Mrs. Esther Wein recently shared with me a dvar Torah that she heard many years ago from her grandfather Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, which may have application to the rampant anti-Semitism that has exploded around the world in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.
Rabbi Schwab asked what average Egyptians did to merit the terrible punishments that befell them in the course of the plagues. And what was the nature of the individual judgment on those Egyptians who drowned at Yam Suf? After all, it was Pharoah who refused to allow the bnei Yisrael to leave Egypt. Was every citizen of Egypt culpable for not have revolted against Pharoah to force him to grant thebnei Yisrael permission to escape?
He answered that the litmus test for the average Egyptian came when Pharoah added to the burden of the bnei Yisrael by requiring them to collect their own straw while retaining the same quota of bricks as before. The Jews, the Torah relates, had no choice but to fan out across Egypt in search of straw. Rabbi Schwab speculated that they were forced to knock on the doors of the Egyptians in their quest, and that the Egyptians were subsequently judged according to the manner in which they treated the Jewish slaves who beseeched them for straw.
That search for straw was the immediate prelude for the ten Makkos. In other words, each Egyptian was tested before the plagues began.
MRS. WEIN, today a well-known teacher of Torah, speculated that perhaps Hashem is testing our enemies in a similar fashion today. Rarely does an issue of such moral clarity present itself as the rights and wrongs of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Let us start with the events immediately leading up to Operation Preventive Shield. It is uncontestable that Operation Preventive Edge was launched only after hundreds of rockets were fired from Gaza at Israeli cities. The firing of a single rocket, much less hundreds, would have been a clear casas belli if fired by a sovereign nation, and Hamas functions as a full sovereign in the Gaza Strip. Even before the firing of the missiles, the Hamas high command (either from Qatar or Gaza) ordered two West Bank operatives to kidnap and murder three Israeli teenagers.
So much for the immediate precedent for Israel’s military action. But the war also revealed that the entire Gaza Strip has been turned into a labyrinth of underground tunnels built for the sole purpose of launching cross-border attacks against Israeli civilians or to shield Hamas rockets, rocket launchers, and senior military and civilian commanders.
Billions of dollars in international aid have been siphoned off by Hamas in single-minded pursuit of the goal of destroying Israel. That goal is reaffirmed repeatedly throughout the Hamas Charter. Article VI defines the role of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) as raising the banner of A-llah over every inch of Palestine. Article VII states that the final resurrection will not come until Moslems fight the Jews and the very trees call out, “There is a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him.”
Even the large number of Gazan casualties does not change the moral calculus one whit. Once it is conceded that Israel has the right to defend itself and that the offensive tunnels leading into Israel and those sheltering Hamas’s weaponry are legitimate military targets, then both the law of war and common sense dictate that Hamas is responsible for the civilian casualties resulting from efforts to destroy those tunnels and weaponry, especially when those military targets were deliberately located among civilians and Hamas repeatedly cajoled/coerced local residents into remaining in their homes.
The law of war is crystal clear that the responsibility for civilian deaths pursuant to the destruction of legitimate military targets falls completely on the side of the party that located its military assets among civilians. Logic leads to the same result, for any other conclusion would offer an enormous advantage to terrorist groups and non-state actors who attack states while using civilians as a shield. They would effectively immunize themselves from attack by recklessly locating military targets in civilian areas.
To affirm Israel’s right to defend itself, as did President Obama’s closest advisor Valerie Jarrett, for instance, while labeling as “indefensible” the civilian deaths from Israeli efforts to uproot military targets placed by Hamas in civilian areas, is to speak rank nonsense. There is no way for Israel to defend itself without destroying the underground tunnels and degrading Hamas’s rocket supply. And if Hamas deliberately shields those targets with civilians, then civilians will inevitably die as an outgrowth of Hamas’s decision.
The number of civilian casualties in the Gaza fighting reveals nothing about the morality of Israeli actions. They serve as a metric for nothing other than Hamas’s cynical manipulation and disregard for the civilians under its rule.
Others have said even sillier things than Jarrett, such as that Israel should have shared its Iron Dome system with Hamas, just to make things fair. Right, and the United States should have given Japan the atom bomb just to make things fair.
Such contortions of logic can bespeak only one thing: Jew hatred. And that is before we get to all those across Europe chanting, “Jews to the gas,” or surrounding Jews as they prayed in their synagogues.
Could the condemnations of Israel, when matters are so clear, constitute a final test for anti-Semites all around the world, just as the plaintive requests for straw were the final test for the Egyptians?
Over recent years, “Israelis have played a disproportionate role” in organ trafficking, The New York Times reported recently in a lengthy front-page story. Some Israeli entrepreneurs “have pocketed enormous sums for arranging overseas transplants for patients who are paired with foreign donors,” according to court filings and government documents.
The organs in question are kidneys. Most of us are born with two, although only one is necessary for living a normal life. Numerous people in renal failure have received kidneys donated by friends or relatives – even altruistic strangers.
But the supply of transplantable organs is estimated by the World Health Organization to meet no more than a tenth of the need. And so a market for kidneys has emerged, and thousands of patients receive illicit transplants each year, often facilitated by brokers, like the accused Israelis, who match potential donors wishing to sell one of their kidneys to someone who desperately needs one. The brokers maintain that they operate legally and are simply engaged in facilitating legitimate business transactions.
