What the Forward Publishes

by Yaakov Menken on May 5, 2015 at 10:33 pm

When I wrote a few tweets about what happened in Baltimore, I expected a few nasty responses — but drew one from a new source, a man calling himself @HeathenHassid. I recognized his name; he was the author of a particularly vitriolic piece in The Forward, one which basically said any Chassid exposed to the secular world will inevitably abandon Chassidism (never mind that he can’t identify even one of his own siblings, who presumably are numerous and were equally exposed, who abandoned it with him).

So I responded, both because I enjoy a good debate and wanted to learn more about him. And when I pointed out to him that by leaving Chassidism for “liberal Judaism,” he was in effect boarding a sinking ship, he had this reply:

So The Forward, which refused to publish the work of Orthodox Rabbis who want to help liberal Jews to stay Jewish, was happy to publish the work of an atheist who wants all Jews to abandon being Jewish.

Freddie Gray was ‘banging against the walls’ during ride

by Yaakov Menken on April 29, 2015 at 9:54 pm

Prisoner who couldn’t see Gray thought he was “trying to injure himself,” according to a document.

Well, isn’t this interesting. I speculated about the possibility Gray might have been responsible for his own injuries, as crazy as it sounded. And now I feel like a prophet.

Source: Prisoner in van said Freddie Gray was ‘banging against the walls’ during ride – The Washington Post

The Need for RFRA

by Yaakov Menken on April 29, 2015 at 3:48 pm

While Rabbi Shafran outlined so well the failure to protect religious freedom from the gay marriage agenda, the headlines are piling up fast and furious to show us why legislation to protect our rights is so badly needed — and the Obama administration is clearly leading the charge.

In oral arguments in favor of same-sex marriage being a national right, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explicitly said that as a result, religious universities would be unable to function in accordance with their own beliefs:

Not satisfied with that answer, Justice Alito brought up the Bob Jones case, where the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. He asked if the same would apply to a college or university that opposed same sex marriage.

“You know, I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli said. “I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It’s going to be an issue.”

And today we read of a criminal investigation of two ministers operating a for-profit wedding chapel, because they can only consecrate the union of a man and a woman. In Colorado, of course, a baker was forced out of the business of making wedding cakes, because he refused to make one for a same-sex wedding.

Note than in the Idaho wedding chapel case, someone called them up two days after the law went into effect. With apologies to those who insist it’s simply coincidence, I find it chilling — signs of an effort to deliberately shut all “people of [traditional] faith” out of the business world.

Critics question delay in calling out the Guard

by Yaakov Menken on April 28, 2015 at 11:02 pm

Interesting how this piece dovetails with my piece on Take-Aways earlier. It’s not that Rawlings-Blake deliberately let those “who wished to destroy” cause damage — it’s that by telling the police to lay off and let people roam, she inadvertently gave them the opportunity. She tied the hands of the police, forced “tolerance” upon them, and didn’t bring adequate forces to bear.

As the Maryland National Guard patrolled Baltimore streets for the first time in more than 45 years, some critics questioned why it took so long to deploy them.

Source: Critics question delay in calling out the Guard – Baltimore Sun

Baltimore Take-Aways

by Yaakov Menken on April 28, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Here in Baltimore, we’re buckling down the hatches and hoping to weather the storm. Unrest is expected in “the Northwest” but no one is quite sure what that means. Schools all dismissed early and it’s been recommended that children stay indoors. So far, it’s a snow day in April; iy”H it will remain so.

I’m sure some of what I say here will be controversial, but here are my opinions on the facts as I know them.

The Detention of Freddie Gray was Reasonable and Appropriate

People who have nothing to hide have no problem making eye contact with a police officer, and certainly they don’t respond to eye contact by bolting. This has nothing to do with “running while black,” and everything to do with “running from a cop.”

It is the responsibility of the Baltimore Police to keep public order. Especially in a high crime area, the fact that Gray went running off at top speed was an extremely good reason to detain him, start a conversation and find out why he was running away.

Then, upon detaining him, there was ample reason to bring him into custody. He was carrying a switchblade, which which is apparently against the law — I can’t tell you if that’s true for everyone or only for those with a criminal history, but Gray has seen the inside of a prison several times over the past 7 years. He was scheduled to be tried in May on drug charges. Officers apparently suspected he was involved in drug activity, but they never got to question him about that.

There is No Evidence (Yet) that Police did Deliberate Harm

Thanks to an abundance of cell phone videos, we know what police did when they dragged him to the van and when they put leg irons on him (apparently he was being violent). Nothing that we can see explains how he received the severe spinal injury which eventually caused his death.

