Category Archives: Personalities


Conservatism in Crisis

If the phrase “alt-right” puts you in mind of a computer keyboard, you are (blessedly) not following the presidential campaign.

Even if you are aware of the phrase, though, you may not have a good handle on what it means.  For good reason.  Many don’t.  It’s a hazy phrase.

The term, which is shorthand for “alternative right,” has been in circulation for several years, but it enjoyed a recent moment in a particularly bright spotlight when presidential candidate Clinton, in a speech, sought to make a distinction between mainstream Republicans and what she characterized as holders of a “racist ideology,” i.e. the “alt-right,” who she says are a major base of support for her opponent.

The “alt-right” movement – if it can even be given a label implying some unifying philosophy – means different things to different people, as it includes disparate elements.

What those elements generally share is a dedication to family values; a reverence for Western civilization and rejection of multiculturalism; an embrace of “racialism,” the idea that different ethnicities exhibit different characteristics and are best segregated from one another; and, consonant with that latter credo, opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal.

Mrs. Clinton referenced the alt-right because her rival Donald Trump recently named a new campaign chief, Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a conservative website some have associated with the group.

The alt-right’s “intellectual godfather,” in many eyes, is Jared Taylor. Although he characterizes himself as a “white advocate,” he strongly rejects being labeled racist, contending that his “racialism” is “moderate and commonsensical,” a benign form of belief in the “natural” separation of races and nationalities.  He contends that white people promoting their own racial interests is no different than other ethnic groups promoting theirs.  He has said, “I want my grandchildren to look like my grandparents. I don’t want them to look like Anwar Sadat or Fu Manchu.”

Pointing to the homogeneity of places of worship, schools and neighborhoods, he insists that people “if left to themselves, will generally sort themselves out by race.”

Certain of Mr. Taylor’s beliefs may resonate with some Orthodox Jews.  We may rightly eschew racism (seeing black Jews, for instance, no different from white ones), but we tend to be less than enamored of some elements of various minority cultures; we deeply value ethnic cohesion, preferring to live in neighborhoods among “our own kind”; and we have serious problems with certain elements of “progressive” western civilization and multiculturalism.

Mr. Taylor, in fact, welcomes Jews.  He has said that we “look white to him.”

That sentiment though, is not typical among others under the alt-right umbrella.

Even a nuanced rejection of non-western cultures inevitably attracts genuine racists and haters, and devolves into rejection of the eternal “other”: Jews.  The American far right has always embraced, inter alia, one or another form of Jew-hatred.  More balanced members of the alt-right refer to their “1488ers” – a reference to two well-known neo-Nazi slogans, the “14 Words” in the sentence “We Must Secure The Existence Of Our People And A Future For White Children”; and the number 88, referring to “H,” the eighth letter of the alphabet, doubled and coding for “Heil Hitler.”

And even Mr. Taylor has permitted people like Don Black, a former Klan leader who runs the neo-Nazi web forum, to attend his conferences.  He may or may not endorse Black’s every attitude, but neither has he rejected his support.

Back in the 1960s, the John Birch Society, then dedicated to the theory that the U.S. government was controlled by communists, was condemned by the ADL for contributing to anti-Semitism and selling anti-Semitic literature. The brilliant and erudite William F. Buckley Jr., the unarguable conscience of conservatism at the time, recognized the group’s nature, and the threat its extremism posed to responsible social conservatives.  In the magazine he founded, National Review, he denounced and distanced himself from the Birchers in no uncertain terms, contending that “love of truth and country call[s] for the firm rejection” of the group.

It is ironic that it has fallen to the Democratic presidential contender to make a distinction between responsible Republicanism and the current loose confederacy that includes haters.

In the wake of Buckley’s denunciation of the alt-righters of the time, some National Review subscribers angrily cancelled their subscriptions.  Others, though, were appreciative of Buckley’s stance.  One wrote: “You have once again given a voice to the conscience of conservatism.”

That letter was signed “Ronald Reagan.”