The unaddressed but poignant question here, though, is why the sale of kidneys is so widely perceived as immoral. Opponents of such sales say that since poor people, likely from third-world countries, will be those most likely willing to exchange one of their kidneys for cash, embracing such activity would amount to exploitation of the poor. Others counter that providing impoverished people a means of garnering the sort of funds that they would otherwise have no other option of amassing would allow them to use the income to escape the poverty cycle, by investing in businesses or other enterprises. Encouraging kidney selling, these proponents say, will not only save countless lives but represents a humane way to narrow the global gap between the haves and have-nots.
In fact, while global health organizations stand steadfast against the sale of kidneys, legalizing commercial donation is no longer the fringe position it once was. The American Society of Transplantation and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons have called for pilot projects to test incentives for donation, potentially including cash payments, even though such a change would require amending a 30-year-old federal law.
That larger issue aside, though, what accounts for “the tiny nation” of Israel’s “outsize role in the global organ trade?” The story suggests it is the result of “religious objections… to recovering organs from brain-dead patients.”
That is likely true. In other countries organs, overwhelmingly, are retrieved from the recently deceased, declared so because they lack electrical activity in their brains but who may still be breathing with the aid of a respirator. In Israel, however, “religious objections” to equating lack of discernable brain function with death have resulted in a “severe” shortage of kidneys for transplantation.
The concept of accepting “brain death” as the equivalent of death has been embraced by modern medicine since the 1960s. But not by some of the past decade’s most widely respected poskim in the world – including Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik (who reported that his brother, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik, held the same position) and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, zecher tzaddikim liv’rocho.
The “brain death” standard, though, has been a boon for transplantation. A person declared dead but still breathing and circulating blood, is an ideal “host” from whom to “harvest” organs.
Even among those who accept a “brain death” definition of death, though, some fear that, eager to procure organs, overzealous doctors may be tempted to prematurely declare deaths to have occurred. As for those who respect the decisions of the above-mentioned poskim that brain-death does not mean life has ended, harvesting vital organs from a brain-dead patient is no less than murder.
Saving a life is a most weighty imperative, of course, but halacha does not permit one life to be taken to save the life of another – no matter how diminished the “quality” of the life of the former, no matter how great the potential of the life of the latter. Halacha, moreover, forbids any action that might hasten death, including the death of a person in extremis.
Contrary to what Reform and secular activists like to insinuate, the great majority of Israelis, whether or not they lead strictly observant lives, in fact recognize the importance of halachic concepts, particularly in matters of life and death. And so it is not outlandish to imagine that rejection of the “brain death” criterion may indeed have much to do with the chronic kidney shortage in Israel.
What is unremarked upon, though, in the long Times story is something that can be gleaned from an accompanying chart that lists 14 developed countries, ranked in order of their per capita kidney donations from donors who have been declared deceased. The country with the fewest such donors is Israel.
But also, pardon the pun, harvestable with a bit of effort from the chart are the rankings of those same countries with regard to kidney donations by living donors, and they are telling. There, high up, above places like Canada, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Spain, is Israel.
© 2014 Hamodia
I suppose I should have realized something extraordinary was afoot when a friend messaged me on Facebook to ask if I was “okay.” I wondered what he meant, until he said that he’d heard I was being “picked on.”
While it is true that my post reflecting on the entertainment industry, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, did get a lot of attention — I can’t say I felt I was being “picked on.” The first two responses were from people whose voices I have long respected, and whose comments were very favorable. Admittedly, this did not describe the comments of many others, but, as I’ll explain in a moment, that didn’t change my perception at all. But now that my friend Rabbi Shmuel Simanowitz, whose legal career included representing many musicians, decided to praise my post at a kiddush (money quote: “I can’t tell you how many clients’ funerals I’ve attended”), and my friend and former colleague (and noted Jewish musician) Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum has defended my perspective as well (though no, Avraham, I may indeed be “square,” but not at all as argued) I suppose some follow-up commentary is in order.
I would like to begin with a meta-observation, not limited to this particular post. It is interesting to me that some of those most vociferous about not using stereotypes about any other ethnicity or group seem to have no problem with stereotyping Charedi Rabbis. Everyone knows that Charedi rabbis have no background in statistics, don’t understand mental health issues, and are generally parochial and backwards in their thinking, with no sympathy for a secular entertainer like Robin Williams. So the fact that one particular Charedi Rabbi might have grown up using expressions such as “nanu nanu” and “shazbat” with his friends, have studied probability theory, psychology and sociology (though, without apology, none of the requisite textbooks expressed the depth of understanding of human nature found in Sifrei Mussar or a Daf Gemarah), and count as immediate family a (medical) Doctor, a veteran educator with a Master’s in education and counseling, and the Director of an institute devoted to the study of human behavior… all of that makes no difference at all. Everyone knows that Charedi rabbis have no background in statistics, don’t understand mental health issues, and are generally parochial and backwards in their thinking, with no sympathy for a secular entertainer like Robin Williams.
