Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

The Jewish Connection

The vandalism of a Fort Smith, Arkansas mosque in 2016 by three young local men wouldn’t seem to have any Jewish connection. But it did. Or, better, it turns out that it does.

The vandalism, which consisted of spray-painted swastikas, obscenities and messages like “Go home” and “We don’t want you here” on the mosque’s doors, came after the two men spent most of a night drinking whiskey and, eventually, railing against the Islamic State. While IS is certainly most worthy for even sober citizens’ excoriation, what Craig Wigginton and Abraham Davis, along with another friend, Ezra Pedraza, did next – drive to the Al Salam mosque and deface it – was mindless. And a crime.

Mr. Davis said that, upon awaking the next day, he already regretted what he had done. His regret gnawed at him and then, four months later, the police, having analyzed security camera footage, arrested him.

Mr. Davis’s impoverished family could not make his bail, and so he was sent to jail. There, he expressed his regret by writing a note of apology to the mosque, which he sent to his mother to have delivered.

Mosque officials were surprised to receive the apology but fully accepted it and told the prosecutor they didn’t want to press charges. But it was out of their hands and the young men found themselves before a judge.

Despite the mosque’s best efforts, Mr. Davis ended up with a felony conviction, and with about $3,200 in fines.

He got a job and began making small court-ordered monthly payments. If he stopped them, he could end up in prison for six years. It was a constant fear.

A reporter for The New York Times went to Arkansas to interview the dramatis personae and, although a mosque official at first suspected her of being an F.B.I. agent trying to spy on the mosque, he came to recognize the legitimacy of her professional claim.

When the reporter’s story was published this past summer (remember summer?), modest donations from readers came in, both to the mosque and to the felon, whose family had received an eviction notice. The gifts allowed the Davises to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on a new place, and get some used furniture and a bed for their 5-year-old. Someone from Texas paid off their electric bill. Mr. Davis was able to buy a bicycle, so he could bike to work.

He continued to make the monthly payments on his fine and then, one day, he was informed that the balance of his fine had been paid. By the mosque’s social director, Hisham Yasin. Mr. Davis was shocked.

“There’s no words,” he told the reporter, covering his face with his hands.

The Jewish connection?

Well, several weeks earlier, Mr. Yasin had called the reporter to say that the mosque had received a generous donation from the Jay Pritzker Foundation. No one at Al Salam had ever heard of it, and, ever suspicious, thought at first that it was a scam and that the “foundation” would ask for its bank account number to engage in identity theft.

A bit of research, though, yielded the fact that the group was legitimate, and that the late Mr. Pritzker, for whom the foundation is named, was a Chicago Jew with roots in a shtetl near Kiev who ended up owning the Hyatt hotel chain. The Pritzker family members are major philanthropists, and the donation the foundation made to the Al Salam mosque is what inspired it to, in turn, perform its own act of kindness to the man who had been part of the swastika-painting episode.

There are, I think, several lessons in this story. First, that kindness can count. There are hateful people, but also simple-minded misguided ones. And they can change.

Second, that, cognizant as we all are of a major strain of Islam that spawns evil people and evil acts, there is only good will to be gained by establishing appropriate bonds of friendship with receptive Muslims. When, last year, tireless Masbia director Sender Rapaport rallied support within the frum community for fearful Muslim neighbors, a donor to the celebrated soup kitchen withdrew his support of it. Reb Sender did something right; the donor, something wrong.

The third lesson is not from the story itself but how it was rendered in the many publications that covered it. Other than The Times, almost none of the other media reporting the mosque’s laudable deed cared to mention the fact that it had been motivated by the act of a Jewish charity.

© 2018 Hamodia

Fake Kashrus

Long before candidate Donald Trump ever uttered the phrase “fake news,” some of us in the Jewish world involved with media were well acquainted with the concept.

