Taking Aim At Massacres


What does the word “magazine” bring to mind?  A glossy periodical or, perhaps, a news program?  To many Americans, the word would more readily conjure a metal receptacle holding up to 30 or more bullets, inserted into a semi-automatic weapon.  The sort favored by soldiers on battlefields.  And people intent on killing as many civilians as possible at, say, a school, military base, office party, church or club.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides American citizens a right to own lethal weapons, was, in my opinion, a bad idea.  Had I been a Founding Father (instead of a Fumbling Grandfather – though I much prefer my current role), I would have opposed it.  And were there a current effort to repeal it, even though I own a gun, I’d readily support it.  Many civilized countries, including Israel, manage quite well without any such right.  The Constitution, after all, isn’t Torah MiSinai.

It is, however, for better or worse, the law of the land.  And so we must face the fact of repeated mass shootings in America squarely within the context of a right to bear arms.

But that right, like every Constitutional right, can be limited.

There are more types of guns than you can fire an automatic rifle at.  A short primer, for unarmed readers:  There are handguns, like pistols and revolvers, that are usually semi-automatic – meaning that they can fire rounds in close succession, one round with each pull of the trigger.  They are, however, limited in how many bullets they can hold.  Most hold only a few, although the handgun used by the Fort Hood shooter was equipped to shoot 20 rounds in 5.3 seconds.

Then there are semi-automatic rifles, like the one the Sandy Hook shooter used as his primary weapon. His Bushmaster M4 Type Carbine held magazines of 30 bullets each. Semi-automatic rifles were used as well in the Aurora, Colorado massacre, the Roseburg, Oregon community college massacre and the San Bernardino, California massacre.

And in the recent carnage in Orlando, Florida, where Omar Mateen, employing a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, murdered 49 people and wounded 53.

Then there are “fully automatic” weapons, often called “machine guns,” which have high-capacity magazines and fire bullets as long as the trigger is squeezed.

Fully automatic weapons have long been strictly regulated by the federal government.  Most semi-automatics were banned for sale in the U.S. for many years but Congress allowed the 1994 federal ban to expire in 2004.  Efforts to renew it have failed.

Semi-automatic weapons, which were developed for military use, are marketed as “sporting rifles.”  A popular one, the AR-15, is lauded as “America’s rifle” by the National Rifle Association (and who among us doesn’t aspire to being a patriot?).  But it’s an unusual deer that requires more than a shot or two to fell.  Maybe a crazed family of them headed straight at the hunter, but no such attacks are on record (and Jimmy Carter, facing a killer rabbit, did just fine with a paddle).

There are many ways that bad people can wreak havoc.  No amount of gun control can prevent a person intent on killing people from doing so with a knife or homemade bomb.

But there are also many tikkunim that could at least limit the likelihood that high-capacity weapons and people with evil intentions can be kept apart.  Like “no-buy” lists (with requisite due process protection) and universal background checks for gun purchases (currently not required for purchases from individuals at gun shows or over the internet). And like a new ban on high-capacity semi-automatic weapons.

And, yes, yes, of course, banning Muslims from entering the country.  The only problem is that Canada has a larger population percentage of Muslims than we do, and has admitted more than 10 times the number of Syrian refugees since November than we have; and while our country has experienced 136 mass shootings (defined as four or more casualties) thus far this year, Canada has had 8 – over the past two decades.  (Only one Canadian gun rampage took place this year, in Saskatchewan.  And the killer was a bullied teen, and not Muslim).

Those of us who learn Daf Yomi were recently reminded (Bava Kamma, 15b) of Rabi Nosson’s dictum that a home must be rid of a dangerous dog or wobbly ladder.  Is it too much of a stretch to see one’s country as, in a sense, one’s larger home?  And to see it as our responsibility – executed to the degree we can as voters – to rid it of lethal weapons?

© 2016 Hamodia


Letter in the New York Jewish Week


The letter below appears in the June 24, 2016 issue of the New York Jewish Week:


Gary Rosenblatt asserts that, as per the headline over his recent June 17 essay, “Ruth’s Conversion Would Be Rejected Today” by the Israeli rabbinate.

