haz’man.
Thus, followers of Agudas Yisrael voted, and vote, in Israeli elections, and the movement sponsored an official political party in Israel that, to this day, plays a role – often pivotal – in the formation of Israeli governments. The party, today part of Yahadus HaTorah, or United Torah Judaism, is largely focused on defending the religious status quo agreed to by Israel’s future leaders in 1947, and on advocacy on behalf of Israel’s religious Jewish community.
Eretz Yisrael, precisely as the phrase translates, is the land of the Jews – the territory promised by Hashem to Avraham Avinu and populated by his descendants in the time of Yehoshua. The connection of Klal Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael is undeniable, unmalleable and eternal.
But the modern state of Israel, at least to the followers of the Gedolim who have guided Agudas Yisrael, is a political state in an era of galus, not some semblance of Malchus Beis David.
A non-Zionist “Agudist” Jew can embrace a hawkish attitude toward Israel’s defense; fully recognize radical Arab groups’ threat to Israel; condemn the Palestinian Authority’s detestable incitement against Israel; have and express deep appreciation of Israeli soldiers; and support Israel morally, politically and financially. But, unlike his national-religious counterparts, he sees Israel as a largely praiseworthy country, a refuge and protector of Jews, but not as an inherently hallowed entity.
Proponents of both a religiously-motivated embrace of political Zionism and a mesorah-based worldview agree that Israel is a country for Jews in the Jewish homeland that maintains respect for aspects of Jewish tradition.
But it seems to me – and, as always in this space, I speak only for myself – that the mesorah-based outlook on Israel does not comport well with any message, however motivated and however subtle, to Israel’s Arab citizens that they are in any way lesser parts of the country’s body politic.
© 2019 Hamodia
A article of mine about Alexandria Ocasion-Cortez, distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, can be read here.
To his great credit, President Trump didn’t allow the testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen before a Congressional committee to pressure him into making a deal at all costs with North Korea.
It would have been helpful to the president’s image to have upstaged the Cohen hearing last Wednesday with the signing of an agreement with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – a signing ceremony had in fact been scheduled – pushing Mr. Cohen’s allegations of the president’s ethical and moral turpitude to second place in the day’s news cycle.
But, despite the two days the American and North Korean leaders spent together in Hanoi at their second summit, there was no diplomatic triumph to announce, not even the usual joint statement expected after such talks.
Things apparently broke down when it became clear that the North Korean despot was unwilling to even disclose the number and locations of his country’s nuclear weapon sites until some economic sanctions against his country were lifted. And even then, reportedly, he was prepared to shut down only one of his reactors. Mr. Trump, laudably, would not agree to that, even if it meant that news organizations would be focused on Mr. Cohen’s harsh disparagement of his former boss.
Less laudably, the president responded to a question about the American Jewish college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign and died six days after he was repatriated to the U.S. in a coma, by relating that Mr. Kim denied knowledge at the time of the student’s deterioration in a North Korean prison, “feels very badly” about it, and that he, Mr. Trump, takes the Korean leader “at his word.” (He later said that his words were “misinterpreted.”)
Mere hours later, true to form, Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted starkly that “Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime.”
The president, of course, may have just been trying to be diplomatic, with the goal of achieving some future actual progress on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, and may harbor very different feelings about his summit partner than he verbally expressed. If he does, he is justified.
Shortly before the summit, a collection of accounts from North Korean defectors and North Korean officials in China was released, under the title “Executions and Purges of North Korean Elites: An Investigation into Genocide Based on High-Ranking Officials’ Testimonies,” by the Seoul-based North Korean Strategy Centre (NKSC).
It offered chilling accounts of utter contempt for human rights and numerous murders, claiming that Mr. Kim has had 421 officials executed and exiled since seizing power in 2011. Some victims, it reported, had been thrown unclothed to vicious hunting dogs; others were killed with shells; others still, burned alive with flamethrowers.
In some cases, the report asserted, entire families of officials have been executed or were imprisoned in concentration camps and “erased from society.” Officials faced death or imprisonment, the report alleges, for minor infractions like improper posture at an event attended by “supreme leader” Kim.
