Lament, Loss, and Lesson (Hopefully) Learned

Even though almost a week has passed, the horror of the terrorist attack at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav still lingers in my broken heart.

The stories. The names. The pictures.

It’s all just too much to bear.

The thought – which try as I might, I cannot get out of my mind – of yeshiva students sitting in front of their seforim, studying, “talking in learning,” and celebrating the onset of Chodesh Adar when the terrorist attacked is just so painful to think about.

The fact that this evil was perpetrated in a yeshiva, of all places, which is supposed to serve as an oasis of kedushah magnifies and exacerbates the tragedy. It is reminiscent – in a sense – of the powerful depictions of our enemies, during the Churban, entering the holiest of places to perpetrate the most sinful of acts. It’s not just what happened, but where it happened that makes it so horrific.

And yet.

And yet there are glimmers of inspiration emerging, slowly but surely, from the families and friends of the latest kedoshim. I never cease to be amazed at the heights which some people are able … Read More >>

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Back to the Future

A number of years ago I was walking through Barnes & Noble when I noticed a shocking book jacket. The title, emblazoned in big, bright red letters was Shanda and the cover picture was an overhead view of a man wearing a yarmulke; not just any yarmulke, but a royal blue one which had a bright pink pig emblazoned on the back. You can understand why the book caught my attention.

I am reminded of Rabbi Nosson Scherman’s quip that “Anyone who tells you not to judge a book by its cover never had to sell a book.”

I bought the book!

Shanda is the autobiographical account of Neal Karlen’s estrangement from the traditional Jewish home he was raised in. His approach to Judaism – and especially towards other Jews – is one that he describes as self-loathing. This continues until midlife when Karlen comes to the realization that, in fact, the Jew he hates most is himself. He is the shanda.

As it so happens, around this time he runs into R. Manis Friedman, a well known Chabad rabbi who he had actually met once as a teenager. Karlen and R. Friedman strike … Read More >>

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Getting to the Soul of L’Affaire Feldman

The last two weeks have provided many venues – in print and online – for valuable discussion and thoughtful responses to Professor Noah Feldman’s article in the New York Times Magazine. I was especially gratified to read, for example, the insightful arguments and incisive prose of my teachers and mentors, R. Norman Lamm and R. Shalom Carmy.

Additionally, the recent revelations about the infamous newsletter photo should certainly remind us all of the danger in rushing to judgment – or to pontificate – at the same time it underscores the wisdom of the Sages’s adage (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, ch. 26) “seyag l’chochmah shetikah” – sometimes silence is not only prudent but wise.

There are many important issues raised directly and indirectly by Feldman’s essay and most of them have already been dealt with by others. There is one issue, however, that I am not sure has been sufficiently discussed.

II.

After initially reading the article, my overwhelming impression was that Feldman came across as petulant; after all, what was he thinking?! In fact, my only real disagreement with R. Lamm was that I didn’t think the article was well written at all. Many … Read More >>

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Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: A Fresh Look at a Familiar Story

The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is perhaps the most well known rabbinic text associated with the destruction of the Second Temple. And yet, perhaps it’s our very familiarity with the episode which causes us to gloss over important subtleties embedded in the Talmudic account.

To recap, briefly: There was a man – never identified in the story – who threw a party and intended to invite his good friend Kamtza. His servant, however, erred and mistakenly invited his enemy, Bar Kamtza. When the host realized the mistake he immediately and very publicly demanded that Bar Kamtza leave the party. Obviously embarrassed, Bar Kamtza made a series of offers – even, ultimately, offering to pay for the entire party – hoping to persuade the host to allow him to remain. Unmoved, the host callously throws him out of the party. The Gemara recounts that Bar Kamtza was so offended, not only by the host, but also by the silence of the guests – some of whom were great rabbis – that he slandered the Jewish people to the Caesar. One thing leads to another and the result of this sad story is, ultimately, the destruction of the Beit … Read More >>

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An Unexpected Pesach Present

While my children were out purchasing their “afikoman presents” with my in-laws, I happened on my own holiday present in the form of a remarkable article by Dr. Francis Collins.

The highly regarded Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and the piece is a synopsis of his personal journey of faith. I found the statement noteworthy as much for what it did not claim as for what it did assert.

Collins’s main premise is that not only is there no conflict between science and belief, but that, in fact, scientific discovery is itself testament to the greatness of God’s creation. As he so beautifully writes,

As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan . . . I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome.

This perspective is, in effect, a contemporized restatement of Mamonides’ famous declaration (Basic Principles of the Torah … Read More >>

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Frightening and Tragic Confirmation

In my previous Cross-Currents post I made reference to the frightening and tragic “culture of death” that has engulfed large parts of the Palestinian population. In the comments section, a number of contributors went back and forth about the accuracy and fairness of this description (starting with #4).

As I read some of these comments I must admit that I found it hard to believe that anyone, regardless of background or affiliation, could deny this reality. One would have to be either willfully blind or dishonest not to acknowledge what is patently obvious.

As I noted in the original piece, the examples of this phenomenon – especially when surveying the broader world of radical Islam – are in fact too numerous to catalogue. But I am particularly struck by the depraved attitude that many Palestinian and Arab parents have taken towards the welfare of their children. This was what I was alluding to in my reference to the story of Mariam Farhat.

Particularly relevant – albeit unsurprising – is the recent transcript from MEMRI of the interview on Al-Aqsa TV (the Hamas channel) of two small children of a suicide bomber. If this is what … Read More >>

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Why We Remember – The Contemporary Relevance of Parshas Zachor

The essay below is adapted from the drasha (semon) delivered last year on Shabbos Zachor (3-11-06) at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, MD.

