Does Anyone See a Pattern Here?

About the hostility of the Obama administration to Israel there is no longer room for honest doubt. A few weeks back, President Obama commiserated “privately” (albeit via an open mike) with French President Sarkozy about the tribulations of dealing with a “liar” like Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama one-upped Sarkozy with the plaint, “I have to deal with him every day.” And over the last two weeks, senior administration officials have been taking their own private musings public.

Most significantly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed the idea that the instability confronting Israel on every border makes it impossible for Israel to contemplate further territorial concessions at present. The time is always right for Israeli withdrawals, Panetta implied, urging Israel “to get back to the _____ bargaining table.” In the same speech, Panetta did everything possible to assure the Iranian leadership that the United States will never employ military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Next up, Howard Gutman, U.S. ambassador to Belgium and a major Obama fundraiser, insisted that one must distinguish between historical anti-Semitism (bad) and the hatred of Israel shared by Muslims around the globe (fully understandable.)

Finally, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton got into the act. In a private gathering at the Saban Center, she worried aloud about the anti-democratic trends in Israeli society and the increasing segregation of Israeli women, which, she said, put her in mind of Iran.

NO LESS ALARMING THAN THE hostility towards Israel that underlies these remarks was the ignorance and stupidity exposed. The Obama administration came into power firmly in the so-called “realist” camp of foreign policy of whom some of the leading avatars are Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zgbiniew Brzezenski, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. (The latter two are the authors of the infamous The Israel Lobby.) Chief among the fixed verities of the “realist” school is that Israel lies at the heart of most of the world’s problems, and certainly those of the Middle East, and that America’s interests lie in drawing closer to the Muslim world.

No amount of empirical observance, it would seem, could ever force a reexamination of that axiom. For if there is one thing that Arab Spring — whose initial promise (for some) has now given way to a dark Arab Winter — demonstrates it is that the deformities and backwardness of the Muslim Middle East have nothing to do with Israel. That backwardness pervaded the Middle East before Israel came into being, and would continue to plague the Middle East if Israel were to disappear tomorrow. The overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and the threatened end of the forty plus year rule of the Assads in Syria has nothing to do with Israel. The uprisings in each of those countries revealed the extent of the internal grievances of subject Muslim populations and the magnitude of the fissures in Arab society.

Continue reading → Does Anyone See a Pattern Here?

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Why We Weep for Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l

On Rachel Imeinu’s yahrtzeit, as I prepared to leave for the levaya (funeral) of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, I received a call from a reporter from Sydney. She wanted to discuss the antics of the zealots in Ramat Beit Shemesh. The next day Sky News called to discuss sexually segregated buses.

I told both reporters the same thing: Stop wasting your time on fringe groups and trivial issues. If you want to understand the chareidi community, first find out why over a 100,000 people attended the funeral of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, with tens of thousands of adults sobbing openly and unashamedly. To understand a person or a community, observe what he or they honor: “[A] person [reveals himself] according to what he praises” (Proverbs 26:21).

Who was the remarkable man whose passing inspired such grief?

When Rabbi Finkel took over the reins of Mirrer Yeshiva from his father-in-law, Rabbi Beinish Finkel, zt”l, in 1990, he had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Many wondered how he could carry the burden of a yeshiva that numbered well over 1,000 married and unmarried students. Yet under his leadership the yeshiva expanded rapidly. New buildings were built; another branch was … Read More >>

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The Legacy of Alter Chanoch Jeger, a”h

Two months ago, I spent Shabbos with my friend Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsburg and his family in Cedarhurst. We were joined by the Ginzburgs’ daughter Ilana and son-in-law Yudi Jeger, and their children Alter Hanoch Henoch, 2 1/2, and Shua, ten months.

I had previously read about Alter Hanoch in a powerful article by his grandfather entitled, “It’s not supposed to be like this,” written in response to requests addressed to Rabbi Ginzburg for help in understanding horrible tragedies, especially those involving children. The power of the piece derives from Rabbi Ginzburg’s revelation in the last paragraph that he is writing while sitting in the intensive care unit by the bed of his infant grandson Alter Hanoch, who contracted meningitis within twenty-four hours of birth and has no hope of developing normally.

