Category Archives: Jewish Thought

First Amendment and Ninth Commandment

Most of us born and raised in this great country, an outpost of galus that offered our immigrant forebears unprecedented freedoms and protections, deeply appreciate not only those gifts but the Constitutional principles on which these United States stand. Among them, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The issue of that guarantee’s limits is currently a thing, thanks to one Alex Jones.

Mr. Jones is an extremely popular radio program host and the proprietor of a number of websites, most notably one called Infowars. He traffics in unfounded “reports” of conspiracies and nefarious actions by government and “globalist” agents.

He famously averred that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, an assertion that resulted in threats against bereaved parents of some of murdered children. He has also propagated the notion that Democratic lawmakers run a global child-trafficking ring, and that the U.S. government was involved in both the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. He has also claimed that the moon landing footage was fake, and that NASA is hiding secret technology and the deaths of thousands of astronauts.

Mr. Jones is in the news these days because of pending lawsuits by Sandy Hook victims’ parents and others against him, complaints by former staffers of his alleged racist or anti-Semitic behavior and, most recently, because of the removal of his posts and videos from top technology companies’ media platforms.

Enter the First Amendment.

Characterizing the tech companies’ decision to not host his misinformation as “censorship,” he says the move “just vindicates everything we’ve been saying.”

“Now,” he proclaimed in a tweet, “who will stand against Tyranny [sic] and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.”

No we’re not.

To be sure, distasteful opinions are legally protected in our country. In 1969, the Supreme Court held that even inflammatory rhetoric is protected unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Revolting as some of Alex Jones’ rants have been, they likely fall on the mutar side of that legal psak. But the rabble-rouser’s lament that, with the curbing of his exposure, the citizenry has been deprived of their last defense against tyranny (upper-cased, no less) is as hollow as the heads of his fans who act on his wild speculations.

In the end, though, no one is preventing Mr. Jones from promoting his untruths (or his products – the diet supplements and survivalist gear he profitably hawks between diatribes) from other rooftops, literal or electronic. The First Amendment limits only the actions of government, not private companies.

Jones, though, is also using the right to free speech as a defense against the lawsuits he’s facing.

One concerns Brennan Gilmore, a former State Department official who attended last summer’s violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mr. Gilmore was present when a man drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing a woman.

After Mr. Gilmore posted a video of the episode and spoke about it, Mr. Jones accused him of being a C.IA. plant employed by the billionaire George Soros, and as having possibly been involved in the attack on the woman to bring about what he described as “the downfall of Trump.”

In March, Mr. Gilmore sued Mr. Jones for defamation, arguing that he had suffered threats and harassment as a result of the unfounded claim.

Do such public speculations and conspiracy theories merit First Amendment protection, even when they cause harm to others?

In a recent court filing, four law professors specializing in free-speech issues said no.

“False speech does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does,” the scholars wrote. “And indeed, there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”

For what it’s worth, Donald Trump Jr. feels differently. He reacted to criticism of Mr. Jones by asserting that “Big Tech’s censorship campaign is really about purging all conservative media. How long before Big Tech and their Democrat friends move to censor and purge… other conservatives [sic] voices from their platforms?”

Judges will decide, at least with regard to American law. As believing Jews, though, we know that there really is no hallowed ideal of “free speech.” The unique ability with which the Creator endowed us, the ability to communicate ideas, is not an “inalienable right” but a formidable responsibility. “From a word of falsehood stay distant” (Shemos 23:7) and “Do not give false testimony against your neighbor” (ibid 20:13) comprise our duty.

Would that American jurisprudence, even as it protects unpopular opinion, recognize the import of that charge.

© 2018 Hamodia

A Clear and Present Danger

Myriad dangers confront us and our children in the wider world. There is no need to go into detail about the various threats to our health, safety and welfare “out there.”

But then there is a clear threat to our wellbeing that is very much “in here” – part, unfortunately, of our very own world.

While the percentage of American smokers has been dropping, there are still more than 30 million users of tobacco in the U.S. today, and all too many of them, regrettably, are in the Torah-observant Jewish community.

There was a time when smoking was regarded as a harmless pastime – even, amazingly to us today, a healthy one. (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” boasted one 1940s ad.) Even in less distant times, the inhalation of tobacco smoke has been seen as repulsive but not suicidal.

These days, though, no one denies that smoking is a major factor in contracting terrible ailments, including heart disease and lung cancer.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by illegal drug and alcohol abuse, vehicular injuries, suicides and murders.

Combined.

