Category Archives: News

Cowardice Or Wisdom?

That any sane person could castigate Israel for her response last month to Hamas missiles is astounding.  

Hamas, after all, has sent booby-trapped party balloons across the border into Israeli towns in an effort to kill Jewish children, and began the recent war by aiming its rockets at civilians, rejoicing at every Israeli casualty. The Israel Defense Forces, by powerful contrast and as usual, sent messages by texts, phone calls and leaflets warning civilians to evacuate premises housing terrorists or weapons caches before bombing the buildings.

Astounding, but not surprising, of course. We’re still in galus, after all, and where Jews are concerned, common sense often goes missing.

Israel’s reaction to the recent attack on her, moreover, was widely called “disproportionate.” But that judgment presupposes that her goal was punishment. It wasn’t. 

The Hamas rockets were merely a pretext for Israel to undertake something more important than teaching terrorists a lesson. They were an opportunity to destroy as much of the murderers’ weapons and tunnels as possible, to prevent further attacks on Israeli civilians in the near future. To speak of “proportionality” in such a mission is incoherent.

Hamas, moreover, started the recent war on a pretext of its own, invoking police actions on Har Habayis and a reclamation of Jewish property in Yerushalayim’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood as the reasons for their attack. But those were just convenient excuses. The terrorists’ true aim, as always, was just to kill or maim as many Jews as possible. 

So both Hamas and Israel seized chances to do what each already wanted to do: the former, to kill innocents; the latter, to protect them.

But the fact that good and evil here are easily identifiable begs an uncomfortable question: Could Hamas have been — or might it in the future be — deterred from attacking (and, after Israel’s understandable reaction, garnering the support of Israeli Arabs, mendacious media and credulous Congresspeople) by depriving it of pretexts?

The hashkafah that is part of my chinuch has it that the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael is a brachah, but not one that changes the harsh reality of galus.

And so, while some Jews, swelling with pride born of Israel’s accomplishments, feel that the Jewish state needn’t pay regard to other nations’ wrongheaded stances, to me, a true understanding of the meaning, challenge and mandate of galus counsels, at least to a degree, deference to the Arabs and the umos ha’olam.

Such concern for so often hostile others is seen by some as weakness or abandonment of Eretz Yisrael. But it is nothing of the sort. It is a simple recognition of reality, and a rejection of the attitude of “kochi v’otzem yadi asah li es hachayil hazeh.”

To be sure, Israel has not only the right but the responsibility to do what is necessary to protect her citizens. But it can’t be ignored that there are actions that go beyond that, and which, even when entirely justified by law and reason, may not be justified by wisdom. 

Several weeks before the first rockets were launched from Gaza last month, Israeli police reportedly entered the mosque on Har Habayis and cut the cables to loudspeakers that broadcast Muslim prayers. It was Yom Hazikaron and the move was intended to allow Israel’s president to make a speech at the Kosel. It was also, though, the first day of Ramadan. Was the pre-emptive move justified? Perhaps, yes. Wise? Perhaps not.

Likewise, Jews with claims to homes in neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah have every right, both ethically and by law, to reclaim their land. Is their claim justified? Absolutely. Wise? Arguable.

Last month, to its credit, the Israeli government, at the last minute, just before Yom Yerushalayim — when Jewish nationalists traditionally march through the Muslim Quarter and ascend Har Habayis — barred Jews from entering the compound, and rescheduled the march; and the Israeli Supreme Court postponed its hearing in the Sheikh Jarrah eviction case. But it was too late. Arab passions were in a state of frenzy by then, and Hamas took advantage of the anger and made its murderous move.

On Tuesday, the rescheduled march took place. Thousands of Israelis carrying flags assembled at Sha’ar Shechem, singing “Am Yisrael Chai,” before marching through the Old City.

“Take a good look at our flag. Live and suffer,” one marcher shouted in Hebrew through a megaphone at Arab merchants on the other side of police barriers. There was a catcall of “Death to Arabs!”

We are approaching the weeks of the Jewish year when we directly acknowledge, and bemoan, the fact that we’re still in galus.

And, in that state of yet-unfulfilled history, the Israeli government and nationalist Israelis would do well to reflect on the fact that Mashiach has not yet arrived, and that, while there is often a need to act militarily in defense of the populace, in political and social realms, restraint, respect and measured compromises might reflect not cowardice but wisdom.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Response From Our Son Menachem

A rejoinder to the posting below, “The Cat is a Hat,” was sent to me by our son Menachem Tzvi, who lives with his wife and three children in Lakewood, NJ and studies full-time in a kollel there (but who apparently uses his very limited “down time” to write not only perceptive divrei Torah but occasional doggerel).

While your poem was truly

a lesson in grammar,

It gave me a jolt-

made me stutter and stammer.

I am so shaken up-

yes it’s true, I’m afraid

The words that I read

left me shocked and dismayed.

The foremost offense

is the honor you gave

To a man who committed

injustice so grave.

He penned and he drew

racist words and depictions

Just to sow and to spread

xenophobic afflictions!