© 2016 Hamodia

Trump and The Jewish Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Hamodia


Shock Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 Hamodia


No Regrets

My employer, Agudath Israel of America, as a non-profit organization, is not permitted to endorse any candidate for public office.  I, however, write this column each week as an individual, not as an organizational representative.  Even so, though, I take no public position on the presidential race.

Aspects of the race, though, do strike me as worthy of consideration.

Like a recent radio interview with Donald Trump.  Among the candidate’s many interesting comments over the course of the campaign so far was his assertion last summer that Senator John McCain was “not a war hero.”

This, despite Mr. McCain’s having flown missions during the Vietnam war, having been shot down, seriously injured and captured by the North Vietnamese, having endured torture and languished as a prisoner of war for six years (two of them in solitary confinement) and having refused an out-of-sequence early repatriation offer.  Still, said Mr. Trump, Mr. McCain wasn’t “like people who weren’t captured.”

For his part, Senator McCain recently reiterated that he didn’t take the candidate’s comment personally, but he did, he said, object to the insinuation that other POWs were something less than heroic for their endurance of their own captures and imprisonments.  “What [Mr. Trump] said about me, John McCain, that’s fine,” said the senator. “I don’t require any repair of that.”

“But,” he continued, “I would like to see him retract [his] statement, not about me, but about the others.”

During a May 11 radio interview, Mr. Trump had the opportunity to do just that, and took it.  Well, sort of.  At least for a few seconds, before he cast doubt on what he had just said.

Asked about Senator McCain’s wish for a retraction, the presidential hopeful told his interviewer, “Well, I’ve actually done that.”  And, to make thing clear (at least for the moment), he added, “You know frankly, I like John McCain, and John McCain is a hero.”

The interviewer, seeking clarity, asked if that meant that Mr. Trump then regretted his earlier comments.  The response: “I don’t, you know… I like not to regret anything…. And what I said, frankly, is what I said.  And, you know, some people like what I said, if you want to know the truth. Many people that like what I said. You know after I said that, my poll numbers went up seven points.”

One wonders who was converted to the Trump candidacy as a result of his demeaning of Senator McCain’s experiences.  (Does some sizable number of unrepentant former North Vietnamese lurk within the American electorate?)  But, be that as it may, Mr. Trump’s bewildering backtrack was a striking contrast to an American official’s unqualified expression of regret a few weeks earlier.

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, traveled to Kunduz, Afghanistan to issue an unreserved apology to the families of victims of the United States’ bombing of a hospital in that city last year that killed 42 people.

“As commander, I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families and the people of Kunduz to deeply apologize for the events which destroyed the hospital and caused the deaths of staff, patients and family members,” he said. “I grieve with you for your loss and suffering, and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”

Shortly after the mistaken bombing, President Obama also personally apologized for the carnage in Kundu.

The general and the president likely wish that they didn’t need “to regret anything,” no less than Mr. Trump.  But when regret is called for, they feel and express it.

No reader of this periodical needs to be reminded of the fact that feeling regret is a high Jewish ideal, the very fundament of teshuvah.  Many of us recite Viduy twice daily, and all of us on Yom Kippur. Regretting a wrongdoing is something for which our illustrious forebears Yehudah and Reuvein are praised, and for which they “inherited life in the next world” and were rewarded as well in this one (Sotah, 7b).

Whether the willingness to feel and express remorse is something desirable in an American president or something that will hinder him in dealing with the challenges of his office is, one supposes, an open question.  And how the American electorate feels about the matter is a question open even more widely.

But that, as Jews, we are enjoined to see regret, when it is indicated, as a desideratum, not a weakness, is no question at all.

© 2016 Hamodia

Visitation Rites

The saintly aura that has enveloped Ronald Reagan in the minds of many who consider themselves social conservatives and independent thinkers – and I count myself among them; and I voted for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984 – has eclipsed the memory of his infamous 1985 visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany.  Elie Wiesel famously told Mr. Reagan, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.”