In order to feel “picked on,” I’d need to have the impression that (a) the person understood what I wrote and (b) identified a major error in fact or perspective. So I’m not going to feel picked on even if the person who comments that “Robin Williams brought so much happiness to MILLIONS of people. He gave laughter to soldiers overseas and didn’t mind the danger he put himself in, he was selfless and kind” then concludes that “Just because he’s not Jewish doesn’t mean his life had no value except as a lesson in a Yeshiva where some Rabbi uses him” [as if I'd said otherwise] or that “[I] should be ashamed.” One thing’s for certain — nothing I wrote diminished Williams’ gifts or his generosity in the slightest, or cast his life as valueless. The first two sentences of this supposedly contrary comment express my own feelings about Williams quite well, and thus the last two are a reaction to the commenter’s prefabricated stereotypes rather than a response to anything I’d actually written. [Alternatively, as this was a comment to an article critical of my own, it's possible she simply never opened my article before opining about it.]
Before writing my essay, I made a comment about the link between entertainers and suicide on Twitter — and was immediately challenged whether they were indeed any more likely to grapple with mental health issues. Fair enough. Thus some research was added to my post, demonstrating that harmful behaviors such as addiction, overdosing and suicide are almost endemic to top-flight entertainers. As it turns out, Mork had commented about this himself, calling Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and others “victims of their own fame” (link below).
But once it was posted, someone attempted to belittle my perspective with what he imagined to be a more rigorous refutation, inadvertently proving that old adage about lies and statistics. The fact that the overall population of those working in arts, media and entertainment does not have a particularly high suicide rate is both true and entirely irrelevant to the topic of my post. Producers, cameramen and TV anchors are not unusually prone to suicide, at least to my knowledge — successful entertainers are a tiny fraction of all those employed in the industry. Prior to hearing Rabbi Simanowitz’s comment, someone shared with me that comedian Jim Horton wrote after William’s passing that “In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide.” To pretend this isn’t unusual — and troubling — is to stick one’s head, ostrich-like, deep in the sand.
It is similarly untrue that I am unfamiliar or unsympathetic with mental health issues. Though some decided that I was somehow claiming that no observant person could develop mental illness, or that such people don’t deserve both our sympathies and professional help, there is nothing unaware or unsympathetic about the observation that fame seems to exacerbate depression, which I submit is obviously true — and again, was recognized without controversy when expressed by Williams himself as Mork, and by his friend Jim Norton.
Then came the argument that “rabbis shouldn’t sermonize about celebrities.” And here, I think, lies the crux of the issue. Besides the fact that “sermonize” is a pejorative in its own right, the author attempted to lump together my comments about Williams, with whose talents I am more than casually acquainted, with an older Rabbi who had used Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam as a “foil to teach Torah.”
Given that I know almost nothing of Eddie Vedder (beyond his anti-Israel rant during Operation Protective Edge), much less the Rabbi who spoke of him, I cannot comment upon that. But Judaism teaches us to try to learn from every situation and everything that happens, and the idea that celebrities should somehow be “given a pass” by rabbis (but not, of course, by People Magazine or the National Inquirer) is rather silly. And from whence does this critic get the idea that I commented upon Williams doing “something not in accordance with the morals of the Torah?” Well, yes, intentional suicide is against Halacha, but the writer is hallucinating if he imagines that I thought Williams committed suicide “being of sound mind and body.” On the contrary, my only remarks about Williams himself were complimentary and understanding. He was brilliant, charitable and humanitarian, and deeply troubled.
But Rabbis, you see, can’t say something that is critical of celebrities, the subjects of modern adulation. How dare the Rabbi present Torah as something deeper, more meaningful, and vastly more fulfilling?! The critique only seems ludicrous because it is.
He then compounds his error by ridiculing the idea that anyone could claim to find happiness via entertainment. At least he temporizes by limiting “anyone” to those over 25, but I suggest that he sit in the Yankees’ section in full Orioles’ regalia for an object lesson in [much older] peoples’ allegiance to a bunch of guys hitting balls with sticks for their enjoyment.
There is another way to read my essay, of course. It could have been written by someone who felt personally touched by Williams, and who was pondering the loss of someone who easily crossed from humor to reflection — someone who could easily have been seen as having once read (and according to all reports, have helped written) his own epitaph. And when addressed that way, the post was neither irrational nor a knee-jerk condemnation, but a sincere expression of regret that fame, especially in the world of entertainment, can be as deadly as Mork once said — precisely because entertainment is supposed to help us be “happier,” yet is making its leading practitioners, those who gave us so much humor and simple fun, so miserable.
But considering the post in that light, you see, would have broken all those stereotypes.
We are a long way from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, in which life seemed to changed little from century to century, until the first winds of the haskalah started blowing. In traditional Jewish society, in which most people lived and died within a narrow geographical radius of their place of birth, it could be safely predicted that the overwhelming majority of Jews would remain traditionally observant, to the extent of their knowledge, and that their children would as well.
But those insular, self-contained communities are no more. Not only have the physical ghetto walls fallen but so have the spiritual ghetto walls that we sought to erect in their place. The World-Wide Web has made sure of that. The effort to erect secure barriers and impermeable walls seems increasingly futile. In place of a chinuch chosem, an education that seeks to shut out all outside influences, we need a chinuch mechusan, one which vaccinates our young against the temptations of an ever more intrusive world.
