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 >>
An aroma all but absent these days but deeply evocative of childhood to many of us who grew up before pollution laws is the bouquet of burning leaves. Back in the day, we would rake the dry debris of autumn into a pile or put it into a metal trash can (remember those?) and set the leaves aflame. The resultant smoke, at least at somewhat of a distance, was a seasonal perfume, an olfactory hint that the snow days weren’t far off.
Today we put what we’ve raked into very large double-reinforced paper “lawn bags” and leave them for the recycling pickup. (I don’t imagine they put the leaves back on trees, but surely something worthwhile is done with them.)
A few weeks ago, while I was doing the final leaf-raking of the year, the lawn bag I was filling provided me some timely spiritual direction.
I needed the chizuk, and for a reason not unrelated to how distant a memory the scent of burning leaves is, to how many years have elapsed since it would regularly waft through the autumn air.
Having several months ago passed the 60-year life-mark (the “new 40,” as I prefer to imagine … Read More >>
We often get frustrated by the gross prevalence and utter, unfathomable irrationality of anti-Semitism (commonly also cloaked as anti-Zionism). The above chart says it all.
“If only we could more clearly remind the world of the good that the Jews have brought it; if only the world realized that Judaism is the source of Western moral values; if only the world would understand that Israel is fighting more humanely than any military known to man, defending itself against unprovoked attacks from its malicious neighbors who seek its annihilation…” We can’t understand why the world hates us and cannot see things with a modicum of objectivity. It can be so upsetting.
Rabbi Avi Shafran recently penned a beautiful and brilliant column, When I Drifted Off the Path, in which he described his very short-lived pre-adolescent flirtation with heresy. In order to briefly address the points about anti-Semitism raised in the above paragraphs, I would like to share and draw from one of my own juvenile, inelegant interests: professional wrestling. Tampa, Florida, where I grew up, was once the South’s capital of professional wrestling, and … Read More >>
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 … Read More >>
A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah. The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy.
While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”
“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”
The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed. Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs. In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all … Read More >>
“מאי חנוכה” – “What is Chanukah?” With these words does the Gemara (Shabbos 21a) commence its presentation of the religious historical underpinnings of Chanukah.
Unfortunately, Chanukah has become the most misunderstood and distorted of Jewish holidays. The secular American Jewish observance of Chanukah is largely manifest as the Festival of Consumerism (along with latkes, dreidels and vague messages of generic religious tolerance); the secular Israeli observance of Chanukah is manifest as the Festival of Might – the Maccabees’ religious devotion and attribution of their success to Hashem has been pretty much sidelined. And among the rabbinate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) has the message of Chanukah likewise become grossly malformed.
As was presented here a while back, one prominent member of the YCT rabbinate equates Chanukah with the legalization of same-sex marriage. And last week, a YCT leader, perplexed by the apparent clash of the message of Chanukah with his open, pluralistic religious orientation, declared that Chazal actually rejected the hashkafah of the Chashmona’im, instead favoring the values of pluralism and openness. Invoking a very radical understanding of Chanukah, we are told:
The rabbis … Read More >>
The challenge by a reader to what I wrote earlier deserves more prominent attention than a comment to his comment:
Your article really encompasses the larger question of how a Jew is to understand God’s relationship with non-Jews. A traditional belief you and I are both familiar with has it that God relates to Jews on an individual level (hashgacha pratis) but to non-Jews on a general level. Really? How are we to square that, then, with the numerous statements of Christian writers down through the centuries in which they described feeling God at their side? That, at certain great moments in their life, they knew God was with them? These statements – and I’ve heard them often, simply from Christian friends and acquaintances – put the lie to the belief that God only intervenes personally with Jews.
I believe that this “traditional belief” is inaccurately understood. There are classic sources that speak of Hashem relating to Jews with hashgacha pratis, unlike his relationship with non-Jews. This cannot (or may not) mean what you imply it means.
