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Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day

August 12, 2016 at 10:57 am

If we think about it, it should amaze us that there are people who insist we must always remember the Holocaust — even for generations to come, long after the last survivors are lost to us — who are nowhere to be found on the Ninth of Av, when we remember the long history of hatred directed against the Jewish nation. How can we remember the Holocaust, while forgetting the tragic losses of earlier days?

Perhaps we need to give it a modern name: “Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day.” Because, of course, hatred for Jews, as Jews, is the source of all the tragedies found in our history.

Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin (called the Netzi”v from the acronym of his name) was the Dean of the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin in the late 19th century, when “anti-Semitism” was a new German euphemism for an old hatred. He explains, using the story of Yaakov and his father-in-law, Lavan, that anti-Semitism is rooted in two basic ideas: jealousy of (perceived) wealth, with a suspicion of fraud and theft, together with antipathy towards Judaism itself. As we know, Lavan suspected Yaakov of stealing his idols. Although Yaakov was opposed to idolatry, Lavan believed that Yaakov stole them only in order to disgrace them, to tear down everything Lavan held holy. And why would Yaakov do such a thing, if not for his Judaism? [Our Sages teach that all our forefathers, being prophets, observed Judaism and Jewish ethics.] This is what angered Lavan.

When we look through Jewish history, these two themes play out repeatedly. The Jews are repeatedly (and falsely) accused of stealing land and property, which is why financial boycotts against Jews are among the most basic of anti-Semitic activities. And whether it is the accusation that “you killed our god” to Jews as killers of prophets, children, or people in general, the idea that Judaism encourages atrocities towards others is the other lie at the root of all the hatred.

In the end, we know that we are hated for the best of our values — today’s entire “Judeo-Christian” value system stems from our teachings. And that is what gives us courage. G-d told us that we would propagate His values in the world, that we would be hated for it, that we shall always survive, and that in the end we will dwell securely in our land and bring peace to earth. So as we move forward to mourn all the destruction in our history, we must remember the light at the end of the tunnel — brighter than any mankind has yet seen.

True Peace

July 29, 2016 at 4:12 pm

In this week’s reading, G-d gives Pinchas His “Covenant of Peace.” He also makes Pinchas, Aharon’s grandson, part of the Kehunah, the priesthood. [As he was born prior to the anointing of Aharon and his sons, Pinchas did not become a Kohein until this point. Rash”i, Bav. Zevachim 101]

This seems an extraordinary response to a violent act. Pinchas killed Zimri, head of the tribe of Shimon, and the Midianite woman that Zimri openly took into his tent to encourage immorality. We can understand how this deed might “turn away the wrath” of G-d towards Israel, but how can it be called peaceful?

The Medrash teaches that when G-d wanted to create man, He first consulted with the angels — as the verse says, “Let Us make man” [Gen 1:26]. And when He did so, the angels argued with each other, divided into opposing camps.

In Psalms [85:11] we read: “Lovingkindness (Chesed) and Truth (Emes) ‘encountered’ each other, Righteousness (Tzedek) and Peace (Shalom) ‘kissed’ each other.” The word for ‘encountered’ is similar to when Yehudah approached Yosef to fight over the fate of their brother Benyamin [Gen. 44:18], while when Esav ‘kissed’ his brother Jacob [Gen. 33:4], the Medrash teaches that he intended to kill him.

In the argument, Chesed said that man should be created, because he would do acts of lovingkindness. But Emes said that man should not be created, because he will be filled with falsehood. Tzedek argued in favor, because man would do righteous deeds, but Shalom said no, man would be full of arguments and strife. So what did HaShem do to resolve the argument? He took Emes, Truth, and cast it to the ground!

The Kotzker Rebbe was known for his sharp, penetrating insights. And he asked, how does this resolve the argument? G-d “threw Emes to the ground.” It seems unfair, and besides, Shalom is still arguing against the Creation of Man. So how does removing Truth solve anything?

And he answered: “without Truth, Peace is easy!”

But of course, as he also observed, peace without truth is a false peace.

In order to have true peace, there must be truth. Pinchas acted to ensure that all who knew of Zimri’s sin, rather than be lured into duplicating that crime, instead would follow the path of truth — the path of G-d. Peace between Israel and their G-d is True Peace, and that is what Pinchas hoped to ensure.

“You Stole Our Land!”

July 17, 2016 at 11:42 am

risk boardThis week’s Haftorah discusses Ammon coming to wage war with Israel. There was a man named Yiftach, who was the son of a concubine, rejected by his half-brothers. He had moved away, but was a natural leader — many gathered around him, though they were not exceptionally knowledgeable. The verse even calls his followers “empty people.”

