Category Archives: Jewish Thought

A Lesson About Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 As the well-known Midrashic mashal has it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Hamodia

Who We Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur. 

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

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

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

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

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

© 2019 Hamodia

A column from 2010: Great Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Save the Mustard Seed

A Nordic effort reminds us of a mitzvah for our time.As Jews the world over listened to Krias HaTorah on Shabbos morning parashas Shoftim, someone at the New York Times was preparing to post a news story quite pertinent to a passuk in the parasha, although he or she was likely oblivious to the connection.

The passuk (Devarim 20:19) forbids the destruction of a fruit tree even during a war, and is the source for the prohibition of bal tashchis, the wanton destruction of anything useful.

The story, which appeared the very next day, was datelined Helsinki, Finland, and described “Happy Hour” at one of a supermarket chain’s 900 stores, all of which steeply discount hundreds of items about to run afoul of their expiration dates. Finns crowd the stores to buy the goods.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, close to a third of the food produced and packaged for human consumption is lost or wasted. Here in the United States, nine out of ten supermarket chains assessed last year by a nonprofit group, the Center for Biological Diversity, were given a C grade or lower on food-waste issues.

We citizens of industrialized western countries live, baruch Hashem, in a world of plenty. Suffering poverty might tempt someone to steal or cheat. But swimming in a sea of abundance presents its own challenges – like the temptation to overindulge, with resultant obesity and other health risks. And, for Klal Yisrael, the inadvertent flouting of bal tashchis.

I know from speaking with others that I am not the only one whose parents rinsed out plastic cups instead of throwing them away, or who refrigerated even small amounts of a meal’s leftovers rather than consigning them to the garbage. Or who opted to darn holey socks instead of just tossing them out and buying a new pair.

And I know, too, that I’m not the only one who tries – even if very imperfectly – to maintain the mindset that yields such practices. It is, after all, a very Jewish mindset.

Some stereotypes are outright falsehoods. Mexicans may take siestas (as do many Israelis) during the hottest time of the day, but all the workers from south of the border whom I’ve observed have been anything but lazy; in fact they are exceedingly hard-working.

The stereotype of Jews as penny-pinching, however, isn’t necessarily false, only mischaracterized.  While there may be people who are stingy for selfish reasons, frugality can – and in Yiddishkeit is meant to – bespeak a deep appreciation for the worth of every single resource with which Hashem has gifted us.

We are enjoined by the Torah to not waste material or money. “Each and every penny,” Rabi Elazar is famously quoted as saying, “adds up to a fortune” (Bava Basra 9b). And fortunes, we all know, can be put to very worthy and effective use. Those same Yidden from previous generations who sewed up holes in clothing and reused disposable utensils were impressively generous with their resources when it came to helping others.

There are, to be sure, situations where destroying or discarding a useful item is permitted, as when a greater good is thereby accomplished, or where there is some special need. Here is not the place to enter the realm of the halachic implications of our throw-away society. But that there exist actual such concerns with common contemporary practices is something that deserves our consideration.

The Finnish effort was spurred by the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change. Still and all, it might serve to stimulate us to take bal tashchis more seriously in this era of abundance and this annual time of teshuvah. Whatever our thoughts about carbon footprints, we are enjoined to recognize that wasting any resource debases it, and us.

Every year on Shabbos parashas Shoftim, I reread the words of the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 529). He explains that the bal tashchis prohibition aims to “teach our souls to love what is good and useful, and to then cleave to it,” adding that “through this, the good will cleave to us and we will distance ourselves from every evil thing and every destruction. This is the way of exemplary Jews, who love peace, rejoice in the good of creation and bring everyone close to the Torah.

“They do not destroy anything – even a mustard seed – and it pains them to encounter any destruction or harm. If they can act to save anything from destruction, they use all their strength to do so.”

“Not so,” he adds by contrast, is the way of resha’im, “the cohorts of mazikim [destructive forces], who rejoice in destroying the world.”

