Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Understanding the Sotah Ritual

The article below is from the website My Jewish Learning, and can be found at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/understanding-the-sotah-ritual/

BY RABBI AVI SHAFRAN

Each year, the Shabbat after Shavuot leaves some Jews who follow the day’s Torah reading puzzled, upset or embarrassed. A major element of the Torah portion Naso concerns the sotah, or “unfaithful wife,” and it entails something strange, and indeed unparalleled anywhere else in the Torah: an apparent trial by ordeal.

Many ancient cultures — and even less ancient ones, like the 17th-century Puritans who conducted the Salem witch trials — used ostensibly supernatural means to determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. The accused was subjected to an unpleasant, or downright torturous, experience. Establishing innocence often meant just surviving the ordeal, but sometimes it meant not surviving it, in which case the verdict brought solace only to the accused’s survivors.

According to the Torah, the sotah law kicks in when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful and warns her to not seclude herself with a particular other man. If it is established that she ignored the warning, she becomes subject to a ritual that involves her drinking a concoction of water, a bit of dirt from under the Temple’s marble floor, a bitter herb and the rubbed-off dried ink of the text of the Torah’s description of the sotah ritual, including God’s name.

If the woman is guilty, she and the man with whom she sinned will suffer a terrible death. The Talmud says that if the woman has great merit in fostering Torah study, she may not die immediately but only show symptoms at the time of a malady that will eventually take her life. But if she is innocent, she will not only suffer no ill effects, but will be blessed with children if she was childless and with healthy ones if previous ones were sickly.

The sotah drink ingredients are, if unpleasant, entirely innocuous. And so it would take a divine intervention to bring about the described punishment. Pondering those facts well is the beginning of understanding why the ritual exists and why, unlike every other law in the Torah, the sotah faces not a trial but an ordeal.

When a punishable Torah law was intentionally committed in ancient times, if witnesses attested to the violation, a court was empowered to mete out the prescribed punishment. If there were no qualified witnesses, then the crime was ignored by the court. In the Talmud’s words, “God has many messengers.” So if God chose to punish the violator, God could find a way to do so. So why is the sotah subjected to this ritual?

Well, actually, she isn’t subjected. If she chooses to simply dissolve her marriage and forfeit the financial support promised her, the husband is compelled to grant her a divorce and she suffers no other penalty. 

And therein lies the second key to understanding the strange law of sotah. The ritual is not intended to punish the woman if she is guilty. It is to absolve her if she is innocent, and preserve love and trust in her marriage.

The entire point of the sotah ritual, in other words, is to convince a husband who has every reason to be suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, since she secluded herself with another man. God is involved only to convince the husband that his wife is not adulterous. The husband’s jealousy will thus dissolve and allow him and his wife to resume their marriage in trust and love.
 The wife may have still done something wrong, but the husband’s worst suspicions have been divinely exploded.

One can imagine the reconciliation that would certainly follow. That is why the talmudic maxim most associated with the sotah law is, “So great is peace between a man and his wife that the Torah commands that the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, written in sanctity, should be erased onto the [sotah] water.”

(c) 2020 MyJewishLearning

The Real Story Behind the Vaccine Story

One of the Covid-19 vaccines being studied has yielded encouraging results. That good news should yield us something too: a sense of awe at the accomplishment.

Earlier this week, the biotech company Moderna, which partnered with the National Institutes of Health to develop the vaccine, announced that results of a Phase 1 clinical trial showed that eight study participants developed antibodies for the virus like those who have experienced and survived the disease. And lab experiments with mice showed that the vaccine prevented the virus from infecting cells.

The study hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and Phase 2 trials, which will involve several hundred subjects, are yet to come. But even the achievement to date is impressive.

If our wonderment, however, is only at the amazing progress toward, hopefully, a successful vaccine, we will have missed the truly awe-inspiring story behind the story.

A vaccine, you likely know, works by stimulating immune cells called lymphocytes to produce antibodies, specialized protein molecules that counter the targeted antigen, or toxic invader, and thus prevent the disease it could cause from taking hold.

Vaccines are made of dead or weakened antigens that can’t cause an infection but nevertheless stimulate the immune system to produce the necessary antibodies. Although with time, the produced antibodies will break down, special “memory cells” remain in the body and, when the antigen is encountered again, even years later, the memory cells can produce new antibodies to fight it.

