Sunday, December 10, 2017

Liberal versus Conservative

I know many of my Orthodox friends who identify as liberal may not like what I am about to say. But I am all about Emes – the truth as I see it. For the record I do not identify as either liberal or conservative. (In the context of this post I mean socially conservative - not fiscally conservative.) I have taken positions on some issues that can be seen as liberal and on others that can be seen as conservative. I base my views on my religious perspective on some issues and on simple common sense on others. I do however admit to leaning conservative most of the time. It therefore is hard to pin a political label on me.

This does not mean that I promote an Orthodox Jewish agenda for the United States. (Although I do promote a little more of a common sense agenda). I am more than grateful to this country for living up to its credo of religious tolerance. And do not wish to force my beliefs on anyone else. But when it comes to expressing my views on what I think is right or wrong, I am going to tell it like it is from my perspective as an Orthodox Jew and my common sense. That is what is behind every post I do.

As a rule, I believe that on social issues the views expressed by the political right and left are generally determined be how much value one places on biblical teachings. Using gay sex as an example - social conservatives who see the bible as their guide will oppose gay marriage. Gay sex (male to male anal sexual intercourse) is forbidden by the bible. Liberals tend to not look at the bible at all. They instead look at humanistic values and devalue the biblical prohibition against gay sex. They therefore see nothing inherently wrong with gay sex and equate it morally and ethically to heterosexual sex.

How can an Orthodox Jew be liberal, as some define themselves? I think they have to put an asterisk next to the world liberal when describing themselves. Using the above example - they will make arguments like the following: What we believe should not influence what a secular government does in service to an citizen’s civil rights. But even they must admit that as a religious matter gay sex is an act forbidden by the Torah. They are liberal up to a point. 

There may be some on the extreme left of Orthodoxy that are so ‘compassionate’  that they will twist the Torah admonition against gay sex as not applying to gay people. They will say that Oness Rahcmana Patrei – God absolves individuals that sin because they are forced to. The ‘force’ in this case being a sexual orientation and natural sex drive that ‘force’ the individual do engage in gay sex. Thus overturning the actual sin in the vast majority of cases where it is practiced leaving only to the rare instances where gay sex is done by heterosexuals. (Kind of ridiculous if you think about it - but I digress.)

Liberals believe they are more compassionate than conservatives because of such ‘reasoning’. I don’t think that’s accurate. I believe that conservatives are just as compassionate, but understand that their religious beliefs override any compassion they might feel.

The same kind of thinking divides how they look at Israel and Jerusalem. Conservatives understand that the bible cedes title of Israel to the Jewish people. It was a promise made by God to each of our three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Bible believing Christians and Jews know this and believe it. 

They also believe the biblical narrative that Jerusalem was conquered by King David. And his son King Solomon built the Holy Temple there. And that Jerusalem is the place where God chose for that. 

Fir Orthodox Jews Jerusalem is constantly in our thoughts. Throughout our 2000 year exile we have  prayed for its return into our hands. Social conservatives (which is comprised mostly of bible believing Evangelicals) read the same passages in the bible and realize that Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people. That’s why they were the ones that actually urged the President to declare it Israel’s capital. And they have been cheering his decision ever since.

Liberals ignore what the bible says. They take the humanistic approach and see 2 peoples, Jews and Palestinian Muslims claiming the same city as their own holy capital. That makes any declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital unfair. Making matters worse is the fact that Israel is seen as an occupying force that has taken land away from the indigenous Arabs that have been living there for centuries. Humanists (liberals) who do not take their values from the bible see Israel bullying those Palestinians – always painting Israel in the most negative light regardless of the facts. 

The mainstream media is humanistic and therefore liberal. They do not value the bible as a guide to modern day ethics or morality. They see a suffering underdog being subjugated by a powerful oppressor that uses its power in unethical ways in order to maintain their oppression of the downtrodden. They are sympathetic only to the underdog which they see suffering unjustly.

That is why the mainstream media reporting on the President's decision to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been mostly negative. All you hear is how the US overturned decades of US policy; destroyed the ‘peace process’; and has thrown the Mideast into turmoil. Hardly a word about the the 70 year reality of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel. Or that the President was only implementing a law passed by the vast majority of congress decades ago. And reaffirmed it 6 months ago. And that nothing on the ground has changed because of that declaration. The media reportage has only played into the hands of the protesting Arabs. All because they believe they are far more ethical and moral than the bible.  

It is one thing to be worried about the reaction (that is actually happening) because of the President’s declaration.  I expressed that same concern. But to paint it as entirely bad without one positive word is biased and irresponsible. But unsurprising because of their liberal humanistic bias that dismisses the the bible completely .

I realize there might be exceptions to my assessment of liberal versus conservative. I also realize that my liberal friends will disagree. Furthermore (as I’ve said more than once) I have taken liberal positions on some issues myself. Not because I have had a sudden surge of humanistic compassion. But because my religious beliefs have guided me and is some cases simple common sense has guided me.  Which is for example why I support keeping abortion legal for religious reasons and why I support gun control for common sense reasons.

That is the long and short of it. I maybe wrong, but don’t see a better way of understanding liberal versus conservative values.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Birthright - Why Reform Judaism is Failing

Reform leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs
I hate to keep criticizing the Reform Movement. But if the shoe fits…

It seems that a program called Birthright Israel has dropped the Reform movement from participation in its program. For those that don’t know what Birthright is, it is a nonprofit educational organization that sponsors free ten-day heritage trips to Israel for Jewish young adults aged 18–32. 

It was created so that Jews with limited Jewish backgrounds can find out about their Jewish heritage and connect to their Jewish identity. 