From The New York Times’ description at the time of the 1991 Crown Heights riots as “[violence] between blacks and Jews,” when Jews were entirely on the receiving end of the ugliness, to a veteran Jewish reporter’s reporting as fact Orthodox Jewish blackmailers in Brooklyn, when all she had was an anonymous phone caller’s false tip. From a news description of a large, heartfelt Tehillim rally in Manhattan as “40,000 Orthodox Jews vent[ing] anger…” to the identification of a bloodied Jewish boy in Israel as a Palestinian beaten by an Israeli policeman. From the propagation of the myth that an Arab boy victim of Palestinian fire had been killed by Israeli soldiers to ahistorical descriptions of the Makom Hamikdash. An updated list would include much of the reportage on Kosel Maaravi happenings and on heterodox leaders’ claims about American Jewry.

Then there are the more subtle layers of bias. Like the aforementioned Gray Lady’s report on the twelfth Daf Yomi Siyum Hashas in 2012, a most newsworthy event, indeed; the paper chose to focus on the fact that Orthodox women don’t traditionally study Talmud.

And then there are the misquotes and words wrenched out of context. Having served as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison for more than two decades, I have ample personal experience with that sliminess. Had I a few dollars for each time my words were misrepresented, I could put a decent dent in the tuition crisis.

The first few times I was misquoted or my words mischaracterized, I assumed I hadn’t been sufficiently clear, or that the reporters had made innocent mistakes. Eventually, though, I sobered and realized that some reporters were – sit down, please – not really interested in accuracy or truth. They were seeking, rather, some quote to plug into the article they had already written (in their heads if not their computers), on a quest to get some words from me to “massage” to fit their preconceptions.

A fresh example: Open Orthodox clergyman Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, a poster boy for the movement that ordained him, recently penned a piece for Newsweek.

After lauding himself for creating “the Tav HaYosher ethical seal to attest that kosher restaurants in North America treated their workers to the highest standards of decency and dignity,” he bemoans what he sees as a kosher certification industry “consumed with ritual detail but largely… unconcerned with… worker rights, animal welfare, environmental protection, human health, among many important ethical considerations.” And he recalls participating in a 2008 panel on kashrus at Yeshiva University.

I was on the panel too, and though Dr. Yanklowitz doesn’t identify me by name, I was the “ultra-Orthodox” spokesperson who he claims in his article implied that “people want kosher meat that tastes good and is cheap, but don’t care about the ethical route it took to the plate.”

Wondering what I said? So was I, when I saw the piece. Fortunately, at that panel, I read my speech straight from notes that night, and have the notes.

The social consciousness initiative that Dr. Yanklowitz was defending at the time was something called Hekhsher Tzedek (later renamed Magen Tzedek), a “kashrut seal” indicating that a product was not only kosher but whose production had met various workers’ rights, animal rights and environmental requirements. (Four years later, no product had received the seal, and there is no sign of it on supermarket shelves to this day.)

Since the initiative’s literature stated that the certification was intended to reflect a higher degree of kashrus, I sought to make the point that, while there are certainly valid issues of tzaar ba’alei chaim and dina dimalchusa dina by which observant food processors and producers are bound, such concerns are independent of the halachic definition of “kosher.”

“So,” I explained, “while kosher food producers are required by halachah to act ethically in every way, any lapses on that score have no effect on the kashrus of the food they produce.”

Yes, that’s it. That’s what Dr. Yanklowitz claims was a declaration that “people want kosher meat that tastes good and is cheap, but don’t care about the ethical route it took to the plate.”

And readers of Newsweek are now under the impression that Orthodox Jews are unconcerned with mistreatment of workers, animal cruelty and the environment.

In truth, Dr. Yanklowitz’s misrepresentation shouldn’t surprise me. Misrepresentation, after all – of the Jewish mesorah itself – is the very raison d’être of the movement that produced him.

© 2018 Hamodia

Sullied Reputation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Hamodia

Two Goats, Two Worldviews

The drawing of lots in the times of the Beis Hamikdosh for the Yom Kippur ritual of the “shenei se’irim” – the “two goats,” undoubtedly commanded the rapt attention of all present.

Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the Kohen Gadol, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal. One lot read “to Hashem” and the other “to Azazel” – the name, according to many meforshim, of a steep cliff in a barren desert.

The first goat, as we all know, was solemnly brought as a korban, attention given to every detail of the offering, as with any other; and the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.

The law of the shenei se’irim is a chok, its deepest meanings beyond our understanding. But pondering it before Yom Kippur, and as we recall it in the day’s Mussaf, might still yield food for thought and, more important, for inspiration.

Human beings have two choices when it comes to how they view themselves. Some, in the past as in the present, understand that our minds and free will are clear evidence of Divine intent; others choose to see our existence as an accident. The former see human life as meaningful; the latter, as not.

If we’re the product of randomness, 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. Human beings remain but advanced animals, tzaddikim and resha’im alike. Yes, people can create societal expectations and norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial. Only with a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of monkeys or mosquitoes.

The Torah, of course, is based on – and in fact begins with an account of – a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life.

Every human being, if his consciousness is unclouded by base desires and cynicism, possesses a similar innate conviction.

Yet many resist that inherent understanding, and adopt the perspective that all that there is in the end is what we can perceive with our physical senses, that how we act makes no ultimate difference. They point to the existence of evil and the Creator’s invisibility as their “proofs.” Their excuses.

Could those diametric worldviews be reflected in the se’irei Yom Kippur?

The sa’ir that becomes a korban on the mizbei’ach might symbolize recognition of the idea that we are beholden to something greater than ourselves. And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, might allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.

Consider, further, the fact that the Torah, strangely, describes the Azazel-goat as carrying away the sins of the people (Vayikra 16: 22).

The meforshim all wonder at that concept. Some, including the Rambam, interpret it to mean that the people will be stirred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46).

How the Azazel-goat’s being “laden with the sins” of the people could serve as an inspiration might be understandable, though, if it indeed subtly alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness.

Because chet ultimately stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful our lives are. Reish Lakish in fact said as much when he observed (Sotah 3a) that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.” The madness, perhaps, of seeing himself as ultimately meaningless. That meaninglessness certainly provides ample reason to not care about one’s actions.

And so the sending forth of the Azazel-goat to its haphazard death could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that the roots of chet lie in that madness born of self-doubt. And those who witnessed its dispatching might well then have been spurred by that thought to consider the goat’s counterpart, the animal brought on the mizbe’ach in dedication to Hashem. And, so moved on the holiest day of the year, they might then have been spurred to re-embrace the grand meaningfulness that is a life of bechirah bachaim.

By recounting that scene, and picturing the se’irim on Yom Kippur, we, too, might access the same eternally timely thought. And resolve thereby to merit a gmar chasimah tovah.

© 2017 Hamodia

Statues of Limitation

It’s safe to say that many of us are less than exercised over the public debate about Confederate-era statues on public lands. It may animate those with a dog in the race, so to speak, like African-Americans, some wistful white Southerners and pigeons. But the conventional community wisdom is that it is hardly an issue that need concern us.

Before explaining why I disagree, some facts (always a good idea):

While those who oppose the removal of public-space statues honoring Confederate leaders assert that only a tiny minority of radical, “progressive” elements wish to take down the stone tributes, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that more than a quarter of all Americans favored removing the statues. Another 19% said they were conflicted.

The statues, moreover, their advocates maintain, are merely meant to honor brave Civil War heroes who fought for their vision of the United States.

The vast majority of the controversial statues, however, were erected well after the end of that war, and in fact peaked in the early and mid-1900s. Just when, as it happens, many states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise black Americans.

Historians don’t consider that confluence of events to be meaningless. As James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, observed: “These statues were meant to create legitimate garb for white supremacy. Why [else] would you put a statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in 1948 in Baltimore?”

Moving from facts to assertions, the statue-protectors claim that history will be threatened by the monuments’ removals, as the statues are reminders of the war that split the nation during the early 1860s.