This happens within our bodies constantly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a healthy individual can produce millions of antibodies a day, fighting infections so efficiently that people never even know they were exposed to an antigen.

Last year, a team of scientists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego published results of their antibody research in the respected journal Nature. Based on their findings, they estimated that the human body has the potential to make a quintillion — that’s one million trillion — unique antibodies.

Imagine for a moment if the workings of our immune systems were suddenly made visible to us.

We would be struck dumb.

“If the stars should appear,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, only “one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

Our immune systems, like the stars, are usually and easily taken for granted; their very ubiquity makes it hard to fully appreciate them. But appreciating them is the privilege, indeed the duty, of every thinking, sensitive person.

Returning to this week’s happy news. Is what really amazes us the technological breakthrough that could lead to an effective vaccine? Or is the true object of our astonishment and wonder the suddenly focused-upon workings of our biological processes?

Once upon a time, after all, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful people, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

Back in 1996, a sheep named Dolly was successfully cloned, the first such triumph. I recall the admiration, wonder and dread that the accomplishment evoked around the world.

What exactly had scientists done? They had managed to transfer a cell from the mammary gland of an adult sheep into another sheep’s unfertilized egg cell whose nucleus had been removed; and the egg cell was then stimulated to develop, and eventually implanted in the womb of yet a third sheep, which bore Dolly.

I recall thinking at the time that, impressive as the experiment was, all that had essentially been achieved was the coaxing of already existent genetic material to do precisely what it does, well, all the time. The achievement of producing Dolly bas Dolly was, to be sure, a major one; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job.

But, still and all, other than the unusual means of bringing it about, what was witnessed was a natural process that takes place millions of times in millions of species each and every day without capturing anyone’s attention. A natural process that was, like all natural processes in the end, a miracle — no less one for its ubiquity.

Likewise, with all due recognition of the great and praiseworthy efforts to create an effective vaccine for Covid-19, may they be successful, what happened this week was, in the end, a cajoling of immune systems to do… what immune systems do billions of times daily.

So our proper appreciation of the scientific knowledge we have today, and our gratitude to the scientists that used that knowledge to advance the drive for an effective vaccine should be joined by — indeed, overwhelmed by — our ultimate awe for the immune systems with which our Creator endowed us.

Whether it’s manipulating the creation of a sheep fetus or of an immune response, the true marvel lies not in the manipulation but in the manipulated, in the myriad miracles Hashem implanted in the world He created.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Why Me? Because Me

Amid the much physical, economic and psychological suffering being borne by so many during the current health crisis, some have, no doubt, thought — perhaps even given voice to — the age-old expression of protest of the cruel hand of fate: “Why me?”

There’s a Jewish answer to that question. It lies, I think, in an incident we encountered in last week’s Torah portion, in the story of the mekallel, the blasphemer.

In that account, a man — who, according to the mesorah, had been born to a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man during the subjugation of our ancestors in Egypt — wanted to join the tribe of his mother’s Jewish husband. Denied membership, he railed against G-d in an appalling way and, eventually, on orders from Above, was executed.

The narrative, though, begins with the words “A man left….”

It is a strange and superfluous phrase, for which the Midrash offers several explanations. The first one cited by Rashi is an enigma: “He left his world.”

What could leaving one’s world possibly mean?

A number of years ago, a young man took counsel of Rav Aharon Feldman, shlit”a, now the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore. The seeker explained that, due to what he felt was an unchangeable psychological limitation, he would never be able to marry. But he was fully committed to Judaism, which makes marriage a high priority. What should he do?

Rabbi Feldman told him that if, indeed, he was certain that he was unmarriable, he should stop and recognize the unusual opportunity thereby afforded him. 

As a single man, the rabbi explained, the young man would be able to live in communities where there are Jews but no Jewish educational and other facilities that an observant family would need. Rabbi Feldman recounted the true story of another man in similar circumstances who had inspired the Jews of such a city for more than forty years. 

There are other important roles, Rabbi Feldman continued, for which an unmarried person is particularly well-suited — like fundraising for vital Jewish institutions, which requires much travel.