Birthright  was founded by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, 2 decidedly non Orthodox Jews. They are a breed of non-religious Jew that seems to be becoming increasingly rare in America.  The kind of Jew that cares about their Jewishness and future of their people.

Any Jew that fits the above description can apply for this trip. But all is not well in ‘Birthright-land’ According to an excerpt from Ha’aretz in the Forward Orthodox operators are taking over Birthright at the expense of Reform participants: 
“(Because of) aggressive” and often misleading “marketing” of Orthodox trip providers and the popularity of low-cost or free Orthodox extension programs after the ten days. These “growing trends,” Ha’aretz explains, have been boosted by the well-funded Orthodox outreach initiative on campuses of “the Diaspora Affairs Ministry – run by the Orthodox, settler-aligned Habayit Hayehudi party.” 
But I agree with Gil Troy the lay-chair of Birthright and author of the Forward article,. The reason young Reform Jews aren’t taking advantage of Birthright is because Reform leaders are unsuccessful in selling it to their young members. Blaming charismatic Orthodox leaders is a cop-out.  As Troy notes: 
(T)he Reform Movement’s trip provider, URJ Kesher, again failed to meet its recruiting quota and lost its status as a Birthright Trip Organizer.   
This has nothing to do with some sort of nefarious plan by the Orthodox Jews to take over Birthright. They are merely taking part in that enterprise in their own legitimate way. Orthodox young people should not be denied the chance to find out more about their heritage just because they are Orthodox.

True they have a head start as Orthodox Jews. But there is still plenty to learn about their heritage via this organization. The fact that Orthodox providers offer extension programs after the ten day trip is over – is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with Birthright.  Not a penny of Birthright money is used for it.Those extensions are offered entirely by Orthodox community as their own independent add-on. Which is their right and can be done by any other trip provider. Whether Conservative or Reform.  

That Orthodox providers are infinitely more successful at this is because young Orthodox Jews have been more Jewishly inspired from the very beginning. They should not be faulted for that. They should be praised.

But Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs apparently does not have the ability to look in the mirror. Instead he blames those ‘crafty Orthodox Jews’ for abusing the program.

Why is Reform not successful? I think the answer is obvious. It can be found in the very philosophy that Reform Judaism was founded upon. A philosophy that glorified complete assimilation. A goal facilitated by a rejection of any behavior that is identifiably Jewish. Which mostly meant abandoning all Mitzvah observance.

Sure – they are back-pedaling now and even encourage Mitzvah observance on a voluntary basis. They realize their mistake They didn’t think Mitzvah observance was important from a religious perspective. They believed that one could be a Jew in good standing without observing a single Mitzvah. That was their creed at first and actively discouraged Mitzvah observance. But they now embrace it (on a voluntary basis) realizing that it was a big mistake from a sociological perspective, too.

And all their efforts to instill a little Judaism in their flock is too little too late. While there is a bit of culture re-instilled in some Reform Jews that care about it, I believe that most Reform Jews prefer complete assimilation. Those among them that that want to practice Judaism and want to perpetuate it in their children - look elsewhere.  Many of them find it in Orthodoxy. But they are a tiny minority of the Reform community. 

The vast majority of Reform Jews are not interested in changing their lives from the freedom they have as a Reform Jew to the burden of Mitzvah observance that would drastically change their lives. That makes them pretty much secular - being Jewish in name only. Which is why so many Jews today become unaffiliated and so many intermarry.

This description of reality may be a bit harsh. It may very well be hard for Reform leaders and Jews to hear. But it is the truth. And if their leaders were honest they would see just how true this is.

This is the reality of a  movement doomed, despite their current status as the largest segment of American Jewry. Sure – they might be growing. But that is because they keep moving the goal posts. Every time they see Jews moving further away from even their form of Judaism, they simply redefine the concept. Intermarriage is now fully accepted. And conversions do not require anything more that living a ‘Jewish lifestyle’. As if eating Gefilte Fish and putting Matzah balls in their soup makes them a Jew.

Yes, Reform Judaism is doomed. If you are a Refrom Jew reading this and care about a Jewish future for yourself and your children, I invite you to study what Orthodoxy is all about and then judge for yourself if that is the right path to take towards that goal. For the rest of Reform Jewry, if you continue as you are but still want your children and grandchildren to be Jewish - good luck. You’ll need it.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

What Now?

Harry Truman with Israel’'s first President, Chaim Weizmann
I am still reveling in yesterday’s announcement by President Trump – recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This is one of those times where – at least among Orthodox Jewry, there is Achdus – unity. It is a rare occasion when Achdus occurs when there is good news. Unfortunately Achdus is more likely to happen when there is tragedy.

First there is the reaction of Israel. Just about every politician there left to right (with the possible exception of Arab Kneset members) have expressed Hakaras HaTov to the President for his courageous decision. Courageous because it went against the conventional wisdom of a State Department which has guided Presidents about ‘the Jews’ all the way back to the Truman Era.  Advice to not rock the boat of the Middle East status quo – unless it was to pressure Israel to make ‘concessions for peace’. 

Conventional wisdom that his top 2 cabinet members, Tillerson of State and Mattis of Defense urged him to follow. President Trump decided instead to do what he believed was right and recognize the reality of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, against that conventional wisdom. 

Much the same way Harry Truman did when he was urged by his then Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall not to recognize Israel. It took a lot of courage for Truman to reject Marshall’s vehement opposition. And it took a lot of courage for Trump to recognize the obvious in the face of all the advice he received against it.

