Of Labels and Fables


In European Union countries, the words “Product of the West Bank (Israeli settlement)” will now replace “Product of Israel” on labels of foodstuffs, cosmetics and other consumer goods produced by Jewish-owned enterprises in Yehudah and Shomron. Similar labels will grace Jewish products that originate in the Golan Heights and parts of Yerushalayim liberated in the 1967 Six Day War.

In announcing the new policy, E.U. authorities said it was their duty to let consumers know the geographic origin of products so that buyers can make “informed decisions.”  The new rule is itself “informed,” and by something more than consumer concern.  By anti-Israel sentiment.

The European Union is, of course, entitled to not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories captured in 1967.  Our own country, in fact, has also regarded those areas to be under Israeli occupation since that year; Israel herself, for that matter, has never annexed them.  Israeli leaders, moreover, including her current Prime Minister, have pledged their willingness to offer Palestinians parts of the captured territory in exchange for an enforceable peace – although, until a nonbelligerent Palestinian leadership emerges, the vision remains hypothetical.

But the labeling law is no mere expression of disapproval of the territories’ unresolved status.  It is an act of transparent hypocrisy.

There are territorial disputes in scores of countries.  But no products from disputed areas of China, Morocco, Turkey or India, to take only several such nations, are subject to special labeling to “inform” consumers of the conflicts. The reason Israel is being treated differently lies… well, where anyone rational readily recognizes it lies.

The fact alone that the new EU rule came about only after incessant lobbying by Palestinian representatives and a gaggle of “sympathetic” NGOs should suffice to reveal the true agenda at work here.  And it isn’t consumer protection.  The EU’s contention that its rule is a simple technical correction is a cynical fable.

And the Obama administration’s acceptance of that fabrication is shameful.

A State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said the EU move is only a “technical guideline,” and not a boycott, which, the spokesman explained, the administration would oppose.

But, he added, “We understand the objective is to provide EU consumers correct information on the origin of products, as required by EU law.”  He’s very understanding.

But should he wish to understand the essence of the new rule, he might consider the reaction of PLO secretary-general Saeb Erekat to its enactment.  Triumphantly, he lauded it as “a significant move toward a total boycott of Israeli settlements.”

Readers of this column know that I don’t share the common feeling that President Obama is less than fully dedicated to Israel’s security. His actions over the years, I have contended, and still contend, simply don’t support that conclusion.  But the same commitment to veracity that impels me to give credit where it is due obliges me no less to criticize the indefensible.  And the administration’s declining to condemn the EU rule cannot be defended.

I understand – from Mr. Obama’s perspective as a proponent and would-be architect of a “two-state solution” – the president’s frustrations with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The recent “bury the hatchet” meeting at the White House was likely more photogenic than factual. And one might reasonably suspect that the administration’s laissez faire reaction to the EU rule was a sort of silencer-muzzled parting shot at what the American leader sees as the Israeli one’s insufficient determination to promote a resolution to the “occupation.”

But differences of opinion about promoting a two-state solution (leave aside who, much more than Mr. Netanyahu, is holding it back) is not the issue here. It’s not Israel’s current Prime Minister who is being marginalized by the Europeans.  It is Israel.  Mr. Obama should realize that, and he should have called the EU crooked spade a crooked spade, and denounced it as the duplicity it is.

It’s unlikely that administration officials are given to seeing symbolism and irony in world events.  But if they were, they might note the fact that, shortly after the EU ruling, the world was rudely awoken to the immediacy of terrorist evil.  Parisians and the Western World suddenly got a taste of what Israelis have been enduring regularly – terrorism emboldened by “world opinion.”

And the ground zero, so to speak, of the Paris massacres, the gritty, jihadi-breeding Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, which spawned the late, unlamented terrorist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is a mere 15-minute drive from Le Berlaymont, the building housing the headquarters of the European Union.

© 2015 Hamodia


Denominational Déjà Vu


This article appeared in the New York Jewish Week

Back in February, 2001, an article I wrote for Moment Magazine caused quite a stir.  Its thesis – that, since the Conservative movement’s claim to halachic integrity was not supported by fact, Conservative Jews who respect Jewish religious law should consider joining Orthodox communities – was understandably disturbing to some. Much of the uproar, however, was likely caused by the incendiary title that publication insisted on slapping on the piece.  I had titled it “Time to Come Home”; Moment ran it under a large, bold headline reading “The Conservative Lie.”

