Category Archives: issues of morality or ethics

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

Make Learning, Not War

I don’t know about you, but until President Trump’s trip to the Middle East last month, I had never heard of a “sword dance.”

Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, you’ll recall, were welcomed to Saudi Arabia at the Murabba Palace, near Riyadh, where they joined a lively group of Saudis clad in traditional Arab garb and headdress in a ceremony known as the ardah, whose choreography includes the brandishing of swords, in rhythm with tribal chanting and drumming.

Sword dances, I came to discover, are a feature of much of the Arab world, but also of other cultures, like those of China, Turkey, India and Pakistan.

A sword is also the image on the Saudi national flag, and weapons of various sorts are prominent in other countries’ flags as well, like Angola (a machete), Kenya (spears), Oman (swords) and Mozambique (an AK-47 and bayonet). Hands clenching two AK-47s are featured on the Fatah movement’s flag, which also includes the image of a hand grenade and is graced with some blood-red Arabic text as well. (I can’t find a translation of the words but am pretty sure they aren’t “give peace a chance.”) Hamas’ logo settles for swords…

To read further, please click here.

POTUS and the Piñata

“Fire this ignorant teacher for inciting violence against our POTUS,” read one of the many overheated comments to l’affaire piñata (forgive the language cholent). “More indoctrination from the filthy left,” contended another commenter. On the other side of the controversy was someone who wrote, “Um … This is genius. This teacher deserves a medal.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Colorado contretemps that birthed the above: A celebration of the Mexican cultural holiday of Cinco de Mayo at Roosevelt High School, in the Rocky Mountain state town of Johnstown, included an assault on the aforementioned POTUS, or President of The United States.

Well, the assault, while physical, wasn’t on Mr. Trump’s person but rather on his countenance, which graced a piñata, a papier-mâché figure traditionally filled with sweets, released by celebrants’ banging at the container with sticks until it breaks. Which it did here, leaving the president’s smiling, if deflated, image lying on the ground as the candies were liberated.

Whether the teacher who oversaw the celebration, who was quickly suspended, was guilty of any crime isn’t clear. The contention of some present that the other side of the piñata featured Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto certainly complicates any judgment.

The candy kerfuffle raises the issue of teachers’ conveying their personal political or social attitudes to their charges. That educators should not engage in overt politicking is entirely reasonable, of course; but entirely inevitable is that more subtle, and thereby more insidious, conveyances of their outlooks will take place.

I am reminded of my English class in 1970. Our teacher – I’ll call him Mr. Levin – was an unabashed liberal, an implacable foe of then-POTUS Richard Nixon, and a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, societal moral norms and all that stood in the way of what Mr. Levin considered progress. Teenage me, by contrast, was vocally contrarian whenever political or cultural matters came up in class readings, assignments and discussions; the teacher and I thus had many opportunities for what might politely be called dialectic. My grades in Mr. Levin’s class were not what I felt they deserved to be, but I attributed that to a persistent recurrence of the laziness with which I had been accurately diagnosed. I wondered, though, if there may have been more to my B’s and C’s than met the eyes.

And so, one day, when the members of the class were assigned to write a poem about any topic we chose, a devious idea dawned: I would write an entirely disingenuous anti-war sonnet, making no more of an effort than I ever did, just to see if it might affect my grade. I held my nose and did the deed. Sure enough, I received an A+, my first (and, I think, only) one. Mr. Levin even hailed my accomplishment in a glowing comment beneath the grade.

And people wonder why I can sometimes be cynical.

What I gleaned from that experience was the realization that grades sometimes reflect a grader’s biases rather than a gradee’s mastery of material or skill. And that teachers, being human, bring their personal attitudes and outlooks to their classrooms.

That truism escapes some public school parents, who delude themselves into thinking that their children’s minds are being filled with only facts and skills, not with the values of those into whose care they place their progeny. All classroom education, no matter the subject, involves a relationship between teacher and student. And so, the character and life-philosophy of a teacher is always – or always should be – an important consideration.

Including for those of us who entrust our children to Torah institutions. You won’t find anyone more dedicated than I to the view of secular education expressed by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. He rejected the valuation of secular studies as limited to their “practical utility,” an attitude, he maintained, that deprives young Jews from “the pure joy of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.” He asserted that secular learning can be “a road leading to the ultimate, more widespread dissemination of the truths of Judaism.”

But for that to be so, it must be transmitted by Jews who comprehend that purpose. If we dismiss “English,” the catch-all term for secular studies, as unimportant, and thus entrustable to teachers who have knowledge of facts but not the perspective for presenting them in a Torah context, we fail our children.

Creating a capable cadre of bnei Torah who can expertly teach writing, literature, science and history from an authentic Torah perspective requires the guidance of Gedolim. It is guidance, though, we do well to seek.

An edited version of this essay appears in Hamodia