Category Archives: Jewish Thought

Chastened by a Midrash

I don’t find it terribly hard to be tolerant of others’ political points of view, even when they are far from my own. I try to be mindful of the fact that, as Chazal put it, just as people’s faces are different from one another, so do they see things differently (Berachos 58a and Bamidbar Rabbah, 21:2).

Where I have a hard time with tolerance, strangely, is in shul.

I’m intolerant of phones that weren’t turned off before their owners entered a beis haknesses or beis medrash, and of the treatment of places of tefillah as frum Jewish men’s clubs, venues for telling jokes or discussing the stock market. I’m prejudiced, too, against onversations during chazaras hashatz or when the Torah is out, and bristle at the idea that shul during davening is an appropriate place and time to check e-mail.

I know I should just feel saddened, rather than upset, by such things. But it’s hard.

I also get distressed by the way words of tefillah and, especially Krias Shema, are rushed through, slurred or mispronounced.

Over the years, I have davened in dozens of shuls, and, even today, attend at least six different minyanim over various times of the week. In many, thankfully, there is great dikduk (dikDUK, that is, as a Gadol once corrected someone who asked why yeshivos don’t stress the rules of Hebrew grammar) in pronouncing the words of tefillos.

After all, the halachah is clear about the need to clearly articulate words, particularly with regard to Krias Shema, and, what’s more, to focus on the meaning of what we are saying, especially in the first passuk of Shema and the first brachah of Shemoneh Esrei.

Thinking about what we are saying doesn’t come naturally, though, when one is readingwordsasiftheyareallconnectedtooneanother. And I’m sorry, but it’s simply not possible to recite all the words of Aleinu, as is so often supposedly accomplished, in 30 seconds.

I gripe to myself, too, about words that should not be connected but are, like (v’hameivinim yavinu – the informed will understand) hameshuleshes baTorah, or mitzur dvash. And don’t get me going about the singing out of an amein chatufah on Rosh Chodesh at the same time as the shliach tzibbur says the word bashalom before beginning Hallel.

And, as to misused mil’el and mil’ra… Oy, as I say, I’m intolerant.

Several years ago, though, a siman in the Aruch Hashulchan I was learning force-fed me a modicum of tolerance, at least with regard to word-slurring.

The Aruch Hashulchan, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, of course, served as a Rav in Belarus but was also a posek of encyclopedic knowledge and expertise. His main work is a presentation of the laws of all four chalakim of the Shulchan Aruch in a clear and comprehensive style.

And in Orach Chaim, siman 62, se’if 1, regarding Krias Shema, he writes:

Even though, as explained, one needs to articulate every letter properly, if one read it and didn’t do so… he has fulfilled his obligation and needn’t read it a second time…[If one skipped words entirely], he certainly has not fulfilled his obligation… but if he merely didn’t articulate similar-sounding letters or confused a [shva] na and nach…he has fulfilled his obligation…

And obviously, someone who has a speech impediment, like those who cannot pronounce a resh properly, or a shin, or who pronounce a gimmel as a daled… since he is speaking as he usually speaks [he has fulfilled his obligation].

And what is more, the Midrash Chazisa [on Shir HaShirim] says on the passuk “v’idiglo alai ahavah,” “And His banner over me is love” [Shir HaShirim 2:4]: Says Rav Acha, “[Concerning] an unlearned person who reads ‘ahava’ as ‘eiva’, as in ‘viahavta,’ pronouncing it ‘viayevta,’ [thus radically changing its meaning], Hashem says ‘And his liglugo [mockery] is for Me love’.”

What an astounding midrash. Rav Epstein goes on to note that those who pronounce an ayin and an alef the same way (as most of us Ashkenezim do) are likewise saying very inappropriate things when they read words like “l’avdecha” or “va’avaditem” as if they contain alefs.

So even we who fancy ourselves knowledgeable and as having earned our right to be error-intolerant are far from perfect in our own pronunciations. (And in my experience, only the Bais Yaakov-educated are sufficiently erudite to distinguish between shva nas and shva nachs.)

Coming across that Aruch Hashulchan and the midrash it quotes was a learning moment for me. And ever since, when I hear an utterly, even comically, mispronounced word in shul, I remind myself that Hashem is not intolerant of the error. He even regards it as an expression of love.