The young man, Rabbi Feldman explained, should regard the Jewish people qua people as his “wife and children.”

I don’t know what happened to the then-young man, but like to imagine that he became a unique force for good in Klal Yisrael. Whether or not that transpired, though, the advice he was given was gold.

Because each of us has his or her own “world” — a specific role to play in the larger world that includes all other people’s individual worlds. The blasphemer had a truly unique part to play in life — as the sole member of the Jewish people without a tribe. What special opportunity that gave him is unknown. But it surely existed. And, instead of embracing his reality, his world, along with all its inherent challenges but potential, too, he chose to rail against Hashem.

He “left his world” — abandoned his world, the unique world that was his destiny.

I have to wonder about the proximity of the mekallel account and the laws delineated earlier in that same Torah portion, about how cohanim with certain physical blemishes may not serve in the normative cohein role of processing sacrifices on behalf of supplicants. Might the nexus of those pesukim and the story of the mekallel be self-evident?

Whatever the reason for the various disqualifications of cohanim regarding sacrifice-service — and it is certainly nothing obvious — the disqualified cohein might easily be expected to be saddened by, if not curse at, his lot in life.

But his lot it is. “His world,” is simply not the world of Temple service. And if he is wise and embracing of that fact, he will find the special role he, as a cohein unbound from the Temple service, is intended to assume.

As small children, many of us want to be many things at once when we’re grown. But we eventually realize that we can only be either a fireman or a policeman or a ballerina or a scholar or a business tycoon or a writer or a professional baseball or football player – not all of our dreams together. We come to realize, too, that if we, say, lack the requisite physical strength and coordination, baseball and football (and ballerina and fireman) are out, and we must make other choices about what will be “our world.”

We do ourselves the greatest favor by embracing no less willingly — in fact, enthusiastically — the personal world assigned to us by Heaven, no matter how limiting it might seem to us to be. 

One of the most important works in Jewish literature is the Mesillas Yesharim, the most accessible book of the brilliant mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707–1746).

He begins that work with the words, “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is for a person to clarify and come to realize as truth his obligation in his world.”


Not “in the world.”

“In his world.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Adam and the Eco-Fascists

Yes, it would be a great name for a punk rock group. But the Adam in the title refers to the original one, the first man. And the eco-fascists are contemporary environmentalists gone wild.

Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden, famously, “to work it and to guard it” (Beraishis, 2:15). The latter phrase is regularly held aloft by some who are deeply concerned with humanity’s effects on nature. Preserving the state of flora, fauna and the landscape, they say, is nothing less than a Biblical mandate.

The Torah does in fact enjoin us elsewhere to not waste useful things, and that prohibition can certainly be applied to wanton destruction of any sort, including of animals and the environment. And we are charged, too, with preserving our health, so efforts to minimize harmful pollution are proper as well from a Jewish perspective.

But the Jewish religious tradition’s take on the words “to guard it” is radically different from conservationists who seek to draft it to support their cause. According to Midrash Rabbah, the “work it” refers to using six days of the week to earn our livings, and the “guard it” refers to ceasing work on Shabbos. The Zohar sees the “work it” as a charge to heed the Torah’s positive commandments, and the “guard it” as a warning to not violate its prohibitions. No true Jewish source interprets the verse as an ecological mandate.

Again, wantonly destroying nature is against the Torah’s guidance. But using nature, even destroying parts of it, for the benefit of humans is, well, precisely what nature is for. Man is no mere part of nature; he, as the creation with free will, is its lord.

Rejecting that reality underlies the ideology of the eco-fascist movement, which considers the supreme political model to be a world in which an authoritarian government requires individuals to sacrifice their own interests to the higher ideal of nature. Man, according to that conviction, is a mere fragment of nature, not its apogee.

Last week, Earth Day, the annual demonstration of support for environmental protection, was commemorated around the world.

Most who mark that day are simple conservationists, promoters of recycling and advocates for legislation to help ensure clean air and water. Some, though, are eco-fascists.

And this year, they celebrated the coronavirus.

As one particularly popular social media posting put it: “Air pollution is slowing down. Water pollution is clearing up. Natural wildlife is returning home. Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.”