During my Shabbos in Cedarhurst, Alter Hanoch was attached to an elaborate machine, which rang intermittently. I did not see him open his eyes once. Yudi and Ilana went about attending to Alter Hanoch in a totally matter-of-fact fashion, without any sense of being burdened and no trace of a feeling that they had been dealt the short stick in life. Just a normal kollel couple: he … Read More >>

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Responsibility not Chesed

Chesed is never quite disinterested. Even the tahara (purification) of a deceased person, chesed shel emes done without any expectation of reciprocity, provides the one performing the mitzvah with a feeling of satisfaction. Part of that satisfaction lies in the feeling that doing chesed is in the category of eino mitzuveh v’osei – ­one who performs without being commanded — and that one has therefore gone beyond the call of duty.

Obviously, a person who takes great pleasure in doing chesed for others is at a very high level. But there is nevertheless a danger that one will desist when the chesed is difficult or other pleasures beckon. An even higher level is when one acts on behalf of others out of a sense of obligation. Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky gives a moshol to capture the distinction. If one lends someone money, he has done an act of chesed. But if one becomes a guarantor for a loan, and subsequently has to repay the loan, that repayment is not an act of chesed, it is obligatory.

That distinction lies at the heart of the Torah’s comparison of Noach and Avraham. Rashi, at the beginning of parashas Noach, goes to great … Read More >>

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The Bubbe of Klal Yisrael

There are certain events of such impact on Klal Yisrael, that it is impossible not to comment, even if the writer fears he has nothing to add. The passing of Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, zt”l, over Chol HaMoed Sukkos, was such an event.

Rebbetzin Kanievsky was the bubbe of Klal Yisrael. Just like a grandmother finds it almost impossible to resist the entreaties of her grandchildren, so Rebbetzin Kanievsky made herself available to any woman in pain who sought her assistance, whether in the form of advice, a berachah, or just words of encouragement. She was the first port of call for almost every religious woman facing difficulties, and for many not-yet-observant women as well.

My friend Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman of Passaic, New Jersey captured a poignant moment from one of his visits to the Kanievsky home. Rabbi Eisenmann was ushered in one night while the Rebbetzin and her husband the venerable sage Rav Chaim Kanievsky, l’badeil l’chaim tovim v’aruchim, were sitting alone at the dining room table.

In front of the Rebbetzin were piles and piles of small pieces of paper on which supplicants had written their requests for Divine intervention. On at least one of the small … Read More >>

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Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

The Jerusalem Post’s November 1 editorial “In Praise of Liberal Arts” lamented the ever dwindling percentage of Israeli students opting for first degrees in the humanities. In 1999, 18.5% of students were registered for courses in the humanities. Today that figure is 7.5%.

Part of the reason, argues the editorial, is that after three years in the army, Israeli students are far more likely than their American or European peers to prefer a “no-nonsense” course of study leading directly to employment after graduation. Put in terms of a choice between a no-nonsense course of study and what — the study of nonsense? – perhaps we should rejoice in the declining number of humanities students.

One of the prime complaints of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their various imitators around the United States is that they have been robbed: They have gone deeply indebt for their college educations – about $28,000 for the average private school graduate – and have little to show for it in terms of marketable skills. That claim, at least, is largely correct. Listening to the OWS protesters (or for that matter those on Rothschild) define what they mean by “social justice” or defend that concept provides a rough idea of how badly they have been served by their undergraduate educations.

A study of 2,300 American university graduates of two dozen universities, by New York University’s Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa, found that more than one-third of seniors leave campus, after four years, having shown no improvement in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, or written communication. And the worst of all are those in so-called practical majors, like business, communications, and education.

The expense of an American college education has risen nearly four and a half times over the last 25 years, and it is beginning to look like as big a bubble as the American housing market prior to 2008. “Students who say that college has not prepared them for the real world are largely right,” says Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

At least they are right insofar as students not pursuing a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) curriculum go. STEM graduates earn roughly 50% more than their non-STEM counterparts, and the worldwide demand for their services is continually growing, despite the downturn in employment. STEM graduates, unlike their non-STEM contemporaries, can be assumed to have actually mastered a concrete body of knowledge in subjects that have right and wrong answers.