One can say whatever they wish about the President or his ulterior motives. But one cannot deny the significance of what he has done for the Jewish people. To just cite one reaction, here in part is what Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: 
I welcome today’s decision by the United States to recognise as the capital of Israel, Jerusalem, whose name means “city of peace.” This recognition is an essential element in any lasting peace in the region. 
This sentiment has been echoed by virtually all of the Orthodox Jewish establishment. From Lakewood... to the OU... to Religious Zionist rabbinic leaders like Rav Shlomo Aviner.

Not surprisingly the reaction of the rest of the world has not exactly been favorable. European leaders have either condemned the President or in other ways panned his decision. They feel the ‘peace process’ has been exploded. 

One might agree with that  assessment if one listens to comments from much of the Arab world. Or even some of the more liberal Jewish groups like Reform whose leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said it  undermined the peace process. Or the  radical Jewish Voice for Peace whose Deputy Director, Rabbi Alissa Wise said ‘(T)his is a reckless, deeply irresponsible decision: for Palestinians, Israelis, and all of us.’

The reaction on the Arab street is just as predictable. There are protests going on right now although they are not as intense as I expected them to be. But it’s early. Palestinians are being asked to react violently by their leadership again - declaring 3 days of rage beginning tomorrow, their ‘sabbath’. By their reaction - you would think US just approved Israel rounding up all Palestinians and marching them into gas chambers instead of simply recognizing a reality of the last 70 years. One that does not change the possibility of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel.

What about the claim that this killed the peace process? I have to ask, What peace process?  There has been talk of a peace process for decades with no results.  Peace process? Really?

The policies of the past have gained nothing towards a Palestinians State. Just more bloodshed.  It’s time to think ‘out of the box’. It’s time to try something different. The peace process needed a jump start. The conventional wisdom being bandied about right now is based on the failed policies of the past.

I think Chicago’s Ray Haninia said it best. Ray is a Palestinian American journalist and sometime comedian who was asked to respond to this event by the mainstream media. He said it will either explode the Middle East or create a jump-start to the peace process with a realization that game is now changed. 

What the President did yesterday might actually clear some heads once the smoke clears.

Yes, the immediate response by Palestinians is to be violent. I expected that. Which was why I had some misgiving about this. But maybe this will indeed spur some clear thinking by Palestinian leaders. Maybe they will see the wisdom of the changed conditions and proceed from there instead of relying on the thinking of the past. 

It’s either that or maintain the status quo. The US will no longer back their every complaint about Israel. Maybe they will realize that with compromise - peaceful relations between a new Palestinian State and Israel will have a chance of happening with an American President determined to make the ‘ultimate deal’.

That might eventually some day bring an era of cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians. One that would be friendly rather than antagonistic. Contrary to popular belief Israel has no interest whatsoever in making life miserable for Palestinians. I am 100% certain that – would it not be for their security needs - they would prefer to treat them with the dignity that every human being deserves. 

If Palestinian leaders are wise and take advantage of the President’s desire to make peace and actually come up with peace agreement with Israel -  it might result in Israel actually helping Palestinians build their new country – instead of seeing them all as security risks. Maybe someday we can even see the same relationship between Palestinians and Israelis that we see between Canada and the US.

That day isn’t here, yet.  It might be a long way off… or never happen. The world might see what happened yesterday as a setback for peace. But this new reality should force them to rethink their current approach.

That said, it doesn’t help that the world sides with the failed policies of the past. That just fuels Palestinian animosity towards Israel. It also doesn’t help that Arab children all across the Middle East are taught to think of all Jews as blood thirsty Nazis – to be despised with all their might. That has to change before anything else does.

Where all this leads is anybody’s guess. One thing is certain, though. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results each time. That insane policy is what the I would call the conventional wisdom upon which the State Department and the rest of the world has relied. Which is why they are all so upset by what the President has done.

I think that instead of expressing all this angst and condemnation they ought to instead listen to the end of the President’s speech yesterday and take note of the fact that he did not change US policy with respect to the Israel and Palestinians one iota. America is as committed as ever to making peace between them. With the improved relations between Israel and countries like Saudia Arabia, there is no better time than now. Once we get past the initial reactions – this may be the jump start the world has been waiting for.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Recognizing Reality

No Jewish connection to the Temple Mount? Really?
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. That is about the most natural statement one could ever make about a country and its capital. It rolls off the tongue. Kind of like love and marriage; horse and carriage. I can’t think of anything more natural than considering Jerusalem the capital of Israel. 

Anyone - Christian or Jew - that has ever studied the bible should feel the same way. Even if they are not religious. Jerusalem has always been Israel’s capital ever since King David conquered it in ancient times. It is also the case that ever since we - the Jewish people - have been in exile, we have been yearning for a return to Jerusalem at least 3 times daily. 

And yet in just about every media report on what President Trump is about to do, you would think he was declaring Raqqa the capital of the Islamic State.

I understand what all the concern is about. I have expressed that concern myself. I too have wondered whether this gesture by the United Sates will cause bloodshed… and whether at the end of the day, will what is gained be worth the spillage of blood. 

That said, it is one thing to worry about it. It is another to taint every report about this as though it were pure evil to  declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital. As though Palestinians had some sort of legitimate exclusive religious claim to the city – just because they have lived there for so long. 

To the best of my knowledge Muslims consider Jerusalem of value only because they believe Mohammed ascended to heaven from there - right on the Temple Mount. There is no mention of Jerusalem at all in the Quran – their bible. 

Let us be honest.  Palestinians are upset by this – not because they think Jerusalem should not be the capital of Israel. They are upset that Israel exists at all. And that any step recognizing that is a step in the wrong direction.

What about the rest of the nations of the world that are all screaming bloody murder about this? For me it just reaffirms what I have always believed about Europe. Antisemitism is in their mother’s milk. (Yes, I know there are many exceptions. But they are exceptions.)

