Slave or Servant?

September 16, 2016 at 2:17 pm

butlerIn this week’s reading, we are reminded multiple times that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. First the Torah warns judges to be impartial, especially in handling cases involving orphans and converts, and to be merciful when it comes to debts of widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem your G-d redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing” [Deut. 24:19] Then the Torah tells us to leave behind forgotten sheaves, olives or grapes, to leave these for the poor — again, especially converts, orphans and widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing” [24:22].

The Torah also gives us, this week, two Commandments regarding non-Jewish slaves themselves: if such a person runs away from somewhere else to go live in the Land of Israel, he must be allowed to remain there. His master cannot extradite him; “He shall live among you, in the place of his choice within one of your gates, which he likes, and you shall not oppress him” [23:17].

The Torah reminds us that we were slaves, in order that we not consider ourselves “upper-class.” We are to go out of our way to treat widows, orphans, converts, and any poor person with generosity. After all, they are our peers, and they need our help.

But what about a person’s own slave? Why is there a law not to send him back home?

In reality, this is far from the only limitation upon treatment of slaves. A person may not command his slave to violate a Torah Commandment, meaning that both enjoy the Sabbath as a day of rest. And if one blinds the eye of his slave, knocks out a tooth or severs a finger, the slave goes free.

I had the good fortune to speak with R’ Irving Roth lay”t about this; he is a Holocaust survivor and Director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset. He knows very well what it means to be treated as a slave — and these Commandments, he explains, prove that what we call slavery is forbidden in the Torah. The Hebrew word Eved is translated as slave in this context, but it is inaccurate — it derives from the word la’avod, to work, and in other contexts is translated as servant. We are all told to be an “Eved Hashem,” a Servant of G-d!

A slave is a piece of property; he has no individual human rights, and can be treated literally like an animal. The Torah tells us that to the contrary, every human being was created in G-d’s Image — and must be respected for that reason alone.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having or being a servant — honestly, having a job for life would be a relief for many of us! Yet the Torah forbids denying the humanity of any other person. We must treat every person with dignity and respect — for after all, we ourselves are descended from slaves.

The Judge in his Locker

September 9, 2016 at 2:29 pm

locker-820088_640In this week’s reading, we find two passages that do not seem to belong together. The Torah begins this week with a commandment to set up a justice system, with both courts and judges to make rulings, and police to enforce them. It speaks of the importance of true and fair judgment that shows favoritism to no one. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” [Deut. 16:20]. The Torah even follows this up by saying, “in order that you live and inherit the land which Hashem your G-d is giving you.”

Then the Torah goes off in what appears to be an entirely different direction: “you shall not plant an asheira tree” — which comprises prohibitions on planting a tree for idolatrous worship, as well as planting a tree in the Holy Temple. What is the connection between setting up a justice system, and prohibiting idolatry?

The Talmudic Sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakeish explains the juxtaposition [Sanhedrin 7b]: appointing a judge who is unfit for the position is like planting an idolatrous tree! To which Rav Ashi adds: if the unfit judge is appointed in place of a true scholar, then it is like planting such a tree in the Temple itself, next to the Altar.

Judaism does not permit a distinction between obligations to G-d and our obligations to each other — after all, they both come from the same Source. The Torah is telling us that corrupt judges strike at the very foundation of Judaism, just like idolatry.

There was a teacher who came to a Jewish school for boys after years in the public school system, who quickly learned what it means when children treat their interpersonal relationships like key religious obligations.

A student had performed well in her class, and she awarded him a prize: his very own can of soda. She gave it to him as they were leaving class, and she saw him go over to his locker to put it away to drink later. Seeing that his locker did not have a lock on it, she asked him if he would like her to keep the soda for the time being, so that no one else would take the soda from his locker.

This young boy, in either fourth or fifth grade, looked at her like she had suggested something crazy. “No one would take my soda,” he said. “That would be stealing!”

Those of us who attended those schools, and who send our children to those schools, may not recognize this as anything extraordinary. But to her, after decades of experience with children trying to educate themselves in “what they can get away with without getting caught,” this was a profound moment.

Throughout our lives, that sense of obligation must constantly be with us. Any type of injustice is certainly no less significant than anything we regard as a core Jewish ritual. This, too (and perhaps even more so), is part of what it means to follow the Torah.

True Vision

September 2, 2016 at 12:17 pm

space_eye-space_universe_photography_wallpaper_mediumThe reading this week begins, “See I have placed before you today the blessing and the curse” [Deut. 11:26]. This is said in the singular form, rather than plural, and the Ba’al HaTurim explains that this statement, “see,” was made to each and every individual. Each of us has the blessing and curse lying in front of us, the ability to choose between right and wrong.

This does not mean, however, that the correct choice is always obvious. The same reading also discusses the possibility of a false prophet, coming to guide us to idolatry, even proving to us that his false god has real power:

When there shall arise among you a prophet or dreamer of dreams, and he shall provide you with a sign or wonder; and this sign or wonder shall come to pass as he told you, saying, ‘let us go after other gods which you do not know, and let us serve them.’ Do not listen to the words of this prophet or this dreamer of dreams, for Hashem your G-d is testing you, to know if you love Hashem your G-d with all your hearts and with all your souls.
— Deut 13:2-4

Throughout our lives, we are confronted with opportunities to choose the good — yet the good may not be immediately obvious. Sociologists talk about the “bandwagon effect,” in which even truly bad ideas are adopted at an increasing rate the more they are adopted by others.

A senior at Brown University wrote an article this week in which he advised incoming freshmen to “prepare yourself for insane anti-Semitism.” The movement to boycott Israel is a direct descendant of the Nazi boycott (via the Arab boycott, which predates 1948), it leads directly to anti-Semitic slurs and acts against individual students, yet it is adopted as a “moral” movement by people who have not bothered to look and discern the truth.

How often are we fooled, in our own lives, by things which appear moral or correct to others? Are we “going with the flow,” or are we looking at and evaluating the blessing and the curse?

This is the challenge of our reading, and it lies before each and every one of us.

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.