Category Archives: Personalities

Lazer in Space

It takes an impressive degree of repugnancy for a Republican lawmaker to evoke condemnation from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Enter newly elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. 

She earned that dishonor by doing things like suggesting that no planes hit the Pentagon on 9/11, claiming that horrific school shootings were staged “false flag” operations and asserting that the Clintons are mafioso-style murderers. She also posted the first “like” on a social media assertion that “Mossad was on the ground on in [sic] Dallas on 11/22/1963!” (Lee Harvey Oswald, a member of the tribe? Who knew?)

Not to mention her sharing of a video asserting that “Zionist supremacists” are conspiring to flood Europe with migrants in order to replace its white population; and her wistful musing that “a bullet to the head [of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] would be quicker [than removing her through democratic means].” 

And her suggestion that California’s deadliest wildfire was caused by “lasers or blue beams of light” shot down from outer space, likely with the involvement of operatives of the “Rothschild Inc, international investment banking firm.” 

You get the idea.

Yet, despite Mr. McConnell’s characterization of Ms. Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories” as a “cancer for the Republican Party and our country,” the crackbrained Congresswoman would only tiptoe back her 9/11 and school shooting charges, stonewalling about all else. 

Her sole defense seems to consist of the praise she’s received from former President Trump (like his congratulatory tweet after her election win: “Marjorie is strong on everything and never gives up – a real WINNER!”). Well, yes, definitely, a real winner. 

Last Thursday, the House voted 230-199 (11 Republican members voted with the Democrats)

to remove Ms. Greene from her committee assignments (Education [!] and Budget). The next day, she finally uttered the word “sorry,” but only for “all those things that are wrong and offensive,” without further specification.

But her outrageous imaginings, with the “Rothschild Inc.” lasers (Lazers?) from outer space, “Mossad” and “Zionist supremacists” references (and others about George Soros, who, like “Rothschild,” is, among neo-Nazis and other moral misfits, a stand-in for Jews), are a reminder of how frequently conspiracy theories point to… you know who. 

From the ancient Egyptians fearing an Israelite overtaking of their land to the less-ancient Greek orator Apion, who explained how Jews engage in human sacrifice and cannibalism, to the Christian blood libels of the Middle Ages, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which “exposed” the Jewish plot to manipulate governments and dominate the world, to the Nazi canards about Jews, to those popular in some Muslim circles today, Jews have been prime objects of an odious assortment of frightful fantasies.

According to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Conspiracy theories are the way weak minds deal with complex situations.” Granted. And by their very nature, conspiracy theories need conspirators. But why the Jews?

Political scientist and historian Dan Cassino says Jews have so often been blamed for all manner of misfortune because “There is a perception of Jews as the Other — a part of society, but still somehow foreign. Couple that with resentment over Jewish success in certain areas of society, and they’ll be blamed for things that are otherwise just ineffable.”

But there are other ethnic and racial and religious groups that also stand apart within larger societies and, while some are disliked and even attacked by bigots, none are characterized as some sort of diabolical cohort bent on destroying all that is good and righteous. Blacks may be hated and Koreans envied by parts of America’s underbelly. But there has never been a “Protocols of the Elders” of Nairobi or Seoul.

No, the vilification suffered by Jews is sui generis, one of a kind, unexplainable by any normative analytical construct. It is rooted in something residing in a realm beyond the reach of social science.

“Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: ‘It is a halachah well-known that Esav hates Yaakov” (Sifri, Beha’aloscha 69).

Rav Menachem Ziemba, Hy”d, reportedly addressed the odd use of “halachah” in that statement by noting that Rabi Shimon generally perceives ta’ama di’kra, the reason or logic behind things the Torah says. Here, though, said Rav Ziemba, the tanna contends that when it comes to hatred for Jews, there is no logical explanation. It is simply a halachah, a truth, as inexplicable as it is inescapable. 

There will, in other words, always be Esavs in the world, and they will always seek, even in the most deranged ways, to vilify the progeny of Yaakov.

© 2021 Ami Magazine

When Innocence Really Isn’t

Remarkably, in response to Avimelech’s protest over being punished for taking Sarah, Hashem confirms the king’s insistence that he had acted innocently, believing that Avraham and Sarah, as they had claimed, were brother and sister.

“I, too, knew,” Hashem tells Avimelech in a dream, “that it was in the innocence of your heart that you did this” (Beraishis, 20:6).

So why didn’t Hashem merely prevent Avimelech from touching Sarah?  Why were the king and his family and entourage punished?

Perhaps the answer lies in what Avraham told Avimelech in explanation for having misled him: “Because I said ‘There is no fear of G-d in this place’ ” (ibid, 11).

A leader has the ability, and responsibility, to influence the mores of his society. If the society evidences lack of “fear of G-d,” its leadership is implicated.

Malicious Misrepresentation

I have no beef with anyone who wishes to take issue with anything I’ve written.  But I do object to the publication of something that blatantly and irresponsibly misrepresents what I have written.  Like this recent piece in the Forward, ostensibly responding to an earlier one I wrote in the same medium.

