Rabbi Shafran is someone I have admired for decades. His witty, moving, and inspirational biography of the journey of a Jewish convert, Migrant Soul, emerged when I was still a yeshiva student, and when he became Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel, I knew the organization was in good hands, and it has been so. I agree with what he writes most of the time, certainly on issues affecting the charedi community.
One of the few things I can neither agree with — nor even comprehend — is Rabbi Shafran’s service to the Obama Administration as its chief charedi apologist. Time and again, his arguments in this one area seem, to me, to stretch the limits of credulity in search of a way to show that Obama is actually much more pro-Israel, pro-religion, and/or simply pro-common-sense than he so consistently appears to be.
This week has proven no exception, and it is, for me, a bridge too far. As many have already pointed out, Michael Oren is brilliant, dedicated, loves both Israel and the United States, is an historian with an impeccable record of attention to detail, and, finally, is no “Ally” of Netanyahu — on the contrary, he is now a Member of Knesset from the centrist Kulanu party. He is not one who would be anxious to falsify the record, neither deliberately nor even through error. And, despite Rabbi Shafran’s protestations to the contrary, there is no evidence that he did.
As Bret Stephens and the Wall Street Journal put it, “Michael Oren’s candid account of Obama’s Mideast policy has won him the right enemies.” Stephens means the Obama administration, which he describes as “in an epic snit” over the book. But this could also refer to Jane Eisner of The Forward, and the Past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Reform Rabbi Eric Yoffie, both of whom resented Oren’s depiction of liberal American Jews as, in Yoffie’s words, “unreliable in their support of Israel… forever babbling about Tikkun Olam, and more inclined to help others than their own.” As Stephens put it, “Truth hurts.”
I do not understand Rabbi Shafran’s need to add to the din of the Obama-adulating masses, so eager to spin reality until it vanishes in a blur. This is especially true because his three critiques of Oren’s work can best be described as “wrong, wrong, and wrong.”
The three of Michael Oren’s claims with which Rabbi Shafran takes issue begin with two published in Hamodia:
Sin #1, according to Mr. Oren, consisted of Mr. Obama’s telling American Jewish leaders in 2009 that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s lack of movement toward a peace process “erodes our credibility with the Arabs.” And the president’s “void[ing of] George W. Bush’s commitment to include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement.” And Mr. Obama’s call for a temporary “freeze of Israeli construction” in contested areas.
Sin #2? President Obama didn’t share a copy of his Cairo speech with Israel ahead of time, even though it contained “unprecedented support for the Palestinians” and “recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear power.”
To which he later added a third:
Mr. Oren’s description of how President Obama left Israel off a list of countries the president lauded for aiding Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2010.
MK Oren did not, in actuality, claim that no previous President had publicly disagreed with Israeli policies. What he referred to, rather, was “no daylight.” Regardless of disagreements, brothers are brothers — there is no “distance” between members of a loving family. In his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, aptly titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” Oren described how Obama changed things as follows:
“When there is no daylight,” the president told American Jewish leaders in 2009, “Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.” The explanation ignored Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and its two previous offers of Palestinian statehood in Gaza, almost the entire West Bank and half of Jerusalem—both offers rejected by the Palestinians.
Obama did not merely “call for a temporary freeze of Israeli construction.” What he did was dramatically shift the tenor of the American position from that of every American President since Reagan, all of whom disagreed with the expansion of settlements, the “settlement enterprise,” the building of outposts and roads through territory certain to become Palestinian.
Oren writes that Obama, by contrast, “insisted on a total freeze of Israeli construction in those areas — ‘not a single brick,’ I later heard he ordered Mr. Netanyahu — while making no substantive demands of the Palestinians.” Indeed, Obama said at a 2009 press conference, with Netanyahu standing beside him, that “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” Oren is hardly the first person to point out that Obama thus turned a Palestinian demand into US policy.
Attempting to defend Obama against the claim that he abandoned George W. Bush’s “promise to include the major settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem within Israel’s borders in any peace agreement,” Rabbi Shafran points to Obama’s statement that the return to the 1967 borders “would include land swaps.”
This is insufficient for three reasons: Obama explicitly broke Bush’s promise, Obama demanded no further construction even inside the major settlement blocks certain to remain part of Israel, and Obama expected Israel to withdraw from the equivalent of the full territory of the West Bank, which was demanded neither by George W. Bush nor, in fact, UN Security Council Resolution 242. In his letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004, as Sharon contemplated unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, President George W. Bush wrote the following:
In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
As documented by Oren in his book:
The letter… endorsed by both houses of Congress… persuaded the Israeli public that ceding territory could yield concrete commitments from the United States. It safeguarded secure borders for the Jewish State. And it created diplomatic space for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The letter enabled Israeli governments to ease pressure from right-wing groups by building in those “major population centers” without precluding the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Though they officially opposed any Israeli presence beyond the 1967 lines, Palestinian leaders understood that the areas suggested by the Bush-Sharon letter were nonnegotiable.
