Category Archives: Personalities

All The Days of Your Life

I often feel terribly pampered. Especially when I think of my parents’ generation.

At the age when my father, z”l, and several others from the Novardok Yeshiva in Vilna were captured for being Polish bnei yeshivah and banished by the Soviets to Siberia, I was being captured by a teacher for some prank and banished to the principal’s office. When he was trying to avoid working on Shabbos as his taskmasters demanded, I was busy trying to avoid the homework my teachers demanded.

When he was moser nefesh finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga, my mesirus nefesh consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning for davening. Where he struggled to survive, my only struggle was with the mundane challenges of adolescence. Pondering our respective age-tagged challenges has lent me perspective.

And so, while I help prepare the house for Pesach, pausing to rest each year a bit more frequently than the previous one, thoughts of my father’s first Pesach in Siberia arrive in my head.

In his slim memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air,” he describes how Pesach was on the minds of the young men and their Rebbi, Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. While laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had needs, after all, like matzah shemurah.

Toward the end of the frigid winter, they retrieved their stash and ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzos to ensure their thorough baking. In the middle of the night, the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which they fired up for two hours to make it kosher l’Pesach before baking their matzos.

And on Pesach night they fulfilled, to the extent they could, the mitzvah of achilas matzah.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Pesach experience of, l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, my wife’s father, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive,” he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzah. All the same, he was determined to have the Pesach he could. In the dark of the barracks on the leil shimurim, he suggested to a friend that they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted Mah Nishtanah, other inmates protested. “What are you crazy Chassidim doing?” they asked. “Do you have matzos, do you have wine and food for a Seder? Sheer stupidity!”

My shver responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a mitzvah d’Oraysa – and that no one could know if their “Seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

We in such places can glean much from the Pesachim of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A passuk cited in the Haggadah elicited a novel thought from Rav Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Mitzrayim all the days of your life.”

Commented the Slonimer Rebbe: “When recounting Yetzias Mitzrayim, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his own life – the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed for him throughout…”

Those who, baruch Hashem, emerged from the Holocaust and merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But the rest of us, too, have experienced our own “miracles and wonders.” We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and chassadim with which we were blessed. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the Seder, when we recount Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the personal gifts we’ve been given.

And should that prove a challenge, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

© 2019 Hamodia

I’m In!

There’s no point in further delaying the news. I will soon be officially announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Most everyone else has done so and I don’t want to be left out.

The official throwing of my hat (my weekday one, as it needs replacing anyway) into the presidential ring will take place at Hamodia’s sprawling Borough Park offices at a date and time to be announced.

I will be running on the Purim Party ticket, and am currently accepting applications for the position of running mate. My life mate, unfortunately, does not qualify, as she was not born in the U.S.; in fact, she obstinately remains a Canadian citizen, an alien (in more ways, perhaps, than one, since, as numerous immigration officials at Newark airport can attest, she lacks detectable fingerprints).

My personal qualifications are well-known. I was a candle in my kindergarten Chanukah production, and graduated both elementary and high school. And I have no felony convictions.

I have never knowingly employed undocumented domestic help, and have never worn blackface. There was that do-rag a few Purims back, yes, but there are no photos that I know of. (Should you have any, please be in touch with my fixer, the aforementioned Mrs. Shafran.)

My closet, although it’s cluttered, holds no skeletons, only an assortment of old ties biding their time until they are once again of fashionable width.

And so, I feel that I am eminently qualified to occupy the seat once occupied by the venerable likes of Millard Fillmore and Warren Harding.

My platform? Thank you for asking. I support universal health care, universal child care and universal common sense training, something I’ve long felt has been sorely lacking in American society.

I have no position on minimum wage, but support a maximum one.

The Middle East will be one of my top priorities, of course. I have a secret peace plan. No, of course I can’t offer it; if I did, it wouldn’t be secret, would it? (Common sense training would have made that explanation unnecessary.)

I also look forward during my tenure, to appointing Supreme Court justices who are practicing Orthodox Jews, ideally kollel-leit and BJJ graduates.