Nonetheless, with Ammon coming to fight them, Israel needed a leader, and they turned to Yiftach to lead and defend them. He sent Ammon messengers, asking why they were about to fight. What was the problem?

The message came back: “You stole our land!”

The land in question was an area which, many hundreds of years earlier, had been the subject of a war between the Ammonites and the Emorites. The Emorites won that war, and had lived in that land for centuries.

Then, as Yiftach explained to the King of Ammon, the Nation of Israel came up from Egypt and crossed the desert, hoping to enter their Holy Land. They asked permission of both Edom and Mo’av to pass through, and both nations refused them permission. So they went further north, avoiding the land of Mo’av, and sent messengers to Sichon, leader of the Emori, king of Cheshbon.

Sichon was not content to simply refuse permission: he gathered his army to war with Israel. Given no choice, Israel fought back and defeated Sichon… at which point the land became theirs. This land was on the east side of the Jordan River, where the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe stayed and lived. It was part of their inheritance.

The King of Ammon demanded land which they had lost fighting a war with the Emori, which had belonged to the Jews for hundreds of years, and was part of their Divine Inheritance. So Yiftach said to Ammon, you keep what your idol Kemosh gave to you, and we’ll keep what the L-rd gave us, and we will have peace between us.

The king of Ammon refused, waged war against Israel, and lost.

It is interesting that the King of Ammon is never named. Apparently, his name is not relevant. The idea that the Jews are stealing something from the non-Jews is a classic anti-Semitic trope, which recurs in different times throughout history under different names. Of course, I suppose we’d be hard-pressed to find another example of people claiming that the Jews are stealing Judean land from migrants from another land… oh, wait…

Pursuing Peace and Straightening the Record

July 14, 2016 at 1:40 pm

By Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org

The recent op-ed by Yair Sheleg, “Israel’s battle for peace between religion and state,” is troublesome in several ways. While he portrays himself as a dispassionate analyst, it is clear that Sheleg’s essay intends, on the contrary, to inflame passions—and he is not above inverting the record in order to do so.

The editor’s note added by JNS.org is revealing. In lieu of “haredi,” the writer used the pejorative term “ultra-Orthodox,” prompting this editorial disclaimer. In an era when we express sensitivity and consideration towards minority populations, we allow them to choose the terms of their own identity and avoid negative bias. The writer affords the haredi community no such consideration, using a modifier, “ultra-,” that is universally negative when used to describe a movement or community. The Israel Democracy Institute claims to be nonpartisan; the director of its Religion and State program belies that, at least with regards to Jewish religious affairs.

Second, the premise of the op-ed directly contradicts Sheleg’s statement to the media, made in his professional capacity. His opinion piece claims that “the ultra-Orthodox have launched a new offensive;” speaking to the New York Jewish Week, however, he noted that “the ultra-Orthodox are in a defensive position” (our emphasis added), merely wishing to preserve the status quo that has governed Israeli practice since its founding.

In this case, the pejorative term “ultra-” is both offensive and inaccurate. Consider our own example. One of us holds a doctorate in not-for-profit organization systems, and served as executive vice president of the national Young Israel movement for more than 25 years. The other earned a BSE in computer science from Princeton University, architects a family of prominent Jewish websites, and, not incidentally, identified with the Conservative movement into adulthood. Both of us live in the United States, where we frequently interact with Reform and Conservative leaders and members both personally and professionally. Neither of us exemplifies the stereotypical image evoked by the term “ultra-Orthodox.” Groups like Women For the Wall, the women’s group acting to preserve traditional practice at the Western Wall, are certainly not led by “ultra-Orthodox.” 

The vast majority of religious nationalist leaders and members all strongly oppose the changes advocated by Sheleg—and, given his position, he is surely well aware of this. Thus the “ultra-” label is not merely pejorative, but a facile attempt to reframe the conversation to avoid the real issues.

Why are the American liberal movements pushing for major changes at the Western Wall at this time? The question gains potency given a demonstrated lack of need. More than a decade ago, these movements were allocated space at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Kotel; three years ago, then-Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett unveiled a new, greatly expanded “Ezrat Yisrael” platform in response to demands from these same movements. 

Since that time, this space has never been filled. Not once. Most of the time it sits completely empty; only when the Sephardic chief rabbi of Jerusalem, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Shlomo Amar, conducted a private service there did the leaders of these movements respond with possessive outrage. 