Bitburg comes to mind in the wake of the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, more than 70 years after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city – and then, three days later, another, on Nagasaki – killing upward of 200,000 people and leaving unknown numbers with illnesses born of radiation exposure.  Mr. Obama will be the first sitting president to visit the site, and is being criticized by some for his plan to do so.

The wisdom, propriety and necessity of President Harry Truman’s decision to unleash nuclear destruction on the Japanese cities on August 6 and August 9, 1945 have been debated for decades.  Japan had attacked the U.S. first, at Pearl Harbor, had starved, beaten and executed American prisoners of war and seemed undeterred by Germany’s May 7 surrender to the Allies.

Truman maintained that the bombings, by accelerating the Japanese surrender, saved countless American lives. “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor,” he proclaimed.  “They have been repaid many fold.” And the bombings had been ordered “in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”

Some historians, however, have judged these decisions harshly, maintaining that there were other paths toward Japanese surrender, and that the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unconscionable.

For its part, the White House has stressed that the visit is not intended as an apology, but rather is a symbolic gesture to promote Mr. Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation message and highlight the reconciliation between wartime enemies that are now close allies.

Nonetheless, knee-jerk Obama-bashers and knee-jerk “progressives” alike have registered their respective disgruntlements.  The former have long characterized the president’s acknowledgments of U.S. misjudgments as unwarranted and unpatriotic apologies; they claim that the president’s very presence at the site is an unspoken expression of regret.  And the latter believe that the U.S. in fact does owe Japan an unqualified and open mea culpa for the bombings.

Thus, “The Obama Administration Is Now Apologizing For America Winning World War II” reads the title of an opinion piece by David Harsanyi, a senior editor at The Federalist.  And “America’s enduring Hiroshima shame: Why Barack Obama should apologize for the atomic bomb — but won’t” is the title of an essay by syndicated columnist Jack Mirkinson.

The guy in the Oval Office just can’t win.

Lost, though, in the political discussion of the impending visit – as is so often lost in so many political discussions – is reason.  Not every expression of pain is a confession of guilt.  One can regret the effects of an act without regretting the act.

I don’t know if pediatricians apologize to toddlers for the pain they have inflicted on them after a required inoculation.  But I can certainly imagine a sensitive doctor acknowledging his small patient’s pain, including his role in creating it, while seeking to soothe the child.

Is the Commander in Chief of the United States visiting Hiroshima really much different?  Even if the optics indicate something more than a celebration of how far U.S-Japan relations have come over the past half-century, even if Mr. Obama’s presence at the site is seen as an expression of anguish at the great loss of life caused by our country’s nuclear attacks on Japan, even if one believes that President Truman was entirely right in his decisions, is it somehow un-American or reckless to be perceived as pained by the incineration of two cities’ populations?

Elie Wiesel was right about Bitburg.  It was not, and is not, a place for an American president.  It is a cemetery for a military that fought to advance the cause of an evil regime.  But, even if the Japanese regime was contemptible too, those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians.

Words from the end of Sefer Yonah come to mind:

“Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?”

© 2016 Hamodia

A Troubling America for Jews…

American Jews might be excused for finding the circus more formally known as the current presidential campaign unthreatening, even amusing.  Unthreatening, because the leading Republican candidate has a Jewish daughter; the leading Democratic candidate, a Jewish son-in-law; and her rival is a bona fide member of the tribe himself.  All the candidates, moreover, have expressed support for Israel.

And amusing?  Well, no need to go into detail on that one.  We need a dictionary with more expressive words than “grandstanding” and “mudslinging.”

Some Jews, though, are worried by the Republican front-runner, despite his Jewish connection.  After all, Mr. Trump at one point indicated that, if elected, he would approach the Israel-Palestinian impasse as “a sort of neutral guy.”  But he later explained that he simply meant that he didn’t see how he could promote negotiations if he openly took sides. “With that being said,” the candidate added unequivocally, “I am totally pro-Israel.”

