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 >>

Football Fever

In this season of playoffs and super bowl, the thoughts of red-blooded Americans center on the most vital topic of the day: football. Even if we normally consider less crucial matters such as relationship with others or with Gd, the media tells us what really matters: who defeated whom, with its heroes and winners. A look at some of the heroes:

— Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens running back, savagely battered his fiance in an elevator. Reinstated after a three- game suspension, he was given a standing ovation when he appeared on the field. (Had he fumbled a ball, of course, he would have been booed.)

— Adrian Peterson, mainstay of the Minnesota Vikings, was suspended for mercilessly beating his young child.

— Ray Lewis, former star of the Ravens, was exonerated from murder charges although the evidence clearly pointed to him as the murderer ( a la O.J. Simpson).

— Michael Vick, Atlanta Falcons quarterback commanding a long term contract for 90 million, was jailed for two years for killing dogs in a gambling operation.

— Alex Hernandez, former tight end for Boston Patriots, is in prison awaiting trial for premeditated murder.

— New Orleans Saints players were …

No Strings Attached

Flash! As a result of fearless and intelligent intelligence, your intrepid reporter has uncovered an authentically fictive memorandum from the inner sanctum and nerve center of Women of the Wall, presented here exclusively for the faithful readers of this column:

Top-Secret Memorandum to WoW:

We are winning the battle for the Wall, but we must not rest on our laurels. The next major battleground involves not merely our right to wear a Tallis at the Wall, but our right to wear a proper modern Tallis, one that is appropriate for the 21st century. And a modern Tallis is one without those strings — what the ultra-Orthodox call “tzitzis.”

This is a cause whose time has come. We must fight for the right to wear our own kind of Tallis, one that is stylish and fashionable — not the kind dictated by the ultras. No longer shall they decree what is, and what is not, acceptable prayer attire.

In addition, we demand custom made Tallises for every individual. We will no longer tolerate the current one-size-fits-all Tallis absurdity. Our feminine self- respect demands individualized Tallises.

Remember several crucial points:

During prayer at the Wall, be sure to hold … Read More >>

Counting Days and Making Them Count

Whenever the secular year closes and a new one begins, one of life’s simple chores is to change the pages of the desk calendar: out with the old, in with the new.

But that is not so simple. To anyone glancing at my desk calendar during this month, it is apparent that this is one chore I do not do well. Year in and year out, I find dozens of creative excuses to postpone this simple task as long as possible. Perhaps it is the reality of time marching ahead and leaving me behind; perhaps all those pages drifting forlornly into the wastebasket elicit the gnawing realization that in the past 12 months I could have accomplished much more. Whatever the reason, I delay, defer, put off, hang back, temporize. But here it is after Purim — time to bite the bullet.

My desk calendar, of course, contains not just one year, but 365 separate pages. A certain melancholy overcomes me as I discard each of those pages, for each one represents a separate entity. Some of them arouse happy memories: February 18, a bris milah. March 12, a bar mitzvah. June 22, a wedding. Throughout, reminders of birthdays … Read More >>

A Purim Papacy

After giving it serious and prayerful consideration, and despite the many urgings and importunings from my supporters around the world during this Purim season, I must regretfully announce that I am not a candidate to succeed the recently resigned Pope Benedict. Although I possess a large number of extra yarmulkes of all colors and shapes, including many red ones, I do not feel suited for this role – even though I must admit that people who know me best do find me rather infallible. There are several reasons for this decision:

The ceremony for choosing me would perforce include the traditional white smoke emanating from the Vatican chimney. The doctor has told me to avoid smoke at all costs. All my encyclicals are out of service. My last encyclical is missing one of its eight wheels, thus encumbering me with its slow pace. I tried bi-cycles and tri-cycles, on which I did fairly well, but when I climbed on to the traditional Vatican en-cyclical, I kept falling off — which is worse than falling from grace, and quite demeaning for the papacy, especially with those long robes. As for those long white robes, they would all need to be … Read More >>

An Olympic-Size Embarrassment

“Israel’s Olympic Shame.” So read the heading of an article by an Israeli columnist. My heart sank, fearful that some terrible scandal involving Israeli Olympic athletes had surfaced. What could it be? Attempted bribery of officials? Use of illegal enhancement drugs? Blatantly immoral behavior?

Answer: None of the above. The great shame was that the Israeli Olympic athletes were coming home without winning a single medal — not a gold, not a silver, not a bronze. Intoned the writer: “Israel must get serious about its sports program, or we will continue to be embarrassed in the international arena.” He called for a government investigation. Personally, however, I breathed a great sigh of relief that the headline was simply another ludicrous manifestation of the secular Israeli ideal: to fulfill Imitatio Goyi — imitation of the West.