In the U.S., the mortality rate for smokers is three times that of people who never smoked. In fact, the CDC says that smoking is the most common “preventable cause of death” in the country.

“Smoking,” the agency notes, “harms nearly every organ of the body” and contributes not only to heart disease and a host of cancers but to strokes and reproductive problems.

And yet, seemingly oblivious Yidden can be seen outside shuls every erev Shabbos trying to ingest enough tar and nicotine (and, in fact, formaldehyde, lead and arsenic) to get them through the next 25 hours. And rushing out after Maariv on Motzoei Shabbos to resume their close relationships with the proven poison.

Their habit harms not only themselves but their families. Even leaving aside the specter of wage earners’ early deaths, second-hand smoke is a danger in itself. And, even in the short term and even for those who don’t smoke at home, a half-pack-a-day habit can strain the family budget to the tune of a couple thousand dollars a year.

The poison-puffers have defenses, of course, against the charge that they are harming themselves and their loved ones. Such and such a Rebbe or Gadol, they object, smoked, after all, and Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, permitted smoking…

But illustrious figures of the past didn’t know the extent of the harm tobacco can wreak, and Rav Moshe’s permission was based on the principle of “shomer pesayim Hashem” – that “Hashem protects fools” (Tehillim 116:6). Fooldom is not a club to which most self-respecting people aspire; and, in any event, there is a point where foolhardiness devolves into willful blindness to established fact.

Rav Moshe’s other words, moreover, are widely ignored. In the same teshuvah he exhorted Jews to not begin smoking due to the “chashash sakanah,” the “possibility of danger.” It is no longer a mere possibility.

And then there’s the other danger our smoking poses to our children, beyond second-hand smoke, from the example being set for them.

Our community doesn’t just talk the talk of caring about our kids. We walk the walk. In fact, we run the run. We make sure that they are well-fed and clothed, that they receive strong Jewish educations, that they are mechunachim in mitzvos, and imbued with love for Torah and a Torah life. And we know that the most important part of chinuch is the example we set for our young. None of us, I hope, would think of acting in a dangerous, repulsive or irresponsible manner in front of our children.

Smoking is dangerous, repulsive and irresponsible.

Not enough? Obama smokes. Okay? (Oy, what I will resort to in order to make a point.)

There is good news, though. Although smoking’s damage to a body can last for years, most of the effects of the habit are not immediate, and many of them can be reversed if a smoker quits.

If a smoker quits.

I see an opportunity here for some enterprising tzorchei-tzibbur-minded individual: a Torah-based Smokers Anonymous, a group of frum smokers who want to quit but who may need the support of others like themselves to succeed in doing so.

But first, of course, there have to be smokers who want to quit.

Please come forth, and soon.

© 2018 Hamodia

A Fish’s Smile

I was accosted recently on the Staten Island Ferry by a large fish.

Well, not exactly. It was actually a large photograph of a fish, on a poster carrying the legend: “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the individual. Go vegan.”

Yes, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” or PETA, has taken its efforts to the high seas. And, although some of the other animals featured on similar posters in the “I’m ME” campaign elsewhere are not particularly charming – it’s hard to make a cow or chicken (much less a lobster) look friendly – the fish whose gaze met mine as I took a seat on the boat and looked to my right was decidedly endearing.

Because he (she?) was smiling.

Or appeared to be. That’s because the sea creatures Hashem created include not just astoundingly colorful and morphologically remarkable species but some that have what strike humans as expressive, almost human, faces. Some look angry, others perplexed – others, like the one on the poster, happy, friendly.

None of those faces, though, in fact reflects any of those human traits, any more than a smiley-face sticker means the sticker is happy. We might be able to tell when a dog is pleased, but when we imagine animals expressing truly human emotions, we are unconsciously anthropomorphizing them – attributing quintessentially human traits to creatures lacking them. There are photographs of “smiling” sharks too.

Of course, trying to convince people that, as PETA’s founder and president Ingrid Newkirk once famously put it, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” is the group’s raison d’être.

It even went so far, in 2003, to promote what it called its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, comparing the meat processing industry to Churban Europa. The traveling exhibit juxtaposed World War II death camp photographs with scenes in animal slaughter facilities.

Emaciated men were shown next to a gaggle of chickens; pigs behind bars, beside starving children behind barbed wire; mounds of human remains beside mounds of cow carcasses. In one panel, above the legend “Baby Butchers,” mothers and children in striped garb were shown staring through the barbed wire of a concentration camp; alongside them, a similar shot of caged… piglets.

Ms. Newkirk once commented that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” Try wrapping a normal brain around that comparison.

