Posts, Writings, Ramblings and more from Yaakov Menken

Stopping Baseless Hatred

by Yaakov Menken on July 25, 2014 at 5:49 pm

We are about to enter the period of time called the Nine Days, the beginning of the month of Av. The Ninth of Av is the tragic day when Israel mourned needlessly after the the evil report of the spies [Num. 14:1 ff.]. G-d said that because we mourned for no reason, that day would become a day of mourning. And so it has been, as by the time of the Mishnah it was the anniversary of five tragedies:

  1. Our anscestors were told that due to their needless mourning, they would remain in the desert for forty years and enter Israel only after all the adults of the time had perished;
  2. The destruction of the First Temple;
  3. The destruction of the Second Temple;
  4. The city of Betar was overcome, and all of its inhabitants, tens of thousands of people, were killed;
  5. The site of the Holy Temple was plowed through, making it totally barren.

Since then, many other catastrophies have been associated with the Ninth of Av: Pope Urban II declared the first Crusade to Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of entire Jewish communities in Rhineland and France and the loss of many thousands of lives; Jews were expelled from England, France and Spain (on or around the ninth); Germany entered World War I, which resulted in 120,000 Jewish casualties and set the events leading to the Holocaust in motion; Heinrich Himmler secured Nazi approval of the “Final Solution;” and the deportation of Jews began from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Even more recently, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed on the tenth of Av (the Temple continued to burn into the tenth, and thus it is connected to the mourning as well). And less than ten years ago, the tenth of Av began the infamous “Disengagement” from Gaza, which led directly to Gaza becoming the largest terrorist base in the modern world and to what is arguably the longest ongoing war crime in modern history, the firing of over 12,000 missiles aimed at civilians.

1370626668What can we do? We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed due to needless hatred between Jews. This is a time to focus our energies on increasing brotherhood and love between members of the Jewish people, especially keeping in mind the situation facing those of us who live in the Holy Land today.

Dr. Rene Levy, a neuropharmacologist in Seattle, recently sent me a copy of his book, “Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do about It.” It could not be presented to you at a more appropriate time. It is a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of needless hatred, with suggestions for prevention and repair.

The book looks at hatred as a topic of intellectual study, increasing our awareness of the issue and, at the end, inspiring us to do better. It looks at the understanding of hatred by psychologists, neurobiologists, and of course our Sages. An entire section is devoted to Israel and the Jews, referring to the hatred of the State of Israel and the “new anti-Semitism” (it is worth noting in this context that Dr. Levy grew up in France, and received his BS in Pharmacy from the University of Paris before moving to the United States to study for his PhD). It received favorable reviews from not only Harav Shlomo Maimon, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Seattle, but a series of professors, Israeli politicians, columnists and others. In the truest spirit of brotherhood, there is something in this book for every reader, to be both informed and inspired. You are invited to read more about the book (and learn where to buy it) on its website.

For a more traditional, “mussar” (ethical) approach to increasing love and harmony, one can turn to books such as “Ahavas Chesed” (lit. the love of kindness) by the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan) among others. May our study of love over hate turn to practice, and bring us to the time when, we are promised, the Ninth of Av will be known as a day of joy, rather than tragedy.

When Waging War is Pursuing Peace

by Yaakov Menken on July 11, 2014 at 2:00 pm

RED FLAG 04-3As Pinchas taught us, sometimes an act of violence promotes peace.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, we are told that one of the leaders of the Tribes of Israel engaged in an immoral act, deliberately violating the Commandments. He did it brazenly, “in your face,” challenging Moshe and all of the Children of Israel. Everyone was crying, but Pinchas knew what he had to do: pick up a spear. And how did G-d respond? Per this week’s reading, He bestowed upon Pinchas His Covenant of Peace.

We have no prophets today, but neither are any necessary to understand that there is no evil in killing barbarians bent upon killing you.

