Only One Path to One Jewish People

In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel.  He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state.  Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.

I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood.   The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).

Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.”  And yes, that didn’t happen.  (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.)  But the fact remains that all the clashes between “progressive” forces in Israel and the state’s haredi community have seen the former agitating for change, and the latter trying to maintain the balance struck at Israel’s birth.

Rabbi Yoffie is welcome to assert that changed demographics argue for a change in the status quo ante.  But he must admit that abandoning the modus vivendi of decades is what he, not the haredi community, wants to effect.

Intriguingly, Rabbi Yoffie himself explains that there has always been an assumption “that the nature of Israel’s Jewish character would evolve over time.”  Well, yes.  Israel’s populace and hence religious identity have become more haredi. What seems to bother the rabbi is that the particulars of the evolution have yielded a different result from the one he would have wished for.

Yet – and this was precisely my point – despite the great growth of the haredi community, it has not sought to in any way change the agreed-upon understandings that, for instance, full-time Torah-students be deferred from military service, that public prayers at the Western Wall be conducted according to long-standing Jewish tradition (a norm established, of course, in 1967, not 1948) and that a halacha-respecting official rabbinate determine issues of Jewish personal status.

Those things, according to Rabbi Yoffie, constitute a religious “coercive… religious monopoly.”  Unlike England, he explains, where “legal recognition” is assured not only for the Church of England but for “other religious faiths,” in Israel, Reform and Conservative conversions and marriages are not recognized by the state Rabbinate.

What Rabbi Yoffie overlooks is that, as Ben-Gurion himself said in 1947, a multitude of “Judaisms” in a state that aspires to be a Jewish one is a recipe for disaster.  Were there several standards for, say, conversion, then what would emerge in short order would be several “Jewish peoples” in the land.

Israel, too, of course, offers “legal recognition” to “other religious faiths.”  Presumably, though, the Reform movement isn’t interested in registering as a new religion.  If, however, there is to be only one Jewish people in Israel, there needs to be only one Jewish standard there.  And, to be meaningful, it must be the “highest common denominator” whose decisions can be (if begrudgingly to some) accepted by all Jews

Ben-Gurion realized that fact, and it is recognized today, too, not only by Israel’s haredi and national religious communities but by the large number of “traditional” Jewish Israelis, who, while not strictly observant, understand and accept that halacha defines Judaism.

“Follow the path of Herzl,” admonishes Rabbi Yoffie.  What alone can preserve the unity of the Jewish people in Israel, though, is the path of Moses.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran


Strong and Subtle Slanders

The New York Jewish Week was understandably unhappy at the comparison that a respected Modern Orthodox rabbi seemed to make between the paper and the rabid Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, which, from1923 until 1945, incited Germans with lurid fictions about Jews.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ, recently stepped down from the Beit Din of Bergen County he led for seven years, mainly, he wrote, because of “the negativity associated today with conversion, and the cynicism and distrust fostered by so many…towards the rabbinate.”

Rabbi Pruzansky, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, was also critical of a decision made by that latter organization to appoint a new conversion committee that will include several non-rabbinical members in addition to five rabbis.  He expressed concern that the new committee may “water down the standards” for conversion and potentially lead to a return to “the old days of quickie conversions with little commitment.”

When the Jewish Week contacted him to elaborate, he declined to speak to its reporter, asserting that the paper is “one of the leading publications in the world of Orthodox-bashing and rabbi-bashing.”  And then he referenced Der Stürmer as another paper “that dealt a lot with Jews,” drolly adding that the latter periodical is “bad company to be in.”

The Jewish Week editorialized that the invocation of the Nazi publication was “outrageous,” leading Rabbi Pruzansky to subsequently write that he intended “no comparison” between the two publications, and that he “certainly regret[s] if [the Jewish Week] misconstrued my comment and anyone offended took offense…”

Whether the Jewish Week has accepted that apology isn’t known to me.  But one hopes that the paper’s umbrage won’t obscure what it was that so exasperated a genteel, intelligent Modern Orthodox rabbi that he would invoke, however rashly, a noxiously anti-Semitic tabloid.