History, though, is safe, preserved as it has been and will continue to be, by more effective means than stone figures, things like history books and school curricula.

Finally, those who oppose tampering with the monuments point out that there will be no end to such undertakings. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, after all, were slave owners. Shall we dismantle their memorials too? As President Trump asked rhetorically at his August 15 press conference, “Where does it stop?”

That latter argument seems reasonable at first thought; but at second thought, less so. The statues that many citizens feel don’t belong on public land are of men who championed or symbolize slavery, not those who simply, like countless Americans, took advantage of the institution when it was a regrettable but accepted social norm.

And, contrary to the view of a handful of suddenly popular revisionist historians, while the Civil War was fought for a number of reasons, like states’ rights and economic independence, slavery was, in the words of the Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens, “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” of Southern independence. Stephens continued by explaining that the Confederacy rested “upon the great truth that the negro [sic] is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

There was a reason, after all, that all of the Confederate states were slave states, and that all of the free states remained in the Union.

Why, though, should we care about the statues? The answer, in a word, is empathy.

Leave aside the very real implications here of darkei shalom – which is not, as some “scholars” suggest, some “meta-halachic” novelty but the expression of an essential Torah concept. Feeling the pain of another is a central mussar goal. And while it may most directly have impact on the pain of fellow members of Klal Yisrael – our own “family” – the middah itself stands on its own as an ideal, one to be cultivated and internalized.

That millions of fellow human beings are offended by towering reminders of their dreadful history in our country should at very least make us consider “what is hateful,” to use Rabi Akiva’s formulation, to us, to wonder how we would feel were there a swastika monument, or a statue of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell – who merely hated and didn’t really harm Jews – on the front lawn of a courthouse or in a public park.

If one’s answer to that question is “eh, no big deal,” then unconcern for the hundreds of public tributes to proponents of the enslavement and mistreatment of a people is at least consistent.

But if one’s answer is that a stone swastika or a Nazi on a pedestal, his hand outstretched in tribute to his vision, is offensive, then we need to recognize, and appreciate, why others are irritated by very real tributes to very real racism.

© 2017 Hamodia

Blood of the Right Sort

During Germany’s accursed Third Reich, the U.S. immigration system severely limited the number of German Jews admitted to the country to about 26,000 annually. But even that quota was less than a quarter filled during most of the Nazi era, because of strict requirements put in place by the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Whether FDR’s personal sentiments about Jews – he once dismissed pleas on behalf of Jewish refugees as “Jewish wailing” and “sob stuff” – had anything to do with that policy can’t be known, but that they existed can’t be denied.

Nor can Mr. Roosevelt’s conviction that immigration should be limited to those who had “blood of the right sort.”

Back in February, President Trump famously admitted that “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” For some of us, at least, no less complicated is the issue of immigration.

Last week, the president embraced a proposal to slash legal immigration to the United States in half within a decade by sharply curtailing the ability of American citizens and legal residents to bring family members into the country.

The plan is intended to stem the flow of newcomers to the U. S., in keeping with the president’s contention that the country has taken in too many low-skilled immigrants, to the detriment of American workers.

But there are studies that have shown that immigration does not have a negative effect on American jobs, and may even have a positive one. Some Republicans, in fact, are opposing the president’s initiative. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, for instance, asserted that “If this proposal were to become law, it would be devastating to our state’s economy, which relies on this immigrant work force.”

Many of us, mindful of the regular exhortations of Islamist fanatics that their followers infiltrate Western countries and kill “infidels,” and of the terrorist attacks we have all too often seen, may regard any restriction on immigration as something to celebrate. It isn’t 1938, after all, and Jews aren’t seeking refuge.

But we do well to bear in mind that, according to the Government Accountability Office, between September 12, 2001 and December 31, 2016, there were 23 fatal “Radical Islamist” attacks in the U.S., resulting in a total of 119 deaths (more than half, from two attacks, the San Bernardino and Orlando massacres), but fully 62 fatal “far-right violent extremist-motivated attacks” (although leading to “only” 106 deaths).

