The President’s Address at a DC Synagogue

by President Barack Obama

Good morning everybody. A slightly early Shabbat shalom. [LAUGHTER]

I want to thank the rabbi for the very kind introduction, and to all the members of the congregation, thank you so much for such an extraordinary and warm welcome. I want to thank a couple outstanding members of congress who are here. Senators Michael Bennet — where did Michael Bennet go? There is. — there he is. [APPLAUSE] and representative Sandy Levin, who is here. [APPLAUSE] I want to thank our special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, Ire Foreman, for his important work. There he is. [APPLAUSE] most of all, I want to thank the entire Congregation of Adas Israel for having me here today.

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by one of your members, Jeff Goldberg. [APPLAUSE] Jeff reminded me that he once called me the first Jewish president. [LAUGHTER] now, since some people still seem to be wondering about my faith — [LAUGHTER] I should make clear that this was an honorary title, but I was flattered. As an honorary member of the tribe, not to mention somebody who has hosted seven white house seders — [APPLAUSE] and been advised by two Jewish chiefs of staff, I can also say I am getting a little bit of a hang of the lingo. But I will not use any of the yiddishisms that Rahm Emanuel taught me, because I want to be invited back. [LAUGHTER] Let’s just say that he had some creative new synonyms for “Shalom.” [LAUGHTER]

Now, I wanted to come here to celebrate Jewish-American heritage month. Because this congregation, like so many around the country, helps us to tell the American story. In 1876, when President Grant helps dedicate Adas Israel, he became the first sitting president in American history to attend a synagogue service. At the time, it was an extraordinarily symbolic gesture. Not just for America, but for the world. I think about the landscape of Jewish history. Tomorrow night, the holiday marks the moment that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai. The first link in a chain of tradition that stretches back thousands of years, and a foundation stone for our civilization. Yet for most of those years, Jews were persecuted, not embraced, by those in power. Many of your ancestors came here fleeing that persecution. The United States could have been merely another destination in that ongoing diaspora. But those who came here found that America was more than just a country. America was an idea. America stood for something. As George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

It’s important for us to of knowledge that too often in our history we fell short of those lofty ideals. The legal subjugation of African-Americans through slavery and Jim Crow. The treatment of Native Americans. Far too often, American Jews faced the scourge of anti-Semitism here at home. But our founding documents gave us a north star. Our Bill of Rights, system of government, gave us the capacity for change. And where other nations actively and legally might persecute and discriminate against those of different faiths, this nation was called upon to see all of us as equals before the eyes of the Lord. When other countries treated their own citizens as wretched refuse, we lifted up our lamp, saw the golden door, and welcomed them in. Our country is immeasurably stronger because we did. [APPLAUSE]

From Einstein to Brandeis, Jonas Salk to Betty Freidan, American Jews have made concretions to this country that have — contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect. As a community, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect. The story of exodus inspired oppressed people around the world in their own struggles for civil rights. From the founding members of the NAACP to a freedom summer in Mississippi, from women’s rights to gay rights to workers’ rights. Jews took the heart of the biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves. Earlier this year, when we marked the 50th anniversary of the march of Selma, we remembered the iconic images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua marching with Dr. King, praying with his feet. The summit must have seemed — to some, it must have seemed strange that a rabbi from Warsaw would take such great pains to stand with a minister from Mississippi. No religion is an island. He wrote, “we must choose between interface and inner nihilism,” between a shared hope that says together we can share a brighter future, or share cynicism that says our world is simply beyond repair. The heritage we celebrate this month is a testament to the power of hope. Me standing here before you, all of you in this incredible congregation, is a testament to the power of hope. [APPLAUSE] It’s a rebuke to cynicism. It’s a rebuke to nihilism. It inspires us to have faith that our future, like our past, will be shaped by values that we share.

At home, those values compel us to work to keep alive the American dream of opportunity for all. It means we care about issues that affect all children, not just our own. We are prepared to invest in early childhood education. That we are concerned about making college affordable. That we want to create communities where if you are willing to work hard, you can get ahead. The way so many who fled and arrived on these shores were able to get ahead. Around the world, those values compel us to redouble our efforts to protect our planet and to protect the human rights of all who share this planet.

It is particularly important to remember now, given the turmoil taking place in so many corners of the globe, in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods, those values cause us to affirm that are enduring friendship with the people of Israel and our unbreakable bonds with the state of Israel, that those bonds of friendship cannot be broken. [APPLAUSE] Those values compel us to say that our commitment to Israel’s security and my commitment to Israel’s security is and always will be unshakable. [APPLAUSE] And I said this before. — and I said this before. It would be a moral failing on the part of the American people, a moral failing on my part, if we did not stand up firmly, steadfastly. Not just the half — on behalf of Israel’s right to exist, but Israel’s right to thrive and prosper. Because it would ignore the history that brought the state of Israel about. It would ignore the struggle that has taken place through millennia to try to affirm the kind of values that say, everybody has a place, everybody has rights. Everybody is a child of god. [APPLAUSE] as many of you know, I visited the houses hit by rocket fire. I have been to Yad Vashem and made that solemn vow, never forget, never again. When someone threatens Israel’s citizens or it’s very right to exist, Israelis necessarily take that seriously. And so do I. Today, the military and intelligence cooperation between our countries is stronger than ever. Our support of the ironed rocket system — Iron Dome rocket system has saved Israeli lives. And I can say that no U.S. president, no administration has done more to assure that Israel can protect itself than this one. [APPLAUSE]

As part of that commitment, there’s something else that the United States and Israel agree on. Iran must not under any circumstances be allowed to get a nuclear weapon. [APPLAUSE] There is a debate about how to achieve that. A healthy debate. I am not going to use my remaining time to go too deep into policy. Although, for those of you who are interested — [LAUGHTER] we have a lot of material out there. But I do want everybody to remember a few key things. The deal that we already reached with Iran has already halted or will roll back parts of Iran’s nuclear program. Now we are seeking a competence of solution. I will not accept a bad deal. As I pointed out in my most recent article with Jeff Goldberg, this deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure it delivers on its promise. [APPLAUSE] I want a good deal. I am interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon. Every single path. A deal that imposes unprecedented inspections on all aspects of the nuclear program, so they cannot cheat. If they try to cheat, we will immediately nullify it and sanctions snapped back on. A deal that endures beyond a decade, that addresses the challenge for the long-term. In other words, a deal that makes the world and the region, including Israel, more secure. That’s how I define a good deal.

