Responding to Wrath With Calm

It’s strange but true: We sometimes fail to acknowledge the most important thing in the universe.

That would be bechirah, Hashem’s astonishing gift of free will to mankind. We humans are able to choose our actions and our attitudes.

We can certainly be stubborn creatures, and a mind is a hard thing to change. But change it can.

That truth was brought sharply home to me recently, in an e-mail interaction I had with a Jewish person who lives in a faraway state.

“You ARE ‘extreme and beyond normal and beyond mainstream’,” my correspondent wrote, “misogynistic and ultra-conservative. You exclude anyone you consider ‘other’.”

“You are,” the final line read, “not my tribe.”

What evoked the irate missive was an op-ed, or opinion column, I wrote that was published in the New York Times.

Therein lies a tale.

Several weeks ago, as a result of the efforts of respected lawyer Avi Schick and Chabad media relations director Rabbi Motti Seligson, a small group of Orthodox representatives met with members of the Times’ editorial board and staff. Joining the two organizers were Hamodia’s editor, Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein; United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg executive director Rabbi Dovid Niederman; Agudath Israel of America executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel; and me.

The meeting was intended to sensitize the other side of the table to the way some of their newspaper’s characterizations of the chareidi community were inaccurate, even dangerous.

Each of us visitors to the Times’ offices presented a bit of evidence or a particular perspective. And at one point, in passing, I noted that the very term used for us – “Ultra-Orthodox” – was subtly pejorative, since “ultra” connotes “excess” or “beyond what is normal.”

At that point, the op-ed page editor interjected, “Well, that would make an interesting op-ed.”

In my head, I responded, “You bet it would.”

And so, two days later, I submitted an essay I had written, which focused not only on the misuse of the prefix “ultra” but on other subtle “otherings” of the chareidi community, as well – like the characterizations of us effectively as invaders simply for having chosen to buy homes in new areas; and like calling the exercise of our democratic rights in local elections “voting as a bloc” – a term never used when focusing on, say, the black vote or Hispanic one.

I received an avalanche of responses, almost all positive – from non-Jews and Jews of all stripes alike.

One memorable missive read, in part: I’m a non-religious Catholic man… in the midst of a significant Jewish community. I’m the regular Shabbos goy for several of my friends and neighbors… I got so many good and new ways of seeing people from your editorial … [There is] so much bias I have that I never thought about. I will look at people differently from now on, or at least I will work on doing that as much as I am able.”

The negative one excerpted earlier above was one of a small handful of angry reactions.

I responded to all the communications, if only to thank the writers for writing. To the irate correspondent quoted above, I sent the following:

“I don’t know how many chassidic or non-chassidic haredi families you know, but your description of them as misogynistic is well beyond a mere exaggeration. There are traditional roles for men and for women in Orthodox communities, but both men and women are fully valued and well-treated by both men and women. ‘Conservative’? Well, yes. Is that a crime?

“Which brings me back to the tribe. We don’t exclude any Jew from the Jewish people. You seem to do that with your final sentence. But you are MY tribe.”

And, signing off with “best wishes,” I clicked “send.”

I didn’t expect any further communication, but the correspondent did respond, first, with: “Thank you. You are the first haredi Jew I have ever spoken with… Apologies for my preconceptions.”

And then, after I acknowledged the writer’s good will, a second response: “Although I’m [Jewish] through my mother, my parents took us to a Unitarian church and I have never embraced religion or Judaism. Its strongest influence on my life has been through food. Perhaps that will change now.”

Later, the person wrote again, to say, “Apologies for my preconceptions” and to request reading material about Yiddishkeit, a request I immediately honored.

My first, visceral reaction to attacks on Torah Jews or Torah life is a desire to respond in kind, with ire, or, at least with wry repartee.

But what I’ve learned over the years is that – why I ever doubted it, I don’t know – Shlomo Hamelech was correct when he taught that a maaneh rach – “a gentle reply” – yashiv cheimah – “turns away wrath.”

