For What Was the Land Lost?

“Al ma avdah et ha’aretz – For what was the Land lost?” our Sages asked in the wake of the destruction of the Temple.

To that question, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes, the historians had easy answers. The destructions of both Temples were hardly miraculous. Just the opposite: they followed THE normal rules of history. “How could tiny Judea have avoided falling prey to the rising Assyrian and Babylonian imperial powers! How could the insignificant power of Judea mount resistance to the mighty Roman legions!”

And the historians are right, Rabbi Hirsch pointed out. But they misunderstood the question that our Sages were asking. The surprise lay not in the defeats at the hands of the Babylonians and later the Romans. Rather the miracle was the “political existence of Judea for more than a thousand years, an existence for which every natural prerequisite was absent.” At the most vital crossroads of the ancient world, coveted by every major empire, how had the Jews maintained some level of independence for a millennium?

So the question our Sages asked was really: What happened to cause the miraculous Power to forsake Israel? Why did the same Power “Whose eagles’ wings alone raised … Read More >>

A Very Bad Deal: Let Us Count the Ways

Upon the signing of an Agreed Framework with North Korea in 1994, President Bill Clinton addressed the American people and assured them, “This is a good deal for the United States.” He explained that “North Korea [would] freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program” and that “U.S. and international inspectors will carefully monitor to make sure it keeps its commitments.”

Well, we know how well that worked out. Eight years later, North Korea kicked out international inspectors, and in 2006, it tested its first nuclear weapon underground. Wendy Sherman, the State Department policy coordinator for North Korea at the time of the signing of the Agreed Framework, just happens to have been the lead U.S. negotiator in nuclear talks with Iran since late 2013.

But it would be a mistake to make too much of the North Koran precedent. The Iranian deal that the U.S. is poised to sign, as I write, is worse, much worse, in every way than that with North Korea. North Korea at least had to kick out inspectors to go nuclear. The P5+1 agreement with Iran now on the table is so porous that inspections would be nearly useless. After first insisting that inspections … Read More >>

A Model Shul

Last week was spent in Toronto, where most of my davening was in Congregation Shomrai Shabbos. One instantly notices that a great deal of thought went into the design of the shul, with an eye to maximizing Torah learning. Whenever there is a minyan in one of the large rooms in the morning, there are at least three other rooms available for chavrusos and chaburos, each beautifully designed to foster harchavas hadaas. There are chaburos and chavrusos throughout the shul both early and late.

But what strikes me most about the shul is not just the amount of Torah learning, but the closeness of the members to one another and their allegiance to the rav, Rabbi Yacov Shalom Felder. Shomrai Shabbos is a chevra of Jews who have joined together with other aspiring bnei aliyah to strengthen one another in the growth process. And in Rabbi Felder they have a rav focused on building a community and on the ruchniyos growth of each member, despite the heavy demands on his time as vice-chairman of the Rabbinical Vaad HaKashrus of Toronto. His success is reflected in the wide diversity of the community in terms of backgrounds, hashkafah, and dress – … Read More >>

The Basis of Our Mesorah: Parents Worthy of Trust

I mention my morning shiur fairly frequently in these pages, partly to indicate how important such a shiur with a rav whom each person in the shiur looks up to as a walking Mesilas Yesharim can be for a pashute baalebos, like myself. Though by far the bulk of the shiur is taken up with Gemara learning, I often feel the fifteen minutes of mussar/hashkafa at the beginning are the most important for me at this stage in my life. In recent years, we have finished the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Mishlei (twice), Mesilas Yesharim (twice), and most of Nefesh HaChaim (so perhaps I should be careful about writing that the mussar seder has the largest impact).

Recently, we began the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem. In the first chapter, in which the Ramchal specifies what we can know about Hashem, he mentions that all these matters can be derived logically, but that he prefers to rely on the mesorah for his presentation. Elaborating on this comment, the rav made reference to the famous Ramban at the end of parashas Bo, which we have studied together many times.

The Ramban writes that Hashem does not perform open miracles in every generation, … Read More >>

Israel Led the Way — Sadly

The United States today is in almost every respect a more unpleasant country than the one I left over 35 years ago – less optimistic, less confident, and more bitterly divided. For the first time in American history, parents no longer contemplate a brighter future for their children than for themselves.