Another giddily gushed: “This isn’t an apocalypse. It’s an awakening.”

Others called attention to the wonderful “unexpected side effects” of the virus, like swans and dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice.

Leaving aside the fact that swans regularly appear in some of Venice’s canals and that an accompanying photo of “Venetian” dolphins was in fact taken at a port in Sardinia, hundreds of miles away, the thought of celebrating a deadly germ is mad. No, actually, it’s evil.

Most people don’t realize it, but contemporary radical environmentalism has its roots in an earlier fascism.

The Third Reich’s “Blood and Soil” propaganda campaign explicitly linked “non-Aryan” people on German soil with degradation of the environment. Hitler and his minister Hermann Göring were avid supporters of animal rights and conservation. Germans who violated Nazi animal welfare laws were sent to concentration camps.

Of late, white supremacists have adopted the Nazi “Blood and Soil” slogan, and it was chanted at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by torch-carrying racists.

The gunman who murdered 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand last year disclosed that he was an eco-fascist concerned about the threats of climate change, overpopulation, and immigration. “They are the same issue,” he wrote. “The environment is being destroyed by overpopulation… Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment.”

The shooter who later killed 23 people in the El Paso massacre was connected to a manifesto that lamented the fact that “The environment is getting worse by the year,” and, addressing the public, continued: “Most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.”

Returning to last century’s eco-fascists, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, in his private diaries, described Hitler as someone whose hatred of the Jewish and Christian religions in large part stemmed from the ethical distinction these faiths drew between the value of humans and the value of other animals.

Well, the führer was on to something there. The eco-definition of “to work it and to guard it” stands in stark contrast to the phrases’ true meanings.

Humans are qualitatively different from animals. Imagining otherwise might seem like a harmless conceit. In reality,  it is a very dangerous one.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Locusts, the Holocaust and Today

The 17-year locusts, as many call them, won’t be singing their deafening song this spring on the East Coast. The particular brood (there are several) that we easterners are familiar with, though, is expected to emerge again en

The fearsome-looking insects cause no harm, despite their large size, big red eyes and total disregard of anybody’s personal space. Nor are they locusts. They are cicadas, an entirely different species of bug.

What, though, is a locust, the insect that swarmed by the billions in East Africa earlier this year, devastating large swaths of the countryside? Glad you asked. The answer is very interesting.

Locusts, under normal climatic circumstances, are virtually indistinguishable from garden variety grasshoppers. In fact, they technically are grasshoppers, members of the family Acrididae.

But, when subjected to stress like drought, especially after a rainy season, and crowded together, they morph amazingly into what seem to be very different creatures.

The timid green or brownish bugs living solitary lives become boldly colored, with black markings on a bright yellow background; they become shorter-bodied and stronger. And they swarm in massive numbers. Voracious, they descend in huge dark clouds on fields of vegetation, leaving them bare.

The radical change from an insect version of Dr. Jekyll to one of Mr. Hyde is mediated by a phenomenon that has attracted scientific attention in recent decades: epigenetics.

The term is used to describe characteristics of organisms that come about through the “switching on” of certain genes that do not otherwise express themselves.

While most of us are familiar with the idea that genes are inherited and pass traits from one generation to the next, epigenetics describes how certain genes, due to experiences an organism has undergone, can be chemically marked in a way that activates them.

In 2015, researcher Rachel Yehuda tried to extend the idea to the realm of human psychology, publishing results of a study of a group of Holocaust survivors and making the claim that manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were evident not only in the survivors themselves but in their offspring, ostensibly, she contended, through epigenetic expression.

Others disagree strongly, and assert that any stress disorders that may seem disproportionate in children of survivors are likely the effects of the inadvertent “sharing” of survivors’ own stress, either by exhibiting symptoms of PTSD or repeated recounting of their traumas with their young.

That certainly has occurred. Several speakers at this past February’s Project Witness fourth annual Holocaust Educators’ Conference recounted how their survivor parents pushed them in extreme ways to excel in school, and subjected them to other stressors, sometimes explicitly invoking the Holocaust as the reason for their insistence.

Such parents, of course, can’t be blamed for the effects on them of the indescribable evils they endured, or for any resultant distress caused to their children. But such distress, it seems, has not been uncommon.