The article ended up causing some healthy discussion (and, I immodestly add, won an American Jewish Press Association award).  It also inspired several Conservative movement officials to call me nasty names.  None, though, offered any cogent rebuttal to what I had demonstrated, namely that the process of determining Conservative “halacha” differed in an essential way from the halachic process of the millennia.

Halacha has always been decided through the objective examination of Biblical verses, mediated through the Talmud and legal codes, with a single goal: to discern the Torah’s intention. By contrast, I observed, the Conservative process generally involved first identifying a desired result, and then massaging the sources to “yield” that outcome.

An example I noted was the issue of same-sex intimate relationships.  Although halachic literature, based on verses in the Torah, considers such relations unarguably wrong, contemporary Western society, even at the time, had come to embrace the idea of “alternate lifestyles.”

I predicted that, in the realm of sexual expression, the Conservative movement would soon enough “halachically” approve what halacha forbids in no uncertain terms.  In 2006, I was vindicated when the Conservative movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” endorsed a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same sex and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives. Since then, of course, as homosexual activity has come to be celebrated in the larger world, the Conservative legal system has trotted close behind.

It didn’t take any powers of prophecy to discern what I did, only those of observation and perception.  And I perceive precisely the same Conservative approach to halacha in what bills itself today as “Open Orthodoxy.”

That neologism encompasses three institutions: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat – educational entities that ordain men and women, respectively – and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a rabbinic group.

If the “open” in “Open Orthodoxy” means to imply that what has long been called Orthodox Judaism is somehow “closed” to other Jews, that proposition would greatly surprise any non-Orthodox Jew who has ever walked into an Orthodox shul.  What it more likely means to suggest is that, theologically, what has until now been called Orthodoxy is somehow “close-minded.”

That stance, though, reveals that the other word in the phrase, “Orthodox,” is deeply misleading. Which is why the Council of Torah Sages, an elite group of widely-respected yeshiva-dean elders, has declared that the new movement has no claim on the title “Orthodox.”

Whether the halachic topic being addressed is same-sex relationships, interfaith interactions, kashrut, marriage, divorce or conversion, the desideratum of “Open Orthodoxy” is unmistakably to bring Jewish religious praxis “into line” with contemporary mores.  That may not be not explicit in the wording of “Open Orthodox” statements or responsa – any more than it was fourteen years ago in those of the Conservative movement.  But in both cases it is manifest.

In halacha as it has developed over millennia, there are decisions that render permissions and others that yield forbiddances.  Tellingly, the Conservative movement’s “halachic” positions are almost exclusively permissive.  Ditto for those of “Open Orthodoxy.”  In fact, the two movements are, their different chosen names notwithstanding, simply indistinguishable.

Let me stress that I am speaking of a concept here, not people; of theological systems, not the intentions of students who have been attracted to “Open Orthodox” institutions, some of whom are clearly idealists who wish to serve the Jewish people.  The problem isn’t those students or their idealism, but rather the proposition they are taught, that halacha is ripe for “updating.”  Halacha does indeed take societal developments into account; sometimes they make a difference, sometimes they do not.  But the Zeitgeist does not determine the halacha.  The accepted elders, the most experienced Torah scholars, of each generation, do.  That is itself a premise of the halachic system.

The new movement’s name is a misnomer, a dangerously misleading one.  Just as “kosher-style” food isn’t kosher, neither is “Open Orthodoxy” Orthodox.  It is neo-Conservatism.  Which is why the greatest, most widely recognized, Torah scholars today – and not only those of the haredi world – have rejected its Jewish authenticity.

I take no pleasure in revealing the truth about “Open Orthodoxy.”  But truth-in-labeling is not only a civil mandate but a halachic one.

Fourteen years ago, I implored halacha-respecting non-Orthodox Jews to come home to the Judaism of the ages.  Today, I experience – apologies to the late Yogi Berra – “déjà vu all over again.” My plea persists.


Black Power


Australian political advisor Robert Hoge was born with a severe facial deformity and describes himself as “the ugliest person you’ve never met.”  When he was born, his parents burst into tears.

Mr. Hoge did not allow his disfigurement to prevent him from going about the business of life.  In fact, he worked in journalism, a field famously focused on the superficial, and then became a high-profile advisor to former Queensland premier Anna Bligh, the most senior politician in the state.

He describes the attitude that allowed him to overcome his disadvantage.

