Stubborn Spirit

The birthday cake was ablaze with 105 candles, and many among the scores of people present at the Czech embassy in London this past spring for the party would not have been there – or anywhere – had it not been for the man in whose honor they had gathered.

Nicholas Winton, who remains in full possession of his faculties, including his sense of humor, saved the lives of 669 children, mostly Jewish, during the months before the Second World War broke out in 1939.  There are an estimated 6000 people, many of those children, now grown, along with their own descendants, who are alive today because of his efforts, which went unrecognized for decades.

Born in 1909 in West Hampstead, England, Mr. Winton was baptized as a member of the Anglican Church and became a successful stockbroker.  He lived a carefree life until December 1938, when a friend, Martin Blake, asked him to forgo a ski vacation and visit him in Czechoslovakia, where Mr. Blake had traveled in his capacity as an associate of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, a group that was providing assistance to refugees created by the German annexation of the Sudetenland regions of the country. Together, the two men visited refugee camps filled to capacity with Jews and political opponents of the Nazis.

Mr. Winton was moved by the refugees’ plight. Knowing, too, about the violence that had been unleashed against the Jewish community in Germany and Austria during the Kristallnacht riots a mere month earlier, he resolved to do for children from Sudetenland what British Jewish agencies were doing to rescue German and Austrian Jewish children.

Audaciously (and illegally) “borrowing” the name of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, he began taking applications from parents, first at a hotel room and then from an office in central Prague. Thousands lined up to try to save their children’s lives.

(When an interviewer recently remarked to Mr. Winton that his actions “required quite a bit of ingenuity,” the interviewee responded, “No, it just required a printing press to get the notepaper printed.”  And asked about travel documents he had forged and the “bit of blackmail” that he had employed to save children, Winton, seemingly amused, just replied, “It worked.  That’s the main thing.”)

Returning to London, Mr. Winton raised money to fund the children transports, including funds demanded by the British government to bankroll the children’s eventual departure from Britain; and he found foster homes for the refugee children.

The first transport organized by Mr. Winton left Prague by plane for London on March 14, 1939, the day before the Germans occupied the Czech lands. After the Germans established a Protectorate in the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, Winton organized seven further transports that departed by rail out of Prague and across Germany to the Atlantic Coast, then traveled by ship across the English Channel to Britain. At the train station in London, British foster parents waited to collect the children. The last trainload of children left Prague on August 2, 1939, and the rescue activities ceased when Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany at the beginning of September 1939

During the war, Mr. Winton volunteered for an ambulance unit for the Red Cross, then trained pilots for the Royal Air Force. He married, raised a family and earned a comfortable living. For 50 years, his rescue efforts remained virtually unknown until 1988, when his wife found a scrapbook from 1939 with all the children’s photos and names.  (Asked why he kept his secret so long, he explained, “I didn’t really keep it secret, I just didn’t talk about it.”)

Once his story got out, Mr. Winton received a letter of thanks from the late former Israeli president Ezer Weizman, was made an honorary citizen of Prague and, in 2002, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to humanity.  His recent projects include providing help to the mentally handicapped people and building homes for the elderly.

It would be easy to place Nicholas Winton’s story securely in the “Righteous Gentiles” file, along with the accounts of other non-Jews who proved themselves exemplars of humanity.   But his life, as it happens, is not that simple.  It may speak less to the greatness of chassidei umos ha’olam and more to the pinteleh Yid.

For the bittersweet fact is that Nicholas Winton was born Nicholas Wertheimer, and was baptized and raised Christian on the decision of his parents, assimilated German Jews.

© 2014 Hamodia

Share

Much Ado About Shmita

The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “When Orthodox Jews boycott Israeli produce.”

The “ultra-Orthodox” are at it again. This time they’re aiding and abetting the BDS movement.

Well, not intentionally perhaps, but still. An early welcome to 5775!

The Jewish year about to begin, of course, is a shmita, or “Sabbatical,” year, and its implications are sticking in the craw of some non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A bit of background: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant during each seventh year. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. The law is viewed as an expression of ultimate trust in G-d

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th century, some of the pioneering Jewish farmers endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including respected Haredi rabbis, approved a plan whereby land owned by Jews was legally transferred to the possession of Arabs for the duration of the shmita year, technically transforming Jewish farmers into sharecroppers and, with some conditions, permitting cultivation of the land.

During subsequent shmita years, many farmers continued to rely on that “sale permission” or “heter mechira.” And when the State of Israel was created, the official state Rabbinate endorsed it as well.

In subsequent years, however, a few farmers, seeing the heter mechira as a temporary measure, moreover a legally dubious one (unlike selling chametz for Pesach, which is a full and enforceable sale) and not enamored of the idea of even nominally selling tracts of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews, opted to not rely on it. They chose to observe shmita in its original way, allowing their fields to lie fallow and relying on other income or charity (i.e. ultimately, on God), to make it through the months when they could not farm and sell produce. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, about 250 acres of land “rested,” as per the Biblical injunction.

This coming year, tens of thousands of acres will lie fallow, as more than 3,000 farmers (up from 2383 seven years ago during the last cycle) will be observing shmita, aided in their effort by an organization known as Keren Hashviis, and by their faith in the Torah.

Here in North America, every major Orthodox kashrut-certification agency, including the centrist Orthodox Union, approves Israeli produce only if it hews to that stricter, non-heter mechira, shmitah standard. So there is little discussion here in the American Orthodox community about the heter mechira.

Seven years ago, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate declared that while it still validated the heter mechira, it would, for the first time, permit municipal rabbis in Israel’s towns and cities, when issuing kashrut certifications, to decide for their localities whether to rely on the heter or not.

From the reaction at the time, one would have thought that the Chief Rabbis had declared an extra Sabbatical year rather than simply taken a pluralistic stance on religious standards. Israel’s agriculture minister at the time, Shalom Simhon, threatened to outlaw products from Arab-owned land in Israel in a bid to force Haredim to comply with the heter mechira. Media like the New York Jewish Week wrongly described the new policy as some sort of prohibition. (Even in cities hewing to the stricter standard in kosher certification, nothing prevented a vendor from selling lower-shmita-standard produce – or any produce – and more cheaply than the rabbinically-sanctioned fruits and vegetables.)

But jaundiced eyes saw only Haredi Jews poisoning Jewish wells. Writer Hillel Halkin risibly asserted at the time that “There are, after all, no farmers in the ultra-Orthodox community.” Only, he continued, “plenty of rabbis and kashrut supervisors who will find jobs making sure that Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables are not, God forbid, being smuggled into the diet of unsuspecting Israelis.”

It was a strange picture: Observers otherwise enamored of ecological and liberal ideals were outraged at the prospect of leaving nature alone, of providing Arabs with extra income and of permitting individual rabbis to rule in accordance with their consciences.

This shmita year, in the wake of the most recent Gaza war, an even-more-forlorn-than usual peace process and a growing worldwide boycott movement against Israel, the grousing, somewhat understandably, has been renewed.

Talking head David Weinberg, for instance, bemoans that “Orthodox Jews who impose on themselves stricter standards of shmita observance… get through the shmita year primarily by buying Arab-grown produce or expensive foreign produce. This summer, the various Badatz kashrut organizations of the haredi world have been busy signing produce-supply contracts with Palestinian Authority farmers.”

Although he begrudgingly acknowledges that Haredim have the “right” to their choice (thank you kindly), he says it “infuriates” him. “Primary reliance on Arab produce,” he declares “is neither realistic nor acceptable, for health, nationalistic and religious reasons.”

No health problems, to my knowledge, have been associated with Arab produce (though all fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed before being consumed!) Regarding nationalism, Mr. Weinberg is entitled to his definition of the concept, although opposing business dealings with Arabs is a rather questionable defining element of Zionism. As to religious reasons, though, well, he needs to allow others their definitions too.

Truth be told, the contretemps is just a manifestation of the fact that Haredim live in a different universe from many of their fellow Jews. Yes, we’re all part of Klal Yisrael. But whereas people like Messrs. Halkin and Weinberg see Israel’s wellbeing as tied to economics and national pride, Haredim see things radically differently. To us, what protects, secures and supports Jews in the Jewish land, and everywhere, is dedication to the Torah.

Some see the thriving Jewish society on the ancient Jewish land as the result of military prowess and political acumen. Others, though, see it as evidence of subtle miracles. And while the former may regard shmita observance as a problematic relic of a long-gone past, the others perceive it as a key to the ultimate protection of all Jews.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).  

© 2014 Haaretz

Share

“Overheard” — New Hamodia Column

 

“Overheard” is a new column of quotes and occasional commentary that is being published by Hamodia each Wednesday.  The first offering is below.

 

 

 “I know [Hamas] well.  They have no relation to Islam, from their highest ranking sheikh to the youngest of them. Many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, asked me to marginalize Hamas and were opposed to my reconciliation deal with it.”

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, to the emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a meeting in Doha, according to the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar.  Mr. Abbas also confided to Mr. al-Thani that Hamas tried to assassinate him in 2006.

(He should have taken his friends’ advice.)

 

 

“We Germans will never forget this.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, recalling how Nazi Germany started a world war that resulted in the deaths of millions and resulted in her country’s reluctance to enter into conflict.  In the case of ISIS, though, she continued, she believed her government had to make an exception, and deliver weapons to Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq.

(Who’d have thought that German militarism would ever be cheer-worthy?)

 

 

“What a world we live in.”

CNN host Brian Stelter, incredulous, to his audience after curtly dismissing his guest, British Muslim activist Anjem Choudair.  Mr. Choudair had defended choosing “9-11” when asked to count numbers for a studio sound-check, telling his host “Well, you know if you had a sense of humor, maybe you would have laughed.”

(Welcome to reality, Brian. Stick around a bit.)

 

 

“When they asked me questions about the Holocaust, because they hadn’t heard about it, it was very difficult to respond as a professor without getting emotional.”

Dov Waxman, a Jewish professor of political science, recalling his first teaching job in Ankara, Turkey, at the beginning of the Second Intifada

(“…hadn’t heard about it…”  As Brian Stelter said, “What a world we live in.”)

 

 

“On Sunday, there was a rally in London to protest something I never thought would need protesting in modern Britain: the rise of anti-Semitism.

Historian and Daily Telegraph (London) columnist Timothy Stanley

(Actually, it needs considerably more than protesting.)

 

 

“It could be seen as provocative in some parts in Brooklyn if it was parked in certain areas, I guess. It doesn’t really bother me too much.”

Unidentified Brooklyn resident, when asked by the New York Daily News for a reaction to a license plate “HAMMAS” on a black Dodge in the Bay Ridge neighborhood.  The car also sports a Palestinian flag.

(“All it takes for evil to prevail…”)

 

 

“LOL And how much is it in spare parts? Check and see if you can get kidneys or livers there is demand.”

A supporter of ISIS, responding in a tweet to a like-minded person who had tweeted that Yazidi captured by the group were available for purchase as slaves for anywhere between $180 and $350. 

(Hearts, however, they have little use for.)

 

 

“With love to Mom, from Avram. Lodz Ghetto. March, 1943”

Inscription on an amulet made from two old coins, found in the ghetto’s ruins by a Polish man whose heirs turned it over to the Shem Olam Institute for Education, Documentation and Research on Faith and the Holocaust, located in Kfar Haroeh in Israel.  The amulet was apparently intended to be a keepsake in the event its creator were to be murdered by the Nazis.

 

 

“We appear before you today, after having lost our dearest beloved, who was loved by young and old alike – the famous puppet, who angered the enemy for many, many years… the heroic martyr Muhammad Al-Arir, who would put a smile on the faces of children…”

The moderator of a recent episode of the Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV channel’s “Pioneers of Tomorrow” children’s show, paying tribute to the actor behind the giant bee character Nahoul, who was killed in the Gaza war.  Nahoul famously encouraged a boy from Jenin to attack his Jewish neighbors and “turn their faces into tomatoes,” and encouraged a little girl to follow her dream to become a policewoman so that she could “shoot the Jews.”  Nahoul asked her with a smile, “All of them?” and then, when receiving an affirmative answer, replied “good.”

(The only good malevolent giant bee…)

 

“He told them he was sick and didn’t want to eat.”

A fellow hostage of journalist Stephen Sotloff, H”yd, murdered by ISIS terrorists, describing how Mr. Sotloff managed to fast on Yom Kippur while in captivity.

(Yesh koneh olamo bisho’oh achas…)

© 2014 Hamodia

Share

Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“It”?

The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have.  Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus.  Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that they are happy with their lives.  Moreover, 88% of older siblings of people with Down syndrome reported feeling that they are better people for the fact.

Then there were those who addressed Mr. Dawkins not with statistics but with experience.  Like Sarah Palin, whose son has Down syndrome, and who generously offered to “let you meet my son if you promise to open your mind, your eyes, and your heart to a unique kind of absolute beauty.”

There is no question that families raising Down syndrome children face many challenges, medical, emotional, educational and societal.  But anyone who has embraced that privilege – and anyone, for that matter, who has experienced the delight of interacting with Down children or adults, whose guileless and endearing personalities can be overwhelming – understand how much more perceptive the much-maligned Mrs. Palin is than the much-celebrated Mr. Dawkins.

Truth be told, though, offering statistics or personal experience about the wonder and beauty of Down children is really beside the point – the most important point, that is, namely, the inherent folly of the Dawkinsian understanding of happiness.

Those of us who are naturally happy are very fortunate.  And all of us are indeed to aim at serving Hashem with happiness (Tehillim, 100:2).  But happiness is not tethered to tranquil or easy lives; many people who face adversities unimaginable to those of us who live relatively comfortable, untroubled lives are nevertheless happy.

Edifying is the famous story of Reb Zusha of Hanipoli, the impoverished, long-suffering but joyful Chassid who, according to the famous story, received two esteemed guests at his dilapidated home.  They told him that they had asked the Maggid of Mezeritch how one can bless Hashem as the Mishnah (Berachos 54a) directs, “for the bad just as for the good,” and that the Maggid had sent them to him.

Puzzled, he responded: “How would I know?  He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.”

Happiness doesn’t happen; it is achieved.  And its achievement is not tied to ease or fun or lack of adversity.  It results from recognizing that life, ultimately, is about meaning.  True meaning, that is, not some imagined or invented meaning.  Life’s meaning that comes from serving the Divine.  That concept may be imponderable to atheists like Richard Dawkins or Peter Singer.  But it is the reason for human existence, for the bestowal of free will on the subset of creation we call men and women.

Down syndrome, as it happens and as we should always remember, is hardly the only condition “out there.”  There are other disabilities as well, some or all of whose sufferers Messrs. Dawkins and Singer may consider unworthy of the world as well.  Only they’re not.

Consider, for example, those who have “23 Chromosome Pair Syndrome,” which is invariably fatal.  Sufferers are susceptible to a host of maladies, including heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and numerous forms of cancer, and are likely to suffer bouts of mild or more serious depression over the course of their lives.

They are also prone to headaches, nosebleeds, painful joints and broken bones.  And, at some point, they can become so disabled that they require others to care for them.

The syndrome happens to be quite common.

Indeed, it’s ubiquitous.

It’s what we call “normal” human life.

© 2014 Hamodia

Share

Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent e-mail from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist.  In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like shmitah and aliyah liregel , which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like the sin-caused golus and scattering of Klal Yisrael around the world; like Moshe’s speech deficit and deep humility, the polar opposites of the qualities of all of history’s successful non-Divinely-ordained leaders.

And, of course, above all those uniquenesses, the dearth in the annals of human history of any other claim that the Creator communicated directly with an entire people, a claim that, by its nature, cannot be successfully asserted and perpetuated… unless it actually happened.

Those striking singularities should be particularly pondered by Jay P. Lefkowitz, who, back in the April issue of Commentary, extolled the idea of Jewish observance-without-belief in the Torah’s truth, and now, in that periodical’s September issue, tries to defend himself against a number of letters the magazine published (full disclosure: one was written by me) explaining that Judaism is predicated on awareness of the Creator.

Mr. Lefkowitz, who attends a synagogue weekly and, in his own words, “pick[s] and choose[s] from the menu of Jewish rituals,” but “without fear of divine retribution,” claims that the sort of “social conformism” he practices plays a “large role” even in traditional Orthodox communities.

It must be honestly, if sadly, admitted that there are indeed seemingly religious Jews who “do Jewish” but don’t seem to “think Jewish.” That some even in our own observant community, bizarrely, even defend observance that lacks G-d-consciousness, and are complacent about tefillah without kavanah.  How large a role mindless Jewish praxis plays in the Orthodox community, of course, isn’t anything any of us can really know.

But whatever its prevalence, it is lamentable, not some ideal to enshrine, as Mr. Lefkowitz seems to do, as a new “movement” – much less an “Orthodox” one.  It is a spiritual malady, something to be overcome.  Judaism is not a culture; it is a belief system.

That religious observance is Jewishly vital, of course, is a truism.  And so is the fact that all of us live imperfectly on a continuum of Hashem-consciousness.  Few if any of us have actually realized Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed blessing to his talmidim:  “May the fear of Heaven be to you as the fear of human beings.”  When his puzzled students protested, the tanna explained: “Think! When a person commits a sin, he says ‘I hope no one is watching me!’” (Berachos, 28b).

The problem with Mr. Lefkowitz’s stance isn’t his forthrightness about his philosophical qualms.  It’s that he seems comfortable with, even proud of, them.  And that, rather than seek to alleviate his doubts with some deep and discomfiting thought about why Jews believe and have always believed in the truth of our mesorah, he chooses instead to legitimize the decommissioning of emunah, labeling his G-dless approach some sort of new “Orthodox Judaism.”  It is neither Orthodox nor Judaism.

He correctly notes that no responsible rabbi would ever counsel a fellow Jew who confides that “I don’t really believe in G-d or that G-d gave the Torah, so I am not sure whether I should continue to fast on Yom Kippur or observe Kashrut or Shabbat” to “throw away observance unless it is faith-driven.”  But a responsible rabbi would counsel the supplicant to undertake observance with a conscious intention to better understand his actions as the Creator’s will. Doing Jewish can lead to thinking Jewish.  But one must want it to.

As for us believers, we might take Mr. Lefkowitz’s words as a push to strengthen our own Hashem-consciousness.  Even if perfection in that ideal remains out of our reach, we are not absolved from aspiring to it, from aiming, each of us, at a higher state of recognition that Hashem Hu ho’Elokim.

That quest, in fact, is arguably the very life-goal of a Jew.  It is certainly something timely to ponder now, well into Elul.  May our focus on it be a zechus for ourselves – and for all our fellow Jews.

© 2014 Hamodia

Republication or posting of the above only with permission from Hamodia

Share

Of Public Record

 

“Some entertainment for the next generation of Mujaheddin…#ISIS.”

Caption for two photos, posted on Twitter by one Abu Bakr Al-Janabi, of a child wielding a knife and acting out on a doll the beheading of American photojournalist James Foley

 

“Having rehabilitated themselves against considerable odds in a minute corner of the earth, the descendants of powerless people who were pushed out of Europe and the Islamic Middle East have become what their grandparents were—the pool into which the world spits. The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself…  The tool through which this psychological projection is executed is the international press.”

Journalist Matti Friedman, a former AP and Jerusalem Report correspondent, who has filed from Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Moscow, and Washington

 

“This war was unprecedented.  Words can’t describe this victory.”

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah after emerging from his bunker, where he had been hiding for many weeks, to survey the death and destruction his group visited upon Gaza

 

“In Gaza we are dealing with the enemies of Allah, who believe that the matzos that they bake on their holidays must be kneaded with blood. When the Jews were in the diaspora, they would murder children in England, in Europe, and in America. They would slaughter them and use their blood to make their matzos… They believe that they are God’s chosen people. They believe that the killing of any human being is a form of worship and a means to draw near their god.

Sheik Bassam Ammoush, a member of the Jordanian Senate, in a sermon aired on the official Jordanian TV channel

 

“We don’t want any Israeli goods; we don’t want any Israeli services; we don’t want any Israeli academics coming to the university or college; we don’t even want any Israeli tourists to come to Bradford.”

British Parliament member George Galloway

 

“Jewish Ritual Murder”

The name of a Facebook page that was taken down for one day but then reposted, after the company decided that it was an acceptable offering. A recent post asserts that “Naturally, the Jews aren’t the only group who have practiced (and might still practice) ritual murder”

 

“The cure for depression is jihad.”

British national “Brother Abu Dara al-Hindi,” speaking on a video to Muslims in the West who are dissatisfied with their lives, and encouraging them to join ISIS

Share

Kidneys, Cash and Caring

Over recent years, “Israelis have played a disproportionate role” in organ trafficking, The New York Times reported recently in a lengthy front-page story.  Some Israeli entrepreneurs “have pocketed enormous sums for arranging overseas transplants for patients who are paired with foreign donors,” according to court filings and government documents.

The organs in question are kidneys.  Most of us are born with two, although only one is necessary for living a normal life. Numerous people in renal failure have received kidneys donated by friends or relatives – even altruistic strangers.

But the supply of transplantable organs is estimated by the World Health Organization to meet no more than a tenth of the need. And so a market for kidneys has emerged, and thousands of patients receive illicit transplants each year, often facilitated by brokers, like the accused Israelis, who match potential donors wishing to sell one of their kidneys to someone who desperately needs one.  The brokers maintain that they operate legally and are simply engaged in facilitating legitimate business transactions.

The unaddressed but poignant question here, though, is why the sale of kidneys is so widely perceived as immoral.  Opponents of such sales say that since poor people, likely from third-world countries, will be those most likely willing to exchange one of their kidneys for cash, embracing such activity would amount to exploitation of the poor.  Others counter that providing impoverished people a means of garnering the sort of funds that they would otherwise have no other option of amassing would allow them to use the income to escape the poverty cycle, by investing in businesses or other enterprises.  Encouraging kidney selling, these proponents say, will not only save countless lives but represents a humane way to narrow the global gap between the haves and have-nots.

In fact, while global health organizations stand steadfast against the sale of kidneys, legalizing commercial donation is no longer the fringe position it once was. The American Society of Transplantation and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons have called for pilot projects to test incentives for donation, potentially including cash payments, even though such a change would require amending a 30-year-old federal law.

That larger issue aside, though, what accounts for “the tiny nation” of Israel’s “outsize role in the global organ trade?”  The story suggests it is the result of “religious objections… to recovering organs from brain-dead patients.”

That is likely true.  In other countries organs, overwhelmingly, are retrieved from the recently deceased, declared so because they lack electrical activity in their brains but who may still be breathing with the aid of a respirator.  In Israel, however, “religious objections” to equating lack of discernable brain function with death have resulted in a “severe” shortage of kidneys for transplantation.

The concept of accepting “brain death” as the equivalent of death has been embraced by modern medicine since the 1960s.  But not by some of the past decade’s most widely respected poskim in the world – including Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik (who reported that his brother, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik, held the same position) and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, zecher tzaddikim liv’rocho.

The “brain death” standard, though, has been a boon for transplantation.  A person declared dead but still breathing and circulating blood, is an ideal “host” from whom to “harvest” organs.

Even among those who accept a “brain death” definition of death, though, some fear that, eager to procure organs, overzealous doctors may be tempted to prematurely declare deaths to have occurred.   As for those who respect the decisions of the above-mentioned poskim that brain-death does not mean life has ended, harvesting vital organs from a brain-dead patient is no less than murder.

Saving a life is a most weighty imperative, of course, but halacha does not permit one life to be taken to save the life of another – no matter how diminished the “quality” of the life of the former, no matter how great the potential of the life of the latter.  Halacha, moreover, forbids any action that might hasten death, including the death of a person in extremis.

Contrary to what Reform and secular activists like to insinuate, the great majority of Israelis, whether or not they lead strictly observant lives, in fact recognize the importance of halachic concepts, particularly in matters of life and death.  And so it is not outlandish to imagine that rejection of the “brain death” criterion may indeed have much to do with the chronic kidney shortage in Israel.

What is unremarked upon, though, in the long Times story is something that can be gleaned from an accompanying chart that lists 14 developed countries, ranked in order of their per capita kidney donations from donors who have been declared deceased.  The country with the fewest such donors is Israel.

But also, pardon the pun, harvestable with a bit of effort from the chart are the rankings of those same countries with regard to kidney donations by living donors, and they are telling.  There, high up, above places like Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Spain, is Israel.

© 2014 Hamodia

Republication or posting of the above only with permission from Hamodia

Share

Guilt Is Good

The piece below appears at The Times of Israel.

As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the assertion that, in Elul, the Jewish month soon upon us, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Days of Judgment.  And, in fact, in observant Jewish communities, yeshivot and seminaries, the weeks before Rosh Hashana are infused with nervousness, born of believing Jews’ sharpened awareness that they, their fellow Jews and the entire world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Some view guilt as an annoying smudge on their souls, something to wipe clean with a bit of all-purpose self-esteem.  Like Jewish worrying and Jewish frugality, though, Jewish guilt gets a bad rap.

All those “negative” traits attributed to Jews, in fact, are misreadings of sublime Jewish ideals.  Worrying is the opposite of mindless dancing through life, a refusal to be oblivious to how much must go right for us to even wake up in the morning and find our breath.  Worry entails a recognition, in the words of the Modim prayer, of “the miracles that are with us daily.”  We Jews are instructed to acknowledge the Creator’s kindnesses when we awaken, in each of our prayers, even when we exit the bathroom (when the blessing of “Asher Yatzar” is recited), to remind ourselves to not take even the most mundane functions of our bodies for granted.  We worry because we recognize how terribly fragile life is.

And valuing every dollar isn’t (or at least needn’t be) stinginess; it can bespeak sensitivity to the truth that every material thing has worth, and can be harnessed for good.  Our forefather Jacob, the Torah relates, made a dangerous trip back over a river he had crossed, in order to retrieve “tiny jars” that had been left behind.  Teaching us, says the Talmud, that “the righteous value their property even more than their persons.”

A dollar, in other words, can buy a soft drink or almost half a New York subway fare.  But it can also buy a drink for a thirsty friend, or almost half the fare to visit someone in the hospital.  It has potential eternal worth, as good deeds are everlasting, and shouldn’t be wasted.

And guilt?  That’s an easy one.  It’s the engine of growth.

To be sure, being consumed by guilt leaves a person paralyzed.  But a modicum, or even a bit more, of facing our faults is a most salubrious thing.  It’s essential to the process of true self-improvement. That is the meaning of teshuva, often rendered “repentance,” a somewhat off-putting word.  “When they said ‘repent’,” broods the bard, “I wonder what they meant.”

“Self-improvement,” though, might better resonate with the modern mind.  And it well describes teshuva, literally, a “return” – to a better, purer, self.  And, ultimately, to the Creator.  “The soul that you placed in me,” continues the traditional waking-up formula, “is pure…”  It is easily stained, however, and we do well to try to restore it to its natural luster.

And doing so, Maimonides informs us, first entails regret for actions, or inactions, we realize were wrong.  There’s no way to take that initial step without confronting our misdeeds, and feeling… guilty for them.

Whether our lapses are in the realm of “between God and man” or “between man and man,” Elul is an especially propitious time to take stock of them.  The feelings we cultivate over its weeks will crescendo over the course of the “High Holy Days,” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Those “Ten Days of Repentance” are difficult ones for those who take Judaism seriously.  Difficult but valuable.

The Hebrew letters of “Elul” (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed) have famously been portrayed as an acrostic for the words of the verse phrase “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs, 6:3).  That’s a pithy tradition.  The guilt we feel this time of year is not an end but a means; it’s intended to lead not to despair but to a stronger, more real, relationship with our Creator and His other creations.

At the end of the daily morning services, the shofar will be blown each day of Elul (except for the day before Rosh Hashana, to make a distinction between the custom and the Torah-commandment to hear the shofar on the holiday itself).  I don’t know whether the sound will cause the fish in the rivers to tremble, but it should bring a frisson, born of fear and guilt, to all sensitive Jews.

Share

Of Public Record

“If you go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if you don’t look Jewish, they kind of assume there must be a reason that you’re there. At a Reform synagogue or Conservative synagogue, which is what I converted to, they’re just very suspicious because there are so many people who go to shul and aren’t religious; a lot of them don’t even want to be there themselves unless it’s the High Holidays.”

Korean-American author and Conservative convert Euny Hong

 

“There are young black men that commit crime. We can argue about why that happened — because the poverty they were born into or the school systems that failed them or what have you— but if they commit a crime, then they need to be prosecuted.”

President Barack Obama, inter alia, on the protests over the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri

 

“Here in Egypt, we respect human rights. I ask you to respect human rights too… We should send Egyptian observers to monitor these demonstrations.”

Egyptian TV host Osama Mounir, commenting on the killing of Mr. Brown, and protests that ensued

 

“#HitlerWasRight”

A recent hashtag, tweeted nearly 12,000 times

 

“At this time there is no indication of this being a hate crime.”

Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Elena Hernandez, about the murder of a bearded Orthodox rabbi, Joseph Raskin, who, a witness said, was killed by two men who walked away from the killing smiling. Mere weeks earlier, an Orthodox synagogue was vandalized, spray-painted with swastikas and the word “Hamas.” A couple of days later and nearby to the original incident, two cars were smeared with cream cheese and eggs, and on one of them, the words “Jew” and “Hamas” were written

 

“The journalists who entered Gaza were fixated on the notion of peace and on the Israeli narrative… [and were intent] “on filming the places from where missiles were launched. Thus, they were collaborating with the occupation.”

Isra Al-Mudallal, the head of foreign relations in Hamas’s Information Ministry. The Israeli army reports that large numbers of rockets fired into Israel over recent weeks were launched from residential areas, including schools, mosques and residences

 

“The security agencies would go and have a chat with these people. They would [unsuccessfully] give them some time to change their message, one way or another.”

Ms. Al-Mudallal, explaining why some journalists were deported by Hamas from Gaza

 

“GOVERNMENT AND CITIZENS ALIKE! AND WE WILL NOT STOP UNTILL WE QUENCH OUR THIRST FOR YOUR BLOOD.”

Part of an e-mail received by the parents of James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by members of the Islamist group ISIS

 

“a cancer”

President Obama, describing ISIS

 

“savages”

FBI Director James Comey’s choice of word for ISIS members

 

“The popular will was exercised throughout our occupied land, and culminated in the heroic operation by the Al-Qassam Brigades in capturing the three settlers in Hebron.