The Jewish religious tradition, however, sees precisely in the biblical Ruth’s conversion the sine qua non of conversion to Judaism.

Both Ruth and Orpah, her sister-in-law, loved and wanted to accompany their mother-in-law Naomi in her trek back to the Holy Land.  Both wanted to be part of her life and people.  But only Ruth refused to be dissuaded.  She insisted that, “thy G‑d [will be] my G‑d” – which, along with her other declarations, represent kabbalat hamitzvot, “acceptance of the commandments” of the Torah.  The Talmud explains that, while a convert need not be conversant with all areas of halacha, he or she must, in principle and with full sincerity, accept its authority.

What the Israeli rabbinate has attempted to do is ensure that conversions in the Jewish state comply with the timeless requirements for a non-Jew to miraculously become a Jew.  “Converting” people who do not meet those requirements misleads those well-intentioned people, casts doubt on the Jewishness of true converts and does Klal Yisrael a well-intentioned but lamentable disservice.

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America


The Power of a Place


Somewhere on earth there may be a more fractious, violent, convulsed and combative place than the Iraqi city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.  But it’s not likely.

Currently, Fallujah is in the news because ISIS, which has controlled the town since 2014, is engaged there in a battle with Iraqi government forces, and has been shooting civilians who try to flee the conflict.

But carnage has long been the city’s calling-card.  Sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites has raged for centuries.  Fallujah was where, in 2004, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy containing four American private military contractors, dragged them from their cars, beat them, set them on fire and dragged their charred bodies through the streets before hanging them from a bridge spanning the Euphrates River.

When U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, Fallujans celebrated and burned an American flag. In 2013, protests erupted again in Fallujah, this time against the Baghdad government.  ISIS urged Sunnis to take up arms to fight Shiites, and, soon enough, Fallujah fell into the Islamic State’s claws.

Iraq, of course, includes the region that we know as Bavel.  What many may not know, though, is that the name of the city called Fallujah, according to historians, comes from its Syriac name, Pallgutha, which (as in Gemara Aramaic) means “division” or “argument.”

And fascinatingly, the city is identified by a number of historians with Pumbedisa, one of the three Babylonian Torah-centers (the other being Neherda’a and Sura) where Amoraim recorded, examined and debated much of the Torah Sheb’al Peh that had been transmitted from generation to generation since Kabbalas HaTorah.

In his sefer Mei Marom on Chumash, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z”l, offers an astonishing thought.

He addresses the perplexing intention of the builders of the Tower of Bavel, who joined together to build a structure whose top would “reach to the heavens” in order to “make for ourselves a name” – to in some way challenge, k’vayachol, Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself, as the meforshim explain. How, Rav Charlop asks, could human beings ever be so foolish as to even consider opposing their omnipotent Creator?

In some unconscious sense, however, the Mei Marom suggests, the builders sensed that the spiritual essence of the land on which they lived permitted human beings to somehow prevail “against” Hashem.  What they actually sensed, though, he explains, was the fact that the mesivta dirakia, the Heavenly beis medrash, would look to earth, especially to Bavel, for halachic decisions (Bava Metzia, 86a); that lo baShamayim hi, the “Torah is no longer in Heaven” (Bava Metziah, 59b).   That, in the end, the Tanna’im and Amora’im’s majority decisions would determine halachah.

The tower-builders, suggests the Mei Marom, detected but misunderstood the power of their place.  Yes, it held the seeds of the highest expression of human independence.  But that fact was not destined to manifest itself for many hundreds of years, when Bavel would become the seat of the interpretations of the Amora’im. The builders sensed something true, but were deluded in their comprehension of it.

It’s interesting to note, too, that, middah k’negged middah, the seeds of the most mundane, crass discord were Divinely sown among them, in the form of different languages and the diverse perceptions that came as a result. The people, until then unified in their undertaking, came to disagree with one another, to argue, to fight, and, eventually, to disperse to lands far and wide.

When Jews were exiled to Bavel, however, kedushah imbued the atmosphere of conflict that permeated the land.  Not only were halachos decided but even argument about them became sublime.  Chazal engaged in disputes – holy, transcendent ones, over the fine points of the mesorah .  Whereas, earlier, disagreement devolved into strife and violence, the chachamim of Bavel engaged in a different type of warfare: “milchamta shel Torah” – “the war of Torah.”