Shockingly, then, shortly after taking office, the Obama administration disavowed the letter. Denying the existence of any “informal or oral agreement” on Israeli construction in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, the State Department further asserted that the letter “did not become part of the official position of the United States.”
As seen above, Obama demanded a complete building freeze, explicitly including the very regions that Bush promised could now be considered part of Israel proper. The fact that Netanyahu was forced to institute such a freeze for ten months, the Palestinians did absolutely nothing during that time, and afterwards Obama continued to blame both parties equally for failing to negotiate, simply reassured Abbas that he had no reason to negotiate at all, as Obama was making Israelis miserable for him. Or, as Oren puts it in his op-ed:
Consequently, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas boycotted negotiations, reconciled with Hamas and sought statehood in the U.N.—all in violation of his commitments to the U.S.—but he never paid a price. By contrast, the White House routinely condemned Mr. Netanyahu for building in areas that even Palestinian negotiators had agreed would remain part of Israel.
We must then turn to what Rabbi Shafran describes as “Sin #2″ — namely, that Obama failed to share an advance copy of his Cairo speech with Israel. This characterization of Oren’s second accusation, however, is entirely inadequate. What Oren refers to is an ongoing pattern of “surprising” Israel with radical changes in policy, the Cairo speech, “with its unprecedented support for the Palestinians and its recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear power,” being merely the first of many.
Oren asserts that these surprises were unprecedented, and indeed no one is able to provide a counter-example — perhaps explaining why Rabbi Shafran substituted such a facile strawman argument in place of what Oren actually said. For example, requiring that Israel return to the 1967 borders “with land swaps” reversed forty years of US policy, as mentioned above.
All of these build to Oren’s most timely example of an Obama surprise: “Finally, in 2014, Israel discovered that its primary ally had for months been secretly negotiating with its deadliest enemy.” Oren put this op-ed out now because he believes that Obama’s coddling of Iran is putting Israeli and Jewish lives in grave danger. For this, Rabbi Shafran has no rebuttal.
And then finally, in a new contribution, Rabbi Shafran focuses upon Oren’s pointed reference to President Obama’s public statement about the Haiti Earthquake, which entirely omitted the disproportionate, massive contribution of the State of Israel to the relief effort.
Rabbi Shafran relies upon Ron Kampeas of the JTA to rebut Oren; the only problem is that Kampeas was wrong. First of all, Oren feeling like he “had been kicked in the chest” clearly indicates that “he knew what they knew” — unless Oren is, today, simply delusional, suffering from False Memory Syndrome. According to Oren’s account, he knew with certainty that the Obama administration knew Israel was sending a team quite large enough to deserve mention, and this was why Obama’s failure to do so caused him acute pain. In their anxiousness to discredit Oren, Kampeas and Rabbi Shafran are happy to assert that he fabricated this personally traumatic recollection from whole cloth.
Oren’s version, though, is substantiated by contemporaneous documentation. On Thursday, January 14, a day before the President’s speech, Israel 21c reported the following:
On Thursday afternoon, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued this announcement: “Israel is doing all in its power to help the people of Haiti cope with the disaster in their country. A 220-person delegation, headed by Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, will leave this evening for Port-Au-Prince on two Boeing 747 jets leased from El Al by the IDF.
“The relief package includes a Home Front Command field hospital and rescue unit, as well as teams from Magen David Adom and Israel Police.”…
Meanwhile, the Israeli Embassy in the US has been called on to coordinate Israeli efforts with American aid offices, so the Israelis will be ready to provide medical aid where it is most needed.
So not only did Israel announce to the global press that they were sending two 747’s full of people and equipment the day before the speech, Oren’s office was intimately involved in coordinating with the Americans. If anyone knew what the Americans knew at the time, it was Michael Oren — which, again, explains why he was personally hurt by the President’s omission.
Additional documentation is provided by The Tower. First, they dispense with Kampeas’ assertion that Israel was not the first country to arrive in Haiti after the disaster. All the other countries listed, those used by Kampeas to “disprove” Oren’s statement, turn out to have “already had a presence in Haiti in January 2010 through their participation in MINUSTAH—the United Nations Stabilisation Force in Haiti.” In addition:
Obama’s remarks on January 15 referred to those countries both present as part of the UN force and those countries that announced they were sending aid in the earthquake’s aftermath: hence his phrasing (“Help continues to flow in“) and his namechecking of Mexico and the Dominican Republic…
As Kampeas’ JTA colleague Uriel Heilmann reported: “Within hours of the quake, officials from Israel’s consulates in New York and Miami were on civilian planes heading toward the Dominican Republic, where they were to rendezvous with the local Israeli ambassador before heading overland into neighboring Haiti. Their goal: rent vehicles, find a site to establish a field hospital, and take care of all the necessary logistics so the 240-person IDF-organized aid team could hit the ground running”…
The CNN timeline which Kampeas relies on contains the following entry made nearly seven hours before Obama delivered his speech [Note that this is off by a day. That CNN report, having been posted at 6:45 a.m. on the 14th rather than 15th, precedes the President’s speech by 31 hours. –YM]: 6:45 a.m. — A four-member rescue team from Israel was scheduled to arrive Thursday morning [the 14th], followed by two more jets carrying a field hospital and 220 rescue and hospital workers.
