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

Parshas Terumah — Inside, Outside and In-Between

The aron habris, the holy ark described in the parshah, was essentially a wooden box set into a golden one, with another golden one set inside it (Yoma 72b).

The Gemara (ibid) sees in the aron, which contains the luchos, shivrei luchos and a Torah scroll, a metaphor for the coherence of conscience and behavior that defines a true scholar. “A talmid chacham,” Rava teaches there, “who isn’t tocho kiboro,” — whose inside [essence] isn’t like his outside [the image yielded by his behavior] — “isn’t a talmid chacham.”

My revered rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, noted that the Gemara’s wording is pointed. We are not exhorted to bring our “outsides” into line with our “insides” – to first achieve purity of heart and then display its signifiers – but rather the other way around. We act properly to first emulate the comportment and behavior of those more spiritually accomplished than we are — to present an image of observance and propriety– even if our souls may not be as pure as our clothing and actions seem to declare. 

That is because, in the Sefer Hachinuch’s words, “A person is affected by his actions.” How we dress, speak and act can change who we are.

Achieving coherence of appearance and  heart should be the ultimate goal for us all. But we shouldn’t feel hypocritical or despondent if we show the world a better image of ourselves than we deserve. What matters is only that we are working to bring our inner selves into line with our outer ones.

What’s more, according to a Midrash brought by Rashi on the posuk uvicheit yechemasni imi (Tehillim 51:7), Dovid Hamelech lamented the fact that when his parents conceived him, their intent was basically selfish (a thought reflected as well in his words ki avi vi’imi azovuni, Tehillim 27:10). And yet, Dovid’s father was Yishai, who (Shabbos 55b) was without sin! 

The inescapable conclusion is that self-interest isn’t sin. The essential sense of self is inherent in being human, and no contradiction to righteousness. 

That, too, is reflected in the aron. It was gold within and without, yes, but there was wood (perhaps hinting to the eitz hadaas) between the golden layers. One’s toch and bar can be pure and consistent, but there is always a self in the middle.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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

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

Parshas Mishpatim – The Far-Reaching Import of a Vav

Your Uber driver might be pleasant to you because he values another human being, but his desire for a four-star rating likely plays a larger role in his affability. 

A sure way to anger an atheist is to challenge him to explain why anyone should be pleasant, or ethical or moral — beyond the mere utilitarian gain of a social contract. He will jump up and down and insist that goodness and badness exist; but, without a Higher Power’s guidance, those words are utterly fungible.  Good and bad behavior, sans a Divine Guide, carry no more ultimate meaning  than good or bad weather.

Parshas Mishpatim begins with the connection-letter vav, indicating that the laws that follow, many of them dealing with financial dealings, torts and other interpersonal matters, were, no less than the “Ten Commandments” and mizbei’ach laws of the previous parshah, “from Sinai,” as Rashi, quoting Midrash Tanchuma, notes.

Inherent in that vav-connector, says Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, is the fact that, for Jews, seemingly mundane business and interpersonal dealings are to be conducted ethically not as mere parts of a social contract but rather as the fulfilment of Divine command.

And, he continues, it is a distinction with a momentous difference. “Rivers of blood” have been spilled, he points out as an example, “up to and including the present,” as a result of human reinterpretation of  “Thou shall not murder.”  

When killing, or stealing, or harming others are only man-made social constructs, ways will be found to sidestep them or “clarify” their application when deemed necessary.  By contrast, one who accepts the Torah’s ethical laws as a divine charge will perforce treat them as truly binding and absolute, no matter what.

Those with the custom of saying a “lishem yichud” declaration of holy intent before putting on tefillin or taking an esrog and lulav in hand might not do so before signing a contract or treating another person pleasantly.  

But there’s really no reason not to.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Yisro – The Barrel’s Secret

Our ancestors’ acceptance of the Torah was imperfect: It included an element of coercion. 

The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) teaches that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis (a barrel).” The Maharal explains that the stunning nature of the experience, the terrifying interaction of human and Divine, left no opportunity for full free will. Directly interacting with Hashem, how could one possibly say no?