And then, as I read

my surprise was fantastic

I was simply befuddled

My flabber was gastic!

Humans, you said

deserve phrases and words

that could not apply

to apes, mammals and birds!

And if that’s not enough

you implied with great ease

that he’s are for men

and that women are she’s!

And on that note I add

that I quite was amused

with how all of your rules

leave us dumb and confused!

For what shall we say

to potatoes with limbs-

especially now

they are not hers or hims?

Should we use the word “who”

Or perhaps just a “that”?

And what, who or whom

Is the cat in the hat?

But alas, now I fear

that none of this matters

with our basic core values

thus shredded, in tatters.

The Cat is a That

In belated honor of Theodore Geisel’s birthday yesterday, I offer you a piece I wrote, under a pseudonym, for Ami Magazine years ago, about a grammatical gripe, but in homage to the good “Doctor”:

It’s too much overheard

And too much to endure.

Many words are misused

And misplaced; that’s for sure.

But there are words so simple, so common, so plain

That confusing them causes us terrible pain.

They grate on the ear, they bother the head,

They set teeth on edge, and up make us fed.

A THING is a THING, and a person is not.

He’s a man, that is, or a woman or tot.

A thing is a thing, like a cat (or a hat)

And the right word to use for such things is, well, “that.”

So it’s: “The hat that was sat upon ran out of luck.”

Or, likewise, the “cat that challenged a truck.”

You would never refer to a hat as a “who.”

Or a cat for that matter, or a cow… or a moo.

“Who” is reserved for beings quite human,

Not for feelings or furniture, cabbage or cumin.

Even elephantine Horton who heard a clear who

Does not himself merit one, as do I and do you.

For an animal or object, “who” is atrocious.

“Who” is for you, reader, adult or precocious.

So please, no more “the person that came to my house”

Or “the lady that screamed when she spotted a mouse.”

No more “neighbors we hear that are going on vacation”

Or “children that come from Haiti are Haitian.”

No more “Zaidy, that is with computers a novice.”

Or “Zeldy that’s coming to visit on Shabbos”

It’s WHO in such cases, since a person’s a person

Our use of English must improve and not worsen.

If we aim not to seem entirely dumb.

It’s “Who” for those of opposable thumb

Excepting simians, of course, that’s quite certain;

Monkeys get “that,” like a lampshade or curtain.

But we humans are different; get this down pat!

We take a “WHO”—And that is just that.

Defining Debauchery Down

Rabbi Avi Shafran

One would have been forgiven for assuming it an elaborate Purim joke.  In fact, assuming otherwise would have strained credulity. 

But credible, unfortunately, it is. “It” — a new glossy magazine I prefer not to name, aimed, its marketing team says, at Jewish “men age 25-65 from the right and the left who are Conservadox, Modern Orthodox or Yeshivish; and live in Flatbush, Lakewood, the Five Towns and Bergen County” — is apparently all too real, a crazy cartoon come to life.

The new periodical is for you. If, that is, you “are enthralled by men’s luxury and higher end products.”  If so, the mag “has it all covered for you,” focusing on “all fine goods in the consumption industries for Jewish men,” from “an old fashion [sic] to bourbon or wine.” And, of course, cigars, grilling, cars, cologne, man caves and fancy watches.

And there will be photos! Of “first class dining, men’s hobbies & lifestyle,” depictions that will “captivate our readers [sic] attention for their elegant experience,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

An article in a Jewish newspaper about the new offering helpfully informs readers that “Sure, you have your chavrusas, seforim and shiurim,” but you need help to “make the best use of your precious free time, with premium content by experts in their fields about the rewards that come after a hard week of work and learning.”

Maybe it is a Purim shtick. 

No, I checked again. It’s not.

Something is rotten in the state of Orthodox-ish. The “ish” is indicated because hedonism is as mixable with authentic Orthodoxy as cool spring water is with grease dripping from a succulent steak on a high-end barbeque grill.

Interestingly, in  response to the ongoing Covid crisis (and thankfully unaware of the magazine’s debut), the members of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah recently issued a call to the Jewish community to recognize that the crisis’s challenges and tragedies should be regarded as “an appeal from Heaven to correct our ways,” in particular with regard to “a fundamental and broad point.”

The point? That “Klal Yisroel is a ‘nation of princes and a holy people’.”  And that Jews must, as a result, “distance themselves from the pursuit of excess.”

“There are among us,” the call to sensitivity continues, “those who, notwithstanding their care with mitzvos, pursue fine foods and expensive vacations; they boast of their clothing and furniture,” people who are not exclusively focused, as Jews should be, on living “a modest life centered around Torah, service to Hashem, and kindness to others; a life purposed on being close to Hashem.” Who ignore the “spiritual danger” of “a life of materialism.”

There are, to be sure, occasions when somewhat “fancy fare” may be excusable, for the enhancement of simchos and such. There are even times when we might need to pamper ourselves in order to revive our emotional energies, when treating ourselves to a special treat helps us to better serve Hashem bisimcha. But elevating luxury to an ideal, putting hedonism on a pedestal? Ugh.

