Category Archives: Jewish Thought

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Make Learning, Not War

I don’t know about you, but until President Trump’s trip to the Middle East last month, I had never heard of a “sword dance.”

Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, you’ll recall, were welcomed to Saudi Arabia at the Murabba Palace, near Riyadh, where they joined a lively group of Saudis clad in traditional Arab garb and headdress in a ceremony known as the ardah, whose choreography includes the brandishing of swords, in rhythm with tribal chanting and drumming.

Sword dances, I came to discover, are a feature of much of the Arab world, but also of other cultures, like those of China, Turkey, India and Pakistan.

A sword is also the image on the Saudi national flag, and weapons of various sorts are prominent in other countries’ flags as well, like Angola (a machete), Kenya (spears), Oman (swords) and Mozambique (an AK-47 and bayonet). Hands clenching two AK-47s are featured on the Fatah movement’s flag, which also includes the image of a hand grenade and is graced with some blood-red Arabic text as well. (I can’t find a translation of the words but am pretty sure they aren’t “give peace a chance.”) Hamas’ logo settles for swords…

To read further, please click here.

Science and Scientism

A high school science teacher in Wellston, Ohio was the focus of a front page New York Times story last week. James Sutter was subtly lionized by the report’s writer, who sympathized with the teacher’s tragic burden.

That would be 11th grader Gwen Beatty, who wouldn’t accept his teachings about global warming.

Mr. Sutter ascribed the observed ongoing warming of the Earth to heat-trapping gases released by burning fossil fuels. Fuels “like the coal her father had once mined,” the paper of record helpfully added.

And when the teacher described the flooding, droughts and fierce storms that scientists predict within the century if such carbon emissions are not sharply reduced, Miss Beatty dared to observe that “Scientists are wrong all the time.”

They might be entirely right here, of course, and what Mr. Sutter asserted is definitely the scientific consensus at present. But then again, his student’s broader observation, over the course of history, is certainly true.

To its credit, the article, although it cast Mr. Sutter as a noble white knight fighting for the future of the planet, acknowledged that he “occasionally fell short of his goal of providing… calm, evidence-based responses. ‘Why would I lie to you?’ he demanded one morning. ‘It’s not like I’m making a lot of money here’.”

But the piece makes clear its premise that global warming is real, that it threatens the future, and that it is caused by – and can be arrested by – human beings.

But Ms. Beatty isn’t ready to buy in. “It’s like you can’t disagree with a scientist or you’re ‘denying science,”’ she told friends.

Eventually, the student left the class and hasn’t returned. Her teacher, disappointed, said, “That’s one student I feel I failed a little bit.”

Whatever the truth about the cause of global warming, the threat it poses and what humans can do to slow it, the high schooler is anything but a failure.

Before global warming became the cri de coeur of enlightened scientists, the looming danger was overpopulation. In 1968, biologist Paul R. Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb,” in which he proposed radical steps for preventing the realization of his prediction of worldwide famine by 1988.

And in the 1970s scientists sounded an alarm that the world was cooling.

Pure science is sublime. It yields greater understanding of the world and improves lives and as it communicates an awe of Creation, inspires. But when it seeks to imagine the unexaminable past or predict the unknowable future, it ventures beyond its proper limits.

Mr. Sutter is well-meaning, and can’t be blamed for not doubting the scientific consensus. But he might try harder to better appreciate a student who, rightly or wrongly, is skeptical about what is ultimately only indirect evidence.

And he might wish to consult Israeli chemist Daniel Shechtman, who in 2011 won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of something called “quasicrystals.” He had seen a diffraction pattern in a heated metal that resembled the atomic order of a crystal but whose symmetry seemed different from that of any known crystal.

When Professor Shechtman brought his observation to the head of his research lab, he was directed to a basic textbook on crystallography and told to read up on the subject. When he insisted that he had seen something new, he was asked to leave his research group.

Undaunted, he submitted a paper on the topic to the Journal of Applied Physics. It was rejected. The celebrated chemist Linus Pauling said Shechtman was “talking nonsense” and that “there is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”

What became apparent with time, though, was that the stubborn professor had indeed discovered a new type of crystal. His Nobel Prize is a monument to the importance of recognizing that science is always a work in progress.