In traditional society prior to the Haskalah, Jews did what they had done since time immemorial, or so it seemed. No great personal resources were required to follow in the paths of one’s ancestors. What were the alternatives for the vast majority of Jews?
That is no longer the case. In a world in which all the barriers are falling, we – all of us, not just our children – require a deeper connection to Hashem and His Torah than ever before. Without a deeply rooted attachment to Torah and mitzvos, even the external mitzvah observance of our children and our children’s children cannot be taken for granted.
At the same time, it is more difficult than ever to produce Jews of depth. Everything in the world around us conspires to produce shallow people, who lack awareness of their Divine souls.
THE MOST PERNICIOUS IMPACT of modern technology is the constant connectivity. It deprives us of the ability to think reflectively. Michael Harris argues in The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We Lost in a World of Constant Connection that the most precious loss has been that of the once sacrosanct silences, during which we escape our daily concerns and open our minds to new discoveries and insights. The constant buzzing of handheld devices has drowned out the silences.
The ubiquitous connection is both a siman (indicator) of our shallowness, our inability to tolerate being alone with ourselves, and a siba, a cause of a further loss of depth. Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes in a poignant passage in Alei Shor (Vol. I, p. 178) that the best test of a person’s spiritual level is how he handles the moments in which he finds himself alone. If he can fill the moments of quiet with thoughts and deeper reflection, it is a sign that he possesses a sechel iyuni, a capacity for deep thought. Every bar da’a (thoughtful person), Rav Wolbe writes, seeks out moments of solitude in which he can draw closer to himself and his inner world.
And yet most people, he continues, flee from those moments of solitude, as one fleess from fire. For such silence brings them to face-to-face with a strange person whom they have found no occasion to know: themselves. When they are forced to look inside, there is nobody home. Facebook has taught them that they exist only insofar as someone else knows about their most trivial activities.
The result is an impoverished sense of self. We have taught the young, as the late novelist David Foster Wallace once remarked, “that a self is something you just have,” not something that must be developed. In a much discussed recent essay, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” William Dersiewicz, who spent ten years as a student at Columbia (BA through PhD) and another ten teaching at Yale, argues that the self-proclaimed best and brightest have never been taught to think about building a self.
He quotes one young man who describes a friend spens most of his time before Yale reading and writing, but now thumbs through the first and last chapters of books he hears about because there is larger social reward for being thought to be well read than for actually reading the books. He worries obsessively about whether he is “networking” enough or will be stigmatized by eating alone.
A FRIEND RECENTLY SHARED with me memories of his initial learning in Eretz Yisrael forty years ago. He was in Rav Moshe Shapiro’s shiur in Yeshivas Beis HaTalmud, and the latter frequently lamented the impact on mental depth arising from the harnessing of electricity. My friend was sure that Rav Moshe could not possibly be speaking about electricity and must be using it as a euphemism for the evils of television. But slowly it became uncontestable that Rav Moshe’s target was indeed the electric light bulb.
Prior to the invention of the incandescent bulb, he maintained, the division between day and night was clear: The day was a time for going out into the world and interacting with others; the night, illuminated only by candle light, was a time for being alone with one’s own thoughts, a time for developing the sechel iyuni. First and foremost, it was a time for learning in depth, but not just. It was also a time for contemplation and reflection.
If Rav Shapiro felt the loss of opportunities for contemplation forty years ago, how much more intensely is that loss felt today when the idea of being alone with one’s thoughts, not subject to constant outside intrusions, seems so impossibly quaint.
WHAT IS NEEDED TODAY, it seems to me, is a new mussar movement. In a little more than a hundred year period between the mid-18thcentury and the mid-19th century, Chassidus, the Mussar movement, and Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz flowered. Though very different from one another, all three movements were responses to external challenges and a sense of internal decline. On the external front, the ghetto walls fell in Western Europe and the ideas of the Enlightenment began to spread eastward.
On the internal front, there was the ongoing despair in the wake of the apostasy of the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi a century earlier and a widespread perception of the loss of inner vitality and conviction.
Today, as well, we face the challenges of a fast-moving, ever new world, in which it is increasingly difficult to maintain barriers to the outside. Yet as the challenges grow so has the difficulty of developing the inner resources to confront those challenges increased.
Ever more intense Gemara learning, as beneficial as it may be, will not by itself solve all the problems or develop those internal resources. The shocking number of first-year divorces in the very citadels of Torah establishes that. Those numbers attest to either a lack of sufficient self-knowledge on the part of many of our young people to choose a well-suited marriage partner or to a insufficiently developed middos or both. (Obviously, I’m speaking in general and not about any particular case, in which many other factors might be at play.)
I have written in the past about the curriculum once developed by Rabbi Doniel Frank for Monsey schools that focused on age-appropriate work on various aspects of personal development in such areas as self-knowledge, decision-making, setting goals, establishing priorities, and intrapersonal skills. In the latest issue of Klal Perspectives, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, a highly successful principal in Los Angeles, outlines aspects of a “life skills” or middos curriculum for which our crowded academic schedules today leave too little room. Among the basic skills he lists are: resilience, coping with failure, embracing the benefits of delayed gratification, resisting the tendency to blame others, assuming responsibility, developing a vision for the future, time management, and conflict resolution.