Mr. Kim is also said to have ordered the execution of his own family members, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was killed along with his associates in 2013 (for having “sold the country’s resources to foreign countries at a low price”), and his half-brother Jong-nam, who was assassinated at a Malaysian airport in 2017.
A former student at Pyongyang Commercial College, identified only as “Moon,” is quoted in the report as claiming to have witnessed a 12-man public execution by soldiers using anti-aircraft guns. Armored vehicles then reportedly crushed their remains.
Evil tends to dovetail with Jew-hatred, of course. And that may be why North Korea sent pilots to Egypt during the Yom Kippur War, more recently helped Syria construct a nuclear reactor and recognizes the sovereignty of the non-existent “State of Palestine” over all of Israel, except for the Golan Heights (which it considers as part of Syria).
There are, of course, despots at the helm of other countries with which the U.S. has made strategic alliances over the years. And such associations, disturbing as they are, are not always the worst of the available options.
But it is hard to find a parallel, outside the example of Nazi Germany, to the sort of flagrant monstrousness that credible witnesses have described as an essential characteristic of the Korean peninsula’s hermit kingdom.
Iran, still abiding by the 2015 multi-nation deal, isn’t currently an immediate nuclear threat to others.
North Korea, though, is. And President Trump should not rest until it, too, is constrained.
© 2019 Hamodia
That blessedly inaccurate prediction was embraced by legions of other scientists. In 1970, Harvard biologist George Wald went further, predicting that, without immediate action to reverse trends, “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years.”
The renowned physicist Lord Kelvin stated in 1895 that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” And Albert Einstein, in 1932, contended that “There is not the slightest indication” that nuclear energy “will ever be obtainable.”
We do well to remember pronouncements like those when trying to extrapolate the future from present knowledge, or present assumptions. Unfortunately, some people, especially when trying to promote agendas, don’t, or won’t.
The same some of us with those decades in their rear-view mirrors may also remember the days when the Reform movement just went about its business of jettisoning the Jewish mesorah for the “benefit” of its congregants, and was so sure of its future prospects that it essentially ignored Jews who remained faithful to the Jewish mission as handed down since Mattan Torah. It certainly didn’t see a need to attack those “old fashioned” fanatics. They wouldn’t be around much longer.
Ah, times have changed.
Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism and now a writer for Haaretz, has taken up the cause of castigating Jews who have the audacity to maintain Judaism.
In a recent opinion piece in that paper, he accuses “the ultra-Orthodox political leadership” in Israel of “destroying the State of Israel.” In case the reader might assume he is waxing metaphorical, he adds, “Literally.”
The destruction, in his telling, is being wrought by the determined prevention of “Haredi Jews from becoming productive citizens in a modern, developed economy.”
“Lovers of Torah,” like himself, he bemoans, “can only weep.”
The objects of his ire might well respond, “Don’t cry for me, Eric Yoffie.”
The Haaretz writer seems to be under the impression that Israeli Jews are forced to eat kosher and keep Shabbos (may they all come on their own to do both, and more). What else could he mean by the chareidi “massive machinery of religious coercion”? Respect for halachah at the Kosel Maaravi? Oversight of geirus, kiddushin and geirushin to prevent personal tragedies down the line? Coercion? Uh, no.
The Reform leader’s real bugaboo, though, is the growth of the chareidi community and the concomitant growth of limud Torah in Israel.
He quotes a Tel Aviv professor who is “worried that in 40 years, Israel will be more crowded than any country in the world, except for Bangladesh.” Shades of Paul Ehrlich.
And, the writer contends, “Israel’s rate of poverty is exceedingly high…; its labor productivity is disturbingly low, and continuing to fall.”
“To say that this picture is a grim one,” Yoffie writes grimly, “is an understatement.”
He admits that “the problem is not the employment rate of women.” Men, though, he explains, “are directed by their rabbis to forsake the labor market for full-time Torah study.” In the 1980s, he continues, “the employment rate for Haredi men was 64%. In 2015, slightly less than 54% of Haredi men were employed. Two years later, that number had dropped to 51%.”
When the sky is falling, there just isn’t time to do any digging. What Yoffie doesn’t note is that, as Israel Democracy Institute researchers report, “Since 2003, there has been a consistent rise in the employment rate of [chareidi] women and men.”