That attitudinal polarization is well evident in our world. Broken windows, smashed bottles and graffiti-marred walls are the yield of one end of the spectrum.

And rinsed-out plastic cups in dish drainers, with filled-to-their-brims tzedakah boxes on nearby kitchen window sills, the other.

© 2019 Hamodia

Media HIQ

Grass is green.

Gettysburg is where a major Civil War battle took place.

The Har HaBayis is where the Batei Mikdash stood.

Astoundingly, some news organizations seem ignorant of that last truism.

Last week, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi complained to E.U. ambassadors about “Israeli transgressions in the holy city,” more accurately described as Israeli police’s dispersion of rioting Muslim worshippers on Har HaBayis this past Tisha B’Av. Reporting on Mr. Safadi’s expression of righteous indignation, the Chinese news agency Xinhua referred to the holiest Jewish site on earth only as the “Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem.”

The report had Safadi going on to warn against what he sees as Israel’s attempt to “change the historical and legal status of Jerusalem” – ludicrously oblivious to, or shamelessly obscuring, the site’s actual history.

Of course, one doesn’t expect the People’s Republic of China to care a great deal about truth. Nor should one expect any important context from Al-Jazeera. That network’s report of the clash noted that it occurred on “the Jewish holiday [sic] of Tisha B’Av,” without any explanation of the doleful day’s significance to Jews. And Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, in its reportage, omits any mention of a Jewish connection to the Har HaBayis.

Yahoo News took a baby step further, noting that Jews “refer to [the place] as the Temple Mount” and adding that Jews “believe it was the site of the two biblical-era Jewish temples.”

Yes. We also believe that the Normandy coast was the site of the World War II-era D-Day invasion of France.

Kudos, though, to NBC News for its above-average HIQ (history intelligence quotient). It reported that the “the 37-acre esplanade [that] is home to Al-Aqsa Mosque” is Judaism’s holiest place because of “its history as the site of First and Second Temples.”

And even Reuters, which has something of a history of its own when it comes to Israel reportage, laudably identifies the location as “revered by Jews as Temple Mount, the site of two biblical Jewish temples.”

The Associated Press also gets a high HIQ score, for explaining that the Har HaBayis, while “currently the home of the iconic gold Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque,” was “the site of two Jewish temples in antiquity” and for explaining that “the Ninth of Av [is] a day of fasting and mourning for the destruction of the two biblical temples that, in antiquity, stood at the site.”

UPI, too, earns special mention for its story on the clashes, for referring to the site simply as the “Temple Mount.”

The truthfulness tide turned, I think, in 2015.

On October 8 of that year, The New York Times published a news article about Muslims’ and Jews’ relationship to the Har HaBayis, contending that the question of “the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone,” has “never [been] definitively answered.”

A deluge of incredulity followed– including a letter from this writer, who somewhat snootily observed that, “despite Palestinian insistence to the contrary… the central Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount nearly 1,500 years before Islam’s founder’s grandparents were born.”

More measured, and authoritative, was a missive from one of the experts whose view had been muddled in the article.  

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Professor Jodi Magness explained that “literary sources leave little doubt that there were two successive ancient temples in Jerusalem dedicated to the G-d of Israel… These sources and archaeological remains indicate that both temples stood somewhere on the Temple Mount. The only real question is the precise location of the temple(s) on the Temple Mount.”

The Times article was amended the following day, and a correction, echoing Professor Magness’ explanation, was duly published in the newspaper.

We who have been entrusted with preserving the Jewish mesorah – who face the Har HaBayis daily in tefillah, who beseech Hashem to rebuild Yerushalayim in our every tefillah and birchas hamazon, and who bemoan the churbanos in our tefillos Mussaf – have no need for scholarly or archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Batei Mikdash.

But a sweet note arrived just before our most recent observance of Tisha B’Av, when it was reported that archaeologists had just uncovered, in the words of CNN, “evidence of the Babylonian conquest of the city, appearing to confirm a Biblical account of its destruction.”

