There’s No (Real) Excuse

January 6, 2017 at 3:48 pm

In this week’s reading, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. “And his brothers were unable to answer him, for they were disoriented in front of him” [Genesis 45:3]. Recognizing that not only had Joseph survived and even flourished in Egypt, but was even the Viceroy seated before them, was simply too much for them.

The Medrash says something more. Their disorientation was because all the various excuses that they had made and told themselves about why they had treated Yosef as they had — they all fell away. They knew they had no answer. They had nothing to say.

All of us have situations in our lives where we know we are not doing the best thing we could be doing. We often give ourselves reasons why we aren’t meeting our own standards. But we should also know that those reasons are merely excuses. They will melt away under the harsh light of truth.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky tells a story from the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, in which the prophet Elijah meets a person in his travels, and can tell that this person has not studied the Torah and Jewish ethics. He says to him, “my son, what are you going to tell your Father in Heaven at the end of your life?”

The man responds, “Rebbe, I have an answer to give Him, for understanding and knowledge were not given to me from Heaven in order that I should be able to read and study.”

“My son, what job do you have?”

“I am a fisherman.”

“My son, who taught you and told you that you should bring flax and weave it into nets, and toss the nets into the water, and bring up fish from the sea?”

“Rebbe,” he answered, “in this, understanding and knowledge was given to me from Heaven.”

And then Elijah said to him, “To bring flax and to weave it into a net, and toss it into the water and bring up fish, in all of that you were given understanding from Heaven, but in words of Torah, about which it is written: ‘for this thing is extremely close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ [Deut. 30:14], you were not given understanding from Heaven?”

Immediately, the fisherman began crying, for he knew that he had no answer.

We should learn from what happened to Joseph’s brothers when he identified himself. If we know that we could be doing better in a particular area, let’s dispense with the excuses. We should take the opportunity to do better, instead!

O-WOW Calls to End Prayer at the Wall

January 5, 2017 at 12:06 pm

Originally published in HaModia.

In an unexpected moment of courtroom drama, Dr. Susan Weiss, attorney for the “Original Women of the Wall” (O-WOW), conceded last week what many observers have long recognized: that far from advocating for women’s rights, their agenda is to obstruct observant Jews attempting to pray.

When the “Center for Women’s Justice” filed suit last year on behalf of O-WOW, their stated claim was that the women of O-WOW merely wanted to pray in their own fashion — including reading from a Torah scroll in the women’s section. Preventing them from doing so, they argued, violated Israel’s anti-discrimination laws.

Their day in court revealed a very different interest. Judge Elyakim Rubenstein asked their lead attorney, Dr. Susan Weiss, what sort of alternative site might be acceptable to the group. She replied that in her view, none was necessary. Rubenstein then asked what she would do, were it up to her. She responded:

In actuality, there wouldn’t be a mechitzah (divider) there at all, and I would send all of them to their synagogue. Perhaps I would earmark certain hours for them … It needs to be a public plaza. ‘All of them’ includes both observant women and those women who want to wear tzitzis.

She went on to say that the Wall is not a synagogue, and should not be treated that way. Rather than arguing that women should have Torah scrolls at the wall, she in essence argued that no one should.

Leah Aharoni is co-founder of Women For the Wall (W4W), an organization created by women who pray at the Wall regularly and object to the disturbances created by O-WOW and Women of the Wall. Just recently, W4W requested to join in the case as respondents, because, she said, “they are ignoring the sincere desires of the much larger group that seeks to maintain the tradition of prayer at the Holy Site.”

Regarding Weiss’ statements in court, Aharoni commented that “this confirms what we have said from the beginning, that they are not advocating for women’s rights. Rather, they want to deny observant Jews the ability to pray at the Wall.”

A look back reveals that this is not a new argument. O-WOW is comprised of the majority of the initial, core supporters of Women of the Wall (WOW). And in previous years, Anat Hoffman, head of WOW, suggested herself that her ultimate agenda was to prevent Orthodox prayer at the Holy Site. She told Channel 2 that a day would come when people would look back and say about the Wall, “there used to be a mechitzah here all the time! You don’t believe it.” And before Natan Sharansky proposed a new section, she told a Florida audience that she would be open to “timesharing,” for the Wall to be open six hours a day as a “national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men.”