© 2018 Hamodia

No “Enough” Here

Have you ever noticed the FedEx arrow? The next time you see one of the company’s trucks, look closely at the “Ex” part of it. In particular, at the white space between the two letters. Believe it or not, the logo’s designer didn’t plan it to look that way, and only noticed it after creating the iconic emblem.

L’havdil, the letter beis hidden inside of the letter pei in ksav Beis Yosef and ksav Arizal, is no happenstance, but rather an indication of a mystical reality.

As both very different examples indicate, though, sometimes it is easy to miss something that is, in fact, right before our eyes.

Like the one event recounted in Dayeinu that is not followed by the word dayeinu – “it would have been enough for us.”

Whenever I make the assertion that there is indeed such an event in the Seder pizmon, I am greeted with blank stares or furrowed brows. But it’s there, in full view, just easily missed.

And it’s there, I believe, by design, that of the Baal Haggadah who composed Dayeinu.

Go grab a Haggadah and see if you can find it. I’ll wait.

Okay, that’s long enough. Find it? No? But it’s right there!

All right, I’ll tell you, but not before remarking first that, while much of our Seder-night message to our children is forthright and clear, some of it is subtle and stealthy.

And some of it quite puzzling, like Dayeinu. As commentaries and Jewish children alike ask, would it really have been “enough for us” had Hashem not, say, split the Yam Suf, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some have suggested that what the pizmon means is that another nes could have taken place to save Klal Yisrael, but that certainly would weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: “Had [Hashem] not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us? “Had He not given us the Torah.” Enough? What are we saying?

The simple approach is that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” literally when we say it, but rather only intend to declare how undeserving of all Hashem’s kindnesses we are.

But I think there might be a different way to see Dayeinu, one that doesn’t require depriving the refrain of its actual meaning. And it has to do with that event in the pizmon not followed by the word “dayeinu.”

Oh, I’m sorry. We haven’t identified it yet. Okay, it’s time.

It’s the very first phrase in the poem, “Ilu hotzianu miMitzrayim” – Had He taken us out of Mitzrayim…”

That phrase – and it alone among all the stanzas – is not introduced with a “had He not” and qualified with a “dayeinu.”  We never sing “Had He not taken us out of Mitzrayim, it would have been enough for us.” Because it wouldn’t have been. Yetzias Mitzrayim is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable” in a way that nothing else is.

It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when what was until then an extended family became a nation, Klal Yisroel. Had Jewish history ended, chalilah, with starvation in the desert, or even in battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people. Klal Yisroel, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Yisrael,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, Hashem created the universe), would still have existed, if only briefly.

And our nationhood, after all, is precisely what we celebrate on Pesach.

And so, the subtle message of Dayeinu may be just that: the sheer indispensability of Yetzias Mitzrayim – its contrast with the rest of Jewish history, its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the nissim that came to follow.

If so, then for thousands of years, that sublime thought might have subliminally accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably suffusing Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing it. And the fact that the Seder persists among Jews who are far from observance and even devoid of other markers of Jewish identity or affiliation, may be born of their unconscious recognition of the ultimate importance of Jewish peoplehood.

In any event, it’s an idea worth pondering.

There’s more to say on the subject, maybe, with Hashem’s help, next year.

For now, though, dayeinu.

© 2018 Hamodia

Tone-Deaf Jewish Marketing

I began haphazardly collecting the advertisements a number of years ago. The first, which appeared at the end of Tammuz in a Jewish periodical, touted an eatery. It was apparently aimed at carnivores troubled by the restrictions of the imminent Nine Day period of mourning over the Bais Hamikdash’s destruction. Beneath a photo of a full plate of food was the legend: “Siyum Nightly for Meat Lovers!” Really.

More recently, I was struck by a full page come-on just around this time of year featuring a bottle of kosher for Pesach potato-based vodka over the legend: “Finally, shulchan oreich is a pleasure.”

Finally? I dunno. Somehow, my family’s sedarim have been immensely pleasurable, even vodka-free.

Between those offensive bookends I incredulously encountered many other Jewishly tone-deaf ads, in print or pixels. Like one advising how you can “steal the show” with some fancy table adornment or another; another one that proudly announced an all-you-can-eat “Fleishfest!” (though for a worthy cause); yet another letting the reader know that there’s a way to “Experience the real simchas yomtov,” by spending Pesach at a particular hotel. (Who would want a fake simchas Yom Tov, after all?)