I cannot stand here and agree that — guarantee that a deal will be reached. We are working hard, but nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. When it comes to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, all options are and will remain on the table. Moreover, even if we do get a good deal, there remains the broader issue of Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilization, and ugly threats against Israel. That’s why our strategic partnership with Israel will remain, no matter what happens in the days and years ahead. That’s why the people of Israel must always know, America has its back, and America will always have its back. [APPLAUSE] [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]

Now, that does not mean that they will not be, or should not be, periodic disagreements between our two governments. There will be disagreements on tactics, when it comes to how to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. That is entirely appropriate. The stakes are sufficiently high that anything that is proposed has to be subjected to scrutiny. And I welcome that scrutiny. But there will also be disagreements rooted in shared history, which go beyond tactics, rooted in how we might remain true to our shared values.

I came to know Israel as a young man through these incredible images of kibbutzes, Golda Meier, Israel overcoming incredible odds in the ‘67 war. The notion of pioneers that set out to not only safeguard a nation, but to remake the world. Not only to make the desert bloom, but to allow their values to flourish. To ensure that the best of Judaism would thrive. Those values in mnay way — many ways came to be my own values. They believed the story of the people gave them a unique perspective among the nations of the world. A unique moral authority and responsibility that comes from having once been a stranger ur young man like me, souls are destroyed. And it will spread. That’s why tonight, for the first time ever, congregations around the world are celebrating it is not always easy to speak out against what is wrong, even for good people.

So I want to close with a story of one of the many rabbis who came to Selma 50 years ago. A few days after he arrived to join the protests, he and a colleague were thrown in jail. They spent a Friday in custody, singing to the tune of “we shall overcome.” that in and of itself is a profound statement of faith and hope. Was wonderful is that out of respect — what is wonderful is that out of respect many of their fellow protesters again wearing what they called freedom caps, yarmulkes, as they marched. The day after they were released from prison, they watched Dr. King lead a prayer meeting before crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge. Dr. King said, we are like the children of Israel, marching from slavery to freedom. That’s what happens when we are true to our values. It’s not just good for us. It brings the community together. [APPLAUSE] it brings the community together and helps to repair the world. It bridges differences that once looked unbridgeable. It creates a future for our children that once seemed unattainable. This congregation, Jewish-American life is a testimony to the capacity to make our values live. But it requires courage. It requires strength. It requires that we speak the truth,. Not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.

So may we always remember that our shared heritage makes us stronger, that our roots are intertwined. May we always choose faith overnight was in and courage over despair, and — over nihilism, and courage over despair, as we walk our own leg of a timeless, sacred march. May we always stand together, here at home and around the world. Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] thank you, everybody. [APPLAUSE]

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Ism Schism

Liberal-minded American Jews rightly regard Pamela Geller, who organized the Garland, Texas cartoon-of Islam’s-founder contest earlier this month, as an irresponsible provocateur. What’s odd is that many of those very same liberal-minded American Jews enthusiastically champion (and generously support) another irresponsible provocateur.

That would be the “Women of the Wall” – the attention-addicted feminist group bent on holding vocal women’s services at the Kosel Maaravi that offend the sensibilities of the traditional Orthodox women and men who most frequent the site and have regularly prayed there in traditional fashion for decades.

It might seem at first thought that Ms. Geller’s stunts are in a category of their own. After all, by snubbing her nose at the Muslim world, she courts violence of the sort that extremists within that world so readily and joyfully embrace. In fact, her Texas event attracted not only a small crowd but two angry and armed Islamists who sought to spill blood but who were, baruch Hashem, killed before they could wreak the havoc of their dreams.

But Ms. Geller isn’t misguided only because of the violent reactions she invites. She is misguided because, put simply and starkly, it’s wrong to provoke people. There is nothing wrong with condemning Islamist terrorism or holding the banner of free speech as high as one chooses. But to try to make one’s points by insulting the sensibilities of all Muslims is boorish.

Which brings us to the “Women of the Wall.” They are free to make the case that their feminist vision should trump Jewish tradition. But seeking to flaunt their conviction in the faces of others for whom it is anathema is crass.

In its mission statement, the group declares its desire “to change the status-quo” at the Kosel, and that it stands “proudly and strongly in the forefront of the movement for religious pluralism in Israel.” Were it well-mannered, it would limit itself to lobbying Knesset members and making its case to the public in as reasoned a manner as it can. Instead, though, it chooses to push its program squarely and harshly into the faces of Jews who cherish the “status quo,” i.e. the Jewish mesorah, and oppose the “religious pluralism” that seeks to undermine it. That’s not advocacy; it’s indecent.