To anyone with even minimal knowledge of the differences in belief and practice of traditional and non-traditional Jews, the reasons for the disuse of Ezrat Yisrael are not difficult to discern. Neither movement prays for the restoration of the Holy Temple upon the Temple Mount, and the overwhelming majority of liberal Jews do not pray daily at all. They are not coming on aliyah, neither are Israelis interested in their revisions of Judaism—there are less than 100 liberal congregations in all of Israel, serving less than 0.4 percent of the Jewish population.

Liberal leaders themselves acknowledge that they are demanding the government spend millions of dollars and irrevocably compromise archaeological sites simply for “recognition.” If so, one must ask why they are willing to disrupt the attitude of American Jews towards Israel in order to make these demands at this time.

Recent Pew Research Center surveys provide the answer: the American liberal movements are collapsing here in their North American home. They claim to represent the dominant voice of American Jewry; certainly, they must accept primary responsibility for the 70-percent intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews, and the failure of the plurality of Jews under age 50 to identify with any Jewish denomination. Only 25 percent of American Jews are members of a Reform or Conservative congregation, and their median age is 55. They have lost the next American-Jewish generation.

Why are these movements spending an inordinate amount of time and money to change Judaism in Israel, rather than educating and influencing their youth, working to guarantee that their grandchildren care about Judaism? If they truly care about the Jewish future, they will not besmirch Israel with unfounded accusations of limitation on Jewish practice, but encourage their own to visit or even live there, and learn for themselves—both about Israel, and about Judaism.

This is all the more true when it comes to Sheleg’s second topic, the issue of Jewish conversion. The State of Israel adopted traditional standards to determine Jewish identity in order to preserve Jewish unity: so that the grandchildren of Orthodox and liberal Jews might marry without serious investigation of each individual’s Jewish heritage. The liberal movements have already necessitated this in America, with sometimes tragic consequences. Importing this to Israel will permanently divide the Jews of the Jewish state.

In the end, it is clear that Sheleg’s statement to the media is notably more accurate than his opinion piece: there is no “ultra-Orthodox offensive,” but rather an effort by liberal movements to enact drastic changes in Israel to draw attention away from their self-inflicted decimation at home in America. It is incumbent upon them not to try to change Israeli Jews in a way that draws them away from Jewish tradition, but to change American Jews in a way that draws them towards it. That should be, after all, the goal of any Jewish movement.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox online journal. Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.

Doing the Impossible

July 1, 2016 at 11:13 am

climberIn this week’s reading, we find the well-known account of the spies who went into the Land of Israel. The Jews knew that they were supposed to inherit the land; the job of the spies was to find the best way to enter. Are the people strong or weak? Are their cities fortified? All of these were important for tactical reasons. At the same time, the spies were told to investigate the natural resources as well, to see what sort of land would be theirs.

As far as the latter, they performed their task to perfection. They returned calling the land “flowing with milk and honey,” bringing clusters of grapes so large that two people were needed to carry one cluster on a pole. What a wonderful land it was!

But as far as how to enter and take that land was concerned, the spies veered from their mission. Instead of providing tactical advice, they abandoned all hope — they said it cannot be done. They decided that G-d would not keep his promise, and the Children of Israel would never inherit their land.

Only two spies opposed the consensus: Yehoshua and Calev. Calev told the people, “we should certainly ascend and we shall possess it, for we certainly are able to do so” [Num. 13:30].

What was his message? Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 35), which says that this was far more than mere encouragement regarding their capabilities. “‘We should certainly ascend’ – even to Heaven. If he [Moshe] says ‘make ladders and ascend them,’ we shall succeed in all his words.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Calev provides us a model for all growth in Torah and performing G-d’s Will. Calev teaches us that it doesn’t matter if it looks impossible! Since what you wish to do is a “D’var Mitzvah”, something HaShem wants done, then if you try, He will help, and you will be able to do it.

With Partners Like These…

June 23, 2016 at 6:36 pm

First published on Israel National News / Arutz-7

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the respected Chief Rabbi of Efrat, began his career guiding people towards traditional Jewish observance. Appointed Rabbi of the new Lincoln Square Conservative Synagogue shortly after receiving Smicha (ordination), he quickly persuaded his congregation to drop "Conservative" from both name and practice. Under his leadership, Lincoln Square grew into an early leader in Jewish outreach.

This makes his near-endorsement of a greater Israeli presence for the American Reform and Conservative movements all the more mystifying. While there have been significant changes since he made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) in 1983, he emphasizes his own “contact with Reform and Conservative Rabbis” – and thus should remain familiar with their activities and outlook.

