Friday, September 8, 2017

Teshuva from the School of Hard Knocks

I’m sure hoping for a sweeter year this year.

Rosh Hashanah looms, and we struggle to make sense of the past year – the trials and tribulations, the insanity that has taken hold of our nation’s politics; the sicknesses, financial difficulties, pain and suffering that have afflicted so many; the ongoing disasters in Florida and Texas, the danger that is North Korea; the ugliness on display in Charlottesville – where does one begin in preparing for the Day of Judgment?

Personally, I am trying to look at the year I just experienced, and attempting to learn from it.   I write these lines to help myself focus, and hope that others might perhaps find some of this relevant to themselves as well.

We pray Zochreinu L’Chaim – for Life itself, but also that we might live in good health and that our bodies continue to seamlessly function – this gift for ourselves and our families we need to literally beg Hashem for and not take for granted.

I had a “rough year”.  Of course, compared to what so many others endured – including friends and family who have lost close relatives, or agonized with children with chronic and debilitating illnesses, physical or spiritual, or who have suffered financial calamity, or other suffering ר"ל – I have had a fantastic year, and should do nothing but get down on my knees and gratefully count my blessings.  Nevertheless, for me personally, this was a rougher year than usual, with some special challenges.

I resigned my position as Rabbi of the Young Israel of Forest Hills last summer, intending to make Aliyah within a few months.   But we nevertheless are still living in Brooklyn, due primarily to two occurrences that I did not anticipate last Rosh Hashana.

First, my dear father-in-law, Rabbi Monni Weisberger, had a tragic fall leaving him with a terrible injury from which he has not (so far) recovered.  (Please daven for Moshe ben Yehudis, amongst all Cholei Yisroel).

Second, I received a jarring diagnosis – I had contracted prostate cancer – the same illness which was the final undoing of my father ז"ל.

I won’t go into any details here, but dealing with the issue – the biopsies and MRIs, the agonizing over the decision regarding which unpleasant treatment to pursue, the scare of additional symptoms that suggested I might have more extensive cancer (thankfully not) and much else – took many months and lots of energy.  Baruch Hashem, I underwent a successful prostate removal surgery, and am well on the road to recovery.

But in many days of convalescing, I had some “Hirhurei Teshuva”, or spiritual thoughts to ponder:

    1. Gratitude to Hashem for watching over me – this could have been so much worse.

A cursory glance at Florida and Houston suffices to realize how fragile our lives are. This essay is not the place to speculate on faith issues (Emuna) in the wake of large natural disasters, which in any case can lead only to the conclusion that we are privy to no real answers in this world.

However, one thought offered by many of our Sages is that sometimes Hashem sends us overwhelming events to (a) humble us from our arrogance in thinking we are in control of the world and our lives, and (b) as a reminder that we ought not take our “normal” pleasant lives for granted.

Up until this time in my life, I was certainly aware of prostate cancer due to my father’s illness, but it seemed much removed from me. My prostate – that was just part of my plumbing that I knew little about, nor cared much for . . . I assumed that it was doing its job – whatever that is – and we had best leave each other alone.

I found out quickly, however, that my prostate was in fact something that deserved a lot of concern; left alone it would literally kill me, and not in a pleasant way.  Baruch Hashem, I have now been declared (with a 99% probability) cancer free.  Compared to so many who suffered so much from this frightful illness, I got a wonderful reprieve.

This was brought home even more deeply with the tragic passing of Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz ז"ל, son of my very dear friends יבדלו לחיים Shalom & Sheila  Simanowitz.   I don’t have the words to express the pain that I feel for them and the extended family on this tragic loss.   And it only redoubles my feeling of “There but for the Grace of G-d, go I”.

My takeaway for Rosh Hashanah is quite clear.  Serious illness is not something that only happens to other people; it might be a lot closer than one realizes.  In fact, none of the amazing systems in our bodies should be taken for granted.  That “strange” Asher Yatzar blessing that we say upon going to the bathroom is so sublime and real, expressing the vital lesson that we literally could not last for even one moment, but for the Grace of G-d who makes it all work seamlessly – until it doesn’t.  I learned how very fragile life is – what a lesson for Rosh Hashana!

