Category Archives: News

Mountains to Climb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a happy and meaningful Shavuos.

© 2019 Hamodia

A Midrash Comes Alive

At one point in an address to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month, Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., reached for a yarmulke, placed it on his head and read from a Chumash.

A video of what he then said went viral, propelled by supporters of Israel, prominent among them the worldwide Evangelical Christian community. Ambassador Danon’s words were translated into Spanish, Polish, French, Portuguese and even Turkish, and reached many tens of thousands of people. At this writing, the clip continues to gain momentum on social media.

Earlier in his speech, Mr. Danon introduced in brief the “four pillars” that, he said, link the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael.

The latter three bases for Israel’s legitimacy, Mr. Danon explained, were world history, international law and the pursuit of international peace. He cited the Balfour Declaration, the U.N. Charter and the fact that “a stronger and safer Israel means a stronger and safer world.” Later in his speech, he elaborated on those ideas.

It was the first portion of his explication, though, the one for which he donned the kippah, and that has come to be called his “Biblical Speech,” that captured the attention of so many.

Mr. Danon quoted from Bereishis (17, 7-8), where Hashem appears to Avraham Avinu and promises:

And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a G-d and to your descendants after you. And I will give you and your descendants after you the land of your dwelling, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a G-d.”

“This,” Mr. Danon added, holding the Chumash aloft, “is our deed to our land.”

Of course, that is true. My first reaction, though, was to wonder whether it was proper, from a strategic perspective, considering our place in galus, to proclaim that truth in a most public and important international forum. Maybe, I thought, the lesser “pillars,” rather than the overtly religious one, should alone have been put forth.

But pondering the happening a bit more, it became impossible to not be reminded of the first Rashi in the Chumash (echoing two Midrashim), explaining why the Torah begins with an account of the creation of the world:

“For if the nations of the world should say to Klal Yisrael, ‘You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],’ they will reply, ‘The entire earth belongs to Hashem; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper. When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us’.”

And so, Mr. Danon’s presentation of his “first pillar” would seem, at least to me, to have constituted essentially a contemporary fulfilment of the Midrash’s predicted scenario.

The Palestinian representative, Riyad Mansour, was not present for Mr. Danon’s speech. After making his own presentation moments earlier, in which he condemned the United States for recognizing Yerushalyim as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Mr. Mansour left the room, returning only when the Israeli representative had finished.

But other “nations of the world,” including the Arab ones – and Mr. Mansour himself, no doubt, at least after the fact – did indeed hear Mr. Danon’s words. And the Midrashim came to life.

There is, though, another important, if less enthralling, truth to remember here.

While it is important for the world to recognize the fact that, geopolitics and nationalism aside, Eretz Yisrael the land is indeed bequeathed to Klal Yisrael, we Jews need to remind ourselves of something else: The bequeathal, while eternal, is not unconditional.

This Shabbos in shul, we will read the “tochachah,” or “admonition,” in parashas Bechukosai. For the same reason that it will be read in a low voice and quickly, I will not excerpt it here. But we all know what it says, that it conditions Klal Yisrael’s right to inhabit Eretz Yisrael on our acceptance of Hashem’s laws. And we know, too, that we were expelled en masse from our land twice.

The latter three of the pillars cited by Mr. Danon are unrelated to shemiras hamitzvos. But the first one, the main one, the one that reflected that first Rashi, very much does depend on Jewish behavior.

That most vital point didn’t belong before the Security Council or the world. But it well belongs in every Jewish heart and mind.

© 2019 Hamodia

Repeal the Right to Guns?

A sampling of recent weeks’ gun news:

  • Pursuant to a tip, authorities found more than 1000 firearms in a home in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood (not quite reaching the record of the 1,200 guns and seven tons of ammunition L.A. police seized from another home in 2015).
  • A Fawn River, Michigan mother, Pauline Randol, was shot dead, allegedly by her 9-year-old adopted son.
  • A Highlands Ranch, Colorado school, with 1,850 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, was attacked by a gunman who shot nine high schoolers, killing one of them.
  • On the last day of classes at the University of North Carolina, a gunman killed two people and injured four.
  • Murder/suicides by gun took place in Maine, Florida and California.

An estimated 1.4 million Americans have died in all the wars in U.S. history, going back to the American Revolution. Approximately the same number of civilian citizens have died as a result of gun shootings – since 1970.

Gun deaths in the U.S. aren’t the result of murders alone, but also of accidents and suicides. In 2016, while 14,415 people died in gun homicides, 22,938 people used firearms to commit suicide.

New Jersey Senator and Democratic presidential candidate (and who isn’t one these days?) Corey Booker has proposed a radical plan to reduce gun violence. It includes a ban on assault weapons, the closing of loopholes that allow domestic abusers to buy guns and, most ambitiously, the creation of a national licensing program that would require prospective gun buyers to undergo extensive background checks by the F.B.I., including fingerprinting and interviews, in order to obtain a renewable five-year gun license.