So if Israeli students are pursuing a rigorous STEM curriculum, rather than studies in the humanities, I would not view that as a matter of grave national concern. (The continuing dismal scores on international math exams of Israeli teenagers casts some doubt on this, however.) Rosenblum’s Rule posits that the future health and dynamism of a society can largely be predicted by the ratio of engineers to lawyers. When too many of society’s best minds are attracted to largely non-productive occupations like law or legalized gambling with billions of dollars of other people’s money on Wall Street, decline is sure to follow. Apparently President Obama agrees: He has called on America’s universities to graduate 10,000 more engineers a year and 100,000 more teachers with strong competencies in STEM subjects.

LET ME BE CLEAR, I was the beneficiary of an outstanding liberal arts education. My undergraduate alma mater, the University of Chicago, gave birth to the original Great Books curriculum, and it was one of the few elite colleges in my day to still take a Common Core of required courses seriously. Without the education I received there — in particular my freshman humanities professor, who once told me that there were only two students in our class who wrote well and I wasn’t one of them — my life would be much poorer.

Continue reading → Talmud Study and the Liberal Arts

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The Ugly Side of Idealism

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, P.J. O’Rourke described the mass murder as “an act of idealism.” Not idealism as we colloquially use the term to refer to the ability to place other values over one’s immediate self-interest, but rather “the concept that mankind and society could and should be perfected.” That vision of a perfected society causes O’Rourke’s idealists to ignore the human costs of the coercion required to create their ideal society.

The 9/11 hijackers were driven by an older theological vision of a world-wide caliphate under the harmonious rule of Sharia. But most modern idealists derive their inspiration from the Enlightenment view that unfettered human knowledge is capable of determining, according to O’Rourke, “exactly what humans and their politics and their economics and even their home lives should look like.” Popular historian Paul Johnson, for instance, places the blame for most of the atrocities of the last two centuries on the doorstep of Jean-Jacques Rousseau for teaching that man is naturally good so, naturally, it’s good to force him to be so.

The utopian hope of societal perfection and the desirability of bringing that society into existence holds special allure for intellectuals, for who else is … Read More >>

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Rewriting the Past

Bar Ilan University Milton scholar William Kolbrener has a profound meditation on Yom Kippur and teshuva (repentance) in his new collection of essays, Open Minded Torah. He begins by noting a profound distinction between the Jewish and Christian view of repentance. In the latter view, man’s innate depravity is too great to be overcome by his own actions. Only the intervention of an intermediary, in the form of Jesus, can “expiate,” in Milton’s words, man’s “Treason.”

In the Jewish view, the possibility of teshuva was implanted in the Creation even before the beginning of time, for without the possibility of teshuva mankind could not exist. But man is not the passive recipient of a Divine dispensation. He is the key actor in the teshuva process. That is nicely captured in Rabbi Akiva’s image of G-d as the Mikve (purifying waters) in which the penitent Israel immerses. G-d creates the conditions that make purification of sins possible, but it is man who is the active agent and must immerse himself.

Rosh Hashanah brings us back to the beginning of human history – to the Divine breath, the nishmat chayim (breath of life) that Hashem blew into Adam’s nostrils. The blasts … Read More >>

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Who Will Live?

Shortly after the end of World War II, a modern-looking young man, sporting a large chup, was brought to the Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, in one of the displaced persons camps. “I heard that before the war you were the top bochur in the Munkacs Yeshiva,” the Rebbe said to him. “What happened to you?”

“I saw that the best were burned, and only the p’soles (chaff) remained,” the former yeshiva bochur replied.

“You are so right,” the Rebbe answered him. “The best were burned and only the p’soles remained.” Then the Rebbe, who had himself lost his wife and eleven children during the war, burst out crying. The two remained there a half an hour or more sobbing together.

Later, the young man returned to full religious observance. Of his return, he said, “Had the Rebbe given me one word of tochachah (reproof), I would have walked out and never returned. But he just cried with me.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that phrase – “the best were burned and only the p’soles remained.” As a statement of fact, there are, of course, thousands of counterexamples – great tzaddikim, like the Klausenberger Rebbe himself, who survived all … Read More >>

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A Daily Dose of Kindness

On August 9, 2001, a suicide bomber detonated himself in the Sbarro Pizza parlor in downtown Jerusalem, killing or wounding over 100. Among those killed was Shoshana Greenbaum, a religious school teacher from Los Angeles, in her early 30s, who was expecting her first child. (She was also her parents’ only child.) Her husband, Shmuel, who was not with her that day, describes himself as going from the being the happiest man in the world, married to the most wonderful woman, to the loneliest.