It’s not that I don’t like sports. I do, have participated in them in the past, and though I am not a fanatic (long term for “fan”), es chata’ai ani mazkir hayom (Bereishis 36:9). I confess that I am still interested in my home town teams. But one has to put things into their proper niche. It is nice when your home team wins, … Read More >>

Aristotle, Shakespeare, and the Siyum HaShas

Do Greeks in the thousands gather early every morning to study the works of Plato and Aristotle? How many Britons study Shakespeare or John Milton every single day? Last month’s Siyum HaShas before 93,000 daf yomi supporters in MetLife Stadium demonstrated once again that we are a singular people. Several landmarks were reached.

1)   It elevated the stature of Torah and Talmud. Millions now realize that Am Yisrael is truly Am HaSefer, and that our devotion to Torah learning is the real secret of our existence.

2)   Ninety-three thousand Jews davened Minchah and Maariv together, recited Shema Yisrael together, and danced together in celebration of Talmud — 70 years after the Holocaust. Only a fool could have imagined this in 1945.

3)   It affected millions of non-Orthodox Jews, who surely looked on with awe at what they once considered a dying breed of fanatic, benighted Jews who were out of tune with modern life. It made them think twice about who they themselves are and where they are going — and that maybe the Orthodox have a point.

4)   It projected Orthodox Judaism as a powerful and dynamic force.

But transcending the impressive number of participants , this represents … Read More >>

“Ethicists” Without Ethics: The Collapse of the Moral High Ground

If you are disturbed by the rapid progress of the homosexual lobby – with even Pres. Obama favoring same-sex marriages – let me tell you: you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

A recent article in the British Journal of Medical Ethics suggests that it should be permissible to kill newborn babies – because they do not have the status of full human beings. Here are their actual words, couched in opaque academese: “After-birth abortions (i.e., killing new-born babies: EF) are matters of moral indifference because newborns, like fetuses, do not have the same moral status as actual persons; and the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant.” Therefore, killing them “should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is permissible, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.” (Note the sanctimonious use of the term “moral” by these people who claim to inhabit the moral high ground of society, but who in the name of morality would justify infanticide.)

Here is revealed, in all it obtuseness and perversity, the moral blindness of the pro-abortion mind-set. Having established that a fetus has no right to life and that pre-birth abortions are permissible, they are now going … Read More >>

Open Mouths and Open Mikes

The power of human speech made the headlines once again this month — even before the WikiLeak shocks had worn off — with two gaffes by prominent American politicians. One of Mitt Romney’s top campaign strategists was asked if Romney would not be permanently locked into certain positions because of his primary promises. He replied with the unfortunate “Etch-a Sketch” analogy: You shake the picture a bit and start from the beginning. Which of course led the anti-Romneys to charge that this proves that Romney has no convictions and no principles. He is just a politician who blows with the wind — or the granules of the “sketch.”

A few days later, talking into a microphone he did not know was open, President Obama is heard assuring Russian President Medvedev that after his election he will have more flexibility in the area of missile negotiations. Which of course led the anti-Obamas to charge that Obama was more than willing to give in to Russian demands, but can only afford to do so after he is reelected, not now. (This followed an earlier embarrassing open-mike nasty putdown of Binyamin Netanyahu by both Obama and President Sarkozy of France.)

The ensuing …

America’s Top Fifty Rabbis

If you ever wondered how to judge the success of a rabbi, you know how complex the matter can be. What are the criteria, the measuring rods, by which a rabbi is judged?

But fret no longer: Newsweek magazine on April 2 solved the problem by publishing its annual list of “America’s top 50 rabbis.” What yardstick was used is not made clear. Was it Torah learning? Apparently that was not a factor, since among the jurors there seems to be no one who could measure Torah learning. Was it the ability to uplift and inspire a community to return to Torah learning and living? That, too, was evidently not an issue, since among the jurors there was no one who could appreciate that quality. The magazine’s press release does mention “impact” as a criterion, but it is not clear how “impact” was weighed. Was it the size of the rabbi’s institution, or the amount of publicity he received? Or was it the rabbi’s popularity, which was gained by never taking a stand on anything not previously approved by the NY Times editorial pages? Rabbinic popularity, after all, is not difficult to attain: never push congregants to live … Read More >>

The Super Bowl Maariv

On the morning of the recent Super Bowl football game, a shul in New Jersey sent out this e-mail to its membership:

There will be a minyan for Maariv at __________ Synagogue (name deliberately omitted) at ten minutes after the beginning of the Super Bowl halftime.