Oh… they talk a good show. And most of them at least pay lip-service to our right to a Jewish State. Many of them even have economic ties with Israel. But deep down they simply don’t like us. Just like their parents didn’t like us. The difference is the Holocaust. At the end of the day, they do have a bit of a conscience about it. But deep down…  

Let us just use Turkey as an example of this. They have already said that if the US recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they will sever ties with Israel. Not the United States. But Israel! Even though Israel did not initiate this - nor has it been a priority for them except in ideological terms.

Let us also see how the United Nations sees Israel and the Jewish people. Half the time they treat Israel as though it were Nazi Germany in the 30s. Then there is the recent declaration by UNESCO that Judaism has no connection to the Temple Mount. Does that not say it all about Israel’s international ‘friends’?

I used to give the media the benefit of the doubt whenever they were accused of bias against Israel. But  the bias on this issue is so blatant, I can’t give them a pass here. Even though they are probably not even aware of it as bias. They probably think they are just reporting facts when they tell us how bad this decision is.

They all seem to believe that Jerusalem should not be in Jewish hands. That each side has the same legitimate claim to it. How sad that - unlike Evangelical Christians - the majority of people that make up the mainstream media (who are nominally Christian) have abandoned as archaic and irrelevant -many of their biblical teachings.

It would have been nice to hear at least one reporter say something more positive than Trump is only doing this to appease his base and right wing supporters of Israel (read: Orthodox Jews). It would have been nice to hear them say something other than this is the biggest mistake America has made since Israel declared itself a State. 

It would have been nice if they didn’t say that this is a reversal of 70 years of US foreign policy towards Israel. It would have been nice if they would have mentioned that the ‘darlings’ of the mainstream media – Israel’s left wing - are in favor of it too.  It would be nice if they said that Jerusalem has been the defacto capital if Israel and the seat of power since its inception. And that recognizing it is merely recognizing a realty they are all aware of. A realty that would be the case even in a 2 state solution.  

But No. The mainstream media insists on painting this in the worst possible light. So much for their supposed objectivity!

Please do not misunderstand where I am coming from. I supported Oslo. Which divided Jerusalem – giving Palestinians the ‘Old City’ (East Jerusalem) with a proviso they agreed to at the time that would have given Jews the right to freely access all Jewish holy sites whenever they chose. 

For me an environment of peaceful co-existence that would have ended the bloodshed and saved Jewish lives was worth the cost of the bricks and mortar of the old city. I still feel that way. I just don’t believe it is possible anymore. Doing that would do the opposite and probably turn the West Bank into another Gaza - as things stand now.

Despite my personal misgivings about this move because of this exact problem (the spilling of Jewish blood) I can honestly say that I have a tremendous sense of pride in America for what is about to happen. And if done the right way we may be spared any long term violence.

What is the ‘right way’?  I believe that the President should make this announcement in a way that will mollify Arab fears about abandoning the peace process or the possibility of a 2 state solution. He should  make it clear that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is merely the recognition of the status quo and does not reflect the future status of East Jerusalem – one way or the other. A status that should be negotiated by the two parties – Israel and the Palestinians. Perhaps that will prevent the much anticipated bloodshed this move might entail.

But I am not going to hold my breath. It doesn’t take that much to incite Palestinian violence against Jews. Nor does it help that Palestinian President, Mahmood Abbas has called for 3 days of rage if this happens! (Something the mainstream media has failed to criticize the way they are Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.) Instead I will pray that God will protect His people from any harm via Israel’s prudent use of its police and military power. God bless Israel, the Jewish people, and the United States of America.

Update
Shortly after noon today (Central Standard Time) President Trump pretty much followed the above script and announced US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - while emphasizing that the US has not taken a position on Jerusalem's final status; nor abandoned the peace process or the ‘2 state solution’.

Thank you Mr. President for being the first to keep your campaign promise on this issue - unlike all previous Presidents that made a similar campaign promise but never kept it. It appears that at least on this issue, you are more honorable than them all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Are Orthodox Jews Assimilating to the Christian Right?

Colorado baker Jack Phillips who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple
The answer is no. The question in the title was raised by Batya Ungar-Sargon in a Forward opinion piece about whether Orthodox Jews are abandoning the separation of Church and state. That bedrock principle embedded in the constitution’s first amendment is very important to us. Here it is in full: 
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 
No one appreciates this more than religious people do. Including most Orthodox Jews. There was a time not that long ago where despite this lofty principle, Jews experienced serious discrimination in this country. Among other things, Jews were subject to unfair quotas in top universities; barred from top executive positions in major industries; some hotels had signs saying Jews not allowed; country clubs had covenants preventing Jews from joining; and Jews were systematically fired from their jobs if they refused to work on Shabbos.

These and many similar restrictions aimed at our people are all now considered violations of our religious rights and are hardly an issue anymore.

This constitutional right has benefited us and we are very fortunate to be living in a country where religious tolerance is its credo.

In recent years, religious tolerance has taken a back seat to civil rights. Not that civil rights aren’t important. Of course they are. There should never be any discrimination against any particular group. That too is part of the American credo. But recently these two values have come into conflict.

One such case happened a few years ago in Colorado when a Christian baker refused to bake a wedding cake with words congratulating a homosexual couple upon their marraige. He said it violated his faith and therefore his first amendment rights to facilitate a gay marriage in any way.  He was taken to court by that homosexual couple and the court ruled that his refusal to accommodate them was an unlawful violation of their civil rights. The Supreme Court now has the case before it this very day. We shall see what they say.

How do Orthodox Jews see it? Is a Jewish baker allowed to bake a wedding cake like that for a homosexual couple? Does our view that a gay union is against Halacha mean that we can’t even bake them a wedding cake for them? I’m not sure it does violate Halacha – for reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. But either way I would be willing to fight for this Christian man’s constitutional religious rights.