To maintain his sanity, Shmuel dedicated himself to promoting acts of kindness, large and small, and sending out A Daily Dose of Kindness emails detailing such acts to a list that eventually grew to two million. (A collection of A Daily Dose of Kindness dealing only with examples in Israel is available through the Partners in Kindness website.) To the question he is frequently asked – How can you continue to believe in Hashem after what happened to you? – Shmuel always offers the same answer: “After reading about acts of kindness and G-dliness every day and doing acts of kindness myself, how can I not believe in G-d?”

Out of his unbearable tragedy, … Read More >>

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On Turning Sixty

The sixtieth birthday is a big one Jews for it means that one has avoided at least one of the definitions of karet ­­– premature death. And with it one is officially welcomed into the ranks of zikna, old age (Avos 5:25), however unworthy one may feel of admission just yet.

At fifty, I joked that I was now too old to die young. Now, I’m even too old for a mid-life crisis.

I can’t say that I feel old. But I’m acutely aware that no one looks at me anymore in terms of potential. If one’s company goes bust or law firm closes its doors, new employers will not likely rush to hire someone of sixty, certainly not at previous levels of remuneration. But at least for now, I’m still more worried about finding the time to complete current projects than about not having any more projects

Other than finding it hard to believe that a decade has passed since I wrote “On Turning Fifty” – the passage of time seems to accelerate sharply with advancing years – my chief feeling on this latest milestone is gratitude. One of the greatest political put-downs I ever heard was former … Read More >>

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There Must be a Reasonable Explanation

The Zionist Organization of America issued a press release last week noting some curious omissions from the Obama administration’s communications. Candidate Obama omitted any Israeli city from an enumeration of cities victimized by terrorism in his much touted Berlin speech as a candidate in 2008. (Amman did make it so it cannot be that candidate Obama had placed an embargo on mention of the Middle East.) Perhaps he shrewdly estimated that his European audience would likely be more sympathetic to the perpetrators than the victims of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.

And recently, the administration’s talking points on the upcoming tenth anniversary of 9/11 did not recall any Israeli city when praising the resilience of “individuals, families and communities… whether in New York or Nairobi, Bali or Belfast, Mumbai or Manila, or Lahore or London.” I guess they could not think of another city whose name begins with the same first letter as Sderot or Jerusalem.

Something other than stylistic considerations, however, must explain President Obama’s failure to mention Israel in remarks praising all those nations that contributed to relief efforts in the wake of the January 10, 2010 Haitian earthquake. Though Israel was the first nation on … Read More >>

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Mayor Abutbol – Say No to Extremism

In September 1998, a two-room school opened up in Tzoran, a residential community of 1,500 young families, nestled among the agricultural settlements east of Netanya, for 25 six and seven-year-olds. When they arrived at school that first day, the young children were confronted by a chanting mob of 60 adults, some of whom had tied attack dogs to the school gates. Despite the heat, the principal had no choice but to close the windows, as curses and stones rained down on the school.

The same scene was repeated every morning for the first months of the schools existence, and the school was defaced and repeatedly vandalized over the course of the year. The purpose of the demonstrators was to terrorize little children by forcing them to run a daily gauntlet of verbal abuse and physical menace.

The confrontation in Tzoran was not widely reported in the Israeli press, certainly not compared to the efforts by a group of religious extremists to prevent the opening of a national religious girls in Beit Shemesh last week, on a plot long designated for the school and lying adjacent to both haredi and national religious neighborhoods.

But Tzoran has a lot to do … Read More >>

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No One Wants to Wash the Dishes

“Everybody wants social justice, but no one wants to help Mom with the dishes,” writes University of Haifa economics professor Steven Plaut of Israel’s current social protests. I suppose he is saying that left-wing politics do not a better person make. Indeed they often serve as a salve for a guilty conscience: Witness President Obama’s 2008 fundraising triumphs among rapacious Wall Street executives. The great thing about bumper stickers like, “Save the whales” or “Justice for Palestine” is that they proclaim one’s moral grandeur, without demanding anything of the owner of the car.