A half-hearted “apology” eventually came, but only for the “pain” the exhibit may have caused. Ms. Newkirk expressed her surprise at the negative reaction. She had “truly believed,” she wrote, “that a large segment of the Jewish community would support” the exhibit, and was “bowled over by the negative reception.” Disturbingly, she laid responsibility for the ill-advised campaign on “PETA staff [who] were Jewish.” Ah, the Jews.

A longtime and still employed slogan of the group, in fact, is “Meat is Murder.” But it’s not. Meat is food. At least since the Mabul, the Torah not only permits meat-eating, it encourages it on Shabbos and Yamim Tovim as a means of enjoying and hence showing honor to holy times.

Few if any religious cultures are as concerned with animals as our mesorah. Not only were two of the three Avos, not to mention Moshe Rabbeinu, caring shepherds, but there is a halachic prohibition of tzaar baalei chaim.

And in actual practice, observant Jews are exquisitely sensitive to animal well-being. I recall as a young boy how my father scooped two injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them. In my own home, even insects are captured and released rather than killed. (I won’t subject readers again to the menagerie of pets – the goat, iguana, tarantula and assortment of rodents – the Shafran family has hosted. Sorry, guess I just did.) I am careful, as per the Talmud’s exhortation regarding animals, to feed my own tropical fish before I sit down myself to dinner.

But the Torah is clear that animals are for human use. We can hold them captive, we can work them and we can eat them. We can, indeed must, when there is a Beis Hamikdash, bring them as korbanos.

The “PETA Principle,” paralleling animals with humans, subtly lies at the root of much that is wrong with our world. But humans alone make moral choices; animals do not. And conflating the two worlds shows disdain for the specialness of the human being.

A rat may be, in a way, a pig, and a pig a dog.

None of them, though, is a boy.

And fishes don’t smile.

© 2018 Hamodia

 

 

Us, Them and the Deep State

Hamodia opted to not publish my column submission for this week, so I post it here instead.

The two thirds of the American populace that objected to the policy of removing children from their illegal immigrant parents at the southern border emitted a collective sigh of relief last week. President Trump, in a stunning turnabout, signed an executive order intended to stop the practice.

Although there are logistical and legal issues still to be resolved and subsequent presidential tweets to try to reconcile with the executive order, the president demonstrated the courage to publicly jettison his repeated claim that he was powerless to act, that only a larger action by Democrats in Congress could end the separation policy. He deserves credit for that move.

Before his reversal, though, the administration’s policy was to treat people who entered the country illegally as felons rather than civil violation offenders (first-time illegal entry is a misdemeanor). Children, even very young ones, were taken from their parents against their will, and the policy was broadly decried. Among the decriers was Agudath Israel of America, which expressed its “deep concern and disappointment” over the resultant “profound suffering and pain to both parents and children.”

The Agudah statement acknowledged that the “problem of illegal immigration is a serious one, and we support reasonable efforts by the administration and legislature to effectively stem the flow of would-be immigrants who have not been accepted through the legal immigration system.” But it contended that “seeking to enforce our statutes does not relieve us of [our] moral obligation” to prevent “the extreme anguish, fear and trauma born of separating undocumented immigrant family members, which is particularly harmful to children.”

The reaction to Agudath Israel’s statement was broad and diverse. There were many expressions of gratitude for its issuance, from both members of our community and others. But there were a number of negative reactions too. I serve as the Agudah’s liaison with the media and public, and so those reactions landed in my inbox, some with quite a thud.

They confirmed something that (as regular readers of this space well know) has pained me for years: the prevalence of gross, fervent and unthinking partisanship.

A legitimate question asked by several people was why the Agudah felt the need to comment on the situation at all. The organization does not, of course, regularly comment on events that lack direct impact on the Jewish community.

The knowledge, though, that wailing children were being taken from their parents was wrenching not only to a broad swath of the larger American public but to a wide swath, too, of Klal Yisraelrachmanim, after all, bnei rachmanim. So, it was not inappropriate for us to register our pain. And, with scores of religious groups registering their own protests of the policy, some of them quite harshly, it was felt that, should the Agudah say nothing, it would be assumed to approve of the policy.

Striking, though, was the lack of information that underlay some other (often vociferous) complaints. Several people, “informed” presumably by news sources that richly deserve the adjective “fake,” insisted that “the law” requires family breakups, and that the policy of considering unlawful entrants to be criminals had been in place under previous administrations.

When I explained that there was and is no such law, and that the policy of automatically considering illegal entrants to our country deserving of incarceration and the seizing of their children was mere weeks old, they seemed taken aback.