For me, this is about more than a cake or whether it affects me as an Orthodox Jew personally. It is about protecting the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. This is the opposite of what Ms. Ungar-Sargon suggests – that Orthodox Jews are abandoning the first amendment and siding with the Evangelical desire to make this country more Christian. It supports the first amendment. There are 2 parts to it and they are equally important.

Ms. Ungar-Sargon bases her perception of us on the fact that we seem to have more in common with Evangelical Christians than we do with mainstream liberal Jews that make up 90%of the Jewish population. She is right. This is an unfortunate fact. It is also a fact (sad though it is) that this very same 90% is in the process of self destructing as Jews via intermarriage and assimilation. To the extent that they have any religious values at all, they are hardly based on any real understanding of the Bible. These are cultural Jews whose grandchildren may very well not even be Jewish.

Why do we have more in common with Evangelical Christians? It is because they have more knowledge about what the bible says than the vast majority of non Orthodox liberal Jews do. Why that is the case is also beyond the scope of this post. But it is really hard to dispute that fact.

And yes, it’s true. I hate to admit it but most Orthodox Jews (54%) voted for the President, despite his very irreligious behavior – as evidenced in his recorded conversation with Billy Bush, former host of the syndicated TV show ‘Access Hollywood’.  Most Orthodox Jews as well as Evangelical Christians knew about this and voted for Trump anyway. 

How could religious people vote for such a reprobate? It was a protest vote against an establishment which they saw abandoning the moral principles and values upon which this country was founded. They saw for example a Supreme Court validating gay marriage and wanted to change that tide. They would have voted for the devil had he been the one running against the establishment!

One might ask, isn’t the very idea of a country founded on religious principles anathema to the religious tolerance embedded in the constitution? No. Values can be attained through many sources including religious ones. As long as there is no religion established; and long as people are free to practice their religion faith as they wish there is nothing wrong with looking to a book whose values haves guided the civilizations of 2 major faiths for thousands of years. That does not infringe on anyone’s rights.

I therefore suggest that Ms. Sargon-Ungar stop her hand-wringing and not worry so much. There is not a single intelligent Orthodox Jew that is in any way abandoning the first amendment. Nor are we all about to convert and become Evangelical Christians. There are clearly some very serious religious differences which we are not about to give up. All we are trying to do is change the tide of moral disintegration that has been gripping the American psyche of our time.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Reaching Out to the Modern Jew

Rabbi Eytan Feiner
I am sympathetic to the goals of liberal rabbis (formerly known as Open Orthodox). What do they want except to be fair and welcoming to the widest variety of Jews? What rabbi worthy of the title would not want that?!

It is the near fanatical pursuit of that goal that has gotten them into trouble. In their zeal to accommodate the sincere modern Jew that has been influenced by the humanistic culture of our time they have thrown tradition to the wind. 

I can understand why they balk at all the criticism of this approach. They see it as an attack on their sense of fairness and justice which they do not see as a contradiction to observance. Which undermines the guidance they give to modern Jews seeking it. In short they view what they do as Kiruv and see criticism as undermining it. Which they believe will end up pushing these sincere modern Jews away from authentic Judaism.

It’s hard to not to be sympathetic to that kind of thinking. Most of these rabbis are sincere and believe in what they are doing. In light of all the attrition of Jews away from Judaism that is taking place among American Jews, one would think that liberal rabbis should be supported rather than criticized. Which is why they get so upset.

This is one of the reasons why I am so sad about the direction they have taken. I believe in their mission. But the path they have taken is a ‘bridge too far’. They have lost their way and are unfortunately on a path to destruction. It hurts me to say it, but I think the demise of this new more open approach to Orthodoxy will fail much the same way an earlier movement who tried a similar approach is now failing. It took about 100 years. But it is happening.

Yes there are important differences between Conservative Judaism and the new liberal approach of the left. But when external factors influence your religious behavior in ways that have been traditionally rejected in the past and are rejected entirely by the leaders of the very movement you are supposed to be a part of - then you have in essence started a new movement. One whose goals are eerily similar to the original goals of the Conservative movement. Which was to conserve Judaism. 

They wanted to accommodate the spirit of their time and started nibbling at the corners of Halacha in ways similar to what liberal Orthodoxy is doing now. 

Orthodoxy rejected Conservative Judaism from the very start. Even when the differences were relatively minor Halachic breaks. Like removing the Mechitza from their Shuls and allowing mixed pews for their prayer services. That was the spirit of their time. The spirit of our time is egalitarianism and humanism. Liberal rabbis are nibbling at the corners of those Halachos.

Whether they have embarked on a path towards tolerating heretical views is a matter of debate. But the ambiguity about that is at least a matter of concern.

The Agudah Moetzes has already spoken. Like their predecessors of 100 years ago who completely rejected the legitimacy of Conservative Judaism, they have completely rejected the legitimacy of this new liberalism. So too has the Young Israel Movement. As has the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Their rabbinic leadership does not recognize the new crop of liberal rabbis ordained by their flagship school, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT). And have rejected many of liberal Orthodoxy's new innovations and practices.

The OU has recently done the same. They now require their member Shuls to adhere to traditional Orthodox values and reject any of the new liberal innovations. And yet there are Shuls that are still members in good standing of the OU that have violated some of those requirements.

Matzav reports that Rabbi Eitan Feiner has called on the OU to completely break from those Shuls. He has threatened to break his affiliation to the OU if they don’t. I understand how he feels. I even agree that Shuls that do not comply with the OU standards should be removed as members. But what will happen to the modern liberal members of those Shuls?