The war, in other words, that goes on in every beis medrash to this day.  Talmidim lock mental horns, “fighting to the finish” with their minds.  But the disputants, “waging war” as they do, are, in truth, amiable partners; their conflict is not personal but rather a joint venture in the cause of emes.  As the Gemara puts it: “[Those who are involved in Torah-study] become like enemies to one another [when they engage in dialectic], but then become beloved friends” (Kiddushin, 30b).

So, as we witness the barbarism in Fallujah today, we might pause to imagine how the city once was, at least for a time, a place where strife was sublimated, and conflict rendered holy.

© 2016 Hamodia

good and bad

When “Right” Is Wrong


There is a social media page titled “Justice for Harambe,” Harambe being the gorilla that was shot to death in the Cincinnati Zoo after dragging around a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into its enclosure.  The page’s description says it was created to “raise awareness of Harambe’s murder.” Within hours of its posting, the sentiment was endorsed by more than 41,000 people.

Over in the Netherlands, a woman in her 20s was recently cleared by the Dutch Euthanasia Commission for assisted suicide, because of “incurable post-traumatic-stress disorder” brought about by abuse she suffered as a child.  Although she had experienced improvements after intensive therapy, the doctors judged her to be “totally competent” to end her life.

And Shavuos is coming.

That was not a non sequitur.  Because the first day of Shavuos, zman mattan Torahseinu, falls on the first day of next week.  Had the Tzaddukim and Baitusim been successful in their quest to fix the date of Shavuos, however, it would always fall on that day.  Still confused about the connection?

It’s subtle but clear.  During the Bayis Sheini era, those groups asserted that it would best serve people’s needs to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: Shabbos and, immediately thereafter, Shavuos.  (In Eretz Yisroel, of course, Shavuos is observed on a single day.)  And so they advocated amending the mesorah.

Although they provided a textual “basis” for their innovation, the Gemara (Menachos 65b) explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety – two days in a row of rest just seemed “right.”

But the mesorah states otherwise, that the phrase “mimochoras haShabbos” in the passuk that tells us when to begin counting Sefiras HaOmer, does not mean “the day after Shabbos,” but rather the day following the first day of Pesach.  And so, Shavuos can fall on days other than Sunday.

The desire to supplant the mesorah with what “seems” to “enlightened minds” more appropriate appears to be a theme of Tzadduki-ism.  The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, advocating that the ketores brought in the Kodesh Kodashim be set alight before the kohen’s entry into the room, rather than afterward, as the mesorah teaches.

Although here, too, they mustered scriptural “support,” the Tzadukim were in fact motivated, the Gemara explains, by “what seemed right.”  To wit, they argued, “Does one bring raw food to a mortal king and then cook it before him?  One brings it in already hot and steaming!”

In both the date of Shavuos and the avodas Yom Kippur, the mesorah was defended assiduously by the Perushim, the champions of the Torah Sheb’al Peh. The Tzaduki mindset, however and unfortunately, lives on.

The perceiving of animals as equals to humans – based on the perception of humans as mere animals – seems “right” to many.  The celebrated philosopher Peter Singer famously contended that “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”

That same outlook sees the ending of an adult human life as a simple matter of “choice,” to be exercised by an individual as he or she sees fit.  Professor Singer has in fact advocated the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

Such placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems right” – above the received truths of the Torah stands in precise opposition to the message of Shavuos, when our forebears declared “Naaseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear.”

That is the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of Hashem’s will even amid a lack of our own “hearing,” or understanding.  “We will do Your will,” our ancestors pledged, “even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we might have a ‘better idea’.”  Call it a declaration of dependence – of our trust in Hashem’s judgment over our own.

And so, as we approach Shavuos amid a marketplace-of-ideas maelstrom of “ethical” and “moral” opinions concerning myriad contemporary issues – not only in the larger world but even in the Jewish community, even in groups calling themselves “Orthodox” – we do well to pause and reflect on the fact that our mandate is not to “decide” what seems right to us, but to search, honestly and objectively, for the guidance of our mesorah.