One might make a credible argument that access to a public Mikvah (ritual bath) in Israel should be open to anyone, regardless of affiliation or intended use. But that was not Rabbi Riskin's claim in a recent interview with Arutz 7. Rather, he suggested one should permit liberal Rabbis to use Mikvaot (for non-Halakhic conversions, no less) because “they're not our enemies, they're our partners.”

To love and pursue peace is a religious imperative. But as the Kotzker Rebbe once quipped, “when truth is discarded, peace is easily achieved.” The sad truth is that the American liberal rabbis and movements are anything but partners.

Most Israelis are unfamiliar with these groups; when they are introduced, they are often dismayed. Israel's current President, Ruby Rivlin, was invited to visit an American Reform Temple when first elected as an MK in 1989. He told the Israeli media afterwards that "as a Jew who does not observe 613 commandments and perhaps not even 13 commandments, I was deeply shocked… I felt as if I were in a church."

Reform leaders objected and professed insult – yet it was not so long ago that the rabbi of New York's Temple Emmanu-El boasted that "a prominent Christian lawyer… told me that he entered this building at the beginning of a service on Sunday morning, and did not discover that he was in a synagogue until a chance remark of the preacher betrayed it."

So are they encouraging similarity to churches, or not? They want to have it both ways; this is a recurring pattern.

Whereas Jewish tradition frowns upon conversion for the sake of a Jewish partner, the Reform and Conservative movements both actively encourage it. In 1983, Reform went yet further, pronouncing the child of a Jewish father to be Jewish – leading to a precipitous decline in those same conversions for marriage. But even if the mother of an intermarried son now believes that she will have Jewish grandchildren, this is usually wishful thinking: children of intermarriage remain unlikely to identify as Jews.

Having seen the failure of patrilineal descent, the Conservative movement refused that change. In most other matters, however, it has followed Reform's lead – with regards to driving on Shabbat, ordaining women, and even same-sex marriage. The average American Reform or Conservative Jew is today so far removed from basic Jewish practices that, comparing Pew Surveys in both countries, Israel's self-defined hilonim (secular Jews) are observant by comparison – more likely to light Shabbat candles, attend a Pesach Seder, or fast on Yom Kippur.

In 2013 the Pew Survey identified 1.8 million Reform Jews in the US, under 1 million Conservative Jews, and just over a half million Orthodox – but if the birth, intermarriage and assimilation rates of the distinct groups continue apace, the Orthodox will constitute the majority within several decades.

Israelis can certainly see the extent to which the American liberal movements strive for partnership. When Anat Hoffman ran for Jerusalem City Council on the Ratz-Shinui ticket in 1989, her platform was one of anti-Orthodox animus so poisonous that even many secular Jerusalemites condemned her advertising as crossing into anti-Semitism.

The Reform movement enabled Hoffman to rebrand herself as an advocate for “women's rights” – primarily the “right” of American liberal women to disturb the prayers of traditional Israeli women at the Western Wall. Her “Women of the Wall” group claims to merely wish to pray on the one hand, while rejecting alternate locations and expressing the desire to change Orthodoxy on the other. The Reform movement, which rejects the unique sanctity of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the Western Wall as a site for prayer, finances her efforts.

The movement pays Hoffman to be the director of its Israel Religious Action Center, which Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum described in 2005 as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” IRAC delayed the building of a religious center in Rechovot for over a decade despite City Council approval, attempted to prevent Chabad from operating at Ben-Gurion Airport, and recently announced that it will sue ElAl to prevent even voluntarily accommodation for hassidic travelers who prefer not to sit next to someone of the opposite gender.

Yet it is not merely the idea that they are partners with Orthodoxy that must be questioned. The liberal movements believe that they know Israel's needs better than those who live there.

The current head of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Rabbi Rick Jacobs, served on the Board of Directors of the pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund. On her American speaking tours, Hoffman deliberately distances her audiences from Israel: she claims that women do not have full civil rights, using Women of the Wall's own antics as her prime example. She also points out that American liberal Judaism – that which rejects the entirety of Jewish tradition – is not accepted by Israel's Chief Rabbinate as authentic Jewish practice. “Israel is way too important,” she concludes, “to be left to Israelis.”

The Reform movement erased the return to Jerusalem and rebuilding of the Holy Temple from its prayer books, yet these same liberal groups now threaten the Israeli government with “rupture” should it fail to transform the Western Wall Plaza, at tremendous cost and irreversible damage to archaeological sites, to meet their demands.

Last week they called for a “show of force” at the Western Wall; it drew less than 100 people. Their American adherents rarely visit Israel – would American liberal Jews care at all, were their leaders not fomenting discord?

