Da’as Torah and the Holocaust

The idea that we have 20/20 hindsight is, in actuality, simply a myth. If hundreds of thousands had fled Europe, sacrificing their dedication to HaShem and His Torah, how do we know history would otherwise have stayed equal? … 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 >>

Supreme Court Vs. Supreme Being

Some thoughts of mine about the recent Supreme Court decision redefining marriage are posted here.

Gay Marriage Decision Interview

I was interviewed by phone on a Jewish cable television program last week about the recent US Supreme Court gay marriage decision. The interview, along with one of a Conservative movement representative, can be heard here.

Say It Isn’t So, Rabbi Shafran

Rabbi Shafran is someone I have admired for decades. His witty, moving, and inspirational biography of the journey of a Jewish convert, Migrant Soul, emerged when I was still a yeshiva student, and when he became Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel, I knew the organization was in good hands, and it has been so. I agree with what he writes most of the time, certainly on issues affecting the charedi community.

One of the few things I can neither agree with — nor even comprehend — is Rabbi Shafran’s service to the Obama Administration as its chief charedi apologist. Time and again, his arguments in this one area seem, to me, to stretch the limits of credulity in search of a way to show that Obama is actually much more pro-Israel, pro-religion, and/or simply pro-common-sense than he so consistently appears to be.

This week has proven no exception, and it is, for me, a bridge too far. As many have already pointed out, Michael Oren is brilliant, dedicated, loves both Israel and the United States, is an historian with an impeccable record of attention to detail, and, finally, is no “Ally” of Netanyahu — on … Read More >>

Let’s Not Cry Anti-Semitism

The trail of anti-Semitism is long and bloody; irrational hatred towards the Jewish people permeated Europe, Asia and North Africa back through ancient times. Nonetheless, one should not be overly hasty to fall back upon ancient biases in the modern era.

It does not make sense to resort to charges of anti-Semitism in response to positions and activities against the Jewish state, when there are other reasonable explanations that justify the same positions. Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and the recent Flotilla trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza, assert that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns for the residents of the Gaza Strip, rather than animus towards Jews or Israel. These motivations include:

The needs of the Gaza population. The lead ship of the flotilla, the Marianne of Gothenberg, carried solar panels and medical equipment as demonstrations of this concern.* The blockade’s violation of the human rights of Gaza residents, and violation of international law The deprivation of “security of food supplies, medical care, education, drinkable water and cultural exchange” (from the website shiptogaza.se). And more fundamentally, the rights of an indigenous population to a homeland – meaning that Israel must end its occupation.

The … Read More >>

In Judaism, Love Doesn’t Always Win

In their rejoicing over the recent Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, various Jewish groups grievously misrepresented Judaism. An essay of mine about the Jewish religious tradition’s true take on homosexuality and the formalization of same-sex unions appears in Haaretz, at

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.663962

You may have to register to access the piece (registration is free). But the paper does not permit me to post the piece here.

I have some further thoughts about the recent decision, and hope to share them here soon.

Agudath Israel Statement on Supreme Court marriage ruling

June 26, 2015

Agudath Israel of America issued the following statement in reaction to today’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that states are constitutionally required to permit and recognize marriages between members of the same gender:

“As we have repeatedly stated, including in the amicus curiae brief we submitted in today’s case, we oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family. The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, it is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage is not a positive step for civilized society.

“Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, as a result of today’s ruling, and as the dissenting Justices have pointed out, members and institutions of traditional communities like the Orthodox Jewish community we represent may incur moral opprobrium and risk tangible negative consequence if they refuse to transgress their beliefs, and even if they simply teach and express their religious views publicly. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

“We reiterate that we remain … Read More >>

47 Homicides and Counting

Why are so many young black men being murdered in Baltimore, after Freddie Gray? It’s what happens when police know they might be arrested for doing their job. … Read More >>

Knowing Half the Story

The video is horrifying. A bus driver, with just a few kids left on his route, stops at the side of the road. He throws a kid’s bag out the door onto the grass, and orders the kid off — and drives away, with other kids screaming how he can’t leave a child blocks away from home, or simply sobbing in distress.

Unsurprisingly, the school district demanded the driver be fired for this horrific act of cruelty.

Then the bus company released video of its own, showing the lead-up to this incident. Not only was one kid kicking and punching another, but a second, burly eighth-grader used his hockey bag to strike the driver while the bus was on the road. He had jeopardized the life of the driver and every student on that bus. Afterwards, the first kid, who had directed his fists towards another student, kept up a running diatribe against the driver for another mile or so — at which point the driver had had enough, and threw the kid and his bag off the bus.