Sounds draconian. But a 2015 study showed that after Connecticut introduced a similar gun licensing program, gun deaths in the state dropped by 40%.

And it wouldn’t be as draconian – or, at least, not as apoplexy-inducing in some circles – as… repealing the Second Amendment.

Just reading that phrase, in those circles, evokes images of governmental tyranny and persecution of citizens deprived of the means of resistance. And outrage at the unthinkable violence such a move would inflict on a heretofore Constitutional right.

But the Constitution isn’t beyond change – the Second Amendment, after all, is itself an amendment to the foundational document. And if anyone really thinks that owning a gun (or 1000 of them) will protect him from the wrath of a gone-insane, malevolent federal force, with arsenals of tanks and rockets, the crazed fantasist shouldn’t be allowed to own a penknife.

To be sure, repealing the Second Amendment is a long shot. But it’s not an outlandish one. Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens favors it, and harshly criticized the landmark 2008 Supreme Court District of Columbia v. Heller decision that enshrined an individual’s Constitutional right to keep a gun. Mr. Stevens wrote that “the text of the Second Amendment unambiguously explains” that it was meant to allow for “a well regulated militia,” and was intended only to prevent Congress from disarming state militias and infringing on the sovereignty of the states, not to grant individuals a right to gun ownership.

Another personage, with a similar surname, the conservative columnist Bret Stephens (who, not long ago, helped bring his employer, the New York Times, to apologize, and apologize and apologize, for its inclusion of a cartoon with anti-Semitic imagery), has also advocated for the repeal of the Second Amendment, calling it “a legal regime that most of the developed world rightly considers nuts.”

Washington Times columnist Cheryl Chumley begs to differ, contending that the Second Amendment is verily divine, based, as she contends, “on rights given individuals from G-d, not government.”

How so? Because, Ms. Chumley explains, the amendment “restricts government’s ability to strip citizens from their G-d-given rights to self-protection.”

Indeed, many of us do feel more secure owning a firearm, and guns have been used to protect innocent people. But there are less lethal instruments – like TASERs or pepper spray – that can also be used to defend oneself against an assailant, but which are unsuitable for committing suicide or for the sort of school and synagogue mass shootings that have become, Rachmana litzlan, almost commonplace these days.

Although it’s unarguable that fewer guns in society will mean fewer gun deaths, there may be no point in advocating repeal of the Second Amendment. So far, not even the amount of gun violence that occurs daily has inspired anything more than an op-ed or two supporting such a radical move.

But it’s alluring (and I speak, as always in this space, for myself alone, not Agudath Israel of America) to imagine an America with a mere fraction of its current 393 million civilian-owned firearms.

© 2019 Hamodia

Hideous Headline

On the first day of Pesach, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib offered the “Jewish sisters and brothers” among her constituents Passover greetings, accompanied by a graphic that included two fluffy loaves of bread. A similar faux pas (perhaps, here, articulating the French should-be-silent “s”) was part of the British Labor Party’s seasonal greeting as well.

Ms. Tlaib’s ignorance of one of the most important and widely-recognized elements of Pesach observance nicely paralleled her similar unawareness of the history of the Jews and Eretz Yisrael.

Her unbridled support of the “Palestinian cause” reveals an obliviousness to the uninterrupted Jewish presence over millennia in the land that today comprises the state of Israel, and the even more trenchant fact that the Jews who were expelled from the land after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash, and their descendants over all the subsequent generations, have turned daily to Yerushalayim in prayer and pined for a return to their ancestral homeland.

Although Ms. Tlaib hasn’t publicly expressed an explicit hope for an end to the Jewish presence in the Jewish land, she openly supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, advocates for a “Palestinian right of return” and backs a “one-state solution” – by which she presumably means (based on that “right of return” for all the descendants of all the emigrants from Partition-era Palestine) the transition of Israel, chalilah, into a 22nd Arab country.

The offensiveness of her infamous comment back in January about Senators Marco Rubio and Jim Risch – that, because of their opposition to BDS, they “forgot what country they represent” – has now been complemented by the craziness of her reaction to a report on the most recent conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.

To be specific, to a headline in The New York Times summing up the violent happenings. The headline read: “Gaza militants fire 250 rockets, and Israel responds with airstrikes.”

The 250 rockets eventually became more than 700, and caused scores of Israeli civilian casualties, including three deaths – one of them a Bedouin father of seven; another, a 21-year-old chareidi father of a one-year-old. But, at the time of the Times’ report, the headline was an accurate, straightforward description of events.

Representative Tlaib, though, was outraged. “When will the world stop dehumanizing our Palestinian people who just want to be free?” she tweeted. “Headlines like this & framing it in this way just feeds into the continued lack of responsibility on Israel who unjustly oppress & target Palestinian children and families.”