A world that progressed beyond idols of stone and wood has compulsively sought new objects of veneration. Some have been political systems, the various “isms” – nationalism, Nazism, Communism – that have been inflicted on societies over the centuries; others are isms of a different sort, like atheism, or scientism – the unyielding and unquestioning reverence for contemporary scientific dogmas.

It may well be that the earth is warming dangerously as a result of human activity,

But what is unarguable is that skepticism of accepted notions is the very core of the scientific method.

Or, as Professor Shechtman put it: “A good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he reads in the textbooks.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Mortal Etiquette vs. Immortal Truth

As you may have noticed, the first day of Shavuos falls on the fourth day of the week this year. Were any Tziddukim around today, they’d be unhappy. They held that Shavuos must always fall on a Sunday.

There are, however, no Tziddukim left. They, of course, were one of the camps of Jews during the Bayis Sheini period that rejected the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Torah Shebichsav – explaining, for example that “An eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, and that “totafos” refers to what we call tefillin (one of which is worn, moreover, not as the unelucidated passuk seems to state “between your eyes,” but rather above the hairline.)

The Perushim determinedly preserved the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and it is to them that we owe our own knowledge of the mesorah.

The Tziddukim’s insistence on a Sunday Shavuos, though, holds pertinence for the contemporary Jewish world.

Because the Tziddukim invoked support for their position from the Torah Shebichsav, accepting at face value the word “haShabbos” in the phrase “the day after the Shabbos” (when Sefiras Haomer was to commence). The mesorah teaches us that “Shabbos” in that passuk refers to the first day of Pesach.

But there was also an underlying human rationale to the Tziddukim’s stance. The Gemara explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety. It would be so pleasing, so proper, they reasoned, at the end of the Omer-counting, to have two days in a row – Shabbos and a Sunday Shavuos – of festivity and prayer.

“Propriety,” in fact, was something of a Tziddukian theme. The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Kadashim. The mesorah prescribes that the ketores, the incense offered there, be set alight only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand.

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

(Daf Yomi adherents recently learned [115b] about a Tzidduki attempt to indirectly, and improperly, favor a daughter in an inheritance law.)

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of the central message of Shavuos itself, when we celebrate Mattan Torah. Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous and unifying declaration there: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!”

In other words, “We will accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding. Even if it is not our own will. Even if it discomfits us. Even if we feel we have a better idea.”

It’s impossible not to see the relevance of “Naaseh v’nishma” to our current “you do you” world, to contemporary society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” to developments like a self-described “Orthodox” movement that hijacks the terminology of halachah to subvert it, in an effort to bring it “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Yiddishkeit has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter can surely emerge from a kedushah-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

Shavuos is generally treated lightly, if at all, by most American Jews. But its central theme speaks pointedly to them. Mattan Torah’s Naaseh v’nishma reminds us all about the true engine of the Jewish faith and Jewish unity – namely, the realization that Judaism, with apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2017 Hamodia

Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l: Recollections at his Shloshim

It was more than 30 years ago, in Providence, Rhode Island, that I received my first letter from Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, z”l. I still have it, and keep it in a safe place.

For a relatively young out-of-town high school rebbe /would-be writer having just made his first submission to the Jewish Observer, the flagship printed medium for the dissemination of Torah thought and perspectives, simply receiving an acceptance letter from the magazine was a wonderful surprise.

More wonderful still, though, was the warmth of the words in Rabbi Wolpin’s personal note, in which he expressed his appreciation for my offering and which was full of encouragement to keep writing. And over ensuing years, both before and after I joined the staff of Agudath Israel of America, each of the essays I wrote for the JO was acknowledged with new words of appreciation and encouragement from its editor. That was Rabbi Wolpin. He was rightly renowned as a top-notch writer and a top-notch editor. But he was a top-notch mensch, too, a top-notch nurturer, empathizer, partner and coach. And, although he was much my senior in both age and ability, he was a top-notch friend, too.

It was 1970 when Rabbi Wolpin assumed the editorship of the JO. Back then, as a high schooler myself in Baltimore’s “T.A.”, or Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, I had a keen interest in hashkafah, and a literary bent. And so I read the Jewish Observer avidly and considered Rabbi Wolpin, whose keen insights and wonderful prose animated the magazine, an intellectual hero. So it’s no wonder that first acceptance note, years later, was, and remains, cherished to me.