But, of course, Yoffie’s issue isn’t really employment. If it were, he would be advocating to provide those who, as a matter of religious principle, are unable to enter the army with the same access to gainful employment as ex-soldiers. His issue is the intolerable willingness of so many Jewish men to dedicate themselves to full-time Torah study for as long as they can, and their readiness to live modestly, resisting the societal shitah that determines “success” by the size of bank accounts.
Yoffie’s “solution” to the crisis he perceives consists of changing the nature of chinuch in Israel and offering a full complement of “core curriculum” studies “of course… alongside traditional Torah study.”
And accomplishing that, he contends, can only happen through “compulsion.”
Fittingly, his piece appeared just as Chanukah was about to begin.
© 2018 Hamodia
Self-proclaimed Nazi Arthur Jones, running as a Republican for a House of Representatives seat in a Chicago area district, lost handily. But he received more than 56,000 votes. Illinois Republican Governor Bruce Rauner had urged district residents to “vote for anybody but Jones” and Texas Senator Ted Cruz advised voters to vote for the Democratic candidate. Still, though, 56,000 Illinoisans liked the Nazi.
And then we have, unfortunately, two successful candidates for Congress: Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis. Ms. Tlaib proved herself so antagonistic to Israel that the left-wing group J Street withdrew its initial endorsement of her bid. And Ms. Omar once tweeted the sentiment that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” and prayed that people “see the evil doings of Israel.”
And the new representative of New York’s 14th Congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, once decried the Israeli military’s killing of Palestinians who were storming the Gaza border fence as a “massacre.” (To her credit, though, the 28-year-old later admitted that she was not an “expert on geopolitics on this issue” and promised that she would “learn and evolve on this issue,” so let’s hope she in fact does.)
Should I mention the reelection of Democratic Representative Danny K. Davis, who once called anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan “an outstanding human being,” and who, before finally issuing a condemnation of the Nation of Islam hater-in-chief’s “views and remarks regarding the Jewish people and the Jewish religion,” had explained that Farrahkan’s views on “the Jewish question” didn’t bother him? Well, I guess I just did. So I may as well add that he won 88% of the vote in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.
But deserving as those developments might seem to be of a worrisome Jewish telegram, the less excitable among us might take solace in the defeat of the aforementioned Mr. Jones, and the loss likewise suffered by Virginian Leslie Cockburn, whose book “Dangerous Liaison” was described by a New York Times reviewer as “largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake.”
And in the downfall of Philadelphia area Congressional aspirant Scott Wallace, whose family foundation had donated more than $300,000 to pro-BDS organizations. And of John Fitzgerald, who aimed to represent a California district, and who not only called the Holocaust “a fabricated lie” but claimed the 9/11 attacks were a Jewish plot. (Sobering, though: 43,000 citizens voted for the crazed candidate.)
Further cause for optimism is the fact that, among the flipped Republican seats in the House, fully seven will be occupied (there must be a better word) by Jewish Democrats. And that there will be 28 Jews in the new House, five more than there currently are. And that, in the upper chamber, there will be eight Jewish senators, up from 7.
And that Representative Eliot Engel of New York, whose dedication to Israel’s security is long and unarguable, is set to become the chairman of the important House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr. Engel’s counterpart on the Senate committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, another unabashed defender of Israel, was reelected too, as was Representative Nita Lowey, another staunch voice for Israel’s needs; and she is positioned to take over the House Appropriations Committee. No less committed to Israel’s security is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
What is perhaps the most heartening outcome of the recent races, though, is something that was pointed out by longtime political commentator David Frum. Writing in The Atlantic, he asserted that last Tuesday’s vote “administered enough Democratic disappointment to check the party’s most self-destructive tendencies.”
What he means is that, while concerns about the excesses and insanities on the fringes of the Democratic party are understandable, and despite the presence in Congress of Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar, the party’s moderate, traditional base remains strong; and radical Democrats are likely to remain relegated to the sidelines, with little power or influence.
“There is no progressive majority in America,” writes Mr. Frum. “There is no progressive plurality in America. And there certainly is no progressive Electoral College coalition in America.”
Whether or not that will remain the case in the future, none of us can know for certain. But it would certainly be highly premature to send out a “Start worrying” telegram – or an e-mail with that advice in the subject box.