“The combination of an ashy layer full of artifacts, mixed with arrowheads, and a very special ornament indicates some kind of devastation and destruction,” explained University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Shimon Gibson.

It’s not likely that historical Jewish provenance of Yerushalayim and the Har HaBayis will be acknowledged any time soon by Xinhua or Al-Jazeera. But the fact that at least some major media have allowed themselves to become better educated on the subject is heartening.

May it be a harbinger that the fulfillment of our entreaty “chadesh yameinu k’kedem” – “renew our days as of old” – is quickly approaching.

© 2019 Hamodia

Crime and Capital Punishment

So accustomed are we to incarceration as punishment that it’s easy to forget that punitive confinement is entirely absent from the Jewish mesorah.

To be sure, the Torah allows for – and even describes two cases of – the jailing of suspects, but only as a temporary measure, until guilt is established or ruled out. The idea of prison as punishment is a relatively recent one, usually traced to the 18th century British philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham.

And, at least in the U.S., prisons often seem to harden criminals. I have often wondered if corporal punishment might present a less onerous and more effective deterrent. That idea might be shocking, but, the concept of long-term confinement with other criminals, were we not so used to it, would be just as disturbing.

Ironically, Bentham conceived of prison as a replacement for capital punishment. But while Britain, like all European countries except Belarus and Russia, no longer has a death penalty, here in the U.S., both prison and execution survive as penal institutions.

Several weeks ago, ending a 16-year moratorium on federal capital punishment, Attorney General William P. Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to schedule executions for five federal inmates on death row.

With that move, executions are now an option in cases of serious crimes, most commonly murder with aggravating factors, for the federal government, the military and 29 states.

The case for capital punishment is robust. From the Torah’s universal statement in Bereishis (9:6) that “Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed,” to the logic of death as a deterrent for would-be murderers, to the reasonable desire that potentially fatal menaces be permanently removed from society, to the high costs of lifetime incarceration, the idea that there are times when human life may properly be taken strikes most of us, “pro-life” as we may be, as rational.

There are those in other religious communities (and in some Jewish ones, too, that hew to values outside the mesorah) who disagree, of course, who consider the killing of a cruel murderer to be no different from what the murderer himself has done. But most of us understand that, as per Koheles Rabbah (7:16): “Anyone who is merciful in the face of cruelty will end up being cruel when mercy is in order.”

And yet, at the same time, that aphorism’s second clause indicates that there are times when mercy is, in fact, indicated.

Which leads to the strongest argument against capital punishment. No, not the “cruelty” of a possibly painful death. Opioid overdoses, which unintentionally resulted in the presumably pain-free, if tragic, deaths of more than 72,000 Americans in 2017, would certainly, administered purposely, seem to be a humane means of execution.

No, what makes the death penalty objectionable is the deeply disconcerting fact that it has led to the execution of innocent people.

Christopher Tapp narrowly avoided becoming one of them. In the end, the Idaho Falls, Idaho, man wasn’t sentenced to death but only to a 30-year sentence for attacking and murdering a local woman. Last month, though, after serving 20 years of his sentence, Mr. Tapp had his conviction vacated by the District Court of the Seventh Judicial Circuit. DNA evidence had led to a new suspect, who confessed to the crime. There are many such stories, including about people on death row.

In 2014, University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that determined that at least 4% of people on death row were or are likely innocent. Professor Gross has no doubt that innocent people have been executed.

Some wrongful murder convictions have been due to sloppy forensics, others to police or prosecutorial misconduct, others to mistaken identification, others still to alleged jailhouse confessions that turned out to be bogus.

Few of us likely need to be reminded of Rabi Elazar ben Azariah’s contention in the mishnah (Makkos 1:10) that a beis din that executed one person in 70 years was labeled “violent.” The standard of proof required in Jewish law in capital cases is exceedingly high. In American law, despite the common assumption, it isn’t.