As does the memory of the first time I met Rabbi Wolpin in person. It was in the mid-1980s and my wife and I decided to take a long-distance shopping trip from Providence to Brooklyn one Sunday with our two youngest children. I called Rabbi Wolpin to see if we might stop by his home to meet him, and he and his rebbetzin, tibadel l’chaim tovim, didn’t hesitate to answer in the affirmative.

I vividly recall how welcoming the Wolpins were to us when we arrived at their home. And I remember, too, how our two-year-old son, our first boy, ran around the room and repeatedly tossed off the yarmulke we had recently begun putting on his head. I was embarrassed by that behavior, even a little worried that it might herald more rebellious actions in the future. Rabbi Wolpin laughed and assured me that it was perfectly normal and that I had no reason to be concerned. I was greatly reassured. (The little boy is a respected talmid chacham and rosh chaburah in a large kollel today, with a family of his own – and he keeps his head properly covered.)

A decade after that visit, at the invitation of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, we moved to New York and I was privileged to joined the staff of Agudath Israel. A large part of that privilege was being able to work with Rabbi Sherer, of course, and with Rabbi Wolpin.

Whenever I had the opportunity to interact with him, the experience was rewarding. Whether it was on a professional level, regarding articles in the JO or interaction with various media, or on a personal level, like when one of us happened to pass by the office of the other and stopped in to ask a question or offer an observation, I was impressed anew each time by his incredible knowledge, savvy and insight.

And then, as I came to realize what Rabbi Wolpin’s position as the JO’s editor actually entailed, I was much more than impressed.

Soliciting manuscripts, fielding submissions (including the surely difficult task of sending rejection letters that were nevertheless kind and encouraging), analyzing and editing copy, interacting with writers and editorial board members – not to mention penning his own perspectives and well-wrought commentaries – were all part of his portfolio. And I don’t remember ever seeing his face show any of the pressures under which he labored. Always a smile, always a happy greeting, almost always a good pun or humorous observation. Just thinking of him now makes me smile as I write.

Above all, perhaps, his respect for talmidei chachamim was a life-lesson in itself. He was, it seemed to me, in almost constant contact with not only the respected Rabbanim on his editorial board but with members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. He would consult them on “judgment call” issues and they would call him with concerns and guidance. And he was always appreciative, seeing himself as fortunate for the very fact of those interactions. He was a modest man, and, despite his important position in Klal Yisrael, kept as low a profile as he could manage. While he was a true and illustrious oseh, a “doer,” he saw himself more as a me’aseh, a facilitator of the work of others.

There can be little question that the world of intelligent, well-written and compelling Torah thoughts in English today derived directly from the toil of a Seattle-born, public school-attending melamed’s son, who was born in 1932 and, at 15, traveled to New York to study at Mesivta Torah Vodaath. There, the boy, who would become the Rabbi Nisson Wolpin the world of Torah would come to know and revere, absorbed the teachings and devotion to Klal Yisrael of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, and became close to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l and Rav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l. Several years later, he joined the yeshivah founded by Rav Simchah Wasserman, zt”l and then studies in Bais Medrash Elyon in Monsey.

After his, and the JO’s, retirement in 2008, Rabbi Wolpin effortlessly slipped back into the life of the beis medrash, which he had really never left. Two years later, he and, tbl”ct, Mrs. Wolpin moved to Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Wolpin’s nurturing (and skillful editing) of younger writers like my dear friend Yonasan Rosenblum and me, and his featuring of seasoned scribes like Rabbi Nosson Scherman, shlita, and Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, shlita, made the JO what it was – and in the case of the former group, helped us develop our critical thinking and writing skills.

Recently, I had the opportunity to leaf through scores of Jewish Observers. It was a bittersweet experience. I was enthralled anew at the quality of the writing, so much of it not only perceptive but prescient, and so much of it still timely even after the passage of many years. But I was anguished anew at the fact that the JO has long ceased publication. And, of course, well beyond that, anguished at the fact that Rav Wolpin, z”l, is no longer with us, at least not in person, here in this world.

Yehi zichro baruch.

© 2017 Hamodia

POTUS and the Piñata

“Fire this ignorant teacher for inciting violence against our POTUS,” read one of the many overheated comments to l’affaire piñata (forgive the language cholent). “More indoctrination from the filthy left,” contended another commenter. On the other side of the controversy was someone who wrote, “Um … This is genius. This teacher deserves a medal.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with the Colorado contretemps that birthed the above: A celebration of the Mexican cultural holiday of Cinco de Mayo at Roosevelt High School, in the Rocky Mountain state town of Johnstown, included an assault on the aforementioned POTUS, or President of The United States.

Well, the assault, while physical, wasn’t on Mr. Trump’s person but rather on his countenance, which graced a piñata, a papier-mâché figure traditionally filled with sweets, released by celebrants’ banging at the container with sticks until it breaks. Which it did here, leaving the president’s smiling, if deflated, image lying on the ground as the candies were liberated.

Whether the teacher who oversaw the celebration, who was quickly suspended, was guilty of any crime isn’t clear. The contention of some present that the other side of the piñata featured Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto certainly complicates any judgment.

The candy kerfuffle raises the issue of teachers’ conveying their personal political or social attitudes to their charges. That educators should not engage in overt politicking is entirely reasonable, of course; but entirely inevitable is that more subtle, and thereby more insidious, conveyances of their outlooks will take place.

I am reminded of my English class in 1970. Our teacher – I’ll call him Mr. Levin – was an unabashed liberal, an implacable foe of then-POTUS Richard Nixon, and a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War, societal moral norms and all that stood in the way of what Mr. Levin considered progress. Teenage me, by contrast, was vocally contrarian whenever political or cultural matters came up in class readings, assignments and discussions; the teacher and I thus had many opportunities for what might politely be called dialectic. My grades in Mr. Levin’s class were not what I felt they deserved to be, but I attributed that to a persistent recurrence of the laziness with which I had been accurately diagnosed. I wondered, though, if there may have been more to my B’s and C’s than met the eyes.

And so, one day, when the members of the class were assigned to write a poem about any topic we chose, a devious idea dawned: I would write an entirely disingenuous anti-war sonnet, making no more of an effort than I ever did, just to see if it might affect my grade. I held my nose and did the deed. Sure enough, I received an A+, my first (and, I think, only) one. Mr. Levin even hailed my accomplishment in a glowing comment beneath the grade.

And people wonder why I can sometimes be cynical.

What I gleaned from that experience was the realization that grades sometimes reflect a grader’s biases rather than a gradee’s mastery of material or skill. And that teachers, being human, bring their personal attitudes and outlooks to their classrooms.

That truism escapes some public school parents, who delude themselves into thinking that their children’s minds are being filled with only facts and skills, not with the values of those into whose care they place their progeny. All classroom education, no matter the subject, involves a relationship between teacher and student. And so, the character and life-philosophy of a teacher is always – or always should be – an important consideration.

Including for those of us who entrust our children to Torah institutions. You won’t find anyone more dedicated than I to the view of secular education expressed by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. He rejected the valuation of secular studies as limited to their “practical utility,” an attitude, he maintained, that deprives young Jews from “the pure joy of acquiring knowledge for its own sake.” He asserted that secular learning can be “a road leading to the ultimate, more widespread dissemination of the truths of Judaism.”

But for that to be so, it must be transmitted by Jews who comprehend that purpose. If we dismiss “English,” the catch-all term for secular studies, as unimportant, and thus entrustable to teachers who have knowledge of facts but not the perspective for presenting them in a Torah context, we fail our children.

Creating a capable cadre of bnei Torah who can expertly teach writing, literature, science and history from an authentic Torah perspective requires the guidance of Gedolim. It is guidance, though, we do well to seek.

An edited version of this essay appears in Hamodia

What Worked for Us: Some Shidduch Advice

 “Past performance does not guarantee future results.”

I don’t own stocks, but am familiar with that disclaimer, required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for ads peddling investment opportunities.

It’s cited here because I’m about to share some choices, borne out as wise ones, that my wife and I made over the past decade and a half of involvement in the shidduchim of our children, as of recently, b”H, all married.

Of course, we know that the bottom line wasn’t our wisdom, hence the SEC-style disclaimer. That we so delight in our children-in-law, all of whom we see as our own children, if shared with our wonderful mechutanim, is, in the end, the result of siyatta diShmaya. And part of our brachah  is who our children themselves are – which I attribute to the one of us who did most of the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) in raising them. And both she and I have, as well, great zechus avos v’imahos.

So I can’t guarantee that doing what we did will yield the same results with which we’ve been blessed. I’m convinced, though, that those still “in the parashah” of shidduchim might find some of our choices to be worthy of consideration.

There are, of course, communities within Klal Yisrael that have formulated particular approaches to the various aspects of shidduchim. I don’t mean to speak to members of those communities, as they presumably follow the hadracha they have received. What follows here are simply the lessons gleaned by one pair of average parents, not authoritative pronouncements born of scientific analysis or nevuah.

 

We don’t run the show.

Although parents must make their proper hishtadlus in shidduchim, as in all things, we tried to avoid the trap of imagining that we can somehow know everything there is to know about a person or a family; or that we could, no matter the strength of our resolve and imagined wisdom, determine, or even imagine, the future. There are always myriad “unknown unknowns,” not only in the future but in the present. All one can, and must, do is try to do what is right. The ultimate success of any venture is always in Higher hands.

Corollary: Questions about any serious health issues are not improper. Questions about non-serious ones are. Ditto about the health histories of a prospective shidduch’s parents or grandparents.

Corollary: When it comes to researching a family’s reputation, dig, but don’t excavate. It’s a hishtadlus, not an FBI investigation.

 

Fretting is forbidden.

During “dry spells,” we didn’t engage in, or allow, handwringing. It serves no constructive purpose, and is in fact destructive in many ways. “Bishaah tovah” isn’t just a throwaway phrase, or even simply a brachah. It is a truth. There are auspicious times for things to happen, and we aren’t privy to knowing those times. And, as the chassidishe vort has it, all yiush (despair) is shelo midaas (without thought).

 

Look for the best match.

That is to say, not necessarily the most meyuchas young man or woman, the most high-community-status family, the wealthiest, or the one who is most like oneself… What is being sought is the best match for the person being matched. It’s a life-partner being looked for, after all, not a badge of honor, stock portfolio or carbon copy. When my wife and I had the luxury of choosing among several proposed possible shidduchim for one of our children, we always kept paramount in our minds that we were seeking the best complement for the particular son or daughter.

And never, after the fact of a successful shidduch, did we ever allow ourselves to think that “We could have done better.” There is no “better”; there is only what is right. And what’s right is better than better; it’s best.

Corollary: While a young person is wise to confide concerns to his or her parents, and the parents are wise to offer their feelings, the final judgment about continuing, discontinuing or becoming engaged must be the young person’s. And no pressure to make a particular decision should ever be brought to bear on him or her.

Corollary: Making a particular educational background or yeshiva gedolah (or type of one) a requirement for a young man is unwise. As is making cooking skills, appearance, or a particular vocation or income-potential a requirement for a young woman. Adjustments to “dream futures” can be – and usually are – made by married couples. All that really matter are the shared goals and the suitability of the individuals to each other.

Hint: Shidduchim suggested by siblings or friends of the single are particularly worth pursuing.

 

…And for the biggest mentch.

There are many maalos that may inhere in a young man or young woman being proposed as a shidduch. For men, it might be excellence in Torah-study or accomplishments in other realms; for women, it might be scholastic achievement or exemplary homemaker skills. The most important qualifying credential, in our experience, is mentchlichkeit. The personal character of a person, we believed and believe, stands well above and beyond all others on the roster of maalos. When “doing research” on a prospect, while we were certainly interested in accomplishments, reputations and skills, what really mattered to us were accounts of how the prospect interacted with others, and accounts of their personal good will and consideration of others. That might seem obvious, but it can’t be sufficiently stressed.

Parents of a young person seeking a spouse, and the young person, are not yeshivah administrators seeking a Rosh Yeshivah or a hotelier looking to hire a caterer. We’re talking marriage here – building a happy home and raising a Torah-centered family. Eyes must always be kept on the prize, and it’s not a sefer or a cooking award.

Hint: Ask someone who would know about how the prospective shidduch davens.

Corollary: Baalei teshuvah should be given the same consideration as anyone, if not greater.

Corollary: If asked for a photo, the ideal answer is a simple “no.”

 

Don’t promise what can’t be delivered.

While there are stories of parents who pledged financial assistance they simply didn’t have and who miraculously became beneficiaries of unforeseen windfalls, “ein somchin al hanes” is the operative principle in life. We considered it wrong to pretend or imply in any way that we had resources we did not. In fact, throughout our shidduch-making years, we were never in a position to pledge support – any support – to a potential marriage partner for our daughters (nor did we ever request support for our sons). Did that shrink the pool of prospects? Surely it did (at least in the case of daughters), but that wasn’t a bad thing. It narrowed down the “contenders,” making decisions less fraught.

As a result, our daughters married young men who either did not, to their credit, expect support, or who didn’t need it. Some of those chassanim, now all wonderful fathers, intended to learn for years, and did so. They and their wives were willing to live simply – in some cases very simply. Others pursued parnassah, either part-time or full-time. All, though, are bnei Torah who are koveia itim laTorah and dedicated to raising their own children to cherish Torah and Yiddishkeit. Does anything else really matter?

 

No “no”s after one meeting.

Unless a prospective partner is judged to be utterly, outlandishly, painfully “wrong” after a first meeting, a second one is always proper. Few people are zocheh to be able to perceive all that needs perceiving – or to project all that needs projecting – when meeting a stranger for the first time.

 

Chasunos are not marriages.

Chasunos last a few hours. Marriages, with determination and siyata diShmaya, last lifetimes. And there is zero correlation between, on the one hand, the number of hot dishes (or lack of them) at a reception, the number of courses at a seudah, the reputation of the photographer or the lavishness of a wedding hall and, on the other, the success of a marriage or the happiness of the couple. Even at the chasunah itself, the joy of the friends of the chassan and kallah and the others present, and the joining of two sets of parents in a shidduch are what beget the true simchah of the event. Nothing else makes any difference

The rule should be that when there is a choice, be it ring, gifts, hall, caterer, band, photographer, or any other element of an engagement and chasunah, the less expensive, more simple option should win out. It can’t be sufficiently stressed that Thoreau’s advice “simplify, simplify” could not be better placed than in the context of a chasunah.

I realize that bands, photographers and “high end” establishments all need to make their parnassos. But they’re not endangered; there will always be people who will dismiss the advice my wife and I offer here. If you’re smart, though, you won’t.

And may you have hatzlacha in all.

© 2017 Binah Magazine

Fear Itself

A navi I’m not, but, still, it was good timing. Several weeks back, at the height of the fears fomented by bomb threats against U.S. Jewish institutions, I wrote an article for an Israeli newspaper gingerly pointing out that, of the nearly 150 threats and building evacuations and searches, not a single bomb had been found.

All that is needed, I noted, to make an effective anonymous crank call, is an unlocked cellphone and a prepaid SIM card – and “using the internet to make an untraceable call is even easier.”

I pictured a shlub without much of a life making such calls, to wield “power” or get attention, “Maybe he is even capable of true violence,” I wrote, “but then again, maybe not.”

It turned out, of course, that many, if not most, of the threats were indeed baseless, although it wasn’t a shlub who made the calls (hey, I said I’m not a navi) but, apparently, an emotionally compromised individual in Israel.

Jew-hatred surely exists, even in the U.S. There are, as there have long been, bands of neo-Nazis, radical leftist “defenders of Palestine” and other assorted misfits with overheated imaginations preparing to wage war against an imagined Jewish menace.

I’m personally acquainted with anti-Semitism, too. When I was a youngster in Baltimore, during recess one day, a group of non-Jewish neighborhood boys asked my classmates and me if they could join our baseball game. Nice kids that we were, we said sure. Once at bat, though, the opposing team suddenly lost interest in the game and turned our own Louisville Slugger bats against us. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

And a few years later, as a teen, when my father and I would walk to shul, we’d regularly hear “Heil Hitler” shouted at us by kids. In fact, mere months ago, the same phrase was aimed at me by one of a group of boys on a city bus. (I regret not having calmly asked him his name and tried to turn the encounter into a “teaching moment.” Alas, I was so disgusted, all I could summon to say to him was a frustrated “What in the world is wrong with you?”)

But it must be admitted – and appreciated – that, unlike in some European countries, there is very little actual violence against Jews in America today. In 2015, the ADL cited fully seven cases of stones or eggs having been thrown, or bb-pellets shot, at Jews – nationwide, over the course of the year. The sort of serious anti-Jewish knifings, shootings and arsons that have occurred elsewhere are simply not part of the American scene.

And as far as mainstream America is concerned, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that Jews are the most warmly regarded religious group in the country. My personal experience, despite outliers like the boy on the bus, corroborates that.