Awareness of the Israeli aid effort was being reported in major media as early as January 13. On that day, Fox News reported that ‘Israel and Ireland also had disaster aid teams on the way.’ On January 14, The Christian Science Monitor published a piece entitled ‘The nations that are stepping up to help’ which noted the following: ‘Israel: Two plane loads of aid and rescue staff of 240, including 40 doctors and nurses to set up a field hospital capable of serving 500 people a day.’
So not only was Israel’s very substantial contribution to the effort publicized by its Foreign Ministry, it was also reported by (at least) three major national US news outlets well before the speech. There is simply no way that anyone well-informed about the aid effort could have been unaware that Israel’s field hospital team, which was, according to CNN, “like another world compared to the [American] hospital,” was already inbound while the President was speaking. The President simply chose to leave Israel out in the cold.
It remains true that the US government remains light-years ahead of any other in its support for Israel — as the EU proved just today, by supporting a resolution equating Israeli self-defense with bloodthirsty terrorism. But it is perhaps time for Rabbi Shafran to give Michael Oren credit where credit is due, and indeed, to revise his “positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.” It would be nice to go back to reading his articles with admiration not merely for his talents as a wordsmith, but with how excellently he has expressed my own sentiments.
I have to admit that there was one assertion in Michael Oren’s recent book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” that disturbed me greatly. As I wrote two weeks ago, I found his book’s main points, which he outlined in essays for Foreign Policy, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, to be factually incorrect. But I was taken aback by Mr. Oren’s description of how President Obama left Israel off a list of countries the president lauded for aiding Haiti after its devastating earthquake in 2010. That omission – especially considering Israel’s prodigious role in rescue and recovery efforts after that disaster – seemed to contradict my positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.
On pages 132-133 of his book, Mr. Oren writes how his “foreboding only deepened” when Mr. Obama, on January 15, three days after the earthquake struck, made an official statement in which he announced that American personnel were on the ground in Haiti and that “help continues to flow in” as well from “Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, among others.” Israel’s omission from the list, Mr. Oren writes, made him feel “like I had been kicked in the chest.”
The passage greatly bothered me. As it apparently did the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas. But whereas I just puzzled over the passage, Mr. Kampeas actually researched its claim, and compiled a timeline of events that January. What he found was that Israel’s rescue activities – powerful and laudable though they were – only began the day after Mr. Obama spoke.
A day earlier, on January 14, four Israeli situation assessors did arrive in Haiti, joining the Israeli ambassador of the neighboring Dominican Republic, but it was only on the 16th that the Israeli field hospital was first set up. Anyone less negatively inclined than Mr. Oren could easily imagine the president asking a member of his staff to find out from Haitian officials which countries were on the ground searching for survivors. And receiving the answer he incorporated into his speech.
So Mr. Oren’s feeling kicked in chest was, to put it mildly, unwarranted. Perhaps he wanted Mr. Obama to list all the countries that had plans for rescue operations, but there were many more of those. There would have been no reason to mention only Israel.
Why harp on Mr. Oren’s book? And why reiterate Mr. Obama’s numerous actions on behalf of Israel’s security, as I have several times?
For a simple reason: One of Judaism’s most fundamental principles is hakaras hatov, literally “recognition of the good.”
One may certainly disagree with any of the president’s actions one doesn’t like. But one may not overlook what he has done. I listed a few things two weeks ago in my earlier essay on Mr. Oren’s book. There is, however, much more, like increased military aid to Israel, like Iron Dome, like Stuxnet. And like his words when he visited Israel two years ago.
“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here,” he declared, “tended the land here, prayed to G-d here.” And he called the fact of Jews living in their ancestral land “a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.”
Needless to say, as the Zoharic prayer “B’rich Sh’mei,” recited by many when the Torah is removed from the aron, has it, we are not to put our trust in any man. And the hearts of leaders, in any event, are in Hashem’s hands, and subject to the effect of our own merits.
But none of that absolves us of the holy duty to be makir tov, to recognize the reality of good things and to give credit where it is due.
The trail of anti-Semitism is long and bloody; irrational hatred towards the Jewish people permeated Europe, Asia and North Africa back through ancient times. Nonetheless, one should not be overly hasty to fall back upon ancient biases in the modern era.
It does not make sense to resort to charges of anti-Semitism in response to positions and activities against the Jewish state, when there are other reasonable explanations that justify the same positions. Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and the recent Flotilla trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza, assert that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns for the residents of the Gaza Strip, rather than animus towards Jews or Israel. These motivations include:
- The needs of the Gaza population. The lead ship of the flotilla, the Marianne of Gothenberg, carried solar panels and medical equipment as demonstrations of this concern.*
- The blockade’s violation of the human rights of Gaza residents, and violation of international law
- The deprivation of “security of food supplies, medical care, education, drinkable water and cultural exchange” (from the website shiptogaza.se).