But my campaign mantra, with which I expect my supporters to drown me out at rallies when I start rambling incoherently, will be “Build the Wall!” No, it has not been copyrighted (I checked), and, in any event, it’s not a southern border wall I will be urging, but a northern one.

Yes, as you know, there is an urgent need for a 3000-mile-long impenetrable barrier between our mainland and Canada, to protect our beloved country from the dire threat poised to invade from the north – the forces of civility and polite discourse.

Now, Canadians are welcome to embrace such un-American practices in their own country if that’s really what they want. Hockey pucks to the head and beer overconsumption take a toll on a society. But the peril posed by an import of politeness to our own political sphere is frightening.

Name-calling and personal insults, after all, are part of the republic’s DNA. We must never forget our twin guiding principles, e pluribus unum and argumentum ad hominem.

When Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a “repulsive pedant” and a “hideous… character,” the gauntlet was thrown, and it was picked up by Mr. Adams, who labeled Mr. Jefferson a “G-dless atheist” and cast crude aspersions on his parentage.

Adams’ son John Quincy played the genealogy card himself, against Andrew Jackson, disparaging the latter’s mother; and Mr. Jackson made sure that the media, which wasn’t yet fake, called JQA’s moral behavior into question.

Memorably, Stephen Douglas’ supporters called Abraham Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch” who was “sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman.” (“Nutmeg dealer”? I have no idea.) For his part, Honest Abe compared Mr. Douglas to an “obstinate animal.”

Teddy Roosevelt famously referred to William Howard Taft as “a rat in a corner.”

More recent examples of the glorious rudeness that imbues the American political realm from all its corners are readily available from news organizations, Twitter and local bars.

And, so, it is clear that we must do all we can to avoid a slippery slide into civility. Invaders from the north may only be targeting mudslinging today, but tomorrow it will be baseball, and before we know it, they’ll be coming for our guns.

So, if you care about the U.S.A., you know your choice!

© 2019 Hamodia

Polar Vort

“Not as cold as Siberia.”

That’s what my father, a”h, would say with a laugh if I complained over the phone about the frigid weather in Providence, where my family lived in the 1980s. And indeed it never was that cold. In the work camp east of Irkutsk where he and a small group of Novardok talmidim and their rebbe, Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, had been exiled by the Soviets, winter temperatures could reach minus-40 Celsius.

When I was transcribing the memoir I convinced my father to write, some ten years ago, I asked my wife to check what that would be in Fahrenheit, the system we in the U.S. use. I imagined it was somewhere around zero, when, after a few minutes, my ears, and even gloved fingers, lose all feeling.

After some research, she reported back: “That’s where both scales converge. Minus forty Celsius is minus forty Fahrenheit.”

I write as the edges of the polar vortex have chilled the air outside to single digits (as I set out for Shacharis this morning, the thermometer read zero), and 27 below was what my friends and nieces and nephews in Chicago were enduring.

As you read this, the weather will have warmed. But unless you live in Australia (where it was recently 99 degrees Fahrenheit), you will recall last week’s deep freeze with a shiver.

Arctic blasts always recall to me not only my father’s droll comment but the experience that qualified him to make it.

The ten young men – boys would better have described them; my father was all of 16 – and Rav Nekritz, his wife and their two daughters reached the work camp at the end of July, 1941. They thought the Siberian summer was insufferable, with its hordes of stinging gnats and mosquitoes (though my father, always seeing the good, remembered beautiful butterflies too). And, as the exiles felled trees and harvested potatoes and onions, the brown bears in the forest were also on their minds.

But when the first winter arrived, well before Rosh Hashanah, the new arrivals discovered what “Siberia” conjures in most minds.

When I picture the Jews whom the Soviets forced to work outdoors in horrific cold, I can never avoid thinking about what I was doing at 16 years of age, when my biggest challenges were things like being unprepared, through every fault of my own, for a bechinah or math test. The contrast is always, pun intended, chilling.

In keeping with the Novardok derech, the yeshiva bachurim would try to find a few minutes to spend isolated in a far corner of a field, or among the trees of the forest, to think about who they were, who they should be, and how best to journey from the one to the other.