They are not partners. They are not partners with Israel, and certainly not partners with Judaism.

Love Me… Or Else

June 20, 2016 at 1:54 pm

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner
The Jerusalem Post

“A love which is dependent upon something – when that ‘something’ is gone, the love goes with it. But an independent love will never cease.” [Chapters of the Fathers, 5:16]

A recent survey commissioned by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism claimed that one in three Israelis “especially identify” with that movement. This astounding finding perplexed many observers, as – according to that same survey – only half as many Israelis had so much as visited a Reform congregation even once during the previous five years.

With real support from Israeli Jews, Reform and Conservative leaders would have little difficulty changing the nature of Jewish prayer at the Western Wall – Knesset parties serve constituencies, and would gladly enact modifications demanded by their voters. Instead, American liberal leaders are making threats: at a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), warned of a “major rift between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel” if their demands are not met.

The heads of the American Reform and Conservative movements believe that Jewish love for Israel comes with terms and conditions, and that they control the American Jewish heart. They are inflating their importance on both sides of the Atlantic, and placing naked self-interest ahead of the unity of the Jewish People.

To be certain, they did not attempt to convince Israeli leaders of widespread local support. There are fewer than 75 Reform and Conservative congregations in the whole of Israel, including those open only on holidays. In the aggregate, they serve less than 25,000 congregants – under 0.4% of Israel’s 6.3 million Jews. There are more Orthodox synagogues in Tel Aviv, the “secular capital” of Israel, than seats in its lone Reform congregation.

Instead, they assert that “Diaspora Jewry” shares in their demands. Even ignoring the predominance of traditional Orthodox synagogues everywhere outside North America, this is a specious claim: according to the Pew Survey of 2013, only 25% of Jews in the US are members of a Reform or Conservative congregation. They have lost the allegiance and involvement of the American Jews they claim to represent.

The majority of the less than 250,000 American Jews visiting Israel each year – and the vast majority of olim – are Orthodox. Of the remainder, the majority are on Birthright Israel or others visiting for their first time. One is left with a vanishingly small number with any interest in changing Israel’s entirely different Jewish culture.

The Pew Survey of Israeli Jews published this year noted that the American concept of Jews divided into “denominations” or “streams” is foreign to Israeli Judaism, which remains far more traditional. Responding to their impartial questionnaire, less than 5% of Israelis identified with either US liberal denomination: the overwhelming majority chose “Orthodox” or “none.” And even so-called secular (“Hiloni”) Israelis are more likely to engage in Jewish observances – such as lighting Sabbath candles, holding a Passover Seder or fasting on Yom Kippur – than adherents of American liberal movements.

This being the case, American Reform and Conservative leaders should be less concerned about Israeli Jewish practices, and more concerned about those of their own congregants. Successive surveys show sagging Jewish affiliation over time in America, while just the opposite is true in Israel.

Without focused effort by liberal leaders, the Diaspora’s troubling Jewish decline will continue to accelerate within their movements, and the Jewish future will be found only in the yet more rapid growth of Orthodoxy. The median age of those identified with liberal denominations is now 55, while that of Orthodox Americans is 40 and swiftly dropping. The intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews has reached over 70% – for the Orthodox, it is stable at 2%. According to the Avi Chai Foundation, only 5% of American Jewish children receiving a full-day Jewish education attend Reform or Conservative schools.

To the extent that Jewish allegiance to Israel has become conditional rather than integral for American Jews, this is the sad consequence of that same lack of commitment. According to the Pew Survey in Israel, 68% of Israelis feel a common bond with their Jewish brethren in America, and three-fourths believe that we share a common destiny. Yet only 43% of American Jews now believe that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish.

The American liberal movements are also openly at odds with the Israeli consensus regarding Israel’s security needs. Rabbi Jacobs also served on the Board of Directors of the pro-Palestinian J Street, and the ultra-left New Israel Fund. He was at the forefront of those who pressured Prime Minister Netanyahu to stay home, rather than address the US Congress regarding Israeli opposition to the “Iran deal.”

A growing number of supporters of the anti-Israel BDS movement on campus are young progressive Jews, in love with liberal ideals and blithely ignorant of the ugly history of anti-Semitism. Are these among the American Jews who might “rupture” with Israel over the issue of Jewish prayer?

Israel’s multifaceted Jewish community has demonstrated its commitment and success in ensuring a common Jewish future; it is inappropriate for American Reform and Conservative leaders to demand changes. They cannot presume to speak for American Jewry, and the Prime Minister should recognize that “love” contingent upon meeting demands is no love at all.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.