Wha?

The headline just stated the bald facts of the conflict: terrorists shot hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel ended the onslaught by attacking Hamas military targets from the air. Perhaps Ms. Tlaib would have preferred the chronology to be reversed, with Israeli attacks followed by Hamas retaliation. But time, alas, proceeds in only one direction.

And if the Congresswoman meant to reference the four Palestinian protesters at the border fence who were killed by Israeli forces the previous Friday, well, Palestinian violence at “peaceful protests” is legend. And those killings were preceded by the shooting of two Israeli soldiers there. That pesky arrow of time again.

The Congresswoman might also be reminded that Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005, relocating over 10,000 Jews, ethnically cleansing the region; and that the local residents, “who just want to be free,” freely elected a terrorist organization to rule them – which is what has directly resulted in their current deprivation and suffering.

If Ms. Tlaib – and we might well add her colleague Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, who likewise wished Jews a “happy Passover” – really wanted to gain respect from Jewish constituents and other American Jews, they might have issued a full-throated condemnation of Hamas’ most recent attempt to terrorize and murder Israeli civilians. And, for that matter, of Hamas’ general embrace of terrorism, incitement of the populace under its control and sworn goal of erasing Israel from the map.

Shia Muslim Imam and President of the Islamic Association of South Australia Mohamad Tawhidi did precisely that. And he went on to call out Mss. Tlaib and Omar for their own lack of outrage over Hamas’ terrorism.

Earlier this year, while paying his respects to Holocaust victims at Auschwitz, the imam was even blunter about the two Congresswomen, criticizing them as “absolute frauds and Islamists” who “promote hatred against the Jewish people.”

I don’t claim to know what lies in the heart of either woman. But I know what seems absent from both their heads: a recognition of the facts of history, both ancient and current.

As absent, it would seem, as leavened bread in observant Jewish homes on Pesach.

© 2019 Hamodia

Bad Times, Good Times

The third one, at least for me, did the trick. The third New York Times apology, that is.

The venerated publication, as most readers know by now, not long ago published an overtly anti-Semitic cartoon in its International Edition.

It depicted a guide dog with a face resembling Benjamin Netanyahu leading a blind, grotesquely overweight Donald Trump wearing dark glasses and a black yarmulke. A magen Dovid dangled from the dog’s collar.

When the cartoon was shared online, it was met with broad outrage. With its Jewish symbols and theme of an Israeli Prime Minister leading an unsighted American president, its Der Stürmer-keit was unmistakable. The Times issued a quick but brief apology – #1 – and then, after a wide and loud public outcry, a more comprehensive one – #2.

Then, last week, came #3, in the form of an unusual “Editorial Board” lead editorial.

When it appeared, Agudath Israel of America had been poised to issue a strongly worded statement about the cartoon, and a subsequent one depicting Mr. Netanyahu descending a mountain carrying a tablet featuring the Israeli flag, taking a picture of himself with a “selfie-stick.”

The ready-to-release statement pointedly suggested that The Times take a selfie of its own, and examine it closely and critically. Since the paper essentially did that, the statement was quashed.

The April 30 Editorial Board offering, titled “A Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism” and representing the view of the highest echelon of the paper, admitted, inter alia, that the first cartoon was “appalling” and that “an obviously bigoted cartoon in a mainstream publication is evidence of a profound danger – not only of anti-Semitism but of numbness to its creep, to the insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice is once again working itself into public view and common conversation.” [Emphasis mine.] Indeed.

The editorial went on to list recent acts of violent anti-Semitism, to acknowledge that “anti-Zionism can clearly serve as a cover for anti-Semitism,” and to bemoan the fact that “In the 1930s and the 1940s, The Times was largely silent as anti-Semitism rose up and bathed the world in blood. That failure still haunts this newspaper.”

The editorial board statement also admitted that “apologies are important but the deeper obligation of The Times is to focus on leading through unblinking journalism and the clear editorial expression of its values.” And that, while “society in recent years has shown healthy signs of increased sensitivity to other forms of bigotry… somehow anti-Semitism can often still be dismissed as a disease gnawing only at the fringes of society. That is a dangerous mistake. As recent events have shown, it is a very mainstream problem.”

It is a problem that The Times, unfortunately, has helped feed, with its reportage, editorials and op-eds over more recent years, from misrepresentation of the 1991 Crown Heights riots to harsh criticism of Israeli actions of self-defense to repeated, unwarranted criticism of the Orthodox Jewish community.

Late last year, a group of representatives from Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union met with The Times’ editorial page editor with the express purpose of trying to call attention to the dearth of Orthodox views on the paper’s op-ed page – a wrong compounded by the frequent criticism of the community that appears there.