My esteemed friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who has written about Novardok and the Siberian chaburah, has recounted how a non-Jewish resident of the work camp once asked Rav Nekritz why he thought that a respected rabbi and teacher of Torah like him had been reduced to the life of manual labor in the Siberian wastelands.

His response was: “So you and your friends would see that there is a G-d in the world.”

Novardoker that he was, he then added, perhaps to himself as well: “And so that we, too, would see that there is a G-d in the world.” And indeed, Hashem protected the group; all its members survived the war to rebuild their lives and establish families.

Rav Nekritz also once shared a thought with the young exiles.

“The Amora Rav Yitzchak Nafcha,” he pointed out, “was a blacksmith, a lowly job.”

“When we picture a blacksmith,” he continued, “we imagine someone with grossly muscular arms and an unrefined soul. Yet Rav Yitzchak Nafcha was an illustrious chacham, possessed of no less holiness and refinement than any sage whose good fortune was to spend his days in the beis medrash

“Yes, our situation here is very different from what it was in yeshivah. But we can strengthen ourselves so that our surroundings and labors do not negatively affect us. One can be a woodchopper and simultaneously develop an exalted, refined soul, as exalted and refined as that of anyone who spends his entire days in deep introspection. Hatchets and saws need not leave their marks on our neshamos.”

It’s a message not bound to any time and place. For those of us today who are no longer ensconced in yeshivah or seminary, it’s as important to hear as it was for the Novardokers in Siberia.

© 2019 Hamodia

Don’t cry for me, Eric Yoffie

Enough decades have passed to allow some of us to recall biologist Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller “The Population Bomb,” in which the author, soberly analyzing relevant data, predicted worldwide famine within twenty years as a result of rising birth rates and limited resources. Hundreds of thousands, he prophesied, would starve to death by 1988. He compared the “population explosion” to the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells,

That blessedly inaccurate prediction was embraced by legions of other scientists. In 1970, Harvard biologist George Wald went further, predicting that, without immediate action to reverse trends, “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years.”

The renowned physicist Lord Kelvin stated in 1895 that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” And Albert Einstein, in 1932, contended that “There is not the slightest indication” that nuclear energy “will ever be obtainable.”

We do well to remember pronouncements like those when trying to extrapolate the future from present knowledge, or present assumptions. Unfortunately, some people, especially when trying to promote agendas, don’t, or won’t.

The same some of us with those decades in their rear-view mirrors may also remember the days when the Reform movement just went about its business of jettisoning the Jewish mesorah for the “benefit” of its congregants, and was so sure of its future prospects that it essentially ignored Jews who remained faithful to the Jewish mission as handed down since Mattan Torah. It certainly didn’t see a need to attack those “old fashioned” fanatics. They wouldn’t be around much longer.

Ah, times have changed.

Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism and now a writer for Haaretz, has taken up the cause of castigating Jews who have the audacity to maintain Judaism.

In a recent opinion piece in that paper, he accuses “the ultra-Orthodox political leadership” in Israel of “destroying the State of Israel.” In case the reader might assume he is waxing metaphorical, he adds, “Literally.”

The destruction, in his telling, is being wrought by the determined prevention of “Haredi Jews from becoming productive citizens in a modern, developed economy.”

“Lovers of Torah,” like himself, he bemoans, “can only weep.”

The objects of his ire might well respond, “Don’t cry for me, Eric Yoffie.”

The Haaretz writer seems to be under the impression that Israeli Jews are forced to eat kosher and keep Shabbos (may they all come on their own to do both, and more). What else could he mean by the chareidi “massive machinery of religious coercion”? Respect for halachah at the Kosel Maaravi? Oversight of geirus, kiddushin and geirushin to prevent personal tragedies down the line? Coercion? Uh, no.

The Reform leader’s real bugaboo, though, is the growth of the chareidi community and the concomitant growth of limud Torah in Israel.

He quotes a Tel Aviv professor who is “worried that in 40 years, Israel will be more crowded than any country in the world, except for Bangladesh.” Shades of Paul Ehrlich.

And, the writer contends, “Israel’s rate of poverty is exceedingly high…; its labor productivity is disturbingly low, and continuing to fall.”