I never met Rabbi Feiner.  But I know a little bit about his background. He attended KBY, a Hesder Yeshiva (the American program) with my son back in the late 80s. He was even invited to my son’s wedding. His brother is one of the finer (no pun intended) products of the Lakewood Kollel (CCK) here. I attended his Daf Yomi Shiur for a while. (He has since become a very successful real estate developer.) And his sister is a Yoetzet.

It is with this background in mind that I have to ask, will Rabbi Feiner step up and tackle the need to reach out to the same constituency that liberal rabbis have? If their liberalism has been so discredited, what will happen to that constituency? Who will reach out to them? Who will guide them? 

It doesn’t  not take much to condemn a group that is already condemned by virtually all of Orthodoxy. I am saddened by the direction taken by liberal rabbis. But being sad is not enough.  If these new  liberal rabbis have gone too far, who is going to pick up their slack?

I believe that Rabbi Feiner’s background makes him a candidate for doing that. The question is does he feel the same way? We have enough people leaving Yiddishkeit. We can ill afford to give up on sincere Jews of the left that seek rabbinic guidance. We may not be able to reach them all. Especially if the new liberal rabbis keep insisting they are Orthodox despite being rejected by the entire Orthodox Jewish establishment.  

Every sincere Jew seeking guidance should have a place to find it. Including modern liberal Jews. They should  not be left to the misguided approach of these new liberal rabbis. Nor can they be abandoned either. There is enough attrition from Judaism going on. We have to do what we can to stop it. Orthodox rabbis with a more modern background need to step up. How they do that is a good question. But it is imperative to at least try.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Will the President Make Good on His Promise?

Menachem and Ari Zivotofsky (WJC)
Menachem Zivotofsky was disappointed. So was his father, Ari. In 2015 the Supreme Court struck down a law passed by Congress in 2002 that would have allowed him to list Israel as place of birth on his passport.

Why should that be a problem for someone born in Jerusalem? One would think that there is no city more relevant to Israel than Jerusalem. It was Israel’s capital in ancient times as recorded in the bible. It is Jerusalem’s capital now. And has been since it very inception in 1948.This is where its legislative body, the Knesset, is located. 

This has been the position of every Prime Minister since day one. As recently as last week former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (of Oslo fame) reiterated that position during an interview on PBS adding that he hoped the US embassy would soon be moved.  The problem is that – as absurd as it might be - the US has had a standing policy of not considering that city part of the State of Israel.

The absurdity of that was not lost on every mainstream candidate for President for decades. They all pledged to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel. Nor was it lost on congress when in 1995 they overwhelmingly passed legislation that would do it.

That this has not taken place yet is because all Presidents (who even though as candidates supported it) opposed it once in office. They considered it an infringement of the Executive Branch’s authority over setting foreign policy. A view upheld by the Supreme Court when it was challenged by Ari Zivotofsky  who desired his son Menachem to have Israel listed as his place of birth.

The current President who as a candidate also promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem has followed his predecessors and signed legislation delaying it -  to absolutely no one’s surprise. Why did all these Presidents promise one thing and then do a 180 once in office? 

The conventional wisdom is that the State Department quickly convinced them  that following through on those promises would cause a lot of bloodshed via a violent reaction by Palestinians who claimed Jerusalem as their own. It appears that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had convinced his boss that leaving things as they are was the wiser decision. So President Trump did what his predecessors did and delayed implementing it.

Well, it seems like all that is about to change. News out of the White House is that the President is about to make good on his campaign promise after all and declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel. (And - I suppose - move the US embassy there in relatively short order).  

Apparently it stuck  in his craw. The President really wanted to make good on that promise and it appears he is about to do so. Starting with the firing of his Secretary of State and replacing him with CIA director Mike Pompeo.

This might make a lot of people happy. I admit to feeling good about that too. Just  like any other country, Israel should should have the right to choose which ever city it wants to be its capital. If I am not mistaken Israel is the only country where this is not the case. No other major country has their embassy in Jerusalem either. Shouldn’t this great nation lead the way and put its embassy in Israel’s capital – just as it and all other countries do with their embassies all over the world?  

Perhaps. But I also admit to being concerned about the consequences. Palestinians have already promised a new Intifada. That means more bloodshed. Who knows how many Jews will be murdered as a result of this. Hopefully none will. But I fear that history has taught us that it doesn’t take much for Palestinians to  kill Jews. Sure, they do it anyway. We saw an instance of that recently. There is little doubt in my mind that this will spur a violent reaction where Jews will be killed that would otherwise have lived if not for this.

As much as I believe in the rectitude of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, I have to wonder whether that will give Israel any tangible benefit. What will Israel gain except for  a moral victory?

I  know there are a lot of people that will cheer if and when this happens. Including Israel’s left (as noted above with Ehud Barak).  Even me. That will be the logic of my heart. But the logic of my mind feels a bit differently. If even one Jew dies because of this, will it be worth it? I’m not so sure.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Congratulating the Engagement of a Gay Couple

I realize that what I am about to say may be upsetting to modern concepts of fairness and the libertarian ideal of being non judgmental of what others do. To the rational mind where humanism reigns supreme - letting others live as they see fit as long as they do not harm others is well within the spirit of our time.

But as an adherent of a philosophy that believes in a Power much greater than ourselves… a Power that revealed His will to the human race in the Torah and specifically to the Jewish people at Sinai, I cannot stay silent when I see those principles being violated.

Last September Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Shul, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) congratulated a homosexual couple upon their ‘engagement’ to each other. They wished Mazal Tov to them and the entire family. I cannot express enough my disappointment, dismay, and objection to this statement. 