Several Shabbosos ago, my wife and I sponsored a Kiddush in a small shul (remember shuls?) in memory of my mother, a”h, whose yahrtzeit fell that week. The custom in that shul is for the Kiddush sponsor to say a few words. There are many, many words I could summon to describe my mother, who was legend in Baltimore for her empathy and kindness, who was an indispensable part of the life of my father, a”h, and of the shul they built together, and who was a kiruv professional decades before the phrase came into existence.

But I chose instead to just share how happy a childhood I had, and why.

My father spent the years of World War II fleeing the Nazis and then sent by the Soviets to Siberia to labor in the taiga, where the temperature in winter would fall to 40 degrees below zero. My mother came to Baltimore from Poland as a young girl before the war but soon suffered the death of her grandmother, the only grandparent who had been part of her life, and then, mere weeks later, her 20-year old brother, who had been studying in yeshivah in New York. Two years later, her father, a respected Rav, passed away at 48. She thought for a while that sitting shivah was just part of the Jewish year-cycle.

Growing up, I knew none of that. Neither of my parents spoke of, or showed any overt signs of, the traumas of their youth years. I only heard about my father’s wartime experiences when I was already married and a father myself, when a tape of a speech he delivered to a group on Yom HaShoah was sent to me by a member of the audience. My mother’s early life losses, likewise, were only revealed to me as an adult.

Some survivors of the Holocaust or other adversities, I know, speak freely of them. Others, like my parents, choose to compartmentalize them, at least up to a point, often as a conscious act, to spare their children the burden of knowing what their parents endured.

As I mentioned, my childhood was entirely happy. And I think I owe that fact, at least partly, to my parents’ reticence and wisdom.

Many parents today, with their children watching, are facing adversities of their own. While expressing deep feelings of pain or frustration openly may afford some immediate release, it’s important to keep in mind always that, whether or not stresses can be bequeathed epigenetically to children not yet born, giving vent to them can certainly have an effect on the young already here.

And all parents want their children to have happy childhoods.

© 2020 Hamodia

[This article didn’t appear in Hamodia, due to lack of space this week.]

Different Hopes For Different Folks

“Number one…” presidential hopeful Joe Biden Jr. said at his March 15 debate with equally hopeful (though less entitled to be so) Senator Bernie Sanders, “if I’m elected president and have an opportunity to appoint someone to the courts, I’ll appoint the first black woman of the courts. It’s required that they have representation now. It’s long overdue.”

He continued with his number two: “If I’m elected president, my cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact… pick a woman to be vice president. There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow.”

No doubt there are, as there are a number of qualified men. But am I alone in finding it puzzling that the choice of who should be the proverbial heartbeat away from the highest office in the land might be made on a basis of gender? Or that appointment to the highest court of the land be based on the same plus race?

What am I missing here?

Yes, I know, and lament, the bias against, and mistreatment of, women and blacks (and Native Americans, and Hispanics, and other groups) over our country’s history. And I even understand, if I don’t fully agree with, those who advocate for things like reparations for descendants of American slaves.

But how exactly do historic wrongs translate into some sort of right of precedence for public office? Apologies are owed to victims of discrimination and exploitation, perhaps compensation is even owed. But a desk in the White House or a seat on the High Court bench?

And, surely, the fact alone that there hasn’t yet been a black president or Supreme Court justice who was also a woman is hardly a compelling argument for choosing one. There hasn’t been a bald president since Eisenhower either. Or a president less than six feet tall since Grover Cleveland, and he was 5’11”. (Okay, Jimmy Carter was only 5’10; but look how he turned out.) Should we be tapping members of the short, bald demographic for leaders?

No less an example of an accomplished woman than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Politico in 2016, “I don’t think that any woman should be asked to vote for someone because she’s a woman.” Well, should any woman be asked to be a running mate or appointed a judge because she’s a woman? That would have been my next question, but, alas, I wasn’t the interviewer.

Yes, of course, I fully recognize the nature of politics and its close cousin horse-trading. I understand the practical wisdom of making choices that are likely to win the votes of particular segments of the electorate. But can’t a candidate just appoint the black woman (or short bald guy) without heralding it as some historically mandated act of high principle?