The Moetzes members’ call will probably strike the new magazine’s machers as wildly preposterous, even insane. Just like the glassy-eyed fellow with the tin foil hat walking down the street mumbling to himself about Martians thinks everybody else is deranged. 

As it happens, though, the Moetzes statement should stimulate introspection in the rest of us, too, we who don’t salivate at the prospect of a good bourbon or fine cigar. We may not be “enthralled by… luxury and higher-end products,” but can we say we haven’t drifted a bit from modesty toward excess ourselves?

Things that once were extravagant luxuries have bizarrely morphed into “necessities.” Larger and more elaborate homes than we really need testify to such change (not to mention that they draw resentment from others). The sort of cars we drive, the type of vacations we take, the foods and drinks we consume, the size and elaborateness of the simchas we host (something the current health crisis has in fact taught us are unrelated to true simchah) — all point to an imbalance in priorities.

Even, at least in some places, rewards given to talmidim and talmidos by rabbaim and moros have become extravagant; stars on charts and small tchotchkes no longer cut the mustard (even our mustard doesn’t anymore, having yielded to gourmet condiments). 

Some candymen in shul have reportedly also felt the need to “upgrade” their offerings, lest the youngsters find more rewarding places for worship (or whatever).

Rewarding deserving children is undeniably important, yes, but so is teaching them about limits.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged in principle but increasingly ignored in practice: Even in times of plenty and even for the financially fortunate, there is dignity in modesty.

And the opposite in the opposite.

© 2021 Agudath Israel of America

Bursting Bubbles

Two people dear to me — a talmid from a former lifetime and a respected colleague in my current one — forwarded me links to an outrageous set of comments attributed to Texas State Representative Terry Meza, explaining her proposed bill to change parts of her state’s code about the use of force in self-defense. 

Ms. Meza’s bill was characterized as a repeal of Texas’s “castle doctrine,” a catch-all phrase for an assortment of laws in various states offering a person the right to use deadly force on an intruder. 

She was quoted as justifying her effort by contending that “Thieves only carry weapons for self-protection and to provide the householder an incentive to cooperate,” that “in most instances the thief needs the money more than the homeowner does” and that “on balance, the transfer of property is likely to lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth.”

The outrageousness of that report is equaled only by… well, its falsity. 

It turns out that the bill at issue simply added a clause requiring a person not on his own property and not personally threatened to retreat rather than shoot to kill someone engaged in a robbery.

And the quotes? They were fabrications, the work of a satirical website.

Neither of the people who sent me the untrue item — which appeared widely on social media — is gullible. One is a doctor, the other a lawyer. 

But their assumption of the item’s veracity highlighted something unsettling, even dangerous, that has been steadily increasing and particularly apparent in recent years: the proliferation of “fake news” — and the challenge of distinguishing fiction from fact.

With the presidential election now blessedly in the rear-view mirror, the subject of misleading reportage and opinion writing can be addressed, one hopes, dispassionately. And so, for what it’s worth, I’d like to share some advice about how to best ferret out facts from falsehoods and formulate informed opinions.

The only college I attended was Ner Israel Rabbinical College, but my professional life over the past quarter century-plus has included closely monitoring news. And I’ve confirmed — stop the presses! — that journalists, like all people, have biases. The best among them work to suppress their prejudices, but the preconceptions are often evident all the same, if not on the lines, then between them.

Ditto with news organizations, and kal vachomer with social media. Which means that, in a way, all news is “fake” — if not necessarily like the blatantly misleading example above, then at least in the sense of… slanted.

So what’s a news consumer to do? I suggest something simple, if puzzlingly seldom done: Hear out disparate claims and do independent research. 

That means consulting not only Fox News and the Daily Caller, but the New York Times and CNN; listening not only to NPR but to Rush and Sean and even Rudy. And then — most important — employing critical and objective thinking (and tools like Snopes and FactCheck).

People who proudly proclaim that they trust only this or that news source are proudly proclaiming that they don’t really care about truth, only about keeping the bubbles they inhabit intact. The only way to establish facts and formulate educated opinions is to hear different voices. Doing otherwise is like a judge hearing out only one litigant and then rendering a decision.

Sometimes due diligence and hearing all views will yield confirmation of one’s own original gut feelings. Other times, though, an honest person will find his own preconceptions to have been successfully challenged. And so, it’s important here to remember, as it is in life in general, that admitting a mistake is simply declaring that one is smarter than he was earlier.

Objective evaluation of disparate sources can still yield different conclusions for different people. There can be, and often are, entirely legitimate differences of informed opinion. But opinions need to be based on fact, not partisan propaganda or someone else’s biases.

As I was writing this, yet a third person dear to me forwarded a headline from a “frum” medium. It read: “JOE’S MATH: Biden Talks Of 300 Million Vaccines For 200 Americans.” At one point in a recent address, Mr. Biden said “300 Americans” and then corrected himself and said “300 million Americans.” The video on the “news” medium was not only doctored to omit that real-time correction but clumsily edited to make Mr. Biden seem addled.

How many viewers of the fake video, I wonder, cared to consult the original?

© 2021 Ami Magazine