Many years ago, my Dad, a”h, taught me this lesson. During my senior year in high school, I organized a large fundraising campaign for starving Biafrans (the proceeds of which I promptly gave away to a con woman from the South Side of Chicago.) One Sunday during that campaign, I mentioned to my father that I had been late for a class at our synagogue that morning. He was pouring batter into the waffle iron at the time, and without even looking up, he said, “You are so busy saving the world, but you can’t show someone the common courtesy of getting to his class on … Read More >>

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Reading the Riots Act

Riots that started in London’s Hackney neighborhood last week spread quickly across London and to other large British cities, as rioters saw policemen standing back as they looted and burned.

Meanwhile, in major American cities – Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee — a new phenomenon is surfacing – “flash mobs” of black teenagers, utilizing social media to organize (like the London rioters) – who suddenly appear to terrorize whites or loot stores. The Chicago police had to close the city’s most crowded beach, on a holiday weekend, because they could not ensure the safety of bathers.

Max Hastings describes how British welfare policies have created a “layer of young people with no skills, education, values, or aspirations. They have no ‘life’, as we know it; they simply exist.” In particular, they lack the most basic moral sentiment of empathy – for example, for the hardworking immigrant storeowners whose stores they scorched. “We want to show the rich people that we can do whatever we want,” two young female rioters told a London reporter.

Theodore Darlrymple, who knows the British underclass well from his work as a prison psychiatrist, describes young people who have never tasted a morsel of food or worn … Read More >>

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Sign of the Times

The New York Times descent into pure advocacy journalism continues apace. Increasingly, the news stories in the once respected Grey Lady serve only to set up the talking points for the paper’s editorial page.

Reporter Scott Shane’s July 24 news story, “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.,” provides a case in point. The only spotlight is one of Shane’s own imagining. He describes Robert Spencer, who was cited 64 times in Anders Behring Breivik’s 1500-page manifesto, as having been put on the “defensive” by Breivik’s murderous rampage. Yet he does not quote one statement from Spencer or anyone else sounding the slightest bit defensive. Nor does he argue that Breivik’s actions somehow demonstrate that the warnings are overblown or based on incorrect facts — i.e., that those quoted have anything about which to be defensive.

Shane cites unnamed “critics” who supposedly used the Norwegian tragedy to demonstrate the manner in which “the intense spotlight on the threat of attacks from Islamic militants has unfairly vilified Muslim Americans, while dangerously playing down the threats of attacks from other domestic radicals.” Yet he offers not one shred of evidence about the comparative threat. As for the impact of the … Read More >>

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Can We Talk Honestly?

A few months back, a group of national religious rebbetzins set off one of those two-day media storms for which Israel is famous when they issued a public call for Jewish girls not to socialize with Arabs. Charges of racism immediately poured down on their head. (The issue has come to the fore once more with allegations that at least one store in a national chain forced Arab workers to sign an agreement not to fraternize with female Jewish employees.)

That earlier storm was not without heavy doses of hypocrisy. Some of the Arab spokesmen who denounced rebbetzins’ letter as proof of the endemic racism of Israeli society would kill their own daughters if they were dating a Jew.

The rebbetzins were not addressing themselves to women working in hi-tech and suggesting that they should refuse to work on projects together with an Arab graduate of the Technion or avoid normal collegial relations with Arab co-workers. They were talking about teenage Jewish girls, often very young teenagers, becoming “involved” with Arab men. How many Jewish Israelis, if they are being honest with themselves, would really feel indifferent to their own daughter’s involvement in such a relationship? If she were 12?

By now, we have all seen enough videos of Jewish women rescued by Yad L’Achim from Arab villages — some even from the Gaza Strip — to know that the story can turn out very badly. Some of us have even visited hostels for the women thus rescued and their children and heard their stories. I spent the afternoon of the 17th of Tammuz watching videos of Jewish girls describing their relationships with Arab men at the offices of the Learn and Live organization, a fitting way to spend the fast.

When they were dating, their Arab boyfriends could not shower them with enough gifts, could not stop telling them how much they loved them. Once married, they find themselves imprisoned, cut off from their families, watched constantly by their husbands and his family members, who threaten them – quite credibly – that they will kill them if they try to escape. Often they are treated as little more than chattel.