Celebrated writer and translator Hillel Halkin, no traditional Jew, doesn’t generally cover his head. Yet he has written that, “in certain places – on a rare visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for example – I’ll put on a kippah even though I resent having to do it.” And, referencing the Women of the Wall, he shared his imagined reaction were a fellow non-kippah-wearer to invite him to “a demonstration of bare-headed Jewish men at the Wall [where] we’re going to pray and sing and keep coming back every month until our rights are recognized.” He would, he writes, “politely tell him to get lost.”

First, though, he writes, he would challenge the inviter: “Why insist on [forcing your issue] in the one place where it’s going to offend the sensibilities of hundreds or thousands of people?… If you need to go to the Wall, just cover your head and don’t indulge in childish provocations.”

Women of the Wall’s quest, Mr. Halkin asserts, has “to do only with the narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest.”

That narcissism is even more pronounced these days, as – for better or worse – a temporary platform for “non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer” has been prepared at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Kosel plaza, facing the Kosel and no less holy than where traditional prayer has been the norm. Women of the Wall’s leader, Anat Hoffman, though, has dismissed that accommodation as a “sunbathing deck” and “second-rate.” Her group has apparently opted to shun the alternate site, preferring instead to continue to try to upset fellow Jews in the place where they have prayed in the traditional manner since 1967.

Shavuos approaches. The anniversary of the moment when true Jewish unity was forged, when our ancestors – including those of Mrs. Hoffman and her American Jewish supporters – stood “like a single person with a single heart” at the foot of Har Sinai.

What unified Klal Yisrael then, of course, was their declaration of naaseh v’nishma, their embrace of the Torah whether or not they could “hear” everything it requires of them. It was a commitment, in effect, to place the Torah above all else, above all the isms of the time.

And of the future, something contemporary provocateurs and their supporters might do well to ponder.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Rav Aharon Lichtenstein & the Haredim

“I am very partial to Rav Lichtenstein’s approach,” said the Lelov hassid to me at the funeral of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l a month ago. “Rav Lichtenstein deals with abstractions, in addition to focusing on the text,” he further elucidated. There were quite a few hassidim (to judge by their sartorial taste) at the funeral. In addition, someone whose garb bespoke a haredi Litvishe affiliation responded, when I asked what his connection was with Rav Lichtenstein, “What we appreciate in his shiurim is that rather than trying to be ‘sparkling’ with fireworks, there is yashrus, a straightforward approach that speaks to us.”

They were not the only haredim among the ten thousand, mostly national religious and modern Orthodox, who attended the levaya of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l. Rav Lichtenstein is one of those rabbis who are esteemed by people from many different sectors of Jewry.

Some on the liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum attribute to him a harsh rejection of the haredi world. For example, David Weinberg claimed, in his Jerusalem Post tribute the day of the funeral, that Rav Lichtenstein “taught that full involvement in Israeli society and a passion for social justice are key religious obligations, not the isolationism … that characterizes too much of ultra-Orthodox … today.“

In this characterization I think Weinberg is wrong, as are others who saw R. Lichtensein as being in the vanguard of a liberal approach. Rav Lichtenstein’s writings belie this denigrating description of the haredi world. In a lecture before Orthodox educators thirty years ago (adapted by Rabbi R. Ziegler, published in By His Light, Ktav Press), Rav Lichtenstein wrote about the commonalities and differences with the more “Rightist” (i.e. haredi) hashkafa. In this essay titled Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting, Rav Lichtenstein writes:

“What are the hallmarks of so-called Centrist Orthodoxy, and in what respect does it differ from its Rightist critics? Broadly speaking, of course, our common purpose is identical: universally – le-takken olam be-malkhut Shad-dai, to mend the world under Divine sovereignty”…. When all is said and done, we should recognize and realize that what we share with the Rightist community far, far outweighs whatever divides us… [Emphasis mine, SLS] I sometimes have the feeling that, with regard to perceiving that community, we are often somewhat remiss. [We have] a shared vision of eternity. Surely we need to recognize, and the point can hardly be overemphasized, that our basic affinity is with those – past, present or future – to whom tzelem E-lokim, malkhus Shamayim and avodas Hashem are the basic categories of human existence.”

Knowing Rav Lichtenstein’s care with words, it is significant that in this essay he uses the term “centrist” Orthodoxy, and not “modern” Orthodoxy. In this essay, he enumerates the points of divergence with the “Right” – but nevertheless, the closeness and respect for that world is evident.

The respect seems to have been mutual to some extent. I encountered several talmidim at the funeral from haredi yeshivot like Hevron (Jerusalem) and Tifrach (Negev) who have been participating in a circle that studies the Talmud shiurim of Rav Lichtenstein using notes that were semi-officially published for many tractates. They meet among themselves regularly to study these shiurim, and twice met with Rav Lichtenstein to study in his home.

Rav Lichtenstein’s early years were spent in the so-called haredi world. At the shiva, one of the sons, Rav Yitzhak, spoke with us about hisfather’s roots going back to yeshivat Chaim Berlin where Rav Aharon was a star talmid of Rav Yitzhak Hutner z”l. In 2002 Rav Lichtenstein wrote a lengthy remembrance of Rav Hutner in Jewish Action , describing him as a “genuine gadol, to whom the Torah world is deeply indebted and from whom I, personally, benefited immensely…[Rav Hutner was] a magisterial figure who continues both to illuminate and, in the positive sense of the term, to cast a long shadow.” Every Yom Kippur Rav Lichtenstein would say a misheberach for his three rabbanim: Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, Rav Aaron Soloveitchik, and Rav Yitzhak Hutner, zichronam livracha.