Please don’t get me wrong. I think that women can be excellent leaders. From Heleni Hamalkah to Golda Meir to Margaret Thatcher, women have done exemplary jobs in positions of power. It’s just that I think – call me crazy – that the best candidate for a position of power should be… the best candidate for the position of power, regardless of gender or race (or height).

Research has shown that female lawmakers tend to bring more federal money back to their districts than their male counterparts. And in their book Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, political scientists Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt found that congresswomen are disproportionately likely to serve on committees for issues that are of most interest to their constituents, and more likely to co-sponsor legislation that helps those who elected them. So, women politicians? No problem.

But women chosen because they’re women? Problem.

Aside from the essential folly of it, choosing or appointing a woman to a high position mainly because of her womanhood disadvantages the woman. As Justice Clarence Thomas has written about affirmative action, the favoring of people based on their skin color – what he calls “racial engineering” – has “insidious consequences” – namely, the resultant assumption by others that the favored person isn’t really qualified. The same is true with gender engineering.

To me, though, even worse than choosing a woman for public office because she’s a woman is the message that doing so sends about the goals that should matter in life. Hint: Public office isn’t high on the list.

When former presidential hopeful (yes, a lot of hopes have come and gone) Senator Elizabeth Warren announced the end of her campaign on March 5, she showed some emotion as she lamented “one of the hardest parts” of her decision, that “all those little girls… are going to have to wait four more years.” For a bigger girl, that is, to become president.

High public office may indeed be an important goal, perhaps the ultimate one, of some little girls. It clearly is the consuming aim of some grown women. But, when they were little girls, the daughters my wife and I were privileged to raise would politely have declined to endorse such desiderata.

They had, as most of our community’s young women have, very different goals, hopes that are likely regarded as backward by many contemporary observers but are more beneficial to society than they may be capable of understanding. Hopes to, with Hashem’s help, become partners with husbands, to become mothers, grandmothers and beyond. Hopes to mold not legislation but hearts and minds.

Different folks, different hopes. Don’t cry for them, Senator Warren.

© 2020 Hamodia

Responding to Wrath With Calm

It’s strange but true: We sometimes fail to acknowledge the most important thing in the universe.

That would be bechirah, Hashem’s astonishing gift of free will to mankind. We humans are able to choose our actions and our attitudes.

We can certainly be stubborn creatures, and a mind is a hard thing to change. But change it can.

That truth was brought sharply home to me recently, in an e-mail interaction I had with a Jewish person who lives in a faraway state.

“You ARE ‘extreme and beyond normal and beyond mainstream’,” my correspondent wrote, “misogynistic and ultra-conservative. You exclude anyone you consider ‘other’.”

“You are,” the final line read, “not my tribe.”

What evoked the irate missive was an op-ed, or opinion column, I wrote that was published in the New York Times.

Therein lies a tale.

Several weeks ago, as a result of the efforts of respected lawyer Avi Schick and Chabad media relations director Rabbi Motti Seligson, a small group of Orthodox representatives met with members of the Times’ editorial board and staff. Joining the two organizers were Hamodia’s editor, Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein; United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg executive director Rabbi Dovid Niederman; Agudath Israel of America executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel; and me.

The meeting was intended to sensitize the other side of the table to the way some of their newspaper’s characterizations of the chareidi community were inaccurate, even dangerous.

Each of us visitors to the Times’ offices presented a bit of evidence or a particular perspective. And at one point, in passing, I noted that the very term used for us – “Ultra-Orthodox” – was subtly pejorative, since “ultra” connotes “excess” or “beyond what is normal.”

At that point, the op-ed page editor interjected, “Well, that would make an interesting op-ed.”

In my head, I responded, “You bet it would.”

And so, two days later, I submitted an essay I had written, which focused not only on the misuse of the prefix “ultra” but on other subtle “otherings” of the chareidi community, as well – like the characterizations of us effectively as invaders simply for having chosen to buy homes in new areas; and like calling the exercise of our democratic rights in local elections “voting as a bloc” – a term never used when focusing on, say, the black vote or Hispanic one.

I received an avalanche of responses, almost all positive – from non-Jews and Jews of all stripes alike.