And then there was the ad (for another away-from-home holiday locale) assuring us that “The only thing you should have to give up for Pesach is chametz.” Presumably, the message was that one shouldn’t have to spend his hard-earned free time – the holiday, after all, celebrates freedom, no? – cleaning, changing over the house and cooking for Yom Tov.)

And Sukkos really seems to bring out the best (so to speak) in Jewishly clueless marketing.

One late summer ad for a labor-free temporary tabernacle offered to end, once and for all, the dreaded “hassle of sukkah”; another dangled the lure of a getaway to a Florida Keys hotel featuring its own “air conditioned Sukkah!” (Good she’eilah there: If the AC is too strong, is one considered a mitzta’er?) And yet another invited readers to a glatt kosher vacation for the Yom Tov in the Bahamas, assuring them that “Sukkot Never Got This Good.” (After inviting Ushpizin, one supposes, he can, as the ad continued, “swim with dolphins!”)

That particular advertisement went on to modestly self-identify as “the most luxurious and extraordinary resort on Planet Earth.” Remind you of “So that your generations may know that I made the Bnei Yisrael dwell in sukkos when I brought them out of Eretz Mitzrayim” (Vayikra 23:43)? Me neither.

We Jews in America today are beneficiaries of Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindness beyond measure. We live in a time and place where we are not persecuted, have freedom to practice our faith and to engage in professions and businesses without hindrance –seldom if ever the case in our previous sojournings in galus.

But with plenty come plenty of challenges. The Shabbos before last we read in shul of the egel hazahav, the Golden Calf. It was said in the yeshiva of Rabi Yanai that Moshe attributed that sin to Hashem’s having bestowed much gold and silver on the people (Berachos 32a). It’s hard to be poor, but wealth carries dangers of its own.

I don’t want, chalilah, to injure any Jew’s livelihood, and have nothing against meat (though the less of it one eats, it’s increasingly clear, the better) or vodka, kosher for Pesach or otherwise; I’ve been known to occasionally splash a bit in my grapefruit juice myself. And there may well be people who, nebbich, need to spend Yomim Tovim in hotels.

But none of us should covet any of those things – or seek to stir covetousness for them in our fellow Jews. And, no less than we care about where our children receive their educational instruction we should care about the “chinuch” they receive from the pages of the periodicals we welcome into our homes. And we shouldn’t be sheepish about letting advertisers know when we feel their blandishments have crossed lines.

Yes, yes, I know that advertising is part and parcel of contemporary business, and what keeps Jewish papers and magazines afloat. But there is a stark, qualitative difference between ads that offer information, opportunities and products, on the one hand, and those, on the other, that shamelessly exaggerate – or, worse, that promote values that are, politely put, less than consonant with Torah-informed values. Or, worse still, that promote violation of one of the Aseres Hadibros’ “Thou shalt not”s (see “steal the show,” above).

There is ample room for creativity – photographic, linguistic, humorous and otherwise– in producing memorable advertisements for most anything. A Jewishly responsible ad doesn’t have to be bland.

But it should be becoming.

© 2018 Hamodia

Habeas Corpus for Horses?

Over the years, thanks to some creative, unusual talmidim I was privileged to teach when I was a mesivta Rebbe, I have had an assortment of pets (the animal sort). Each of several Purims, my shiur would give my wife and me, in addition to mishloach manos, a living gift.

We thereby became the proud caretakers, at various points, of a goat, an iguana and a tarantula. In addition to the tropical fish we’ve always kept, and the occasional hamster or mouse one or another of our children cared for.

I honestly appreciated each of the creatures; they evoked in me amazement over the variety and abilities of Hashem’s creations. Likewise, the birds and squirrels outside our dining room window during breakfast are an endless source of beauty (and, even sweeter, needn’t be fed). My wife is particularly partial to the graceful deer that sometimes venture from nearby woods to visit.

But animals are animals. Not, as some increasingly assert, beings less sentient than us but no less worthy of being treated as human.

The more than two thirds of American households that own pets spend more than $60 billion on their care each year, up sharply in recent years. People give dogs birthday presents and have their portraits taken by professional photographers. According to at least one study, many Americans grow more concerned when they see a dog in pain than when they see an adult human suffering.

That’s bad enough, but the law, too, is being enlisted to obscure the bright line between the animal and the human spheres.

Last year, the Illinois legislature passed a law that would force courts to give “parents” joint custody of pets in divorce cases. “It sort of starts treating your animal more like children,” says an unembarrassed Illinois State Senator Linda Holmes, the bill’s sponsor.