If you read my essay, you will see that nowhere did I argue or insinuate, as Mr. Nosanchuk claims, that that “only Haredi Jewish leaders can speak for our city’s Jewish community.”

Nor does associating me with “violent attacks against journalists” have any respect for truth. In fact, it insults it. I have publicly and repeatedly condemned (in print and on-air) all such behavior, and didn’t reference it at all in my Forward piece, since it was irrelevant to its thesis.

And if Mr. Nosanchuk wishes to attribute to me the claim that Orthodox “practice of Judaism requires an exemption from public-health restrictions,” he really should be required to show where I have ever written such a thing.  I have not. What I did write was that New York Governor Cuomo’s recent edicts were illogical and unfair — to any and all houses of worship. 

I, further, never insinuated anything remotely like the contention that people should “risk their health or the health of their loved ones by attending a large indoor religious gathering.”  Nor would I ever do so.

And I nowhere suggested that non-Orthodox rabbis “have no right to opine on the issue because they interpret Jewish law differently” than I do. I simply noted that non-Orthodox Jews are not hampered as much as Orthodox ones are by Mr. Cuomo’s draconian rules — and that representatives of the former should not call the latter “blasphemous” for standing up for their rights as Americans.  The ugliness and falsehood of that accusation was what my article was about – and something Mr. Nosanchuk chose to utterly ignore.

As to his accusation that I align myself “with a small minority within the Haredi community that has flouted public-health restrictions and resorted to violence against fellow Jews who disagree with them.”  That is beyond untruth; it is perilously close to libel. He maliciously created it out of whole cloth.

As he did his statement that I have resorted to “claims of antisemitism” against, presumably, the governor.  Never have I ever made such a claim, not in my essay, not in any other writings and not in private conversation.

Finally, I didn’t “try” to “spin” the NYJA’s words as name-calling.  Its words were name calling, at least if one considers “blasphemous” an insult.  I really think most people would.

A Note from Agudath Israel’s Executive Vice-President About an Unfortunate Article

August 28, 2020

By: Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

A number of people have called my attention to an anti-Agudath Israel screed that was recently published as an op-ed column in a Jewish periodical. The article defames Rabbi Moshe Sherer z’l, distorts the words of my colleague Rabbi Avi Shafran, and slanders the Agudah. I feel I must respond.

The article insinuates that the Agudah, going back to 1980 when Rabbi Sherer served as president of the organization and continuing still through today, supports Democrats over Republicans to the detriment of our community’s interests, and does so for financial gain. Thus, writes the author, “the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel had promised President Jimmy Carter the Orthodox vote [in the 1980 presidential election]. We can only speculate what he got in return for choosing the spendthrift candidate over the moral candidate.”

To anyone who knew Rabbi Sherer, the notion that this legendary Agudah leader who enjoyed the absolute trust of the greatest Gedolei Yisroel would favor a “spendthrift” political candidate in order to get something “in return,” is beyond preposterous and deeply offensive. What is the author’s source for Rabbi Sherer’s alleged promise to President Carter?

And what is his source for the equally startling assertion that Vice President Walter Mondale called Rabbi Sherer to complain about people wearing Reagan buttons on Ocean Parkway, to which Rabbi Sherer supposedly replied that they were disciples of a “fringe rabbi” who had no real following in the community? Whether any rabbonim encouraged people to wear Reagan buttons I do not know, but it’s a bit hard to believe that Vice President Mondale would place a special call to complain about the buttons of Ocean Parkway. And it’s even harder to believe that Rabbi Sherer would denigrate a choshuve rav in conversations with any other people, let alone the Vice President of the United States.

How does the author know the details of these alleged conversations? Were they disclosed in the public memoirs of President Carter and Vice President Mondale? Have any historians of that era written about these alleged conversations? Did Rabbi Sherer confide in him? Did Rabbi Sherer reveal this information at the Agudah convention? Did it get written up in the Jewish Observer? Are there minutes of these conversations in the Agudath Israel archives?

I would venture to say not. I would venture to say these conversations probably never took place. And yet they are cited in the article as confirmed fact, and for one reason alone: to attack the Agudah.

The author intensifies that attack by pointing to one of Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent articles in which he opines that most Democrats, including Vice President Biden, are reasonable people and generally supportive of Israel. This opinion, in the author’s eyes, constitutes “criminal naivite and negligence at best, cynical manipulation and distortion at worst.”

Further, it proves that “Rabbi Avi Shafran and Agudath Israel were still engaging in their misguided behavior from 1980.” (Just to make sure his readers understand what’s really on his mind, the author congratulates himself for his temperate language in describing the Agudah’s behavior as simply “misguided”; “the alternative,” he ominously proclaims, “is too awful to contemplate” – thereby inviting his readers to engage in precisely such awful contemplation.)

