Agudath Israel Reaction to Kotel Plan Freeze

Agudath Israel of America released the following statement today:

The Israeli Cabinet’s decision to not upend the status quo of normative, traditional Jewish religious worship at the Kotel Maaravi, or Western Wall, is a prudent and proper one.

The Kotel was a place of peace and Jewish devotion for decades after its liberation in 1967.  That peace was shattered, and the holy place turned into a place of protest in the guise of prayer, by Women of the Wall and its allies overseas.  That has been a tragedy.

Every man and woman can, as always, pray privately and with genuine emotion at the site.  But maintaining a standard for vocal public prayer is only sensible and proper.  That standard, since 1967, has been halacha, codified Jewish religious law.  Those determined to “liberalize” Jewish practice are free to do what they wish in their own synagogues.  To cause anguish and anger to the thousands of traditional Jews who regularly pray at the Kotel, however, is not what any Jew should ever wish to do.

Rather than balkanize the Kotel so that feminist groups today – and, in the future, other groups with their own social agendas – can promote their causes, the Kotel should be preserved as a place of Jewish unity.  As it has been for half a century.

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A Tale of Two Testimonies

“Gentlemen! Start your engines!”

Or, maybe better, “In this corner, heavyweight champion…!”

Neither phrase was actually blasted from a loudspeaker on either June 8, when ex-FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, or last Wednesday, the 13th, when it was Attorney General Jeff Session’s turn to answer questions. But, predictably, the reactions to the two men’s sworn responses to committee members’ questions came flying as fast and furious as any race car or boxer’s hook.

Mr. Comey, who served in the Department of Justice before being appointed to head the FBI in 2013, has the distinction of having drawn harsh criticism over the past year from both sides of the political aisle.

Last summer, Republicans condemned him when he told the media that he would not recommend that Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for using a private email server as secretary of state.

Democrats, for their part, castigated him for his pointed criticism of Mrs. Clinton’s actions. Then, when Mr. Comey announced mere weeks before the election that the FBI was reopening the investigation of Mrs. Clinton, her supporters were further outraged.

Being blasted by both sides in a dispute is often a sign that one is doing things right. Mr. Comey is clearly not beholden to any party, only to what he sees as his duty as a public servant.

That image was only enhanced, at least for me, by his Senate testimony, much of which focused on his impression that, in a private meeting with Mr. Trump on February 14, the president had subtly tried to pressure him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s erstwhile national security advisor.

Having subsequently been fired by the president, Mr. Comey was asked by Senator John Cornyn, “If you’re trying to make an investigation go away, is firing an FBI director a good way to make that happen?”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Mr. Comey replied, “but I’m hopelessly biased given that I was the one fired.” That admission, to me, reflects a self-awareness all too rare in government today.

The partisan pugilists, though, took it as an admission that undermined Mr. Comey’s entire testimony. They also focused on Mr. Comey’s having shared with the media a memo to himself about his uncomfortable meeting with the president, written right afterward and intended to preserve his immediate impressions.

Fast-forward five days. Mr. Sessions acquitted himself well, too, convincingly condemning accusations that he had had conversations with Russian officials about the presidential election as an “appalling and detestable lie.”

The attorney general, too, was seized upon by the partisan pack, mainly for what it characterized as “stonewalling” – his declining to respond to questions about private conversations he had with the president. But, as Mr. Sessions explained, since Mr. Trump is protected by executive privilege, he, Mr. Sessions, did not feel he could relate information that the president might not wish to become public. Many of us might relish the thought of hearing about those conversations, but the attorney general’s point is entirely defensible.

The only conflict between Mr. Comey’s and Mr. Sessions’ testimonies lay in their description of what transpired on February 14, when Mr. Comey emerged from his private meeting with the president and expressed to the attorney general that he, Mr. Comey, felt that such a one-on-one meeting was improper.

Mr. Comey said: “I don’t remember real clearly. I have a recollection of him [Mr. Sessions] just kind of looking at me – and there’s a danger here I’m projecting onto him, so this may be a faulty memory – but I kind of got… his body language gave me the sense, like, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Mr. Sessions, for his part, testified that he did in fact respond to Mr. Comey’s expressed discomfort, and that he agreed with him on the importance of maintaining proper protocol.

As explosive contradictions of testimony go, this was more a fizzled-out sparkler than a bombshell. The discrepancy between the “body language” of Mr. Comey’s recollection (especially qualified by his admission that his memory of the moment is unclear) and the short response of Mr. Session’s remembrance is hardly the stuff of perjury.

And so, what the two testimonies leave me with is a favorable impression of two upstanding public servants responding as best as they feel they can to Congressional questions.

Pundits are expected to take sides here, to find some fault in Mr. Comey or Mr. Sessions. But I don’t see any glaring ones. I’m left only with a positive impression of two honorable men.

Is that allowed?

© 2017 Hamodia

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

Agudath Israel letter to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley

 

Click on the link below to access a PDF of a letter from Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, to Ambassador Haley.

Letter to Ambassador Nikki Haley — 6-13-17

 

 

 

June 13, 2017

 

Honorable Nikki R. Haley

United States Ambassador to the United Nations

United States Mission to the United Nations

799 United Nations Plaza

New York, NY  10017

 

Dear Madam Ambassador:

On behalf of the leadership and constituents of Agudath Israel of America, the national Orthodox Jewish organization that I serve as executive vice president, I wish to commend you for your courageous and principled stance on Israel.