More troubling to many Jews, and understandably so, is Mr. Trump’s dog whistling (actually, often, out-loud shouting “Fido!!!”) to American bigots and general lowlifes.

To read the rest of this piece, which appears in Haaretz, please click here.

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

Illogical Leadership

“Because you were convincing me,” was the woman’s straightforward reply.

Her questioner was my rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, then the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore.  He had asked the lady, whom he met at some Jewish communal function, why she had suddenly stopped attending the lecture series he had been delivering to a nonreligious audience.  Rav Weinberg later said that he was struck by the stark honesty of the reply.  No excuses, no claim of scheduling conflict, only a candid confession of her reluctance to be pulled in a direction that frightened her.

The lectures were about basic Jewish belief, and the Rosh Yeshivah combined concepts from the Rambam, Rav Yehudah HaLevi and others, leavened with his own insight, eloquence, humor and creativity, to describe the compelling specialness – indeed, singularity – of the Jewish mesorah.

There was the historically unparalleled claim to a mass revelation at Har Sinai, something that no one could dare make unless it happened – and that no nation or religion has in fact ever made, before or after the event.   There was the seemingly self-defeating nature of some of the Torah’s laws, like Shemitta and Aliyah L’regel (when all able-bodied men left Eretz Yisrael’s borders unprotected, at easily predictable times).  There were the Torah’s critical descriptions of its greatest personages, in such stark contrast to the perfect “heroes” of other groups’ “holy” books.  There was the utterly irrational persistence of anti-Semitism in a broad, even contradictory, assortment of guises; and the perseverance of Klal Yisrael despite all the hatred and exiles.

And then there was the illogical leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, detailed in the parshiyos we are reading communally in shul this time of year.

Over history, leaders – religious and political alike – tend to possess all or most of several defining characteristics.  Almost by definition, they are ambitious and opportunistic, often aggressively so.  They exude self-confidence, bordering on, if not exceeding, conceit; and they are natural orators.

Moshe Rabbeinu, Rav Weinberg would point out, had none of those characteristics.  He didn’t want the role Hashem told him to adopt, pleading that his brother Aharon be appointed instead.  He was, by the Torah’s testimony, not only modest but the most modest of all men.  And he was, by his own statement, limited in his ability to speak.

Not, by nature, leader material. Other religion-forming figures, by contrast, possessed the natural ability to convince others of their purported connection to truth – and capitalized on it vigorously.  Today, political leaders and aspirants to office, as we are witnessing most vividly during this presidential election year, are clearly saturated with self-regard, relentlessly self-promoting and accomplished in the art of speechifying.

Moshe’s lack of those traits didn’t matter, because his leadership was not the result of popular acclaim but rather of Divine direction. Indeed, his failure of the “leadership test” is evidence of that fact. No one, Rav Weinberg explained, could ever attribute the historic success of the Jewish message to the impact of charisma, self-confidence or oratorical skill.  Only to G-dly guidance.

Only defective products need talented salesmen.  Truth needs only itself.

Chazal (Berachos 58a) tell us to run to see a non-Jewish king, for if we are deemed worthy, we will be able to perceive the difference between a non-Jewish monarch and a Jewish one.  Politicians aren’t kings; there are no brachos to be made over them.  But there is certainly worth in pondering the gulf between what contemporary society calls leadership and a true, Divinely appointed, leader.

I don’t know at what point the woman who dropped out of the lecture series decided she had heard too much for comfort. It was probably before the “Moshe Rabbeinu” shiur.  But she was perceptive enough to realize that the evidence for the truth of the Jewish mesorah was becoming overwhelming, that the thicket of rationalizations necessary for rejecting the compelling facts of history was obscuring a more compelling straightforward, Occam’s Razor-respecting, conclusion: Moshe emes visoraso emes.

And she just wasn’t ready to countenance the life-changing implications of that fact.