Recognition of Rav Lichtenstein’s uniqueness is reflected in the obituary published by the haredi weekly AMI the week of the funeral. In addition, back in Adar, AMI wrote about the book of conversations between Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Sabato, yla. The context was a 12-page cover story on and interview with Rav Haim Sabato, by the AMI editor, Rav Yitzchok Frankfurter. In his interview with Rav Sabato, R. Frankfurter mentioned that he was reading R. Sabato’s book of conversations with Rav Lichtenstein, published by Yediot, titled Mevakshei Fanecha It is a bestseller in Hebrew, and is available also in digital form. The book is soon to come out in English.

In the AMI interview, when R. Frankfurter asked R. Sabato, “Why did you write the book?” R. Sabato replied, “I will tell you. Here in Israel people think that Rabbi Lichtenstein is a liberal. But they don’t know his other side, his deep religious belief. In many religious circles they have begun to ascribe all kinds of ideas to him that he does not, in fact, hold. I wanted to present that aspect of him that reflects his yirat Shamayim despite his modernity and exceptional erudition.”

R. Lichtenstein could be unequivocal in rejecting certain modern (liberal if you will) interpretations. Two years ago R. Lichtenstein had a very sharp exchange with Rav Benny Lau, who had been a student at Har Etzion. Rav Benny had written an essay on Parashat Emor’s disqualifying cohanim for certain roles if they have blemishes/disabilities (Vayikra 21:18-21).

At the time, Gil Student made available this startling debate. The exchange began when R. Benny had suggested that rules about such disabilities in priests, that many today would call discriminatory, no longer apply given our new sensitivities.

In the rejoinder by R. Lichtenstein, he first acknowledges the unique contribution Rav Benny has made bringing Torah to many sectors of Israeli society (in this I heartily agree, knowing Rav Benny’s creativity and achievements).

“I read with great pain, the article that appeared in the Tzohar publication Parashat Emor and I now write these lines with even deeper pain. I have known the author, Rabbi Binyamin Lau for a long time, and moreover, I am aware of his accomplishments in Torah and his illustrious activities on behalf of Israeli society.”

Rav Lichtenstein writes that in Rav Benny’s essay there seems to emerge a conclusion

“that there is no place for disqualifying disabled individuals according to Jewish Law, since the basis for negating phenomena such as these is not part of the landscape of the society that prefers an atmosphere of equality, openness and freedom.”

Rav Lichtenstein vehemently disagrees:

“The basis for this approach, to uproot these disqualifications, is rooted in the acceptance of the authority of contemporary ideology and sensitivities, emerging from the assumption that whatever the Zeitgeist has to say establishes the current norms by which the community should render decisions and establish practice. ..One should not see this approach as an open highway (i.e. preferred method) of interpretation and application of Jewish law.”

Rav Lichtenstein rejects one of the assumptions of Rav Lau…

“that vox populi is the normative, last word, and things should be rejected or accepted according to its will. … According to the view of the Tradition of Israel, handed down through the generations from Mt. Sinai, through the period of the prophets, Chazal, the medieval and modern authorities, the accepted path is that the community must listen and answer “we will do and we will hear” without using current theories to investigate and examine to see what fits their whim and what does not. The taking of the crown of authority by the community and by those aspiring to be its guides and molders of its identity, is not a privilege acquired automatically by a rabbi or the community as a whole.”

Rav Lichtenstein points out

“just how hard the article tries to shift the focus of authority and center for the establishment of Jewish practice from the ancient Tradition and the give and take within its framework, to the market places and open streets.”

Rav Lichtenstein’s rejection of a modern-sensibilities interpretation is on a theoretical/hashkafic level. Note that vis-à-vis the practical issue of disabilities, yeshivat Har Etzion is in the forefront of inclusiveness and hosts special-needs boys from the U.S. in the Darkenu program whereby the latter are integrated as far as is possible into yeshiva life.

Rav Lichtenstein’s writings speak for themselves far, far more eloquently than I can. There is a partial list on the Har Etzion website where there is also a list of some of the sessions marking the shloshim – in Israel and the U.S.

Many of the sessions were recorded and can be downloaded.

Yehe zichro baruch.

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Anybody Out There?

A mere week after NASA scientists announced their certainty of finding life on other planets within the next 20 years, a team of other scientists announced that, after searching 100,000 galaxies, they have found no signs of at least intelligent extraterrestrial life.

The researchers used information from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer orbiting observatory (WISE) to look for energy radiating away as heat. “The idea behind our research is that if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced… civilization, the energy produced… would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” explained Jason T. Wright, a Penn State University professor who initiated the survey. “These galaxies are billions of years old,” he continued, “which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations.”

This search is nothing new. Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”; META, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay”; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting information about Earth were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the “Arecibo message,” which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” (BETA) was created, as well as a project harnessing the computing power of five million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Tens of billions of hours of processing time were consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing. No little green men. Not even any green slime.

True, for 17 years, astrophysicists monitoring Australia’s Parkes telescope detected strange radio bursts signals, which were believed to come from another galaxy. Recently, though, Emily Petroff, a PhD student working at the facility, showed that the signals were being generated by a microwave oven in its kitchen.

The prime candidate for rudimentary life in our own solar system, of course, is Mars. Thus far, though, the four rovers that have been sent to the red planet haven’t discovered any of the molecules considered by scientists to be the “building blocks of life,” much less life itself.

Still, many scientists say there must be life out there. Science doesn’t usually embrace beliefs unsupported by observations. So, whence their conviction that there must be life elsewhere in the universe? The answer is that it derives from a creed: that chance governs the universe – that randomness lies at the root of reality.

If probability, not design, is the loom on which the universe’s fabric is stretched, that creed’s canon proclaims, why should there be only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy where there is life?