How should one react to this? One could be benevolent , in the spirit of the Berditchever Rebbe who, paraphrasing himself, might have said: “O L-rd, how wondrous is Thy people. Even in the midst of the Super Bowl, they think of Thee!”

Or one could be severe and paraphrase Isaiah 1:12: “Mi bikesh zos miyedchem — who asks this of you, saith the Lo-d, to trample on My holy ground and daven with trivialities in your heart!”

Or one could simply laugh, in the spirit of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “L-rd, what fools these mortals be.”

This is one multiple choice where one could choose all three and still not be entirely wrong.

To be benevolent: This is a praiseworthy attempt to assure a minyan for Maariv. The membership is watching the football game (together with 111 million other people) and unless an accommodation is made, there will be no … Read More >>

Unplug Yourself

Could it be that the venerable New York Times actually imitates Mishpacha magazine? Could they possibly be taking their ideas from the Orthodox and using them as their own? Highly unlikely, but the facts are curious.

Exhibit A: My December 2011 Mishpacha column dealt with the stranglehold of modern technology on our modern necks. We have no time to be alone with ourselves, I wrote: iPads, iPhones, iTablets, and iApps leave us no time for the only “I” that really matters.

Exhibit B: Four weeks later, the Jan 1, 2012, New York Times featured a column by famous British travel writer Pico Iyer, entitled “The Joys of Quiet.” Iyer extols the virtues of letting go of our modern technological baggage and returning to the peace and quiet of being utterly alone with ourselves. Sound familiar?

Let’s give the Times the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps this was merely a coincidence. In any case, the Times column is fascinating, as Iyer describes a $2,285.00 per night hotel perched atop the Big Sur cliffs in California, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Part of its amenities: there are no TVs in the rooms. People come there for the stillness and the quiet. The … Read More >>

Yearnings of the Holy Hedonists

If winter comes, is Pesach far behind? The frost chills us, but the Pesach hotels set out the lures. From the ads, one gathers that it is the “truly frum” who are the targeted clientele. Some of the attractions include (a composite from various ads): special Shabbos key locks and Shabbos elevator; shmurah matzoh; 100 percent non-gebrochts; chalav Yisrael; chassidishe shechitah; and daf yomi. It’s a true smorgasbord of piety for Jews who are dedicated to uncompromising service of G-d, who reverently observe the minutiae of the Shulchan Aruch and maintain every halachic stringency. For such folks, those hotels provide a Pesach that is a foretaste of Olam HaBa.

But something perplexes. There is a second clientele being addressed by the same hotels for the same Pesach. For these guests — Orthodox but apparently not as frum as the first group — the very same hotels offer a pinch of Olam HaBa but generous portions of Olam HaZeh. Pesach laws will be kept, of course, but some of the attractions for the Not-As-Frum crowd include gourmet cuisine by famous imported chefs; Olympic outdoor pools; covered indoor pools; Jacuzzis; saunas; fully equipped fitness rooms; wi-fi throughout; vast selection of wines; … Read More >>

The Volume That Speaks Volumes

What could be the connection between intensified Israeli media incitement against haredim and the appearance of a new Yom-tov prayerbook designed exclusively for Israeli Jews? On the surface, none. But let’s glance beneath the surface.

Media incitement against haredim is old hat, an automatic Pavlovian reaction against their favorite bête noir. Were there no haredim, they would have to be invented for the benefit of the secular elites and their servile media. Whipping boys are hard to find.

Recently, however, the incitement has become unusually shrill. Granted, haredi society is far from perfect, and the behavior of some of its adherents far from exemplary. But even though one expects higher standards from those who defend Torah values, the fact is that whenever a haredi commits a wrong that would normally be reported on the page 15, the anti-religious media, religiously faithful to the tradition of yellow journalism, pounce on it and create a media circus: screaming headlines, attack columns, admonishing editorials.

Certainly the ugly behavior of some haredi hooligans, such as those in Beit Shemesh, are abhorrent. They bring shame to the name of Gd, Torah, and Orthodox Jewry, trampling upon the pleasant dracheha darchei noam face of Torah. … Read More >>

The Alcohol Libel: an Intercepted Letter to Kiddush Clubs

O would some Power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us. — Robert Burns, Scotland (1759-1796)

News item: Certain Scotch distilleries have initiated divestment boycotts of Israel. In reaction to this, many Jewish groups worldwide have protested vigorously. The angriest protests came from Kiddush Clubs across North America.

The following letter from the Scotch distilleries, in response to the Kiddush Clubs, was intercepted by MI6.2, the Elders of Zion branch of England’s MI6 intelligence agency.