To those offended by my use of the term barbarians, I offer no apology. These are not civilized human beings with the same values as you and me. People who target women and children, hospitals and kindergartens, are barbarians. People who loudly proclaim that they “celebrate death,” are barbarians. People who bring their own children into buildings after a phone call from the IDF warning them that the building is about to be destroyed, are barbarians.

It is clear that Israel is making a maximum effort to minimize civilian casualties. When the barbarians have their families gather on top of the roof of the building, the IDF changes its mind and doesn’t destroy it. When the barbarians launch a missile next to a residential or office building, the IDF waits until it can target the precise spot. Multiple times they have targeted the vehicles driven by leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, waiting until no pedestrians were nearby. They have even destroyed entire buildings while barely damaging nearby residences.

So we pray for the safety of the soldiers. We pray for the safety of every civilian, on either side. And when Hamas decides to abandon the path of terrorism and join civilization, no one should try to kill them. But in the meantime, terrorism must be stopped.

As someone put it previously, “if Hamas laid down its weapons, there would be no war; if the IDF laid down its weapons, there would be no Israel.” And in their effort to protect lives, the IDF is going to kill terrorists. There will be “Palestinian casualties,” the majority of whom, according to all accounts, were active terrorists and others warned to leave buildings that served as operations centers or storage locations for missiles, and came inside instead. Sometimes the pursuit of peace requires waging war, and our regret at casualties must be tempered by the knowledge that the IDF is pursuing peace, not war.

Hamas Terrorism in 140 Chars

by Yaakov Menken on July 8, 2014 at 6:17 pm

“No Haredim Enlisting Anymore”

by Yaakov Menken on July 4, 2014 at 8:49 am

Just a few days ago, Yair Lapid delivered an eloquent eulogy for Gilad Sha’ar, one of the three boys murdered by terrorists. In his remarks, which were entitled “We Need One Another,” he urged people to set aside rage, hate, and the desire for revenge — he called, instead, for unity and love. And he said that we must “rediscover the paths that connect all of us,” to choose the latter option when pondering “that which divides us, or that which binds us; the suspicion or the trust.”

It is obvious to all of us that Gilad, Eyal and Naftali have brought us together, and Lapid’s remarks aptly caught the spirit of the day. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but be discomforted by the contrast between his unifying words, and his actions as a politician. This would, indeed, be an excellent time for us to turn away from the path of confrontation, and towards a path of building trust. MK Lapid himself, as a member of the Cabinet, can kick-start this process.

Subsumed in the horrid news of the discovery of the three boys was an otherwise important interview published late last week, which, awful though the timing may be, speaks directly to how Lapid’s actions have divided us. Rav Avraham Baron, the former Chairman of the association of Hesder Yeshivot, called for the cancellation of Lapid’s failed Enlistment Law. If the Supreme Court does not invalidate this law, he predicted, “we won’t see even a single Haredi enlist… and there will be a social and financial crisis that will enlarge the schism in the nation.”

In his words, “the rabbis have no faith in the Army today.” In the Haredi community, this is quite an understatement, but it is important coming from the Chairman of the Hesder yeshivot. He recognizes that any effort to change the Haredi community by fiat is going to backfire. He added, for that matter, that the law threatens the Hesder yeshivot as well.

Lapid attempted to dictate the terms of Haredi enlistment, complete with provisions that applied the criminal penalties for draft-dodgers to yeshiva scholars. This, of course, was a red line that the Gedolim, our leading Rabbis, had previously said could not be accepted. They were prepared to deal with financial penalties and other limitations, but not depicting Tzurba MiRabbonon, young Torah scholars, as felons.

To some extent, one can understand Lapid’s failure to foresee the results of forcing his “solution” upon the Haredim — that yeshiva students would view the prospect of incarceration for following the dictates of their Rabbis to be less of a threat than a privilege, and enlistment would plummet. But how anyone educated in the Yeshiva system — such as Yesh Atid’s token Haredi, Dov Lipman — could display the same myopia, is beyond me.