Can there be prayer without hashgacha pratis? Isn’t tefillah – at least petitionary tefillah – a request that Hashem intervene directly … Read More >>
Thought experiment in three parts: How would you explain the essence of being Jewish, or the Jewish mission, to an interested outsider to the halachic community – Jewish or non-Jewish? After you formulate your answer, try your hand at another question. How would you explain the need for exacting legal detail in the admissions process to the Jewish people, a.k.a geirus. Now, in what may be the hardest exercise, how would you get both of those answers to coexist with each other – in more minds than your own?
Despite both of us quite often disagreeing with each other, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo and I have remained good friends over the years. So I can admit to being jealous of his masterful treatment of the three questions. To be sure, some of us might use slightly different ways of expressing similar thoughts, but we can all gain from the humanity, sensitivity, and effectiveness of his approach.
What follows is his essay, as it appeared on his website. It is republished here with permission.
What makes one a Jew? Being born to a Jewish mother? Converting to Judaism? Not really. It is living by the spiritual order of … Read More >>
“According to you,” a reader wrote me privately about a recent column that appeared in this space, “we can’t make any conclusions, because of the unknowns.”
The column, titled “Unknown Unknowns,” pointed out how, particularly in political affairs (like the current American administration’s relationship with Israel) we don’t always have the whole picture. I noted as an example, how, at the very same time that many Jewish media were attacking President Obama for his ostensible hostility toward Israel, the president was determinedly working hand in glove with Israel in a secret cyber-project to undermine the Iranian nuclear program. As pundits huffed and puffed, Stuxnet was silently destroying centrifuges.
The reader was chagrined that I, as he read it, was counseling a moratorium on commentary about all political affairs. I wrote back to explain that no, I didn’t mean that at all. We can, and even should, express our concerns openly in the free country in which we’re privileged to live. But we must do so with reason and civility (maybe even fairness), not the sort of ranting that passes for dialectic on talk radio these days. I meant only (and perhaps should have written more clearly) that a degree … Read More >>
In yet another new thought-provoking issue of Jewish Action, readership was introduced to the dynamic and quickly spreading movement of Neo-Chassidus, in which the original emphases and spiritual experiences of the Chassidic movement are being revived and promulgated in order to reintroduce spirituality into perceived doldrums of Modern Orthodoxy. Farbrengens, hisbodedus, Carlebach-style davening, and soul-touching stories and teachings of the Chassidic masters are among the prominent features of this old-new movement.
While this new trend raises some serious questions, I do not want to get into that here. My only comment is that the perceived lack of passion and arguable absence of a dynamic consciousness in Modern Orthodox discourse and mindset of Hashem’s presence and involvement have precipitated what is nothing short of an outright, non-confrontational rejection of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy on the part of some of the finest cream of its crop.
What I would like to discuss, though, is that those seeking to strengthen their connection with Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu should perhaps consider redirecting their focus toward the core values of “Hisnagdus” – the approach of traditional non-Chassidic Eastern European Torah life – in their journey to provide and experience a truly authentic … Read More >>
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 >>
“Where is G-d?” After stumping his Chassidim, the Kotzker is reported to have answered his own question: “Wherever you will let Him in.” This profound and beautiful approach only works for those who are thoroughly convinced of His existence, and mildly familiar with the methods for inviting Him in. What are others to do? Some thoughts on recent attempts, and a consideration of where we differ. ********************************************************************* What could be better, I thought, than a take-down by Jack Miles of the whole lot of New Atheists – and in the pages of The Atlantic, no less. Jack Miles recently finished editing The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and might therefore know a thing or two about belief. His Atlantic essay, “Why G-d Will Not Die,” is taken from his postscript to that compendium, and is therefore his last word on the state of religion after pondering the rich assortment of faith-systems. Alas, his argument could not knock a one-legged agnostic stork off his perch. It does contain, however, some delectable tidbits and one-liners.