TO: Kiddush Clubs of America FROM: Scotch whiskey distilleries SUBJECT: Boycotts

We have your letter protesting our contemplated boycott of Israel. You write that synagogue Kiddush Clubs across America purchase thousands of bottles of Scotch during the course of a year, but that henceforth these Clubs will boycott our products.

We are respectfully considering your letter, but being unfamiliar with Kiddush Clubs, we are curious about their role in Jewish worship.

We have discovered that the word kiddush in Hebrew is connected with “sacred.” We have also discovered cognate words like kaddish, kadosh, and kedusha, which have some connection with sanctity. However, the term “Kiddush Club” does not appear in our Biblical lexicons. Even the theologians we consulted are … Read More >>

Conversions of Convenience, or Conversions of Commitment?

Lost in all the incendiary rhetoric are some basic facts about the conversion procedures of most US Reform and Conservative rabbis. … Read More >>

Haiti and the Mind of G-d

I am not able to worship a G-d Whose ways are all crystal clear to me – attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859)

The ways of G-d are hidden and mysterious; they have never been crystal clear to man. Only a finite and mortal god can be fully known and understood by finite and mortal man. But who will worship a mortal god? By the same token, only an infinite and immortal mind can fathom the infinite and immortal G-d. But who among us has an infinite and immortal mind?

Given these obvious facts, it is difficult for a mortal mind to fathom the ease and eagerness with which other mortal minds presume to reveal divine secrets. For whenever some major catastrophe strikes, there are always those who leap forward with reasons and explanations. Whether it be a bridge collapse, a massive air disaster or a plague, inevitably a religious leader stands up and tells the world precisely why this happened.

Tsunamis, we are informed, strike certain countries because they disregard G-d; floods inundate populous areas because they are flooded with vice; hurricanes devastate cities because of overweening pride. It is as if every catastrophe were to have … Read More >>

Real Money

The late senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois once famously said to Lyndon Johnson about the national debt: “A few billion here, a few billion there and before you know it, you’re talking real money…” The world economic meltdown is painful, but there is one silver lining: At least we are now talking real money. We no longer deal with mere millions. Billions are the currency of the hour.

Ah, Madoff, ah, Ponzi! They have shown us what real money is. But let us not exaggerate: The Madoff billion dollar losses are only cumulative. After all, individual investors lost mere millions.

For example, Long Island Jewish Health Systems lost almost $6m. But not to worry, they tell us, because this was “less than 1 percent of our portfolio.” Not a bad portfolio, one that exceeds the real money threshold. Yeshiva University lost $110m. This is not that serious, it says, “because it is only 8% of our endowment total, and our work will not be affected.” The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles lost $18m. and the Technion, Bar-Ilan University, Hebrew University and Hadassah all lost heavy millions, but they all assure us that – even though they will never … Read More >>

Spiritual Fast Food

Were it not so sad, the image of the pop singer teaching Kabbala to the Yankee third baseman could be a comic invention – the once-impregnable fortress of Kabbala overrun by fools and miscreants. The unkindest cut of all is that the headlines link Kabbala with two individuals who are not even Jewish and certainly have no Judaic learning whatsoever, who cannot read or understand a Hebrew word, who cannot even pronounce the word “Kabbala” correctly, who know nothing of its provenance, and whose closest encounter with things Jewish is the corner deli. … Read More >>

How to reply when the doorbell rings

Many years ago, while a rabbi in Atlanta, I answered a knock on my door one Shabbat afternoon. Standing in front of me was a fine-looking couple – obviously non-Jewish.

“Shabbat Shalom, rabbi,” they said, and asked to have a word with me.

I sensed that they were missionaries and asked them what the subject was. They replied that they wanted to talk to me about the “Son of God.”

I suggested that while I respected their personal beliefs, in Judaism there is no such thing as a son or mother of God, that ours is a very strict monotheistic faith, and that our God is one, not two, and not three. I added that before attempting to convert Jews, they should consider converting Christians to Christian teachings, because throughout history, Jews had seen very little of Christian love and of turning the other cheek.

End of conversation.

WELL, AT least they were honest. Today, missionaries are much more subtle.

For one thing, they often pose as Jews themselves. And, most significantly, they do not initially ask Jews to accept Jesus as the son of God, nor mention that in Christianity, Jesus is worshipped as a divine being.

Contemporary …

The Power of Temptation

The news these days is not at all new. It centers on man’s eternal struggle with temptation, and his occasional spectacular failings – as exemplified by ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York.