The nonprofit Nonhuman Rights Project promotes the idea that animals should be entitled to the right to not be unlawfully detained without a judge’s order. Habeas corpus for horses.

New York University law professor Richard Epstein sees the implications, and skeptically observes that “We kill millions of animals a day for food. If they have the right to bodily liberty, it’s basically a holocaust.”

Shades of the 2002 book that made precisely that case. It bears a truly obscene title: “Eternal Treblinka.”

And then there is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder and president Ingrid Newkirk’s declaration a few years back that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses,” and her infamous aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”

We are required by halachah to protect animals from needless harm or unnecessary suffering when they are put to our service or killed for food. But that is a far bark from assigning them “rights.”

We who have been gifted with the Torah, as well as all people who are the product of societies influenced by Torah truths, have no problem distinguishing between animals and human beings.

But some secularists reason that, since animals have mental abilities, if limited ones, they should be treated like human infants.

If such people’s minds are open even a crack, though, they should be able to realize that considering animals qualitatively different from humans isn’t “speciesism” but a truth born of observable facts.

Yes, animals think and communicate. But conceiving or conveying abstract but important concepts like “right” and “wrong” and “responsibility” and “wantonness” – is something quintessentially, and pointedly, human.

Humans, moreover, have what philosophy calls moral agency, the ability to choose to act even against instinct.

And something else.

In a recent conversation with an eldercare professional, I pointed out something she had never considered.

Seen through a secular lens, biological species are “interested” only in preserving their own lives and those of their progeny; their behavior (consciously or not) serves the biological goal of the species’ perseverance. The previous generation has no value; it has served its purpose. Animals care only for their young, not for their parents.

Humans, though, at least in normal circumstances, feel an obligation to care for those to whom they owe their lives.

It will have to be seen whether or not such compelling distinctions will put brakes on the misguided idea of a smooth animal-human continuum. And, if it doesn’t, whether those who see animals as human (and vice versa, the inevitable other side of that counterfeit coin) will be able to enlist lawmakers in their goals.

More than we might imagine will hang on it.

© 2018 Hamodia

Hazards, Hazards Everywhere

My first earthquake was, as you might imagine, unsettling.

I was part of a yeshivah in Northern California in the 1970s, and my wife and I spent our first five years of marriage there, in the lovely Tanteh Clara Valley (yes, it’s officially “Santa” but we renamed it). Temperate clime, brilliant blue skies, enchanting mountains off in the distance.

And earthquakes.

It’s hard to convey the helplessness one feels when the very ground beneath slowly shifts this way and that. During that first temblor, we were in our second-story apartment. Strange, I thought, looking out a window, how the framed vista seemed to move up and down repeatedly as the building gently swayed. In a few minutes it was all over, but the feeling of powerlessness remained, and its memory has stayed with me over the decades. There’s nowhere to escape to, after all, when the very earth under one’s feet is expressing discomfort.

We later moved into a rented house, and its back yard abutted a dry gully. Dry, at least, in the summer. In the winter, when the Bay Area weather turns rainy, it morphed into a raging river. I loved listening to its roar, audible even in the house.

Our private river at times seemed poised to overflow its banks and come rushing into our living room but, baruch Hashem, it never did.

I was reminded of it recently, when heavy rains in the south of the state followed terrible wildfires that destroyed ground-stabilizing vegetation. The resulting mudslides – even more horrific to contemplate than earthquakes – devastated the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, killing at least 20 people. Aged 3 to 89, the victims were buried alive in their homes or carried away by the mud.

Then there were the recent disasters that seemed imminent, but blessedly weren’t.

Like the public alert in Hawaii warning that a ballistic missile was headed toward the islands. The alert, understandably, terrified the state’s residents, especially in the wake of the past months’ chest-thumping and nuclear button braggadocio in Washington and Pyongyang.

“This is not a drill,” the official message misinformed Hawaiians, sending people into closets and basements and prompting countless citizens to write heartfelt goodbye notes to their loved ones. No one died as a result, but one man suffered a heart attack, and a woman became violently ill from shock. Many others feared the worst for the 38 minutes it took for state authorities to retract the public notification.

And then, mere days later, Japan’s public broadcaster accidentally sent its own alert that North Korea had launched a missile its way and that citizens should take shelter.

That panic lasted only five minutes, at which point the station apologized for the false alarm.

