Category Archives: Israel


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

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

How Dare Reform Rabbis Speak On Behalf of Diaspora Jewry?

He may not have meant it as a threat, but Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, certainly sounded like he was delivering an ultimatum when he warned that if an area at the Kotel Ma’aravi is not set aside for non-Orthodox services, “it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.”

Struck my ears like a Jewish version of a protection racket pitch.  “Hey, nice relationship you got there.  Be a real shame if anything bad happened to it…”

Those are the opening paragraphs of a piece I wrote that was recently published by Haaretz.  For the entire article, please visit

Bernie’s Kibbutz and Mine

The disclosure of which kibbutz Senator Bernie Sanders spent time at in1963 was red meat for the voracious purveyors of what, regrettably, passes for political commentary these days.

Mr. Sanders – now the first Jew to win a U.S. presidential primary – lived for several months in Sha’ar Ha’amakim, near Haifa, a kibbutz affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, the secular, Zionist-socialist movement.  (It was quite an active one during part of last century; this one, not so much.)

Right-wing media seized on the socialist element, with the American Thinker featuring an op-ed with the headline, “Bernie Sanders Spent Months at Marxist-Stalinist Kibbutz.”

On the other side of the partisan divide, various blogs attacked Mr. Sanders for having been part of a kibbutz that was founded, in the words of radical leftie Philip Weiss, on “ethnic cleansing.”

Intelligent discourse proceeds apace.

For my part, the disclosure of Sanders’ sanctuary evoked memories of my own time on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz – beautiful Ein Hashofet, a mere ten miles from where Bernie bedded down less than ten years before I arrived in the area.

I spent only two days at Ein Hashofet, having traveled there before the start of Elul zman in Yeshivas Kol Torah to visit one of the kibbutz’s founders, my uncle Nachman.

Back in pre-war Poland, when my father, shlit”a, was a little boy, two of his older brothers became involved in a Zionist youth enterprise and surreptitiously made their way to Eretz Yisrael.  My father was determined to study Torah and, after he became bar mitzvah, just as the war broke out, he left his parents and other siblings to learn in a Novardok yeshivah that had been relocated to Vilna.  Eventually, the Soviets sent him and his chaverim , along with their Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, to Siberia.  Eventually, my father emigrated to America; of his large family, only he and his two brothers in Palestine survived the war.

The kibbutzniks were very welcoming of the young yeshivah bochur who had come from America (no, he told them all, he didn’t know their cousins there) to study in Yerushalayim.  I must have seemed, and definitely felt, out of place there.  But I was “Nachman’s nephew,” so I got the royal treatment.

During my stay at the kibbutz, I lived on Tnuva products and some packaged foods I had brought with me.  When it was time to leave, some of the kibbutzniks gave me small gifts – a Hebrew booklet about Van Gogh, a plastic Egged tik, some doodads – that (despite the place’s strict socialist ethos) they possessed.  I was very touched, and remember the residents’ kind sentiments fondly to this day.

My greatest takeaway, though, was from my uncle, in the words he spoke a year later, when he visited me in Bayit Vegan as I prepared to return to the U.S.  Tears welling in his eyes, he wished me well and said, wistfully, that he wondered if, had he retained his Jewish observance, his children might have remained in Eretz HaKodesh.  Most of them, despite their father’s dedication to the Land, had left Eretz Yisrael to find their fortunes in other places.  I didn’t know what to say, and just hugged him goodbye.

Fast-forward fifteen years.  My Israeli uncle and aunt, visiting the U.S., were driven by my father, shlita, from Baltimore all the way to Providence, Rhode Island, where I and my family were living at the time.  It was wonderful to see them again, and, at some point, my uncle mentioned – and there was pride in his voice – that the kibbutz had recently put mezuzos on its doors.

I noticed, too, that he had brought with him a pair of tefillin.

My uncle is now long gone from this world, but I’m reminded of the Gemara about a man who betroths a woman on the condition that he is a righteous person (Kiddushin 49b).   Even if the man was not known to be righteous, the Gemara says, if the woman accepts his kiddushin, they are married.  Because “perhaps he mused about repentance in his heart.”