There are no doubt many reasons and many culprits. But I would place the political Left pretty close to the top of the list. The Left’s denigration of American military strength and its leadership role in a unipolar world after 1989 and the denial of American exceptionalism – i.e., the United States’ unique history as a nation not based on blood and soil, but on allegiance to a particular system of government in the form of the Constitution – have come at the expense of national pride.

Finally, the Left’s ruthless will to power, with scant regard for the rules of the game or the levelness of the playing field, has made American politics far more divisive than I remember. In 2012, President Obama pursued a campaign strategy of stitching together a slim majority based on a variety of identity issues, such as the trumped up “Republican war … Read More >>

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. … Read More >>

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 …

Respect for the Dignity of Others

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 … Read More >>

RFRA Battles and Us

The controversy surrounding the passage by the Indiana legislature of a RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) should be a great concern to all Torah Jews. Agudath Israel of America played a major role in the passage of a federal RFRA statute in 1993. That legislation gained unanimous passage in the House and the support of 97 senators in the Senate, before being signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Since then 20 states have passed their own RFRA statutes, and another 11 have judicially extended similar protections under their state constitutions. Yet suddenly RFRA statutes are culturally anathema.

The federal RRFA statute came in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the so-called peyote case. Smith effectively reversed Sherbert v. Verner (1963) and its progeny. In the latter case, the Supreme Court ruled that South Carolina could not deny unemployment benefits to a woman whose religious beliefs prevented her from being “available to work” on Saturday. Justice Brennan, one of the Court’s leading liberal lights, enunciated a two-part test for state infringements on the exercise of religion: (1) the state would have to enunciate a “compelling state interest” for the infringement and (2) demonstrate … Read More >>

Gil Tal Obligates All of Us

“Hillel will obligate the poor [to learn Torah]; Rabbi Elazar ben Charsum obligates the rich; and Yosef the evil ones” (Yoma 35b). After Rabbi Elazar ben Charsum, whose father left him one thousand cities and one thousand ships at sea, and nevertheless sat and learned day and night, no one will be able to say that they were so occupied managing their property that they had no time to learn. And after Hillel, no one will be able to say they were too poor to learn. And after Yosef, no one will be able to say they were too beautiful to resist all the blandishments placed before him.

Gil Tal, profiled in a recent issue of HaModia’s Inyan Magazine by Rhona Lewis, will obligate all the rest of us. Tal lives on a non-religious moshav near Nahariya, apparently never learned in a yeshiva at any level, and has a job as a manager in a high-tech company in Yokneam, which keeps him away from home eleven hours a day. Yet within less than five years of picking up masechta Berachos, he has finished Shas with the ArtScroll Schottenstein Gemara.

Tal relates that prior to a recent visit to New … Read More >>

Je Suis Juif

Here’s a piece of rare double good news from Gaza. First, the Egyptian army is in the process of razing Rafah, the Egyptian border town,that borders Gaza, in order to create a security zone around the Gaza Strip. The Egyptians seek to prevent the smuggling of arms and terrorists between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai, where a number of deadly attacks have recently been launched at the Egyptian military. Over two thousand families have been displaced by the Egyptian action, though Egypt has promised to rebuild shelter for them elsewhere.

The second piece of good news is that few readers have likely heard of Rafah’s fate. Had Israel conducted the same operation, as has often been proposed and rejected, the hue and cry around the world would have been deafening. But since Egypt is doing the razing no one cares apart from the displaced families. Similarly, Israel is always described as maintaining an embargo on the Gaza Strip, which is both untrue and impossible. Israel controls only one point of entry to Gaza; the Egyptians control the other. And under Gen. Al-Sisi, Egypt has been every bit as zealous about regulating the flow of potential military material into … Read More >>

On Never Having to Mention Islam

The Obama administration responded characteristically to the savage terrorist attack by gunmen shouting “Al-lahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Press secretary Josh Earnest made the rounds of TV talk shows to repeat that “Islam is a religion of peace,” and to warn that the attack was still under investigation, and therefore it is “not clear who was responsible and what their motivations were.” If he really didn’t know their motivations, he was surely the last person on the planet in that position.

Secretary of State Kerry spoke of “extremists,” without mentioning what they represented the extreme version of, and insisted that the West does not face a war of civilizations – not with Islam or even a version of Islam.