That’s something true not only in interactions like the one I had with the angry correspondent, but in all our interpersonal dealings – within our families, in our workplaces, with our friends and acquaintances. It’s also something I wish I had fully recognized at a much earlier age than I did.

Not every mind’s owner will choose to change it. But every one of them – there is bechirah, after all – can.

And sometimes we can help make that change a little easier.

© 2020 Hamodia

Two Thoughts About You-Know-What

Surprisingly (he said with sarcasm), I’ve been giving some thought to the current pandemic.

Specifically, to the unprecedented closures of shuls and yeshivos.  In the absence of a prophet, no one can claim to know “why” any challenge or adversity happens. But it is a Jewish mandate to introspect at such times, as per the Talmud’s exhortation about personal adversity (Berachos 5a).

Might there be some grounds for introspection about why the particular challenge we face today has resulted in the first-ever-in-modern-history closing down of Jewish places of worship and study, and the resultant confinement of many to their homes?

What occurs to me are two things, discrete but in no way incongruous.

The first is that we may not have been treating our places of religious gathering, particularly shuls, with the respect and gravity they deserve.  While there are many shuls where services are conducted properly and there is no unnecessary conversing during davening, some shuls, unfortunately, are treated less like mini-Temples and more like men’s clubs, places to gather and schmooze before and after davening rather than holy places for communing with the Divine.  Might our banishment from shul be a reminder to us all of what shul is supposed to be?

My second thought’s focus is not on where we have been exiled from but rather where we have been confined to: our homes.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, in his book of essays B’shtei Einayim, brings a thought from the Reisher Rov, Rav Aharon Lewin, on the verse that states: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Yeshayahu, 56:7.)  Reading the word “for” as “to,” Rabbi Lewin remarked that a Jewish house, or home, will be seen by others as what they experience only as a house of prayer.  In other words, the ideal Jewish home should be a place permeated with Jewish ideals and practices, a place, no less than shul, of worship.

There may be people who are “shul Yidden” in the sense of never missing a shul service, but whose behavior at home is less exemplary, something that is particularly deleterious to any children living at home.  Such people, if they exist, might rightly reflect on their “home confinement” as a spur to self-improvement. And, of course, all of us do well to contemplate how we might make our homes not just places to, well, go home to, but holy spaces.

May our introspection lead to yeshuas Hashem kiheref ayin, the “salvation of Hashem” coming “in the blink of an eye.’

Plagues Past and Present

It’s been some 700 years since the bubonic plague ravaged central Asia, killing millions of people. A decade or two later, in October, 1347, a ship from the Crimea docked in Messina, Sicily. Rats in its hold were infested with fleas that harbored the bacterium that causes the sickness.

That marked the beginning of the era known as the Black Death. Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that at least 25 million people died, between 25% and 60% of the continent’s population.

Yes, that disaster is recalled here because of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, currently spreading around the world. Not, though, in order to raise great alarm, because, at least at this point, it is not warranted. Rather to note, firstly, the stark contrasts between the bubonic plague and the current viral outbreak; secondly, to remind readers of the Jewish angle of the Black Death years; and, thirdly, to convey a lesson from that plague to the current medical challenge.

The contrast lies in several things. For starters, no one at the time of the Black Plague had any idea of what was causing it. At a time of deep ignorance, fueled by Christian lore and superstition, all sorts of theories abounded, none of which did anything to slow the disease. Today, we know what is causing the current pandemic, and, hopefully, modern science can develop the means of protecting the vulnerable from the Covid19 virus’ worst effects.

And, unlike the bubonic plague, baruch Hashem, Covid-19 does not harm the vast majority of those who contract it. It is particularly dangerous to the elderly and infirm, and to smokers and others with less than optimum lung function. But to most people not in any of those categories, the infection results in either no symptoms at all or in flu-like experiences – fever, cough and headache.

Finally, as the eminent and wonderfully readable late historian Barbara Tuchman recounted in her book A Distant Mirror, the Middle Ages plague brought people to turn on one another rather than work together to deal with the challenge.

Christian religious leaders abandoned their flocks, parents deserted children; and children, their parents. “Charity,” she wrote, “was dead.”