According to policy, he should’ve been buckled in. If a prisoner is being violent with you, then cuffed or not it’s difficult to buckle him in without risking personal harm. The officers decided not to risk being head-butted or even bitten. I think we can understand that — but it was still wrong. If it took three officers to do it safely, then three officers should have been involved.

There was also no obvious physical injury, nothing for police to see and no indication of police brutality. The spinal injury was the only injury he suffered.

The remaining question, then, is whether the driver of the van deliberately chose to give him a “rough ride” as some sort of “payback” for being violent with them. I can’t answer that question, and I’m sure no one can until the investigation is complete.

If the arresting officers didn’t hurt him, and didn’t give him a rough ride, then how did he get hurt? Did he get jostled the wrong way? Did he slam himself into the side of the van for some reason? We may never know. The demonstrators don’t seem to be waiting.

He Should Have been given Medical Attention More Quickly

Someone being held down by police is immediately going to start saying “I can’t breathe,” in order to get police to relax enough to let them escape. A cuffed person will complain his wrists hurt — and Gray was recorded doing exactly that. Similarly, for someone detained by police to claim to need medical attention is a frequent tactic to avoid going to central booking. This last tactic just delays the process and means more time in custody.

This is something that officers know to explain, to distinguish between those just trying to delay from those who really have a problem. They ignored Gray’s complaints instead, and this was wrong as well.

The Demonstrations are Senseless

The Mayor of Baltimore is black [I would use the more politically-correct term African-American, but the hashtag is #blacklivesmatter]. The Police Commissioner is black. The majority of the city council is black. At least 25% of the police force (including, according to some reports, at least one of the arresting officers) is black. So I wonder if all these people protesting could please clarify who it is, among the mayor, police force and city council, who doesn’t think black lives matter?

Obviously, they do. Obviously, they want to find out what went wrong. Obviously, they are already working on it diligently, and not trying to cover anything up. Isn’t it incredibly premature to “take to the streets?”

No, the Mayor Didn’t Deliberately Let Them Riot

Much has been made of the following quote from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake:

I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters would be able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act, because while we tried to make sure that they were protected from the cars and the other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well. And we work very hard to keep that balance and to put ourselves in the best position to de-escalate, and that’s what you saw this evening.

Some have pounced on this statement, claiming that she was admitting that they intentionally provided “those who wished to destroy” with the necessary “space to do that.” But I think it’s obvious to any honest, thinking, unbiased person that this is not what she said. She said that in providing the protesters with space in which to “exercise their right to free speech,” this inadvertently gave space to “those who wished to destroy.”

Zero Tolerance Actually Works

Zero-tolerance doesn’t mean tolerance for false arrests. Zero-tolerance isn’t an excuse for officers to get it wrong, and officers shouldn’t be given quotas requiring a certain number of arrests. What zero-tolerance does mean is that even minor crimes are not tolerated. If people want to protest, and you let them congregate in legal fashion, that’s one thing. But if you let them block traffic and you don’t intervene, they will up the ante. They will throw rocks. They will destroy police cars. They will set fires.

In Israel they have the opposite problem. If something like this had happened in Jerusalem, the border police would’ve been there busting heads. As we know, the Israeli border police act completely outside the bounds of law and order, covering their nametags, wantonly clubbing bystanders and arresting people who photograph them in action (well, at least they did that third one before cellphones made it impossible to stop the photos from appearing).

Here, the police were hampered not only by numbers, but by a policy of excessive restraint in the face of not merely protests, but violence.

We can hope that tonight will be better — due to the presence of overwhelming force. But if police had been given authority to quell the protests and clear the streets, if they didn’t need to fear lawsuits if they shoved a person illegally blocking a street (the rock-throwing thugs, of course, had no such fear), it’s likely they could have regained the streets last night, and neither a CVS pharmacy nor a nearly-completed facility for the elderly would have burned to the ground.

Such is the consequence of fettering the shotrim, the people who guard us and ensure that we obey the laws — and who are authorized to use force when necessary.

Prepare for Round Two

The investigation will be completed soon. It is almost certain that whatever disciplinary action is warranted for failing to buckle Gray in or failing to respond to his medical complaints, it will hardly satisfy the mob thirsting for blood, or in this case, a charge of murder.

One can hope the Mayor has learned that its not only the demonstrators who deserve freedom to operate.