“Some kids are good spellers,” he writes.  “Some have bad haircuts; some are fast runners; some kids are short; some are awesome at netball. But the kids who are short aren’t only short. And the kids who are great at netball aren’t only just great at netball. No one is only just one thing. It’s the same with appearance.”

That truth might seem obvious, but in the contemporary world – and that world’s ills spill into our own machaneh – it is too often overlooked.

And the idea that a single “negative” aspect of a person doesn’t define the person is true not only in the physical realm but, more importantly, if less obviously, in the spiritual.

In the passuk that opens the haftarah of parashas Kedoshim, Hashem declares to Klal Yisrael: “Behold, you are like the children of Kush to Me” (Amos, 9:7).  Kush, of course, is usually identified as a region of central Africa.  “Children of Kush” would seem an odd simile to use for Klal Yisrael.

The Gemara offers the following: “Just as a person from Kush differs [from others] in [the color of] his skin, so are [the members of Klal] Yisrael different in their actions.” (Moed Katan, 16b).

The Chasam Sofer’s text of the Gemara apparently had “the righteous” in place of “Yisrael.”  And, he explains, while every Jew is required to observe all the mitzvos, “there is no single life-path for them all.

“One Jew may excel in Torah-study, another in avodah, another in kindnesses to others; this one, in one particular mitzvah; that one, in another.  Nevertheless, while they all differ from each other in their actions, they all have the same intention, to serve Hashem with their entire hearts.”

“Behold the Kushite,” he continues.  “Inside, his organs, his blood and his appearance are the same as other people’s.  Only in the superficiality of his skin is he different from others.  This is the meaning of ‘[different] in his skin,’ [meaning] only in his skin.  Likewise, the righteous are different [from one another] only ‘in their actions’; their inner conviction and intention, though, are [the same,] aimed at serving Hashem in a good way.”

A particular G-d-fearing Jew, in other words, may be best suited for a particular area of serving Hashem.  He should not be defined by his relative weakness in another area.  What matters in the end is his goal, avodas Hashem.

Some well-intentioned parents imagine that their children must follow a particular life-trajectory and land in a specific place.  But there are different, equally meritorious, trajectories, and different, equally praiseworthy, landing places for different people.  It’s not just that people are dissimilar and will choose a variety of vocations, fields and priorities.  It’s that, in our diversity of vocations, fields and priorities, we can all be entirely equal servants of Hashem.

Consider Rav Broka, who, the Gemara recounts (Taanis 22a), was often accompanied by Eliyahu Hanavi.  Once, in a marketplace, he asked the prophet whether there were any people among those present who merited the World-to-Come.  Eliyahu pointed out one man, who turned out to be a prison guard who made special efforts to protect his prisoners and who had interceded with the government on behalf of his fellow Jews.  And then the navi pointed out a pair of jesters.  When Rav Broka inquired about the comedians, he discovered that they used their humor to cheer up depressed people and defuse disputes.

Most of us would, understandably, be put off by the prospect of our child becoming a prison guard or a clown.  We rightly wish, and guide, our children to be talmidei chachomim and klei kodesh.  But if they express their natures in other ways, we must realize that an abundance of vocations can express what matters most: yiras Hashem.

“Don’t tell kids they’re all beautiful; tell them it’s okay to look different,” writes Mr. Hoge about physical traits.  As per the Chasam Sofer’s lesson, that advice is no less worthy in more rarefied realms.

© 2015  Hamodia


What We Build and What We Are


As the 93rd nears, the 78th comes to mind.

Agudath Israel of America’s national conventions, that is.

The 93rd gathering opens tomorrow and will, over four days, feature a constellation of topics and speakers, include the presence of Gedolim, Rabbanim and askanim, and a host a host of us simple folk, seeking information, inspiration and guidance.

There are always greatly worthwhile thoughts shared by those who address the various sessions, particularly the plenary ones on Thursday night and on Motzoei Shabbos.  (The public is welcome, free of charge, to all sessions.)  But a speech that was made on Motzoei Shabbos fifteen years ago made a particularly deep impression on me.  And it remains, I think, as timely as ever.

The speaker, the final one of the evening, was Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, the Rav of Ofakim.  His address that night would be the only one he would offer at an Agudah convention.  He, along with his Rebbetzin and one of their daughters, were killed, R”l, in a car accident in Israel mere months later.

