illusion

Illusions of Objectivity

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Some American journalists assigned to the political beat are having a hard time.  Their dilemma is named Donald Trump, a man they don’t feel they can cover objectively.

Those troubled are reporters with a liberal bent, and that, of course, means most of the profession.  The vast majority of mainstream print and electronic media personnel are well entrenched on the left end of the political spectrum. To be sure, one needn’t be a social or political liberal to regard the Republican presidential candidate with concern – many in Mr. T.’s own party are distancing themselves from him – but “progressive” citizens have a particular revulsion for the controversial candidate.

And so, while the intrepid reporters soldier on in the quest for fairness, impartiality and objectivity, they are finding it hard to maintain their professional standards, or even the façade of neutrality.

Jim Rutenberg, the New York Times’ “media columnist,” lamented his and his colleagues’ predicament.

“If you’re a working journalist,” he wrote, “and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes… you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.”

“You would move closer,” he continued, “than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”

Mr. Rutenberg’s honest confession of discomfort is commendable.  But it’s also somewhat amusing, because, while Mr. Trump may be an outsize (one might even say yuuuge!) challenge to the media’s objectivity, the notion itself of journalistic impartiality is more veneer than substance.  There are other fairness challenges that reporters routinely face and fail.

In fact, Donald Trump doesn’t really pose so great a trial for reporters.  Even if they regard him as dangerous, his words have famously spoken for themselves; all that the media has to do is quote him.  He’s not a very guarded or subtle person; he says very much what he means. So there is no need, and should be no temptation, for any journalist to treat him any differently than anyone else.  Just share what the guy says.  That’s enough.

The greater challenge to idealistic members of the media is the need to recognize and confront their broader biases when it comes to other subjects.  Like, say, religion.

Fully 91% of those who work at national news organizations, according to a Pew survey, say they don’t consider it necessary to believe in G-d to be moral.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that those respondents disdain religious people or institutions, but it does raise the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, that they may harbor at least some subtle bias regarding religious believers or their ideals.

This column last week noted one recent example.  No major media news report (and, for that matter, no major media opinion columnist) saw fit, when reporting on Mrs. Ghazala Khan’s decision not to speak, as her husband did, at the Democratic National Convention, to note some traditional religions’ concept of modesty.  The idea that a woman might consider it inappropriate to speak before men is simply beyond the imaginings of most reporters.  Were they forced to confront it, they would likely dismiss it as backward, oppressive or even immoral.  Olam hafuch ra’isi.

And then there are the general Jewish media, which are transparently prejudiced against Orthodox Jews, at least chareidi ones, a fact well evidenced both in their choices of what stories about the “ultra-Orthodox” (a pejorative phrase itself) to cover or to ignore and in the tone of chareidi-world stories they consider newsworthy. That isn’t surprising; most of their reporters and columnists are non-Orthodox Jews, and they surely shlep their personal baggage to their keyboards – whether they are aware of it or not.  As the writer William Saletan once wisely observed: “There’s a word for bias you can’t see: yours.”

The not-so-secret “secret” here, which applies to both the general Jewish media and their non-Jewish counterparts, is that reporters, despite their imaginings of themselves as objective, are human.  And, as such, they are just as biased and close-minded as any other mortals. So, rather than wring their hands over how to cover Donald Trump, they would do better to consider the possibility that some more subtle, hence more troublesome, biases inform their reportage of… other things.

© 2016 Hamodia

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Summer Camps and Summer Camps

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There are all sorts of summer camps.

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Silence Can Be Golden

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What’s omitted from a discussion can sometimes speak quite loudly.  And sometimes quite disturbingly.  That’s true, I think, about the national conversation about the Khizr and Ghazala Khan/Donald Trump contretemps.

Unless you’ve been summering in the Australian outback and off the grid, you likely know that the most memorable moment of the Democratic National Convention (at least if the idea of a woman presidential nominee somehow didn’t make you swoon) was the speech delivered by the aforementioned Khizr Khan, a Pakistani-born, Harvard Law School-educated American citizen.  Mr. Khan has worked in immigration and trade law, and founded a pro bono project to provide legal services for the families of soldiers.  The Khans’ son, Humayun, an Army captain, was killed in 2004 while protecting his unit.