But, of course, in August, 1945, even though two initial alerts were followed by “all clear” signals in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all was not clear, and 129,000 people were killed, and countless others poisoned by radiation. Nuclear attacks are not unthinkable today either, and contemporary nuclear weapons are vastly more destructive than those of 1945.

Confronted with disasters, actual or averted, should make us think. We readily recognize the dangers of everyday life, the “kol minei puraniyos” we reference in Tefillas Haderech, the she’im yipaseiach echad meihem of Asher Yatzar.

But a truly sensitive person doesn’t just acknowledge the dangers of travel or the menace of maladies. He takes nothing for granted. Nothing. Not the stability of the earth under his feet, nor the absence of mass destruction raining from the sky.

Jews worry. It’s a stereotype exploited by comedians, impolite pundits, and anti-Semites, but it contains a grain of truth. And it derives from a fundamental Jewish middah, hakaras hatov – in the phrase’s most literal, most fundamental, sense, “recognition of the good” – the good that Hashem bestows on us daily, indeed every hour, every minute, every second the earth stays still and the only clouds on the horizon are made of water droplets.

To be exquisitely makir tov to Hashem for all the brachos from which we constantly benefit requires us, on some level, to realize all that could go wrong. There are people, after all, who are jarred from their sleep by earthquakes or fires or mudslides, or who don’t wake up at all. Only a keen recognition of dire possibilities can lead us to fully appreciate what so many mindlessly take for granted.

Nothing, in truth, can be taken for granted.

And that realization should imbue us with hakaras hatov.

© 2018 Hamodia

Fake Kashrus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 Hamodia

What is Jerusalem?

Whether one regards President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel as a dangerous and foolhardy move or wise and deeply principled, it cast a well-deserved bucket of cold water into the faces of the Arab and European worlds. But it also begged a question: What, exactly, is “Jerusalem”?

The recent history of Eretz Yisrael is well documented. After the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations, in 1922, granted the British a mandate to oversee “Palestine.” In November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly approved a partition plan creating two states: one Jewish and one Arab. Jerusalem, which had by then developed well beyond the walls of the Old City, would fall under international control as a Corpus Separatum, or “separate entity.”

That never happened. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted the partition plan; the Arabs did not. And the following year, on the very day the British Mandate ended, the Arabs invaded the Jewish community, starting a war which, to the invaders’ surprise, they decisively lost. So, in fact – and despite what many media persist in stating – the Corpus Separatum status of Jerusalem, as part of the Arab-rejected partition plan, never became reality.

When Israel declared its independence in May, 1948, the western half of the expanded city of Jerusalem became part of the nascent state, while the eastern half, purged of its Jews, along with the Old City, was occupied by Jordan. As we all know, and some of us vividly remember, during the 1967 Six Day War, Israel rebuffed Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and captured the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, Shomron and Yehudah, including the eastern part of Jerusalem and the Old City.

The Old City. The Ir Haatikah. We sometimes forget that, while Israeli law and colloquial shprach applies the name “Yerushalayim” to the greater metropolitan area outside its walls as well, the name really refers to the Old City alone.

Chanukah is coming to an end, which, to Jews who mark time Jewishly, means that the next celebration in our sights is Purim.

And hidden in Megillas Esther, as it happens, is a passuk that holds a hint well worth pondering in the context of recent events.

“Ad chatzi hamalchus,” Achashveirosh offers Esther, “up to half the kingdom” (Esther, 5:3). The Gemara (Megillah 15b) explains that Achashverosh said “up to” in order to indicate that he was not willing to offer something in the middle of the kingdom, something that would cause a political rift were he to relinquish his control over it: the Beis Hamikdash.

We optimists hope that Mr. Trump’s recent blunt statement might, in the end, push the Arab world to come to terms with reality and actually shuffle, grumbling but surely, to the negotiation table. To fantasize further, maybe Arabs in Eretz Yisrael will be brought to see the incitement and hatred they sow as counterproductive to their goal of a state alongside Israel, and desist from their regularly scheduled vilifications of Israel and Jews.

Unlikely, certainly. But, whatever our personal feelings about whether a “two-state solution” is a healthy or a noxious prospect, it is the declared goal of both Mr. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. So let’s imagine further what might emerge from such an agreement.

It really doesn’t need much imagination; the general terms of a peace agreement have long been obvious to all informed observers. Parts of Yehudah and Shomron, from which Israel’s withdrawal would not pose undue security risks, would be ceded to the Arab state. The state would be demilitarized, and pledged to abandon its hostility toward Israel.