And to recognize that legal immigration to the U.S. is overwhelmingly from Mexico, China and India, not exactly hotbeds of Islamism. (Next on the list are the Philippines and Cuba.)

The president’s proposal should be of great concern to us. Under its terms, it would not even allow American citizens to sponsor their aged or infirm parents to immigrate to the United States.  And it is unclear whether it will provide any way to sponsor religious workers, who are very important to our community.

But beyond those practical concerns, and perhaps more important, it would be unseemly for a community like ours, whose recent forebears were immigrants, most largely unskilled and penniless, to publicly endorse new limits on immigration. Or even to feel comfortable about it to ourselves. Might hakaras hatov extend to intangibles like immigration policies? It’s hardly unthinkable.

Worthy of note, here, is the response given by Stephen Miller, the president’s policy adviser and long-time opponent of immigration, when a reporter asked him about some words at the base of the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Mr. Miller noted that “the poem that you’re referring to was added later… It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

Indeed. The poem, “The New Colossus,” was written by Emma Lazarus, scion of German Jewish immigrants (long before the Nazi era), and was only later placed on a plaque at the statue.

It was referenced by rabid anti-Semite David Duke, who wrote: “As I looked into the American fight over immigration laws during the last 100 years, the driving force behind opening America’s borders became evident: It was organized Jewry, personified by the poet Emma Lazarus.”

For its part, the white nationalist website Stormfront includes an article titled “Give Me Your Huddled Masses – The Jewess who tried to destroy the U.S.!”

Jews (and Jewesses) have, of course, long been an important part of the American tapestry, as have natives of countries around the world. There is a need to ensure the safety of the citizenry, and vetting of potential immigrants is necessary – and is done.

But when considering new restrictions on legal immigration, we are wise to focus on facts, and to remember our own history in this great land.

© Hamodia 2017

Empowering Ehrlichkeit

If you live in New York City and order a sliced bagel (unlike if you ordered it uncut), you owe sales tax on the item. And if you bought gasoline in New Jersey, you owe tax to New York for the purchase.

There are many arcane technical violations of law (some quite amusing, like talking to someone in an elevator in New York State, or hanging clothes on an outdoor clothesline without a license) of which most otherwise smart people are ignorant, and of which otherwise upright people are regularly guilty. And then there are laws that most of us do know about and willfully ignore, like the prohibition to exceed posted speed limits.

Then, of course, there are serious crimes that are not only prosecutable but rightly prosecuted, like identity theft, Ponzi schemes and egregious tax evasion.

There is also, however, a broad gray area of questionable actions, particularly in realms like tax deductions and participation in government programs, that may or may not be committed intentionally, and may or may not even be clear violations of the law.

Many otherwise honest Americans, including some in the Orthodox community, have fallen prey to making decisions that they may think fall on the right side of the legal/illegal line but in fact do not. And some have even convinced themselves that being on the wrong side of that line isn’t really so terrible.

It is, though, at least in our community. Not only because, if discovered (as it often is), it causes the guilty and their families and their fellow Jews a black eye (and sometimes worse), but also simply because, well, it is not ehrlich.

That Yiddish word, for the uninitiated, refers to something of a combination of “honest” and “honorable.” It is a most important Jewish concept.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, the Rav of Khal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights for nearly four decades, famously said at an Agudath Israel “Halacha Conference for Accountants,” on January 24, 1989, that “Those who resort to… dishonesty…while they may have the outward appearance of G-d-fearing Jews, deep down… are irreligious.” Because, he explained, Hashem provides us what we are destined to have; to steal is to deny that fact. He bemoaned the fact that Hashem’s people are viewed as defrauders, and said he pined for the day “when there will be a new definition for ‘to Jew’: to be a stickler for honesty.”

Rav Avrohom Pam, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, ailing and near the end of his life, recorded a heartfelt speech on November 22, 2000. It was screened the next day at that year’s Agudath Israel convention. The anguish in his voice was born not of his illness but of the pain he felt at having to address the issue.