All of these skills focus on developing the self, and are part of the larger task of clearing away for our children and ourselves those moments of silence in which we become aware of our souls and the One in whose image we were created.
We could have called it “Litvish-America’s Got Talent.” For those of us weary of worrying about the problems that plague the Torah community we love, it was a reassuring hug from Heaven.
The seventeen participants (selected from a pool about four times the size) who completed the week-long Tikvah Fund Program for Yeshiva Men demonstrated that the Olam HaTorah possesses young people of exceptional promise who can help lead the next generation of observant Jews. As one of the conveners of the program, I could have drowned in nachas. As a member of an older generation that takes pride in the yeshiva world but is mindful of the road-kill it has left behind at times, spending time in the company of these young men was Paradise Regained.
Less than two years ago, I began speaking to the Tikvah Fund, a Jewish but nondenominational group committed to providing politically and economically conservative leadership for the future. They understood the importance of including the Orthodox, whose demographic importance is now beyond cavil. To their credit, they also understood that the haredi cohort of the Orthodox community could not be left out of any strategic planning. To attract yeshiva participants, I argued, it would be necessary to offer a separate program that played to their talents, while fully respecting their halachic and hashkafic sensitivities. Tikvah’s bright and learned (Orthodox) Senior Director took the idea and ran with it after the Board gave the green light. With only months before a bein hazemanim (the only time that bnei Torah could be assembled), Rabbi Mark Gottlieb put together a team of political and economic theorists, and worked with me to gather some talmidei chachamim and community figures who would introduce the participants to Torah thinkers often neglected in the typical yeshiva, in order to explore the place of the Torah Jew in carrying his values into the general community
We knew that there were students in every yeshiva who were curious about the yesh-chochmah-bagoyim of which they knew nothing, and others who were certain that the Torah had something to say about the greater world but hamstrung in their ability to conjure up a Torah vision for general society. Still, we had no idea who would apply, and were more than pleasantly surprised by the great response after a few weeks of advertising in frum outlets. (I will admit satisfaction in the number of applicants whose interest was piqued by previous pieces in Cross-Currents.)
Rabbi Gottlieb and I disagreed about the ideal applicant. He favored those who came with breadth of knowledge and variety of experience, who were surer bets as future leaders. I preferred those who were bright and curious, but lacked tools, background and exposure. My conjecture was that a well-planned program could ignite in them passion for new ideas, and that they represented a much larger potential pool for the future.
As a compromise of sorts, we took both. The former group was overrepresented by present and former talmidim of Shaar HaTorah and Ner Israel; the latter included those from BMG, Mir, various Brisks, and Riverdale. Some knew each other before they arrived, while others didn’t. If we can take their feedback seriously, they all gained from the materials covered (they read hundreds of pages in preparation, in both the secular that the Torah curricula) and from the many hours of informal discussion at meals and late night.
The general tenor of discussion reminded me of what I had heard decades ago about Slabodka. A group of friends had sought an interview with Rav Hutner, zt”l, to get a first-hand report on the famed mussar yeshiva. What he told them was different from what they expected to hear. Talmidim in Slabodka, he reported, were fierce individualists with healthy egos. Would anyone have deigned to directly order them to change their conduct, he would have been ignored – or mocked. The Alter (at least in public) spoke in general terms; students applied his wisdom to themselves individually. Participants at Tikvah similarly gave no ground to presenters. New material, old material, secular or Torah – the participants tore into every idea with gusto. They were polite and refined, but they arrogated to themselves the right of dissent. Sometimes acting like contrarians, they developed some of the most important ideas of the week by their own vigorous responses to Torah figures they greatly respected , who sometimes took positions they had to question. (The formal Torah presenters included R. Dovid Bleich, R. Hershel Schachter, R Meir Triebitz, R Reuven Leuchter, Jonathan Rosenblum, and myself. They held forth on halachic aspects of interaction with the non-Jewish world; on aspects of the thought of R Samson Raphael Hirsch, R Kook, R Soloveitchik, and Nathan Birnbaum; and on the theoretical overlap between Torah sources and the secular disciplines explored.)
The atmosphere was electric with cross-conversations and with sentences that didn’t have to be completed, because most everyone could anticipate the rest. The secular presenters had been told that some of the participants lacked the general background to politics and economics that could have been assumed at other programs. But they left someplace between impressed and overwhelmed by the quality of discussion and reasoning.
In other words, it was just like being in a yeshiva with some very gifted guys. They dropped allusions that were picked up by most of their peers. They knew all the inspiring stories of gedolim, as well as some of the lesser-known ones that came from out-of-the box reading. It was not uncommon to hear throw-away lines about obscure events and personalities – obscure, at least to some of the participants. Essentially, there were three groups: those who could identify Calvin and Hobbes as religious and political thinkers, those who thought they were a comic strip, and those who had no idea what they were. What they all shared was superior intelligence, intellectual curiosity, years of yeshiva training, and firm belief in Torah’s ability to enhance any conversation about anything of value.