Today, nations and scientists and health workers are working hard to educate people about the current virus, to create a vaccine against it and to find the most effective therapies for the stricken, if not an actual cure. People might be quarantined, for their or others’ benefit, but no one is being deserted.

The Jewish angle to the Black Death was the pointing (as usual) of fingers of blame at our forebears.

The plague, it was widely declared, was punishment for Christian society’s allowing Jews to live in their midst as Jews. Although Jews, too, perished in the plague, only in much smaller numbers, it was said. The resulting “logic” had it that ending the epidemic lay in converting, exiling or murdering Jews. Despite the declarations of several popes that the Jews were not at fault for the plague, people on the street were sure they knew better.

Then the populace came up with a better reason to blame Jews – the stubborn rejecters of Christianity were poisoning the drinking wells of communities, the better to harm Christians. Some Jews even confessed to such crimes – after being forced to do so in order to end their horrific torture.

On February 14, 1349, a day on which Christians venerate a third-century clergyman named Valentine, a contemporary observer of events recorded, some 2000 Jews were forced onto a wooden platform in the Holy Roman Empire city of Strasbourg’s Jewish cemetery and burned to death. Parents held tightly to their children when citizens tried to take them away for baptism.

The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. From 1349 until about 1390, the Jewish communities of France and Germany were decimated by angry mobs. In 1350, Frankfurt had over 19,000 Jews. By 1400, not a minyan was left.

Historians tend to take seriously the contention that Jewish communities were less affected by the plague itself, if not from the hatred it unleashed. And that brings us to the lesson to be learned from events seven centuries in the past.

The ostensible reason that the Black Death may have affected Jews to a lesser degree than Christians lies, the historical consensus has it, in the fact that Jews frequently wash their hands.

Upon arising in the morning, before tefillos, before saying Asher Yatzar, before bread meals (which were most, if not all, meals over most of history), Jews poured water over their hands. And, what’s more, they bathed – a luxury back in the Middle Ages – every week in honor of Shabbos.

We Jews still wash our hands a lot. But today most of us live in environments where every doorknob, subway pole and bus passenger is a vector for the transmission of germs.

Although it is likely that the spread of Covid-19 will intensify before it, b’ezras Hashem, soon, abates, we would do well, especially the elderly and health-compromised among us, to do the equivalent of netilas yadayim through the day, ideally, thoroughly and with soap.

That will not only help protect us from the current and other infections, but be a worthy reminder of the mesirus nefesh of, and kiddush Hashem created by, our ancestors in Europe.

© 2020 Hamodia

My Purim’s Highlight

My Purim’s highlight was an interaction I had with two little boys, no older than 8 or 9.  The shul I attend is often visited by a number of “collectors” asking for small donations, usually for the poor or needy institutions. Usually they are adults, with documentation backing the legitimacy of their quest for donations.

Sometimes, children approach people on behalf of their yeshivos or other charitable causes. On Purim, such undersized collectors abound.  I must have been approached by little people 20 or 25 times.  When my stash of dollar bills was down to one, wouldn’t you know, two youngsters approached me at the same time.

I smiled and showed them my last bill, identifying it as such.  One boy, whose hand held more revenue that the other boy’s, unhesitatingly pointed to the other and said “Please give him.”

Which I did.

But the boy who directed me to the other one gave me something priceless, the story I just shared.

Stop And Think

Politicians would serve themselves well to always keep in mind Rabi Yehudah Hanasi’s admonition: “An eye sees, an ear hears, and all your deeds are written in a book” (Avos 2:1).

Most public servants may not care that the Tanna was referring to a Divine “eye” and “ear,” and to an ethereal “book,” or that the advice was offered as means of avoiding sin. But it’s good practical counsel, too, for aspirants to governmental positions.

Many a candidate for public office has come to be haunted by some statement or comment made years earlier of which human eyes and ears took note and of which there is a record, if not in a book, at least in a recording or internet posting.

Like presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, who has been confronted of late with comments he made about the “stop-and-frisk” police policy he advanced as mayor of New York.