And that “coercion” remained a moda’ah, a “remonstration,” against Klal Yisrael, the Gemara teaches, until… the events commemorated by Purim.

In the time of Esther, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where — diametric to the Sinai experience — it was anything but obvious.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, Persia’s Jews recognized it as Hashem’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance.  And so, by freely choosing to perceive Hashem’s hand, they supplied what was missing at Sinai, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was — and is — wholehearted and sincere. 

The Gemara’s image of Hashem “holding the mountain over their heads” at Sinai is a striking metaphor. But why “like a barrel”? Isn’t a mountain overhead compelling enough?  Who ordered the barrel?

One of the ways a person’s true nature is revealed is “b’koso” – “in his cup” – in his behavior when his inhibitions are diluted by drink. (Eruvin, 65b).

On Purim, in striking contrast to the rest of the Jewish year, we are enjoined to drink wine to excess.  And what emerges from that observance, at least among Jews who approach the mitzvah properly,  is not what we usually associate with inebriation, but rather a holy, if uninhibited, mode of mind.

Thus the revelation of our true nature provided by the Purim-mitzvah perfectly parallels the revelation of the Jews’ wholehearted acceptance of Hashem that took place at the time of the Purim events.  With our masks (another Purim motif, of course) removed, we show our true selves.

In Pirkei Avos (4:20), Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi teaches us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” 

A gigis, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.  

Hashem doesn’t look at the container — the coercion symbolized by the barrel held over our ancestors’ heads — but rather at how Jews act when they have imbibed its contents. He sees not our ancestors’ lack of full free will at the Sinai experience but the deeper truth about the Jewish essence, the one revealed by Purim’s wine.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Bishalach — Arms Race

The fundamental struggle of humanity, stripped of all of history’s dross, is between two views: The recognition of a Creator (and the resultant meaningfulness of human life) and the belief that life is the product of mere chance and, hence, essentially meaningless.

It is the worldview-struggle between Klal Yisrael and Amalek, introduced at the end of this week’s parsha in a military showdown.

We read how the Amalekites attacked the Jews after our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt, and how Moshe Rabbeinu, from a distance, influenced the course of the battle. 

“When Moshe lifted his arm, Yisrael was stronger; and when he lowered his arm, Amalek was stronger.” (Shemos 17:11)

The name Amalek, whose final letter is“kuf,” can be parsed as “amal kof” — the “toil of a monkey.” (Kuf and kof are spelled identically, and kof meaning monkey is found, in its plural form, in Melachim I, 10:22 and in Divrei Hayamim II, 9:21.)

Ki adam l’amal yulad — “For man is born to toil” (Iyov, 5:7).  We humans are here l’amal, for toil, to work to rise above our base natures and serve our Creator according to His will. Our lives have ultimate meaning.  This is the credo of Yisrael.

Amalek, by contrast, sees man as a mere product of chance happenings and random mutations, with no more inherent worth than any animal, including his closest “relative,” the ape.

Curiously, and perhaps significantly, only two creatures are able to lift their arms above their heads: apes and humans.

Might Moshe’s raised arms during the Amalek-Yisrael battle signify Yisrael’s anti-Amalek conviction, that there is a G-d in heaven?  

Amalek, too, denying the divine, can raise its arms, but its gesture is meaningless. It is a monkey’s mere and quite literal aping of what Yisrael is doing when it raises  its arms heavenward. 

Amalek’s “toil” is amal kof, that of a monkey, using its arms only to swing from vine to vine, without any higher aim than getting from here to there. 

The pan-historical Yisrael-Amalek struggle is thus a pitting of dedication to Hashem, signified in our parsha by Moshe’s raised arms, against the meaningless toil of human creatures who deny what being human truly means.

While we cannot know the identity of the Amalekites today, the philosophy identified with that people is everywhere around us.  But Yisrael and its understanding of life’s meaningfulness will prevail in time.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran