Category Archives: Jewish Thought

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Misguided Magical Thinking

On June 5, 1944, Erwin Rommel, the greatest German general of World War II, left occupied France to return to Germany for his wife’s birthday the next day. He was expecting an American invasion of Northern France, but a storm in the region, and the chief German meteorologist’s prediction that the weather would not be changing soon, led him to conclude that an invasion was not imminent.

Mrs. Rommel’s birthday is, of course, more remembered by history as D-Day, when American troops landed at Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control.

The following year, when U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for the Japanese to surrender, a questionable translation of a Japanese word in Japan’s response may have led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A translator rendered mokusatsu – which literally means “kill with silence” and may have been intended to signal a simple reluctance for the moment to respond – as “reject.” President Truman took Japan’s reply as a statement of defiance, and ordered the bombings that took the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, half of them after months of agony.

More than thirty years earlier, the Titanic sunk, and more than 1500 people drowned in the North Atlantic Ocean. Ship lookout Fred Fleet, who survived the disaster, told the official inquiry into the tragedy that had he had binoculars, he would have spied the iceberg that sank the ocean liner in time to avoid it. Binoculars had in fact been on board, but were in a locked cupboard. The ship’s former Second Officer, David Blair, who had been removed from the ship before it sailed, neglected to leave the key with his replacement.

A birthday party, a mistranslated word, a missing key – each proved momentously consequential.

As did, more recently, a click on a computer keyboard. The consequences were not – at least as far as we know now – as momentous as the party, word or key. But history may have been changed by the click all the same.

Back in March, Clinton campaign chief John Podesta received an email warning, ostensibly from Google, informing him that someone “just used your password to try to sign into your Google account.” The message continued: “Google stopped this sign-in attempt. You should change your password immediately.”

An aide, suspicious of the message, sent it to a Clinton campaign computer technician to check it out.

“This is a legitimate email,” the aide, Charles Delavan, replied. “John needs to change his password immediately.”

And with a subsequent click on the “Google” message, a decade of emails that Mr. Podesta maintained in his personal account — a total of about 60,000 — were unlocked for the use of possible Russian hackers. Mr. Delavan, in an interview, said that his bad advice was a result of a typo: He knew this was a “phishing” attack, an attempt to fool the recipient into allowing access to his account. He had meant, he said, to type that it was an “illegitimate” email or that it was “not legitimate.”

Whether the pilfered emails, which included embarrassing exchanges about various people and things, played a truly pivotal role in eroding Mrs. Clinton’s apparent lead during the weeks before the election cannot be known. But that they drew great and negative attention isn’t disputable.

And neither is the truism that historical happenings can hang on what seem trivial, almost random, things. To some people, that is just evidence of the folly of the cosmos, the meaninglessness of life. To those of us, though, who realize that human life and history have ultimate meaning, and that a Divine hand guides both our personal lives and the collective one of the world, such “trivialities” are not trivial at all.

We tend sometimes to lose ourselves in the turmoil of our hishtadluyos, the efforts we make, as we are enjoined to do, to effect desired outcomes – personal, communal, political. And we begin to think, in the backs of our minds (or, worse, even in their fronts) that our actions per se directly bring about the results that follow. It is that sort of imagining that fuels the wild passions some exhibit about politics.

An antidote to that misguided magical thinking, a reminder of Who is always ultimately in charge, consists of contemplating just how easily the world can change through no intentional action of our own, or of any mortal.

© 2016 Hamodia

An Unfortunately Necessary Letter

I was privileged and humbled to be asked to join a group of rabbis more distinguished than I and spanning the Sephardic, Yeshivish, Hasidic, Kiruv and Centrist Orthodox world to deliver an important message.  The signatories are immediately below; and the letter, below that.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein Editor, Cross Currents

Rabbi Shalom Baum President, Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Eshel Mara D’atra, Adas Yeshurun Herzliya Synagogue Winnipeg, Canada

Rabbi Moises Benzaquen Mara D’atra, West Coast Torah Center Rosh Hayeshiva, Harkham Gaon Academy Los Angeles, CA

Rabbi Joseph Dweck Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom

Rabbi Daniel Feldman Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jacob Atlanta, GA

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg Mara D’asra, Boca Raton Synagogue Boca Raton, FL

Rabbi Micah Greenland International Director, NCSY

HaRav Mayer Alter Horowitz, Bostoner Rebbe of Yerushalayim

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky Rosh Yeshiva, Darche Noam Jerusalem, Israel

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Avraham Joseph (BAYT) Toronto, Canada

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz Rosh Beit Din, Beis Din of America and Chicago Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Avi Shafran Media Liaison, Agudath Israel of America

Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya

HaRav Michel Twerski Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jehudah Milwaukee, WI

 

 

The text of the statement:

As rabbonim and mechanchim, we are greatly concerned about the popularity in some circles of a “kiruv” approach that does not bring honor to the Torah ha-Kedoshah but, on the contrary, creates considerable chilul Hashem.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi apologized for one particularly offensive statement he made on several occasions. But he has voiced, both before and since that apology, many things that reduce complex issues to simplistic and misleading sound bites. He has also repeatedly arrogated to “know” why unfortunate things happen to various people and has presented subtle statements of Chazal in superficial and deceptive ways.

That method may entertain and even stimulate some audiences, but it does no justice to the Jewish mesorah. And, especially with the worldwide audience enjoyed by any public speech these days, misleading assertions even when offered with the best of intentions, are particularly objectionable, and even dangerous.

Jewish institutions must be discerning about the credentials and the histories of those to whom they offer the honor of acting as teachers of Torah. We urge all shuls and organizations to act responsibly and take seriously decisions about whom they invite to address their gatherings.

letter

 

Ripe Citrons and Ruby Slippers

On the first day of Sukkos, after tens of thousands of Jews had paid princely sums for flawless specimens of a particular citrus fruit, payments were made by others, too, for a very different reason.

That day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History launched a public campaign to raise $300,000 in order to restore and preserve a pair of slippers, those that were worn by the main character in the 1939 film production of a children’s classic.

“The shoes,” explained the Smithsonian, “are fragile and actively deteriorating.”  Their color, appallingly, “has faded, and the slippers appear dull and washed-out. The coating on the sequins that give the shoes their hallmark ruby color is flaking off its gelatin base. Some threads that hold sequins in place have broken.”  Something had to be done.

The campaign, which aimed at repairing the footgear and constructing a special temperature-controlled and light-controlled enclosed environment to ensure that the slippers last into perpetuity, was intended to span three weeks.  By Shemini Atzeres, though, it had already exceeded its goal, and donations continue to pour in.  Support came from 41 countries, with the highest concentration of donors in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.  And likely the fictional town of Chelm.

To paraphrase the prayer recited by mesaymim, “We expend funds and they expend funds.”  And what an intriguing contrast the respective mass expenditures provide.

“Conserving an American Icon” is what the Smithsonian dubbed its save-our-slippers movement.  “Icon” is a word borrowed from the Greek, and can mean “idol.”  Whether the good-heartedly nostalgic donors to the Keren HaSlippers, for their adoration of physical objects,  can be categorized as idolaters is not something I am prepared to say, or qualified to judge.  But such simpleminded devotion can prove something of, if an irresistible pun can be forgiven… a slippery slope.

After Yom Tov, of course, many esrogim were either consumed fresh or, processed, as jelly.  Others were just put aside to petrify.  While the fruits were immensely valued for seven days, they had an expiration date, so to speak, one unrelated to their freshness.  And that speaks to the essential difference between how a Jew looks at an esrog and how a sentimental soul sees a theatrical relic.  The esrog is a means of performing a mitzvah, not an inherent object of adulation.  It is valuable for the opportunity it provides to serve Hashem, a means toward a goal, not something to be venerated.  And so, once its purpose as a path toward the performance of a mitzvah has been fulfilled, it reverts to a mere fruit.

To be sure, there are objects in our own world that possess inherent holiness, like kodoshim, meat or flour-offerings from korbanos brought in the Beis Hamikdash; or, today, a sefer Torah.  But kodoshim is, in the end, consumed or burned, and a sefer Torah’s holiness derives from the words it contains, not from ink and parchment themselves; and when it is no longer usable, it is buried.

There are, moreover, Jews who treasure objects that were once used by great tzaddikim. But only, at least properly, because of the objects’ connection to those tzaddikim, who were in fact worthy of veneration because of the lives they lived.  Rather different, to greatly understate things, from an artifact of a theatrical production.

Non-Jews, and Jews unfamiliar with their spiritual heritage, if aware of the prices paid by observant Jews for esrogim, must think us strange.  After all, the most beautiful, symmetrical, aromatic lemon in the Trader Joe’s bin commands at most fifty cents.  And it has a nice, smooth skin, too.

And if they knew of all the other substantial expenditures we make, for talmud Torah, for Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim (for Pesach alone!), for kosher meat, for tzeddaka… they would surely think us entirely unhinged. They, though, don’t comprehend what a mitzvah means to a heartfelt Jew.

If only they could truly appreciate the meaning of a mitzvah, they would perceive the deep contrast between cherishing a meaningless prop and valuing a precious objet d’mitzvah.  If they only, so to speak, had a bren.

This past Sukkos gave us an example how starkly divergent are our world and the one “out there.”

A set of footwear was confirmed in the status of an icon, and a large sum was dedicated to its preservation – at least in the hopes of curators and now grown-up children – for eternity.

And a mitzvah was, as every year, performed at considerable expense by Jews, affording them actual access to eternity.

© 2016 Hamodia

The Sukkah Still Stands

There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set.  As a song, it is familiar to many of us who know it thanks to immigrant parents or grandparents.  And, remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song, really concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, is still tender, profound and timely.

Thinking about the song, as I – and surely others – invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written.  I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal.  But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original:

A sukkaleh, quite small,

Wooden planks for each wall;

Lovingly I stood them upright.

I laid thatch as a ceiling

And now, filled with deep feeling,

I sit in my sukkaleh at night.

 

A chill wind attacks,

Blowing through the cracks;

The candles, they flicker and yearn.

It’s so strange a thing

That as the Kiddush I sing,

The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.

 

In comes my daughter,

Bearing hot food and water;

Worry on her face like a pall.

She just stands there shaking

And, her voice nearly breaking,

Says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”

 

Dear daughter, don’t fret;

It hasn’t fallen yet.

The sukkah’s fine; banish your fright.

There have been many such fears,

For nigh two thousand years;

Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

As we approach the yomtov of Sukkos and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the midbar, we are supposed – indeed, commanded – to be happy.  We refer to Sukkos, in our tefillos as zman simchoseinu, “the time of our joy.”

And yet, at least seen superficially, there seems little Jewish joy to be had these days.  “State actors” openly threaten acheinu bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.  Enemies bent on killing Jews attack them, there and elsewhere in the world.  Here in America, an ugly current of anti-Semitism emerges at times to remind us that it thrives in the dirt underfoot.  The internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation continue to intensify and take their terrible toll.

The poet, however, well captured a Sukkos-truth.  With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure because our ultimate protection, as a people if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.

And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.

And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity.  Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, Hashem is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.

Under The Weather

With hurricane season upon us, we might learn something from the models that meteorologists offer when a large sea-storm heads for land.  Something about Shemini Atzeres.

The maps created as a storm approaches often include colored lines indicating the projected paths of the hurricane as predicted by different models, each based on its own sets of data and methodology.  The combined yield looks suspiciously like, though not as appetizing as, spaghetti.  Only one model (if even that) will end up “winning” the prediction contest.  And, as likely as not, the next storm around, a different model, based on different calculations, will emerge as the retroactively prophetic one.

“Cause and effect” is a basic principle of modern science.  By observing what seems to make happenings happen, we can predict, at least theoretically and if in possession of sufficient information, almost anything.

Weather forecasting, despite mountains of data gleaned from satellites, weather stations and previous storms, cannot even generally predict a storm’s movement or intensity beyond a day or two.

That might be attributed to the sheer amount of information needed to make a weather forecast, and the complexity of combining all the necessary elements.  There is what has whimsically been called the “Butterfly Effect” (and more soberly, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”) – the idea that even something like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Asia might have an effect on the course of a storm in the Carolinas.

But something deeper and more subtle is at work, too.  An accepted idea in modern physics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, has it that at the most fundamental strata of physical matter, there is a limit to what can be known.  The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.  So there is an inherent element of unknowableness (well, there should be such a word) in the matter comprising the universe.

What we call nature, in other words, isn’t truly predictable, or even “natural.”  Nature is just the word we use to describe miracles we’ve come to take for granted.

Consider the weird world Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, asks us to imagine, where the deceased routinely arise from their graves rejuvenated, but grain and vegetation do not exist.

In the thought experiment, a man appears holding a seed, something never seen before in this strange place.  He loosens some soil and places the tiny kernel into the ground.  The locals wonder at the oddity –why is he burying a pebble? – and are astonished when, several days later, a green sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned.  When it develops into a full-fledged plant, even – most shocking of all – bearing seeds of its own, the onlookers are flabbergasted.

Techiyas hameisim will be similarly amazing to those who will witness it, observes Rav Dessler.  What is more, in our world, a seed’s growth is itself no less a miracle, willed from above. The numerical equivalent of the word “hateva,” – “the [realm of] nature” –sefarim hakedoshim  note, equals Elokim.

Miracles we haven’t previously experienced impress us.  Miracles we live with daily are harder to appreciate.  “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” wrote the poet R. W. Emerson, “how would men believe and adore…!”

Or as famed physicist Paul Davies wrote a few years back, “The very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

The miraculous, in other words, is ubiquitous, even if the phantom of predictability lessens our appreciation of it.  Weather, though, with its fickleness, reminds us of what we easily forget: that uncertainty is the real rule, underlying even the very building blocks of matter.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “rain,” geshem, means “physical matter” as well.

There is a human entity, too, that eludes predictability.  Empires and nations rise and fall, never to rise again.  Populations are exiled from their lands and never return.  Those are “natural” rules of history.  You know the exception.

The number eight, the Maharal teaches, represents the miraculous, what lies beyond what we call nature.  Klal Yisrael, the Midrash says, is the partner of Shabbos, and hence, in a sense, the “eighth day.”

In the time of the Beis Hamikdash, on Shemini Atzeres, the “Eighth Day Festival,” after the Sukkos offerings of 70 parim representing the nations of the world, a single par, representing a singular nation, was offered.

That, on the day when we remind ourselves that there really isn’t any independent entity called “nature” – focusing on the wonder that is Klal Yisrael, and, in Tefillas Geshem, on the wonder that is rain.

© 2016 Hamodia

Greetings!

“How do you say ‘the horse died’ in Yiddish?” asked the African-American panhandler to whom I had given a quarter when he accosted me in lower Manhattan.  It was many years ago, shortly after I moved to New York.  A bit taken aback (would you not have been?) by the unexpected quiz, I responded “Der ferd iz geshtarben.”

“No,” he insisted. “A mensch shtarbt.  A ferd paigert.”  He was right, of course.  The Yiddish verb for “died” is different for a human and for an animal.

New York, I remember thinking, is an interesting place.

I never found out how my interlocutor knew Yiddish so well, but, over the ensuing years, I have met many, if less interesting, seekers of alms.

When I first began working in “the city,” as an out-of-towner unaccustomed to street beggars, I made a point of giving a coin or two to each of the bedraggled people on my route who shook a cup of coins or asked passers-by for a donation.  Chazal, after all, teach us to provide charity to all (Gittin 61a).

Rightly or wrongly, though, I eventually came to stop that practice.  There were the times when, after my small donation to an indigent person, I was besieged by theretofore hidden others who, having witnessed my largess, suddenly and magically appeared to stake their own claims. I would have had to carry a bag of quarters each day.

And I came to realize, too, that there are an abundance of agencies and charities that provide food and shelter for the homeless.  I wondered what “extras” the coins and bills in the cups would end up purchasing.  Candy bars?  Cigarettes?  Drugs?

And so, for better or worse, I joined the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers, who go about their business without acknowledging the sound of shaken change or the repeated mantras of “got any spare change?”  But I felt (and feel) bad.  I was still ignoring human beings.  That’s not something a descendant of Avraham Avinu should be able to do nonchalantly.  True, the solicitors don’t seem to mind being ignored by so many, and are seemingly happy with the “business” of the ever-present tourists.  But still.

One day not long ago, though, an elderly man sitting on the sidewalk and asking passersby for change focused on me as I approached where he sat.  “Rabbi!” he called out.  “Got anything for me?”

Having been so (somewhat) personally addressed, I had to interrupt my brisk walking.  In Manhattan, that can be dangerous; those behind you are often inhabiting alternate worlds, talking on phones or pecking out emails as they walk.  By stopping short, one can cause the pedestrian version of a vehicular pile-up.  Luckily, though, the foot traffic behind me must have naturally noted my braking, since it just flowed smoothly around me.

I wasn’t, though, about to change my callous custom.  So I just bent down to smile at the fellow and tell him that I don’t generally carry cash (which by then was true) but that I wished him a wonderful day.

I can tell a sincere smile from a contrived one, and the one he returned was the real thing. And along with it came, without a hint of cynicism, a “thank you.”

Whenever I see the fellow in his spot, I make a point of addressing him, just to smile and wish him a good day.  And each time I do, he seems genuinely pleased.  Sometimes, he even beats me to the greeting.  He doesn’t ever ask me for money.

The Gemara in Berachos (6b) quotes Rav Chalbo in the name of Rav Huna as saying: “Anyone who is greeted and does not return the greeting is called a thief.”  His source is a passuk in Yeshayahu (3:14): “The theft of the poor man is in your house.”  Rashi explains that a poor person has no possessions to steal, and so the thievery referred to must be a greeting owed him, of which he was deprived.

Presumably, if an unreturned greeting is a theft, an offered one is a gift.  My indigent friend certainly appreciates that fact.

Greeting every person we pass throughout the day isn’t very practical, and would seem eccentric.  In some cases, personal interactions might even be inappropriate. But in so many others, the opposite is true.  The hurried nature of modern life shouldn’t obscure the testimony of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Brachos 17a), that no one ever beat him to a greeting, as he was always first to offer one, “even [to] a non-Jew in the marketplace.”

© 2016 Hamodia

 

Commanded

Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, a number of media, including the Wall St. Journal and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, found a good “Jewish” story in the popularity and abundance of dogs in Tel Aviv.

Talk about pnei hador kipnei hakelev, the prediction in massechta Sotah (49b) that, with the approach of the Geulah, “the face of the generation will be the face of a dog.”

Tel Aviv, it was reported, is home to 413,000 people and 30,000 dogs, and, declaring itself the friendliest city in the world for dogs, it recently hosted a “dog festival” cutely called “Kelaviv.”

Our mesorah is undeniably sensitive to concern for animals.  Not only were Yaakov Avinu and  Moshe Rabbeinu  caring shepherds, but the Torah prohibits causing an animal unnecessary pain.

I recall as a young boy how my father, shlita, scooped a pair of injured birds from a street and brought them home to care for them.  In my own home (which over the years has hosted, among other animals, a goat, an iguana and a tarantula), even insects are captured and released rather than killed.

But like most ideals, concern for animals can be taken too far. The “animal rights” group PETA’s founder once declared that that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”  More infamously, she coined the aphorism “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” reflecting a philosophy nothing short of perverse.

Torah-committed Jews – and all thoughtful human beings – maintain a clear and crucial distinction between the animal sphere and the human one.  Animals may be forced to work and may be killed for food.  But humans may not, because we are the pinnacle of creation, and are alone gifted with free will.

In my role as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison, I regularly receive requests for public comment.  A number of years ago, a call came in from a major media outlet producing a national program.  Flattered, I asked what presumably weighty topic was to be explored.  I was thoroughly deflated to hear the response: “Rabbi, we’d like to get your take on the question of whether pets go to heaven.”

I politely declined the offer to comment but then changed my mind.  What I realized is that many of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time – indeed of any time – touch upon the special distinction of humanness.  The subject may be the beginning of life or its end; the meaning of family, or of decency.  If humans see themselves as mere mammals, they end up in a very different place than if they see themselves as baalei bechirah, creatures with a mission, and the ability to undertake their individual roles in its attainment.

So, as it happens, the Tel Aviv dog articles are not immaterial to Rosh Hashanah at all.  They can serve to make us think a bit, and remind us of why pets, and all animals, while they may well serve a higher purpose and achieve a tikkun in their service to us baalei bechirah, do not in fact possess the potential, as we do, to “go to heaven.”

The Berditchever conveys a pithy and pertinent thought on the wording of one of the Torah’s prohibitions of idol worship: bowing down before “the sun, moon or other heavenly bodies that I have not commanded” (Devarim 17:3).

We may not genuflect to the sun, but we may do so to a human being.  The navi Ovadiah, for instance, bowed before his master Eliyahu.  Explained the Berditchever: People, by virtue of our being commanded creations, intended to not just exist but to shoulder responsibility, are singular parts of creation.  Our being commanded exalts us, places us on a plane above everything else in the universe.

The sun and the moon – and animals – are not charged, or able, to choose. They are bounded by their natures and their instincts.

Not so, us.

We may, to be sure, lapse into “instinctive” living at times.  But we have the ability to transcend our failures.  And that’s why Rosh Hashanah, when we are judged for our choices, is described both as a Yom Hadin, a Day of Judgment, and as a festive holiday.  Even as we face our failures and stand kivnei maron, “like sheep,” before the Judge of all, we celebrate with our seudos Yom Tov.  Because we are not sheep.  We are commanded beings – a fact that should fill us with both awe and joy.

© 2016 Hamodia

Tempest in a Tallis

The image was, to be sure, jarring: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump being draped in a tallis.

By an African-American pastor.

In a Detroit church.

To resounding applause.

Bishop Wayne Jackson of the Great Faith Ministries in Detroit effected the atifah while most of us were listening to the Krias HaTorah of Parashas Re’eh, after the candidate addressed the minister’s congregation in an attempt to garner votes from a segment of the population not naturally supportive of his candidacy.

“Let me just put this on you,” Pastor Jackson said, identifying the garment as a prayer shawl “straight from Israel,” and The Donald, although he did look a mite befuddled, didn’t resist.

The congregation was effusive in its praise of the spectacle.  Some Jewish media, clergyfolk and armchair pundits, though, considerably less so.

Some took the humor route, like writer Yair Rosenberg, who speculated that “Trump was finally embracing his role as a fringe candidate.”

Others, though, were outraged at, as several described it, the “cultural misappropriation.”

One commentator called it “sacrilege” for Mr. Trump, a non-Jew, to dare to wear a “sacred garment of Jews.”   Another, growing apparently increasingly apoplectic, could only comment: “The pastor just gave Trump a tallis from Israel. Which is just … no. Just no. No no no.”

Reform rabbi Ron Kronish, the founder and senior advisor for the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, was appalled by the scene, which he described as “a totally absurd distortion of the meaning of an important Jewish ritual object, which is used by Jews for prayer all over the world.”

Nor could the rabbi resist the opportunity to denigrate Mr. Trump (ignoring the candidate’s karka olam passivity throughout the tallis-donning, which was unexpectedly sprung upon him by the pastor), creatively suggesting that the tallis “is a symbol of humility before G-d” and that while he “would hope that Mr. Trump would not misappropriate this ritual object for his travels… with this megalomania [sic] almost anything is possible.”

Conservative rabbi Danya Ruttenberg huffed that “A Jewish prayer shawl… is a ritual garment. Meant to be worn only by Jews. This is the worst kind of appropriation.”

And Modern Orthodox rabbi Seth Farber expressed his own great discomfort with the use of a “holy object” for “political purposes.”

Now, there is certainly something to be upset about when non-Jews utilize objects associated with Judaism to try to lure ignorant Jews away from their religious heritage.  Tallisos, among other things, are routinely employed by missionaries to put a deceptive “Jewish gloss” on decidedly un-Jewish beliefs.

And the Detroit spectacle, too, in fact had distinct Christian overtones.  While his victim was trapped in the tallis, Pastor Jackson offered him a second gift, two copies (one for Mrs. Trump) of something called the “Jewish Heritage Study Bible,” which includes distinctly Christian elements.  The pastor also saw fit to quote from the Christian bible at that moment.

He, moreover, shared a distinctly un-Jewish description of a tallis, understanding it, apparently, as a good-luck talisman of sorts (over which, he explained, he had fasted and prayed) that, when Mr. Trump will wear it, will “lift you up.”

But the clergyman was not aiming his act or comments at Jews, but rather at Mr. Trump and the congregation.  The howls of outrage, I think, say more about the howlers than about the poor pastor or the recipient of his gifts.

The misappropriation of Judaism that more merits vexation is various Jewish clergy’s abusing holy pesukim to justify some of the most decidedly un-Jewish ways of life.

We might wince at bit, or even smirk, at appropriations of things like a tallis or menorah or yarmulke (a Jewish article that most every politician, at least along the coasts, has donned on countless occasions).  But waxing indignant over such sillinesses bespeaks being overly sensitive – and insufficiently appreciative of the fact that, despite the dormant, and occasionally not-so-dormant, anti-Semites that infect parts of the nation, so many Americans value, even venerate, things Jewish, and Jews.

The reverend’s reverence for the tallis and his excitement over its Israeli origin – like the blowing of shofaros at civil rights rallies or Pesach “Sedarim” at the White House – should evoke not indignation but perhaps something akin to gratitude.  Gratitude, that is, for Hashem’s allowing so many of us Jews to serve out our exile-sentence today in a place where we are not only not hated and hunted but actually, in some ways, appreciated, even revered.

© Hamodia 2016

Silence Can Be Golden

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

The Enemy

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