Although over ensuing years, I, like so many, were edified by the collections of Rabbi Pincus’ lectures that were posthumously published, at the time, I had not known much about him.

The backdrop of his speech that night included the brutal lynching, weeks earlier, of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, and a slew of Islamic Jihad and Hamas (yimach shemam) car bombings that killed or injured scores of Israeli civilians.

Rabbi Pincus acknowledged the crisis at home, but took pains, to stress that “tovah Haaretz meod meod.”  He exulted over the proliferation of yeshivos and shiurim, over the fact that Jews once alienated from their heritage were returning to it and that the populace is not unduly fearful. “The real crisis,” he contended, “is not in Eretz Yisroel per se, but in the entire Jewish people – Eretz Yisroel is but its heart.”

And he suggested that an important message to Klal Yisrael lies in the fact that the strife in its heart is not a battle between governments but between peoples, and the threat is not so much against a country as against individuals.

He noted the wonderful efforts and projects that Yidden were involved in, the building of yeshivos, kollelim and mosdos chessed.  “There is a contrast,” though, he added, “between what people build and what they are.”  Perhaps, he suggested, we need to more carefully apply to ourselves as individuals the very same concern that we so strongly translate into community efforts.

“The bnei Yishmael,” he explained, “are claiming that it was their ancestor, not Yitzchak, who was chosen as Avraham’s heir, the son Hashem called ‘yechidcha.’   We must all act as miyuchadim to Hashem.  No matter how old, each of us is His ben yachid.  Our behavior as such will prove that we are deserving of that honor.”

There is great merit, he explained, in all the special things we do, whether building Torah institutions, establishing social services or, for those of us who aren’t of sufficient means or talent, donating what we can to such efforts, attending shiurim, reciting Tehillim.  The power of such things, whether large or small, cannot be overlooked.

But they must not allow us to overlook even more basic, if more difficult, pursuits – like our efforts to work on our middos and personal observance.  How we conduct ourselves in public, and in private; how we interact with our spouses, our parents, our children and our friends and, especially, people who are none of those things; how we daven, how we make brachos, how we think – these are, or should be, the most important foci of each of our lives.

And, oh, how easily such “minor” things can be obscured by more “weighty” ones.

Although I have yet to achieve what Rabbi Pincus set forth as the proper goal of a Jew, his reminder has remained with me, and likely always will.

After his tragic petirah, many accounts of his actions and interactions were told.

One concerned a “selling of aliyos” on a Purim morning.  The gabbai had announced, “Fifty shekels for pesichas haaron,” for opening the ark.  Rabbi Pincus, it was recounted, ran to the bimah and amended the nature of the bidding.

Pesichah,” he announced, “for reciting asher yatzar word-by-word for one month!”

Bidding ensued, and the winner pledged to undertake the practice for three years.

I would be surprised if the winner stopped even then.

© 2015 Hamodia


Misguided Mounters


“As if the situation here was not sensitive enough,” groused an incredulous MK Yoel Hasson (Hamachaneh HaTzioni).

He was referring to Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s comment that her “dream is to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount” and her conviction that Jews should able to pray on Har HaBayis.

Mr. Hasson had harsher words, too, for the minister, ascribing to her “the stubbornness of a donkey” and calling for her dismissal.

Nor was Prime Minister Netanyahu pleased by Ms. Hotovely’s sentiment.  He had her cancel a press conference and impressed upon her the need to clarify that she had not been speaking for the government.  He also “requested” that Ms. Hotovely inform his office before any public appearance, so that her messages can be “coordinated” with Mr. Netanyahu’s policies.

The Prime Minister’s move was as wise as Ms. Hotolevy’s was foolhardy.  Past weeks have shown that bluster about Har HaBayis provides violent Palestinians with a handy pretext to violently vent the hatred they feel for Jews.

In the wake of Yerushalayim’s liberation from Jordan in 1967, Israel instituted a policy giving the Islamic trust known as the Waqf religious control over Har HaBayis, with Israel responsible for the area’s security.  That modus vivendi has generally kept the peace at the site.

That policy dovetailed with the halachic psak din at the time of rabbanim from across the spectrum, including Rav Avrohom Yitzchak Kook, zt”l, that ascending the Mount is forbidden.

Former chief rabbis Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, and current Israeli chief rabbis Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, as well as senior “national religious” leaders like Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, have also forbidden Jews from ascending Har HaBayis.