When we choose to do that, with sincerity and determination, in our personal lives and our communal ones alike, we echo our ancestors’ words at Har Sinai, declaring, as did they, that man is not the arbiter of right and wrong; our Creator is. 

© 2016 Hamodia

swimming pool

Letter in the New York Times


Re “Everybody Into the Pool” (editorial, June 1):

Far from being “unmoored” from the Constitution, offering sex-segregated hours at public swimming pools that service traditional communities is well within the bounds of both the First Amendment and the “considerations of public policy” exemption provided for in New York City law.

Orthodox Jews, moreover, are not the only New Yorkers who hew to a different view of modesty than the contemporary one. Traditional Muslims, many Christians and women of no particular ethnicity or faith have similar convictions. Rescinding the special sex-segregated hours would be the equivalent of a sign saying “No people with traditional values allowed.”

The classical concept of modesty that is embraced by many citizens may have its roots in religious systems. But reasonable accommodation of the needs of such New Yorkers is not an endorsement of any religion. It is simply a laudable recognition of the multicultural nature of our city.

Concern for the needs of others unlike ourselves is another religion-based but universal ideal. It is one that your editorial board might consider embracing more consistently.


Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

New York

Iranian nuclear facility

Revisiting the Iran Deal


I’ve been asked in recent days whether my feelings about last year’s Iran nuclear deal have changed.  What prompted the inquiries was the lengthy New York Times Magazine profile of deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes, in which he claimed to have “actively misled” the media on the virtues of the deal.

My feelings have indeed evolved, although not as the result in any way of the Rhodes piece.

At the time the agreement was being debated, I expressed ambivalence about it, seeing both its upsides and downsides.  Now, though, I am persuaded that the opposition to it was misguided and that the deal, now that nearly a year has gone by, was a wise and responsible move. Perfect?  No.  But the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

This, with all due respect to Mr. Rhodes (whatever respect may be due to a shamelessly self-aggrandizing, cynical self-described manipulator).  In the magazine piece, the White House aide was quoted as belittling members of the media as “often clueless” … and contended that “they literally know nothing.”

Much controversy came to swirl around not only the piece itself but both its subject and its writer.  Whatever the biases of either or the accuracy of the article, its revelations, titillating as they may have been to Beltway insiders and assorted pundits, have nothing at all in the end to do with the wisdom of the deal.

Whether major media reporters were as naive or malleable as Mr. Rhodes is quoted as contending, and whether they were in as much awe of him as he imagines, are not things I can claim to know, or very much care about.  The upshot of the interview was that – please sit down if you’re standing – the Obama administration, once it and its allies had forged what they felt was the best deal possible… pushed for it.

That meant charging administration officials and advisors (including Mr. Rhodes) with the task of conveying the plan’s virtues to reporters, making experts available to the media, lobbying foreign leaders and making the case for the deal directly to the American public.  Not exactly the most shocking bit of news to trickle down the news pipeline in recent days.

What apparently hasn’t trickled down to some observers, though, is the more trenchant fact that Iran is currently defanged, and that deal’s opponents’ fears and predictions have not come to pass.

Iran has abided by every condition the agreement placed upon it, and thereby removed for now the shadow of a nuclear attack, chalilah, on Israel.  That is not a small thing. It is the most important thing.

Some had predicted an Iranian about-face once the frozen funds were released, and that the money would yield a great upsurge in Iranian-sponsored terrorism.  The latter concern was and remains a real one, to be sure.  But, at least so far, neither it nor any treacherous Iranian change of heart has materialized.

Assuming that Mr. Rhodes is not suffering delusions of grandeur (to which even bright young people are not immune), that he indeed exerted a Svengali-like influence over reporters, bending them to his iron will, it wasn’t the media that sealed the deal and won over skeptics.  It was the contention of nuclear and military experts, not only American but Israeli.  And those experts feel vindicated.

“A historic turning point… a big change in terms of the direction that Iran was headed, a strategic turning point.”  Those were the words, this past January, of one knowledgeable observer, General Gadi Eizenkot, the IDF’s Chief of Staff.  General Eizenkot was not, to the best of the public record, among those hypnotized by Ben Rhodes.