In order to resolve the situation and permit the development of a workable model for working Haredim (pun intended), akin to what already flourishes in America, two things have to happen. The first is, as Rav Baron specified, that there must be a new law which incorporates the idea that “whoever can sit and study Torah should study.” In other words, the law must respect the sincere belief of the Haredi world that Torah study protects our nation. The law must leave the decision of when to leave yeshiva to the students themselves, in consultation with their Roshei Yeshiva.

The second requirement is the development of a model for national service which bypasses the Haredi objection to the Army’s secondary role, as described by Jonathan Ostroff in the [Canadian] National Post: “Ben-Gurion and the other founders of the secular state of Israel wanted the army to be a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. Haredi Jews did not, and still do not, want to be melted down.”

As also mentioned by Ostroff, we’ve been down this road before. Sixty years ago, the government attempted to force conscription of Haredi women, and buckled in the face of unanimous and absolute opposition from the leaders of the community. The Haredim today are a far larger and more prominent sector of Israeli society — so even more than sixty years ago, the government must work with the Haredim to pursue a mutually-acceptable solution, rather than trying to dictate terms.

Lapid has shown us that he can truly talk the talk. Will he follow it with action?

May their Memory be a Blessing

by Yaakov Menken on July 2, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Two days ago, we learned the terrible news that the three kidnapped Israeli teens, Gilad Michael ben Ophir, Yaacov Naftali ben Avraham, and Eyal ben Uriel, were murdered by their captors.

10447130_10100112687794811_1138304077113508463_nMany words have been written, and many more will be, about this awful event. But of all the things that were said, a brief comment to Twitter by Rabbi Steven Burg, Head of the Eastern Division of the Wiesenthal Center, summed it up best: “The world does not understand that this is not political for Jews. This was deeply personal. We all loved #EyalGiladNaftali.”

In this week’s reading, the evil prophet Bila’am comes to curse Israel, and is forced to sing its praises instead. As he looks upon Israel, he says, “… they are a nation that dwells apart, and are not counted among the nations” [23:9]. Israel is not like other nations. When three boys are kidnapped, they are not someone else’s children — they are ours.

And then later, he speaks of us as one: “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel” [24:5]. We are all one. When three boys are killed, the entirety of Israel is wounded.

Rebbe Yochanon says in the Talmud [Sandhedrin 105b] that from these words of blessing, we can perceive the curse that lay in Bila’am’s heart: he wanted to pray that Israel not be given houses of study or prayer. He knew that only without them could Israel be defeated.

Traditionally, when a life is ended through murder, we say “may G-d avenge his death.” It is a sad demonstration of the widespread ignorance of Judaism, not to mention a backhanded insult to Israelis, that the “Forward” newspaper wrote that “‘may G-d avenge his death’ is often invoked at the burials of Israelis slain by Palestinians,” as if it were a call to violence or fraught with political meaning. In reality, exactly the same sentiment is traditionally voiced with regards to those killed by the Nazis, during the pogroms, and throughout our long and often painful history — the perpetrators of which are, of course, long since dead.

The ultimate vengeance for their blood is not further killing, but survival and growth. When we go into the house of study, that is our vengeance. When students around the world learn the six orders of Mishnah, that, as one survivor said regarding his grandchildren, is the best revenge against the Nazis. We do our part, and let G-d take care of the rest.

Several years ago, we created a web site,, where families and groups could arrange for the study of Mishnah in memory of the departed. Today there are ten different groups arranging for study of the full Mishnah in memory of these three boys.

One of our great Sages, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, is said to have remarked, after a few moments of stunned silence upon hearing of their end, that these boys had a tremendous merit — they brought us together to pray, to improve ourselves, to elevate ourselves in response to barbarity. May it continue to be so.