Greater or Lesser

by Yaakov Menken on April 24, 2015 at 11:25 am

Chain-of-GossipWhat separates human consciousness from that of animals is the ability to think in terms of ideas, and act based upon a conscious decision rather than instinct. How do we communicate these ideas to others, and build upon them? This comes to us through the power of speech. A parrot can mimic sounds; a human being can communicate and understand ideas and concepts.

This unique human capacity provides us with incredible opportunities to build. Speech enables us to learn and to teach, to work together to improve the world, and to communicate with our Creator.

But as we are warned in this week’s reading, the power of speech also carries with it a unique potential for evil. Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim (known by the name of his most famous work on the ethics of speech), explains that “Lashon Hora,” evil speech, comes in many different ways: verbal intimidation, hurtful remarks, gossip about others, and more.

He tells the story of a small town, hundreds of years ago, where a rumor circulated regarding one of the men in the congregation, accusing him of criminal activity. They sent a question to a leading Rabbi of that era; they said that for the time being they had not granted him customary honors in the synagogue, but were deciding what else they should do.

The Rabbi’s response was immediate and strong: that the leaders of that congregation must publicly beg forgiveness of the man. Why? Because they had publicly shamed him without definitive knowledge of his wrongdoing. Had there been witnesses proving his criminality, of course, a punishment would have been warranted — but to publicly embarrass him based on evil gossip was, said the Rabbi, literally worse than most anything the man could have done.

The misuse of the holy gift of speech surrounds us today. Leading entertainers comment that social media has created an incredibly hostile environment, where everyone is a critic, ready to condemn everything from the tenor of their voice to the size of their nose. We’ve added an entirely new word to the vocabulary: cyberbully. In some locales, they have rightfully decided that this term refers to a crime, one that has all too frequently led to tragic deaths.

Today we do not get Divine signals that we are doing wrong, which, our Sages tell us, was the cause of the spiritual blemish of tzara’as described in our reading. Who can claim that were that malady to exist today, he or she would not be blemished?

Fortunately, we have the guidance of people like Rabbi Kagan if we wish to improve, and stop misusing this great spiritual gift that we have been given. Let us, this week, resolved to do something more to improve in this critical area, and make the world a better place.

A Foreign Fire

by Yaakov Menken on April 17, 2015 at 10:53 am

Last night was the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, of Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg zt”l, my wife’s grandfather. The Hertzbergs were amazing people — they took Holocaust refugees into their homes, treated them like children, and helped them go on to lead productive lives here in America. Someone pointed out to me not long ago that as a result of their efforts, there are hundreds of sincere, active Jews in Baltimore and beyond who otherwise would have been lost.

Rav HertzbergAs the Rav of his shul, Rabbi Dovid Katz shlit”a, pointed out last night, Rav Hertzberg would also speak truth to power. He was fired from rabbinic posts for being too honest — until a group of devoted followers created a synagogue, named for his father Avraham zt”l, and set him up as their Rabbi.

At a time when it was extremely unpopular to do so, Rav Hertzberg drew lessons like this one, from this week’s Torah reading. It refers to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the High Priest, who went outside what G-d had commanded — and were killed as a result. Reading the passage, one could think that it was a cruel or capricious reaction to two people who were simply trying to do their own offering to G-d. But as Rav Hertzberg explains, the nature of their error, and HaShem’s response, offer an eternal lesson:

“And they brought a strange fire before God, which he had not commanded them” [Lev 10:1]

Our Sages explain (Sanhedrin 52) that their souls were burned, while their bodies remained intact. And from here we take [a lesson] to all the Jewish generations, that when one introduces a “strange fire” into Judaism, even with the best of intentions, if it is not in accordance with what G-d has commanded us, the result is that the soul is burned even if the body remains intact. For the Jewish soul depends upon observance of the Commandments of the Torah, its fences and supports, without adding or subtracting. If they come (Heaven forbid) to change even the tiniest thing [lit. “the end of a Yud,” the tip of the smallest letter], even if it appears that the body is intact, it is a body without a soul. The Jewish soul is only preserved by following the path of our fathers, and the heritage of our fathers, without change, repair, or addition.

When he said this, it wasn’t merely unpopular, it seemed entirely divorced from reality. At the time everyone thought that traditional observance was dying on the vine, that Jewish growth was about keeping up with the times.

Today his words could be called prophetic. Today we see that all the new ideas led to generations that abandoned Judaism entirely. Put it this way — the synagogues that fired Rav Hertzberg for his lack of political correctness have all closed, while his shul, which functioned without a Rav for over two decades (so tight was the “family” he created), is still thriving today.

May the Neshama of HaRav Tzvi Elimelech ben Avraham zt”l have an elevation, and may his memory be a merit for us all.