Others apprised us that a “deep state” plot, or Democratic Party conspiracy, was clearly at play; others were upset that we dared “attack” a sitting president, although we took care in our statement to not even mention the president or attorney general, and lamented only the upshot of an unfortunate policy. When, in past years, the Agudah issued statements critical of the Obama administration for joining the U.N. Human Rights Council or fostering the Iran Deal, no complaints, to the best of my memory, were registered.

Some correspondents, seemingly having read only part of the statement, interpreted the Agudah’s expression of humanitarian concern as advocacy for “open borders.” As if there are only two options: wrenching kids from their parents’ arms or having the country overrun by a horde of Aztec invaders.

The acutely politicized, black-and-white, “us-and-them” and often woefully misinformed mentality in parts of our world is lamentable. Intelligent, informed opinions on current events cannot be gleaned from talk radio hosts or blatantly partisan news organizations. Astuteness requires middos tovos, the consideration of different points of view and the application of that most important of skills: critical thinking.

And their lack poorly serves the mission of Klal Yisrael.

© 2018 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Klal Yisrael Matters

A “scandalous letter” in the files of Israel’s official rabbinate “reflects ignorance,” delivers “a severe blow” to Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and “abandons the religious system in Israel to haredi hands.

Thus spake Assaf Benmelech, whose organization, “Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah,” seeks to promote “open and tolerant discourse” within Orthodoxy.

Indeed.

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

Human Uniqueness

In the course of a public roundtable discussion about immigration and crime, a few days before Shavuos, President Trump made a comment that provoked some outrage.

“You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are,” he said, about certain illegal immigrants. “These aren’t people, these are animals.”

The president was immediately assailed for what critics assumed was a crass dehumanization of foreigners. Stress on “immediately” and “assumed.”

Because had the critics taken the time to examine Mr. Trump’s comment in its context, they could have based what comments they had on facts, not assumptions.

But, no doubt recollecting some of presidential candidate Trump’s harsher campaign declarations about Mexicans, Muslims and others, some of those who see him as a danger to democracy didn’t look at what he actually said but, rather, chose to suppose.

“We are all G-d’s children,” scolded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum declared that “Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot all called their opponents ‘parasites’ or ‘vermin’ or ‘animals’.  Dehumanization is what you do to unwanted social groups before killing them.”

The Trump-Hitler comparison became a meme of the moment in certain parts of the social media planet.

The president took delight in exposing the overreaction, since his “animals” comment was clearly made with reference to violent criminal elements, some of whom have committed unspeakable acts of murderous, cruel violence. Earlier at the event, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims had referred to the violent criminal gang MS-13. While the gang started in Los Angeles and includes many American citizens, its members are ethnic Central Americans, and the need to prevent suspected members from coming across our border illegally is a no-brainer.

But I still have an objection to the president’s characterization of violent criminals.

It’s unfair to animals.

My family has played host at various times to a goat, an iguana, assorted rodents and a tarantula.  (Witnessing the large spider’s shedding of its skin to emerge with a new, radiant one is an unforgettable experience.) I exult at watching the inhabitants of my aquarium (we recently welcomed new brood of baby guppies and mollies – mazel tov!), and the birds, squirrels and deer that pass our way are always appreciated.

I recently watched a carpenter bee excavate a perfect circle on the underside of the wooden maakeh on our deck, knowing that she will abruptly turn at a right angle to continue her tunnel horizontally, and create a tunneled-out bedroom for her progeny.

The wonders of the world Hashem created are ceaseless, and the amazing behaviors of the countless creatures He placed on earth, if viewed with honest eyes, must astound.

And each of those behaviors is ingrained in the species. To be sure, some are violent; Tennyson’s observation of nature’s being “red in tooth and claw” holds true. But animals who kill do so for food or survival, and act out of instinct, not as a result of choice.

Unlike humans, who can never be deemed innocent of horrific crimes on the claim that they were compelled by their nature. The specialness of the human lies in his ability to resist base inclinations, to use the astonishing gift we have been given: free will.

Calling a human who has made a choice to act cruelly or to wantonly maim or kill others an animal does an immense disservice to the animal kingdom, whose members do what they do because it is their immutable nature. And, worse, it subtly muddles the meaning of the outrage we should feel at human acts of violence or cruelty.

We live in times when some contend that there is no qualitative difference between an animal and a human being, that we are as hard-wired and predictable in our behavior as any lion, tarantula or carpenter bee. The upshot of that view is a world where there is no more meaning to right and wrong than there is to right and left.