“To say that this picture is a grim one,” Yoffie writes grimly, “is an understatement.”

He admits that “the problem is not the employment rate of women.”  Men, though, he explains, “are directed by their rabbis to forsake the labor market for full-time Torah study.” In the 1980s, he continues, “the employment rate for Haredi men was 64%. In 2015, slightly less than 54% of Haredi men were employed. Two years later, that number had dropped to 51%.”

When the sky is falling, there just isn’t time to do any digging. What Yoffie doesn’t note is that, as Israel Democracy Institute researchers report, “Since 2003, there has been a consistent rise in the employment rate of [chareidi] women and men.”

But, of course, Yoffie’s issue isn’t really employment. If it were, he would be advocating to provide those who, as a matter of religious principle, are unable to enter the army with the same access to gainful employment as ex-soldiers. His issue is the intolerable willingness of so many Jewish men to dedicate themselves to full-time Torah study for as long as they can, and their readiness to live modestly, resisting the societal shitah that determines “success” by the size of bank accounts.

Yoffie’s “solution” to the crisis he perceives consists of changing the nature of chinuch in Israel and offering a full complement of “core curriculum” studies “of course… alongside traditional Torah study.”

And accomplishing that, he contends, can only happen through “compulsion.”

Fittingly, his piece appeared just as Chanukah was about to begin.

© 2018 Hamodia

No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Did Not Sin Against The Memory Of The Holocaust

We do no favors to the memory of the Holocaust when, for political  purposes, we unfairly accuse people of dishonoring it.

Whatever one may think of incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she did not compare the victims of the Holocaust with the migrants at the southern border.  A piece I wrote on the issue is at the Forward, here.

Looking Over Our Right Shoulders

Newly elected member of the House of Representatives Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, recently admitted that she supports BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Back in August, though, when asked for her stand on the movement, she said only that BDS is “not helpful in getting [a] two-state solution.” Her listeners reasonably assumed that her words constituted a rejection of BDS. Now they know better.

Such attitudes (not to mention such dissembling) on the part of political “progressives” are no surprise, of course, although – as I argued last week – the Democratic Party, at least for the foreseeable future, is still firmly under the control of cogent and rational people.

Still and all, it’s sensible that many of us are concerned with disreputable forces on the edges of the political left.

What should concern us, though, no less – in fact, I think, more – are violent ones on the other end of the political spectrum.

Pittsburgh, although its death toll was unprecedented for an attack on Jews in the U.S., wasn’t an outlier.

Right wing anti-Semitism was likewise behind the attacks in 2014 just before Pesach at the Kansas City Jewish Community Center. And, before it, the 2009 Holocaust museum shooting in Washington, D.C. And before it, the 1999 Jewish Community Center shooting in Los Angeles.

Reactionary sentiment, of course, was also behind the 2015 murder of nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. And behind the killing of two elderly African-Americans at a supermarket near Louisville, Kentucky last month. As it was behind the letter bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and liberals mere weeks ago.

And last week, an acquaintance of Robert Bowers, the murderer of the 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, was arrested near Washington, D.C. on gun charges, after the FBI said he posted on a social media site that the massacre “was a dry run” and that “there was more to come.”

The 30-year-old man, Jeffrey R. Clark Jr., was charged with transporting firearms across state lines and possession of four illegal high-capacity magazines intended for use with AR-15 weapons, a favorite of American mass shooters (and used by Bowers), as well as two kits for converting those semiautomatic weapons into fully automatic rifles. A search of the suspect’s home also yielded a shotgun, a rifle and two handguns. And two ballistic vests, two ballistic helmets and two gas masks.

Family members, who notified authorities, said that Mr. Clark had been “heavily involved” in the alt-right movement.

The FBI said that the arrestee and his younger brother – who, as it happened, committed suicide shortly after the Pittsburgh massacre – had attended last year’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and family members told agents that the brothers had photos of themselves from the event standing with James Alex Fields, the man charged with murder for driving a car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 other protesters.

The agents were also told that the Clark brothers admired Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and the late murderous cult leader Charles Manson (who famously carved a swastika on his forehead).