Different as the participants were from each other, the mixture made for deep and exciting informal conversation in the dining room and at late night discussions, especially as participants began to put pieces of the program together. There were vigorous exchanges about the limits of Maimonidean rationalism; whether Maharal was a rationalist or an anti-rationalist; and different conceptions of Daas Torah. We struggled to find models of dealing with the contributions of gedolei olam whose works are not generally embraced by the standard yeshiva world. We pondered the extent of change in non-Jewish attitudes towards Jews, and whether that might require more nuanced responses than in the past. We explored what we loved about the yeshiva world, as well as the key reasons for the discontent of some of its graduates. We traded observations about who was comfortable, and to what extent, with the approach of the Dor Revii to the development of Torah She-b’al-peh. We considered what, if anything, could be done to slake the thirst for a broader worldview in more traditional neighborhoods.
One participant pointed out what he saw as common traits of his fellow travelers, despite the wide range of backgrounds and attitudes. They were all happy people. Some of them were cynical – but they were still the happy variety, not the morose, damaged types.
Evenings were devoted to less formal presentations, often by guests who joined us for dinner. Dr. Elliot Bondi offered insights into the stance of gedolim to his forebear, R Samson Raphael Hirsch. R Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center traded fascinating anecdotes about advocating globally for Jewish causes with Shahar Azani, the Consul for Media Affairs at Israel’s New York consulate. The upshot was insight into the crucial role that frum Jews in particular have in creating allies in other communities. Jonathan Rosenblum (who also met with each participant to offer suggestions on writing skills, and was the only person who fully understood every reference the secular faculty made to pundits, their ideas and their works) teamed up with R Avi Shafran to consider the career of R Moshe Sherer. Moshe Bane joined for a few days, and offered the observations of a layperson as seasoned askan.
The most impressive take-away from an exhilarating week is that it predicts a bright future for the yeshiva world in times of rapid change. The Tikvah participants occupy a continuum of backgrounds, attitudes, and exposure. Some were quite typical, others out of the box. Despite the differences, they all share a love for the chief values and practices of the haredi yeshiva world, and are resolved to remain part of it.
The yeshiva world, and the Jewish community in general, will be stronger through their contributions.
The recent upsurge in anti-Semitism across Western Europe and around the globe, complete with swastikas and “Death to the Jews” chants, is depressing and alarming. It should also, however, be inspiring.
For, once again, we have witnessed how outrage ostensibly over the actions of a sovereign nation, Israel, so quickly and effortlessly festered into full-blown Jew-hatred – not Israel-hatred, not even Israeli-hatred, but Jew-hatred. That curious phenomenon might be discomfiting, but should also make us think.
Can anyone imagine the all-too-real repressive policies of China being laid at the feet of Europeans of Chinese ethnicity, with protesters wildly advocating their extermination?
Can we picture anger over the actual crimes committed by Iran’s leaders being taken out on Iranians living in Europe or the United States, with attacks on their homes and institutions?
Yes, to be sure, there are mindless individuals who, seeing terrorism being committed in the name of Islam, target innocent Muslims as complicit in the inhumanities perpetrated in their religion’s name. But such misguided avengers are generally lone wolves; and, in the end, it is a belief system, not a government, that they wish to attack. They think that being a Muslim automatically makes one a … Read More >>
1) Hamas is evil.
2) Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens.
3) Anti-Israel sentiment is usually simple Jew-hatred in (not very good) disguise.
4) The United States needs to be fully supportive of Israel.
5) It has been.
Some would take issue with that last sentence. They are wrong. And it behooves Klal Yisroel, which is meant to be imbued with the concept of hakaras hatov, to recognize that fact.
Over the past six years, some have come to imagine that the current occupant of the White House is some sort of adversary of Israel.
Anyone, of course, can disagree with President Obama on any or all issues, even, perhaps, to just dislike him for no good reason, as some apparently do. But for those of us who (even though we expected the worst, considering some of the baggage he brought to Pennsylvania Avenue) have carefully observed him, he has proven himself more than worthy of Jewish respect.
Yet he was pounced upon, after his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world for, well, the simple decision to address that world; and for basing the state of Israel’s legitimacy on the Holocaust. What seemed to be … Read More >>
Rob Schneider, a second-tier celeb, best known for a series of sophomoric comedies, recently tweeted: “To not be outraged at the killing of children to risk your very soul.”
To which I would reply. If the only deaths of children that provoke a response from you are those of children killed in Gaza, but not the hundreds of thousands of black Muslim children killed in Darfur by their co-religionists over the past decade or the 700 Syrian civilians killed in two days recently (or the 170,000 killed over the last three years), it is not the capaciousness of your soul that you display, but the depth of your narcissism and need to be admired as a “good person.”
If the only deaths of children that set your thumbs twittering are those when Jews are involved, then you are an anti-Semite. And please spare me any references to your Jewish father.
If your outrage is devoid of any context – who started the fighting, who deliberately sought the deaths of those children for their own propaganda gains – you are not quite the moral paragon you imagine; you are a dunce and the enabler of the deaths of more children.
… Read More >>
I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.
He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.
And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.
With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]
But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.
Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are … Read More >>
The death of lone soldier Max Steinberg in combat in Gaza served as a Rorschach Test for Jews around the world. In Israel, 30,000 Jews, across the spectrum of Israeli society, took time off to go to Mt. Herzl for his levaya to express their admiration and gratitude to a young man who came to Israel to risk his life to protect theirs.