- And more fundamentally, the rights of an indigenous population to a homeland – meaning that Israel must end its occupation.
The question we must ask is simple: are these neutral humanitarian concerns, or excuses with which to mask discrimination? The difference is found in how these arguments are employed in other situations: one who applies humanitarian principles across the board is genuine, but one who encourages global condemnation of a single group or country — while ignoring equal or greater violations by an opposing or third party — might more accurately be called a bigot. And there’s the problem.
It is true that the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant is producing limited power at this time – due to the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to provide more fuel until Hamas, the organization governing the Gaza Strip, pays its past due balance. Israel, by contrast, continued to provide electrical power to Gaza even during last year’s war, though Hamas owed Israel over $60 million for previously-supplied power at that time.
Israeli electrical service to Gaza was only interrupted when an errant Hamas rocket hit the power line. Employees of the Israel Electric Company then worked in bulletproof vests and helmets in order to restore power to 70,000 residents of Gaza just days later.
And despite accusations that Israel “destroyed” the Gazan power plant during the war, that plant resumed operation within two months of the war’s end. So a neutral concern for Gazan residents would direct opprobrium primarily against the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, those responsible for cutting the power. BDS activists, however, protest against Israel.
As for medical equipment and care, we must wonder why the Flotilla bypassed Morocco, Algeria, and most notably Egypt, countries along its path where the life expectancy at birth is significantly lower than it is in the Gaza Strip. Yes, despite what you’ve heard about “genocide” in Gaza (a smear designed to stir up grotesque comparisons to the Nazi Holocaust), a baby born in Gaza can expect to live nearly three years longer than one born in Egypt — due in large part to access by Gazans to treatment in Israel (where the life expectancy of both Jewish and Arab citizens is still higher).
A neutral concern for human rights and international law would also have motivated the flotilla to dock in Algeria, where Freedom House upgraded the state of press freedom to “Partly Free” only last year, or Libya, where attempts at freedom of expression could be greeted with the death penalty — as could the announcement of an LGBT relationship (in Algeria, one would only get a few years’ imprisonment and a large fine for that). Yet the “freedom flotilla” sailed straight for Gaza — and not because hundreds of homosexual Palestinians have fled to Israel to avoid discrimination, harassment or death.
A naval blockade during hostilities is a conventional defense tactic, and Israel claims the Gaza blockade will end as soon as Hamas ceases its efforts to import weapons with which to kill Israelis. This argument is buttressed by the interception of a shipment of advanced Syrian rockets, paid for by Iran and intended for Hamas use, just prior to the outbreak of last year’s war. But under European Union law, Spain has no similar justification for its summary deportations of refugees who jump the fence from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Yet the Flotilla did not stop there to protest this undisputed violation of international law, nor suggest that Hamas cease attempting to import weapons as a method with which to end the blockade.
Discussion of the “security of food supplies” is also a troubling subject for BDS supporters to raise, as Israel continues to facilitate entry of 800 truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies into Gaza every day. These imports halted only briefly during the 2014 Gaza War, when Hamas deliberately fired rockets at the border crossing. Egypt, on the other hand, has closed its border with Gaza completely, and is razing an entire city — the Egyptian side of Rafah — to prevent terror attacks against its soldiers. Yet again, the Flotilla accuses neither Hamas nor Egypt of indifference to Gaza — only Israel, the only one of the three that has acted reliably and consistently to ensure the security of food supplies.
As for cultural exchange, it’s interesting to note that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas will tolerate the presence of an Israeli Jew in any territory under their control, whereas, by contrast, Arab citizens of Israel enjoy greater freedoms than Arab citizens of any Arab country — including mixed Jewish-Arab schools, Arab professors and students in Israel’s top universities, Arab Knesset members, and even a leading contestant on MasterChef Israel. A Palestinian in Lebanon is barred from at least 25 professions, including law, medicine and engineering, but BDS does nothing to protest open discrimination against Palestinians by other Arabs.
And when it comes to self-determination, the flotilla sailed past Morocco, which continues its occupation of the Western Sahara and control of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Palestinian Arabs comprise the majority of the citizenry of Jordan — itself eighty percent of the old British Mandate for Palestine. Yet, once again, the flotilla does nothing for the independence and self-determination of millions of ethnic Palestinians languishing under the Hashemite clan (originally of Saudi Arabia).
So yes, let’s not be so fast to say that BDS and the recent flotilla are nothing more than a recent manifestation of age-old anti-Semitism, reminiscent of the Nazi Boycott of the 1930s and false incitement against Jews throughout the Middle Ages. Let’s offer the proponents of BDS the opportunity to provide new and more reasonable justifications for their positions and actions that are neutral, humanitarian, and have nothing to do with bias against Jews.
Because the ones provided thus far have done precious little to prevent us from slipping inexorably towards that ugly conclusion.
* As the Washington Post determined, the “aid” comprised a flat package able to hold a small solar panel, and a single nebulizer.