One memorable missive read, in part: I’m a non-religious Catholic man… in the midst of a significant Jewish community. I’m the regular Shabbos goy for several of my friends and neighbors… I got so many good and new ways of seeing people from your editorial … [There is] so much bias I have that I never thought about. I will look at people differently from now on, or at least I will work on doing that as much as I am able.”

The negative one excerpted earlier above was one of a small handful of angry reactions.

I responded to all the communications, if only to thank the writers for writing. To the irate correspondent quoted above, I sent the following:

“I don’t know how many chassidic or non-chassidic haredi families you know, but your description of them as misogynistic is well beyond a mere exaggeration. There are traditional roles for men and for women in Orthodox communities, but both men and women are fully valued and well-treated by both men and women. ‘Conservative’? Well, yes. Is that a crime?

“Which brings me back to the tribe. We don’t exclude any Jew from the Jewish people. You seem to do that with your final sentence. But you are MY tribe.”

And, signing off with “best wishes,” I clicked “send.”

I didn’t expect any further communication, but the correspondent did respond, first, with: “Thank you. You are the first haredi Jew I have ever spoken with… Apologies for my preconceptions.”

And then, after I acknowledged the writer’s good will, a second response: “Although I’m [Jewish] through my mother, my parents took us to a Unitarian church and I have never embraced religion or Judaism. Its strongest influence on my life has been through food. Perhaps that will change now.”

Later, the person wrote again, to say, “Apologies for my preconceptions” and to request reading material about Yiddishkeit, a request I immediately honored.

My first, visceral reaction to attacks on Torah Jews or Torah life is a desire to respond in kind, with ire, or, at least with wry repartee.

But what I’ve learned over the years is that – why I ever doubted it, I don’t know – Shlomo Hamelech was correct when he taught that a maaneh rach – “a gentle reply” – yashiv cheimah – “turns away wrath.”

That’s something true not only in interactions like the one I had with the angry correspondent, but in all our interpersonal dealings – within our families, in our workplaces, with our friends and acquaintances. It’s also something I wish I had fully recognized at a much earlier age than I did.

Not every mind’s owner will choose to change it. But every one of them – there is bechirah, after all – can.

And sometimes we can help make that change a little easier.

© 2020 Hamodia

Two Thoughts About You-Know-What

Surprisingly (he said with sarcasm), I’ve been giving some thought to the current pandemic.

Specifically, to the unprecedented closures of shuls and yeshivos.  In the absence of a prophet, no one can claim to know “why” any challenge or adversity happens. But it is a Jewish mandate to introspect at such times, as per the Talmud’s exhortation about personal adversity (Berachos 5a).

Might there be some grounds for introspection about why the particular challenge we face today has resulted in the first-ever-in-modern-history closing down of Jewish places of worship and study, and the resultant confinement of many to their homes?

What occurs to me are two things, discrete but in no way incongruous.

The first is that we may not have been treating our places of religious gathering, particularly shuls, with the respect and gravity they deserve.  While there are many shuls where services are conducted properly and there is no unnecessary conversing during davening, some shuls, unfortunately, are treated less like mini-Temples and more like men’s clubs, places to gather and schmooze before and after davening rather than holy places for communing with the Divine.  Might our banishment from shul be a reminder to us all of what shul is supposed to be?

My second thought’s focus is not on where we have been exiled from but rather where we have been confined to: our homes.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, in his book of essays B’shtei Einayim, brings a thought from the Reisher Rov, Rav Aharon Lewin, on the verse that states: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Yeshayahu, 56:7.)  Reading the word “for” as “to,” Rabbi Lewin remarked that a Jewish house, or home, will be seen by others as what they experience only as a house of prayer.  In other words, the ideal Jewish home should be a place permeated with Jewish ideals and practices, a place, no less than shul, of worship.

There may be people who are “shul Yidden” in the sense of never missing a shul service, but whose behavior at home is less exemplary, something that is particularly deleterious to any children living at home.  Such people, if they exist, might rightly reflect on their “home confinement” as a spur to self-improvement. And, of course, all of us do well to contemplate how we might make our homes not just places to, well, go home to, but holy spaces.

May our introspection lead to yeshuas Hashem kiheref ayin, the “salvation of Hashem” coming “in the blink of an eye.’