The high priests of Scientism even believe in miracles, as in their contention that life on Earth arose by chance from inanimate matter, something that, of course, has never been accomplished despite valiant efforts, in the lab. And that the astounding diversity of life emerged randomly. And so, the creed reasons, why shouldn’t countless other worlds have done any less?

We, of course, know that Creation, including life, was an act of Divine will, not the yield of randomness. To be sure, were life to be discovered on some other planet, it wouldn’t challenge us any more than the fact that life was discovered here on earth in hot springs and deep-sea vents, long assumed to be devoid of living creatures.

But intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos? Unlikely. One thing is certain: all efforts to detect it have come up empty.

The Torah (Devarim, 17:3) speaks of a false prophet who will “prostrate himself… to the sun or the moon or to any host of heaven, which I have not commanded.” Rashi explains that last phrase as meaning “which I have not commanded you to worship.”

Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev had a profound interpretation of that Rashi.

The reason one may not bow down to a heavenly body, he explained, is because they have not “been commanded” – they lack the free will necessary to accept or reject a Divine commandment. One may, however, bow down in respect to a human being – because humans are singular, sublime creatures, beings who have been commanded, who uniquely possess the free will to accept and execute Hashem’s will.

So far, at least, such choosing beings are only known here on Earth. Might there be intelligent extraterrestrials who have received their own Divine commandments?

I imagine some may “hear” such a possibility.

Personally, though, I think the silence out there speaks much more loudly.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Because I Chose To Be

On a recent trip to the United States, I was invited for a leil Shabbos meal by the son of a good friend of mine. (You know that you are getting old when it does not seem strange to be invited for a meal by friend’s children.)

The evening’s conversation was wide-ranging, though much centered on why this particular young man felt as soon as he landed at Kennedy Airport at 18 that he would never return to live in his native Israel.

As I was putting on my overcoat to leave, he related that he had once asked his father how it was that he seemed so comfortable with all his children despite their great differences from one another – some are in full-time learning, others in business or klal work; some live in Israel; others in America. His father answered him succinctly: “Because I chose to be.”

That struck me as another example of the great wisdom I have heard from my friend over the past quarter century. As parents, the temptation to live vicariously through our children is constant. If we have had successes in life, we want them to be successful in the same way. And if we have suffered disappointments, we hope for their accomplishments to erase those disappointments.

How many young men do we see harmed by their father’s insistence on pushing them into prestigious yeshivos for which they are ill-suited because of the reflected glory of having a son in such a yeshiva? How many unhappy marriages are caused by parents who fail to focus on what their son and daughter need or want in a spouse, and instead concern themselves with the yichus or bank account of the mechutanim?

In an important short work on dealing with struggling teenagers, soon to appear in English, Rabbi Uri Zohar devotes a great deal of attention to the importance of creating a line of open communications with our children long before they enter their teenage years. That means, inter alia, showing an interest in what is important to them, and making sure that they feel comfortable sharing their feelings.

But there is one kind of frequent communication that should be avoided: that which centers exclusively on the child’s test scores, or how highly they are evaluated by others. Constant questions about test scores or popularity or how many points they scored in a basketball game convey the message to our children that they are important to us not for themselves but only for the glory they confer on us. Rather than building a relationship such communication destroys it.

My friend happens to be a major talmid chacham. I have no idea whether any of his sons will approach his level in learning. But by accepting each of his children for what he or she is, he has made it possible for each to develop his or her own potential to the fullest.

“BECAUSE I CHOSE TO BE,” however, is not just good advice on how to relate to our children. It has implications for every aspect of our lives. We live in an age where the very idea of free will is under assault. There are those who argue that all our apparent choices can be understood in terms of certain neural impulses, and that as our understanding of the brain advances, we will be able to predict how a person will react in every circumstance.

The Torah view, of course, rejects that view. Our lives are defined at every moment by the choices we make: “I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life” (Devarim 30:19).

But even we Torah Jews often succumb to determinism. For as depressing as it would be to conceive oneself as lacking free will, it is often consoling to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions and to imagine that we could not have acted otherwise.

Literary critic Gary Saul Morrison observes acutely (in the April Commentary) of one of Tolstoy’s most famous literary creations, Anna Karenina, that she told herself that she had no choice but to succumb to her passions. And that, indeed, is how most modern readers view her. But that was not Tolstoy’s view. Morrison shows how the novelist subtly conveyed “her loss of will [as something] willed.” Even as she feels drawn into a vortex, Tolstoy writes, “She would surrender or resist at will.”

We tend to view our happiness or lack of it as something forced upon us by external circumstances over which we have no control. Yet if we think about the people we know, we will realize how little external circumstances have to do with happiness and how much it has to do with how we relate to those circumstances.

We all know those who have endured one or more tragedies that we imagine would leave us unable to function, and yet maintain a sunny, upbeat disposition and the ability to rejoice in their blessings. And we know others seemingly blessed with all that most people seek, and yet who suffer from anhedonia and seem unable to take pleasure in those blessings.

Some of these differences in disposition are innate. But to a large extent they are chosen. Happiness is quality of the soul, not something imposed upon us.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling Upon Happiness how most people when they hear Siamese twins or people who are disabled in some crucial way say that they are happy deny the possibility that they are telling the truth because they cannot imagine themselves being happy in those circumstances.

That is why handicapped and disabled people are always at the forefront of any campaign against legislation that would confer on doctors the power to terminate lives that are no longer “worth it.” Human beings are notoriously poor predictors of what will make them happy, much less what can make others happy. And much of the reason is the failure to appreciate the element of choice involved.

“Because I choose to be happy” is not just sound advice on how to relate to our children, but on everything else is life as well.