Winds of secession are in the air. Rabbi Avi Weiss and his disciple, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, yesterday announced their immediate resignation from the Rabbinical Council of America, and Rabbi Weiss subsequently issued a broad explanation for his new trajectory, presenting his view of the recent history of Orthodoxy and his launching of the Open Orthodox denomination and its rabbinical and educational institutions. (Truth be told, Rabbi Weiss resigned from the RCA many months ago. His announcement of immediate resignation is quite puzzling and appears to be part of a wider plan of action.)
Rabbi Weiss presents Open Orthodoxy as the new manifestation of Modern Orthodoxy, arguing that
Since the early ’90s, Orthodoxy has undergone a number of great shifts. Responding to a precipitous move to the right within Modern Orthodoxy, a plethora of institutions and organizations have emerged. These include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Edah, YCT and YM, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). In Israel, too, Beit Morasha, Beit Hillel, Ne’emanei Torah Ve’Avodah and others were founded and today women are being ordained (receiving semikha) from Yeshivat Maharat.
Modern Orthodoxy, which 25 years ago faced a significant decline, has been reclaimed by tens, even hundreds of thousands of adherents.
In other words, according to Rabbi Weiss, Open Orthodoxy is merely a continuation of Modern Orthodoxy, after Modern Orthodoxy abandoned its mandate.
Rabbi Weiss further elaborates:
Others, like myself, prefer a new term: “Open Orthodoxy.” In the ’60s and ’70s, Modern Orthodoxy dealt primarily with two issues: secularism and Zionism—more broadly, the modern secular world, and the modern State of Israel. Modern Orthodoxy insisted that one could be Orthodox while embracing the humanities and science, even as one could be Orthodox while committed to the rebirth of the State of Israel.
“Modern” issues of 40 and 50 years ago are no longer modern. We are, in fact, in the postmodern era, as we face new issues and challenges.
The dividing line within Orthodoxy today revolves around inclusivity. Is Orthodoxy inclusive of women—encouraging women to become more involved in Jewish ritual and Jewish spiritual leadership? Notwithstanding the Torah prohibition on homosexuality, are those in such relationships included as full members in our synagogues, and are their children welcomed into day schools? Do we respect, embrace, and give a forum to those who struggle with deep religious, theological, and ethical questions? Do we insist upon forbiddingly stringent measures for conversion, or do we, within halakhic parameters, reach out to converts with love and understanding? Should Orthodox rabbinic authority be centralized, or should it include the wide range of local rabbis who are not only learned but also more aware of how the law should apply to their particular communal situations and conditions? Are we prepared to engage in dialogue and learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths?
Put simply, is our focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick—obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing and condemning and declaring who is not in—or is our focus on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century? To quote the late Rabbi David Hartman’s description of having been raised Orthodox: “I grew up in a home where I didn’t feel piety needed an object to hate. I felt close to God without saying, ‘I don’t like him, I don’t go into his shul.’ I never felt piety through anger and negation, but piety was the result of internal conviction and joy.”
This is Open Orthodoxy. While insisting on the foundational divinity of Torah and observance of halakha, this Orthodoxy is not rigid. It is open to a wider spectrum.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Weiss’ account of recent Orthodox history leaves much to be desired, and his association of Open Orthodoxy with Modern Orthodoxy is likewise quite wanting.
Modern Orthodoxy has not made “a precipitous move to the right”, as Rabbi Weiss asserts. While Torah study and mitzvah observance have dramatically increased over the years in most Modern Orthodox communities, thank God, these communities are still Zionistic, committed to secular education, and heavily involved with the “outside world”.
Geirus (conversion) standards in Modern Orthodox communities, as emphatically insisted upon by Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik zt”l of RIETS, included and continue to include an unqualified Kabbalas Ha-Mitzvos (Acceptance of the Mitzvos) requirement. Due to a concern of some Modern Orthodox rabbis failing to maintain consistent standards, and in order to assure a uniform, lechatchilah (best practices) caliber of geirus, the RCA entered into a unified conversion protocol with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. For Rabbi Weiss and his colleagues in the Open Orthodox rabbinate to portray this as the disenfranchisement of local rabbis in favor of unnecessarily tight standards and unfair oversight, is very inaccurate, to put it kindly.
Taking a step back, the issue here is one of form versus substance. For Modern Orthodoxy, the rule of Halacha and Mesorah (traditional Torah practices and attitudes) is a must. Deviation from Halacha and Mesorah, be it in the cast of mitzvah observance, beliefs, synagogue practices, and so forth, is not in the equation. (It is unfortunately true that much of Modern Orthodoxy has routinely suffered from some laxity in observance on the part of laity, but we speak here of official policy and accepted theology.)
In stark contrast, Open Orthodoxy has materially departed from this model and commitment. Its ordination of female clergy, significant modification to geirus procedures, inclusion and embrace of heresy, celebration of same-sex marriage and acceptance of homosexual relations, deletion of berachos from the daily service, and much more (please see, e.g., here and here), distinguish the Open Orthodox denomination from Orthodoxy of any type. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which has retained the substance of Orthodoxy and has adopted some differing forms, Open Orthodoxy has abandoned much of the substance of Orthodoxy and has instead adopted new and foreign substance – substance that is actually quite similar to that of the Conservative movement of several decades prior. (Please see here.)