In 2009 Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, called on Israel’s president to actively prevent Jews from visiting the site, both because of the halachic concerns and because doing so can lead to bloodshed.  Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch recently declared that those who ascend the Har “will be held accountable” for resultant Muslim attacks on Jews.

In defiance of that wide consensus, in recent years, increasing numbers of nationalist Jews have made a point of ascending the Mount, and have, as a result, raised the ire of Muslims. According to the Associated Press, approximately 10,000 Jews visited the site last year, compared to 200 or 300 annually a decade ago.  And a nationalist group is currently offering to pay $516 to any Jew arrested for praying there.

While any excuse suffices for some Palestinians to try to kill Jews, the “reason” professed by recent murderers and would-be murderers has been their perception that Israel is poised to abrogate the 1967 policy regarding the Har HaBayis.  It is a perception unarguably fueled by the actions and words of the “Temple Mount activists.”

Those nationalistic Jews, however, value the rush born of physically asserting that the Har HaBayis is Judaism’s holiest site, over whatever hatred or bloodshed it may evoke from violence-prone Arabs.  That respected Torah leaders reject that calculus as corrupt is of no concern to them.  They are the “young guard,” and know better.

And they bring to mind the Gemara in Nedarim (40a) about the decision made by the melech Rechavam to shun the advice of the elders of his father Shlomo’s court and heed instead the advice of younger advisors (Melachim Alef, 12): “[What might seem] constructive on the part of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive on the part of elders [can in fact be] constructive.”  Rechavam’s wrong choice brought terrible schism to Klal Yisrael, fanning the flames of rebellion.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the “activists”, only their wisdom – and their bitachon.  Yes, as Ms. Hotovely remarked, Har HaBayis is “the holiest place for the Jewish people.”  Thus, agitating for a Jewish presence there now might seem a high-minded thing.  In truth, though, it betrays a discomfort with our mesorah, which assures us that the Third Beis HaMikdash will appear only when Hashem sees fit.

Jews who are truly secure in their faith feel no compulsion to engage in political acts (much less actions that endanger other Jews) in order to proclaim that Eretz Yisrael is the Jewish land, and  Har HaBayis its spiritual center.  Those are indisputable facts.

And they are facts impervious to whatever borders temporal states may choose to draw, and whatever structures mortal men may build.  Yishmael is just a custodian, stewarding the Har HaBayis for the day – may it come soon – when the Beis HaMikdash will return to it.

That will happen, though, through merits, not machinations.

© 2015 Hamodia


Spaghetti and Jewish Unity


Last week afforded me an opportunity to sit with a group of Jews spanning the gamut of American Jewry – resolute secularists, members of non-Orthodox congregations and Orthodox Jews – to discuss Jewish unity and how it can be strengthened.

Most American Jews, rightly or not, don’t think they are capable of living observant Jewish lives.  With the passage of time, the Holocaust has lost the binding power it once had for many Jews; and Israel, unfortunately, has become a source of contention rather than unity for many American Jews, particularly younger ones.  It’s unfortunate, but unfortunately true.

Someone in the group raised the fact that the coming Shabbos – the Shabbos past, as you read this – was to serve as a Jewish unifier, through the “Shabbos Project,” the brainchild of South Africa’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein that has brought together thousands of Jews in observance and celebration of Shabbos over the past two years. More than 550 cities in 70 countries were set to participate in this year’s event.

What other means, though, could bring Jews together?  Many aspects of Torah-centered life involve things that, sadly, do not resonate with – or, worse, sadly, even offend – some American Jews, infected as they are with misguided notions like “egalitarianism.”  And even Shabbos, in the end, observed properly, involves trials that might challenge many a Jew who was not raised observant – a fact to which anyone who has been stuck in an erev Shabbos traffic jam near shkiah can readily attest.

I suggested the study of Torah, which, after all, is the very genesis of Jewish unity, that which was bequeathed us all at the foot of Sinai, when we stood “as one person, with one heart.”  And the proposition that Torah-study remains a potent unifier of Jews is well borne out by the experience of programs like Partners in Torah and TorahMates.  (The brachah we make each morning, it’s worth noting, is “Nosein haTorah” – pointedly in the present, not the past, tense.  The Torah is still being given to Klal Yisrael.)  The idea was well received.

Afterward, though, I thought of another mitzvah that should present no problem to any Jew, and that can serve as a unifying observance.