The western part of Jerusalem would remain Israel’s capital, and the eastern part, the new state’s.

And the Old City? Oy, there’s the rub.

Would – could? – Israel cede even part of it to an Arab state? And even if it did, what about the source of the city’s kedushah, the Mekom Hamikdash?

Truth be told, Israel is not really in possession of that sacred ground even now. While she controls access to the Temple Mount, the compound is administered by the Wakf, itself controlled and funded by the Jordanian government.

That sad reality is not likely to change, not until we merit the bias go’el tzedek. Until then, though, it should be a reminder that, even were “Jerusalem” to be recognized as the capital of Israel by the entire civilized world, even by all Arab countries and a new Arab state, rejoicing would be premature. Klal Yisrael remains, l’daavoneinu, stalled in galus.

May that situation end bimheirah biyameinu.

© 2017 Hamodia

Body and Soul

It sounds like a story about the fictional Chelm. The town philosopher sagely informs his fellow citizens that he has no face. He can’t perceive it directly, he points out, and besides, as anyone can plainly see, what people claim is his face clearly resides in his mirror.

The silly scene is inspired by celebrated scientists. Like Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, who has lamented human beings’ stubborn commitment to “dualism,” the idea that people possess both physical and spiritual components. He pities those who believe that there is an “I” somehow separate from one’s body and brain.

“The qualities of mental life that we associate with souls…,” he asserts confidently, “emerge from biochemical processes in the brain.”

Also enlightening the backward masses is Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who condescendingly advises people to set aside “childlike intuitions and traditional dogmas” and recognize that what we conceive of as the soul is nothing more than “the activity of the brain.”

Or, as they might say at the University of Chelm, since the soul seems perceptible only through the brain, the brain, perforce, must be the soul.  And your stereo speakers are the music.

Sometimes, though, intuitions are right and scientific dogmas wrong. Scientists, the noted British psychologist H. J. Eysenck famously observed, can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  Some, in fact, are prone to a perilous folly: the confidence – despite the long and what-should-be chastening history of science, littered with the remains of once-coddled beliefs – that they have – eureka! – arrived at conclusive knowledge.

Were the contemporary “dualism” debate merely academic, we believing Jews might reasonably choose to ignore it. Unfortunately, though, the denial of humanity’s specialness and, perforce, of our responsibility for our choices – the unmistakable ghost in the Bloom/Pinker philosophy-machine – is of substantial import.

The idea of the  neshamah goes to the very heart of many a contemporary social issue. It influences society’s attitudes toward a host of moral concerns, from animal rights to the meaning of marriage to the treatment of the terminally ill.

In the absence of the concept of a human  neshamah, there is simply nothing to justify considering humans inherently more worthy than animals, nothing to prevent us from considering any “lifestyle” less proper than any other, nothing to prevent us from coldly ending the life of a patient in extremis. Put starkly, without affirmation of the  neshamah, society is, in the word’s deepest sense, soulless.

And the game is zero-sum: Either humans are something qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, or they are not. And a society that chooses to believe the latter is a society where no person has any reason to aspire to anything beyond self-gratification. A world in denial of the  neshamah might craft a utilitarian social contract. But right and wrong could be no more meaningful than right and left.

The notion is hardly novel, of course. Philosophical “Materialists,” believing only in the physical and bent on despiritualizing humanity’s essence were the high priests of the Age of Reason and the glory days of Communism.

And the footsteps in which they walked were those of Yavan. The ancient Greeks hallowed reason and inquiry, and celebrated the physical world. Eratosthenes calculated the earth’s circumference to within one percent; Euclid conceived and developed geometry; Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system. And the early Greeks exalted the human being – but as a physical specimen, not more.

Accordingly, the most worthwhile goal of man for the Greeks was the enjoyment of life. The words “cynic,” “epicurean,” and “hedonist” all stem from Greek philosophical schools.

Which may be why the culture that was Yavan was so enraged by Klal Yisrael’s focus on kedushah. Shabbos denied the unstopping nature of the physical world; milah implied that the body is imperfect; kiddush hachodesh saw holiness where the Greeks saw only mundane periodicity; modesty, moreover, was unnatural.

The Greeks had their “gods,” of course, but they were diametric to holiness, modeled entirely on the worst examples of human beings. And Hellenist philosophers who spoke of a “soul” were referring only to the personality or intellect. The idea of a tzelem Elokim, of a  neshamah that can make choices and merit eternity, indispensable to the Jew, was indigestible to the Greek.