The immense boundaries and fences of which Rabbi Weiss speaks are an exaggeration and a straw man, but rest assured that whatever boundaries and fences needed to be erected were so done in order to protect Orthodoxy from the assimilationist practices of the heterodox movements, which plunged headlong into halachic dilution, compromise, and abandonment, and have all but disavowed any commitment to Jewish tradition or continuity.
Rabbi Weiss: It is Open Orthodoxy, not the rest of Orthodoxy, which has veered. Unfortunately, your new denomination, which has already created a seismic schism, will be responsible for any new boundaries and fences that mainstream Orthodoxy may in the future be forced to erect.
Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman
Historians wonder about the difference in outcome between the American Revolution, which resulted in a liberal democracy, and the French Revolution, which resulted in terror and tyranny.
Why was the American revolutionary project so much more successful? Regardless of the answer, we in this country have had great reason to celebrate the American success.
Unfortunately, last Friday the American experiment lurched towards the fanaticism that we associate with the French Revolution.
First, some history: The French Revolution began with the urge towards a more equitable society, in which human dignity and the rights of every man would be respected. In its early stages it produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which, in exalted language, proclaimed that Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. (Ironically, the author of the Declaration later earned the sobriquet: “the angel of death”, as he became one of the prime movers of the Terror.)
But as the revolution went on it fell into a cycle of ever increasing radicalism. A spirit of fanatic intolerance – which history remembers by the name “Jacobinism” – after the Jacobin clubs in which it was nurtured – took hold. Religion was persecuted, and in its stead a “cult of reason” was set up. Power was concentrated into the hands of twelve men: the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilian Robespierre, who set himself the task of creating a “republic of virtue”, basically by cutting off the head of anyone whom he thought not quite virtuous enough.
“Virtue”, he said, “must be wedded to terror, for without terror virtue is impotent”. The virtue to which he referred was not any kind of traditional virtue; rather, it was the new virtue of revolutionary zeal, the measure of which was Robespierre himself. Basically if you did not go along with Robespierre and his ideas then you were not virtuous, and the full fury of the terror would be directed against you.
Faster and faster the guillotine was put to work, consuming eventually Robespierre and his associates themselves.
The spirit of Jacobinism did not die with Robespierre. It remains the animating spirit of the radical left. The essential impulse of Jacobinism, old and new, is to proclaim oneself and a like-minded avant garde the exemplars of some new kind of virtue, and to then create a “republic of virtue” by destroying anyone who doesn’t fall into line.
The spirit of Jacobinism informed every word of the majority decision last Friday at the Supreme Court.
What did the Court rule? It did not rule that same sex marriage is a good idea. The Constitution puts Congress and the state legislatures – not the courts – in charge of legislating good (and bad) ideas. What the Court did was something far more radical. It ruled that the very idea that marriage might be exclusively between a man and a woman is so hateful and bigoted, so against reason and virtue, that any law that expresses that conception can only be an expression of bigotry and, therefore, illegal and unconstitutional.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Scalia drove home this point:
These Justices know that limiting marriage to one man and one woman is contrary to reason; they know that an institution as old as government itself, and accepted by every nation in history until 15 years ago, cannot possibly be supported by anything other than ignorance or bigotry. And they are willing to say that any citizen who does not agree with that, who adheres to what was, until 15 years ago, the unanimous judgment of all generations and all societies, stands against the Constitution.
In short, the Court ruled that the traditional conception of marriage is illegal because it is not virtuous – and the measure of virtue is not the received wisdom of mankind, or the teachings of religion, or even public consensus. No; the five men and women who signed the Court’s decision, like the Committee of Public Safety before them, decided that they themselves are the measure of the new revolutionary virtue.
Again, Justice Scalia:
Take, for example, this Court, which consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination. The strikingly unrepresentative character of the body voting on today’s social upheaval would be irrelevant if they were functioning as judges, answering the legal question whether the American people had ever ratified a constitutional provision that was understood to proscribe the traditional definition of marriage. But of course the Justices in today’s majority are not voting on that basis; they say they are not. And to allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.
Understand that this is far worse than when individual states recognized same sex marriage. At least then we were protected somewhat by the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion. But now the Court has given same sex marriage the status of a civil right; and freedom of religion, in this country, is not a protection against the charge of a civil rights violation.
The four justices who dissented from the Court’s decision made this danger clear. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today”.
The least of the evils that may befall as a result of this decision, as the Chief Justice explicitly indicates, is that religious institutions will lose their tax-exempt status unless they fall in line.
This is not the alarmist prediction of some conservative columnist; this is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, commenting on the repercussions that might follow from his Court’s decision.
I have no doubt that the new Jacobins, in their zeal to stamp out any dissent, will make this a priority.