The two d’Oraysa brachosbirkas haTorah and birkas hamazon – and the many other brachos we make regularly on foods or mitzvos, or as birchos hoda’ah – comprise a paramount element of Yiddishkeit.  They focus our attention on the Source of our blessings, and can serve as a potent unifying force for all Jews.

By undertaking to recite brachos, an otherwise distant Jew can be reminded that he or she is connected to the rest of Klal Yisrael multiple times a day, every morning, every time a flower is sniffed, thunder is heard or one is sitting down to a plate of spaghetti.

What a powerful campaign a broad-based “Brachos Project” could be.  No non-Orthodox Jew could have a problem with it – brachos, after all, are egalitarian.  There are many excellent guides to brachos in English, and reciting them entails no expense or inconvenience.

Truth be told, such a project could also do us some good, too.  As we are reminded by the baalei mussar, reverence can all too easily devolve into rote, and that is particularly true when it comes to brachos.  Many of us find ourselves reciting them by habit, without pronouncing their words distinctly, much less focusing on their meaning. Anyone who’s watched a baal teshuvah recite a brachah has been graced with a good example to follow.

Rav Chaim Vital testifies that the Arizal called birchos hanehenin “the essential way for a human being to attain the spirit of holiness… removing the [unholy] shells and [sublimating] his physicality,” adding that the Arizal “admonished me greatly about this…” (Etz Hachaim, Shaar Ruach Hakodesh).

The mystical perspective alluded to by those words is that the human being straddles the realms of the physical and the spiritual. Food mediates between the two, nourishing the bodies that house our souls.  So it should not be surprising that the act of consuming food would provide opportunity for bringing the holy into the mundane, for removing the “shells” and rarifying physicality.

What better empowerment of Jewish unity could there be than a rededication of Jews from all types of communities and walks of life to sharing in an observance that reflects the quintessential Jewish ideal of acknowledging Hashem’s blessings?  And, at the same time, strengthening our own dedication to brachos?

Who knows what other shells might thereby be removed?

© 2015 Hamodia


Barack is Leaving the Building


Although Barack Obama’s last day in office won’t come until January 20, 2017, the spectacle of the various presidential debates reminds us all that we won’t have him to kick around too much longer.

It’s no secret that the current Commander-in-Chief is unpopular in some circles, including, I suspect, a good part of of Hamodia’s readership.  His support for a “two state solution” in Israel seems, to many, outdated and unrealistic; his long-time discord with the current prime minister of Israel (amply fueled by both men) is legend; and, most recently, his Iran deal left many upset.

Some read those entrails as indicating an animus for Israel.  I don’t.  Either way, though, we’re not absolved from the elemental Jewish ideal of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” – which, Chazal inform us, is due even to inanimate things, and presumably, too, to people we may not like.  Whatever one’s views on Mr. Obama, some things he has said and – more importantly – done over his terms in office merit our recognition.

What things?  Here are some:

In his 2009 Cairo speech to the Arab world, he stated that America’s “strong bond” with Israel is “unbreakable,” and that the Jewish “aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” He firmly denounced anti-Semitic stereotyping and Holocaust denial, staples of the Arab square, and condemned anyone who would threaten Israel’s destruction.

That same year, he rejected the critical-of-Israel’s Gaza operation “Goldstone report.”

The next year he refused U.S. participation in joint military exercises with Turkey unless Israel was included.  And he told the U.N. General Assembly that year that “Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people” (something denied, of course, by the Arab world).  Then, in 2011, he withdrew the U.S. from the Israel-bashing Durban II Conference.  That year, he also threatened Egypt with severe consequences if it didn’t protect Israeli embassy guards besieged by a mob, which it did, and Israel evacuated the hostages.

In 2014, he sought funding from Congress (to the tune of $225 million) for Israel’s “Iron Dome” system, and signed the law providing the funds.

He relentlessly pursued Islamic terrorists, like Anwar al-Awlaki and Osama bin Laden (and was vilified by some on the left for his decisive actions).  And the Obama administration has provided more security assistance to Israel than any American administration;

And then there are words Mr. Obama wrote or spoke that may not have received the attention they deserved.  Like:

“I’ve seen what security means to those who live near the Blue Line, to children in Sderot who just want to grow up without fear, to families who’ve lost their homes and everything they have to Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s rockets. And as a father myself, I cannot imagine the pain endured by the parents of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, who were tragically kidnapped and murdered…”

[Holocaust denial] is “baseless, ignorant, and hateful, [as is] the “threatening [of] Israel with destruction” [and the] “repeating [of] vile stereotypes about Jews.”