No matter how many times the authors of savage deeds of barbarism proclaim that they are acting in the name of Al-lah, the “prophet,” or the “holy Koran;” no matter how many imams praise their actions and rejoice in their upholding the honor of Islam; no matter how many times they announce that their goal is imposition of sharia, Muslim religious law, on the entire world; no matter how many … Read More >>

We Owe an Answer

President Reuven Rivlin made an important speech opening a conference on chareidi employment sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee two weeks ago. He began by pointing out that the 20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks.

The chareidim are no longer a beleaguered minority, their very survival at stake, said the President, but this fact has not yet registered either with the chareidi community or its opponents. We have gone too long without “changing the tape,” as if nothing has changed from the early days of the state, said Rivlin. What is needed now, he argued, is a partnership of equals between chareidim and non-chareidim.

Much of what President Rivlin had to say will be music to chareidi ears. He strongly criticized the 19th Knesset for the discussion of chareidim. He pointed out that efforts at coercion had backfired miserably and only succeeded in triggering a backlash resulting in fewer chareidim in the IDF and lessened chareidi involvement in the economy. “When one group feels that their world and cultural existence is under threat, it will not lead to a breakthrough in the relations, but a withdrawal. I … Read More >>

Another Nail in the Coffin

The Conservative Movement has been hemorrhaging for a quarter century. In the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the movement constituted 37.8% of American Jewry. That percentage was less than half in the 2013 Pew Study – 18%. The only growing segment of the non-Orthodox world are those who describe themselves as unaffiliated or having no religion.

The Conservative Movement always proclaimed itself a halachic movement. But that pretense has long since proven unsustainable. Marshall Sklare’s definitive study of the movement’s apparent flourishing in the ’50s and ’60s, already hinted at the seeds of its own destruction. Rabbis, wrote Sklare, enter into an unwritten compact with their congregations to never discuss halacha. And to the extent that halacha is discussed, it is in terms of polling the unlearned laity for their opinions.

In a December, 2005 address to 700 Conservative clergy and educators, the movement’s leading theologian, Neil Gilman, said that it was dishonest for Conservative movement to continue to describe itself as halachic. At most, halacha is to be consulted in light of “changing social and cultural norms.”

Last week, the movement took another step towards oblivion when United Synagogue Youth, its teenage division, voted to drop its previous … Read More >>

Remaining Bnei Torah after Kollel

Few issues are of greater significance for the future of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael than the status of those young (and not so young) men in transition between kollel and either the workplace or academic/vocational training in preparation for work. The numbers of such men increases from year to year..

The primary impetus for leaving kollel is economic, Low child benefits by Western standards, small kollel stipends, increased tuitions, skyrocketing housing prices for young couples, and the exhaustion of any accumulated wealth from previous generations combine to put most chareidi families under great financial strain, even when the mother works.

Yet even for a family struggling to put food on the table, the decision to leave kollel is often an extremely painful one. First and foremost, there is the dramatically reduced time for Torah learning. Then there is the loss of one’s carefully nurtured identity as a kollel yungerman. A man’s status in the eyes of his wife, his children, his wider family, and the community of Torah learners with which he identifies comes under threat.

There will inevitably be those who try to convince the former yungerman that his departure from kollel is a form of … Read More >>

Change in Order to Preserve

“Shev v’al ta’aseh adif — [In a case of doubt] remaining stationary is preferable,” is a familiar Talmudic principle. But we learn in this week’s parashah Vayeishev that there are times in life where the inertia principle does not apply.

After all the travails of Lavan and Esav and Dina, Yaakov Avinu sought nothing more than a little peace and quiet, But, as Rashi, explains peace and quiet are not the natural state of a tzaddik in this world. And so Hashem immediately brought Yaakov’s most difficult test – the disappearance of his beloved son Yosef for 22 years.

For the tzaddik, the natural state is one of continual striving. There is no possibility of remaining stationary. If one is not ascending on the spiritual ladder, one is descending – just like the angels in Yaakov’s dream. In the tzaddik’s world – the world of ruchnios – there is no standing still.

At the communal level too, it is often impossible to remain standing or to continue to operate according to old battle plans. Often times, just to preserve what has been gained, it is necessary to change the course of action that made possible those gains in the … Read More >>

What Can We Do for Them?

I suspect that most of us if asked, “What can we do for those murdered in Kehillat Bnei Torah?” would be hard pressed to answer. We might mention contributing to the families of those slain, but for the pure korbonos themselves, we would be stumped. After all, they are already in the Olam HaEmes far beyond our reach. If pressed, we might come up with learning mishnayos or some other good deed l’ilui nishmasam (for the elevation of their souls), but nothing more than we might do for anyone who passed away.