Still and all, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s caution, at the end of that same mishnah, that too much lenience when it comes to murder will increase the murder rate, can’t be ignored either.

Legislators aren’t clamoring for my advice about capital punishment. (Believe me, I’m no less surprised than you.) But if they were, I’d personally suggest that when there is even the slightest chance that an accused murderer, no matter how heinous the murder, might not be guilty – when it is only evidence or the testimony of one or two eyewitnesses that lead to a conviction – the death penalty should not be applied.

After the recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings, President Trump announced that he would ask the Justice Department to propose legislation to subject those who commit mass murders to capital punishment.

In such cases, or others where the public nature of the crime leaves no doubt whatsoever about a perpetrator’s guilt, his execution is eminently defensible.

But where a jury’s guilty decision was based only on individuals’ testimony or indirect physical evidence, we should be very wary of applying so unarguably permanent a penalty.

© 2019 Hamodia

Vaccination Proclamation

The threats and vulgarities bellowed by several visibly Orthodox Jews at members of the New York State Assembly in Albany after it narrowly passed a measure ending religious exemptions for immunizations were ugly and wrong. No less wrong, though, would be to generalize from the uncouth activists to the entire anti-vaccination camp.

The vaccination issue, of course, is controversial, and particularly fraught in New York, which has been greatly affected in the current national measles epidemic. In the state, the most cases of the disease have occurred in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed the bill, adding New York to a small handful of states that do not allow exemptions on religious grounds, including California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine. Medical exceptions will still be granted, but not those based, as many have been, on claims of religious obligation.

While the New York legislators’ intentions were laudable and, during an epidemic, arguably obligatory, the removal of a religious exemption in any governmental mandate is of concern. It is a precedent that one wishes hadn’t been necessary. The legislature, although not motivated by anti-religious sentiments, felt that it was.

The vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as it happens, fully accepts the advice of the overwhelming mainstream of medical experts – as has been Jewish practice from time immemorial – and, accordingly, vaccinates their children. A minority of Jews, however, joining a minority of non-Jewish American “anti-vaxxers,” shuns vaccinations – at least certain vaccinations, like the one for measles. Some imagine harmful effects caused by additives used in the production of some vaccines; others object to the sheer number of vaccinations given babies and young children, or to the schedule of their administering.

A more radical fringe of vaccination opponents believes that vaccinations represent a conspiracy among government players, drug companies and the FDA, or some combination thereof, either intended, for reasons unexplained, to harm the citizenry or out of simple venality.

Vaccine conspiracy theories appeal to, well, the conspiracy-minded. But they crumble in the jaws of the Pulitzer Prize. That is to say, since the highest journalistic achievements are exposés of wrongdoing, and since drug company and medical device issues have often (and even recently) been subjects of such dogged reportage, it is entirely safe to say that were there in fact any sinister plots to push vaccines on a too-trusting populace, enterprising reporters would have long swarmed over the schemes, revealed them – and collected Pulitzers as a result. (Unless, of course… the… reporters are… part of the conspiracy…)

The concerns of less paranoid opponents of vaccination, though, aren’t difficult to understand, even for those of us who disagree with them and embrace vaccinations as a blessing. Many medical orthodoxies, after all, have, over the course of history, turned out to have been wrong, and erstwhile medical truths revealed to be fictions. There’s even a name for such about-faces: “medical reversals.”

And so, while I don’t expect future medical consensus to reject vaccines, it isn’t beyond the pale of possibility that some additive might be revealed to have caused greater harm than assumed and discontinued, or current vaccination schedules might be shown to have been too ambitious.

To be sure, one hopes that all would agree that a school or other building where an immunocompromised child is studying should be off-limits to unvaccinated people. But

even those of us who don’t endorse the anti-vaccination concerns and feel that the anti-vaxx camp is misguided should have the ability to allow others their convictions, be they right or wrong. To throw all vaccine-suspicious folks – moderate sceptics, conspiracy theorists and legislative chamber shouters – into one basket is just the sort of generalizing that we rightly decry in other contexts (like when all of us Jews are “incriminated” because of some who have acted less than properly).