Your recognition of the adversarial attitude of elements of the United Nations toward Israel, and your repeated calling out of the same, constitute a refreshing breath of fresh air in the long polluted geopolitical atmosphere of Turtle Bay.

Your recent strong and pointed address to the Human Rights Council, in which you straightforwardly denounced the Council’s indefensibly negative focus on Israel, and the indiscriminate blacklisting of Israeli companies, is particularly appreciated.

Also appreciated is your demand that “Agenda Item Seven,” which you accurately characterized as “the scandalous provision that singles out Israel for automatic criticism,” be dropped from the Human Rights Council’s list of priorities.

Your well-deserved reputation as a person of character and principle has only been enhanced by your words and actions in your current role representing our country in the United Nations.

May G-d give you continued strength and wisdom, and may you forge on to help foster a world where ugly hatreds will be mere embarrassing relics of an ancient past.

Sincerely,

Rabbi David Zwiebel

 

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

Mr. Berman’s Bubby

“An ugly chapter in voter suppression is finally closing,” declared Dale Ho, director of the A.C.L.U.’s Voting Rights Project.

He was referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declining last week to judge a North Carolina voting law that a federal appeals court had struck down as an unconstitutional effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The law, enacted in 2013, effectively rejected forms of voter identification used disproportionately by blacks, like IDs issued to government employees, students and people receiving public assistance. It was part of a wave of voting restrictions that followed in the wake of Shelby vs. Holder, that year’s 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision overturning a requirement that certain states with histories of voter discrimination obtain preclearance from a federal court before making changes to their voting laws.

The federal appeals court also noted that North Carolina had “failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud” in the state and that the only evidence of fraud was in absentee voting by mail, a method that was both exempted by the law and is used disproportionately by white voters.

The court also found that the law’s restrictions on early voting had a much larger effect on black voters, who “disproportionately used the first seven days of early voting,” the result of free rides to polling places offered by black churches on “Souls to the Polls” Sundays. (Note to Agudath Israel voting drive officials: See if that slogan’s been copyrighted!)

Last week’s Supreme Court decision not to revive the North Carolina case, however, turned on procedural issues, not on the substance of the suit, so the now-full-bench court’s current leanings remain unknown.

Attempts to curtail blacks’ ability to vote are a regrettable part of American history. They took the form of things like literacy texts and poll taxes.

And, of course, at the founding of the republic, neither women nor members of various religious groups (ours included) were eligible to vote. Only in 1920 were women allowed to vote in all federal and state elections; and only in 1964 were poll taxes outlawed.

Interestingly, there is no explicit “right to vote” in the U.S. Constitution. What the country’s foundational legal document includes, in various amendments, are prohibitions against certain forms of discrimination in establishing who may vote. It is a distinction with a difference, if a subtle one.

Voting in America is a privilege, not something any American can claim a right to, as he can to speak or worship freely, or to a speedy trial. And that means that restrictions, if they don’t discriminate against any group or to favor a political party, are perfectly acceptable.

Likely heading for the Supreme Court now, though, is a Texas law requiring photo identification. A district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit have declared the law discriminatory, even though it accepts seven types of photo ID and can be satisfied by a voter presenting a utility bill or paycheck and signing a form asserting that they have a “reasonable impediment” preventing the obtaining of a photo ID.

A similar law was recently enacted in Iowa.  Ari Berman, a writer for The Nation, wrote a piece titled, “Iowa’s New Voter ID Law Would Have Disenfranchised My Grandmother,” about his late bubby, a Holocaust survivor who moved from Brooklyn to Iowa (go figure) when she was 89.

She had no driver’s license, birth certificate or passport; thus, Mr. Berman contends – well, his article’s title finishes the sentence.

Iowa’s law, however, specifies that the state Department of Transportation will provide free voter IDs to voter registrants who don’t already have state-issued identification. So Berman’s bubby, aleha hashalom, would have no trouble registering and voting today.

Does widespread voting fraud exist? President Trump’s repeated claims notwithstanding, no. Does that mean that laws to prevent it are wrong? No, again. Are voting restrictions racist or reasonable? Well, they can be either.

And yet, as things go in our black-and-white world, when it comes to voting requirements, Democrats and Republicans; minority advocates and establishment types; liberals and conservatives, all line up their regular armies, giving orders to take no prisoners and make no concessions.

A judicious person – a characterization to which each of us should aspire – doesn’t fall into formation on either side of such issues. There are distinctions to be made, nuances to discern, factors to weigh. Tasks that, here, will fall eventually to the land’s highest court.

© 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

A Note from a Dear Friend in Milwaukee

The note below is from a dear friend of mine who lives in Milwaukee and shares my first name. 

Friends:

I have been diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease, which is as serious as it sounds. This means that I will need a kidney transplant. The attached poster was produced by Renewal, a wonderful organization which seeks to match donors to recipients. Please feel free to distribute this through social media, or to print it out and hang it in appropriate places, such as shul bulletin boards.

Any and all enquiries from anyone interested in donating a kidney and thus performing the tremendous chesed and mitzva of pikkuach nefesh, should be directed to Renewal at 718 431-9831 or [email protected] .

With profound thanks in advance,

Avi Z.