The New York City Police Department began increasing its emphasis on stop-and-frisk – the accosting, questioning and superficial searching of people even without probable cause for arrest – in the mid-1990s, when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. But the stops of citizens soared during Mr. Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure – rising from about 97,000 in 2002 to about 685,000 in 2011.

And, reportedly, more than 80% of those stopped and frisked were black or Latino.

The resurrected comments, which Mr. Bloomberg made in 2015, after he left office, were a defense of the stop-and-frisk policy as a deterrent to gun violence. The ex-mayor contended that “ninety-five percent of murders” were the work of “male minorities, 16 to 25.”

“You can just take [that] description,” he said, “Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops.”

Whether one sees those comments as on-target (forgive me) or wide off the mark (ditto) might depend on your race.

Certainly, those who have been circulating the blunt words – mostly others vying, as is Mr. Bloomberg, for the Democratic presidential nomination – are hoping that many blacks and Hispanics will refuse the former New York mayor their support.

For his part, Mr. Bloomberg has, in no uncertain terms, disowned his words. “I was wrong,” he declared. “And I am sorry.”

In a refreshingly contrite confession, rather unusual these days, he said: “I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we know, good intentions aren’t good enough.”

Not every black leader or pundit was buying it. Charles M. Blow, a New York Times columnist, indignantly asked: “How many people rightly complaining about kids in cages at the border are simply willing to overlook all the kids Michael Bloomberg put in cages as a result of stop-and-frisk?”

“These minority boys,” he went on, “were being hunted.”

The columnist, though, doth protest too much. No subject of stop-and-frisk was arrested, much less jailed, unless he was illegally carrying a weapon or enough illegal drugs to be felt over his clothing. And looking for suspicious behavior in crime-ridden areas isn’t exactly like hiding in a blind watching for deer.

On the other hand, Dayvon Love, director of public policy for the think tank “Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle” in Baltimore, says that some people living in high-crime neighborhoods would see some form of the stop-and-frisk strategy “as the best option available to them to meet their immediate needs.”

And Mr. Bloomberg, despite – perhaps because of – his efforts as New York mayor to fight crime, has been endorsed by four members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a number of black mayors across the country.

Aside from political concerns, also likely playing a role in Mr. Bloomberg’s change of heart and biting the bullet (sorry!) was the fact that, while crime fell precipitously during his mayoral tenure, when stop-and-frisks were phased out toward the end of his administration (after a federal judge ruled that the practice as implemented had violated civil and constitutional rights) and then were sharply curtailed under his successor, current Mayor Bill de Blasio, crime rates continued to plunge to new lows unseen since the 1950s.

So, many contend, stop-and-frisk was an ineffective means of fighting crime.

What occurs to me, though, is that there may be other explanations for the continued drop in crime in New York. In the now-infamous recording of his candid comments, Mr. Bloomberg also said: “The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them. And then they start, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get caught,’ so they don’t bring the gun.”

Might it be possible that, after years of aggressive accosting of young men in areas plagued with drug dealing and violence, a residual effect persisted, and persists, with fear of stops continuing to cause fewer people to carry guns? And in fact, while the rules for stop-and-frisk have changed, the tactic still exists; where there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is being planned, a police officer can detain and even do a pat-down of a citizen.

So, Mr. Bloomberg’s mea culpa might not be as necessary as he (or his advisors) may think. And his clear intention for the erstwhile intense stop-and-frisk policy – to “get the guns out of the kids’ hands” – may even now resonate with black voters, an important Democratic constituency.

We will see.

© 2020 Hamodia

Pathologized Problems

It seems that a good part of my youth was spent in a mental asylum without walls.

At least that’s how some mental health professionals might characterize it.

Among the boys in my neighborhood more than a half century ago was one who would today be called obsessive-compulsive, and another was firmly on the autism spectrum. Yet another seemed chronically depressed, and anxiety plagued another. Yet another would have been diagnosed as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disordered, for anyone unfamiliar with the acronym) – had the diagnosis existed at the time.