The Gemara (Yevamos 14b) tells us that Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel, despite disagreeing about the halachah regarding an important marriage law, took pains to maintain shidduchim among their respective members. Thus, we are taught, they fulfilled the Navi Zechariah’s admonition to “Love truth and peace” (8:19).

It’s not absurd to invoke that example with regard to the machlokes between pro- and anti-vaccination schools of thought. After all, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai were dealing with a most important issue, and each camp felt that the other was entirely mistaken. And still, there was peace and comity between them.

And so, while those responsible for public policy may need to take a broader view of all the factors regarding issues like vaccination requirements, especially during an epidemic, the rest of us, no matter how passionate we may be about our personal vaccination beliefs, should not belittle others for their personal convictions and choices, and pause to internalize and proclaim the need to love not just truth but peace.

© 2019 Hamodia

Love, Hate and the Holocaust

Considering that a survey last year revealed that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was, a large and impressive Holocaust exhibit would seem to merit only praise.

And praise the “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” exhibit currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan has garnered in abundance. It has received massive news coverage in both print and electronic media.

First shown in Madrid, where it drew some 600,000 visitors, the exhibit will be in New York into January before moving on.

Among many writers who experienced the exhibit and wrote movingly about its power was reporter and author Ralph Blumenthal.  In the New York Times, he vividly described the artifacts that are included in the exhibit, which includes many items the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland lent for a fee to the Spanish company Musealia, the for-profit organizer of the exhibition.

Mr. Blumenthal wrote that the museum, within sight of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, had to alter its floor plan to make room for large-scale displays like a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a Deutsche Reichsbahn railway cattle car parked on the sidewalk, placed there by a crane.

Inside, among the 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings from Auschwitz, are concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of the camp’s electrified perimeter, prisoners’ uniforms, three-tier bunks where ill and starving prisoners slept two or more to a billet, and, “particularly chilling,” an adjustable steel chaise for medical experiments on human beings.

There is a rake for ashes and there are heavy iron crematory latches, fabricated by the manufacturer Topf & Sons There is a fake showerhead used to persuade doomed victims of the Nazis, ym”s, that they were entering a bathhouse, not a death chamber about to be filled with the lethal gas Zyklon B.

And personal items, like a child’s shoe with a sock stuffed inside it.

“Who puts a sock in his shoe?” asks Mr. Blumenthal.  “Someone,” he explains poignantly, “who expects to retrieve it.”

Another essayist, this one less impressed by the exhibit – at least in one respect –is novelist and professor Dara Horn, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ms. Horn approached the exhibit carrying in her mind the recent memory of a swastika that had been drawn on a desk in her children’s New Jersey public middle school and the appearance of six more of the Nazi symbols in an adjacent town. “Not a big deal,” she writes. But the scrawlings provided a personal context for her rumination on her museum visit.

In her essay, titled “Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor: The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right – and fixes nothing,” she recalls her visit to Auschwitz as a teenager participating in the March of the Living, and reflects on Holocaust museums, which she characterizes as promoting the idea that “People would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”

And the current exhibit, she notes, ends with a similar banality. At the end of the tour, she reports, “onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another.”

To do justice to Ms. Horn’s reaction would require me to reproduce her essay in full.  But a snippet: “In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities… Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.”

Ouch.

“That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love,” she writes further, “is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-Semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.”

Those sentences alone would make the essay worth reading.  And the writer’s perceptivity is even more in evidence when she writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented –have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world – the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Har Sinai is called that, Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna explain, because it is the mountain from which sinah, hatred, descended to the nations of the world. (Shabbos 89a).  One understanding of that statement is precisely what Ms. Horn contends. Although her essay appeared the week before Shavuos, she didn’t intend it to have a Yom Tov theme.

But in fact it did.