A hirhur teshuvah – a “mere musing of repentance” – can change a person.  And what matters more than where we are is the direction in which we are headed.

I don’t know if Bernie Sanders’ few months on a kibbutz had any impact on him.  But, as I recall my uncle’s words about his children, and those tefillin, it seems to me that his more than half-century on his kibbutz, ironically, may have yielded him a keener perspective.

© 2016 Hamodia

The American Jewish Buffet

“Secular Orthodox.”

That’s how Avinoam Bar-Yosef, president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, recently characterized many Israelis.  What he meant was that, while an Israeli may not be observant of halachah, or even affirm belief in Torah miSinai, he is likely to still recognize that there is only one mesorah, one Judaism, the one that has carried Klal Yisrael from that mountain to Eretz Yisrael, through galus Bavel and countless galuyos since, and that carries it still to this day.

If only American Jews were so perceptive.  Many criticisms can be cogently aimed at the movements to which so many American Jews claim fealty (or, at least, to whose congregations they send dues).  Were there only an Orthodox option, that of Torah-faithful belief and practice, there would likely be a greater degree of Jewish observance throughout the broader Jewish community; intermarriage would probably be more rare than it sadly is; Jewish unity would certainly be more evident, and more real.

But the most damaging legacy of the heterodox movements (and I write here of those movements qua movements – their theologies, not their members, most of whom don’t understand the basics of Yahadus) is their propagation of the notion that there are different “Judaisms,” that Jews stand before some spiritual smorgasbord from which they are free to choose whatever doctrinal hors d’oeuvres they find appetizing.

I had a neighbor in the out-of-town community where I once lived, a middle-aged man who had observed some mitzvos as a youth, but who had long since lapsed and become a member of a non-Orthodox congregation.

One Shabbos, on my way to shul, I heard a disembodied “Good Shabbos” come from beneath my neighbor’s parked car.  His head then appeared from under the vehicle, followed by his hands, one of them holding a wrench.  I returned the greeting along with a forced smile, and then, with some sheepishness, my neighbor added: “I gotta say, my Shabbos is sure different now that I’m a Conservative Jew!”

In my neighbor’s mind, he had undergone a metamorphosis; he’d become a “different kind of Jew” – a perfectly observant, rabbinically-endorsed, card-carrying “Conservative Jew.”  Changing the meaning of a Jewish life had become the equivalent of what he was doing, changing his oil.

Contrast my erstwhile neighbor’s attitude (that of most American Jews, unfortunately) with the insight of Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi (1898-1988), a groundbreaking physicist. He told a biographer that “To this very day, if you ask for my religion, I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one.  If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to.   That’s the one I failed.  It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”

He was, and knew he was, a Jew.  Far to one side of the observance spectrum, to be sure.  But observance is a continuum on which we all live, with perfection far from most of us.  Professor Rabi was perceptive and honest enough to recognize his failure instead of choosing to just invent a new entity, a “Judaism” where he could consider himself a success.

It is a tribute to the Israeli no-nonsense mentality that so many of the country’s less- or non-observant Jews haven’t bought into the American Jewish buffet model, and recognize what Professor Rabi did. Israelis tend to think and talk dugri – straightforwardly, even bluntly.  Hence, Mr. Bar-Yosef’s seemingly, but not really, oxymoronic phrase, “secular Orthodox.”

What evoked that characterization, as it happens, was his interview by the New York Times about the recent Israeli government decision to expand an area to the south of the current Kosel Maaravi plaza, for feminist and non-Orthodox services.  The Israeli was trying to explain why the American Jewish model of Jewish identity has not taken root in his country.  American Jews, he continued, have “a desire to bring into the tent everyone who feels Jewish,” whereas Israeli Jews, even secular ones, “live in a [Jewish] state and want a unified system.”

That “unified system” – halachah –  is, unfortunately, under attack by some American Jews, not only with regard to conduct at the Kosel but in even more important areas, like marriage and geirus.  We have to hope, against all the evidence, that our less observant brothers and sisters recognize the danger – to themselves above all – of promoting a “multi-winged” model of “Judaisms,” instead of recognizing the most trenchant truth: that ke’ish echad was possible only because our ancestors were neged hahar.

© 2016 Hamodia

Agudath Israel Reaction to the “Kotel Compromise”

Designating an area at the Kotel Maaravi for feminist and mixed-gender prayer not only profanes the holy site, it creates yet a further lamentable rift between Jews.

For more than three decades, the Western Wall 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 at that holy place of a standard – that of time-honored Jewish religious tradition – that all Jews, even those who might prefer other standards or none at all, can abide.

If the current plan is in fact realized, that will be no more.

Instead, there will be two options: some Jews at the Wall will pray at a space whose atmosphere respects and reflects traditional Jewish prayer, and others at a space that doesn’t.

Iranian Elephant

“Whatsa matter, you don’t like the other one?”

That was what an old-time comedian claimed his mother-in-law said when she saw him wearing one of the two neckties she gave him on his birthday.

The line comes to mind amid the lamentations over the lifting of sanctions on Iran in the wake of the country’s compliance with a main part of the deal it struck last year with the U.S. and other nations.  Iran has shipped 98 percent of its fuel to Russia, dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges so they cannot enrich uranium, and poured cement into the core of a reactor designed to produce plutonium, the other path to a nuclear weapon.

In return, though, the U.S. and its partners agreed to lift international sanctions that had crippled Iran’s economy, releasing many billions in frozen oil-sale assets.  That’s not good news for the world, to be sure.  Iran is the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world, and its religious leaders, who control the country, harbor a homicidal antagonism toward, among others, Israel.  The country was a most worthy candidate for membership in what George W. Bush named the Axis of Evil, and remains so.

Iran’s current leadership didn’t enter into the agreement out of any desire for peace or willingness to curb its nuclear ambitions.  It was brought to its economic knees by the sanctions (ridiculed as worthless when enacted), nothing more.

Still and all, seeing only the necktie not worn, the downside of the deal, isn’t right or wise.  There’s no question that the Western world’s high-stakes diplomacy with regard to Iran has made the world safer, at least for the next 10 to 15 years.

And afterward?

No one who isn’t a navi can know. But for those inclined toward informed prognostication, something to consider is the elephant in the Iranian room.

That would be the fact that the country has, in effect, two governments.  One is the elected administration of its president, Hassan Rouhani, which includes his Western-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The other is the unelected clerical and military power center, the Revolutionary Guards, controlled by Iranian “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei, who, in the end, currently rules the roost.

Mr. Rouhani is considered reformist and pragmatic.  While he toes the anti-Israel “occupier” line, he famously condemned the Nazis’ murder of Jews during the Holocaust, in pointed contrast to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Khamenei, on the other hand, although he held his nose and permitted the Iran deal to go forward, makes no bones about his antipathy (to put it mildly) toward the West, spewing anti-American and anti-Israel venom in practically all of his speeches.

And since the nuclear agreement was reached in July, his security forces have stepped up arrests of political opponents, a crackdown seen as ensuring that hardliners dominate in national elections scheduled for Feb. 26, when voters will choose a new parliament and the administrative body empowered to select the successor to the 76-year-old and ailing Khamenei.

Some observers, however, see the hard-liners’ assertiveness as evidencing panic, born of what they perceive as a confluence of internal unrest – particularly among young Iranians, who chafe under the regime’s strict religious rules, and who protested en masse against the government in 2009 – and the impact of newly opened avenues to the West.

An Iranian businessman in Tehran recently told a visiting European delegation in hushed tones that “the fear is penetration from the West through business… They want to send the message that they still count.”

Hard-liners are trying to limit the number of reformist politicians eligible to run in next month’s election.  But Iranian analysts and politicians contend that Mr. Rouhani is working with a coalition of loyalists, technocrats and moderate religious leaders, in an effort to gain control of parliament.

Mindful of Chazal’s teaching that the only semblance of nevuah these days resides in children and fools (and well aware that my childhood lies in the distant past), I will not attempt to predict whither Iran is headed – whether, by the time the Iran deal’s term expires, the country’s government will be as intractably malevolent as it is under its current high administration, or whether a new generation of Iranians, having come of age since the “Islamic Republic” was created in 1979 and unhappy with its policies and rules, will have assumed the mantle of leadership.

Will the Western world’s gamble pay off?   None of us can know.  But we can hope that it will, and be mispallel.

© 2016 Hamodia

Blame Terrorism, Not Songs

Some politicians and pundits – including several writers in Haaretz – seem misguidedly intent on extending blame for Jewish terrorism across Orthodoxy, even to the charedi community and its Torah educational system. And several have pointed to a song played at Jewish weddings as Exhibit A.

I recently shared some thoughts on the matter with the readers of Haaretz. The piece is here and here.


Merits, Not Munitions

The reporter’s question: “Should the chareidim serve in [Israel’s] military, or at least serve in some other capacity such as recognized public service commensurate with military service?”

The query was posed to me in my capacity as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison.  My response: In the view of chareidim, they are already doing so.

I explained that a religious Jew sincerely believes that his or her life, based as it is on religious observance, charity and Torah-study, helps ensure the security of Jews.

Raw power, after all, doesn’t win wars.  Even strategy isn’t decisive.  Often, what turn the historical tide this way or that are simple, unexpected happenings.

The Byzantine Empire fell when it did because a single gate to Constantinople was left open in 1453, allowing the Turks to invade and take the capital city.

World War I was famously set off by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Less known is that his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, had abandoned his plan.  But the Archduke’s driver made a wrong turn that took their vehicle to the very spot where Princip was standing.  The car stalled and Princip took advantage of the situation, firing the shots that would yield the death of 17 million people.

In October, 1907, an aspiring teenage artist took a two-day entrance exam for the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.  He thought he did well and was shocked to be informed that he hadn’t made the cut.  Dejected, he pursued a different life-path, eventually becoming the Führer of the Third Reich.

German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel took a rare leave from his post in France in 1944 to celebrate his wife’s birthday on June 6, reassured by miserable weather that the Allies would not be invading France that week.  With the weather’s sudden improvement, the Normandy invasion began in the early morning hours of Mrs. Rommel’s birthday.  By the time her husband returned to France, it was too late to repel the decisive offensive.

Some regard such history-altering occurrences as mere happenstance.  But a believing Jew knows that history is in Hashem’s hand.  That isn’t always evident, but it’s always true.

It was both, though, during the 1967 Six-Day War.  While some attribute Israel’s victory over three neighboring Arab countries, aided by others, to superior military prowess, then-IDF Director of Operations Major General (and later Israeli president) Ezer Weizmann, noting the fact that for 3 straight hours, IAF planes flew from one Egyptian airstrip to another destroying the enemy planes without the Egyptians ever radioing ahead to warn their own forces of Israeli attacks, credited “the finger of G-d.”  Haaretz’s military correspondent at the time contended that “Even a non-religious person must admit this war was fought with help from Heaven.”

The futility of trying to predict geopolitical matters is no less evident today.  Although Russia is committed to keeping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in power and Turkey is backing the Sunni majority and pushing for Assad’s ouster, the two countries have maintained generally good relations.   A year ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, celebrated an agreement for Russia to invest in a major gas pipeline, to pump Russian natural gas through Turkey to Europe.  And Mr. Putin praised his Turkish counterpart as “a strong man” willing to stand up to the West.

More recently, though, after the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai by ISIS, which Russia claims is aided by Turkey; and then Turkey’s downing of a Russian air force plane that Mr. Erdogan says violated Turkish airspace, Kremlin ideologue Dmitry Kiselyev described the Turkish leader as “an unrestrained and deceitful man hooked on cheap oil from the barbaric caliphate [ISIS].”  A recent headline in a pro-government Turkish newspaper asserted that “Putin tries to deceive the world with his lies.”

What relations between the two nations will look like a year hence, whether the war of words will evolve into a missile-and-mortars conflict or blow over, is nothing anyone can know.  But one takeaway, here as from so many happenings, is that the only thing one can reasonably expect from history is the unexpected.

I spared the reporter all those observations, offering only what he sought, a sound-bite with which (hopefully) he will balance the piece he’s writing.  But it was more than a soundbite.  It was a truth – in fact, a Chanukah truth: Divine providence is at work in the world; and spiritual merits, not superior munitions, are what matter in the end.

© 2015 Hamodia