Hoffman directs the American Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, described by writer Jonathan Rosenblum as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” This is entirely in accordance with the expressed interests of both WOW and O-WOW. But the Reform movement — an insignificant minority in Israel, comprised of Jews who do not pray on even a weekly basis — landed upon an even better option: to demand a site equal in size and prominence to the current plaza, used by hundreds of thousands of Jews who pray three times a day.

This is what precipitated the split between WOW and O-WOW. O-WOW’s primary interest is to force their practices upon observant women, while Hoffman now claims that WOW “is the right group for bringing about change in Israel, but not the right group for bringing about change in the Orthodox world.”

The end goal of all three groups — WOW, O-WOW, and the American Reform movement — remains the same: to change the Jewish character of the Jewish State. Hoffman told the BBC that the fight at the Kotel is merely a stepping stone on the path to changing marriage, divorce, and burial in Israel.

Aharoni’s focus, however, remains upon the here and now. She stresses that what O-WOW proposed to the Court is not merely offensive to the observant Jews who stream to the Wall on a daily basis. “For most visitors,” she said, “the idea that they can go to the Wall at any hour of the day or night, any time of the year, and find people pouring out their hearts to G-d … that is a critical part of the experience.”

This experience would be denied to millions of Jews, if the 50 members of O-WOW and WOW were to have their way.

Obama’s Antipathy Towards Israel

December 28, 2016 at 2:38 pm

In I Maccabees, Shimon is reported to have said, “We have neither taken foreign land nor seized foreign property, but only the inheritance of our ancestors, which at one time had been unjustly taken by our enemies. Now that we have the opportunity, we are firmly holding the inheritance of our ancestors.” (I Maccabees 15:33-34)

The New York Observer today published my piece, which attempts to explain why Obama would go ahead and anger his allies such as Charles Schumer and Alan Dershowitz, and also provoke his successor, who could now prioritize dismantling the Obama legacy.

Ends and Means

November 4, 2016 at 2:58 pm

trolley-dilemma-300x217There is an old joke of a mugger demanding of a Jew, “your money or your life!”

The Jew doesn’t move, and the mugger demands, “hurry up already!”

To which the Jew responds: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

Despite its play on antisemitic tropes, even Jews find it funny. Yet we know from the Bible that something very much like this actually happened. In the story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the people of the world did not merely rebel against G-d. They rebelled against humanity as well.

The Medrash teaches that if a person was carrying a brick up the tower and dropped it, people would cry. Dropping the brick slowed down the construction of the tower, their supreme goal.

But if a person fell off the ladder to his death on the way down, people would not cry. This, as much as the rebellious nature of the tower itself, represented the corruption of human values. They placed inanimate objects ahead of human lives.

Often, the questions are not so clear-cut. In modern ethics, there is something called the Trolley Problem, a question asked 50 years ago. Imagine a trolley running out of control down a hill, and there are five people tied to the tracks further down. You are standing next to a lever. Should you pull the lever, it will save those five people, yet the trolley will roll down a side track and kill someone else. Are you supposed to pull the lever?

As it turns out, this is not merely a theoretical question. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Hebron, bent upon massacre. Yet they gave the Chief Rabbi of the city a choice: if he turned over the Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin), they would spare the Sephardim (from the Arab world).

The Rabbi refused. The Torah teaches that we are in no position to judge whether five people are of greater worth than the one. We can sacrifice ourselves to save others, but not pass judgment on other people. We cannot pull the lever.

Why is this so? Because in our Torah, human life is of infinite value. Every person has within them a spark of Divinity, which is infinite. Five times infinity is infinity. Infinity divided by 20 is infinity. We cannot place one infinity ahead of another.

We must remain aware that every person around us is of infinite value, and deserving of respect. And, yes, we must also recognize that each of us is of infinite value. We are important. No person is unnecessary or “worthless.” So don’t take yourself for granted!

Election Frenzy

October 31, 2016 at 11:24 am

To the great surprise of no one, I expect to pull the lever (which is to say, press the electronic button) for Trump. I have a set of reasons for so doing: his support for Israel, his [or, more accurately, his advisors’] economic and foreign policies, and whether the Supreme Court will be populated by justices bent upon determining if legislation is Constitutional, or by justices bent upon changing the law to conform to their own opinions. [As we have seen, justices of the latter variety are far more dangerous to religious communities of all types.]