To be sure and of course, Iran maintains its unhinged and threatening rhetoric.  Recently, a Quds Force advisor declared that… “If the Supreme Leader’s orders [are] to be executed, with the abilities and the equipment at our disposal, we will raze the Zionist regime in less than eight minutes.”

But such bluster is in truth the loudest proof of the nuclear deal’s success.  In the Middle East, there is an inverse relationship between such braggadocio and actual might.  Iran is summoning words in the absence of aptitude.  Yes, it has conventional missiles, but it would be suicidal to use them against Israel, which, unlike Iran – may we say it? – likely possesses nuclear weapons.

No, evildoers and their bluster aside, what we remain with eleven months after the Iran deal isn’t a perfect or even good world.  But it’s clearly a safer one.

© 2016 Hamodia

McCain in hospital bed in Vietnam

No Regrets


My employer, Agudath Israel of America, as a non-profit organization, is not permitted to endorse any candidate for public office.  I, however, write this column each week as an individual, not as an organizational representative.  Even so, though, I take no public position on the presidential race.

Aspects of the race, though, do strike me as worthy of consideration.

Like a recent radio interview with Donald Trump.  Among the candidate’s many interesting comments over the course of the campaign so far was his assertion last summer that Senator John McCain was “not a war hero.”

This, despite Mr. McCain’s having flown missions during the Vietnam war, having been shot down, seriously injured and captured by the North Vietnamese, having endured torture and languished as a prisoner of war for six years (two of them in solitary confinement) and having refused an out-of-sequence early repatriation offer.  Still, said Mr. Trump, Mr. McCain wasn’t “like people who weren’t captured.”

For his part, Senator McCain recently reiterated that he didn’t take the candidate’s comment personally, but he did, he said, object to the insinuation that other POWs were something less than heroic for their endurance of their own captures and imprisonments.  “What [Mr. Trump] said about me, John McCain, that’s fine,” said the senator. “I don’t require any repair of that.”

“But,” he continued, “I would like to see him retract [his] statement, not about me, but about the others.”

During a May 11 radio interview, Mr. Trump had the opportunity to do just that, and took it.  Well, sort of.  At least for a few seconds, before he cast doubt on what he had just said.

Asked about Senator McCain’s wish for a retraction, the presidential hopeful told his interviewer, “Well, I’ve actually done that.”  And, to make thing clear (at least for the moment), he added, “You know frankly, I like John McCain, and John McCain is a hero.”

The interviewer, seeking clarity, asked if that meant that Mr. Trump then regretted his earlier comments.  The response: “I don’t, you know… I like not to regret anything…. And what I said, frankly, is what I said.  And, you know, some people like what I said, if you want to know the truth. Many people that like what I said. You know after I said that, my poll numbers went up seven points.”

One wonders who was converted to the Trump candidacy as a result of his demeaning of Senator McCain’s experiences.  (Does some sizable number of unrepentant former North Vietnamese lurk within the American electorate?)  But, be that as it may, Mr. Trump’s bewildering backtrack was a striking contrast to an American official’s unqualified expression of regret a few weeks earlier.

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, traveled to Kunduz, Afghanistan to issue an unreserved apology to the families of victims of the United States’ bombing of a hospital in that city last year that killed 42 people.

“As commander, I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families and the people of Kunduz to deeply apologize for the events which destroyed the hospital and caused the deaths of staff, patients and family members,” he said. “I grieve with you for your loss and suffering, and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”

Shortly after the mistaken bombing, President Obama also personally apologized for the carnage in Kundu.

The general and the president likely wish that they didn’t need “to regret anything,” no less than Mr. Trump.  But when regret is called for, they feel and express it.

No reader of this periodical needs to be reminded of the fact that feeling regret is a high Jewish ideal, the very fundament of teshuvah.  Many of us recite Viduy twice daily, and all of us on Yom Kippur. Regretting a wrongdoing is something for which our illustrious forebears Yehudah and Reuvein are praised, and for which they “inherited life in the next world” and were rewarded as well in this one (Sotah, 7b).