Simply put what happened here is that a Shul which calls itself Orthodox gave its blessing to homosexual relations. Which are clearly forbidden in the Torah on pain of death - if witnessed and warned by 2 people at a time where the Sanhedrin convenes. (Which is certainly not the case today but still biblically forbidden).  

I realize of  course that they technically did not do that. They just said Mazal Tov to an engagement and not to anything sinful that may result from that. But that is a distinction that is very likely lost on the vast majority of people that see it. They will no doubt see it as an Orthodox Shul blessing homosexual relations.  There is really no other way to look at it. And that is clearly wrong.

I have said many times that I have no problem with anyone that is gay. It is not a a person’s sexual orientation that the Torah forbids. It is only acting on it in forbidden ways that is. I’ve also said in the past tat I believe that same sex attraction may very well be unchangeable. 

Whether it is nature or nurture doesn’t really matter that much to me. I respect people by virtue of their character and do not judge them by their sexual orientation. What people do in private whether sinful or not - is not my or anyone else’s business. That is between them and God. But I cannot respect violations of the Torah. Nor anything that in any way implies that certain violations are worthy of blessing.

And yet, that is what the Supreme Court has done by ruling gay marriage to be a civil right. They have given the blessing of this great country to homosexual behavior forbidden by the bible upon which many of this country’s values and laws are based. In essence they are saying that America’s current humanistic values are more ethical than God’s law. 

And this too is what HIR has done. We can parse what they did all day long. They can say that they did not bless the act of homosexuality that the Torah forbids. They blessed only the couple’s ‘engagement’ to be married. But the implications are the same as those of the Supreme Court.  And I cannot protest enough.

I am not a fan of Yated Publisher, Rabbi Pinchos Lipshutz. I have in the past been highly critical of his views on various issues affecting Orthodox Jewry. But when he’s right, he’s right. This is one of those times. On the heels of Agudah’s convetion, Rabbi Lipshutz made reference to this issue in his weekly column. He referenced what Agudah Moetzes head, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow said about this at the convention: 
He drew attention to the Mazel Tov announcement on the engagement of two men in the synagogue bulletin.
He warned that “the soton – and he’s standing next to everybody – comes sometimes with reasonable sympathetic arguments in the name of fairness, equality, enlightenment and being good natured and accepting and before you know it – if you are not on guard with strong Torah ideals – you can fall into his trap.” 
Rabbi Perlow recognizes the human quality at work here. He knows that from a humanistic perspective, one should indeed ‘live and let live’.  But he also knows that no matter what the intention it is a ‘corruption of Torah ideals’ to publicly congratulate a gay union.

Rabbi Lipshutz also mentions the statement issued by TORA. They are a group of Orthodox rabbis (of which I am a member) committed to: 
 …offering an authentic Torah viewpoint to the media (that) will help counteract those voices that, as we see it, occasionally distort or dilute the Torah’s message.  
That statement read in part as follows: 
“We call upon spiritual and lay leaders and members of the public of respective synagogues not to congratulate or celebrate, whether orally or in writing, those celebrating life cycle events in violation of Jewish law, included but not limited to halakhically prohibited marriages… 
“When there are events we cannot condone, it is not out of contempt or disrespect, but rather out of a firm commitment to the Torah, its values and its worldview, which requires us all to submit to the Torah even when doing so is difficult or inexpedient. 
This is exactly how I feel.  But on a Facebook page called Torat Chayim, rabbis supporting what HIR did came back with a nasty attack against those of us that saw it this way. They called the Yated editorial homophobic and even heretical. Heretical because by criticizing the words ‘Mazal Tov’ it is a violation of Bal Tosif – the Torah prohibition against adding to a Mitzvah that is limited to what the Torah spells out. Then they proceed to pat themselves on the back for saying Mazal Tov to families that are committed to building families with a commitment to Torah and Mitzvos.

Enyaim LoHem V’Lo Yiru (Yirmiyahu 5:20). None are so blind as those who will not see.  No one is saying that the words ‘Mazal Tov’ are forbidden. That is ridiculous. Nor does anyone criticize saying Mazal Tov to people that are committed to building families with a commitment to Torah and Mitzvos. What we are critical of is saying Mazal Tov in the context of a gay union. Which is a Chilul HaShem they are completely blinded to.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Agudah's Narrow Achdus

One of the speakers at the convention featured on an Agudah website
Agudah Israel’s annual convention was held last week in New York. Professor Yitzchok Levine, a respected and frequent contributor to a closed e-mail list of which I am a member made reference to a letter that appears on page 6 of this week's Flatbush Jewish Journal: 
In last week's FJJ Publisher's Message Mordy Mehlman writes that he will be attending the Agudah Convention.  He wrote, " the achdus of the Convention,  the unity of Jews of all stripes - Litvish, Chasidish, Sephardic - serves  as a living example of how all of Klal Yisroel could and should unite as one." 
As I have mentioned many times, I am a fan of the great work Agudath Israel does for the American Jewish community. Their effort as an Orthodox Jewish advocacy group in Washington is worthy of the support of all Orthodox Jews, regardless of whether you agree with their Hashkafos or not.

This doesn’t mean that one has to agree with everything they have said or done. But it does mean that as religious Jews we need to recognize and appreciate that the vast majority of what they do in Washington benefits us all.

But as I have also mentioned, I do have difficulty with a Hashkafa that promotes the idea that their rabbinic leaders have defacto infallibility. Of course they constantly deny that. They will always say that as human beings they can - and even do make mistakes. But in practice this is a distinction without a difference.

They call it Daas Torah. Which means that since their rabbinic leaders are so knowledgeable in Torah they posses its wisdom better than any other human being. Thus they are the best – even the only people to guide Jews in all matters including matters of public policy.