At least at that point.  I like to imagine that, one day, she wandered into a shul somewhere this time of year, maybe even during an election campaign, and, during krias haTorah, followed along in an English translation and was struck by Moshe Rabbeinu’s “lack of qualifications” for leadership, as the word is mundanely defined.  And that maybe, at that point, what she didn’t allow herself to hear from Rav Weinberg, she heard in her own head.

© 2016 Hamodia

A Crying Shame

Readers of a certain age will likely recognize the name Edmund Muskie.  He was a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President back in 1972.

There were several reasons why the candidacy of the former Maine governor, senator and Secretary of State was curtailed.  Rumors were spread that he was a drug addict. The Manchester Union-Leader asserted that his wife was an alcoholic and bad-mannered, and that Muskie had made disparaging remarks about French-Canadians.

It emerged later that the latter rumor was a fabrication, part of Richard Nixon’s infamous “dirty tricks” strategy to harm political enemies.  But damage had been done, and Muskie’s reaction to the negative characterizations of his wife was widely regarded as coup de grâce for his campaign.

Standing before reporters outside the newspaper’s offices on a snowy February day in 1972, he emotionally defended his wife.  And, at one point, shed tears.

He later claimed that, while he was indeed upset, the droplets on his face were merely melted snowflakes.

No one will ever know.  Mr. Muskie died in 1996 and videos of the incident are inconclusive.  One thing, though, is clear: The idea of a president capable of crying seemed shameful to the American electorate in 1972.

Contrast that with the public reaction to the current Crier-in-Chief.  Mr. Obama has not held back from weeping on several occasions, including memorial services and as he presented military awards.  And, most recently, when he announced an executive order expanding the scope of background checks on gun buyers and increasing funding for mental health treatment (actions that, amazingly, raised howls of protest from some – but that’s a different article).  In the presence of family members of gun fatalities, he choked up as he recalled the children murdered in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.

The usual suspects, of course, intent on seeing only cold, diabolical evil in Obama, immediately took to social media to share theories about how the president had managed to conjure his obviously (at least to the commenters) fake tears.  The thought that he was sincerely distraught at the memory of small schoolchildren’s bodies riddled with bullets just could not be entertained, at any cost.

Saner Americans readily accepted that the president’s tears were sincere. Some found the tears laudable, evidence of his humanity.  Others found them telling, evidencing the president’s frustration over fighting a gun lobby that insists that, unlike other fundamental rights like free speech and assembly, the Second Amendment must be unlimited. Others just found the crying unremarkable.

We’ve come a long way.

No one these days seems to see a president sincerely tearing up as scandalous.  What to make of that?  Is it evidence to the “wimping down” of America?  An emotional counterpart to the moral decline of a once-great nation?

Or, perhaps, a sign of its maturity?

In some ways, American society has indeed grown more advanced.  It is, for instance, no longer as riven with overt racism and anti-Semitism as once it was (even if individual anti-Semitic acts are far from rare even today).  The idea that parents are the best arbiters of their children’s educational environments has become enshrined in law and widely accepted (if not yet widely taken to its logical legislative conclusion). The distance traveled since Mr. Muskie’s day regarding leaders’ public emoting may be another sign of America’s positive growth.

Leaving the hidden onion-juice conspiracy theorists aside (where they belong), sincere crying is not dishonorable.  Emotions, and the tears that accompany their most intense states, are the hallmark of a developed human being. Your GPS guide doesn’t cry.  Nazis don’t cry.  Terrorists don’t cry.

By contrast, we Jews are known for our tears.  It may have been wrong for our ancestors to cry out of fear when they first stood at the cusp of entering Eretz Yisrael.  But that bechiyah shel chinam, “unwarranted crying,” is atoned for by our own tears, on Tisha B’Av, on Yom Kippur, at Tikkun Chatzos…  The Kosel Maaravi is saltily stained with the sobbing of countless Jewish generations.

Our forefather Yaakov cried.  So did Yosef, and Moshe Rabbeinu.  Rachel Imeinu cries still.  The Cohen Gadol cried, as did tanna’im.  Even Hashem, kivayachol, is described as crying (Chagigah, 5b).