“Palestinians must abandon violence.  [It is] a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus.”

“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here [in Israel], tended the land here, prayed to G-d here.  [That Jews live in Israel today] is a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.”

“Those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down. . . . After 60 years in the community of nations, Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate… It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the U.S.”

His Secretary of State lectured Al-Jazeera that “when the Israelis pulled out of Lebanon they got Hezbollah and 40,000 rockets and when they pulled out of Gaza they got Hamas and 20,000 rockets”; and his State Department condemned the Palestinian Authority’s denial of the Western Wall’s connection to the Jewish people.

I don’t think that Mr. Obama’s appointment of Jews to important posts (Jack Lew and Janet Yellin are the best known, but it’s a long list) or his yearly “Pesach Seders” are of great significance, but they do say something about Mr. Obama’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

And so, even those who see bad in Mr. Obama must, if they wish to be true to a Jewish ideal, recognize good too.

© 2015 Hamodia


Buried Treasure in Tokyo


At a news conference last week, Satoshi Omura, a Japanese researcher and one of three scientists who had just won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, made a comment that was not only modest but, properly considered, profound.

I’ll get to the comment in time.  First, though, some background:

The scientists used modern laboratory techniques to discover anti-parasitic drugs that, in the Nobel Committee’s words, “have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases” in the world.

Dr. Omura’s work was on the development of a medicine that has nearly eradicated the dreaded disease “river blindness” and radically reduced the incidence of the disfiguring disease known as elephantiasis. Dr. Omura’s work has already helped hundreds of millions of sufferers of these diseases, and has the potential of eradicating the ailments entirely.

Parasitic diseases are a threat to an estimated one-third of the world’s population, particularly among the poor in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

The work of Dr. Omura and the other scientists consisted of identifying and isolating a compound, which they called Avermectin, that occurs in nature – in this case soil collected by Dr. Omura from a golf course near Tokyo.

Anti-parasitic agents are not the only blessings concealed in plants and soil.  Many anti-bacterial and anti-viral compounds have also been found hidden in plain (if microscopic) sight, and successfully treat dangerous infections common in the Western world.

The most famous one is penicillin, which was discovered in 1928 when an airborne mold infected a petri dish in the lab of Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming.  But there are scores of substances in nature that have become effective treatments for myriad maladies.

The bacterium that causes clostridium difficile colitis, or “C-diff,” for instance, a serious intestinal ailment, is prevalent in hospitals and, in 2011 resulted in about half a million infections and 29,000 deaths in the United States alone.

One of the most effective treatments for C-diff is a drug called Vancomycin (which also is the treatment of choice for complicated skin and bloodstream infections and some forms of meningitis).  The drug was first isolated in 1953 from a soil sample collected from the interior jungles of Borneo.

Many scientists, upon isolating such compounds and identifying their properties and uses, proudly accept credit for their accomplishments.  How many, though, I wonder, stop to think about just what it is they did and didn’t do?

To be sure, much credit is due for the painstaking work of cultivating biological agents, experimenting with them, compiling data, and then collating and interpreting them.  But such cures for diseases, in the end, are merely discovered by the men of science, not created by them.

Do the researchers give thought to the Creator of the cures, Who secured them in unexplored places, until the arrival of the right time for their discoveries?  Have they considered how odd it is that there even are cures for dreaded diseases in soil and plants?

So much of what is heralded as astounding scientific achievement is simply accessing the miracle of nature, of Hashem’s gifts.  When a sheep was first successfully cloned a number of years ago, what was essentially accomplished was the coaxing of genetic material to do precisely what it does naturally all the time: code for traits, replicate and direct protein synthesis. Those things, not the clonings, were, and are, the miracles.

And when they were first performed, heart transplants were amazing. But, at least to thoughtful people, never remotely as amazing as hearts.

Dr. Omura seems to have the requisite sensitivity to recognize, despite the great impact of his accomplishment, the limitation of the role he played.

We don’t understand why diseases are necessary (although they point, like nothing else could, to the fragility of our bodies, and the many miracles we are beneficiaries of when we are healthy).  But it should astound us that Hashem has planted cures for ailments in the world He created for us.

Dr. Omura’s comment?  After expressing his surprise at having won the Nobel Prize (“I never imagined I would win.  If I had, I’d have worn a nicer necktie.”), he offered an assessment of what he had done.