That amoral philosophy stands in the starkest contrast to what the Torah teaches us: We are not animals but choosers, owners of our actions.

President Trump was riffing, of course, not philosophizing, at the recent public roundtable. And his point, no matter how one may feel about immigration policy, wasn’t to sow hatred for foreigners, much less to dehumanize any “unwanted social groups before killing them.”

He was just trying to express the depth of his contempt for people who have made the choice to profit from the torture and murder of others. The truest description of such people, though, isn’t “animals” but “choosers of evil,” something more heinous by far.

© 2018 Hamodia

Checking Out… and Checking In

Dr. David Goodall is no longer with us.

The 104-year-old scientist travelled to Switzerland from his home in Australia last week, weary of life and in a wheelchair, but not otherwise disabled or seriously ill, and ended his life. Assisted suicide is legal in the Australian state of Victoria, but only, to Dr. Goodall’s vexation, for the “terminally ill.”

In Switzerland, though, anyone of sound mind can opt to dispatch himself, and Dr. Goodall was assisted in his suicide plans by the groups “Lifecircle,” “Eternal Spirit” and “Exit International,” all dedicated to helping people achieve their demises. A representative of the latter group accompanied him on his trip.

Exit International also, it was reported, launched a funding campaign to help upgrade the scientist, presumably at his request, to business class.

That last, seemingly irrelevant, detail got me thinking. A man is done with the world, about to end his life. But he’d like more legroom.

At first thought, hey, why not? But on second one, his preference struck me as oddly relevant to the issue of assisted suicide itself, which has been legalized in several states, and which a bill before the New York State legislature proposes to do in the Empire State.

Needless to say, we must oppose such “progress.” While it is hard to argue against personal autonomy, permitting people to enlist doctors to end their lives opens a Pandora’s box of horribles.

Among them, as my Agudath Israel colleague Rabbi Mordechai Biser recently testified before the New York State Assembly Health Committee, are pressures patients would feel from doctors or family members to choose suicide; the inequalities of health care delivery systems that tend to discriminate against the poor, handicapped and elderly; the psychological vulnerability of the severely ill; and the risk of misdiagnoses.

He also spoke of “the historical disapprobation of suicide… one of the pillars of civilized societies throughout the generations”; and noted that, in many cases, better treatment of pain or depression could dissuade a patient from seeking death.

All true, of course. But I find myself pondering… that business class upgrade. I think it signifies – at least in this case – an attitude about life that is the antithesis of the Jewish one.

I remember once being asked by a reporter about Judaism’s stance on a certain “woman’s right.” I explained that Judaism isn’t about rights, but responsibilities. There could be no more basic a Jewish truism, of course, yet the reporter found it astonishing, admitting that she had “never thought of life that way.”

I tried not to let my own bewilderment at that statement show, but the fact that so fundamental a Jewish concept had been eye-opening to the reporter was, well, eye-opening to me.

It shouldn’t have been. The operative principle of so many people’s lives today is the pursuit of possessions, comforts and, yes, rights. They ask not, to paraphrase JFK’s speechwriter, what they can do with the gift of life, but rather what the gift of life can do for them.

And so a man about to end his life is understandably concerned, even until that end, with extra legroom. Chap arein.

Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, once recounted the saga of a young Jewish man who, in a swimming accident, became a quadriplegic.

The handicapped man had told Rav Weinberg how the first twenty-odd years of his life had been  spent enjoying athletics, and how his fateful accident had seemed at the time more devastating than death.

Now he was hampered by his condition not only from swimming but from so much as scratching an itch on his own. He could not even, he discovered, kill himself, which he desperately wanted to do. And no one would help him achieve his desire.

Frustrated by his inability to check out, he was forced, so to speak, to check in – inward, to a world of thought and ideas. Pushed from a universe of action, he entered one of mind.

If his life is indeed now worthless, he reflected, then was swimming and scratching literal and figurative itches really all that defined its meaning before?

That question led him to the realization that a meaningful life is independent of a physically active one. And he was led, in time, to his forefathers’ faith. Later, he mused that his paralysis had been a gift; for without it he would have remained a mere swimmer.

Dr. Goodall never realized what the ex-swimmer did about life, and was gratified to be able to spend a few of his final hours in business class.

© 2018 Hamodia

A Tale of Two Speeches

I had the honor of making two public presentations in recent days, one to second grade students at the impressive Yeshiva Beth Yehudah in Southfield, Michigan; and the other, to students and members of the public at the University of Maryland.

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