I understand the logic. And I even agree that there is a concept of Daas Torah in the sense of the actual translation of those words: ‘the wisdom of the Torah’. Of course there is wisdom in the Torah. I will even concede that in many matters the rabbinic leaders of Agudah do in fact represent the wisdom of the Torah.

What is troubling to me (and I have said this before) is that they are a self selecting group of leaders that tend to choose membership in that group from a limited pool of rabbis. This leaves out many great rabbinic thinkers that are as knowledgeable in Torah as they are – but have a different world view. They certainly have the right to chose members from whichever pool of rabbis they wish.  But they do not have the right to claim sole possession of Daas Torah.  And yet time after time, year after year, by speaker after speaker at their conventions… all one hears is that claim.

The rules they set up for public policy statements are troubling as well. They require speaking with one voice even when there is dissent among them. Majority rules. So that even if there is dissent, public policy statements are made as though there wasn’t any.  For me that is not Daas Torah. It is the Daas of some Torah scholars and not of others. Which in theory should allow an adherent of Daas Torah to choose the views of the dissenters whose knowledge of Torah led them to a different decision.

In my view the lack of admitting any dissent by peers short changes the truth. I understand why they do that. It is because dissent brings doubt. The leadership wants avoid doubt When they speak in the name of Torah they want to do it without any ambiguity. They want clarity.

And this doesn’t even take into account rabbinic leaders that are not part of Agudah who might dissent. And yet Agudah promotes the concept of Daas Torah as though they are the sole possessors of it. To the exclusion of all others.

Expanding their influence is the claim that they represent Orthodox Jews. Which implies that those that are deliberately excluded are not really Orthodox. And yet they make that claim citing a variety of groups among their members and supporters including certain groups (e.g.  the above-mentioned Litvish, Chasidic, and Sephardic Jews).

But I reject that claim completely. As does Professor Levine. He ended his message with the following observation which I paraphrased - and with which I completely agree. 

Litvish, Chasidic, Sephardic do not at all encompass Jews of all stripes. Because not included were any speakers affiliated with Yeshiva University, Young Israel or the OU.  How many of the attendees were Modern Orthodox?  Were there any Religious Zionists represented there?  And what about secular Jews?

I was not there so I can’t answer the question. But my guess is that the answers to these question are obvious.

I therefore submit that the Agudah Convention did not represent the unity of Jews of all stripes. Because a lot of stripes were probably missing. If I am wrong and this year was any different I will be thrilled to stand corrected.

On a separate note, for a major organization that claims to not have an official website - they have a pretty amazing website!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Different Kind of Achdus

Settlers in Elazar resisting law enforcement (VIN)
What a ‘splendid’ example of Achdus. The similarities of these two observant communities are stark. They are both strictly observant of Halacha; are both dedicated to their cause; and are willing to put themselves out for it.

They even have similar attitudes towards the Israeli government – sometimes using Nazi epithets or imagery to describe how government authorities treat them.  And they both have a patron ‘saint’ to look up to for inspiration. For Satmar it is R’ Yoel Teitelbaum  (the original Satmar Rebbe). For extremist Religious Zionist (RZ) settlers  it’s R’ Meir Kahane.

And yet I can’t think of two more polar opposite communities in the observant Jewish world than these two.

I recently stated my contempt towards Satmar because of their recent use of Nazi imagery in reference to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).  Such behavior is worthy of expulsion from Orthodoxy by mainstream Charedi leadership. But I have similar feelings about the extremists of the religious Zionist Right in Israel because of the contempt they have for the law. And their violent resistance to enforcement of it.

 VIN reports thefollowing: 
The Israeli military has begun demolishing an illegally-built carpentry workshop in a West Bank settlement as dozens of Jewish settlers are rallying against the move.
The military says it’s acting according to government directives, after the Supreme Court ruled that the building was among 17 that were built illegally on private Palestinian property and had to be torn down. Such court rulings are relatively common.
The settlers in Elazar in Gush Etzion, in the southern West Bank, linked arms and chanted slogans as the military prepared to tear down a wood carpentry workshop in the settlement on Wednesday. 
It is obvious from the images on VIN that the demonstration was more than just chanting slogans. There was violent resistance! And that will no doubt be followed by the common tactic of screaming police brutality.

I understand their commitment to their ideals. I am even sympathetic to them. I too believe the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. All of it including the West Bank (Judea and Sumeria). I just do not believe that we are in any position to act on those beliefs. And that acting on them is counterproductive in the extreme at the cost of spilling the blood of innocent Jewish people!

The RZ settlers on the other hand believe it is imperative to do whatever it takes to settle those areas and to defy any opposition to it. Including defying the law and then reacting violently to it when it is enforced.

Like Satmar they have a right to their beliefs.  Whether anyone agrees with them or not. What they do not have a right to is what is depicted in the pictures at VIN. The army had every right to demolish illegally built structures. Defiance of the law begets government sanctions. They don’t like the law? Fine. Let them get their people elected and change the law. But breaking the law comes with consequences. So does violent resistance.

I know that there are other differences between Satmar and these settlers. The primary one being that the settlers all served the army and have put their lives on the line for their people. But that does not give them license to break the law and then reacting violently to enforcement of it.

So as widely disparate as Hashkafos of Satmar and these RZ settlers are, when they are arrested for breaking the law and convicted of it, they ought to be locked up together in the same cells. They can discuss politics there all day long. They can call themselves Nazis all day long too. They can even have violent demonstrations against each other.

But at the end of the day, there is not much difference between them when it comes to commitment to Halacha and their hatred of the government. They both deserve our disdain; our condemnation; and each other!