The editor, who had at first tried to rebuff the charge, did some research and admitted the problem. And he pledged to be more open to Orthodox views.

So far, slim pickings. Although an opinion piece I submitted about Chanukah was published by The Times online, it was a “thought piece,” not a presentation of a position on a contemporary issue. And while ideas for examples of the latter, on topics like yeshivah education and the measles outbreak, to be written by qualified, credentialed members of our community were put forth, they were not accepted.

Does The Times recognize that part of the “creep” of subtle anti-Semitism involves negative coverage of the most recognizably Jewish of Jews, and the vacuum of Orthodox views on its op-ed page? Or has “numbness” set in there too?

It’s easy, even for an inveterate optimist like me, to be pessimistic. After all, there hasn’t been much positive movement to date, at least not visibly so.

But the willingness of the Old Grey Lady to publicly and prominently confess to sins both distant and present, and her pledge to be alert to the “insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice” of Jew-hatred “creeps” into societal (and journalistic) discourse, and to the danger of “numbness” to that creep, leaves some hope in my heart.

Time, as the truism has it, will tell.

© 2019 Hamodia

Make the Kosel Plaza Great Again

An Open Letter to Anat Hoffman

Dear Ms. Hoffman,

Many years ago, we shared a stage for a panel discussion about Israel and Judaism. But you are a well-known public figure and have appeared in countless venues to promote the feminist cause of your group “Women of the Wall,” so I hardly expect you to remember our fleeting interaction.

What you may be more familiar with is my written criticism of your goals and your group, since some of it has appeared in secular media both here in America and in Israel. I want to assure you that it was not intended as a personal attack, but was rather a battle undertaken in the arena of ideas. You have argued that the Kosel Maaravi should be a place where nontraditional public and vocal services should take place, even if such things offend those who most frequent the site.

And I have maintained that the hanhagah in place since the Wall was captured in 1967, effectively enshrining normative Orthodox practice as the standard for congregational prayer at the Kosel, should remain unchanged.

I am writing to you publicly now because of the results of the most recent Israeli elections. As you know, and likely bemoan, the two chareidi parties, Yahadut HaTorah and Shas, made unexpectedly strong showings. Their equally shared 16 Knesset seats represent a nearly 25 percent increase from their previous electoral representation. And together, they now constitute the largest Knesset faction in the government coalition after Likud, with more than three times the seats as the next most successful party.

That being the case, the chareidi parties are virtually assured to be part of Israel’s new government. That observation is not made to rub salt in any wounds, chas v’shalom, but rather as a prelude to a plea.

Realistically speaking, political machinations are not likely to change the longstanding status quo at the Kosel in the foreseeable future. And even if the Israeli courts are successfully enlisted to support the cause of dismantling the traditional public prayer custom at the site, the Knesset may be able to use its legislative power to circumvent such efforts.

In any event, the change for which you advocate is not likely in the cards for now.

And so, my plea:

Might you consider, in light of that reality, “demilitarizing” the Kosel, and putting your formidable talents and energies into truly important feminist causes, things like advocacy on behalf of equal pay for equal work and effective anti-harassment laws?

For, as you know, bringing loud nontraditional services to the revered site, as you have regularly done, only serves to cause strife. I make no excuses for anyone who berates another Jew, or so much as throws a crumpled piece of paper at her or him, much less for someone who assaults another. Hotheads exist in every group and should be tolerated in none.

But you know that your group’s actions will always meet with obnoxious reactions. Indeed, you have counted on it, making sure that when you arrive at the Kosel there are cameras and media in tow to capture whatever ugliness might result.

Provoking another Jew to overreact may not be as wrong as the overreaction itself. But it, too, is wrong.

And so, just think of what it might be like were you to seek changes to truly improve the lot of women in Israel, rather than a crusade whose only ultimate yield is strife.

Think of what it would be like to join the women who daven at the Kosel regularly with the sole goal of pouring out their hearts to Hashem. What an accomplishment it would be to make the Kosel plaza great again. A place of peace again.

You know that no one – traditional or nontraditional, Jew or non-Jew – has ever been prevented from worshipping there as an individual, and that the great majority of those who flock to the site regularly are Orthodox Jews, who want there to be a mechitzah near the Wall, and want audible public tefillah there to respect the norms born of centuries, indeed millennia, of Jewish tradition.

And you know, further, that until you launched your quest, the Kotel plaza was a place of uninterrupted amity – a Jewish societal oasis, probably the only place on earth where Jews of different religious stripes prayed sincerely side by side.

Might you consider returning it to that, every day of the year?

You and your followers can, as always, promote your religious or societal ideals in any private venue. But please give thought to the good will that you would be showing, and inspiring, were you to decide to make the Kosel once again an undisturbed place of Jewish comity and peace.

Thank you,

Avi Shafran

© 2019 Hamodia