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Return Jewish Education to its Rightful Prestige

By Leslie Ginsparg Klein

At Maalot Baltimore, the numbers of students studying to be teachers are down, way down. Twenty years ago, the education courses were full. Today, psychology is full, health sciences are overflowing, but education courses get barely a handful of students. As the years go on, we offer progressively less education courses. There simply is no demand.

And it is not just at Maalot. The Avi Chai foundation (http://avichai.org/) found that very few college graduates, male or female, have been entering the field of education and this is contributing to a general dearth of qualified teachers for day schools. On top of that, the field of teaching has a high turnover rate. Teachers leave the field for more lucrative and less draining opportunities.

We, as a community, are losing talented teachers. Some never go into education. Others burn out quickly, feeling unappreciated. Our schools are forced to hire teachers with no training or experience, just to have a warm body in the room. We are losing talent to business, law, occupational therapy and high-tech. The Yeshivish schools are losing out on talent to the generally better paying Modern Orthodox institutions, and all schools are … Read More >>

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What OU Kashrus Looks Like From the Inside

Last week’s essay on kashrus supervision attracted far more attention than I would have anticipated. I sensed that misinformation abounded about the OU, the people who work in kashrus, and their halachic standards. The comments that came in showed the usual mix. Some people really got the point; others really missed it. Many of the comments provided useful insight about the OU and other agencies, as well as opening sidebar conversations that were fruitful.

In short, we’re at a teachable moment. So I leaned on our own Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – who just happens to be a rabbinic coordinator for the OU, specializing in cheese. (Maybe that’s why he smiles so much!) He, in turn, did some very informal intelligence-sharing, trying to put things in perspective. This is what he came up with::

Much heated and vibrant discussion was generated by the exchange of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Mr. Yoel Gross and a host of online commenters regarding the perceived differences and features of OU kashrus protocol and the kashrus protocol of the “heimishe hashgochos”. In truth, there is a great need for both reliable national kashrus agencies as well as for smaller kashrus agencies that service specific kehillos … Read More >>

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A World of Wastage

The recent rioting in my home town Baltimore brought two memories to mind. One was the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was fourteen, and while we lived several miles from where that violence transpired, it affected Jewish-owned stores in the inner-city, and it taught those of us who were born after the Second World War that malevolence and mayhem remained, unfortunately, alive and well.

Ostensibly, the recent rioting was a reaction to the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed when in custody. Peaceful marches to protest that death were understandable, and in fact took place. (The death was eventually ruled a homicide by Baltimore State’s Attorney.) But then legions of young black men, many of them apparently high schoolers, began taunting and attacking police, setting fires and looting stores. Most telling were the delighted smiles on many looters’ faces, indelibly captured on film. If Mr. Gray was at all in the minds behind the faces, he had been grossly obscured by something else, an ugly anarchistic glee.

The rioters’ small minds weren’t likely capable of appreciating the irony of their actions. Not only the self-evident … Read More >>

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A Coalition Scorecard

by Shmuel Winiarz

With UTJ, Shas and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party having inked their agreements with the Likud and Naftali Bennett set to become Israel’s next Education Minister, the coalition of Netanyahu’s 4th government is now clear, and begs the question of what is in store for Klal Yisroel and how will the 20th Knesset differ from the 19th.

UTJ has successfully negotiated the removal of criminal sanctions from the Chareidi enlistment law and has ensured the government will not lend its support to public chilul Shabbos. Whatever the downside (see on), many of our readers will take comfort in this development. Having Moshe Kahlon as the next Finance Minister and his parties’ focus on socio-economic issues also augurs well for Israeli society. Kahlon, the former Minister of Communications, led the “Cellular Revolution” where he opened up the market to competition, thereby drastically reducing prices. Bringing in further free-market oriented reforms and incentivizing entrepreneurship should be his modus operandi. The cost of living crisis is preventing Israelis, particularly young couples, from buying a home and getting ahead, and giving people a hand up and not a handout can do just that.

But beyond the specifics of coalition agreements and … Read More >>

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Jewish Conservatism and Its Limits

If ever there was a time for American Jewry to consider a course change, it is the present. The current course threatens world Jewry with annihilation and American Jewry with demographic decimation. By their fervent embrace of the Democratic Party, in sickness and health, American Jews have served as the enablers of a nuclear Iran.

Seven million Jews in Israel are likely doomed to live in perpetuity under the shadow of a nuclear bomb due to President Obama’s refusal to countenance military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, despite constant assurances to the contrary. American Jews twice voted for Obama in higher percentages than any other non-black group, despite clear indications he is, in the words of former peace-processor Aaron David Miller, not exactly “in love with the idea of Israel.”

Meanwhile, the failure of American Jewry to offer its children any coherent account of why the continued existence of the Jewish people matters, not just for Jews but the entire world, has paved the way for a headlong rush towards oblivion. Four out of five marriages involving non-Orthodox American Jews today are intermarriages, which will lead to rapid demographic decline and highly attenuated identity.

Surveying this scene, Eric … Read More >>

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The (Spiritual) Battle of New Orleans

As the naval gunner fired the cannon, his ship immediately began to sink, for he did not grasp that the cannon was aimed downward…

Aggressively continuing the homosexual entitlement advocacy of several of his fellow graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (see, for example, here and here), Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg, who leads a congregation in the New Orleans area, recently directed his fire toward Louisiana’s Marriage and Conscience Act. In an op-ed in The Times-Picayune, R. Greenberg compared the homosexual community to our oppressed ancestors in ancient Egypt and argued on behalf of homosexual liberation in the name of Orthodox Judaism.