Whether the willingness to feel and express remorse is something desirable in an American president or something that will hinder him in dealing with the challenges of his office is, one supposes, an open question.  And how the American electorate feels about the matter is a question open even more widely.

But that, as Jews, we are enjoined to see regret, when it is indicated, as a desideratum, not a weakness, is no question at all.

© 2016 Hamodia


Visitation Rites


The saintly aura that has enveloped Ronald Reagan in the minds of many who consider themselves social conservatives and independent thinkers – and I count myself among them; and I voted for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984 – has eclipsed the memory of his infamous 1985 visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany.  Elie Wiesel famously told Mr. Reagan, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.”

Bitburg comes to mind in the wake of the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, more than 70 years after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city – and then, three days later, another, on Nagasaki – killing upward of 200,000 people and leaving unknown numbers with illnesses born of radiation exposure.  Mr. Obama will be the first sitting president to visit the site, and is being criticized by some for his plan to do so.

The wisdom, propriety and necessity of President Harry Truman’s decision to unleash nuclear destruction on the Japanese cities on August 6 and August 9, 1945 have been debated for decades.  Japan had attacked the U.S. first, at Pearl Harbor, had starved, beaten and executed American prisoners of war and seemed undeterred by Germany’s May 7 surrender to the Allies.

Truman maintained that the bombings, by accelerating the Japanese surrender, saved countless American lives. “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor,” he proclaimed.  “They have been repaid many fold.” And the bombings had been ordered “in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”

Some historians, however, have judged these decisions harshly, maintaining that there were other paths toward Japanese surrender, and that the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unconscionable.

For its part, the White House has stressed that the visit is not intended as an apology, but rather is a symbolic gesture to promote Mr. Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation message and highlight the reconciliation between wartime enemies that are now close allies.

Nonetheless, knee-jerk Obama-bashers and knee-jerk “progressives” alike have registered their respective disgruntlements.  The former have long characterized the president’s acknowledgments of U.S. misjudgments as unwarranted and unpatriotic apologies; they claim that the president’s very presence at the site is an unspoken expression of regret.  And the latter believe that the U.S. in fact does owe Japan an unqualified and open mea culpa for the bombings.

Thus, “The Obama Administration Is Now Apologizing For America Winning World War II” reads the title of an opinion piece by David Harsanyi, a senior editor at The Federalist.  And “America’s enduring Hiroshima shame: Why Barack Obama should apologize for the atomic bomb — but won’t” is the title of an essay by syndicated columnist Jack Mirkinson.

The guy in the Oval Office just can’t win.

Lost, though, in the political discussion of the impending visit – as is so often lost in so many political discussions – is reason.  Not every expression of pain is a confession of guilt.  One can regret the effects of an act without regretting the act.

I don’t know if pediatricians apologize to toddlers for the pain they have inflicted on them after a required inoculation.  But I can certainly imagine a sensitive doctor acknowledging his small patient’s pain, including his role in creating it, while seeking to soothe the child.

Is the Commander in Chief of the United States visiting Hiroshima really much different?  Even if the optics indicate something more than a celebration of how far U.S-Japan relations have come over the past half-century, even if Mr. Obama’s presence at the site is seen as an expression of anguish at the great loss of life caused by our country’s nuclear attacks on Japan, even if one believes that President Truman was entirely right in his decisions, is it somehow un-American or reckless to be perceived as pained by the incineration of two cities’ populations?

Elie Wiesel was right about Bitburg.  It was not, and is not, a place for an American president.  It is a cemetery for a military that fought to advance the cause of an evil regime.  But, even if the Japanese regime was contemptible too, those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians.

Words from the end of Sefer Yonah come to mind:

“Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?”

© 2016 Hamodia

jewish america

No, Rabbi Yoffie, That’s Not What I Wrote


I have apparently upset Reform rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of his movement.  In Haaretz (, he takes me to task for claiming, in an earlier op-ed in that paper, that Orthodox rabbis speak on behalf of American Jewry.

That’s not, however, what I wrote. As you can read at , I simply asserted that Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current head of the Reform movement, had overreached by claiming that he represents all American Jews.  In his own piece, in fact, Rabbi Yoffie does the same thing.