In the opposite corner, Slate editor Allison Benedikt could barely wait until the last shoveful of dirt had been placed on Max’s grave before portraying his as a dupe of Birthright, which spends “hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support.” Benedikt’s lament over Max’s death picks up where a 2011 reminiscence of her misspent Zionist youth left off. There she describes how her non-Jewish boyfriend, now husband, opened her eyes to evils of modern Israel.
Benedikt is emblematic of disappearing American Jewry. In her adult persona, she can no longer imagine any natural affinity between American Jews and the state of Israel, even though the latter is the only majority Jewish nation and home to the majority, or soon to be … Read More >>
It could well be, as some have charged, that the New York Times’ choice of photographs to accompany its reportage from Israel and Gaza has been skewed to emphasize Hamas’ grievances; or it could be that the imbalance of photos is merely a manifestation of the old journalistic adage “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Despite my general satisfaction with the paper’s actual reportage on the conflict, I lean to the former judgment. And I have similar misgivings about headlines that are created for dispatches. It’s not widely known that media have “headline writers” over whom reporters have no control. There have been several examples of headlines that didn’t truly reflect the articles beneath them, and in ways that led readers (of the headlines alone, at least – and that’s a lot of readers) to regard Israel negatively.
A recent Times report began with the following sentences: “Militant rockets can be seen launching from crowded neighborhoods, near apartment buildings, schools and hotels. Hamas fighters have set traps for Israeli soldiers in civilian homes and stored weapons in mosques and schools. Tunnels have been dug beneath private property.” Its headline? “Israel Says That Hamas Uses Civilian Shields, Reviving Debate,” as if … Read More >>
The Nation of Israel and Operation Protective Edge Uri Shachter – Deputy Brigade Commander Nachal (Res.)
After almost a month of fighting in the Gaza Strip, with all the reactions, I find it important to clarify to the Nation of Israel that we won, decisively. Both from a military and civilian point of view, we have been victorious. From a military perspective we can begin the victory parades. Hamas is on the ropes, the most they are able to do is poke their heads out of their hidey-holes for a second to declare victory (until it gets struck by the next missile). They are unable to rearm from Egypt (something they were able to do with a free hand during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood). For years Hamas has been building tunnels beneath our towns to use to attack them and we have been able to destroy all the tunnels. Every military goal Hamas set for itself has failed, on land, in the air and by sea.
So why are we giving them the idea that they won?!
Every contact with the enemy resulted in our overwhelming victory.
Every town we wanted to conquer, we conquered within a … Read More >>
Living lives of comfort and ease, it’s difficult for many of us to fulfill the direction of the first siman in the Shulchan Aruch to “be pained and distressed over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh.” Do we experience agony at the fact that the holiest spot in the universe lies in picturesque ruin, trampled daily by the feet of deluded masses? Do we feel sick over the reality that, no matter how nice the weather and the house and the bungalow and the cars, we are in golus?
It’s easier these days, unfortunately. We’re reminded.
It will be less of a challenge, too, to access the sadness of Eicha and our kinos this Tisha B’Av, when (unless we’re wonderfully surprised first by Moshiach’s arrival) we will focus entirely on the churban Beis Hamikdosh and its appalling offspring, the subsequent tragedies of Jewish history.
Because, no matter how one chooses to regard past weeks’ events in Eretz Yisrael, and no matter what may have been accomplished or might yet be, the situation is in fact dire and seemingly hopeless.
Some may take heart in the elimination of terrorists who, in their happiest dreams, and all too often in … Read More >>
by Harvey Tannenbaum
Shavua Tov to the world.
I looked back at my clock which flashed back to 2002. We drove to Kiryat Arba for the PTA meeting at the Ulpana where our oldest daughter was a high school student. The drive from Efrat was always an extra careful one due to the risks of a terrorist in his car waiting for the Jews on highway 60 during those years. We made our rounds with the teachers to hear the reports of how our daughter was doing in the school year.
We sat with Michal Sar El, one of her teachers, who smiled and had such warmth and excitement to share the ‘status’ of our daughter’s learning in the Ulpana of Kiryat Arba. Michal was Orit’s ‘Israeli literature’ teacher.
On Friday afternoon, we received the news that Benaya Sar El, 26, an officer of Givati brigade was killed during the Kerry/Obama/Dim Son Moon UN/ Bibi cease fire on Friday morning in Gaza. The name rang a bell in our heads, and it was not until our oldest daughter called to confirm that Benaya was her teacher’s son from Kiryat Arba. Benaya was killed by the suicide bomber terrorist who … Read More >>
Over the past month and a half, the unity of the Jews of Israel has been overwhelming. No one would ever hope for the tragic events that have aroused feelings of closeness – the kidnapping of three yeshiva students and Operation Preventive Edge in Gaza – but the tangible desire of Jews to draw closer to one another cannot be denied.
Tens of thousands of Jews, from across the Israeli spectrum, attended the funerals of two “lone” soldiers from America – Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg – whom they did not know personally. And in communities across Israel, Jews are reaching out to one another with acts of chesed, both great and small.