R. Greenberg wrote:

Throughout our Biblical and later rabbinic texts, the experience of oppression in Egypt serves as an imperative reminder to take care of those in our own day and age who endure oppression, who live on the margins of our own society. Commandments such as the following in Deuteronomy 10:19 are common in the Bible: “Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

It is, therefore, quite disconcerting to watch Gov. Bobby Jindal‘s recent foray into the “religious liberty” fight, in his outspoken support for House Bill 707, the “Marriage and Conscience Act.” … Read More >>

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Better than the OU?

Food for thought.

In an interview in Mishpacha’s current issue, the co-owner of First Choice baby foods tells of his impetus for starting his business:

I’m a chassidishe guy – I got married at 19. We had a baby, and when we went to the grocery store, my wife took the Beech-nut jar off the shelf – that’s all they had. I said, “Let’s try to get one with a better hechsher. You get water with a hechsher, salt with a hechsher – why not this?”

My opinion may not count. I have been known to buy water without a hechsher. But when faced with the choice of competing hechsherim, I will usually prefer the OU insignia to that of a mom-and-pop outfit.

It’s been decades since I last heard OU kashrus characterized as run by a bunch of modernish rabbis who spend most of the day mixed swimming with their wives who don’t cover their hair, and got semicha through a multiple-choice test. It wasn’t true back then, and it is certainly not true today.

Having had many friends who worked in kashrus, I’ve heard all the stories – the good, the bad, the ugly. I … Read More >>

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The Spirit of Conservatism

Defining things by what they aren’t is almost always unsatisfying. Negative definitions can be useful in distancing us from what we need to reject, but they don’t tell us much about the alternatives.

Applied to G-d Himself, the Rambam tells us in Moreh Nevuchim that we have no alternative to negative statements. The shortcomings of our comprehension and of human language do not allow us to speak of what He is, only of what He is not. If we wish to grow close to Him, we will have to focus on manifestations of His essence – Torah and Creation – rather than His essence itself.

For too many Jews who cannot agree on any affirmative set of principles of Judaism, the one definition that works for them is a negative one. Jews don’t believe in Jesus. The spectacular failure of such a belief system needs no elaboration; it is evident in the growing debris from the self-destruction of the non-Orthodox communities of the Diaspora, which too often could come up with no more compelling a definition of Jewishness than a statement of what it isn’t.

It should be vastly unsatisfying, then, that a growing number of Jews have broken … Read More >>

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Inform or Incite

Many who recognize the evil that permeates radical Islam likely felt a reflexive satisfaction at the recent ruling of U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cannot reject an anti-Islamist advertisement.

The ad, created by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI), presents a keffiyeh-wrapped head of a man, only his eyes showing, next to the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” a quote attributed to Hamas television. Below that is the legend: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

That final phrase is a pointed parody of a Muslim advocacy group’s ad campaign several years ago to try to detach the word “jihad” from its “holy war” connotation.

Telling quote, clever ad. And, according to Judge Koeltl, within AFDI’s rights to run.

The MTA had notified AFDI that it would not accept the ad (one of four that the group purchased space for on the sides of New York buses) because it could incite violence. A simpleminded Muslim, the MTA claimed, might misunderstand the ad’s true message and be inspired by its quote to kill Jews. Rejecting that argument, Judge Koeltl noted that the ad had had no such effect … Read More >>

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Baltimore Take-Aways

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

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

The Detention of Freddie Gray was Reasonable and Appropriate

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

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

Then, upon detaining him, there was ample reason to bring him into custody. He was carrying a switchblade, which which is apparently … Read More >>

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From the Mother of the Meah Shearim Attack Victim

[Sometimes it is good to hear what it feels like from the people closest to the event. Thanks to Dr Moshe Shoshan for the translation.]

It has been a stormy Shabbat for us as we have gone back and forth between a desire to crush and destroy the rioters and the understanding that they represent only a crazy minority in the chareidi community.

They tried to lynch my little boy, who happens to be 21 and an officer in the Givati infantry brigade.

What tears my heart out is the fact that no one came to his defense. Twelve noon, Meah Shearim, a place bustling with life. But no one remembered the mitzvah “לא תעמוד על דם רעיך ” “Stand not idly by as you neighbors blood is spilt.” A mitzvah deoraita.

Men women and children watched the lynching and none of them offered any aid or a place to hide from the hooligans.

I am trying to use this experience to somehow bring change and hope.

I am searching for people from the chareidi world who want to create dialog. I am searching for the silent majority who stood by when son was attacked. I want to give … Read More >>

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I, You, and He/She: A Conjugation Lesson

The real losers in the recent Israeli election — in addition to anti-Netanyahu Obama and Herzog— were the Israeli pollsters. The pre-election polls several days before the election (Israeli law wisely does not permit public polling within three days of an election) were far off the mark, showing Herzog/Livni to be at least four seats ahead. To top this off, the exit polls initially declared that the election was too close to call, when in fact it was an overwhelming Netanyahu victory, akin to a landslide.

The pollsters have spent the post–election weeks crying into their matzo-ball soup, trying to explain away why they went wrong: the electorate was undecided until the end; had polling been permitted until election day they would have been more accurate (but what about the exit poll errors?); the campaign was a volatile one, with daily ups and downs.

The miscalculation of the pollsters was for me a delight. It underscored the importance of each individual, and the uniqueness of am Yisroel. Just as the Jewish people are not subject to the ordinary rules of historic logic — we should have evaporated and disappeared millenia ago together with the empires of Assyria … Read More >>

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Tikvah Institute For Yeshiva Men – Second Season

We are excited to announce that applications are now being accepted for this summer’s Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men.

Buoyed by a dream last year, we launched a program aimed at some of the best and brightest of the yeshiva world. We were not sure at first whether we would find enough applicants to make the Tikvah Institute worth running. Our optimism paid off, BH. We were swamped with applicants, and acceptance became quite competitive.