At the convention, Mr. Khan identified himself and his wife, who stood at his side, as “patriotic American Muslims,” and sharply condemned Donald Trump for what the Khans see as his bias against Muslims and divisive rhetoric.  “You have sacrificed nothing,” he added, addressing Mr. Trump, “and no one.”

Mr. Trump, in subsequent interviews, responded to that accusation by arguing that he had raised money for veterans, created “tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures [and] had tremendous success.”  And he also speculated that the reason Mrs. Khan hadn’t spoken was because, as a Muslim, “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.  You tell me.”

Mrs. Khan explained her reticence in a Washington Post essay.  “Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me,” she wrote, “I could hardly control myself. What mother could?”

The punditsphere went wild, mostly with applause for the Khans and derision for Mr. Trump.  There were the expected right-wing “exposés” of the Khans’ (nonexistent) connections to terrorist organizations, but the responsible responses to the showdown were critical of the Republican candidate and sympathetic to the Gold Star parents.

But while there is no reason to doubt Mrs. Khan’s claim that she was just too anguished by the memory of her son to speak, something that should have been considered somewhere in all the seeming millions of words that were produced on the row simply wasn’t.

That would be the possibility that a woman might choose, for religious reasons, to not avail herself of center stage and a microphone.  All sides of the controversy seem to have agreed to the postulate that tznius is a sign of backwardness, or worse.

That was unarguably the upshot of Mr. Trump’s infelicitous insinuation, that Mrs. Khan’s silence at the convention was religious in nature, and evidence that Islam is intolerant and repressive.

To be sure, there are sizable parts of the Islamic world where women are in fact cruelly oppressed, where physical abuse, forced marriages and “honor killings” are unremarkable.  But what Mr. Trump was demeaning was the very concept of different roles for men and for women, the thought that a woman might, as a matter of moral principle, wish to avoid being the focus of a public gathering. He was insinuating, in other words, that a traditional idea of modesty is somehow sinister.

Islam, though some Muslims may chafe at the observation, borrowed many attitudes and observances from the Jewish mesorah.  Islam’s monotheism and avoidance of graven images, its insistence on circumcision, its requirement for prayer with a quorum and facing a particular direction, its practice of fasting, all point to the religion’s founder’s familiarity with the Jews of his time. As does that faith’s concept of tznius, even if, like some of its other borrowings, it might have been taken to an unnecessarily extreme level.

I don’t know the Khans’ level of Islamic observance, but Mrs. Khan wore a hijab as she stood next to her husband at the convention podium.  So it is certainly plausible that her decision to not speak in that very public venue may have been, at least to a degree, informed by a tznius concern.

A concern that the plethora of pundits chose to not even consider, thereby, in effect, endorsing Mr. Trump’s bias on the matter.

To be sure, and most unfortunately, tznius isn’t an idea that garners much respect in contemporary western society.  Moreover, Mr. Trump’s relationship with any sort of modesty is famously fraught.

But it is particularly disturbing that his insinuation that traditional roles for men and women bespeak repression and backwardness went missing in the national discussion, altogether unchallenged by the ostensibly open-minded men and women of the media.

© 2016 Hamodia

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The Enemy

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In December, 2014, after a driver shouting Islamic slogans mowed down more than a dozen pedestrians in Dijon, France, the city’s chief prosecutor called the attacks the work of an unbalanced man whose motivations were vague and “hardly coherent.”

Mere weeks earlier, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State that I prefer, since the group finds it demeaning), called on Muslims to “smash [any Westerner’s] head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”  Comprehensive fellow, covers all bases.

So it wouldn’t be in the realm of the unreasonable to imagine that, whatever the mental state of the Dijon driver, Islamism played a distinct role in his rampage.  Yet reluctance to use the “I”-word, like that evidenced by the cautious French prosecutor, persists.

Equally persistent is the apparent desire, when Islamism is clearly implicated, to find other “root causes” for the acts of Arabic-shouting stabbers, shooters and bombers, and to relegate Islamism to some secondary role.  We hear that the mayhem was the result of things like mental illness, or that the attackers’ real problems were that they were “social misfits,” “impoverished,” “disaffected youths,” seeking a “cause” to give their lives “meaning” (a usually sublime word, here demoted to a state of utter ugliness).

Such contentions, in particular the last one, may hold some truth in some cases.  William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar, contends that there are many socially inept people “who have no organizational ties to ISIS,” and are not religious at all in their personal lives but who readily murder in the name of Islam.  He calls them “ISIS-ish” and describes them as “rebels looking for a cause.”