They are viewed as slatterns by the women of the village, and their children are never allowed to forget their Jewish origins. Often those children become the most vehement Jew haters, as a means of overcoming the stigma of their origins. When fighting breaks out between Israel and the Palestinians, the women may be beaten by their husbands, even attacked with an axe, as scapegoats for the Jewish people.

WE ARE NOT TALKING about a small phenomenon. The Ministry of Interior estimates that there are between 10,000-20,000 children of Jewish mothers and Arab fathers in Israel. And that number does not include those living in the Gaza Strip or the Palestinian Authority, and may not include those whose mothers converted to Islam when they married. (When the women convert, their chances of keeping their children, even if they manage to escape, are reduced because all divorce proceedings are governed by Islamic law.) A recent Jerusalem Post article on the situation in Jerusalem’s Pisgat Zev neighborhood spoke of sixty Jewish girls who have disappeared into Arab villages over the last ten years, most never to be heard from again.

And the problem is growing. Continue reading → Can We Talk Honestly?

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Another Take on Baseless Hatred

As we contemplate our role in rebuilding the Beis HaMikdash, in this period of mourning for its loss, we each have to come to grips with sinas chinam (literally, free hatred), which Chazal identify as the cause of that destruction. Most frequently, the term is defined as “causeless hatred,” which has always left me somewhat puzzled because very few people will ever admit to hating someone for no reason at all. No doubt the host who hated Bar Kamtza could have offered a long list of reasons justifying his hatred.

Rene Levy, a religious professor emeritus of neuropharmacology at the University of Washington, offers another possible explanation in Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do About It (Gefen Publishing House). In his description, sinas chinam is that part of the strong negative feelings we might have about another Jew that is excessive.

We hold our anger too long; we do not take the steps recommended by the Torah to deal with our hatred, for instance, by airing our grievance with the one who has angered us; we spread hatred among Jews through our gossip about the object of our hatred; or we fail to balance our … Read More >>

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Dr. Middos is Not Just for Kids

Rabbi Chaim Vital asks a fascinating question: Why does the Torah not specifically command us to avoid negative middos like anger or to develop those associated with the talmidim of Avraham Avinu (Avos 5:19) – a good eye, humble spirit, and restrained soul? He answers that these middos precede the Torah itself, for without them one cannot truly be an acceptor of the Torah.

The above-cited Mishnah in Avos states that the distinction between those who enjoy the fruits of this world and inherit the world to come depends on whether they are the students of Avraham Avinu or Bilaam. And that depends on the possession of the three middos enumerated in the Mishnah. In other words, even one who is meticulous in the observance of every mitzvah in the Torah, will inherit Gehinnom and descend into a pit of destruction if he is lacking the three qualities mentioned, for he has not truly accepted the Torah.

Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary to Avos describes the three positive middos mentioned in the Mishnah as the essence of all good middos. Their presence makes possible the interrelatedness of all beings in the world in the way that Hashem intended; and … Read More >>

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New Poll Reveals What Everyone Knows, or Should Know

An important new poll of Palestinian opinion was released last week to minimum fanfare. The poll confirmed what no one wants to hear: the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza is far from being ready to accept Israel’s existence or to conclude a peace treaty based on two states for two peoples.

Nearly two-thirds (66%) of the Palestinians polled said that a two-state solution should at most be an interim stage on the path to a unitary Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The poll showed an almost total absence of ability to empathize in any way with Israelis. Ninety-two percent of the Palestinians, for instance, said that Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state only. When asked whether they agreed with the famous hadith attributed to Mohammed and cited in the Hamas Charter, that at the end of time, even inanimate trees and rocks will call out, “There is a Jew hiding behind me. Come and kill him,” 73% answered in the affirmative. In other findings, 72% denied any Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem; 62% supported the kidnapping and holding hostage of Gilad Shalit and other Jewish soldiers; and 53% … Read More >>

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Canadian Jews Change Course

Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party massive victory in the recent Canadian elections and the virtual disappearance of the Liberal Party, which has dominated Canadian politics for seventy years, was accompanied by sea change in Canadian Jewish voting patterns. That change already began between 2006 and 2008. In the handful of ridings in the country in which Jews are a substantial minority, the shift from the Liberal Party to the Conservative in those years was six to twelve times that of the national average.