While it is true that Rabbi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel’s public affairs director, he also frequently speaks in his own voice as well, not as a spokesman for the Agudah but as a private individual. His column about the Democratic Party was an expression of his personal views, and cannot be attributed more generally to the Agudah.

But beyond that, it is dismaying that the anti-Agudah op-ed columnist cites Rabbi Shafran’s article so selectively, treating it as a de facto endorsement of Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party. In fact, Rabbi Shafran took pains to disavow any such endorsement. Here’s what he wrote:

“None of the above is intended as a call to support Mr. Biden. There is ample and understandable enthusiasm in our community for President Trump, who has taken a number of steps to show support for Israel. And there are other issues where our stances resonate with the Republican ones. Personally, I am a registered Republican, and have, over decades, most often voted for Republican candidates.

“I’m suggesting only one thing: that we refrain from demonizing either of our country’s major political parties.”

Finally, a word to the periodical that published this anti-Agudah screed: What conceivable to’eles is there in attacking Rabbi Sherer? What heter is there to publicly denigrate an organization that works tirelessly and effectively under the leadership of gedolei Yisroel to promote the interests of the klal?

The writer’s words, were they true, would be lashon hora of the worst sort. As it is, they are worse, a hotzo’as shem ra, an inexcusable slander.

Recent Ami Articles

For the past month and a bit, my weekly columns have been appearing in Ami Magazine. My agreement with the periodical allows me to share links to the pieces on its website, but not to share them in their entirety in other ways.

So I’ll be posting links to the pieces, and their first sentences, in the future here, in addition to articles that may have been published elsewhere.

Recent offerings are at https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/07/29/cut-the-curls-youre-out-of-the-band/ and https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/05/dont-kick-the-donkey-2/

To Err Is Vital

In a few days, astute students of Daf Yomi will encounter a hint to a hidden life lesson of indescribable worth.

If, that is, they look closely at the mishna on 103a in massechta Shabbos that concerns the melacha, or Shabbos-forbidden creative act, of “writing.”

Actions forbidden on Shabbos are determined by which operations were necessary for the building and use of the mishkan, or desert-tabernacle. 

Where was writing used? The mishna goes on to explain that the gilded wooden beams used for the structure – which was dismantled and rebuilt repeatedly – were inscribed with letters to indicate the placement of the beams. A similar system is used by many of us in building our sukkos.

What a keen mind will recall when reading about the definition of the melacha of writing is that, earlier in the tractate (73a), it was paired with its opposite number, “erasing,” 

And why is erasing a melacha? Rashi on 73a explains that its forbidden-on-Shabbos status derives from the need the builders of the mishkan had to correct errors when the wrong letters were mistakenly inscribed on beams.

Now, stop and think about that. The mishkan-builders likely took drinks of water during their labors. They may have washed their hands and occasionally stretched.  Yet drinking, washing hands and stretching aren’t thereby made into forbidden actions on the Sabbath. Why not? 

Obviously, because they are not intrinsic to the construction project. Only actions absolutely necessary for the construction of the mishkan are designated as prohibited on the Sabbath. 

And so, if removing mistakenly inscribed letters is the reason for the Sabbath-prohibition of “erasing,” then errors… must be… indispensable parts of the mishkan-building project.

That is the important truth hidden here: Erring is vital.

Mistakes are indispensable parts of every endeavor. No child walks until he first takes an uneasy step and falls; or learns to ride a bike without a minor mishap or two.  The successes don’t come despite the first unsuccessful attempts; they come as a result of them.

Errors are in fact essential parts of every successful project. Duke University civil engineering professor Henry Petroski wrote a book whose subtitle says it all: “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” He makes the case that a successful feat of invention will always depend on a series of failures. Only the commission and analysis of errors, he elaborates, can propel any invention to perfection. “Failure,” Professor Petroski explains about engineering, “is what drives the field forward.”

That is no less true in the sciences. “An expert,” the famous Jewish physicist Neils Bohr once remarked, “is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

And, most importantly, it’s true, too, in spiritual endeavors. When it comes to Torah-study thoughts, the Talmud (Gittin, 43a) teaches: “One does not stand on [i.e. understand] them unless one [first] stumbles over them.”  Every talmid of Talmud knows that well; there is no comprehension like that which brightly dawns after one has made and recognized a wrong assumption.

Errors, moreover, are part of the project of life itself, a fact intrinsic to the concept of teshuva.

Among the published collected letters of the late Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, is one he wrote to a student who had shared his despondence and depression over personal spiritual failures.

What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva explained in response to his student, is not basking in the sunshine of one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly and no matter the setbacks, in the battle against our inclination to sin.

Rabbi Hutner notes that Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, (Mishlei, 24:16) teaches us that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up.” That, wrote the Rosh Yeshiva, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles — including the failures — are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate success. If we find ourselves flat on our backs, we must pick ourselves up and resume the fight. And, if need be, again. And again.

And so, if we ever find ourselves succumbing to despondency or depression born of mistakes we’ve made, what we need to do is stop and remind ourselves why erasing writing on Shabbos is forbidden.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran