Moral Climate Change

My pre-Sukkos column about the furious, quasi-religious zeal of some environmental alarmists apparently generated some… well, furious, quasi-religious zeal.

In an editorial, the New Jersey Jewish Standard’s managing editor mocked my contention that the Creator is ultimately in charge of the universe He created; and the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News invoked the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins to berate me for my skepticism about scientific predictions.  (What’s with Jersey?  Has climate change done a number on its journalists’ equanimity?)

In my column, just to recall, I described my unease with the rage I heard at a large climate change rally, noted that the climate has changed in the past and, yes, contended that, in the end, the Creator is in charge, and our own charge is, above all, to heed His Torah.

I did not, though, call into question the reality of climate change, or in any way disparage measures aimed at trying to curb it. I readily stated that “we do well to explore alternate energy sources and pollute less.”  But my sin, alas, was too great to bear.

In addition to the two papers’ public proclamations of my heresy, several Jewish individuals wrote me privately.  One cited a  Midrash in Koheles Rabba (7:13), to buttress his faith in the threat global warming poses to the world and in our mandate to address it. The source, I discovered, is invoked by a host of Jewish environmentalist groups, and reads:

“When HaKodosh Boruch Hu created Adam Harishon, he took him and showed him all the trees of Gan Eden.  And He said to him ‘Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are.  All that I created I created for you.  Be consciously careful not to act destructively and destroy My world.  Because if you do act destructively, there is no one to set things straight after you’.”

The  Midrash is held aloft by those groups as a paean to “Tikkun Olam,” as their members like to characterize social or environmental activism.  Hashem, in other words, is commanding Adam to do no harm to the earth – and his descendants, presumably, to oppose strip-mining, fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline.

One website trumpeting the  Midrash includes “Suggested Discussion Questions” like: “What does this text teach us about the earth?” “What is our responsibility to the environment?” “What is G-d’s responsibility to the environment?”

The  Midrash, however, is in reality not concerned with any such real or imagined insults to the earth.  The destruction of the world that Hashem is charging Adam to avoid is that which can result from his sins – the clear meaning of the phrase “act destructively,” as the  Midrash’s continuation makes clear.  It is famously invoked by the Ramchal to that precise effect in the first perek of Mesillas Yesharim.

Destroying resources for no good reason is forbidden by the Torah.  But there are elements of the ultra-environmentalist agenda that go far beyond avoiding unnecessary wastage.  And the attempt to put a “classical Jewish” veneer on the entire enterprise of “green politics” by misappropriating Torah texts to support the belief that human beings are physically destroying the world Hashem has created for us is deeply objectionable.

Judaism is a faith system.  To some, so is environmentalism.  But they are not the same faith.

Yes, I believe that the climate is changing.  I believe, too, that there will be negative effects of the same (although likely some positive ones too).  I believe that it’s plausible, if not certain, that human activity contributes to global warming, and plausible as well, though far from certain, that human beings can arrest or reverse the changing climate.

But I do believe – and this belief is b’emunah shleimah – that, pace Dawkins and company, Hashem is in charge. And that, in the end, humanity’s moral and ethical actions, not its climate conferences and multi-national treaties, fine efforts though they may be, will ultimately determine our fate.

That is, as it happens, a rather timely thought, considering that just this past Shabbos, Jews the world over heard a public reading about a cataclysmic climate change.  It happened in Noach’s time. And it was caused, of course, not by strip-mining but by sin, something no stranger to our own day.

How deeply ironic that a fundamental Jewish truth – that human beings affect the world most powerfully by their moral and ethical climates, their mitzvos and, challilah, their aveiros – is utter anathema to some periodicals that proudly include the word “Jewish” in their names.

© 2014 Hamodia


Winter High

The wishes of “git vinter!” customary in some communities after Shemini Atzeres might put some people in mind of fall’s end weeks hence, and give them a chill.  Not me.

I’m decidedly in the minority when it comes to the seasons of the year (as I am, as an aficionado of early morning, when it comes to the times of the day).  While I’m thrilled with the onset of each new season, appreciating the changes that I didn’t fully experience during the several years I spent in California, winter is my favorite season.

Not that I like shoveling snow any more than anyone else.  But there’s something about the rolling in of a massive cold front that – how can I say it? – warms my heart (if not my hands).  To me, the frigid cold is exciting, inspiring.  Besides, watching snow fall from a warm place through a window and running chilled hands under a warm stream of water are distinct pleasures of their own.

What’s more, winter is symbolic of childhood.

You didn’t know that?  Neither did I, at least until I found the thought in the Maharal’s Gur Aryeh supercommentary on Rashi (Beraishis 26:34); it is also in his sefer Ner Mitzvah.

The Maharal assigns a stage of human life to each of the year’s seasons.  We might naturally associate nature’s awakening in spring with childhood, the heat of summer with petulant youth, autumn with slowed-down middle age and cold, barren winter with life’s later years.

The Maharal, however, describes things differently.  He regards autumn, when leaves are shed and nature seems to slow down, as corresponding to older age; summer’s warmth and comfort to represent our productive middle-years; spring to reflect the vibrancy and energy of young adulthood.  And winter, to evoke… childhood.

It is certainly counterintuitive.  Winter is, after all, stark, empty of vibrancy, activity and growth.  Childhood is, or should be, full of joy, restlessness and development.

But the superficial image, in the Maharal’s mind, betrays the reality.  When spring finally arrives each year, after all, the new leaves haven’t appeared suddenly out of nothingness. The buds from which they emerge have been developing for months; the sap in the seemingly dormant trees was rising even as the thermometer’s mercury was falling.  The evidence of life that visibly presents itself only with the approach of Pesach was preparing its case since Chanukah.  In the deadest days of deepest winter, bundle up and venture outside to look at the barren trees’ branches.  You’ll see the buds, biding their time but clearly there, ready to explode with vibrant green life when commanded.

Winter, in other words, evokes life’s potential.  And so, what better metaphor could there be for childhood, when the elements that will emerge one day and congeal into an adult are roiling inside a miniature prototype?  When chaos and bedlam may seem to be the operative principles but when potential is at its most powerful?  “The Child,” after all, as the poet William Wordsworth famously put it, is indeed “father of the Man.”  Every accomplished person was once an unbridled toddler.

In fact, we humans are actually compared to trees, in Devorim (20:19).  Even though the passuk’s context (the forbiddance to gratuitously fell trees during war), at least according to Rashi, implies a quizzical question mark at its end (“Is a man a tree of the field?”), other Rishonim, like the Ibn Ezra, read the passuk as making a straightforward comparison.  And the sifrei nistar similarly see significance in the plain meaning of the words.  Man is, in some way, a tree of the field.  There is sap rising in each of us, we all have leaves to put forth.

Sukkos is behind us; Chanukah, not so far off.  When we put away the latter’s menoros and wicks, and winter progresses, we might find ourselves thinking about Tu B’Shvat, a few weeks in the future; and then, the harbinger of spring, Purim, when we will celebrate the turning of a seemingly hopeless situation into a joyous one.   Esther was a bud, and when the right time came, she blossomed.

We’re all buds, too, each of us in his or her our own way.  We all have potential yet to be realized.  And winter, laid out in white before us, reminds us of that fact, of the Maharal’s lesson about the periods of the year –  that much more important than what season of life we may think we’re in is the yet-unrealized potential we carry.

© 2014 Hamodia


Misplaced Zeal

The powerful swell of voices on Broadway, thirteen stories below Agudath Israel’s offices, did more than disturb my concentration.  A thousand people were blocking traffic and loudly chanting in unison, the roar less redolent of “Hashem hu ho’Elokim!” at Neila’s end than of what I imagine “Kill the Jews!” must have sounded like during pogroms. Which was ironic, considering that, in light of the cause and location, a large number of the shouters were likely Jewish.

The “Flood Wall Street” event was but a weak echo of what had taken place a day earlier, when an estimated 300,000 people (including members of close to 100 Jewish groups, parts of the “Jewish Climate Campaign”), participated in the “People’s Climate March” on the West Side of Manhattan.  But the smaller demonstration was large enough and loud enough for me.  I had to wonder what made the chanting seem so sinister

It may have had to do with something the late writer Michael Crichton famously asserted, that people “have to believe in something that gives meaning” to their lives, and that “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.”  (And, I’d add, even for some who may believe in a Creator but just don’t fully trust Him.)

Environmentalism, Mr. Crichton elaborated, posits “an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature,” then “a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge”—i.e. technology and exploitation of natural resources—and that “as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.”

“We are all energy sinners,” he concluded, paraphrasing the new religion’s world-view, “doomed to die, unless we seek salvation.”

MIT Meteorology Professor Richard Lindzen similarly labeled environmentalism a religion, its devotees convinced “that they are in possession of a higher truth” and intolerant of “heretics, or ‘climate change deniers,’ to use green parlance.”

And so it may have been religious zeal that I heard in the din from below.  And while zeal is a good thing when sourced in commitment to the true religion, its emergence from a misguided one is cause for alarm.  (See: Medieval Christianity, Contemporary Islamism…)

To be sure, the earth’s climate is changing.  But it has changed many times over the millennia, even over recent centuries. Enviro-zealots are convinced that the current climate change signals the end of the world (or, at least, the destruction of the world as we know it), and that humanity is at fault for the impending doom (and has the power to head it off).

Some of us, though, feel that a passuk we recite daily – “Tremble before Him, all the earth; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter” (Divrei Hayomim 1 16:30) – reassures us that Hashem has built self-correcting mechanisms into nature, and that our zeal should be reserved for Torah-study and mitzvos.

For daring to challenge the contemporary party line, though, anyone in the least skeptical about the planet’s prognosis is vilified by those who believe that humans can break and, alone, make the earth.  The protesters were not just vocal and loud, they were angry.

A recent ScienceTimes section in the New York Times was dedicated largely to cris de coeur about climate change.  Hidden among the Chicken Little alarms, however, were some interesting tidbits.

Like the fact that polar bears on Hudson Bay, deprived of ice coverage, and thus seals, in the summer, are feasting instead on a windfall of snow geese, birds that, due to the same warming that caused the ice to recede, have migrated north from the American south and Midwest.  And that some varieties of soybeans “grow especially well in high carbon dioxide levels.”  And that in naturalist Diane Ackerman’s words, “A warmer world won’t be terrible for everyone and it’s bound to inspire new technologies and good surprises…”  And that Mongolian herders, deprived by drought of grasslands, have been moving to cities, where members of families of erstwhile nomads are now gainfully employed and enjoying the benefits of electricity and indoor plumbing for the first time.

None of which is to deny the possibility that we do well to explore alternate energy sources and pollute less.  It’s only to note the deep complexity and unpredictability of change in the natural world, and the great resourcefulness and creativity that Hashem has planted in human minds.

And to lead us to consider that environmentalism may be but the latest of the “isms” about which Rav Elchonon Wasserman, zt”l, warned.

© 2014 Hamodia



There’s nothing remotely funny, of course, about rabid Islamists beheading innocent Westerners they have kidnapped (or their fellow Muslims, for that matter).

Yet, there is something bizarrely droll about the characterization of such slaughter, and in particular its filming and the dissemination of the resultant videos, as a “recruitment tool.”  According to experts like Peter Neumann, who directs a center for the study of political violence in London, that is the videos’ goal, based on past successes in attracting new recruits.

What I found almost humorous was the unthinkability (to put it mildly) of any group of normal human beings seeking adherents by murdering people on camera.  Can you imagine the Mormon Church cutting off the heads of gentiles (its name for non-Mormons) in order to attract worshippers?  The Republican party, to entice independents?  The Rotary Club, to garner new members?  The local Jewish Federation, to lure donors?  You get the droll.

And then the all-too-serious question presents itself:  What does it say about a cause that it attracts people by means of the gleeful shedding of innocent blood?  And a corollary:  What does it say about the people so attracted?

It is fashionable to seek to “understand” forces and individuals who do malevolent things, to put the acts into a “context” that makes them if not justifiable, at least comprehensible.  There are times, though, what seems to be evil is, in fact, just evil, pure and simple.  Like our times.

Likewise fashionable these days are attempts to characterize the Islamic State movement, against which President Obama has effectively declared war (explaining that “There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil”), and other Islamist hordes as not warranting a determined response by the civilized global community.

For all the odiousness of the groups’ means, the geopolitical fashionistas (hesitant Europeans and American isolationists alike) argue, such militants don’t threaten us directly.  ISIS’s goal, in particular, is only to establish a Muslim caliphate in Eastern lands, not to harm the West.  We have no camel in such races, they protest, no business involving our country in disputes that, in the end, are between this version of Islam and that version of Islam (and those, and those other ones too).

Intriguingly, though, current events have served up a compelling metaphor here.

For there is another deadly world crisis out there, likewise far away; (for the most part) and the larger world is determined, rightly, to deal with it.  No one counsels ignoring it for its distance.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the number of Ebola cases in West Africa is increasing, and has asked UN member states to donate $1 billion to tackle the epidemic. President Obama announced that the United States will send troops, material to build field hospitals, additional health care workers and medical supplies to the tune of $75 million.  The World Bank is promising $200 million to deal with the crisis. The World Health Organization has pledged $100 million.  Britain is delivering a field hospital to the area.  $181 million has been promised from the European Union and $50 million from the Gates Foundation.

Ebola, which results in uncontrolled internal and external bleeding and easily spreads itself around, is evil.  Yes, yes, the virus is morally innocent, just doing what its DNA compels it to do.   But from the perspective of thinking, feeling human beings who affirm life as an invaluable gift, the disease is a scourge, something to be fought and driven into submission, ideally eradicated.  Even though it is “way over there,” doesn’t threaten most of us directly and, historically, has asserted itself only on the African continent.

Millions of people in Africa are threatened by Ebola, and it is not easily contained.  It thrives on ignorance (like that of villagers who have killed health workers, believing they are the cause of the disease) and attacks not only those who contract it casually but but exemplary human beings (like such health workers) as well.

Is not the biological scourge we all know must be routed a stunning counterpart to the sociopathic one that produces its own rivers of blood?

Comparing people to a disease has, understandably, become anathema in civil discourse. But such rhetoric is offensive because it is employed imprecisely or carelessly.  Sometimes, though, it is an apt metaphor. Like when applied to groups that exult in slaughter of human beings, that seek to spread and whose recruitment tools include mugging behind masks for the cameras before cheerfully slitting throats.

© 2014 Hamodia


Time After Time

Ever since the famous science fiction writer H. G. Wells penned “The Time Machine” in 1895, the notion of a protagonist traveling through time by means of magic or fantastic technology has captured the imaginations of countless writers and readers.

Wells’ famous work involved travel into the future.  But many subsequent flights of fancy concerned going back in time to an earlier period and, often, tinkering with past events to change the future.

It might not immediately occur to most of us that our mesorah not only anticipated the idea of time travel but in fact teaches that it is entirely possible, an option available to us all.  And, unlike so many popular fiction time travel fantasies where havoc is wreaked by intruding on an earlier time, Jewish travel to the past is sublime.  And, in fact, required of us.

Is that not the upshot of how Chazal portray teshuvah, repentance?  It is, after all, nothing less than traveling back through time and changing the past.  The word itself, in fact, might best be translated as “returning.” We assume it refers to our own returning to where we should be.  But it might well hold a deeper thought, that teshuva involves a return to, and recalibration of, the past.

How else to understand the Talmudic teaching that sins committed intentionally are retroactively rendered by even the most elemental teshuva (that born of fear) into unintentional sins? Or the even more astonishing fact that when teshuva is embraced out of pure love for Hashem, it actually changes sins into good deeds?

What a remarkable thought.  Chillul Shabbos transformed into honoring of Shabbos?  Eating treif into eating matzah on Pesach?  Telling loshon hora into saying a dvar Torah?  No, not remarkable.  Stupefying.

Time is the bane of human existence.  The Kli Yakar notes that the word the Torah uses for the sun and moon—“me’oros,” or “luminaries,” (Bereishis, 1:16), which lacks the expected vov, can be read “me’eiros,” or “afflictions.”

“For all that comes under the influence of time,” he explains, “is afflicted with pain.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, notes, similarly, that the term “memsheles,” (ibid) which describes those luminaries’ roles, implies “subjugation.”  For, the Rosh Yeshiva explains, we are enslaved by time, unable to control it or escape its relentless progression.  Our positions in space are subject to our manipulation.  Not so our positions in time.

Except when it comes to teshuvah.  By truly confronting our misguided actions and feeling pain for them and resolving to not repeat them, we can reach back into the past and actually change it.  We are freed from the subjugation of time.

Which might well lie at the root of the larger theme of freedom that is so prominent on Rosh Hashana.  Tishrei, the month of repentence, is rooted in “shara,” the Aramaic word for “freeing”; the shofar is associated with Yovel, when slaves are released; we read from the Torah about Yitzchak Avinu’s release from his “binding”; and Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Yosef’s release from his Egyptian prison, and of the breaking of what can be thought of as Sarah and Chana’s childlessness-chains.

There happens to be an exquisite symbol of our Aseres Yemei Teshuva ability to transcend time in the Rosh Hashana night sky.  Actually, the symbol is the absence of one.

The sun may mark the passage of days for others, but for Klal Yisroel, it is the moon to which we look to identify the months of our years.  It is not only, by its perpetual renewal, a symbol of the Jewish People.  It keeps time for us.  It is, one might say, our clock.

And on Rosh Hashana, the first of the Asers Yimei Teshuvah, it goes missing.  Of all the holidays in the Jewish year, only Rosh Hashana, which by definition occurs at the beginning of a Jewish month, sports a moonless sky.

That observation isn’t a meaningless one.  “Sound the shofar at the new month, at the appointed time for the day of rejoicing,” declares the passuk in Tehillim (81:4) in reference, Chazal teach us, to Rosh Hashana.  And the word for “at the appointed time”—“bakeseh”—can be read to mean “at the covering” – a reference to the moon’s absence in the Rosh Hashana sky.

So it might not be an overreach to imagine that sky, with its missing “Jewish clock,” to be a subtle reminder that time can be overcome in an entirely real way, through the Divine gift of teshuvah, and our heartfelt determination.

© 2014 Hamodia


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


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 His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).  

© 2014 Haaretz


“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


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.”


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