More fitting might be “Keep davening.” Always appropriate.
© 2018 Hamodia
To the Editor:
In his essay “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are” (Op-Ed, Aug. 14), Ronald S. Lauder sees the Israeli sky falling, as a result of Israel’s “destructive actions” like the maintenance of traditional Jewish religious decorum at the Western Wall, which Mr. Lauder criticizes as coming at the expense of a planned egalitarian prayer space, and a new Israeli law that establishes Israel as a state with a Jewish identity, which he says “damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.”
But Israel, as a self-described Jewish state, needs a Jewish standard for public behavior at religious sites and to inform religious personal status issues. The standard that has served the state since its formation has been the Jewish standard of the ages — what the world calls Orthodoxy.
And, whether or not the nation-state law was necessary or wise, it does not impinge in any way on the equality before the law of any Israeli citizen.
Israel is not, as Mr. Lauder says some think, “losing its way.” It is the vast majority of the world’s Jews, those who do not regard their religious heritage as important, who are in danger of being lost — to the Jewish people. And it is those indifferent Jews who have the most to gain from the example of Israel preserving the traditional Jewish standards and values that have stood the test of history.
The writer, a rabbi, is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
Thus spake Assaf Benmelech, whose organization, “Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah,” seeks to promote “open and tolerant discourse” within Orthodoxy.
Mr. Benmelech, a lawyer, is representing one Akiva Herzfeld, who was ordained by the “Open Orthodox” institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (“YCT”) and whose certification of a woman’s Jewish status was rejected by the Israeli Rabbanut. The letter at issue, he asserts, based its rejection on the rabbi’s affiliation with “modern Orthodoxy.”
That assertion has led to loud criticism from America, where the official Israeli rabbinate is being characterized as maintaining a “blacklist” and bowing to what one critic called “the more extremist elements among them” – the dreaded chareidim, of course.
Mr. Benmelech’s characterization of YCT as representative of “modern Orthodoxy” does a grave disservice to Jews and institutions that have worn that latter label for decades. The movement with which the lawyer’s client is affiliated has indeed tried of late to shed its titular skin, exchanging “Open” for “Modern.” But (to shamelessly mix wildlife metaphors) the leopard has not changed its spots.
The “Open Orthodox” movement, whatever it calls itself, is, simply put, not Orthodox at all. That is to say that it is theologically indistinguishable from the early Conservative movement, which at least had the honesty to admit that it was a new, divergent, endeavor.
The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah has declared the movement “no different than other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected [Judaism’s] basic tenets.”
For its part, the Rabbinical Council of America does not accept YCT’s rabbinic certifications as credentials for membership; neither does the National Council of Young Israel. And Roshei Yeshivah at Yeshiva University have likewise rejected the appropriateness of “Orthodox” as descriptive of YCT.
The movement and its supporters’ prevarication is evident too in the use of the word “blacklist” to describe what is, in the end, a simple insistence on standards. Medical students who have not demonstrated the knowledge or ethos needed to earn their accreditation have not been “blacklisted”; they have simply not made the grade. And if a medical association considers a particular medical school to be deficient in its training of doctors, the school’s degrees will not be recognized. It hasn’t been “blacklisted”; it has simply failed to meet the required standard.
And so, the Israeli rabbinate has every right – and responsibility – to reject the credentials of those affiliated with YCT. Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l – whose teshuvos are duly cited by YCT leaders when they feel something in the Gadol’s decisions comports with some position they espouse – was clear that a mere affiliation with the Conservative or Reform movement invalidates a rabbi’s ability to offer testimony (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:160).
Over most of Jewish history, individual rabbanim’s testimonies were all it took to establish Jewish credentials, and geirus and gittin overseen by a beis din were not generally challenged.
There were days, too, though, when halachah-observant Jews could judge the kashrus of a processed food by just reading the ingredients.
Today, though, Jewish life is more complicated. Food products contain a laundry list of obscure colorings, flavorings and preservatives, from a multitude of sources. That’s why kashrus organizations were established, and why they are necessary.
“Rabbis” today, too, have different ingredients and come in different flavors. If halachah is to be respected, standards are not only important but an absolute necessity. At least if Klal Yisrael matters.