Some excerpts from his essay:

“[I]n a monumental act of self-delusion, Rabbi Avi Shafran asserts… that Reform rabbis… cannot claim to speak for American Jewry on such matters. But they can… The reason for this is that 90% of American Jewry is non-Orthodox…”

 “The overwhelming majority of American Jews… are horrified by the failure of the Jewish state to grant basic religious rights to all of Israel’s Jews.”

“To be sure, the 10% of the community that identifies as Orthodox is entitled to its views. But while Rabbi Shafran refers to this group as ‘sizable,’ it is not sizable at all.”

“Rabbi Shafran points out that the average number of children for middle-aged Orthodox Jews is 4.1, more than twice the number for other American Jews. But with an Orthodox birthrate that is so high, why are Orthodox numbers so modest? One reason is that a significant number of Orthodox Jews stop practicing Judaism… the percentage of yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes who abandon their tradition could be as high as 33%.”

“My own guess is that the glum assumptions that demographers are making about intermarriage are mostly wrong, just as they are wrong about the ability of the Orthodox to keep all of their children within the fold…  And by the way, as sociologist Steven Cohen has pointed out, the membership of Reform congregations grew by more than 20% between 1990 and 2013.”

That’s a rich field to mine.  Let’s do some digging.

If the 90% of American Jews “identifying as non-Orthodox” – most of whom do not identify as Reform either – are “horrified” by Israel’s single Jewish standard for issues of personal status (or her “failure to grant basic religious rights to all its Jews,” in Yoffie-speak), then they are an astoundingly silent majority.

Not surprising, since there are almost as many American Jews who profess no religious affiliation at all as there are who say they are Reform.  Most of the former are uninterested in internal Israeli issues.  And many, if not most, of the latter may have no real connection to any Reform institution but simply use the word to describe their Jewish non-observance.  And they, too, have no particular concern about Israel’s religious standards.

No, the only ones “horrified” are Reform leaders and those among their congregants whom they have convinced to follow their lead. Those are the people Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie can claim to represent.

As to the American Orthodox community, it is not only sizable – it’s about a third of the 35% of the American Jewish segment claiming to be Reform – but, more important, it’s growing, and at a robust rate.  “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” says sociologist Steven Cohen. “The non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.”

And the most obvious indicator of any group’s future growth lies in the size of its youth population.  Roughly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24%) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17% of Reform Jews and 13% of Conservative Jews.  More significant still, no less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

If Rabbi Yoffie wishes to judge Orthodox numbers as “modest,” he can certainly do so, but they seem poised to become considerably less so.

Yes, there have been Jews who have left Orthodoxy (though, according to Pew, the percentage of them have joined Reform is zero).  But the percentage Rabbi Yoffie cites largely reflects a population of older Jews who, in most cases, may have once had an affiliation with an Orthodox shul but were never truly Orthodox (that is to say, halacha-observant) in the first place.  Orthodoxy’s current retention rate at present, by contrast, is formidable – and Orthodoxy has attracted many Jews from non-Orthodox, including Reform, backgrounds.

As to Reform, a full 28% of those raised in the movement, says Pew, “have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”

How, then, in light of all the above, to explain Steven Cohen’s finding that Reform congregational membership has grown in recent decades?  That’s not a hard question to answer.  The congregational membership growth reflects the influx of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members, and spouses who have undergone Reform conversions (which are not halachically valid).  Professor Cohen reports that the intermarriage rate among married Reform-raised Jews during 2000-13 stands at 80%.

Which brings us back to the original issue that compelled me to expose the falsehood of Rabbi Jacobs’ claim that he speaks for American Jewry (a claim adopted by Rabbi Yoffie as well): opposition to Israel’s longstanding commitment to traditional Jewish standards.

The thought of importing the standards of a movement that has proven disastrous to Jewish observance and continuity in the United States to the Jewish State is what should horrify any Jew concerned with the Jewish future.  The “multi-winged” model of American Jewry is an abject failure.  What is succeeding in Jewish America is what lies in the past of every Jew: the Jewish religious tradition that inspired the uncompromising dedication of the ancestors of us all. That is not “triumphalism.”  It is the very real triumph of our mutual religious heritage.