Senior Hamas official Salach Al-Aruri, admitting (after earlier official denials) that his group was indeed behind the murders of yeshiva students Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16.

Share

The End Is Near

The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism across Western Europe and around the globe, complete with swastikas and “Death to the Jews” chants, is depressing and alarming.  It should also, however, be inspiring

For, once again, we have witnessed how outrage ostensibly over the actions of a sovereign nation, Israel, so quickly and effortlessly festered into full-blown Jew-hatred – not Israel-hatred, not even Israeli-hatred, but Jew-hatred.  That curious phenomenon might be discomfiting, but should also make us think

Can anyone imagine the all-too-real repressive policies of China being laid at the feet of Europeans of Chinese ethnicity, with protesters wildly advocating their extermination?

Can we picture anger over the actual crimes committed by Iran’s leaders being taken out on Iranians living in Europe or the United States, with attacks on their homes and institutions?

Yes, to be sure, there are mindless individuals who, seeing terrorism being committed in the name of Islam, target innocent Muslims as complicit in the inhumanities perpetrated in their religion’s name.  But such misguided avengers are generally lone wolves; and, in the end, it is a belief system, not a government, that they wish to attack.  They think that being a Muslim automatically makes one a radical Islamist.  But Israel is a country, and Jews are a people.  Leave aside that Israel makes unparalleled efforts to protect civilians.  Assume, against all evidence, that she is a monster.  Can anyone, no matter how mentally limited, assume that every Jew is an Israeli?

But that’s how Jew-hatred works; it needs no logic.  In fact, rational thinking just gets in its way.  And so, when Israel is perceived as having done wrong, it isn’t only that nation’s government that is targeted, but rather Jews, no matter where they live, no matter what they may think of Israel’s government or policies.

It’s astounding, really.  What other racial, ethnic, social, or religious group can claim the distinction of having been chosen as the target of one or another form of persecution during practically every period of mankind’s progression from ancient times to the present?  What other group, removed from its ancestral land and scattered around the globe, can claim to have ever been subsequently singled out for extermination, as happened in the memory of people alive today?

The aims of the persecutions have varied.  Some of the hatred has been racial in nature; some, of a religious sort; some political.  What all the expressions of animus have in common, though, are their focus on an unthreatening enemy: the Jews.  The particular excuse may have been cultural (ancient Greece), religious (early Christian, radical Islamist), racial (Nazi Germany), or political (Palestinian).  But the mark has been the same.

The ancient Greek loved knowledge and beauty; he hated the Jew.  The Crusader championed the “New Testament” message (peace and love of mankind, no less); he hated the Jew.  The Nazi strove for genealogical purity; he hated the Jew.  The Palestinian opposes “Zionist imperialism”; in the end it is the Jew whom he and all his hangers-on despise.

Things might be more understandable were there in fact some nefarious World Council of International Jewry plotting the next stage of the manipulation of world governments.

Or if, as parts of the world still believe, Jews in fact required Christian blood for matzos, a fantasy for which countless Jews were killed.

But we members of the tribe know well that, while Jewish organizational meetings can be infernal in their own way, they are rather more mundane than the fabled assembly of the “Elders of Zion” – and that matzo containing blood would never receive a hechsher.  Yet the myths persevered for centuries – and, sadly, still do.

As do equally bizarre contemporary equivalents of ancient blood libels – like much of the Arab world’s “knowledge” that Jews were behind the terrorist attacks of September 11; or media moral equations of Israeli attempts to fight a mortal enemy and “militants” who exult in the killing and maiming of innocents.

One can invoke ad hoc “rational” explanations: psychological concepts, social theories or geopolitical realities. But the solution to the riddle is less complicated.

As long as Klal Yisrael remains in golus, the Torah’s prediction, which we will be reading in shul mere weeks hence (parshas Ki Savo) remains tragically in effect.

And Hashem will scatter you among all the nations… and you will worship other gods… and in those nations you will not rest… you will be fearful night and day” (Devorim 28:64-66).

And so we pine for the day referenced in that very parsha’s haftara, when:

No longer will violence [“hamas,” interestingly] be heard in your land… but you will call [Hashem’s] salvation your protective walls…,” the time when “never again will your sun set, nor your moon be withdrawn” and “the days of your mourning will end” (Yeshayahu 60:18-20).

© 2014 Hamodia

Republication or posting of the above only with permission from Hamodia

Share