A most fascinating news item was brought to my attention earlier this week: The Rev. Julie Nicholson, Vicar at a church in Bristol, England, resigned because of questions she has with her faith.

Tragically, the reverend’s twenty four year old daughter, Jenny, was murdered last July in the London suicide bombings.

How does that tragedy conflict with her faith?

It hasn’t caused her to question God but it has caused great theological tension.

“I rage that a human being could choose to take another human’s life,” she said. “Can I forgive them for what they did? No, I cannot.”

If this sounds like a perfectly natural and normal response, that’s because you are not Christian. The problem is that these feelings are utterly in conflict with the Christian obligation to forgive and turn the other cheek.

And Rev. Nicholson simply cannot do that.

On a human level, our heart goes out to Rev. Nicholson for her loss and current crisis of faith. To be “doubly hit” like this can only … Read More >>

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Societal Values

I read about the current “Oprah controversy” with a mixture of concern and curiosity.

For those who are not familiar with the story, the basic facts are as follows:

Oprah Winfrey has spent the last 5 years — and $40 million — building a school for elite 12-13 year old girls in South Africa. The academy is comprised of 28 buildings spread over 22 acres of land. Only 4% of the more than 3,500 girls who applied were accepted in the hope that this unique experience will enable the best and brightest of South Africa to one day become leaders and transform the country.

The largesse and vision of Ms. Winfrey is clearly worthy of admiration and yet, not all are happy. Apparently, some local leaders are upset that Ms. Winfrey chose to spend her money in South Africa and not here in America.

Responding to that criticism in a recent interview, she explained her decision: “I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn’t there. (Ital. added) If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some … Read More >>

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The Virtue of Struggle

There is something quite shocking about the Rev. Ted Haggard scandal.

But it’s not what you might think.

The allegations leveled against Rev. Haggard are obviously salacious, but in today’s world, unfortunately, they are not shocking. This wasn’t the first nor is it likely the last such scandal involving a religious leader.

Actually, what was really unprecedented was the tone and tenor of the reverend’s written apology. In an age when personal responsibility is usually eschewed for blaming others and claiming the mantle of victimhood (often to be followed by entry into some sort of rehab), a statement actually acknowledging mistakes and accepting culpability is nothing short of shocking.

In his letter – read to thousands and now heard by millions – Haggard declared matter-of-factly that, “I am a deceiver and a liar.” Furthermore, he stated that, “The fact is that I am guilty . . . and I take full responsibility for the entire problem.”

While there is probably nothing that can completely undo the great pain felt by Rev. Haggard’s multitudes of followers, this statement – especially if followed by meaningful repentance – has the potential to serve as a profoundly positive lesson in … Read More >>

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Mr. October

I had barely a passing interest in the World Series this year. That was not because I am indifferent to baseball but – primarily – because of the poor showing of my beloved Yankees. To recap: despite having the best players (for the most money) and despite having (tied for) the best regular season record, the Yankees were soundly defeated in the opening round of the playoffs.

Forced to confront another winter sans trophy, I was thinking about the main cause of the Yankees’ unceremonious exit which, actually, transcends sports and relates to almost every area of life – including the religious.

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball venerates those who perform at their best when the pressure is greatest and the stakes highest. Many players have made their reputation in October with postseason success, but perhaps none more dramatically than the Yankees (and the A’s – I must admit) Reggie Jackson. In fact, his heroics on the game’s most dramatic stage famously earned him the enduring nickname “Mr. October.” When the proverbial lights got brightest, Jackson’s eyes seemed to get wider, as he used the charged atmosphere to fuel his determination and success. Most players, however, … Read More >>

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Not My Bar Mitzvah Speech

I have long had mixed feelings about parshas Bereishis.

On the one hand, it’s my Bar Mitzvah parshah – and let’s just say that . . . there’s a reason I have lained only once since that fateful weekend.

On the other hand, despite those somewhat negative memories, the overwhelming importance and profundity of the creation story (as well as the narrative of Adam and Chava) always makes this an exhilarating text for study and reflection.

In that vein, allow me to share two thoughts from this past week’s parshah.

I.

The creation of Adam introduces us to the concept of “tzelem Elokim,” the image of God (1:26-27). This phrase, not previously mentioned regarding any of the other creations, obviously speaks to the uniqueness of human beings and what separates us from the rest of creation. But what does it mean? What is the “image of God” and what significance is there in being created “b’tzelem Elokim”?

These questions have, unsurprisingly, drawn the attention of our greatest thinkers and scholars. A number of suggestions are offered. For example:

R. Saadiah Gaon explains that this refers to our superior capacity to rule over the rest of creation. The Seforno points … Read More >>

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Not Always Divine

The horrific murder of five Amish schoolgirls and the response to those murders by the Amish community has attracted extensive news coverage and inspired much meaningful commentary. Perhaps the most thought provoking interchange centered on the limits — or, if there should be limits — of forgiveness.

The position of the Amish community has been simple — if extreme. Forgiveness — complete and without any strings attached — characterizes their attitude towards the murderer, Charles Carl Roberts IV. This approach has, in turn, inspired emotional and eloquent reactions in the media. Some columnists, such as Rod Dreher, have expressed admiration of the Amish, even going so far as to the lament their own inability to act similarly. Others, like John Podhoretz, have voiced discomfort with such quick and complete forgiveness.

I believe that the balance of Jewish tradition — as reflected by both law and philosophy — would indicate that declarations of forgiveness are premature and uncalled for. One can admire the emotional strength of the Amish while disagreeing with their philosophy and it is important to distinguish between noble intent and moral clarity.

Central to any discussion such as this must be the question of who is empowered … Read More >>

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