Category Archives: MUSINGS

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.’

Musing: Opinions Gone Wild

I’m greatly pained by much of the reaction in the Orthodox community to what has come to be called the Iran Deal.  To be sure, there are elements of the agreement that are less than ideal. And there is nothing remotely wrong with pointing out those things, even without acknowledging the deal’s positive elements.

But there is something wrong, terribly wrong, tragically wrong, in assuming that anyone who dares to see the positive as outweighing the negative is ipso facto “anti-Israel” or, if Jewish, a “traitor” or “sellout.”  That opinions other than one’s own are not just misguided but evil.

And there is something particularly ugly about ads – like those that an unnamed person or persons placed in several Orthodox newspapers – that stoop to the basest sort of character assassination (aided by Photoshopping a Congressman’s face to make him look like an ogre), and are reminiscent of how true enemies of Jews have portrayed us all in centuries past.

Similar ads demeaning elected officials who are opposed to the deal would be no less obnoxious.  The issue isn’t what “side” one is on.  It is how a Jew expresses himself, as a mensch, or as something else.

At this introspective time of the Jewish year, I hope that the person or people behind “American Parents and Grandparents Against the Iranian Deal” and the papers that hosted its offensive ads will give some thought about whether name-calling and insults are the Jewish way to express a political opinion, even about an important issue.

Musing: Atticus and the Yomim Nora’im

The American 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in the news this summer, the result of the publication of an earlier version of it, a sequel in reality, that its author, Harper Lee, had written, and which was apparently only recently discovered.

Millions have found the 1960 book inspiring, and it is indeed a rare work.  It wonderfully captures Southern American life in the 1940s, and deals thoughtfully with themes like racism and friendship.  What’s more, it is suffused with subtle humor.

And it has provided American culture with a hero, in the form of “Atticus,” as the father of the narrator, a little girl at the time the novel takes place, is called.  Atticus, a lawyer, is a paragon of honor, rectitude and compassion, and, although a mere fictional character, has been an inspiration to many a living lawyer and judge.  The Alabama State Bar even erected a monument to him.

Were I a literature teacher and had assigned the book to students, a question I would ask them would be to identify Atticus’ most heroic act.  Some might point to his acceptance of the legal case at the heart of the book, defending a black man against a white accuser.  Others to his standing up to a crowd intent on a lynching of the suspect.  Some might even respond with his facing down of a mad dog, which he kills with a single rifle shot.

My own answer to my question, though, would be something very different.  At one point in the book, it is recounted how a character, Bob Ewell, a wretch intent on seeing the defendant found guilty and executed, approaches Atticus on the street and spits in his face.

Atticus, who has every reason and ability to lay the scoundrel low, instead, in the words of the woman recounting the incident, “didn’t bat an eye, just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and stood there and let Mr. Ewell call him names wild horses could not bring her to repeat.”

In Hebrew, the closest word to “hero” is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.”  And its definition is provided us in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos:  “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”

Heroism and strength in Judaism are evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.  Something to think about as the Days of Judgment grow closer.

Musing: The Cluelessness of the Media

The Associated Press reports that “Israel’s minister for religious affairs has criticized Reform Judaism, saying he doesn’t consider members of the denomination to be Jews.”

Fightin’ words, them.

The report goes on to explain that “David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party told Israel’s Army Radio Tuesday that these are ‘Jews who lost their way’ and he hoped they would “return to the midst of Judaism according to Jewish law.”

How can someone think that Reform Jews are both not Jews and “Jews who have lost their way”?

What was meant, clearly, was that the beliefs and practices of Jews who affiliate with non-Orthodox movement does not comport with what is in fact the Jewish way of life.

So they’re not Jews.  At least in the limited understanding of a member of the Fourth Estate.

Musing: Appraising Children

The teaser headline on a Business Insider article —  “The ultimate status symbol for millionaire moms on New York’s Upper East Side is not what you’d expect” — is explained by the piece in what seems a surprisingly positive way .

The status symbol isn’t “a ski home in Aspen” or a “private jet” or “a closet full of Birkin bags” (whatever they may be).  It is children.  Or in the piece’s rather gauche words, “a whole mess of kids.”

Unfortunately, the reason for the great valuing of children, the piece depressingly explains further, is that “it’s expensive to raise kids.”  Thus, progeny are a way to “flaunt your wealth.”

How sad.  Yes, children are expensive to raise and school and clothe and feed.  And, yes, they are priceless.

But their immeasurable value doesn’t lie in what they cost.

Musing: Science Catches Up to the Torah

Interesting news reported this morning about a team of Yale paleontologists who applied a set of algorithms to genetic and morphological data and concluded that the ancestor of living snakes had hind legs, complete with toes and ankles.

it’s reminiscent of the late Carl Sagan’s observation that pain in childbirth seems to exist only in human beings, the result of a relatively sudden, “explosive” evolutionary growth in the size of the human cranium to accommodate the large human brain.  The brain, that is, that is able to engage in rational thought and make choices not born of mere instinct.  Daas, in other words, yields bi’etzev teildi banim.

Musing: Ebola and Metzitza Bipeh

Part of a message from the Medical Society of the State of New York to local physicians reads as follows:

“Strategies to limit the potential for [Ebola] transmission… should be based on the best available medical, scientific and epidemiological evidence; be proportional to the risk; balance the rights of individuals and the community…”

One has to wonder whether strategies to limit the potential of the transmission of other viruses, like New York City’s strategy of regulating ritual circumcision, are  similarly “proportional to the risk.”

Or do religious practices for some reason enjoy less protection than secular ones?

Musing: Iron Dome Hakaras Hatov

The New York Times today notes that:

“The United States has been instrumental in helping to fund the development of Iron Dome and has proprietary access to the technology. Israel has said that the system has a success rate of nearly 90 percent in intercepting the missiles it is meant to thwart.”

Indeed, in 2013, US President Barack Obama pledged continued funding of the Iron Dome system, stressing that America’s commitment to the State of Israel is a “solid obligation” and “non-negotiable.”

In 2014, the US provided $235 million for Iron Dome research, development and production.  At the time, President Obama called it “a program that has been critical in terms of providing security and safety for Israeli families,” one, he continued, that “has been tested and has prevented missile strikes inside of Israel.”

Actions and words worth remembering, and worth expressing hakaras hatov for, in these trying times.

Musing: Sneak Preview

I’m supposed to give the sermon this Shabbos at the shul I usually attend on Shabbos mornings.  The rabbi is away for the summer and sometimes asks me to say a few words when he’s gone.

I have several thoughts that I think I’ll share with those in attendance; but one insight I hope to cite is from Rav Elchonon Wasserman, zt”l, Hy”d.

As recounted by Rav Moshe Shternbuch, shlit”a, Rav Wasserman visited England (where Rav Shternbuch grew up) before the war, collecting money for his yeshiva.  Famously unconcerned with anything but truth, he spoke in a London shul and said something that resulted in part of the congregation standing up and exiting the room in protest.  He was unruffled.

What Rav Wasserman focused on is one of the descriptions of the Jewish people reluctantly pronounced by Bil’am (Bamidbar 23:9):  Aam livadad yishkon uvagoyim lo yischashov – “a people (aam) that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations (goyim).

An aam, Rav Wasserman explained, is a people united by a purpose and calling; a goy, the citizenry of a country.  The Jewish people is the former; and lo yischashov – it should not be reckoned among the latter.  A country in the Holy Land that aspires to be a nation like the countries of the rest of the world is not a Jewish ideal.  The Land of Israel (in contrast to a country, even the one today called Israel, which was still unborn when Rav Wasserman spoke) is the holy place Hashem entrusted to us, invaluable for the closeness it offers us to Him and the commandments that can only be performed there.  It cannot be our mere “country.”

We all owe gratitude to the state of Israel for myriad things, but it is in the end but a country, a fact we sometimes forget.  Despite the wording of one Israeli leader’s eulogy for the three boys murdered by Arabs, they were killed not because they were Israelis.  They were killed because they were Jews; that’s why they are kedoshim.  May Hashem grant their families, and us all, nechama.

I hope no one stands up and leaves the shul in protest when I speak this Shabbos.  But if anyone does, I will be in good historical company.