The Talmudic sages in Succa 52a describe temptation as yetzer hara or the Evil Inclination. They suggest that to the righteous, who appreciate the seriousness of sin, temptation seems as mighty as a mountain, and therefore they struggle to overcome it. To the wicked, who discount the effects of sin, it seems as thin as a thread which can be easily overcome.

The point is that no one – not even the righteous – is free from temptation. This is what the Torah means in Genesis 7:21: “The inclination of man is evil from his youth.” This is a warning shot, at the very beginning of history, across the bow of mankind: Watch yourself; be ever mindful of your negative tendencies to cheat, steal, hurt, to be corrupt, to engage in immoral behavior. The temptation to do wrong is built in to every human being. It is a powerful force, and no one is immune from it. And our task as human beings is to be … Read More >>

As Pure as the Driven Snow

There is nothing like an early morning snow. The brown winter earth is covered by a stunning white tablecloth – pure, clean, and unsullied.

As the day goes on, the snow becomes victim to reality; people have to walk upon it, and drive through it, and before very long its pristine whiteness begins to fade and to turn into gray and brown.

By nightfall, the pure countenance of the morning has been transformed into slush and mud.

Before going to sleep we glance out the window for one last look at the darkened snow. Perhaps it will snow again overnight; perhaps in the morning we will once again be greeted by another blanket of purity and pristine whiteness.

Is there any way to maintain the bright whiteness of a morning snow, any way to keep it from being violated by our human footsteps? Only by constructing a fence around an area of snow, to keep out all human traffic, can this be done. But even as we construct that fence, we know in our heart of hearts that it is inevitable that snow is impermanent. Soon enough – even fenced in – it will shrink, melt and disappear.

Only …

Atonement Monopoly

At first I thought it was a joke. A Jerusalem shopping mall recently issued a glossy magazine supplement featuring its latest glitzy fashions. In the centerfold, in honor of Yom Kippur, was a Hebrew-language article entitled, “How to make it through the fast day.” Among the suggestions were the usual pre-Yom Kippur precautions: lots of water, no caffeine, many carbohydrates, and so forth.

What struck me was a sub-section called “Additional Tips for an Easy Fast.”(Free Hebrew lesson: the word for “tips” is tippim.)

It is possible, it informed us, to have a pleasant Yom Kippur even without eating. Among the best ways to take your mind off food is to watch some video, play enjoyable games like Monopoly, do some light reading, and meet with friends and family. It goes without saying that no mention is made of such hoary ideas as repentance, prayer, charity, heavenly ledgers of life and death – or, God forbid, God.

MY INITIAL reaction was one of deep mortification. If they don’t want to observe Yom Kippur, that is their choice. But why refrain from food and yet desecrate the day at the same time? Does God really desire this kind of fasting? … Read More >>

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

If a Jewish Rip Van Winkle (Rip van Finkle?) were to awaken today and read the papers, he would wonder if he had ever really been asleep. Names that were in the headlines when he dozed off years ago — Peres, Olmert, Barak — are still in the headlines. Despite their many errors and miscalculations, they remain in power. Nothing has changed.

Not so in other countries. In England, politicians who make serious mistakes resign from office. In the US, if the mistake is really bad, they apologize and go into re-hab. In Japan, they commit harakiri.

We are not advocating the Japanese way of expressing regret, but the British have a long history of parliamentary government, and their example should be of some guidance. If you fail in government, you resign and go home. But when Israeli politicians fail, they blame not themselves but everyone else around them, and — unfailingly — they manage to cling to office. Ours is a tradition of non-accountability. Our leaders never admit mistakes. They never apologize.

Instead, they run for office again, get elected again, or get appointed to high office. Being an Israeli politician means never having to say you’re sorry.

…

The Road from Euphoria

Mired as we are in the depths of a national funk of disillusion, it is difficult to imagine the ecstasy and euphoria that swept across Israel exactly 40 years ago in the afterglow of the Six Day War. My wife and I plus four small children were living in Israel during that time, and we remember it vividly.

During May, 1967, the noose inexorably tightened around Israel’s neck. Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, UN troops were expelled from Suez, Nasser of Egypt, together with Jordan, Syria, the Saudis and Iraq, were all threatening to throw Israelis into the sea. There were daily call-ups of troops and reservists, the streets were empty of able-bodied men, and a palpable sense of anxiety and tension enveloped the country.

One morning, as we sent our children off to school, we confided our fears to a neighbor: “What if there is bombing while they’re in school?”

“Not to worry,” came the not reassuring reply, “They have excellent air raid shelters at school.”

And when the Torah portion for Shabbat, June 2 – Leviticus 22 – spoke both of living in peace in the Land and of being expelled from the Land, we were … Read More >>