But that doesn’t explain calculated Islamist killers like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was a popular college student; Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood killer, who was an army doctor; San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, who lived the comfortable life of a suburbanite; the Orlando mass murderer Omar Mateen, who worked for a security firm; or the Bangladeshis who killed 20 at a cafe in Dhaka last month, who were members of a privileged elite.  Or Adel Kermiche, who recently slit the throat of a priest during a church prayer service in Normandy and was described by his uncle as “normal… good… He went to school, he was like you and me. He had friends…”

Then, though, there is the discordant fact that not all mass mayhem is Islamism-inspired.  Neither 1999’s Columbine massacre, 2007’s Virginia Tech shootings, 2012’s Aurora mass murder nor last year’s attack on a black church in Charleston had any Islamic connection.

So what, in the end, is the enemy?  Islamism? Mental illness? Poverty?  Privilege? Racism? Disaffection?

We prefer our crises neat, simple, comprehensible.  But the murderous violence plaguing the world today isn’t any of those things.  And, while we may be comforted – if such a word can be used here – to imagine that the mass murder buck stops squarely at some particular group, it doesn’t.

Even if so much mayhem today is committed in the name of Islam, most Muslims do not seek to harm anyone.  Most mentally ill aren’t in the least violent.  Most poor people don’t seek to wreak havoc, and neither do most privileged ones. Most racists are content to nurture their antipathies privately.  Most disaffected or socially inept just suffer in silence.

To be sure, the Islamist threat, from not just Daesh but Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbolla, Boko Haram and others, is large, looming and real.  An ideology that fuels so much killing, and that exults in cold-blooded murder, needs to be fought by civilized humanity in every way.

But the version (or, many Muslims would say, perversion) of Islam represented by groups like those in the previous paragraph, still isn’t the essence of the ultimate enemy, something larger that has infected not only the Muslim world but the minds of all sorts of others.

It is ra, evil, the outgrowth of the bechira Hashem has bestowed on human beings.  It plagues our imperfect world in an assortment of guises and infiltrates those receptive to it. It finds portals, ways of seeping into human movements and human beings, of fostering hatred and disdain for life.

Which is not to imply that we shouldn’t fight all of that ultimate enemy’s contemporary manifestations.  Only that, as we do, we not lose sight of the bigger picture, and our role as ovdei Hashem, in changing it.

© 2016 Hamodia

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Crooked Hillary

Trump and The Jewish Question

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“The anti-Semitism that is threaded throughout the Republican Party of late goes straight to the feet of Donald Trump.”  That, according to Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, then-chair of the Democratic National Committee.  Mr. Trump, she added, has “clearly demonstrated” anti-Semitism “throughout his candidacy.”

Evidence proffered for the Republican nominee’s alleged Jew-hatred includes the now-famous image disseminated by the Trump campaign, which depicted Hillary Clinton accompanied by mounds of money and a six-pointed star.  The image, it turned out, had been borrowed from a white supremacist website.

Then there is the candidate’s speech to a group of Republican Jewish donors in which he said that he didn’t want their money (a sentiment that drew praise from Louis Farrakhan, not otherwise a Trump supporter).  And the fact that Mr. Trump has been endorsed by people like David Duke.

More recently, when a Jewish former Governor of Hawaii, Linda Lingle, spoke at the Republican national convention, a torrent of anti-Semitic comments spilled onto the comments section of a livestream of the event.  They included praise for Hitler, ym”s, images of yellow stars accompanying the epithet “Make America Jewish Again” and comments like “Ban Jews.”

One needn’t be a supporter of Mr. Trump, though, to recognize that the anti-Semitism charges against him are seriously, forgive me, trumped up.  In fact, they’re nonsense.

That he has an Orthodox-converted Jewish daughter and a Jewish son-in-law (and three grandchildren, whom he often refers to as his Jewish progeny), with all of whom he is close, should itself be enough to put the charge to rest.

If more is needed though, well, the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Steve Mnuchin, and general counsel, Jason Greenblatt, are both observant Jews.  The latter, who has worked for Trump since the mid-1990s, is one of the candidate’s top advisers on Israel and Jewish affairs.  And another top Trump adviser has said that Trump backs an Israeli annexation of all or parts of the West Bank.  The candidate once received an award from the Jewish National Fund and served as grand marshal of the New York Israel Day parade.

I’m not sure what David Duke or Louis Farrakhan make of all that, but such people, in any event, don’t traffic in facts.

I remind readers that not only does Agudath Israel of America not endorse or publicly support candidates, neither do I as an individual – the role in which I write this column.  I am concerned only with what I perceive to be truth and fairness.

Mr. Trump cannot be blamed, either, for support he has received from unsavory corners.  He may or may not be happy with haters’ support (politics, after all, being, above all else, about votes).  But he has clearly disavowed the sentiments of Duke and company, and can’t be expected to respond each time a malignant mind embraces his candidacy.

Depending on one’s own personal constitution, Mr. Trump may seem refreshing or revolting; his policies, sensible or seditious; his demeanor, exhilarating or unbalanced.  But his alleged anti-Semitism is unworthy of anyone’s consideration.

What is, though, worth noting is the aforementioned malevolence, the packs of dogs who hear and respond to imaginary Jew-hate whistles.

As we go about our daily lives, unburdened by the angst and terror that were part of our forbears’ lives over millennia in other lands, it’s easy to imagine that the land of the free is free, too, of Jew-hatred.  Then come times, like the current one, when our bubble is burst.

Bethany Mandel is a young, politically conservative, Jewish writer.  After she penned criticism of Mr. Trump, a tsunami of spleen spilled forth.

Among what she estimates to be thousands of anti-Semitic messages aimed at her were suggestions like “Die, you deserve to be in an oven,” and depictions of her face superimposed on the body of a Holocaust victim.

“By pushing this into the media, the Jews bring to the public the fact that yes, the majority of Hilary’s [sic] donors are filthy Jew terrorists,” wrote Andrew Anglin in the Daily Stormer, a site named in honor of the notorious tabloid published by Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, ym”s.

Though it’s disconcerting to perceive, beneath the verdant surface of our fruited plain, some truly foul and slimy things, it’s important, even spiritually healthy, to do so.

Because, amid our protection and our plenty, we are wont to forget that we remain in galus.  And that’s a thought we need to think about, especially, the “three weeks” having arrived, this time of Jewish year.

© 2016 Hamodia

 

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Abortion Distortion

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With the Democratic and Republican platforms offering more polarized planks on abortion than ever, the issue of “reproductive rights” is, once again, well, birthed into the glare.

Also in the limelight of late are some misleading assertions about Judaism’s attitude toward fetal life.

An op-ed of mine on the topic in Haaretz is here.

Or, to receive a copy of the piece, just request one, from rabbiavishafran42@gmail.com .

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Obama in Dallas

Shock Treatment

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It’s a truth not universally acknowledged that good can come from bad.  As Iyov said, “Who can bring purity from impurity, not the One?” (14:4; see Targum Yonasan).

An untruth almost universally asserted is that race relations in the United States are in a hopeless state.  Although Jim Crow laws days lie more than a half-century in the past, Americans of all shades live and work side by side and “racist” is an insult, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, fully 70% of Americans say race relations in the country are generally bad.

Recent events – more police killings of unarmed black men and the murder of five white policemen by a black militant – might seem to support that dire contention.  But, ironically, the shock of all the bloodshed has evoked something heartening.

The recent police killings of peddler Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and of Philando Castile during a traffic stop near St. Paul, Minnesota, angered many blacks (and whites).  They were only the latest in a list that includes Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray… and others.

And yet, unlike in some times past, the many protests of the recent killings were free of violence – at least until the police keeping order at a Dallas protest came under a sniper’s fire.

(TRIGGER WARNING: If positive words about President Obama are disturbing to you, you might wish to stop reading here.)

At a July 12 memorial in Dallas for the murdered officers, Mr. Obama spoke eloquently and pointedly.

He first addressed those who “put on that uniform” and answer calls “that at any moment… may put your life in harm’s way,” and who “don’t expect to hear the words ‘thank you’ very often, especially from those who need them the most.”

“Despite the fact,” he continued, speaking now to the larger crowd, and the nation, “that police conduct was the subject of the protest… these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were.”

And the “targeting of police by the shooter,” he said, was “an act not just of demented violence, but of racial hatred” against whites.

“When the bullets started flying,” he then recalled, “the men and women of the Dallas police… did not flinch… Helped in some cases by protesters, they evacuated the injured, isolated the shooter, saved more lives than we will ever know… it wasn’t about black or white. Everyone was picking each other up and moving them away.”

Mr. Obama decried those who “paint all police as biased or bigoted, undermin[ing] those officers that we depend on for our safety.”  And as to “those who use rhetoric suggesting harm to police, not only [do they] make the jobs of police officers even more dangerous, but… [they] do a disservice to the very cause of justice that they claim to promote.”

Tensions between police and minorities, Mr. Obama declared, come from the fact that “we ask the police to do too much and we ask too little of ourselves.”

And then he quoted the navi Yechezkel:  “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you… I will take away the heart of stone… and I will give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26).

“That’s what we must pray for,” the president said. “A heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

Hate hasn’t died, he admitted.  “We know there is evil in this world.”  And, in fact, it wasn’t long before three more police officers were killed and three others wounded by gunmen in Baton Rouge, an attack Obama called “cowardly and reprehensible.”

But Americans, he asserted, can decide that murderous racists “will ultimately fail” and “not drive us apart. We can decide to come together and make our country reflect the good inside us.”

Alton Sterling’s 15-year-old son gave a speech of his own, a week after his father’s needless death.  He begged the public to come together “as one united family.”

“You can protest,” he said, “but I want everyone to protest the right way. With peace. No violence – none whatsoever.”  His mother called the Baton Rouge attack “despicable.”  Protest groups felt compelled to distance themselves from the violence.

Only time will tell if recent days will prove to have been a watershed in the troubled history of race in America, or if even any lasting good at all will emerge from all the recent bad.  But the words of a president and a bereaved teen and his mother provide some reason for hope.

© 2016 Hamodia

 

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Subway Poles/Snakes on Poles

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Subway riders in standing room-only cars try not to think too much about what organisms might be happily residing on the poles they grasp during the lurching trip.

To obtain some hard data, Harvard researchers conducted a study in which they swabbed seats, walls, poles, hand grips and ticket machines in the Boston transit system, and then did DNA analyses to find out what organisms they had collected.  They recently released their study’s results.

It’s still a good idea to wash your hands after a subway ride, but straphangers can feel somewhat relieved at the study’s finding that the surfaces were contaminated, but with generally innocuous bacteria.  If one is relatively healthy, the germs picked up from a subway grasp shouldn’t present any problem.

The reason for the inclusion of the word “generally,” though, in the previous paragraph is because even strains of common bacteria can cause terrible diseases under certain circumstances, like among the immunosuppressed.

Which thought should serve as a reminder that all that stands between each of us and myriad invisible agents of harm is the unbelievably complex biological network of tissues, cells, enzymes and antibodies that science calls the immune system.

Were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us visible to us, says Abba Binyamin (Berachos 6a), we would be frozen in terror.  Whether he had in mind the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies must remain speculation.  But, regarding the countless organisms that would, were it not for our immune systems, do us great harm, the statement would have been entirely true.

This Shabbos, we will be reading about the nachash hanechoshes, the “copper snake” that Moshe Rabbeinu mounted on a staff during the plague of poisonous serpents that Hashem had brought after the people showed a lack of gratitude and complained about their sustenance. Those poisoned gazed at it and were cured.  Chazal teach us that, of course, it wasn’t the replica that cured them but that the gazers’ hearts were aimed Heavenward (brought by Rashi, Bamidbar, 21:8).

What, then, though, was the snake for?  Why the middleman (or middle-reptile)?  Why not tell the people to just gaze directly toward Heaven, where their hearts were to be?

Rabbeinu Bachya notes that the snakes plaguing our ancestors are referred to with the definite article, “hei” – the snakes.  And he sees in that seemingly superfluous Hebrew letter a reference to Devarim 8:15, where the midbar is characterized as a place of snakes and scorpions.  The snakes, explains Rabbeinu Bachya , refers to the ones that regularly filled the desert.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch expands on that thought, and sees the people’s gazing at the copper snake as focusing them on the fact that snakes in the desert were ubiquitous.  Looking at the metal serpent would bring them to appreciate how, every day without a snake bite was a day during which Hashem had protected them from a clear and present danger.  With that realization, born of meditation on the copper snake-replica, our ancestors’ hearts could truly, meaningfully aim Heavenward.

It’s more than interesting that the image of a serpent entwined around a staff has become a widely employed symbol of the medical profession.  Although the symbol is believed to have been borrowed from Greek avodah zarah, the ultimate origin of the image seems clearly to be the nachash hanechoshes.

More than interesting because a fundamental pillar of modern medicine is the understanding that much disease is caused not by “vapors” or internal imbalances, as was once assumed to be the sources of all illness, but rather by the failure of bodies to repel invaders – the bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that surround us all the time.

That might seem obvious to us, but germ theory, the idea that microorganisms lie at the root of many diseases, only became accepted in the nineteenth century, less than two hundred years ago.

Now, though, it is a pillar of medical practice that sanitation is key to health.  Surgery requires great antiseptic measures, medical personnel wear sterilized disposable gloves, we all recognize that diseases can spread through the transfer of germs of various types.

So, however the medical world might conceive of the source of the “Rod of Asclepius,” if it is indeed a depiction of the nachash hanechoshes, it is, an unintentionally apt symbol of the lesson of that copper snake.  That is to say, the fairly recent realization that we are indeed surrounded by myriad mazikin, from which only miracles – the immune systems Hashem has made part of our bodies – protect us.

© 2016 Hamodia

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When Vulnerability Means Strength

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So, where exactly was the lie?

The one, that is, to which the meraglim had to add some truth, in order for it to be swallowed.

In this past Shabbos’ parashah, the spies, returning from Kenaan, reported to Moshe Rabbeinu that they “came to the land to which you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey”  (Bamidbar, 13:27).  Quoting the Gemara (Sotah, 35a), Rashi comments that “Any lie in which a little truth is not stated at the start cannot be maintained in the end.”

But not only was the report of the land’s bounty true.  So was, at least on the surface, everything else the meraglim reported.   Yes, they described the fearsome inhabitants of the land, the “men of stature,” and the burials of many of the land’s inhabitants.  That negativity constituted dibah, as the Torah itself says – as Chazal put it, lashon hara.  But where was the untruth, the lie?

Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, z”l, in his sefer Mei Marom on Chumash, suggests an answer.

The Midrash Tanchuma, brought by Rashi on the words “hechazak hu harafeh” (“Are they strong or weak?”) says that Moshe gave the meraglim a sign: “If they live in open cities [it is a sign that] they are strong, since they rely on their might. And if they live in fortified cities [it is a sign that] they are weak.” (ibid,13:18)

And yet, notes Rav Charlop, the spies reported that “the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are very greatly fortified” (3:28). A self-contradiction, since if the inhabitants were indeed mighty, as per Moshe’s sign, they would not have needed to fortify their cities.  And if their cities were fortified, that meant the people were feeble.  There, the Mei Marom suggests, lies the lie.

That walls are antithetical to strength is a thought worthy of consideration in contemporary times, here in the U.S.

Fortifying our country against infiltrators bent on harming us, or on changing the nature of the republic, has been a major topic of discussion in the presidential campaign over many months – indeed, in the national marketplace of ideas for much longer.

President Obama recently asserted that “America is a nation of immigrants. That’s our strength. Unless you are a Native American, somebody, somewhere in your past showed up from someplace else, and they didn’t always have papers.”  That’s a truth that we Jews know well.

But concern about how to deal with the estimated 3.6 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country is valid, too.  As is – even more so – concern about the possible leanings of some who wish to come to America.

Regarding the former, a deadlocked Supreme Court recently quashed any chance of resolving the issue before the presidential election, leaving in place an injunction blocking the president’s “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans” plan (DAPA), deferring deportations of undocumented immigrants who have American families and no criminal record, and allowing them to obtain work permits.

Hillary Clinton has pledged, if elected, to continue to push for DAPA, presumably after nominating a replacement to the late Antonin Scalia’s High Court seat.  Donald Trump has called DAPA “one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president” and has said he’d deport all undocumented immigrants.

He has also seized the issue of the threat posed by future immigration, promising to ban all Muslims from coming to the U.S.

Immigration is one of those issues (are there really any others these days?) about which many get hot and polarized, righteously glomming onto one extreme position – that we should open our borders to any and all, and relax quotas and scrutiny – or the other – that we should deport all undocumented immigrants and accept no Muslims.

The wisest approach, though, as so often it does, likely lies someplace in the middle here, with reasonable accommodation of, but clear demands on, foreigners already living in the U.S. for years; and intensified scrutiny of new immigrants – based on region of origin, not religion.