These various responses, however, fail to take account of the sudden, shocking manner of their deaths, and the worldwide attention that they garnered, first and foremost among Torah observant Jews. In a hesped for Rabbi Moshe Twersky, H”yd, at the end of shiva, his brother Rabbi Meir Twersky distinguished between different forms of dying al Kiddush Hashem. In some cases, an otherwise ordinary and incomplete life might be somehow redeemed by the manner of its ending. But with respect to his brother, he said, the death al Kiddush Hashem, was the natural culmination or fulfillment of a life lived al Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Moshe Twersky himself seems …

Race Relations Regress under Obama

Television networks broadcasting President Obama’s brief speech last week about events in Ferguson, Missouri employed a split screen to juxtapose the president to rioters in Ferguson. At one level, that juxtaposition unfairly highlighted the president’s impotence.

But at another level, it captured one of the many disappointments of Obama’s presidency. Much of the euphoria that greeted the election of the first black president – Obama’s approval ratings were well above 70% at the outset of his presidency – lay in the hope that the United States could finally place the legacy of slavery and racism behind it. Yet race relations have taken a turn for the worst since he came into office.

Slate writer Jacob Weisberg wrote in February 2008 that only if Barack Obama were elected president would children in America be able to “grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives.” Well, America elected Obama, with the largest percentage of white votes of any Democratic candidate in forty years. But black children are more likely today to think of prejudice as a factor in their lives than they were six years ago.

The unknown state legislator who first came to national prominence with a … Read More >>

Terror Comes to Our Door

Pesukei d’zimra are not yet over, and I’m crying. Without my even realizing it, the tears have been welling up in my eyes and now they are coming down my cheeks. My first reaction is embarrassment. My second is to try to figure out exactly what I’m crying about. I wish I were crying for the ten Jews already known dead [it will later turn out to be 18], for ten Jews who went from life to death in less time than it takes to blow out a match. That, at least, would be a madrega.

But I’m not crying for them – at least I’m not crying for them alone. I’m crying for myself, for the knowledge that I will never again feel safe here, that I will never again be able to send my children on a bus or to school or Machane Yehudah without going through a hundred calculations first. (“Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” Jewish Observer, April 1996.)

Those words were written in the aftermath of the second straight early Sunday morning suicide bombing on Jerusalem’s No. 18 bus in Adar 5756 (February 1996). But I was wrong. I had underestimated the human power of forgetting. Eventually, … Read More >>

Judgment Rendered

For the second time in less than three years, a Jerusalem District Court has found novelist Naomi Ragen guilty of plagiarizing a chareidi authoress. In a decision issued last Wednesday, Judge Oded Shacham wrote that the similarities between Chapter 24 in Ragen’s book The Sacrifice of Tamar and the story “A Shidduch from Heaven,” by Sudy Rosengarten, an octogenarian, Bnei Brak great-grandmother, were of such a magnitude that they could not possibly have resulted from unconscious borrowings or have been a matter of coincidence.

Only deliberate copying could possibly explain the identity of structure and the central plot device between the two works, particularly as Ragen admitted that she had read Mrs. Rosengarten’s work, Judge Shacham found. Such details as differed between the two works, he concluded, were either designed to camouflage the copying or necessitated by Ragen’s need to integrate the chapter into a larger work of fiction.

Particularly egregious, in Judge’s Shacham’s opinion, was Ragen’s transplanting of Sudy Rosengarten’s story, drawing on the story of her own son’s shidduch, into “a book that is foreign to views of Mrs. Rosengarten as a charedi woman.”

In an interview of Israel’s Channel Two nightly news, Rosengarten expressed her pain … Read More >>

Peres’s Folly

Uri Savir, co-founder of the Peres Center for Peace and the closest confidant of Shimon Peres, related the following incident in a recent encomium to the former president of Israel. “I once asked [Peres] if after thousands of hours of negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, he understood Palestinians better. He replied, ‘No, I understand human beings better.’”

For Savir, of course, that quote represents further proof of Peres’s deep insight. In fact, it is a classic example of one of the most pernicious fallacies of our times: The belief that culture and religion mean nothing, and that just under the skin all people are basically all alike.

Peres’s Oslo adventure crashed on the shoals of that fantasy. He imagined a New Middle East in which peace between Israel and her neighbors would be cemented by flourishing trade and the rapid economic advance of the Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states. Thus in the heady early days of Oslo, Peres headed a large delegation to an economic delegation to a conference in Casablanca. His intent was to demonstrate the creativity and reach of Israeli industry and the potential for a win-win situation with Arab partners.