Clark posted his feeling that “every last one” of the Jews killed in Pittsburgh “deserved exactly what happened to them and so much worse,” and he considered Bowers a “hero.”

In fact, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a majority of the hatred-fueled murders in the U.S. last year were perpetrated by right-wing extremists.

And an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken last year showed that more than 11 million Americans called it “acceptable” to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views.

11 million.

The Amora Abba Binyamin (Berachos 6a) teaches us that, were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us actually visible, we would be frozen in terror. Whether he had in mind ethereal entities – or, perhaps, the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies but are thwarted by the brachah of our immune systems – must remain in the realm of speculation.

But there are also countless entirely human mazikin out there, unseen people whose consciences, if one can characterize their fundamental mentalities that way, not only don’t prevent them from inflicting harm on others but impel them, when encouraged, to actively do so. And those others will always include, prominently, Jews.

So, while our alacrity regarding political developments on the left with potential to harm Israel shouldn’t wane, in the backs of our minds – actually, in their forefronts – should be an awareness of the all too clear and present danger of murderous violence in the anti-liberal universe.

© 2018 Hamodia

Kentucky Gentlewoman

“When they go low, we go high” was coined by former first lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. She was well acquainted with low-going from her husband’s first campaign for president eight years earlier, when he was accused of being a foreign-born radical; and she, of hating America and planning to sow societal discord.

All she ended up sowing were vegetable seeds in the South Lawn garden (where Mrs. Trump has graciously carried on her predecessor’s tradition of hosting children to help pick ripened veggies).

The motto Mrs. Obama planted in the political garden in 2016, though, during the most negative presidential campaign in recent memory, didn’t bear much fruit. Hillary Clinton lost, and bellicosity in subsequent political campaigns spread like poison ivy.

And not only among Republicans.  The aforementioned Mrs. Clinton recently said that “you cannot be civil” with the Republican Party because it “wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

And former Attorney General Eric Holder offered his own riff on Mrs. Obama’s credo, suggesting that “When they go low, we kick them.”

Then there was Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat, who sent out a mailer with photos of President Trump and Adolf Hitler with an “equals” sign between them.

And so it goes.

Ah, but then we are graced with the likes of Amy McGrath, who is challenging the incumbent, Andy Barr, for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District seat.

Never mind which candidate is the Democrat (okay, Mrs. McGrath; but she’s happily married to a Republican), or even which is better qualified (no opinion).  Regard only the resplendent fact that the lady has forsworn negative ads.

You read that right.  Despite the fact that her battle is uphill, that her district favored President Trump by 15 percentage points and that Mr. Barr crushed his last Democratic opponent, Mrs. McGrath has refused to attack him or his policies.

“It’s time for a new generation of leaders who aren’t afraid to go against the grain and run a campaign that the voters can be proud of,” she told the Lexington Herald Leader.

“I refuse to win,” she wrote in a social media post “at any cost.”

Mr. Barr, regrettably, has not reciprocated the blow for civility. Although Mrs. McGrath is a former fighter pilot and lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps and holds moderate positions on all issues, her opponent and his supporters have launched verbal and video salvos at her, at times blatantly misrepresenting what she stands for.

Campaigning for Mr. Barr recently, President Trump declared that Mrs. McGrath is “an extreme liberal chosen by Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters and the radical Democratic mob,” and that she “supports a socialist takeover of your health care; she supports open borders; she needs the tax hikes to cover the through-the-roof garbage you want no part of.”

Her response: “Mr. President, you clearly don’t know me. Yet.”

Whether the optimism in that “yet” will prove to have been justified is not knowable. But, examining the candidate’s actual positions on health care, immigration reform and taxes, one sees her first sentence’s point.

Social scientists say that there is little evidence that attack ads yield more votes than informational ones, but campaign strategists and conventional wisdom clearly feel that they do.

Negative ads are certainly noticed. “Voters universally decry negative ads,” says Erika Franklin Fowler, the director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes political advertising. “But we are biologically attuned to pay more attention to negative information… We remember negativity more.”