© 2019 Hamodia

Dear Graduates

[Back in 2007, I was privileged to address the commencement ceremony of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore’s senior class.  Below is an edited version of my remarks to the more than 100 graduates, their families and friends. I don’t feel they’r terribly dated — other than the reference to the then-still-alive Mr. Bin-Laden.]

Back in the day – the day when I was in grade school, that is – we were taught the “3 R’s” – Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic (that’s math to you, and yes, we didn’t spell so good back then).  Of course, you’ve all learned those things and more.  And as students of Bais Yaakov, you have also learned the really important things for a Torah life.

Among them, I think, are another “3 R’s.”  At this special moment, please permit me to briefly review them.

The first one is Recognizing – specifically, recognizing the good, hakaras hatov.  Its simple sense – gratitude – is something you graduates surely feel this evening – toward your parents, your teachers and your classmates, for all that they have given you.  But the term’s deeper meaning is to recognize – with a capital “R” – the good that is always present in our lives, all the things with which we are constantly blessed.  Because everything we have is a gift from Hashem.  We’re called Jews after Yehudah – so named by our foremother Leah because of her gratitude – hodo’oh – that Hashem had given her “more than her share” of sons.  We Jews are always to see what we have – whatever it may be – as “more than our share.” 

The larger world has a rather different ethic.  An advertisement recently asked me “Don’t you deserve a new Lexus?”  Well, no, I don’t particularly.  I’m not at all sure I even deserve my used Saturn with the manual roll-up windows either.  In fact, every morning when I open its door, I thank Hashem for granting it to me.  There is a contemporary social disease one might call eskumptmir-itis – from the Yiddish phrase “It’s coming to me.” We have to try mightily not to contract it.

As it happens, there is a vaccine for the disease of entitlement: the brochos we say throughout every day.  Each is an expression of hakaras hatov, a recognition of a gift, and of its Source. We do well to say them carefully, and think of what we are saying.

The second “R” is Relating – trying to feel what others are feeling, empathizing.  Here, too, a very different atmosphere envelops the world around us.  Maybe it’s different in Baltimore, but in New York the roads teach much about empathy – about how things are when there isn’t any. Obviously each of us cares most about himself – that’s why “Love your neighbor like yourself” takes “yourself” as the given – but the law of the jungle is not our law.  We are charged to try to see the world through the eyes of the other.

You’ve heard, no doubt, about the new father-to-be who paced the waiting room for hours while his wife was in labor, about how the process went very slowly and he became more and more agitated, until, an eternity later, the nurse finally came in to tell him his wife had delivered a little girl.

“Thank heaven!” he burst out.  “A girl!  She’ll never have to go through what I just did!”

You will meet people like that, I assure you – although, with Hashem’s help, not your future husbands – and they exemplify the self-centeredness we have to strive mightily to shun.

The third “R” is perhaps the most important, since it touches on a Torah mitzvah and concept of singular statusKiddush Hashem.  That imperative, of course, requires a Jew to die rather than commit certain aveiros, or any aveira in certain circumstances.  But we’re charged not only with dying, if necessary, al kiddush Hashem but also with living in the same state of sanctification.  This “R” is thus “Reflecting” – for, as frum Jews, our actions reflect not only on ourselves, our parents and teachers and schools, but on our Torah – in fact, on our Creator. 

Today, perhaps, more than ever.   Waiting at a bus stop once, I was approached by a young mother whose little boy was cowering behind her.  She approached me and asked politely if I might assure the child that I was not Osama bin Laden.  Turban, black hat, whatever, we do both have beards.  I managed to convince the young man who I wasn’t, but was struck by the realization that Mr. Bin Laden not only has the blood of countless innocents on his soul but the sin of desecrating Hashem’s name.  We must counter with the opposite.

What an incredible obligation – and what an incredible opportunity.