The most recent election witnessed the first Jew ever elected to Parliament as a Conservative MP. Liberal MP Ken Dryden, a Canadian icon as goalie of the Stanley Cup winning Montreal Canadians (and a strong supporter of Israel) went down to defeat in a riding with a significant Jewish minority. Even Irwin Cotler, a former attorney general and one of Israel’s most articulate defenders in the international arena, barely squeezed back into office. He was first elected in 1999 with 91% of the vote. An internationally renowned human rights attorney, Cotler found himself accused of being soft on Israel because he attended the first Durban Conference, where he had gone to combat – unsuccessfully — the hijacking … Read More >>

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No Winners in the Torat Hamelech Controversy

About twenty years ago, I publicly debated a rabbi associated with the circles around Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center, on the topic “Vengeance – Divine or Human?” As the debate went on, I found myself increasingly shocked by his willingness to rely on quotations pulled from the aggadata sections of the Torah to reach legal conclusions, which, if implemented, would have immense implications for Jews around the world, and his confidence that we live in an era in which Jews can say and do whatever they want in the Land of Israel without fear of how those words and actions will be received by the gentile world.

I have not read Torat Hamelech, and cannot comment on its contents. But Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, the most prominent living halachic decisor, has condemned the work on for reasons similar to those that shocked me in that long ago debate – it places Jews around the world in danger. And Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, the son-in-law of the late halachic giant Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, withdrew his letter of approbation from the book because of “certain conclusions that are not halachically correct” and others that defy … Read More >>

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Finding a Mussar Mentor

Recently, I rejoined a morning shiur that I had attended for many years. The primary attraction was that the shiur had just started Mesillas Yesharim [Path of the Just] for the mussar [ethics] segment. Though I have learned Mesillas Yesharim (or at least the opening chapters) many times, the chance to learn it with this particular maggid shiur was irresistible, for he is a walking Mesillas Yesharim.

I have not been disappointed. His inferences from a close reading of every word (after all, the Vilna Gaon famously said that there is not an extra word in the first eleven chapters), his palpable excitement in sharing the insights of the Ramchal, and the model that he provides of what a Torah Jew can aspire to be leave me feeling genuinely uplifted at the beginning of each day.

The shiur got me thinking. I am nearly sixty years old. I was privileged to spend many years in yeshivah and kollel, and through my biographies and other work I have spent much time with great Torah scholars, both living and no longer living. And yet this twenty minutes of mussar every morning with a rebbi who has perfected his middos to an … Read More >>

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J Street’s Interesting Friends

One of the first pieces of advice given to investigative journalists is: Follow the money trail. That dossier has now been prepared for J Street, which bills itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization.

For years J Street denied any connection to billionaire financier George Soros, whose contempt for Israel has never been disguised, only to eventually admit that Soros and family were its principal early backers. Soros, it turns out, is but the best known of J Street’s interesting friends. Another is Genevieve Lynch, a director of NIAC (National Iranian-American Council), whose D.C. lobbying efforts dovetail neatly with those of the Iranian government. She has given over $10,000 per year to J Street and sits on its finance committee. Another repeated contributor is Turkish-American businessman Mehmet Celeb, the producer of the Turkish film Valley of the Wolves, described by the Wall Street Journal as a cross between American Psycho in uniform and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

A 2010 J Street visit to Israel was partially sponsored by Churches for Peace in the Middle East, a group supportive of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. J Street maintains close ties with the Arab-American Institute, whose president … Read More >>

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Why Bother Debating?

Two weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion for a group of post-university students from the U.S. and Canada who are contemplating aliyah. The topic was “State and Religion in Israel,” and the panel included an activist from the Reform movement and a Modern Orthodox educator.

I returned home after two and a half hours completely drenched, wondering why I had gone and whether anything positive could possibly come from such a debate.

I doubt most readers can even imagine the chasm between traditionally Orthodox and secular North American Jews. We barely have a common language or any shared assumptions. For us, “Who is a Jew” is determined by very specific halachic criteria, and the question of “What are the obligations of a Jew?” can only be answered by recourse to the Written and Oral Torah.

For them, a Jew is anyone with Jewish blood who “feels Jewish,” and the concept of obligations is foreign. Instead they prefer such vagaries as “raising a Jewish family” or “living Jewishly,” defined by each individual Jew for him or herself. For reasons that I will not detail, I have never felt so intensely the truth of the Chazon … Read More >>

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