It was a diverse bunch when measured by age, geography, learning background, and prior exposure to secular disciplines. What participants shared proved more important. All had spent serious time learning in yeshivos and identified with the yeshiva world. All were bright and intellectually curious. Most importantly for the objectives of the program, all shared the conviction that the Torah speaks to the broader concerns of communities and nations, both Jewish and non-Jewish. While the ordinary avodah of the yeshivah man must focus on mastering more Shas and poskim, applicants looked to bein hazmanim to explore elements of Torah that broaden the mind and prepare one for a life of potential leadership within the Torah community.

We’re ready for the second iteration of … Read More >>

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In Brief:

Tziddukim would be happy this year

-- 9:07 am

If there were any Tziddukim left, they’d be happy this year. You can read why in a Shavuos piece I wrote for the Forward, here.

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A Little More about Snakes

-- 6:41 pm

I’m going to add a tidbit of my own to R’ Avi Shafran’s post below. I remember Prof. Robert Liebman’s class, Sociology 241, “The Social Basis of Individual Behavior.” He pointed out during a lecture that each language and culture has different words with different levels of complexity. What regular people call “snow” is subdivided by skiers into six words — and by Inuits into twenty-two different types.

Some things, however, are universal across cultures. The word that drew the most consistent, positive reactions across all cultures, he said, was “mother.” And the word that drew the most negative reaction? “Snake.”

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Yale Scientists’ Interesting Conclusion

-- 11:16 am

Interesting news reported this morning about a team of Yale paleontologists who applied a set of algorithms to genetic and morphological data and concluded that the ancestor of living snakes had hind legs, complete with toes and ankles.

See here to read about a related observation.

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The Limits of Interfaith Dialogue

-- 10:55 am

11188389_10153159575611117_4478034300633810801_n (4)I recently collaborated with David HaKohen Grosser, publisher of Segulat Yisrael, the Italian Torah journal, to examine the halachic and hashkafic parameters of interfaith dialogue and engagement. Our article appears here, posted on Arutz Sheva.

(The above photo depicts an interfaith gathering this past Lag B’Omer at Domus Galilaeae, hosted by the Neocatechumenal Way, an outreach movement within the Roman Catholic Church focusing on the Catholic formation of adults.)

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What The Forward Publishes

-- 10:33 pm

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

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

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

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Respect for the Dignity of Others

-- 10:13 am

Two weeks ago, I told the story of a father of a close friend who refused to sell a valuable diamond once he found that it was to be set in a wedding ring for an intermarriage.

A few days later, I came across an essay in First Things by Maureen Mullarkey, describing her feelings upon being told by a Jewish jewelry store owner that he would not sell her a particular wedding ring. The reminiscence was triggered by the author’s realization that in today’s more contentious climate she could have protested the denial with “accusations of anti-Christian bigotry,” and likely have had a legal case against the store owner.

Such a reaction, however, never occurred to her or her fiancé, and her description of why serves as a model of respect for the religious beliefs of others.

Mullarkey describes how she and her fiancé went searching for wedding rings in New York City’s diamond district. They found exactly what they were looking for in the showcase of an older jeweler, his forearm tattooed with his identification number from a concentration camp. Her eyes were drawn to simple bands embossed with phrases from Tanach in Hebrew letters. She chose Ruth’s words to Naomi, “. . . wither thou goest. . .” for her ring. She ached to claim the “stirring statement of friendship . . . for myself and wear it for the rest of my life.”

The jeweler asked them whether they were Jewish or in the process of converting to Judaism. Told that they were not, he refused to sell them a ring with that Biblical phrase.

Mullarkey understood why. The passage from which the words she chose are taken concludes, “thy people shall be my people and thy G-d my G-d.” The words she had selected, she writes, were not just about friendship. “The story of Ruth is one of conversion that affirms the Jewish nation. It testifies to peoplehood.”

The intensity of the store owner’s “concern to honor the sacred core of the text” moved the young couple. They perceived the “grace in his refusal,” and why he could not grant them the words they craved. For had he done so, “he would have violated the grandeur of them. Ruth’s commitment was not simply to another person but to a covenanted community bound together since the call of Abraham.”

They recognized the jeweler’s moral right not to sell to them. More, they felt themselves in the presence of one of those borders – between Jew and gentile – without which a nation cannot survive nor a culture endure. “That day in the Diamond Exchange we stumbled against the very wall a man had clung to in the camps. It was the same one that had kept Jewry from disappearing centuries before modern nation states existed.”

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The Need for RFRA

-- 11:49 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Challenges to Tranquility

-- 10:36 am

An article of mine about dealing with change appears in a new periodical, “InSight,” published by Rabbi Avraham Mifsud of Detroit. You can read the piece here.

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1984?

-- 10:51 am

My rumination for the Forward on the contemporary state of religious rights — like that of citizens to disapprove of relationships — can be read here.

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Pesach the Rabbi Served Chametz

-- 4:08 pm

After reading many new approaches to Pesach on the part of the Open Orthodox rabbinate, I felt compelled to note some of them and explain the problems. So too for a new Open Orthodox p’sak.

Here is my article about this all, for those who are interested:

A joyous and kosher Pesach to all.

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The Seder Is A Mother

-- 9:30 pm

The Forward published an essay I wrote about the “maternal” essence of the Pesach Seder. You can read it here.

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Pesach Shiur Now Available

-- 1:45 am

A bit more somber than usual. We live in somber times. May Hashem soon bring the geulah we so desperately long for.

Some thoughts on magid from R. Hutner, RSRH, R. Soloveitchik, and the new Beis Shaar.

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