But what I’ve noticed is that no matter which candidate you support, someone is going to tell you that it is religiously untenable to do so, and that it completely contradicts any claim you might have to being a moral, much less religious, person. The conversation all-too-often turns to direct attacks… and not against the candidate or the candidate’s positions, but at the other party in the discussion. All of these are direct quotes from online comments:

If you support Trump, it’s a “shanda” because you are supporting a “neo-fascist,” a “Nazi” guilty of a host of crimes. You are “attacking Judaism” and, of course, “promoting anti-Semitism.” Orthodox supporters in particular must be racists motivated by “deep resentment… against black folks for their total lack of gratitude or even conscious recognition” of Jewish support for civil rights.

If you support Clinton, you are an “un-kosher Rabbi” who endorses “an anti-Israel Treif candidate for President… with the Chazzer Feesel Clinton.” If Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU supports Clinton, “can we now trust the OU on kashrus?”

If I seem to have more anti-Trump material, this is true. As Scott Adams of Dilbert fame points out, Clinton supporters are more likely to steal the sign off your lawn, deface your bumper sticker, or accuse you of racism and hate speech. They are more prone to use insults and labels on social media. [The anti-Clinton examples above come from a single individual.]

But my point is that it is equally inappropriate on any side, especially coming from a fellow Jew.

Is there an exemption from the obligation to be Dan L’Kaf Zechut, to judge every person favorably, because there’s an election campaign going on? If you are incapable of seeing why a rational, intelligent, religious individual might have completely rational reasons for supporting either candidate, the problem lies within you, not the target of your ire.

Certainly, there are serious issues involved. But in the end we know Lev Melachim B’Yad Hashem, that “The heart of a king is like a stream of water in the hand of Hashem, wherever He wishes, He will direct it.” [Proverbs 21:1]

Life and civilization will go on. Yes, elections address important issues, but a blatt Gemara (page of Talmud) addresses more important issues. And somehow we manage to fight over the latter while building friendship rather than enmity. It should be that way with every argument!

We’re All in This (World) Together

October 28, 2016 at 5:17 pm

With an insight that my friend Rabbi Leonard Oberstein called prescient, the very first comment of Rashi on the Torah quotes a Medrash:

Rebbe Yitzchok says: He did not need to begin the Torah [here,] but from ‘this month will be for you the first of months’ [Exodus 12:2], for that is the first Mitzvah that Israel is Commanded to follow. What is the reason to begin with ‘The beginning?’… That if the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘you are thieves, for conquering the land of the seven nations,’ they will say to them, ‘all the world is the property of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He Created it and Gave it in accordance with what is right in His eyes. By His Will He Gave it to them, and By His Will He Took it from them and Gave it to us. [Yal. Shim. Ex. 247]

globe-1674102_1920-300x255This Torah portion teaches many other lessons that are as relevant today as ever. The idea that we have a single Creator, Ruler of heaven and earth, is one example. Much as Kant and others attempted to prove otherwise, to truly live a moral life requires that we acknowledge a standard greater than our own, one that we must follow even when, frankly, we don’t want to. Monotheism enables and indeed requires that single, objective standard. Under polytheistic idolatry, the wishes of one “god” often contradict the desires of another; when we ourselves determine morality, our judgment is clouded by temptation and self-interest.

We also learn that we were created in the image of G-d. Every person has a spark of Divinity within him or her. Every life has infinite value, and thus the preservation of life becomes a critical responsibility of every person.

We learn the brotherhood of man. All of humanity are brothers, descended from a single father and mother. We cannot ignore “our brother’s blood.”

We even learn our responsibility as custodians of the earth, as Hashem gives to Adam and Chava rulership over all other creatures, bringing each one to Adam to name, and gives all growing things to them to eat.

It is no coincidence that anti-Semitism accuses Jews of opposing all of these values. Besides “stealing” the Jewish homeland, Jews are accused of killing non-Jews at will and destroying the earth, and considering non-Jews to be subhuman (there’s even a concocted quote from the Talmud to prove it)!

The lessons of Judaism serve as their own rebuke to these nonsensical canards. We are all one human race, like it or not, says the Torah. All that the Western world now calls “Judeo-Christian ethics” emerges from the Torah’s lessons, guiding us to perfect ourselves — to live as godly individuals. We await the day when “all who dwell on earth will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… As it says, ‘And Hashem will be King over all the land, on that day Hashem will be One, and his name One.'” [Zechariah 14:9]

As we begin to read the Torah for another year, let us remain mindful of its ability to transform and elevate us like nothing else!

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.