He characterized a good Jew as someone who is “ehrlich in his profession, in business, with… workers, with… partners…”

When one arrives in the next world, Rav Pam said, quoting the Gemara, “the very first question he is asked is ‘Did you conduct your business with emunah [in good faith]?’”

The word emunah is used there, he explained, echoing Rabbi Schwab – because acting dishonestly in order to “supplement” our income denies G-d’s ability to provide us our sustenance.

Both Gedolim also stated clearly that the same honesty with which a Jew must interact with another Jew must characterize a Jew’s dealings with non-Jews.

I am not writing these recollections or what follows with reference to any recent happening. Only a fool would deign to make assumptions about anyone accused of a crime; both in Jewish law and American law, moreover, the presumption of innocence is a given.

But it can’t be denied that, over the years, there have been confirmed cases of actions, or inactions, by members of the community that were clearly illegal. That reality is unfortunate, and defies easy explanation.

Some suggest – to try to explain the phenomenon, not excuse it – that since religious Jews feel a singularly strong connection to earlier generations, some individuals may have “inherited” a feeling that government – as was the case many years past in other lands – is inherently corrupt, and its laws unworthy of full respect. While there are certainly cases where the American justice system acts unjustly (see: Rubashkin), all know (or should) that the United States is qualitatively different from the oppressive and unethical regimes under which Jews lived for centuries. We American Jews are the most fortunate Jews over the course of our galus.

Others see lapses of honesty to have been born of desperation, itself birthed by the extraordinary pressures brought to bear on observant families, who face special and substantial expenses.  That theory too, is offered not to excuse misdeeds, but as the sociological background against which they need to be regarded.

Whatever might (or might not) explain how members of communities beholden to halachah can come to do things that are not ehrlich, it behooves us all to look inward. There is a reason our Viduy is in plural (“ashamnu…”). If anyone in Klal Yisrael is guilty of a sin, on some level it implicates us all. Kol Yisrael areivim.

One worthy pursuit we might consider is intensified education about financial rectitude. Things like Agudas Yisrael’s recent “Law of the Land” webinars and its Halacha Conferences’ business tracks are examples worth emulating. As are the “V’asisa Hayashar V’hatov” events of several years ago, which were created by R’ Chaim Gross, z”l, a Vizhnitzer chassid and (ybl”c) R’ Shmuel Dovid Spira. Knowledge in this realm is crucial, as the lines of the law are not always clear.

But it behooves us, too, as parents and mechanchim, to more often and more forcefully stress the importance of ehrlichkeit. The stories of Gedolim that we relate to our young, which enter their minds and souls at the “ground floor,” so to speak, and color their consciences over their lifetimes, should prominently include not only narratives about the hasmadah and Torah-knowledge and ahavas Yisrael of those who inspire us, but their meticulous honesty and acts of Kiddush Hashem no less. There are many such accounts; they need to be a major part of the “curriculum” and greatly emphasized.

And then there is a sociological change that so needs to be fostered.

Our society has come to regard things that are in truth luxuries as necessities. Much (though certainly not all) of the economic pressures so many of us feel derives from a perceived need for a certain kind of home or car or vacation or summer bungalow. There’s nothing wrong with a late model car or overseas trip – if one can easily afford them. But there very much is if one cannot.

Something akin to shame is felt by those of us who, nebbich (sarcasm intended), have a one-man-band at a child’s chasunah, or have run-down furniture, or old, stained carpets, or can’t afford Chol Hamoed trips or summer camps (yes, summer camps; they are wonderful, but there are other options) for our families.

But with all due concern for chasunah bands, the frum entertainment industry and camps (and florists and planners…), none of their products are necessities. The fact that many readers may be shocked by that contention is a sign of the very problem that needs addressing. Is “keeping up with the Jonessteins” a Jewish value? What begets that attitude, we need to realize, is something forbidden by one of the Aseres Hadibros.