I’m not exaggerating. The boys displayed classic symptoms of their respective “disorders.” But the rest of us kids somehow didn’t see the actions or moods or attitudes as emotional disorders, certainly not as mental illnesses, but only as quirks.

And the quirky kids were not medicated; they were integrated.

In fact, appreciated.

Yes, we were kids, occasionally mocking one another, and the quirky ones were occasional targets for joking. But so were the math prodigies, clumsy kids, sloppy kids or sports-obsessed ones. We all had our idiosyncrasies. But no one was treated meanly and everyone was accepted by everyone.

The memory of the “different” boys – all of whom, I suspect (and in some cases know), went on to live productive lives – came back to me when I read of the recent death of Dr. Bonnie Burstow, a Jewish psychotherapist and University of Toronto professor who was known as a major proponent of “anti-psychiatry.”

Conventional psychiatry holds that things like chemical imbalances, sometimes paired with social factors or traumas, are what lead to mental illnesses. Professor Burstow was famous for her claim that “There is not a single proof of a single chemical imbalance of a single so-called mental illness.”

“Do I believe people have anxiety?” she once challenged listeners. “Do I believe that people feel compulsions? Of course. But I believe these feelings are a normal human way of experiencing reality.”

Now, she targeted not only minor emotional or behavioral peculiarities but things like schizophrenia as well. That would seem to be an overreach. Anyone walking on a Manhattan sidewalk knows that there are people who are well beyond quirky, who are seriously mentally impaired and in need of treatment or, at least, supervision.

That said, though, Dr. Burstow’s view on the over-medicalization of emotional illness is a worthy spur to further thought.

Not every oddity of behavior is a sickness. Should our first reaction to a child with a facial tic be to create a “persistent minor spasm malady” and seek drug treatment? Should a kid who is disobedient and rebellious be labeled with a diagnosis of – oh, I don’t know – “oppositional defiant disorder”?

Oh, scratch that. The disorder actually exists, at least in the view of the ever-changing and usually expanding “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or DSM.

That American Psychiatric Association publication is considered authoritative and is used by clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, drug companies and lawyers. (And it’s not delusional to wonder whether those last two categories might have some less-than-humanistic stake in the over-medicalization of emotional challenges.)

Too often missing, as well, from our conception of mental or emotional illness, I think, is the fact that, when it comes to attitudes and behaviors, there are spectra.

There is, for instance, a paranoia spectrum, at one end of which sits a person who is convinced that the CIA has tapped his phones, bugged his home and implanted a computer chip in his brain. At the other, though, is a person with a nagging suspicion that a particular other person or people are ill-disposed toward him. The suspicion may be wrong and unreasonable, but that doesn’t render the uneasy fellow a mental invalid. What’s more, he may be right. As a character in a work of fiction once observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

And aren’t many, if not most, of us somewhat obsessive or compulsive, at least in certain areas? We may not wash our hands fifty times a day, but we might regularly, just as we’ve closed the door to our homes behind us, turn back and go in to make sure we hadn’t left the oven on. And even the regular hand-washer isn’t necessarily in need of treatment. (In fact, he likely doesn’t often catch colds.)

And between the poles on each spectrum are many gradations. As the Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Dei’os explains, people are born with certain sets of “default” middos at or between two extremes: Constantly angry, or never moved to anger; excessively prideful or exceptionally humble; ruled by physical appetites or undesirous of even legitimate needs; very greedy or reluctant to pursue even what he lacks; miserly or very generous; jocular or depressed; cruel or softhearted, cowardly or rash… And there is an entire scale of notches between each set of extremes.

While the Rambam, famously, does employ a medical mashal to characterize “off-balance” middos, he considers them normative human states treatable by contemplation, consultation with wise people and willpower.

Again, to be sure, there are mental disorders that require intervention, perhaps even including the use of chemicals.

But we do no one a service by ignoring some realities: “Normal” encompasses much more than some may think; psychological states exist on spectra; and people’s natural middos can, sans drugs, be changed.