More generally, Justice Alito warns:
I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools…
They’re not marching anyone off to the guillotine. But make no mistake; in this brave new world, anyone who speaks against this new ukase can, in a moment, lose his livelihood and his reputation. Orthodox Jews, and people of traditional faith generally, will be viewed with special suspicion in academia, in government and in the corporate world.
There is an ill wind blowing.
Moreover, the growing dissonance between the wider culture and our traditional values is putting a tremendous stress on parts of our community. For better or worse, not all of Orthodoxy lives in a ghetto. And the tension caused by the widening cultural rift is producing strange anomalies. A student of mine tells me that his friends – all of whom consider themselves Orthodox – are celebrating the Court’s ruling as if it were a personal victory.
We have passed an awful milestone in the moral decomposition of the culture around us. One of the few redeeming values that the Gemara sees in the culture of the nations of the world has been erased (see Chulin 92b). We look for a silver lining, but all we see is “that the sky grows darker yet, and the sea rises higher”.
Yet perhaps there is some small comfort in remembering that we have always been a nation that dwells apart, and that – as Rashi tells us at the beginning of Chukas – the nations of the world have always mocked us for our beliefs and practices.
We are entering a time when the strength of our own convictions will be challenged; and let us pray for סייעתא דשמיא so that we shall not be found wanting in that strength.
Rabbi Shulman serves as a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, and as rabbi of the Young Israel of Midwood, in Brooklyn NY.
1) It is not true that five members of the Supreme Court conspired to do an end-run against the will of the public and the sense of the Constitution.
Well, maybe the Constitution, if you accept Justice Scalia’s remarks. What is certainly true, however, is that to the contrary, SCOTUS mirrored a new reality in public opinion, which came to embrace full marriage rights and recognition for gays. The Court did not impose this; it demonstrated the prediction of the gemara of a time in which leadership would follow rather than lead, where pnei ha-dor ke-penei ha-kelev. This means, according to some, that the dog that seems to be leading by running ahead of the person following at the end of the leash in fact pauses at every fork in the road, looking back to its master for direction. It was the American people whose attitude changed, with a rapidity that startled most of us. Five justices of the High Court, who might have moved more cautiously as they did in the past, were now free to find the will of the people within the Constitution. The people led here, not the Court.
2) It does not mean that … Read More >>
It’s axiomatic that diplomats must be, well, diplomatic. That might explain why Michael Oren, a current member of the Knesset (Kulanu) but who served as ambassador of Israel to the United States from 2009 until 2013, kept his disillusionment with President Barack Obama under wraps until now.
In a Wall St. Journal op-ed to promote a new book he’s written, Mr. Oren has accused Mr. Obama of, if not quite in the WSJ headline-writer’s contention, “abandon[ing] Israel,” at least (in Mr. Oren’s actual words) “abandoning the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America.”
A serious charge, though, in its own right.
Mr. Oren acknowledges that “contrary to many of his detractors, Mr. Obama was never anti-Israel” and “significantly strengthened security cooperation with the Jewish State.” The president, moreover, “rushed to help Israel in 2011 when the Carmel forest was devastated by fire.”
Presumably the ex-ambassador appreciates, too, Mr. Obama’s swift and strong warning to Egyptian authorities in 2011 that they had better protect mob-besieged Israeli embassy guards in Cairo. And the president’s informing the Arab world in his 2009 Cairo speech that the U.S.-Israel bond is “unbreakable.” As well as things like the administration’s condemnation of the … Read More >>
What, should Cross-Currents be the only one out there not to review Michael Oren’s new book before it even hits the stores? Especially after one of our readers, Stefanie Argamon, was nice enough to get Random House to send me not just one, but two review copies?
While the publisher may have been overly generous in my case, the overall strategy worked. The tell-all memoir by Israel’s former ambassador to the United States has been garnering lots of news stories for its take-downs of both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Michael Oren is now a member of Knesset in a centrist party, and can get away with taking jabs at those with whom he disagreed during his tenure in the diplomatic corps. Those whom he targets in Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide are now scrambling for damage control.
The reviewers to date have been most interested in the political conflicts, giving the readers what they want to hear. I spotted a few pages that I thought would interest our readers, and be ignored by other reviewers. This anecdote as well targets something many of us loves to hate:
Only once, when an op-ed … Read More >>
I’m trying to understand the sort of mindlessness that expressed itself in the jeering of Treasury Secretary Jacob (“Jack”) Lew by some Jews at a recent gathering.
The third Jerusalem Post Annual Conference which took place in Manhattan on June 7 and featured Israeli and American officials and journalists, was convened with the hope of garnering international attention. It succeeded, if only in the widespread reportage of the way some in attendance reacted to Mr. Lew’s measured and accurate words.
Applause ensued when he told the crowd that the U.S. continues to consider Israel’s security a top priority as it negotiates a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities and that “we must never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon.”
The Treasury Secretary then explained how the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran were intended to pressure that country to agree to negotiations about limiting and monitoring its nuclear program, and that they succeeded. The first murmurs from the crowd were heard then.