Eyal, Gilad and Naftali in 140 Chars

by Yaakov Menken on July 1, 2014 at 7:44 am

Sometimes it really can be expressed in a single comment to Twitter — in this case, by Rabbi Steven Burg, Eastern Director of the Wiesenthal Center:

Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a is said to have remarked that the three boys got a tremendous zechus, merit, because of all the hisorerus and chizuk that happened — throughout all of Klal Yisrael. May the achdus, the unity, stay with us.

The PCUSA and the Banality of Evil

by Yaakov Menken on June 26, 2014 at 1:29 pm

The recent action of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA) to divest from American companies doing business with Israel does not merely harm relations between our communities. It demonstrates the veracity of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Without question, the majority of those who voted for divestment are not anti-Semitic; they just found it easier to follow the crowd, observe current political correctness, and engage in evil in the name of good.

Was it evil? Leading the charge for divestment, Robert Ross explained on June 13 that he targeted Hewlett-Packard because it “furnishes the computer hardware for the Israeli Navy and the biometric scanners for checkpoints, through which all Palestinians (but no Israelis) in the occupied West Bank must pass.” Let us examine this statement.

Among the activities of the Israeli Navy is an ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip is not occupied or controlled by Israel, but by Hamas, an internationally-recognized terrorist organization which repeatedly attempts to import weaponry for terrorist activities. Egypt also limits goods destined for the Gaza Strip, and for the same reason. Food, supplies and humanitarian shipments all reach the territory after inspection. So divestment appears to censure Hewlett-Packard for protecting Israeli civilians against terrorism.

But it is the second of the asserted reasons which makes this explicit. Biometric scanners — now used in the world’s airports to expedite frequent travelers through security — were installed for the sole benefit of residents of the Palestinian Authority who wish to cross into Israel. The problem is similar to that of the US-Mexico border, but far more lethal: the crossings needed by PA residents are exploited by terrorists to attack Israelis, whether in its cities or at the crossing itself.

As HP itself explained: “The Basel System was developed to expedite checkpoint passage in a secure environment, enabling people to get to their place of work or to carry out their business in a faster and safer way.” The PCUSA cannot claim ignorance; it is punishing Hewlett-Packard for helping Israel to avert terrorist attacks while easing the passage of working noncitizens into Israel proper.

Presumably the PCUSA does not want Palestinian families to go hungry – but the sole remaining alternative is to dismantle the checkpoints and return to the situation of 2002, in which 135 terrorist attacks massacred 451 Israelis and injured 2,348 more. The removal of many of these checkpoints has been cited in the kidnapping of three boys merely one week before this vote. The PCUSA has not endorsed any effort to protect Israeli children, and that is exactly the problem.

Neither does this action reflect a consistent policy of not investing “in militarization, human rights abuses, or threats to public health.” Motorola Solutions, for example, maintains offices in Russia, Dubai, and Vietnam, all of whose legal systems limit political and religious freedoms, including the free practice of Presbyterian Christianity. The PCUSA did not divest because Motorola Solutions devices assist in the persecution of Christians in any of these countries; only because they fight terrorism in Israel.

Ross and his allies whitewashed the consistent Palestinian history of choosing terrorism over peace. He states incorrectly that “Zionism led to the forced displacement of most of Palestine’s indigenous population” while ignoring the forced displacement of (and pogroms against) Jewish communities across the Middle East. He even criticizes those Presbyterians who object to “firing rockets into Israeli neighborhoods and in violent attacks on Israeli citizens.” If hatred and incitement are indeed prevalent in Palestinian schools and media, and violence results, he holds Israel to blame – all the while denying that this is biased or anti-Semitic.

Such appalling sentiments, though, are not without precedent in the Presbyterian Church. In 1936, C.M. Kerr, the minister of St. David’s Church in Halifax, wrote the following: “Have you ever considered that the Germans are now treating the Jews exactly as the Jews once treated other peoples whom they thought might contaminate them? That is to say they set out to exterminate them.”

The anti-Semitic fictions of the Nazi Era have been updated but not erased. In this regard, the PCUSA is returning to its roots – but not roots to which one would expect them to wish to return.