Projecting the Jewish future was never my goal. I cited the facts I did, and cite the ones above, only to show that Orthodoxy in America is formidable and growing.  And it is.  Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie are entirely welcome to speak for their constituents, Jewish and otherwise.  What they have no right to do, however, is deem themselves the representatives of “American Jewry,” or to try to leverage that fiction to pressure Israel.  That was that I contended in my article, and it is unarguable.


Ferry Tale


Sitting among other commuters in the cavernous terminal, waiting for the next ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, I sensed some commotion in my periphery.  Looking up from my reading, I saw a 40-ish man struggling against several ferry terminal employees, who were trying to get him to exit the room.

Homeless people regularly spend time in the ferry terminal, as they do in other transportation hubs in New York and elsewhere.  They’re often sleeping, and taking up seats with their bodies and their belongings. It’s easy to feel resentful toward them, especially if there are no other seats available.  Until, that is, one thinks about the fact that the large bags of sundry items they lug around and park nearby represent all that they own in the world.  And that their only options for getting rest or staying warm in the winter – other than to subject themselves to crime-ridden public shelters – is to bed down in train, bus or ferry terminals.

Although he wasn’t one of the “regulars,” the fellow who had just entered the room clearly belonged to the fraternity of people with no place to call home.  He was laughing and moving somewhat animatedly as the ferry terminal personnel, who seemed to know him, gently escorted him out of the room.  “C’mon, Jerry,” one large uniformed fellow cajoled him, “Let’s go.”

“No, no,” the homeless man replied, and looked around the room.  “I just want to talk to… the rabbi!”

That would be me, of course.  Oy.

“No, you don’t, Jerry,” Mr. Burly said with a loud laugh.  “You leave the rabbi alone!”

“Just for a minute,” Jerry pleaded, and, releasing himself from his captor’s grip, he ambled over and introduced himself.  “Sholom aleichem, rabbi!  I’m Yosef Shmuel ben Aharon!”

I would never have guessed the fellow was a relative.  “Pleased to meet you,” I replied, smiling, and hoping my discomfort didn’t show.

“Would you happen to have a spare yarmulke on you, by any chance?” he asked.

I was taken aback by the unexpected request.  “I’m so sorry,” I replied.  “I don’t.”  Which was true, but, after he thanked me all the same and was led out of the room, I felt ashamed.  I was wearing a yarmulke under my hat, after all.  Couldn’t I have given it to him and worn my hat at work?  It might have looked a little strange as I moved my morning coffee from the kitchen to my desk, but it would not have eternally stigmatized me.

That entire day, my response to the homeless man bothered me.  Actually, at night, too.

The next day, I put a spare yarmulke in my pocket, just in case Jerry might be at the terminal again.  I had never seen him before, so I wasn’t optimistic. But when I arrived, there he was, sitting quietly in one of the waiting-area seats.  He didn’t see me and I just watched him from afar. When the call came for passengers to board the ferry, though, I went over to him and offered him the yarmulke.

His eyes opened wider than I imagined possible.  He took the yarmulke, leaped to his feet and practically shouted “Thank you so much!”

“My pleasure,” I said, and rushed to make it to the boat before the doors closed.

So many bein adam lachaveiro mistakes in life are not easily correctable, so I was grateful for the opportunity to undo one of my bad judgments.  And yet I worried, too, that I may have made a friend who would come to occupy more of my time than I might wish.  I try to use my commute for learning and reading.  I turn down ride offers from neighbors, so cherished is my “quiet time.”

So, even though I sincerely wished Jerry only well, and hoped that his new (well, to him) yarmulke would somehow benefit him, if only to identify himself as a Jew, I feared that I might have paved the way for a daily conversation with someone who might not even be mentally balanced.  But I didn’t regret my small gift; I knew I had done the right thing.  And that’s all any of us can do, no matter what consequences might ensue.

It’s been many weeks since my two encounters with Jerry.  I haven’t seen him since.

I know it might strike some as silly, but I can’t help wondering if he might have been placed there those two days just for me.

© 2016 Hamodia