There is dignity in being of modest means. We need to recapture it. Was the Chofetz Chaim dignified? Is, ybl”c, Rav Steinman, shlit”a? No need, one hopes, to answer.

And even for those who are financially fortunate, there is dignity in modesty. We have, laudably, toned down our simchos over the years, at our Gedolim’s request (if not always to the degree they suggested). By continuing and intensifying that trend, we do ourselves, our children, and theirs, a great service.

Why have we “upgraded” vorts to mini-chasusos, and chasunos to British coronations?  Why aren’t a Shabbos Kiddush and a pizza-and-doughnut weekday meal for his classmates a sufficient celebration for a Bar Mitzvah?

Here’s a radical suggestion, born of a recent chasunah held in a hall without a kosher kitchen. The seudah was buffet style, brought in by the caterer and kept hot with Sterno. It was a second marriage for both the chassan and the kallah, so that may not have been remarkable. Such an arrangement would surely raise eyebrows at a regular chasunah. But maybe it should raise our consciousness instead. The guests were all well-fed and the joy of the event was unhampered. I don’t know how much money was saved, but my guess is that it was substantial. Must we all have our simchos in elaborate halls, with smorgasbords and a seudah, and with our food served to us by waiters?

There are, of course, truly destitute families out there. But if those in the “middle class,” for whom the luxuries (using the definition above) are manageable, if financially straining, would choose to forgo them, they would be alleviating pressure not only on themselves but on the truly needy. It won’t pay the poor’s food and rent, to be sure, but it will help them feel a bit less “left behind.” Can you imagine the degree of zechus in that?

What, though, of the needs of those who are unable to meet even modest expectations? Klal Yisrael, being a nation of gomlei chassadim, providers of kindnesses, has among its members people of means who, individually or through various tzeddakos, help those in true need. But maybe something greater is needed, a sort of “Parnassah Superfund.”

It would entail the manhigim of each community (definition of which to be determined) appointing a person or small panel of people to administer a fund to which all the non-destitute members of the kehillah donate, say 5% of their yearly income. The fund’s overseers would discreetly distribute monies from the fund to families unable to shoulder all their financial burdens – food, shelter, tuition and modest simchos (yes, buffet-style). A sort of communal “single-payer” Jewish welfare system.

This, of course, is essentially the time-honored kehillah model. It has fallen into disuse, other than in some chassidishe groups, due to blurred community lines and the proliferation of tzeddakos that focus on particular needs.

Those tzeddakos are wonderful, but communal Parnassah Superfunds to augment them would be more wonderful still. They might even help alleviate the tuition crisis, by providing schooling funds to parents who otherwise would have to rely on mosdos’ scholarships.

Needless to say, such a project could only succeed with the participation of all the non-destitute members of a community, each according to his income. But if “community” is carefully defined, it might be a workable model.

And the Superfunds would also serve to unify each community – and all communities – in a common venture, empowering the kol Yisrael areivim factor in only a positive way.

CNN’s New Low

One needn’t be a Trumpaholic to know that certain media have a way of “reporting” that undermines truths.

Take a recent CNN headline: “Christian man prays with Jerusalem Muslims as religious tensions flare.”

The text, accompanied by a large photograph, elaborates:

“Nidal Aboud stood out as one among many. As the men around him bowed, he made the sign of the cross. As they chanted their prayers, he read the Bible to himself… He was the only Christian among thousands of Muslims at Friday prayers in the Wadi el-Joz neighbourhood, outside the Old City of Jerusalem.”  The prayers pointedly took place there because Islamic authorities forbade Muslims from entering the Temple Compound after Israel placed metal detectors at entrances to the site.

It was, CNN helps us understand, a “simple interfaith moment… a touching example of cooperation in a time of conflict.”

The conflict, of course, is the utterly deranged reaction of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the Waqf to the installation of the metal detectors, after two Israeli guards were murdered by a Muslim fanatic who emerged from the Temple Compound with a gun that he, or others, had smuggled onto the site.