Ner Hashem nishmas adam – “The soul of man is a Divine flame” (Mishlei 20:27). When we light our Chanukah lecht, we might keep in mind how, despite the declarations of some scientists and Chelmer holdouts, Klal Yisrael overcame Yavan not only on a physical battlefield but on a conceptual one no less.

© 2017 Hamodia

Truth Is Attractive

It wasn’t a phone call the head of the Union for Reform Judaism ever wanted to get. Taglit-Birthright was calling, with bad news.

In the U.S., the “Taglit” (“discovery”) part of the name of the non-profit organization that sponsors free ten-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults is usually dropped; it is known simply as “Birthright.”

Founded in 1994 by two philanthropists, Wall Street money manager Michael Steinhardt and former Seagram Company chairman Charles R. Bronfman, Birthright is financed by them and other private donors, as well as by the Israeli government. More than 500,000 young people, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, have participated in the program to date.

The recent phone call was to inform the Reform leader that his movement was no longer authorized as a certified trip provider for Birthright. It wasn’t, the caller explained, because Birthright had anything against “progressive” Jewish groups, but rather a simple matter of the fact that the Reform movement had failed to meet participant quotas.

“We worked very hard with them to increase the numbers,” Birthright CEO Gidi Mark told an Israeli newspaper, “but unfortunately they could not meet our minimum.”

Although the overwhelming majority of Birthright participants come from non-Orthodox backgrounds – less than 5 percent are Orthodox Jews – Orthodox-affiliated trip providers, including the Chabad-connected group “Mayanot,” the Orthodox Union’s “Israel Free Spirit” and Aish Hatorah account for close to a quarter of total recruitment.

Birthright’s largest single donor these days is Republican supporter Sheldon Adelson. He is a promoter of the Israeli political right wing with regard to security issues and the Palestinians, but is not Orthodox. Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt say, “We are both secular Jews… we never saw Birthright Israel as a religious trip, though many alumni have changed their ritual practices.”

So why have Orthodox groups emerged as so disproportionate a conduit of young non-Orthodox Jews to Birthright trips?

Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who bemoans that fact, blames it on the Israeli government’s support for what he calls “Ultra-Orthodox campus institutions.” He also is upset that young people on Birthright trips are given the option, if they choose, to attend Orthodox services during their stay in Israel.

Reform leaders are also chagrined that, although “religious indoctrination” is prohibited on Birthright trips, the Orthodox groups also often later convince Birthright alumni to, in Rick Jacobs’ words, “explore a more traditional way of Judaism.” The horror.

Asked about Orthodox organizations’ outreach work with participants after the trips, Mr. Mark said: “We are dealing with people who are very intelligent. They are all mature people older than 18. I myself never heard any one complaint about any misuse of the relationship by our trip organizers.”

Rather than stew over the fact that nonobservant young Jews seem to gravitate to groups dedicated to “a more traditional way of Judaism” – or, put more accurately, the authentic mesorah of Klal Yisrael – Reform leaders might stop seeking culprits for that offense and consider the fact that emes, truthis attractive.

Birthright certainly has never pushed Yiddishkeit in any way, and indeed shunned anything smacking of “religious indoctrination.”

It has helped ensure Jewish continuity by helping countless Jews connect in one or another way to their religious heritage by bringing them to Israel.

But for nearly 2000 years, visiting or settling in Eretz Yisrael was not even an option for most Jews. What sustained Jewish continuity over those millennia? Precisely Rick Jacobs’ “more traditional way of Judaism” – Jewish knowledge and Jewish living.

In fact, if Birthright really wanted to maximize its bang for the buck, it might consider dropping altogether its religious rejection of religion and consider a marvelous, gutsy move. Namely, amend Birthright’s existing program to maximize the Jewish impact of the gift it offers young Diaspora Jews, by providing them, say, for two or three of their ten days, an intensive Jewish learning experience in an Israeli yeshivah, seminary or outreach program catering to Jews from overseas.

Yes, that would violate the effort’s heretofore commitment to “pluralism.” But it would be entirely in consonance with Birthright’s professed goal, helping ensure Jewish continuity.

In fact, providing Jews who were raised distant from their religious heritage the opportunity to witness what it means to live a true Jewish life would be nothing less than, well, returning to them their birthright.

© 2017 Hamodia