Beit Shemesh, the scene of bitter intra-religious confrontation over the past two years and of a highly divisive mayoral election and subsequent re-run, has proven fertile grounds for various campaigns for unity. All sides of the religious and political divide in Beit Shemesh were eager to put the bitter feelings of the two mayoral campaigns behind. Two “unity” tefillah gatherings for Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrach, H”yd, were the first steps towards doing so. The gatherings drew chareidi, national religious, Yerushalmi/chassidiche, and secular women. … Read More >>
According to the latest CNN poll, 57% of Americans think that Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip are fully justified, while 39% think that Israel’s actions are “too much.” One might interpret those figures optimistically: It is doubtful support for Israel is higher in any other Western country. On the other hand, I would be more than a little dismayed to learn that 39% of Americans believe in mermaids or the tooth fairy, and I fail to see any plausible distinction between that belief and the claim that Israel has been employing excessive force.
But it gets worse. Over half of Democrats are within that 39%. And to judge by their recent statements and actions, it appears that the president and secretary of state are among the believers in mermaids. Fox News caught Secretary of State Kerry in an unguarded moment sarcastically speaking of Palestinian civilian casualties in heavy fighting in Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint action, a hell of a pinpoint action.” Once he knew he was back on camera, Kerry quickly reverted to message; Israel has a right to defend itself; he was just reacting to the tragedy of innocent lives lost; … Read More >>
The two constants of the Obama administration’s foreign policy have both been on ample display in the efforts to force upon Israel a premature ceasefire to the fighting in Gaza. The first constant has been the consistent betrayal of allies – originally Poland and Czechoslovakia – to curry favor with enemies – i.e., Russia. Bernard Lewis long ago described the United States under Obama as “neither trusted by its friends nor feared by its enemies.”
The second constant has been an inexplicable affection for the Muslim Brotherhood, its supporters – Turkey and Qatar, and its offshoots – Hamas. Had the Obama administration had its way there would still be a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Instead of the current Egyptian government closing down Hamas’s smuggling tunnels across the Philadelphi Corridor and fighting Islamic jihadists in the Sinai, Hamas would still be smuggling in rockets and concrete for its offensive tunnels and the Islamic jihadists would be extending their control over the Sinai.
With respect to the betrayal of allies, it would be nearly impossible to overstate the shock in Israel at the proposed ceasefire agreement Kerry put before the Israeli cabinet last Friday. The normally fractious cabinet rejected the … Read More >>
I get lots of correspondence, but a few paragraphs of something in my inbox today struck me as incisive and worthwhile sharing. It is doubly valuable in light of the opinion poll at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge that showed both black- and Latino-American support for Israel about twice that for the Palestinians.
Sorry to keep drawing parallels of the conflict to the historic experience of my ethnicity, but when I go through this exercise, it really helps me to see how absurd the claims and actions are of the anti-Israel contingent. Bear with me. There are persons of other ethnic minorities who have also turned to their respective historical experiences to come to the same conclusions as I. I read a good one today from “an angry black woman.” There is also this account from someone who is Metis.
For me as a Mexican who descends from people who saw their land truly stolen—not bought as the Zionists did—by people who had no historic, social, genetic or cultural connection to the American Southwest —again, completely unlike the Zionists—I can still stand behind supporting the government of the usurpers enough to embrace it as my … Read More >>
Below are remarks by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice to the National Jewish Leaders Assembly today (July 28) at the National Press Club in Washington.
I thought they might be of interest to Cross-Currents readers.
Good afternoon everyone. Thank you so much Bob for that incredibly generous introduction. I also want to thank my friend Malcolm and express my personal gratitude for this invitation. And it’s good to be back at the Conference of Presidents and seeing so many friends and familiar faces. Many of you have come from Jewish communities across this country in a strong show of support for Israel.
These are indeed difficult days. Today, together, all of us who care about the State of Israel are again confronted with the challenges of a dangerous and imperfect world: Of sirens and shelters. Young people called yet again to war. (Audience interruption). Of a land where, in the haunting phrase of Yitzhak Rabin, “parents bury their children.”
Today is the first day of Av, the month when Jews commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. It’s a reminder that the Jewish people have endured much worse than rockets and survived much … Read More >>
I cannot reveal my source. All I can say is that it happened as he patrolled late at night in a Beit Hanoun street abandoned by its residents, walking a few paces ahead of the rest of his unit. He saw a figure, standing to the side, shrouded in light. “Sholom alechah, my son,” he said. His voice was redolent with peace and tranquility. My friend instantly realized that this figure was not of this world, and responded, “Sholom alechah, rabi u-mori. I presume that you are Eliyahu ha-Navi?” The figure smiled. “Not quite. They used to call me Levi Yitzchok, and I have been watching the events here with keen interest. I had to come back to revise one of my more famous songs – A Din Toyre Mit G-tt.” He handed my friend a handwritten scrap of paper, and vanished into the night.
Good morning to You, Ribbono shel Olam.
I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sarah Sosho of Berditchev,
I come to you with a Din Torah from Your people, Yisrael.
What do you want of Your people Yisrael?
For everywhere I look it says, “Say to the People of Israel.”
And every other verse says, … Read More >>