And then, when he asserted that Iran’s movement toward a nuclear weapon had been arrested for now, and that an agreement, if one is signed, would thwart the outlaw nation’s suspected designs, the booing began in ugly … Read More >>
“We’re going to blink and there’ll be 100 Orthodox women rabbis in America that have been given ordination”. –R. Adam Mintz, professor of Talmud, Yeshivat Maharat
Within the week, three Orthodox-identified rabbinical ordination programs for women granted semicha (ordination) to their graduating classes. (Please see here and here.) While the mainstream organs of Orthodoxy do not recognize or approve of the ordination of women (here are RCA statements about the matter), the reasons for not accepting the legitimacy of semicha for women remain a mystery to some.
Various articles have been published about the topic (please see here for R. Hershel Schachter’s article); I would like to take one approach and provide some elaboration.
Halachic analysis of contemporary rabbinical ordination of women was first put forth by R. Saul Lieberman (please see here for R. Gil Student’s important presentation thereof), who in 1979 expressed his opposition to such on the part of Jewish Theological Seminary.
Although R. Lieberman’s tenure at JTS was the subject of controversy and was certainly not viewed favorably by Orthodox leadership, R. Lieberman was Orthodox and was very well-versed in our topic; his ruling on it is thus quite pivotal and … Read More >>
Some of us can remember when taking a plane was a pleasant experience, even exhilarating. Those days, of course, are long gone.
It used to be – if “good old days” syndrome hasn’t played with my memory – that only well-dressed and genteel folks flew, and that airport and airline personnel were uniformly polite and helpful. These days, air travel is a largely unpleasant affair. Airports are crowded; cabins, even more so. Seats are too close together, and fellow passengers, as a result, occasionally surly. Professional staffs can be less than congenial. Flight delays are frequent. And then there are the “security measures.”
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the TSA, or Transportation Security Administration, was established, and eventually made part of the DHS, or Department of Homeland Security, also created at that time.
Among the TSA’s 60,000 employees are the people who make passengers take off their shoes (good thing the “shoe bomber” hadn’t swallowed the explosives instead), pass through metal detectors and, in some cases, “pat down” shoeless passengers. They’re the folks who confiscate your water bottles.
And who, it turns out, according to a secret DHS “Red Team” report, managed to miss a good number of … Read More >>
Why are so many young black men being murdered in Baltimore, after Freddie Gray? It’s what happens when police know they might be arrested for doing their job. … Read More >>
By now, with a couple of decades of monitoring media on behalf of Agudath Israel behind me, I really shouldn’t be surprised by examples of journalistic bias. But there are times when I can still be impressed.
As I was by a recent news item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the service used by Jewish media across the country and around the world. Its opening paragraphs read as follows:
This is how you launch a Hasidic shtetl in 21st-century America.
Step 1. Find a place within reasonable distance of Brooklyn where the land is cheap and underdeveloped.
Step 2. Buy as much property as you can in your target area – if possible, without tipping off locals that you plan to turn it into a Hasidic enclave.
Ensuing “steps,” according to the article, include building “densely clustered homes” and a religious “infrastructure.” And, finally: “Market to the Hasidic community and turn on the lights.”
The writer was referring to a Jewish developer’s purchase of land and construction of homes in the Sullivan County town of Bloomingburg. The article goes on to itemize some of the purchases – a “house with blue shutters,” a “hardware store,” a “pizza shop,” … Read More >>
After reading about the latest rabbinic “issue”, we do not know what to say. While the rabbi involved has the right to explain himself, and we cannot assume wrongdoing beyond anything which would be admitted or proven, we are left with a feeling of great disquietude and confusion.
Detractors of the rabbi point out the halachic prohibitions of a rav attending a bathhouse in the presence of his students, and defenders of the rabbi point to the absence of proof of actual wrongdoing or criminal activity. Both sides may be correct, yet they may also be missing an important point – a point that can only be appreciated by taking a step back.
If an individual retains a highly respected position, and on occasion stakes out unpopular positions, he can be the world’s greatest tzaddik and mentch, but he will nonetheless be subject to vilification. And the reverse is true as well: If an individual has criminal proclivities, especially in the realm of physical relationships, then no matter what type of formal safeguards and parameters are established, it will not help.
Yet we speak here not about any of this, but rather about a more general issue – that … Read More >>
The latest in a long-running series of attacks on the largely Orthodox East Ramapo school board came in the form of an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times.
The opinion piece was written by New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch and David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a public school advocacy group. And, like its predecessors, it presented a host of highly charged and equally highly misleading assertions.
The first two claims are demonstrably false, and the third one is misleading to the point of slander.
* State funding to all New York school districts, including East Ramapo, is based on a statutory formula involving property values, income levels and public school student numbers. Education funds are provided accordingly; wealthier districts, fairly, receive less government funding than poorer ones.
* East Ramapo’s demographics — approximately 24,000 students in nonpublic schools, only about one-third that number in public schools — and relatively high property values, result in a skewed picture of the public school population’s wealth, resulting in state funding that treats East Ramapo as if it were one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, when it … Read More >>