“I merely borrowed,” he said, “the power of microbes.”

He didn’t cite the Creator of microbes (and everything else), and I have no idea of his religious beliefs.  But his words, all the same, should serve to remind every maamin of the manifold miracles we routinely, if obliviously, experience, and of the fathomless debt we owe Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

© 2015 Hamodia



Where “Objective” is Defective


I’m not among those who grow apoplectic at the New York Times’ reportage from Israel.  There are, to be sure, occasions when, in misguided attempts to achieve what passes these days for “evenhandedness,” the Old Gray Lady misses the mark.  But I have found most (I wrote “most”! – please hold off with the angry letters!) of the dispatches from Eretz Yisrael to be informative and objective.

What isn’t either of those things, though, is how the paper has repeatedly chosen to characterize the Har HaBayis. In fact, “misleading” and “deceptive” are the most descriptive words to come to mind.

After a recent clash between Israeli police and Palestinians at the site, for instance, a September 16 New York Times report referred to the holy place as the site where the Jewish temples were “believed to have once stood.”  Another story, three days earlier, described it as a site “revered by Jews” but “one of the three holiest sites in Islam.”  Why not “revered by Jews and Muslims,” or “Islam’s third holiest site and Judaism’s holiest one”?  Something is rotten in the state of New York.

Similarly, two years ago, a Times video referred to the Har HaBayis as the place “that Jews call the Temple Mount…” and that “Jews widely believe was the site of the Temples.”

Call the Temple Mount?  That’s what it isBelieve?  Yes, like we believe the sun is hot.

No historian, at least in a state of sobriety, entertains the slightest doubt that the Bayis Sheini stood on the mount for centuries, having been built there nearly 1500 years before Islam’s founder’s grandmother was born.  Both Jewish and, l’havdil, Roman sources recount that korbanos were offered on the mizbei’ach there.  (The historicity of the Bayis Rishon is part of our mesorah, but the lack of contemporary non-Jewish writings from the time deprives historians the documentary “proof” they demand.)

That the Har HaBayis was conquered by Christian, and then Muslim, forces, and that churches and mosques were built upon the site, is undeniable.  Equally undeniable, though, are the site’s true Jewish origins – brightly reflected in the life and prayers of Jews over the course of known history.

Every observant Jew recalls the Beis Hamikdash every single day of the year, in each of his or her tefillos – recited, of course, facing in the direction of what we “widely believe was the site of the Temples.”

Then there are our holidays, like the one just past, where our Mussaf tefillos include a lengthy bemoaning of those Temples’ destructions.

The words “Yerushalayim” and its synonym “Tzion,” the city whose holiness derives from the holiness of the Makom Hamikdash, pass our lips at least ten times every morning.  Before breakfast.

There is “shabchi Yerushalayim” in Pesukei d’Zimrah, “ohr chodosh al Tzion to’ir” in birkas Krias Shma, Boneh Yerushalayim in Shemoneh Esrei, another reference in Tachanun, and others throughout Shacharis.  And let’s not forget Korbanos.

And then, after breakfast, well, if one had a bowl of cereal, his Al Hamichyah would mention Yerushalayim two more times.  And if bread was consumed, one of the brachos of Birkas Hamazon, of course, expresses our hope that Hashem will be “boneh b’rachamov Yerushalayim.”

What distorts the vision of the “paper of record” is, of course, a deep commitment to fairness and objectivity.  There is, after all, a “Muslim narrative,” too, a claim to the Makom Hamikdash by another religion, indeed one that, at least in numbers of adherents, dwarfs the Jewish one.

But fairness, of course, doesn’t mean considering every claim to be the equal of every other one.  When the New York Times refers to the events of September 11, 2001, it describes them as a concerted attack by Al Qaeda on the United States, not as “a series of plane crashes believed by Americans to have been Islamist attacks but considered by many in the Arab world to have been the work of the American government or a Jewish plot.”  At least it hasn’t done so yet.

It’s an unfortunate reminder of our galus that the Bais Hamikdash isn’t standing where it once did.  But we must accept that sad fact.  It is wrong to seek (other than through our tefillos) to change that current reality, halachically wrong to walk onto the Har HaBayis, and doubly wrong to endanger Jews by offending those who occupy the site.

But what’s also wrong (attention: New York Times) is to pretend that its history isn’t established and clear.

© 2015 Hamodia