The Jewish Week, after all, has never featured lurid fabrications about Orthodox Jews killing children to drink their blood, or offered gross caricatures of bearded, hook-nosed, slobbering rabbis in its pages.

But if the paper’s editor and reporters are interested in turning an insult into a learning moment, they might pause to consider the fact that subtle innuendo and generalizations can be even more powerful than gross, horrific fabrications.

Contemporary counterparts to Der Stürmer are rife in some Arab and Muslim sites (the word used in both its old and newer meanings).  And there are surely hateful simpletons who, as many Germans did during the Holocaust, accept the risible slanders against Jews those evil media serve up.  But don’t we all recognize that a greater danger may be posed by mannerly and reasoned “critiques” of Jews (or Israel, as a stand-in) that more subtly communicate slanders?

The Jewish Week cannot, unfortunately, so easily huff away charges of that sort of more delicate, oblique defamation.

It is a paper, after all, that, while it harbors some fine, unbiased columnists in its stable, has evidenced an inordinate amount of negative “reportage” about Orthodox Jews, largely charedim, and their institutions; and even seems to have assigned a reporter the beat of real or imagined scandals in the Orthodox community.  A reporter, it might be noted, who wrote a book that portrays communities like those in Borough Park and Williamsburg as small-minded, constricting, suffocating environments, and has characterized Orthodoxy, in the eyes of Jews she admires, as having “become little more than social control.”

The paper’s pages have included an assertion that “Some Orthodox label secular Jews Amalek”; a report about violent nationalist extremists in Israel that featured a large photograph of Har HaBayis in the background and a looming, ominous silhouette of a charedi man’s head in the foreground; a blatantly false assertion that a major charedi group “is opposed to… background check legislation” for Jewish schools.  It has, moreover, repeatedly portrayed a decidedly non-Orthodox Jewish congregation as Orthodox (in order to promote certain “innovations” as halachically acceptable).

There is also the disturbing but telling fact that, despite the abundance of top-notch writers in the contemporary traditional Orthodox world today and the unparalleled growth of the Orthodox community, the Jewish Week, which claims to represent the gamut of the Jewish world, does not feature, and never has featured, any charedi columnist.

So, rather than sleep tightly after taking its righteous offense at an intemperate comment, the Jewish Week’s editor and staff might do well to stay up a bit longer, to wonder at what evoked the rash comment, and to do some serious introspection.

An edited version of the above appeared this week in Hamodia



Agudath Israel Statement on the Massacre in Har Nof

This morning’s barbaric murder in Har Nof, Jerusalem of four Jews has left all caring people reeling – the tears are pouring this morning and our hearts are full of pain.

This vicious attack on people wearing tallis and tefillin and immersed in tefilla is ugly testimony to the depth of evil faced by Jews in Israel and the world over, in the form of brutal terrorists who revel in the killing of innocents.

The celebration of the murders in Gaza and elsewhere reiterates the despicable nature of those who wish the Holy Land to be Judenrein.

When cold-blooded murderers attack a makom Torah u’tefila in the Eretz Ha’kodesh, it is incumbent upon all of us to strengthen ourselves in Torah and tefila on behalf of our dear brethren in the Eretz Ha’kodesh. Imahem anachnu b’tzara.

We are mispallel that those who were injured in this brutal attack have a refuah shlaimah.

Our hearts go out to the families, particularly the almanos and the 26 innocent yesomim who lost their fathers – true kedoshim, holy men killed because they were Jews, who died with Jewish prayers on their lips.

May the families of the murdered, Rabbi Moshe Twersky, hy”d, Rabbi Kalman Levine, hy”d; Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, hy”d, and Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, hy”d, be comforted amid the mourners of Tzion v’Yrushalayim.