So, whether or not larger society’s having come to accept that even a leader is not lesser for lachrymosity is something positive, Jewish weeping for the right reasons most certainly is.

May it lead, and soon, to the end of all crying, to the fulfillment of Yeshayahu’s nevuah (25:8) that Hashem “will wipe tears from every face.”

© 2016 Hamodia

Trumping Terrorism

When the Obama White House and Dick Cheney agree on something, it’s worthy of note.

What united the two – along with a conga line of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, members of Congress and world leaders – was Donald Trump’s latest gambit to garner attention.  That would be the candidate’s announced desire to effect a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States until elected leaders can “figure out what… is going on.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Mr. Trump’s position “disqualifies him from serving as president.”  Mr. Cheney said it “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”  The others all echoed those sentiments.

Leaving aside, though, what America stands for, there is also what Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev noted, namely, that “ISIS dreams of an Islam-hating America that isolates its own Muslims; Trump is busy making their dreams come true.”

President Obama made that same point in his December 6 address to the nation.

He demanded that Muslim leaders “decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda promote,” but also warned that “We cannot [let] this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That… is what groups like ISIL want.”

What’s more, there are more than a billion Muslims worldwide, and the vast majority of radical Islamists’ victims are Muslims. The average Muslim may not support Israel, but neither is he a murderer.

Had Mr. Trump just urged special scrutiny of visa applications from certain countries, it would not have raised very many eyebrows very high.  But, of course, it’s eyebrows and outrage he’s after.

A more dignified and wise approach toward Muslims came from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, in an address to a gathering at a Virginia mosque.

After speaking out against “the discrimination, vilification and isolation that American Muslims face in these challenging times,” he reminded his listeners that “terrorist organizations overseas have targeted your communities. They seek to pull your youth into the pit of violent extremism.”  And he challenged the Muslim community to “Help us to help you stop this.”

Depressingly, though, instead of publicly exhorting their followers to seek out and uproot the germs of evil seeking to infect their communities, some American Muslim spokespeople chose instead to just kvetch.

“We would never ask any other faith community to stand up and condemn acts of violence committed by people within their groups,” complained one, activist Linda Sarsour.

Ms. Sarsour might consider that, were Presbyterians or Mormons regularly killing innocents in the name of their faiths and celebrating the carnage, they would surely draw similar attention to their co-religionists.  There, too, condemning an entire religion for the acts of some of its evil actors would be wrong.  But equally wrong would be reluctance on the part of the religions’ leaders to shout their condemnation of the evil from the rooftops and to call on their followers to be help root it out.

Instead, here, we have de rigueur, lackluster statements of disassociation from terrorist acts.

And, more depressing still, we have “moderate” sentiments like those of the male San Bernardino mass murderer’s father, who revealed that his son had expressed support for ISIS and “was obsessed with Israel.”  The father explained how he counseled his son to “Stay calm, be patient, in two years Israel will no longer exist… Russia, China, America too, nobody wants the Jews there.”

How prevalent such “moderation” is in the Muslim world can’t be known.  But it, too, is part of the rot that infects immature minds and can fester into violence.

Sympathy is in order for innocent Muslims who are portrayed by dint of their faith alone as potential terrorists.  It may be fear that prevents them from speaking out more loudly, engaging in concrete and effective acts to undermine Islamist ideologies and partnering with law enforcement to prevent terrorism.  But all that is their moral mandate; the proverbial push has come to shove.

Following the recent knife attack at a London subway station, where the attacker reportedly said “This is for Syria!” before proceeding to stab commuters, a video recorded the voice of an onlooker with an Arabic accent shouting “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv!” several times.  The phrase, happily, has been widely seized upon as an expression of how most Muslims feel.  And it likely is.

But still, it’s puzzling, and perhaps telling, that the shouter, despite the fame and adulation his words have garnered, has yet to come forward to present himself to the public.

Maybe he’s just modest.

Or, less laudable, he’s afraid.

© 2015 Hamodia