But whatever one’s position on immigration issues, the midrash’s words speak to us.  Should America in fact need to build physically high border walls and conceptually high barriers to immigration, what it will reveal, according to the formula conveyed by Moshe Rabbeinu to the meraglim, is not how strong our nation is, but the opposite.

Walling off America, in other words, is the converse of making it great.

© 2016 Hamodia

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Torah Vs. Egalitarianism

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The “Kosel Controversy” – whether “nontraditional” prayer services should be accommodated at the Kosel Maaravi – blazes on, fanned by the winds of politics, courts and “activists.”

Respect for the Jewish mesorah at the site has characterized tefillah there since Yerushalayim’s liberation from Jordan in 1967.   What underlies the desire of some to diminish that respect?  I think it’s something that emerged from a conversation I recently had with a nine-year-old.

I had scheduled a lunch appointment with a Jewish journalist, and he e-mailed me the day before to ask me if his daughter, who was off from school the next day, could join us.  Of course she could.

“Sarah” seemed a precocious and intelligent young person, and listened intently as her father and I conversed.  At the end of the conversation, her father asked her if she had anything herself to ask me.  She did, and wasn’t shy.  “Why,” she inquired, “are you Orthodox?”

Not a question I’m often asked. I explained how I had been raised Orthodox but had also, after much reading, study and thinking, come to realize that Mattan Torah, as the singular claim in history to mass Divine revelation, is undeniable.  And that the beliefs, laws and practices of the Jewish mesorah are incumbent on Jews.

Sarah considered my words for a moment and then responded, “Well, I love Judaism, but I believe in equal rights for women.  So I don’t think I could be Orthodox.”

I admitted to Sarah that the Torah indeed assigns different roles and responsibilities to men and to women.  But, I added, life demands that each of us establish a hierarchy of values – and only one thing can be at the very top of any list.

Orthodox Jews’ first-place value, I explained, is the Jewish mesorah, as it has been carefully preserved and developed through the rules of the halachic system over the centuries.  As she gets older, I told my young interviewer, she will have to decide what to honor with first place status in her own life – Judaism, egalitarianism or any other ideal she may opt to value above all else. She should realize, though, that, as in any hierarchy, only one thing can be in first place.

That thought returned to me when I read of yet another in the series of media-directed protests-in-the-guise-of-prayer-services of the activist group agitating for the “right” to behave at the Kosel in a way that dishonors halachah and hurts those who regularly daven there. The activists takes pains to wave the flag of “religious freedom,” and there may well be individuals among them who are impelled, if misguidedly, by religious feelings.  But it doesn’t take a Ph.D in sociology to discern that the movement as a movement is motivated, above every other concern, by the desire to “empower” women – to erase gender distinctions.

There is, of course, much in the Torah that seeks to protect, and even “empower,” women – like  Chazal’s statement requiring men to honor their wives more than themselves (Yevamos, 62b), the kesuvah, women’s special mitzvos.  But the Torah also precludes women from certain roles (as it does most men from the roles of some – like Kohanim).  The Torah is not “egalitarian.”

“Egalitarianism,” however, and “religious pluralism” are the first priorities of the Kosel activists.  If Torah has a ranking at all on their roster, it’s, at best, in third place.

Those advocates for changing the status quo at the Kosel have clearly ordered their ideals; they should be honest enough to admit the fact.  To declare, in other words, without apology or dissembling, their conviction that the contemporary notion of egalitarianism trumps all else, and merits their quest to turn the remaining courtyard wall of the Makom Mikdash into a balkanized site of strife and disunity.  Then, at least, the issue will be clear: Judaism vs. Egalitarianism.

What is our role here?  There may come a time when Jews committed above all else to Torah will be directed by Gedolim to demonstrate that conviction in one or another way.

For now, though, perhaps we can help undermine the “egalitarianism first” push with a spiritual demonstration of our own dedication to the ultimate Jewish ideal.

Few if any of us are crass enough to embrace contemporary notions as more important than Torah.  But there are numerous blandishments – like material success, government influence or social status – that can subtly insinuate themselves into our lives’ “first place” without our even realizing it. Resisting such things with all our strength will not only make us better Jews, but might even cause reverberations at the Kosel plaza.

© 2016 Hamodia

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