He had no clue of …

Kiruv Goes On: the Models Change

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler in his justly famous essay on Sukkos (“Bitul HaYesh”) brings a Midrash that compares our entry into the sukkah to a mini-galus. The Midrash explains why the mitzvah of sukkah follows Yom Kippur: Perhaps the Jewish people have been decreed for galus, exile, (or an extension of the current galus). And if so, perhaps HaKadosh Baruch Hu will accept our leaving our fixed abode to live in the sukkah for seven days in lieu of a full-scale exile.

Thus sukkah is, at some level, an antidote for exile. Rabbi Dessler explains how. Our current galus came about for the sin of sinas chinam, senseless hatred. From a materialistic perspective, which views the world as a limited pie, anyone else’s gain of a larger piece inevitably comes at everyone else’s expense. The primarily relationship between people is as competitors.

Leaving behind the security of our normal dwelling for an insecure, temporary dwelling, forces us to give up some of our reliance on the material and place our trust in Hashem. That move from a material to a spiritual perspective in turn allows us to see our fellow Jews as joined to us in a common spiritual … Read More >>

Viewing One Another with a Favorable Eye

Just before Rosh Hashanah, Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Yaakov Naftali Fraenkel, one the three murdered yeshiva students, issued a video message through to the entire Jewish people. She recounted very briefly the torture of the18 days of searching for her son and Eyal Yifrach and Gil-ad Shaer: The parents knew almost from the beginning that their sons had almost certainly been murdered, and yet they maintained stoic countenances, filled with faith, throughout. Their nobility awed the entire nation.

Her message, however, was not about what the parents suffered or about the irreparable hole in their hearts. Rather she focused on those “amazing hours” of which it was said, “We went out searching for the boys and we discovered ourselves.” She likened those days to a flash of lightning on a dark and gloomy night that illuminates the way forward: “We had days and days of lightning. . . . [W]e saw about ourselves that we are part of something huge, a people, a true family. That’s for real.”

Mrs. Fraenkel knows that it is not all kumbaya moments ahead of us, and that we will return to old patterns – indeed we already have. Yet, she insists, … Read More >>

School News

The same week that Mishpacha published a panel discussion with four Orthodox members of public school boards (“In the Hot Seat”), Tablet Magazine carried a 15-page article (“The Blame Game”) by Batya Ungar-Sargon on the communal tensions arising from the election of a majority chareidi school board in the East Ramapo School District, which covers Monsey and Spring Valley. The Tablet piece fully confirmed, and even supplemented, the Mishpacha panel’s presentation of their interest in serving all segments of the larger community, not just the Orthodox population.

In an interview, Ungar-Sargon described the standard portrayal of the controversies in East Ramapo: Chassidim take over public school board in order to siphon off public monies from disadvantaged kids to pay for the schooling of their own special needs children. The New York Times, for instance, accused “[a]n Orthodox-dominated board of ensuring “that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars.” And Bloomberg News quoted accusations that the board was “siphoning public funds for private schools.”

Admittedly, the visuals were terrible: The election of a majority Orthodox board in 2005 was followed in 2009 by dramatic cuts in the public school services, including the firing of teachers, with … Read More >>

A Connection to Torah for All

Too many of our contemporary yeshiva high schools are seeking only the Eisavs among the applicants, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg quotes a prominent rosh yeshiva as saying in his essay in the current issue of Klal Perspectives on High School Boys Chinuch. The rosh yeshiva meant that the high school yeshivos are seeking only those who are fully formed – asui, like Eisav – in both their intellectual abilities and their dedication to Gemara learning.

Rabbi Goldberg suggests that the source of that attitude may lie in a distortion of the widely quoted rabbinic dictum “a thousand enter and one goes out to hora’a.” Yeshivos vie to produce “the one who goes out to hora’a,“ and the status of a yeshiva is determined by the quality of its most accomplished graduates in Gemara learning. Parents go along by seeking entrance to the “best” yeshivos for their sons. The race to produce “the one,” and the competition to be the yeshiva for “only the best boys” yeshiva it leads to, can have several adverse consequences.

(I should emphasize that I am speaking theoretically. Rabbi Goldberg was writing in the American context, and I am in no position to evaluate … Read More >>