© 2020 Hamodia

A Misleading Morph

I’ll never forget coming across the phrase “the Holocaust” – complete with the definite article and capitalized second word – in, of all things, a translation of the Mishnah. More unnerving still was that the volume had been published in the 1920s.

The Holocaust?!

Leafing through the old, worn book in the otzar sefarim of the yeshivah in Providence, where I was a Rebbi (and history teacher) for eleven years, and confronting those words, I wondered if I had somehow been transported to an alternate universe.

I hadn’t been, baruch Hashem. (I’m quite fond of this one).

The initially flabbergasting phrase, as a glance at the Hebrew text it was translating revealed, was a reference not to a historical event but rather to a korban olah, what most translations today would call a “burnt offering” – a sacrifice that is entirely consumed on the mizbe’ach. (Holo, in Greek, means “entirely”; caust, “burnt.”)

As it turns out, the more familiar use of the phrase today derived from that earlier usage. It was apparently, and understandably, deemed an apt descriptor for the Nazis’ and their friends’ plan for European Jewry.

All sorts of words also see their meanings morph over time. Many of us can recall when the sentence “My mouse died” more likely referred to the demise of a small furry pet than the failure of an electronic computer accessory.

Another word that has come to mean something entirely other than what it once meant is “Palestinian.” Once, it indicated a Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael.

I discovered that fact as a teenager, when I salvaged a box of coins from a Jewish bookstore that was jettisoning old merchandise before a move. The coins were Palestinian pounds, duly labeled so, examples of the currency used, first, by the British Mandate, from 1927 to May 14, 1948; and then by Israel until 1952, when they were replaced by lirot.

The Palestine Bulletin was the name of the newspaper founded by Jews in Eretz Yisrael in 1925; later it was renamed The Palestine Post. What today is known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began, in 1936, as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

Today, though, “Palestinian” has come to signify Arabs who lived in Eretz Yisrael under Jordanian or Egyptian rule, and their descendants. It is, thus, a most misleading morph.

Which brings me to a new book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. If that endowment chair title doesn’t tell you enough about the man’s sympathies, the subtitle of his book, A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017, should. And you can add his longtime support of the BDS movement to the evidence.

Professor Khalidi sees Israel’s founding as akin to the early American colonization of the land of native North American tribes or to Australia’s appropriation of that continent’s Aborigines’ land.

But the professor’s postulate is a put-on.

While Arabs have lived in Eretz Yisrael for centuries, there was a Jewish presence in the land since Yehoshua’s time, even after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash and the expulsion of most of Klal Yisrael from the land. The Arab presence, by contrast, was anything but indigenous.

What people like Professor Khalidi imply, that Arabs are the native residents of Eretz Yisrael, is, simply put, a fiction.

Many who today claim the label “Palestinians,” in fact, are descended from successive waves of people who came to the area from other places. Like Egypt, from which successive waves of immigrants arrived at the end of the 18th century, fleeing famine, government oppression and military conscription at home.

The 19th century saw further Arab immigration to the land from Algeria and what is now Jordan. Bosnian Muslims, too, came in fairly significant numbers.

Later on, in tandem with Jewish return to the land, employment opportunities drew yet more Arab immigration. As the Peel Report noted in 1937, “The Arab population shows a remarkable increase ….. partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home…”

To be sure, when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, there was a sizable Arab population in Eretz Yisrael. To pretend otherwise is to deny facts. And the desires and aspirations of that population and its descendants who remained in the land should not be ignored. That is why a two-state solution like the one President Trump has advanced, is a necessary part (though no less necessary than the Arab population’s sincere embrace of peaceful coexistence) of ending the conflict in the region.

But v’ha’emes v’hashalom ehavu, “Love truth and peace” (Zecharyah, 8:19). Before peace there must be truth.

And the truth that here needs to be confronted is something that President Trump stated on the campaign trail, that Yerushalayim is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people”; and that his predecessor, President Obama, said back in 2013, that, after “centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide… the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home.”

In other words, that, with all due recognition of the aspirations of Arabs in Israel and Yehudah, Shomron and Gaza, while there is indeed an indigenous population of Eretz Yisrael, it isn’t them.