The Rambam, in his laws about Kiddush Hashem, adds that great Torah-scholars have a particular mandate to act in an exemplary way – for they are perceived as the most powerful reflections of the Torah.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to understand those words to apply today to all who are perceived to be reflections of Torah.  In a world like ours, all identifiably Jewish Jews are “great Torah scholars” regarding this halacha – and we must all endeavor to act the part.

The opportunities are ubiquitous.  Receiving change from a cashier, a smile – not to mention a “thank you” – leaves an impression.  On the road, where politeness is at a premium, driving politely leaves an impression.  The way we speak, the way we interact with others, all leave an impression.  We must leave the right one.

So, dear graduates, remember always, above all else, just who you are: reflections of Hashem on earth. 

Reflect well. 

And may your reflections be clear and brilliant, and help merit a fourth “R” – the ultimate Redemption, the ge’ula shleima, may it come speedily.

Mountains to Climb

Ever find yourself in a long “10 items or less” supermarket line waiting for the cashier to check the price of kumquats for the lady who apparently considers all her fruits and vegetables to count as a single item?

Well, even if you have, you might compare your experience with the recent one of the hundreds of people bundled up in minus-20-degree weather waiting patiently in line on a narrow path more than 26,000 feet above sea level to reach the summit of Nepal’s Mount Everest. And, in the supermarket, you weren’t likely laden with an oxygen tank – a necessity at that altitude – whose contents were steadily diminishing.

What’s more, you probably didn’t have to navigate past the body of someone who died while waiting on line before you.

What makes people do things like climb what they consider the world’s highest peak (which in fact is probably Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan)?

After all, according to mountain guide Adrian Ballinger, “humans just really aren’t meant to exist” in such places. “Even when using bottled oxygen,” he explains, “there’s only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down. So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam above 26,000 feet … the consequences can be really severe.”

Indeed. At this writing, 11 people are known to have breathed their last on treks to or from the summit of Mount Everest this year. The quest has claimed the lives of almost 300 people since 1923.

I suspect that those who spend considerable amounts of time, effort and money – the average price paid in 2017, for permits, equipment and guides, to climb Everest was approximately $45,000 – are impelled, ultimately if subtly, by the human search for meaning.

Nineteenth century secular philosophers argued about what ultimate essential goal motivates human beings. The German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche contended that it was power; another German, Sigmund Freud, that it was pleasure.

Both tapped into something real, although they were, like all secular thinkers, blind men trying to figure out an elephant. That Hashem has granted humanity bechirah, free will, and that we can, as a result, actually accomplish – change the courses of our lives and, ultimately, of history – is a power unparalleled in all of creation. So the “will to power” that, unfortunately, mostly yields bullies and tyrants is, in its most refined expression, the exercise of gevurah, “strength,” that Ben Zoma defines as “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature (Avos 4:1).

And Freud was on to something too, as the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the most basic ideal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Ultimate pleasure, that is – the pleasure of “enjoying the radiance of the Shechinah.” But the German secularist, of course, couldn’t see past the temporal, ephemeral yearnings of this world to the ta’anug ha’amiti, the “singularly genuine pleasure,” of the next.

Which brings us to the third nineteenth century conception of human motivation, that of the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote of the “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve some truly meaningful, ultimate goal in life.

His approach was popularized by a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, whose 1946 book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was deemed by a Library of Congress survey to be one of “the ten most influential books in the United States.” By the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

There indeed seems to be an innate human aspiration to achieve something “meaningful,” to aim at some larger-than-oneself “accomplishment,” no matter how strangely some people may define that for themselves. For one person, such meaning may entail achieving a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. For others, the grand vision is the scaling of a mountain, even – especially? – if it entails danger.

For others still, namely those of us who recognize our Creator and His will for us, the accomplishment to reach for is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos. At certain times in history, aiming for that goal also entailed great danger. In our own times, baruch Hashem, it does not, although it may not offer a simple, obstacle-free and easy path.

As for us, well, while we may wish the Everest climbers every good fortune, we’ll be focusing in coming days on a very different mountain.

Have a happy and meaningful Shavuos.

© 2019 Hamodia