Among the “biological attunements,” or natural human inclinations, the Torah warns us against is the acceptance or propagation of negative portrayals of others.  Leaving aside the particular halachic parameters of lashon hara, hotzoas shem ra and rechilus, they are unarguably pernicious things in any context.

And they derive from pernicious places, small-minded hatreds and prejudices. When comparisons of President Trump to Hitler are publicly offered or partisan players gleefully declare “owning the libs” as their highest aspiration, we as an electorate – and a society – have moved from holders of reasoned, if different, views to crazed boxers in a ring, trying to out-bloody one another.

I don’t know which candidate will be the better representative of Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. Either, I suspect, will probably do a good job. But whoever emerges the victor in that important race – the majority party in the House, of course, is in play – it is heartening that a candidate opted to buck the trend of seeing the debasement of an opponent as a necessary part of the path to success.

Kein yirbu.

© 2018 Hamodia

The Torah’s Not a Tool

Justice Brett Kavanaugh is well into his service to the country as a member of its highest court, and the controversy that swirled around him as a nominee for the position is, at least for people who don’t live in the past, entirely in the past.

And so, with the contentious Senate Judicial Committee hearings that took place over Sukkos rapidly receding in the rearview mirror, there is little point in revisiting the issues of Mr. Kavanaugh’s qualifications, judicial record or activities in high school and college. Or in imagining that any of us can really know if either he or any of those who accused him of misconduct in his youth had testified entirely truthfully.

What is worth revisiting, though, at least to my mind, is a peripheral issue that emerged during the hearings: the invoking of Torah concepts to support political stances.

One example was a group of politically active Orthodox rabbis who support Republican causes that issued a press release during the hearings “Urg[ing] Immediate Confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh” and supporting that imploration with the argument that “The Bible not only doubly emphasizes that ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’… but it also enjoins us to avoid peddling in unsubstantiated rumors.”

Another, over at a left-leaning secular Jewish newspaper, was a respected Orthodox columnist who cited Pirkei Avos about the “importance of a good name” as an important qualification a leader must have. She quoted the Rambam, too, as asserting that someone considered for a public position must bear “no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood.”

To be sure, both not “peddling in unsubstantiated rumors” and insisting on a leader’s good reputation are entirely valid Torah concepts. But – and aye, there’s the richtigeh rub – knowing how to apply them to a particular situation where they seem to clash is not a job for either activists or columnists.

A Gadol baTorah, of course, can choose to offer guidance about a current event. But if any Gadol rendered any public daas Torah about the advisability of Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it escaped my attention. And that none likely did is hardly surprising.

To be sure, Torah expertise can be brought to bear on any issue. But we wouldn’t expect a Gadol to offer a daas Torah about the wisdom of a baseball rule or the propriety of a player’s behavior on the field. And we have no reason to expect a daas Torah ruling on most political matters either (many of which, come to think of it, have come to have much in common with sports). Not every issue, we all understand, is worthy of any great man’s time or consideration.

What’s more, just as the yod’ei ha’itim (Esther, 1:13) in Achashverosh’s court – the talmidei chachamim, Chazal tell us – purposely elected to not become involved in a burning contemporary political issue (whether Vashti should remain on her throne or not – one wonders if it was the subject of a The Shushan Times editorial), so is there little incentive, and much hazard, in contemporary Torah leaders venturing for no good reason into contentious current events waters.

Which, as I see it, leaves us lesser rabbis and columnists (and rabbi-columnists), with only the option of offering our personal opinions, based either on the political teams we root for or on arguments born of objective analysis of facts. But not with the option of co-opting the Torah for partisan purposes.

Rabi Tzadok in Avos (4:5) declares the wrongness of using the Torah as “a spade with which to dig.” That is to say, to use Torah study or knowledge as a means of attaining financial gain. But, at least conceptually, what he is implying is that Torah is not to be regarded as a tool to be employed toward other ends. Appropriating Torah concepts, particularly in a selective fashion and especially when it is unclear which concepts best apply, is something we should avoid at all costs.