© 2020 Hamodia

Pleasing Orthodox Political Palates

For some of us, double-edged swords don’t come more dangerous than the prospect of a Jewish president. The accomplishment would be heartening in a way, and would say much about America. But the reality of a Jewish person sitting in the White House would not please people infected with the derangement we call anti-Semitism. And we have more than enough of that as is, thank you.

To be sure, unless the current Commander-in-Chief is removed from office (not likely) or the Electoral College is abolished (less likely), the race for the Democratic candidacy will probably prove to be only a contest to determine who will be defeated by President Trump in November.

Still, it is noteworthy – and fear-worthy, for the above-mentioned some of us – that, back in the 1950s, two currently viable viers for the highest office in the land celebrated bar mitzvahs.

Both are ex-mayors: Senator Bernie Sanders, of Burlington, Vermont; and Michael Bloomberg, of New York. The former is a populist progressive backed by a strong grass-roots movement; the latter, a savvy, successful businessman backed by an impressive record and the willingness to spend a billion dollars of his own money on his campaign.

And both are touting their tribal credentials, to appeal to Jewish voters.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in synagogues in my life,” Mr. Bloomberg told a packed Jewish venue in Miami last week, “but my parents taught me that Judaism is more than just going to shul. It is about living our values… and it’s about revering the miracle that is the state of Israel, which – for their generation – was a dream fulfilled before their very eyes.”

In oblique criticism of Senator Sanders’ democratic socialism, he joked that “I know I’m not the only Jewish candidate running for president. But I am the only one who doesn’t want to turn America into a kibbutz.”

Continuing his bombing of Bernie, who has indicated he might withhold military aid from Israel if it didn’t better address humanitarian needs of Gazans, Mr. Bloomberg pledged to “never impose conditions on our military aid [to Israel], including missile defense – no matter who is Prime Minister.”

And, of course, after speaking at length about recent acts of violent anti-Semitism, he attacked Mr. Trump, associating him obliquely, and unfairly, with “racist groups” that “spread hate.”

“A world in which a president traffics in conspiracy theories,” he went on to declare, “is a world in which Jews are not safe.”

For its part, the Sanders campaign rolled out its own Jewy video last week, which began with a clip of the senator, at a J Street gathering last year, proclaiming that “I’m very proud to be Jewish, and look forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of this country.”

At that gathering, Mr. Sanders declared: “If there is any people on Earth who understands the dangers of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people.” And, in his own swipe at the president, he added: “And if there is any people on earth who should do everything humanly possible to fight against Trump’s efforts to try to divide us up… and bring people together around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people.”

And, although he accuses the current Israeli government of unfairness to Palestinians, he calls himself “somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel.”

Fighting anti-Semitism and declaring support for Israel may please many Jewish political palates, and, b”H, remain pretty much de rigueur positions for any serious presidential candidate.

But office contenders seeking Jewish votes these days would be wise to not ignore American Jewry’s Orthodox segment. It may be a fraction of the country’s Jewish population (around 10%, it’s estimated) but it is a fraction that, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, has more than quintupled over the past two generations, and stands, b’ezras Hashem, to continue its growth.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox. Public policy experts Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel have estimated that, by 2050, the American Jewish community will be majority Orthodox.

We Orthodox, like most other Jews, are greatly concerned about Israel’s security and about rising anti-Semitism. But, in addition to those issues, a major item on our political agenda is education.

We believe in school choice – that parents are the best arbiters of what schools their children should attend, and should not be financially penalized for not choosing public schools. And we consider it critically important that government involvement in determining the content of curricula in private schools be minimal.

Senator Sanders is officially on what we consider the wrong side of both those issues. Mr. Bloomberg, while he has long been a proponent of educational choice with regard to things like public charter schools, hasn’t taken a public position on either of our own educational concerns.

It’s not too late for him to do so, of course, and, as someone who fundamentally understands the importance of educational options, he might come to see the sense and fairness in our positions.

From a political perspective, it would be wise.