As predictably as was its first reaction, the school district changed its tune. It apologized to the bus … Read More >>

The Need for RFRA

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

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

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

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

And today we read of a criminal investigation of two ministers operating a for-profit wedding chapel, because they can only consecrate the … Read More >>

Baltimore Take-Aways

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

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

The Detention of Freddie Gray was Reasonable and Appropriate

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

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

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

Shooting From The Heart

Although blacks constitute approximately 13% of the American population, the FBI reported in 2013 that 38.5% of people arrested for violent crimes were African-Americans.

Statistics like that one, coupled with a largely unsavory urban black culture (not to mention what passes in some circles for black leadership), predisposes many of us to assume the worst about all blacks – or, at very least, to be sympathetic to law enforcement officers in their dealings with black suspects.

And, as a result, many white Americans tend to be wary of claims that black Americans are unfairly singled out by police for arrest, mistreated and even killed without justification.

So when, in 2013, George Zimmerman, a volunteer with a local “Neighborhood Watch” in Sanford, Florida, was acquitted by a jury of shooting to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth whom Mr. Zimmerman was following (against orders from a dispatcher to not do so) and with whom he got into an altercation, many of us felt that the volunteer’s claim that he killed the youth in self-defense was plausible, if not probable. The subsequent protests over the killing were regarded by many as an indefensible rush to judgment.

And last … 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 >>

A Foreign Fire

Last night was the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, of Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg zt”l, my wife’s grandfather. The Hertzbergs were amazing people — they took Holocaust refugees into their homes, treated them like children, and helped them go on to lead productive lives here in America. Someone pointed out to me not long ago that as a result of their efforts, there are hundreds of sincere, active Jews in Baltimore and beyond who otherwise would have been lost.

As the Rav of his shul, Rabbi Dovid Katz shlit”a, pointed out last night, Rav Hertzberg would also speak truth to power. He was fired from rabbinic posts for being too honest — until a group of devoted followers created a synagogue, named for his father Avraham zt”l, and set him up as their Rabbi.

At a time when it was extremely unpopular to do so, Rav Hertzberg drew lessons like this one, from this week’s Torah reading. It refers to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the High Priest, who went outside what G-d had commanded — and were killed as a result. Reading the passage, one could think that it was a cruel or capricious … Read More >>

1984?

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

The Differences We Make

In Baltimore’s Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, in whose yeshivah gedolah I was fortunate to study in the 1970s, the custom was that each beis medrash bachur would learn during night seder with a high school-age boy. I enjoyed the experience and it probably set me on a path to become a mechanech, in which role I was privileged to serve for nearly two decades.

At least one of my night-seder chavrusos, as it happened, followed me into the field of Jewish education, becoming, as I learned years later, the principal of a middle school in New England and then of a Bais Yaakov in Rockland County, the position he currently occupies.

I had only seen him once since our youths, when I was a rebbi and principal in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had brought a group of students from his school there for a Shabbos. That, though, was more than twenty-five years ago, and so it was a special pleasure to find myself at a meeting not long ago that, as it happened, took place in his home. It was an even greater pleasure to hear what he told me when he took me aside before the meeting began.

… Read More >>

Faithless Ferocity

Earlier this month, a newly-married couple and the wife’s sister, upstanding citizens and model university students, were murdered by a neighbor of the couple’s in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

A heinous crime, to be sure, and it reverberated particularly loudly across the country and around the world. Because the victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were Muslims with Middle-Eastern roots; and the alleged murderer, Craig Stephen Hicks, a middle-aged white man.

The suspected killer turned himself in to authorities and was duly indicted. And while authorities said that their preliminary investigation indicated that a dispute over a parking space in the apartment complex where the victims and the alleged killer lived was the proximate cause of the murders, a multitude of Muslim voices wasted no time seizing on the tragedy as an anti-Muslim hate crime.

Members of the victims’ family were the first to make the charge. One tweeted, “My cousin, his wife and sister in law were murdered for being muslim [sic]. Someone tell me racism/hate crimes don’t exist. #MuslimLivesMatter.”

Personal grief can cloud judgment, and it’s understandable that a relative of the murdered young people might assume religious prejudice motivated their … Read More >>

Doubt Thyself

For years, national network news anchorman Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His recent admission that he had gotten crucial facts wrong and his subsequent suspension don’t just comprise another case of the sudden fall of a mighty man (if one can define might as having earned widespread respect – and $10 million a year). The scandal may actually hold a niced-sized nugget of instructional hashkafah-gold.

It’s certainly possible, of course, that the broadcaster had been intentionally lying when he claimed to have been on a helicopter that came under fire (a rather foolish choice, since those present with him at the time could, as several eventually did, contradict his account). But it is also conceivable that Mr. Williams may have unconsciously conflated something he knew had happened to someone else with what actually happened to him, or confused a vivid fantasy with reality.