Needless to say, there are many issues of public concern that, from a Torah perspective, are effectively “open and shut,” and about which we have every right and responsibility to promote the clear and obvious Jewish view. Nor is it necessarily wrong to suggest that a Torah ideal might inform our understanding of a particular topic. But claiming with surety that the Torah requires a particular position regarding a controversy where our mesorah’s guidance is far from clear, we should realize, is a less than proper pursuit.

© 2018 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 

What’s Not Necessarily in a Name

Unless you happen to live in California’s 50th Congressional district, which encompasses parts of San Diego County and Riverside County in the south of the state, you won’t have to choose between incumbent Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter and his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar.

But if you did reside in that relentlessly sunny part of America, you would probably be somewhat suspicious of Mr. Campa-Najjar, not only because he is only 29 years old but also because he has a Palestinian father and a Mexican mother, lived as a child in Gaza and once attended an Islamic school in San Diego. And if that didn’t dissuade you from pulling the lever for him, there is the fact that his father served as a Palestinian Authority official.

And his grandfather was Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar, a “Black September” terrorist involved in the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Equally disconcerting to some, Mr. Campa-Najjar worked as Deputy Regional Field Director for President Obama’s reelection campaign, and subsequently worked for the Obama White House.

His opponent, Mr. Hunter, has bravely publicized all that, and recently warned in an ad that Mr. Campa-Najjar is working, along with alleged Islamists, to “infiltrate Congress” and so represents a “risk we can’t ignore.” The district’s base is solidly Republican and the incumbent is expected to win.

That, despite the fact that Mr. Hunter and his wife have been indicted by federal prosecutors on charges of wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations and conspiracy. They allegedly used hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars to pay for things like luxury vacations, fast food, theater tickets, racetrack outings, alcohol and family dentistry bills.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was sufficiently upset at the allegations, which he called “deeply serious,” to remove Mr. Hunter from the three House committees on which he sat.

But Mr. Hunter has denied the charges, and the choice between him and Mr. Campa-Najjar would seem a stark one.

Only it’s not. While nuance and fairness have largely left the electoral building, they are not yet entirely expired. So let’s try to revive them for a few paragraphs.

Not that his religion should make any difference, but Mr. Campa-Najjar is a proud Christian, and has described himself as “an apostate” in the eyes of Islam. His father, during his stint in the PA, spoke out in favor of peace with Israel and renounced hatred for Israel; and the candidate himself, who was born 16 years after his infamous grandfather was dispatched by Israel, has denounced his elder and terrorism in the clearest terms.

As to the Middle East, Mr. Campa-Najjar supports Israeli sovereignty and, referring to his family’s fleeing Gaza, asserts that “To achieve peace, Palestinians and Israelis will have to make the same personal choice I’ve had to make: leave the dark past behind so that the future shines brighter through the eyes of our children.”

Mr. Hunter’s insinuations that Mr. Campa-Najjar is a Muslim and a threat to America were dismissed as “absurd and classless” by Nick Singer, the challenger’s (Jewish, as it happens) communication director.

I’m not endorsing any candidate here. Were I a resident of the San Diego suburbs, I would do some real research on the positions of Messrs. Hunter and Campa-Najjar on various issues, and base my voting decision on my judgment about which contender is more in line with my priorities.

But the facts of Mr. Campa-Najjar’s ancestry would not be part of my calculus. There was a time when Orthodox Jews were suspicious, often rightly, about black candidates for public office. But some of our closest and most reliable public service allies today are African-Americans.

To be sure, there are currently Congressional candidates with Middle-Eastern or Islamic backgrounds who seem beholden to anti-Israel constituencies – people like Rashida Tlaib in Michigan or Ilhan Omar in Minnesota. But a sign of political maturity and savvy is rising above generalizations and being able to distinguish among members of various groups.

What’s more, even candidates who may have said wrongheaded things, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, should not be written off as enemies. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez hastily criticized Israel’s use of force against protesters in Gaza but later admitted that she is “not an expert on Middle East affairs.” and vowed to “learn and evolve” on the issue.

How her evolution will unfold will have to be seen. But being able to learn and evolve on issues – including the judging of candidates solely by their ethnicities – is most certainly a praiseworthy thing.

© Hamodia 2018