Status (Quo) Update

ITEM: In the wake of the shooting in Jerusalem of political activist Yehuda Glick, allegedly by an Islamic Jihad member who was killed by police after he fired at them, and the subsequent closing of the mosque on Har HaBayis to Muslim worshippers for several hours, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to maintain the “status quo” at the site.

ITEM: Mr. Netanyahu insisted that Israel is indeed “determined to maintain the status quo” at the holy site.

Status Quo: A Latin phrase meaning the existing state of affairs.  The related phrase often intended by “status quo” is status quo ante, or, “the state of affairs that existed previously.”

It is unfortunate, in fact tragic, that a mosque occupies the site where the Beis Hamikdash stood and will one day stand again.  But the state of Israel respects the understandable 1967 decision of then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol after the Six Day War, when Yerushalayim was reunited, to cede control of access to Har HaBayis to Jerusalem’s Islamic Waqf, or religious trust. Even to the point of prohibiting Jewish prayer on the site, in seeming violation of at least the spirit of the state’s “Preservation of the Holy Places Law” enacted that same year.

All of which should be a pointed reminder that, the state of Israel notwithstanding, we clearly remain in galus.  But there is no practical issue here, as the recognized poskei hador have made clear that it is halachically forbidden for a Jew to ascend to the Har Habayis.

What’s interesting, however, is Mr. Netanyahu’s declared respect for the status quo.

Because he only recently succumbed to pressure brought to bear by ministers Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman and lent his support to the conversion bill passed by his cabinet.  That enactment will permit municipal rabbis to hold special conversion courts, allowing for multiple conversion standards and potentially creating a class of tens of thousands of Israelis who are recognized as Jewish by the state but whose conversions did not meet accepted halachic requirements.

Rabbi Seth Farber, a conversion liberalization activist, hailed the enactment as “the first major reform in religion and state that has the potential to fundamentally change the status quo in Israel.”  Indeed.

Then there is the “Equal Burden of Service” law, which, earlier this year, ended exemptions for charedi yeshiva students from military service, exploding another status quo that has existed since the founding of Israel.

More recently, a feminist group has insisted that it be permitted to publicly and vocally hold its “progressive” services, which greatly offend Orthodox Jews, at the Kosel plaza.  The group’s members were given an area in front of another part of the Kosel for their “non-traditional” services.  But they insist on changing the… status quo at the Kosel.

A few years ago I had the privilege of addressing the issue of “Jewish Pluralism” in Israel before general (mostly Jewish but decidedly non-Orthodox) audiences on two university campuses.  One point I made was that, contrary to many people’s assumption, none of the socioreligious conflicts in Israel have been engendered by the country’s religious populace.  All were initiated by people seeking to change the status quo that has served Israel well since its inception by maintaining a modus vivendi among its religious, traditional and secular citizens.

Some of the listeners seemed surprised to be confronted by that fact, despite its obvious truth.   They had been fed so steady a diet of rhetoric about “creeping haredization” and “religious coercion” that they hadn’t noticed that it was junk food.

Pretty much whatever the religious/secular crisis du jour may be – images on buses in Meah Shearim, the closure of streets in religious neighborhoods, allotment of government funding for the institutions of new “Judaisms” – the conflict has been produced by those intent on changing things, not those committed to preserving them.

There is nothing necessarily or inherently bad, of course, about change, at least responsible change.  But making changes in time-honored agreements and undertakings, especially at the expense of upsetting longstanding accommodations, offending in the process large numbers of heartfelt Jews and doing violence to amity and good will is, well, as Mr. Netanyahu intimated with regard to the Har HaBayis, deeply unwise.

And so, the question practically shouts itself from the rooftops of Yerushalayim: Why is the ideal of maintaining peace and harmony by preserving the status quo sufficiently sublime to apply to the Muslim world, but not to the Jewish one?

© 2014 Hamodia


Sefer Torah Abuse

We rend our garments if a sefer Torah is, chalilah, desecrated.  If one should fall to the ground, it is customary for those present to undertake to fast that day.  I don’t know what the proper reaction is to seeing a sefer Torah employed as a prop in the service of a social cause, but a recent such exploitation made my heart hurt.