Tragically, in America today, there are, in reality, a multitude of “Jewish peoples,” born of the variety of definitions here of “Jewishness.” What is called “Jewish religious pluralism” has yielded an irreparable fracture of the American Jewish community. Innocent people, due to non-halachic conversions and invalid gitten, have become victims of the “multi-Judaisms” American model.
That disastrous situation is largely not the case today in Israel, due to the single standard upheld by the country’s rabbinate, no matter how imperfect the institution’s bureaucracy may seem in some eyes. Were things otherwise, the largest Jewish community in the world, the one residing in Eretz Yisrael, would be as divided and incoherent, chalilah, as the American one. The maintenance of halachic standards are what have prevented that frightening scenario.
Hamodia readers know that, of course. But our fellow American Jews need to realize that – if they truly care about Klal Yisrael – they need to move past umbrage-taking and political positioning and confront the Jewish future with honesty.
© 2018 Hamodia
The first gig was dearer to me, since the members of my audience were people not set in their ways and thus open to my message, which was about what makes kids kids and grownups grownups. (The boys shared various ideas and I, mine: Awareness of Consequences – hey, it’s never too early to learn a new word.) But the class has a wonderful Rebbi and really didn’t need my own input.
By contrast, the audience at the second presentation, which was sponsored by the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, included many middle-aged and older members, less open to changing their attitudes, which are largely and unfortunately detached from the Jewish mesorah. They were proud Jews, to be sure, but with an assortment of misguided notions of just what living Jewish really means.
And yet, from the sentiments conveyed by attendees who approached me after my participation in a panel discussion of whether there is a divide between American Jews and Israel, the presence of an unabashedly Orthodox participant in the day-long program was appreciated. And I am grateful to Professor Paul L. Scham, the institute’s executive director, for inviting my participation. Especially since other parts of the day included a strident speech by the president of the New Israel Fund and what struck me as an attempt to upholster the deck chairs on a theological Titanic by the head of the American Reform movement.
On the panel, I attempted some humor to convince the audience that underneath my black suit (and sefirah-overgrown beard) was a normal human being. Then I made a serious case, that a connection to authentic Judaism empowers dedication to the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael – and that the demographics of the American Jewish community, which indicate a clear waning of non-Orthodox movements and a waxing of Orthodoxy, heralds a stronger pro-Israel future American Jewry.
And I took the opportunity to assert that the true preserver of the Jewish people, and the true ensurer of its integrity and unity is our mutual religious heritage.
In that context, I highlighted groups like Partners in Torah, and the way they non-judgmentally bond Jews through the study of traditional Jewish texts. I cited the example of my wife, who has for years studied weekly by phone with an intermarried Jewish woman in Arizona whom she has not yet met.
I knew I wouldn’t likely convince those present who were long invested in Reform or secular Jewish culture. But planting seeds, I learned from my years in chinuch, is always a worthy thing. Sometimes seedlings sprout down the line.
The best part of such conferences, though, is the opportunity they present to speak with Jews whom I would otherwise not likely ever meet. I cherish those chances to engage fellow Jews very different from me in friendly conversation. (And there’s always the amusement afforded by the reaction of the inevitable question about my college alma mater; when informed that I just managed to graduate high school and thereafter studied only in yeshivah, the questioner seems shocked that I speak English competently.)
The most memorable conversation I had at this particular conference was with a lady somewhat older than I and with a very serious demeanor who recounted an experience she had had over Pesach, on the street of a Florida city where she had spent the holiday.
She described how she went for a walk on the first day of Pesach, in clothing suited to the climate, and saw a man, whom she described as “a Satmar Chassid in a big fur hat,” coming toward her from the opposite direction.
“And I said to him,” she told me, “‘Gut yontiff.’”
My “justification mode” kicked right in and I prepared to explain to her how there are different norms in different communities, and that some Jewish men, out of tzenius concerns, don’t address women directly, and how, in other circumstances, surely, the gentleman would have acted differently…
But as my head was churning out the hasbarah, she continued her story, describing how the man stopped, smiled at her and – here she imitated the man’s motions – bowed to her three times, and heartily said “Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov! Gut Yom Tov!”
It was worth all the time and shlep and speeches just to hear that account.
© 2018 Hamodia