More emblematic of America than name-callers or stone-throwers were the non-Jewish riders of the subway in New York City in February who, encountering anti-Semitic graffiti on a subway map, banded together to erase it. Or the Montana town that, faced with a planned anti-Jewish march nearby, issued a resolution “denouncing hate, bigotry, and intolerance, which today masquerade under euphemisms such as ‘white nationalism’ and the ‘alt-right.’”

We Jews, for good reason, live our lives against a subtle backdrop of fear, even in countries as wonderful as the one we American Jews are fortunate to call home at present. But keeping perspective is always proper. One of the k’lalos, after all, in the Tochachah in parshas Bechukosai (Vayikra 26:36) is that we will flee at “the sound of a rustling leaf,” that we’ll perceive enemies where there aren’t any. And that is a bane, not an ideal.

There are times for anxiety, to be sure. But there are also times, too, to feel deeply thankful for our security. The words many attribute to R’ Nachman miBreslov, that, on the narrow bridge that is the world, the main thing is “not to be afraid at all,” are not, in fact, his words. What he wrote (Likutei Tinyana, 48) was not “lo l’fached”—“[one should] not fear,” but, rather, “shelo yispached” – “[that one] not become fearful,” not, in other words, frighten himself.

I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to potential danger for Jews. I’m not in the “It can’t happen here” camp. Of course “it” can. Jewish fortunes have turned on dimes throughout history.

It just isn’t happening now, and it behooves us to reflect on that great brachah.

© Hamodia 2017

The Riddle of the Fours

Four questions. Four sons. Four expressions of geulah.

Four cups of wine. Dam (=44) was placed, in Mitzrayim, on the doorway (deles, “door,” being the technical spelling of what we call the letter daled, whose value is four).

Let us move fourward – please forgive (fourgive?) me! – on the question of… why.

The chachamim who formulated the Haggadah intended it to plant important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers – especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder, our mesorah teaches, is particularly aimed.

Which it why the Seder persists, not only in the memories of all who are reading this, but in those of countless Jews who have strayed far from our mesorah.  So many Jews who are, tragically, alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even – if they have drifted too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original – to compose their own “versions.”  (I once, long ago, joked before a group that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book – though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

Part of the brilliance of the Haggadah is its employ of “child-friendly” elements.  Not just to entertain the young people at the Seder and keep them awake, but to subtly plant the seeds of important ideas in their minds and hearts.  Dayeinu and Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea are not pointless; they are pedagogy – and of the most effective sort.

There are riddles, too, in the Haggadah.  Like the Puzzle of the Ubiquitous Fours.

The most basic and urgent concept the Seder experience is meant to impart to young Jews is that Yetzias Mitzrayim forged something vital: our peoplehood.  It, in other words, created Klal Yisrael.

Before the event that we celebrate on the Seder night took place, a multitude of Yaakov Avinu’s descendants were in Mitzrayim. Each individual rose or fell on his or her own merits.  And not all of them. Chazal teach us, merited to leave Mitzrayim.  Those who did, though, who emerged from their blood-adorned doorways and passed through the channel of the Yam Suf, were reborn as something new: a people.

And so, at the Seder, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of an interwoven whole, members of a nation unconstrained by geographical boundaries but inexorably linked by history, destiny and Hashem’s love.  We impress our charges with the fact that they are links in a shimmering ethereal chain stretching back to when our people was divinely redeemed from mundane slavery in Egypt and then entered a sublime servitude of a very different sort – to HaKadosh Boruch Hu – at Har Sinai.

Thus, the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis a vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very precise one.  We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information that we are communicating; it is identity.  Although the father of the home may be conducting the Seder, he is acting not in his normative role as teacher of Torah but rather in something more akin to a maternal role, as a nurturer of the neshamos of the children present, an imparter of identity.  And thus, in a sense, he is acting in a maternal role.

Mothers, of course, are the parents who most effectively mold their children, who most make them who they are.  That, interestingly, parallels the halachic determinant of Jewish identity, which is dependent on mothers.  While a Jew’s shevet follows the paternal line, whether one is a member of Klal Yisrael or not depends entirely on maternal status.

The Haggadah may itself contain the solution to the riddle of the fours. It’s only speculation, but it has long struck me as having the ring of emes.  The recurrent numerical theme in our exquisite Haggadah, employed each year to instill Jewish identity might be reflective of that halachic status-determinant, and, at the same time, reminding us of the inestimable importance of mothers.

Because the Haggadah, after all, has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most good books’ resolutions take place.  We’re a little hazy once it’s reached, after four kosos and all, but it’s unmistakably there, in “Echad Mi Yodea” – the Seder-song that provides Jewish associations with numbers.

“Who knows four?…”

© 2017 Hamodia

Why I’m Not Bullish on Fearless Girl

For two decades, I’ve passed “Charging Bull,” the iconic bronze statue that stands near Wall Street, twice every workday when I walk from the Staten Island Ferry to my office in Manhattan. Now, I have to pass her too.

I was never particularly fond of the beast, which always struck me as a bronze descendant of the Golden Calf. Now ‘Fearless Girl,” a new statue of a young lady in high tops who leans in defiantly just a few feet from the bull’s horns, leaves me equally unimpressed.

Read more here.

Callousness or Conscientiousness?

The most incriminatory and unarguable allegation leveled by some Senate Judiciary Committee panelists against Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch was, apparently, that he isn’t Merrick Garland. Guilty as charged.

Mr. Garland, of course, for anyone blessedly short of political memory, was former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat left vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, 2016. Republican senators refused to schedule a hearing for that nominee since, they argued, a new president would be inaugurated a mere ten months later.

In this observer’s mind, and entirely unrelated to either my feelings about Mr. Obama or the fact that Judge Garland is Jewish, that refusal was a failure of congressional conscience. No matter how lame a presidential duck may be (and ten months is a substantial amount of time for a waterfowl to limp about), a sitting president has a right to nominate a candidate for a vacant Supreme Court seat; and the legislative branch, a responsibility to fairly consider him.

But the fact that something unconscionable was done cannot change reality. Bad things happen (or are wrought), but life must go on. Mr. Garland’s mistreatment does not implicate Mr. Gorsuch in any way. And the latter, as per his reputation and his thoughtful responses during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, is an individual eminently qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Less incriminatory, and entirely arguable, were two other charges brought against the nominee: that he once made remarks disparaging to expectant mothers, and that he showed callous misjudgment in a fraught legal case, ruling for an employer against an employee.

In the first case, a former law student of Judge Gorsuch alleged that, in a course at the University of Colorado Law School last year, he told his class that employers, specifically law firms, should ask women seeking jobs about their plans for establishing a family, and implied that women routinely manipulate companies when they are interviewed, in order to extract maternity benefits.

Asked if the charge was true, Mr. Gorsuch replied, “No.”

“I would have never have said [such a thing],” he continued, “I’d be delighted to actually clear this up.”

In a letter to the committee, another student in the class disputed the account. And a former law clerk for Mr. Gorsuch, Janie Nitze, said that when she heard the allegations, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” She and 10 other female former clerks also sent a letter to the committee in support of the candidate. In it, the 11 women asserted that “The judge has spoken of the struggles of working attorneys to juggle family with work obligations; not once have we heard him intimate that those struggles are, or should be, shouldered by one gender alone.”

The second attempt to portray Mr. Gorsuch as an ogre involved the case of a truck driver who was fired for abandoning his cargo trailer when its brakes froze in sub-zero temperatures. The unfortunate man, after repeatedly being told by the company to stay put since help was on the way, decided – entirely understandably, considering the temperature and the malfunctioning of the heater in the truck cab – to detach the trailer from the cab and drive away.

The legal question in the case was whether a “whistleblower” provision that protects a driver when he “refuses to operate a vehicle” because of safety concerns covered the trucker who chose instead to operate his vehicle.

It may have been heartless for the employer to fire the trucker, in other words, but did it violate the letter of the statute? Judge Gorsuch, in a dissent to a 2016 ruling by his two colleagues on a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, contended that it did not.

For that stance, the nominee was painted as heartless himself, unconcerned with the “little guy.” But an American judge, of course, no less than, l’havdil, a posek in a monetary issue, must render his dispassionate judgment, devoid of sympathy or antipathy toward either litigant, “big company” or “little guy.” The Torah enjoins us to not “favor the face of the poor one” in court (Vayikra, 19:15).

In 97 percent of 2,700 cases, Mr. Gorsuch noted, his judgments were part of unanimous decisions; and he was in the majority 99 percent of the time.

No, he’s not Merrick Garland, it must be conceded. He is Neil Gorsuch.

And eminently qualified for a seat on the republic’s highest court.

© 2017 Hamodia