The exploiters, for their part, were jubilant.  Members of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” they had obtained a sefer Torah small enough to smuggle into the Kosel Maaravi plaza, where they proceeded to hold a “bat-mitzvah” ceremony, complete with a woman reading from the Torah and the 12-year-old reciting birchas haTorah.

“Today we made history for women @ Kotel,” the group announced on social media.  “We must recreate this victory each month with great opposition.”

The latter phrase may have been incoherent, but the sentiment was clear.  By flouting the Jewish mesorah (and current Kosel regulations) and by evading the Israeli police, the intrepid women had, at least in their own minds, scored points for their team.

For more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side.  What has allowed for that minor miracle has been the maintenance of a standard at the holy site that all Jews can abide.

Last year, to maintain that uniqueness, Women of the Wall was assigned an area in front of part of the Kosel, Robinson’s Arch (or Ezras Yisrael), for their “non-traditional” services.  But the feminist group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, blithely dismissed that equally holy area as a “sunbathing deck.”  With its recent incursion into the main Kosel plaza, the group has made it clear that it has no interest in avoiding offense, but rather, on the contrary, is committed to being “in the face” of the vast majority of regular visitors to the Kosel for tefillah, whom it views as the enemy.

Part of the recent verbal victory dance was performed by Women of the Wall’s Executive Director, Lesley Sachs, who seized upon the fact that the small scroll, which she said was 200 years old, had likely been written to avoid its seizure by enemies of Jews.  “This time,” she explained, it was used to avoid “Jews imposing restrictions on Jews.”  That would be the Rav of the Kosel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and those who, like him, wish for the standards of Jewish tradition to mediate public services at the Kosel.

It wasn’t only the sefer Torah that was conscripted for the cause.  So was the bat-mitzvah girl.

The daughter of an immigrant from Russia, she was one of four whose images appeared in recent bus ads in Yerushalayim that were part of Women of the Wall’s campaign to hold such ceremonies at the Kosel.  The Hebrew text of one, featuring a young girl in a tallis and holding a Torah, read: “Mom, I too want a bat mitzvah at the Kotel.”

After the celebration, the honoree shared that, amid the merriment, she had become “very emotional” at the Torah-reading, and “just had a lot of fun.”  As, from all appearances, did her minders.

Predictably, the mainstream media were full of praise for the successful subterfuge, and the cause in which it was committed.  Among the effervescent expressions was a piece by Lexi Erdheim, a rabbinic student at a Reform institution and a “Women of the Wall Intern.”

Ms. Erdheim wrote that she “could only imagine” the “overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment” felt by  those who had been fighting for years to obtain “women’s right to free prayer at the Kotel,” and who were finally able to “witness a young girl chant from a sefer torah.”

But she injected a note of reservation, too, since, “despite this momentous occasion, the battle is not over.”  Still and all, she wrote, she was, “reminded of a quote from Pirkei Avot: ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it’.”

Another mishnah in Pirkei Avos, though, is more fitting for the occasion of a sefer Torah employed as a PR prop.  It was cited well before Ms. Erdheim’s piece appeared, by Leah Aharoni, a co-founder of the mesorah-respecting group “Women For the Wall”:  “Rabbi Tzaddok would say… ‘Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig’.”

© 2014 Hamodia


Musing: Ebola and Metzitza Bipeh

Part of a message from the Medical Society of the State of New York to local physicians reads as follows:

“Strategies to limit the potential for [Ebola] transmission… should be based on the best available medical, scientific and epidemiological evidence; be proportional to the risk; balance the rights of individuals and the community…”

One has to wonder whether strategies to limit the potential of the transmission of other viruses, like New York City’s strategy of regulating ritual circumcision, are  similarly “proportional to the risk.”

Or do religious practices for some reason enjoy less protection than secular ones?


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