As Hillary Clinton may have when, in 2008, she claimed to have landed in Bosnia in 1996 amid sniper fire. She recanted her assertion when a video of the moment showed otherwise.

Many of us, understandably, might more readily attribute a … Read More >>

In Praise of Brainwashing

A reference to a Shabbos seudah as “brainwashing.” An attempt by a flag-draped man to enter a Montreal Jewish day school. And a pre-school morah’s report. All took place recently and, together, helped me better understand something fundamental about life.

The cynical reference to Shabbos was from a woman quoted in a book. Sadly, she had left the Jewish observance of her childhood behind.

“My father was always tired and so was my mother,” she explained to the author. “They were fighting. We were fighting. And so there was not that kind of love and joy that makes the brainwashing really stick.”

The brainwashing.

On the very day that quote appeared in a book review, a man draped in a flag of Quebec tried to enter a chareidi Jewish day school, Yeshiva Gedola, in Montreal, claiming that he wanted to “liberate” its students.

Wisely, the school’s staff did not allow the fellow into the building. One staff member said “When I answered through the intercom, the man told me: ‘I want to talk to the children because they are imprisoned in this school… I want to liberate the children’.”

Liberate the children.

Two people with a similar … 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 … Read More >>

We’re Not Kidnappers

A piece I wrote for a Forward blog, in reaction to a mother’s lament over her newly-Orthodox daughter’s described rejection of her parents can be read here.

Private Matters

It comes as something of a revelation to many to confront the Rambam’s treatment of kiddush Hashem, or “sanctification of Hashem’s name” for the first time. One definition of the concept in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 5:10 – perhaps its most essential one, has nothing to do with readiness to give up one’s life or to act in a way that presents a good image of a Jew to others.

To be sure, that the Torah commands us to be willing to perish rather than violate certain commandments (or any commandment – even custom – in certain circumstances) is well-known to most Jews with a modicum of Jewish knowledge. And the understanding that living an upstanding life, exemplifying honesty and sterling demeanor, is also a form of kiddush Hashem is likewise widely recognized. The Gemara in Yoma (86a) famously describes various amora’im’s examples of such projection of Jewish personal values, labeling them kiddushei Hashem.

What is surprising is the Rambam’s statement that kiddush Hashem is something that can be accomplished as well entirely in private. In fact, particularly in private.

“Anyone who violates, willingly, without any coercion, any of the precepts of the Torah…” reads the Rambam’s psak, “has … Read More >>

Greed Is Gross

The carnival of carnage that seems a constant in the Islamic world proceeded tragically apace last week, with a suicide bombing at a gathering in Ibb, Yemen to commemorate Islam’s founder’s birthday. At least 23 people were killed; an Al Qaeda affiliate is the suspected culprit.

Then, over in Afghanistan, at least 26 people attending a wedding party were killed, and 45 wounded, when a rocket struck a house during a firefight between government forces and Taliban insurgents.

But what might rank as the week’s most senseless loss of life took place in a non-Islamic land, China. At least 35 people were killed and 43 injured during a stampede in an area of Shanghai where tens of thousands had gathered to celebrate the advent of a new calendar year.

The cause of that disaster is unclear, but it was reported that shortly before the crowd had grown restless, people in a nearby building had dropped green pieces of paper that looked like American $100 bills.

Now, there’s an awful metaphor for our covetous times. The pursuit of money is nothing new, of course. It has been the engine powering many a civilization, and the rot destroying many a human … Read More >>

Bricks for Bombs

A driver, reportedly shouting an Islamic slogan, rammed a vehicle into pedestrians in the French city of Dijon last Sunday, injuring twelve people.

Understandably, the attack (and several subsequent ones in France) brought back memories of this past autumn’s spate of vehicular terrorist attacks in Israel. Although they seem to have abated in Israel (despite much Palestinian social media encouragement that they continue), the devil’s brew of blood-lust and creativity in some Arab and Muslim hearts continues to boil apace.

Spewed from the cauldron recently was one Yasmin Sha’aban, who, according to the Shin Bet, was planning to carry out a suicide attack in Israel. She intended to receive a permit (“for medical reasons”) to travel from Jenin, where she lived, into Israel proper. There, she hoped to disguise herself as an expectant Jewish woman, with explosives hidden under her clothes, and create as much carnage as she possibly could.

That plot, baruch Hashem, was interrupted by Israeli security forces; Ms. Sha’aban and several compatriots were taken into custody. It turned out that her friends had also planned to bomb a bus carrying soldiers and to kidnap a soldier.

The perennial question returns: How to discourage such … Read More >>