A Misleading Morph

I’ll never forget coming across the phrase “the Holocaust” – complete with the definite article and capitalized second word – in, of all things, a translation of the Mishnah. More unnerving still was that the volume had been published in the 1920s.

The Holocaust?!

Leafing through the old, worn book in the otzar sefarim of the yeshivah in Providence, where I was a Rebbi (and history teacher) for eleven years, and confronting those words, I wondered if I had somehow been transported to an alternate universe.

I hadn’t been, baruch Hashem. (I’m quite fond of this one).

The initially flabbergasting phrase, as a glance at the Hebrew text it was translating revealed, was a reference not to a historical event but rather to a korban olah, what most translations today would call a “burnt offering” – a sacrifice that is entirely consumed on the mizbe’ach. (Holo, in Greek, means “entirely”; caust, “burnt.”)

As it turns out, the more familiar use of the phrase today derived from that earlier usage. It was apparently, and understandably, deemed an apt descriptor for the Nazis’ and their friends’ plan for European Jewry.

All sorts of words also see their meanings morph over time. Many of us can recall when the sentence “My mouse died” more likely referred to the demise of a small furry pet than the failure of an electronic computer accessory.

Another word that has come to mean something entirely other than what it once meant is “Palestinian.” Once, it indicated a Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael.

I discovered that fact as a teenager, when I salvaged a box of coins from a Jewish bookstore that was jettisoning old merchandise before a move. The coins were Palestinian pounds, duly labeled so, examples of the currency used, first, by the British Mandate, from 1927 to May 14, 1948; and then by Israel until 1952, when they were replaced by lirot.

The Palestine Bulletin was the name of the newspaper founded by Jews in Eretz Yisrael in 1925; later it was renamed The Palestine Post. What today is known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began, in 1936, as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

Today, though, “Palestinian” has come to signify Arabs who lived in Eretz Yisrael under Jordanian or Egyptian rule, and their descendants. It is, thus, a most misleading morph.

Which brings me to a new book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. If that endowment chair title doesn’t tell you enough about the man’s sympathies, the subtitle of his book, A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017, should. And you can add his longtime support of the BDS movement to the evidence.

Professor Khalidi sees Israel’s founding as akin to the early American colonization of the land of native North American tribes or to Australia’s appropriation of that continent’s Aborigines’ land.

But the professor’s postulate is a put-on.

While Arabs have lived in Eretz Yisrael for centuries, there was a Jewish presence in the land since Yehoshua’s time, even after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash and the expulsion of most of Klal Yisrael from the land. The Arab presence, by contrast, was anything but indigenous.

What people like Professor Khalidi imply, that Arabs are the native residents of Eretz Yisrael, is, simply put, a fiction.

Many who today claim the label “Palestinians,” in fact, are descended from successive waves of people who came to the area from other places. Like Egypt, from which successive waves of immigrants arrived at the end of the 18th century, fleeing famine, government oppression and military conscription at home.

The 19th century saw further Arab immigration to the land from Algeria and what is now Jordan. Bosnian Muslims, too, came in fairly significant numbers.

Later on, in tandem with Jewish return to the land, employment opportunities drew yet more Arab immigration. As the Peel Report noted in 1937, “The Arab population shows a remarkable increase ….. partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home…”

To be sure, when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, there was a sizable Arab population in Eretz Yisrael. To pretend otherwise is to deny facts. And the desires and aspirations of that population and its descendants who remained in the land should not be ignored. That is why a two-state solution like the one President Trump has advanced, is a necessary part (though no less necessary than the Arab population’s sincere embrace of peaceful coexistence) of ending the conflict in the region.

But v’ha’emes v’hashalom ehavu, “Love truth and peace” (Zecharyah, 8:19). Before peace there must be truth.

And the truth that here needs to be confronted is something that President Trump stated on the campaign trail, that Yerushalayim is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people”; and that his predecessor, President Obama, said back in 2013, that, after “centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide… the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home.”

In other words, that, with all due recognition of the aspirations of Arabs in Israel and Yehudah, Shomron and Gaza, while there is indeed an indigenous population of Eretz Yisrael, it isn’t them.

© 2020 Hamodia