More important, though, from a Jewish perspective, it would be right.

© 2020 Hamodia

The Guard Protecting the Shul

Security for Jewish institutions – shuls, schools, community centers and organizations – has understandably been at the forefront of many minds and agendas in recent months. Agudath Israel of America, where I serve as public affairs director, has been instrumental in securing considerable federal and state funds to help protect places where Jews gather.

I remind readers that I write in this space only as an individual, not in my organizational role. In that role, though, I’ve fielded a number of inquiries from the media and public about the security issue. Two recent ones stand out, because they made me think – something that, while not always easy, is highly recommended.

The first communication was from an irate gentleman who wanted to know why, if the Agudah has in fact helped secure security funding for schools like the one his children attend, he was being asked by the school to contribute to a parents’ fund to upgrade the institution’s safety, presumably for yet additional security measures. I suggested to him that his question, a reasonable one, would best be directed to the school administration.

The second was from a rightly respected mechaneches whom I’ve known for many years and who just wanted to sound out my opinion about whether certain safety concerns or actions, like some being considered by her children’s basically secured school, might be going a bit overboard.

As I say, the two questions made me think, about the fundamental Jewish concept called bitachon.

“Trust,” is how the word is usually translated, but, of course, it means something both more subtle and more weighty. It means keen recognition of the fact that, while we are enjoined to make normative efforts to earn our livings, raise our children and accomplish our goals in life – including protecting ourselves from potential harm – ultimately, it is not our actions that yield us any success we experience, but rather the will of Hashem.

Consider a thought experiment: A shul, worried by recent acts of violence against Jews, hired an armed guard to stand at its entrance, and a would-be intruder with a weapon is thwarted by the alert and quick sentry. Needless to say, the fellow deserves the congregation’s thanks. And hiring him may have been the right thing to do, part of the proper hishtadlus – human effort – to be made these days.

But what in fact saved the mispallelim?

Hint: The answer isn’t “the guard.”

Hiring the man, assuming it was a necessary part of hishtadlus, may have been part of the collective merit that brought about the happy ending, or the attack’s failure may have been merited by other good deeds. But what protected the shulgoers was not, in the end, any mortal guard, but the Guardian of Yisrael.

Recognizing – internalizing – that Jewish truth is imperative. In fact, it is essential to our safety.

Rav Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu, first chelek, page 188, in the original edition) cites the common expression “We’ve left nothing to chance” and calls it a contemporary version of the boast “My strength and the might of my hand has created this victory for me” (Devarim, 8:17).

He calls the “leave nothing to chance” attitude one “of conceit, apikorsus and idolatry.” And he asks all who consider themselves maaminim to consider if, perhaps, “even in their own hearts” there might dwell some residue of such kefirah (his word).

Can we even think that an armed guard is a true protection against an intruder? Can’t a clever terrorist plan, chalilah, to shoot a guard from an unseen perch before proceeding with his nefarious aim? A pair of guards might be hired, to avoid that possibility. But what if there are two terrorists acting in tandem, one for taking out each of the guards? As the Gemara says in a different context, ein l’davar sof, “there’s no end” – here, to the security “arms race.”

Most of us would readily concede that hiring a small militia to surround a shul and arranging for police helicopters to hover constantly overhead would be an unreasonable choice, a misunderstanding of hishtadlus and an insult to bitachon.

And most of us would consider, at least in our day, locks on a large shul’s doors to be prudent. When it comes, though, to armed guards – and certainly armed congregants – or to bulletproof glass or to evacuation drills, things are not necessarily so simple. More, here, is not better; in fact, as per Rav Dessler, it’s worse.

Properly balancing bitachon and hishtadlus is a complex venture, one best left to poskim and manhigim with the Torah knowledge, experience and sensitivity to guide us.

But hitting the right such balance, which may, of course, yield different decisions in different times and in different places, is vitally important.

Because not only is tilting too far in the direction of bitachon dangerous, so is tilting too far in the direction of hishtadlus. And, in the end, balancing the two properly is what truly ensures our safety.

© 2020 Hamodia