The story begins with a younger author delighting in the words of arch-atheist (and Israel-hater) Bertrand Russell:
That man is the product of causes … Read More >>
Dear King Abdullah,
I’m quite sure you don’t remember me. I was part of a sizable group of Jewish leaders, clergy, politicians and organizational representatives whom you, along with the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, invited to a gala lunch in a posh Manhattan hotel nine years ago.
To jog your memory, though, I was the fellow with the beard and black hat, and whose lips you may have noticed quietly moving when you entered the room. I was reciting a Jewish blessing that is to be pronounced when one sees a king. It goes “Blessed are You, G-d, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.” It is, for obvious reasons, not a common blessing to make, and I was happy to have the occasion to invoke it.
I remember well your address to the crowd. Its essence was your hope that Jews and Muslims might be able, despite political differences, to attain respect for each other’s religious beliefs. Your message was a vision, of a human race unified by its members’ recognition of the worth and dignity of one another. We, you may remember, applauded loudly and enthusiastically.
We learned, too, … Read More >>
If the concept of malpractice could be applied to p’sak Halacha (halachic decision making), we would have the case of a lifetime on our hands. I am sorry to say it, but the leadership of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, undertaking to change geirus (conversion) protocol by issuing new piskei halacha (halachic rulings) to promote these changes, is juggling (halachic) torches and is doing so very irresponsibly. Converts and their descendants are going to be greatly harmed, and those easily impressed by halachic discussion that they cannot understand are going to be unwittingly drawn in and hoodwinked.
In light of recent accusations of a well-known rabbi committing crimes of immorality against converts – crimes of voyeurism, secretly viewing unclothed females at the mikveh preparing for conversion – R. Shmuel Herzfeld of Congregation Ohev Sholom/The National Synagogue, along with his synagogue’s maharat (female rabbi), turned to R. Jeffrey Fox, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, asking for an halachic ruling regarding the need for a beis din to be present when females immerse in the mikveh for conversion. Even though the beis din which oversees conversion does not and is not allowed to view the converting woman’s body (the beis … Read More >>
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 >>
Seldom do maspidim capture the essence of a person as well as they did on Thursday when they eulogized Rav Eliyahu Stewart z”l, a home-grown Angelino who was beloved to thousands. In an hour and a half of hespedim, no one needed to exaggerate his accomplishments. They stood proudly on their own. No one needed trivial filler to round out his life story. There was no time for that; the richness of his achievement didn’t allow for it. His rov of many years, and a succession of family members, spoke of someone who loved people, loved learning, and loved presenting Torah to talmidim. The massive number of people who essentially spent their rare holiday afternoon at his levaya was impressive testimony that the love was reciprocated.
Perhaps one element was missing, through no ones fault, from the hespedim – the perspective of a friend. Maybe I am looking for catharsis. Maybe the shock, the grief, the void draws me to the keyboard, but I am driven to share some thoughts as someone who lost a decades-long friend and confidante.
The parallels to the life of Yaakov Avinu would be compelling even if Reb Eliyahu had not died during … Read More >>
Should you ever find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room with a military-uniformed classical string ensemble segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach concerto to an equally impressive (if less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” it can only mean one thing: you’re at a White House Chanukah party.
I know, because during the George W. Bush administration, on behalf of Agudath Israel, I attended several of the yearly gatherings, which brought together assorted Jewish personalities, politicians and organizational representatives. One of the times when my wife didn’t accompany me, a major supporter of Agudath Israel was my guest.
I discovered then (aside from the fact that nothing compares to home-made potato latkes) that Mr. Bush is a mentch.
As we stood in the long line for the ritual photo-op with the president and first lady, my guest asked me if I minded if he alone stood next to the first couple for the photo. Having already garnered the souvenir before (along with a presidential seal paper hand-towel from the White House restroom, now hanging on our own bathroom wall), I didn’t. And so, when it was our turn, I stepped back to allow my guest … Read More >>
In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel. He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state. Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.
I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood. The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).
Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.” And yes, that didn’t happen. (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.) But … Read More >>