No, the Christian’s joining in the Muslim prayer wasn’t “a touching example” but, rather, a typical one, of how, when it comes to irrational animus toward Israel, very different kinds of people, of entirely disparate beliefs, find common cause.

“Mr.” to Us

Something recently reminded me of one of the many lessons I was privileged to be taught by Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, (pictured here with me at my wedding) who served as Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.

As an 18-year-old studying in the   Yeshivah in 1972, I watched him at first from afar, then learned from him up-close. The depth of his knowledge, his eloquent, brilliant analyses of Shas sugyos, and of history and science, made a deep impression on me.

His intellect and erudition, though, were mere tools with which he was gifted. His essence was his dedication to Torah, to emes, and to his talmidim – indeed, to all Klal Yisrael.

When I think back on the many times I telephoned Rav Weinberg from wherever I was living at the time to ask him a question about halachah or machshavah, or for an eitzah, I am struck by something I gave little thought to at those times: He was always available. And, I came to discover, not only to me. So many others – among them accomplished talmidei chachamim, rabbanim, and askanim – had also enjoyed a talmidRebbi relationship with Rav Weinberg. In my youthful self-centeredness, I had imagined him as my Rebbi alone.

Nor did his ongoing interactions with his talmidim prevent him from travelling wherever his services were needed. A sought-after speaker and arbitrator for individuals and communities alike, he somehow found time and energy for it all.

In the early 1980s, Rav Weinberg was asked to temporarily take the helm of a small   Yeshivah in Northern California that had fallen on hard times. He agreed to leave his home and position in Baltimore and become interim Rosh Yeshivah.

My wife and I and our three daughters lived in the community; I taught in the   Yeshivah and served as principal of the local Jewish girls’ high school. And so I was fortunate to have ample opportunity to be meshamesh Rav Weinberg, and to witness much I will always remember.

Like the time the yeshivah placed Rav Weinberg in a rented house, along with the yeshivah’s cooks – a middle-aged couple, recently immigrated from the Soviet Union.

Though Northern California has a wonderful climate, its winters can be cool, and the house’s heating system wasn’t working. The yeshivah administrator made sure that extra blankets were in the house, and an electric heater was procured for Rav Weinberg. (The cooks, it was figured, had been toughened by a colder clime).

After a week or two of chilly, rainy weather, it was evident that the Rosh Yeshivah had caught a bad cold. Someone went to his room to check the heater. It wasn’t there.

It was in the cooks’ room. Confronted with the discovery, Rav Weinberg sheepishly admitted to having relocated the heater. He “thought they might be cold” he explained.

We bought another heater. And learned a lesson.

But the particular memory that was recently jogged in my mind was of the yeshivah’s janitor. A young black man, his surname was Barnett. And that’s how we referred to him. “Hey, Barnett, how’s it going?” “Yo, Barnett, can you take care of this mess?” “Barnett, you working tomorrow?”

Once, Rav Weinberg heard one of us call out to the worker. Fixing his eyes on us, the Rosh   Yeshivah said, quietly but firmly, “Mr. Barnett,” pointedly articulating the “Mr.

What reminded me of that incident was a report about a commencement speech Supreme Court Justice John Roberts made at his son’s ninth-grade graduation from a prestigious New Hampshire school. He had much of worth to share with the boys, warning them, for instance, that their privileged lives will not insulate them from adversity, and suggesting that they take ten minutes a week to update and thank one of their former teachers with a written note (“Talk to an adult, let them tell you what a stamp is. You can put the stamp on the envelope”).

He also told them that, when they get to their new school, each of them should “walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash. Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school.”

And so I was naturally reminded by that advice of Rav Weinberg’s “Barnett lesson” – that kvod haadam extends to every rung of the social ladder (and all the more so within Klal Yisrael’s social order!).

Then, suddenly, I realized that Rav Weinberg’ yahrtzeit, Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, was mere days away.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© Hamodia 2017