We pray Zochreinu L’Chaim (Remeber us for Life) – for Life itself, but also that we might live in good health and that our bodies continue to seamlessly function – this gift for ourselves and our families we need to literally beg Hashem for and not take for granted.

We assume that we will be healthy, that rivers will not overflow, that the winds will not pummel us: Rosh Hashana is a time that we must realize how very dependent on Him we are for every moment

(English - May we forget this year what our doctors look like)

    2. Gratitude to the special people in life who cared for me
Laying in my hospital bed, too weak to lift my leg, unable to walk without enormous effort, I came to appreciate the wonderful people in my life who love and care for me and without whom I really could not go on.  Where would I be without the love and concern of my wonderful wife and children and sisters?  How amazing it is to hear the soothing voice of my mother and mother in law encouraging me!  How incredibly special to get chizuk from my Rebbe and Rebbitzen, Rav Michel & Faige Twerski שליט"א, who made me feel loved and worthy of recovery!   How fortunate I am to have the care of wonderful physicians and nurses who went above and beyond in advising me, helping me, and making sure that I got far better care than I deserved!

And, last and far from least, how encouraging and heartwarming it was to hear from my friends and extended family the sincere wishes that I recuperate and to know how many prayers and chapters of Tehillim were said on my behalf . . . how truly blessed I am!

Certainly, on Rosh Hashanah it is time to try to reciprocate, in the small way that I can, and to pour out my heart to Hashem for all of these wonderful people in wishing that they – and all of Klal Yisrael and good people everywhere – be inscribed for Life, for Health; that they should not have to face the very difficult challenges that, but for the Grace of G-d, can happen so easily.

Bringing me to:
    3. Resolving that I have been granted renewed Life for a greater purpose
It is critical to consider the importance of Bitachon – living in Trust of Hashem – as we are reminded constantly during this time of year.  The Haftarah of Parshat Shoftim (Yeshayahu chap 51) exhorts us to trust in Him, and Him alone.
אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא מְנַחֶמְכֶם מִי אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת  
 I, yea I am He Who consoles you; who are you that you fear man who will die?

וַתִּשְׁכַּח ה' עֹשֶׂךָ נוֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם וְיֹסֵד אָרֶץ וַתְּפַחֵד תָּמִיד כָּל הַיּוֹם  מִפְּנֵי חֲמַת הַמֵּצִיק . . . וְאַיֵּה חֲמַת הַמֵּצִיק
 And you forgot the Lord your Maker, Who spread out the heavens and founded the earth, and you fear constantly the whole day because of the wrath of the oppressor . . . Now where is the wrath of the oppressor? 

וְאָנֹכִי֙ ה' אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ רֹגַ֣ע הַיָּ֔ם וַיֶּהֱמ֖וּ גַּלָּ֑יו ה' צְבָא֖וֹת שְׁמֽוֹ
  And I am Hashem your Lord who wrinkles the sea and makes its waves stir; the Lord of Hosts is His name

To paraphrase FDR, we ought to have

 “Nothing to Fear but Lack of Fear of G-d”.   

Dovid HaMelech in Psalm 27 (that we are now saying twice daily) asks:

לְדָוִד ה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא ה'מָעוֹז חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָד
 “if Hashem is my Light and my stronghold,
from whom would I fear?

אִם תַּחֲנֶה עָלַי מַחֲנֶה לֹא יִירָא לִבִּי אִם תָּקוּם עָלַי מִלְחָמָה בְּזֹאת אֲנִי בוֹטֵחַ
 In Him and Him alone I place my trust

כִּי אָבִי וְאִמִּי עֲזָבוּנִי וַה' יַאַסְפֵנִי

When even my mother and father have been rendered powerless to help me, Hashem will gather me in . . . 

קַוֵּה אֶל ה' חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל ה

Place your hope in Hashem, strengthen your heart and be courageous . . . place your hope in Hashem”.

The message is clear: a central tenet of Rosh Hashanah is for us to bolster our sense of Bitachon.  To know that wherever G-d places me is for the best, that He has plans for me; if I trust in Him and only Him, my life will have joy, contentment, meaning and purpose living in His plan.

I am not sure what life has yet in store for me.   We will hopefully be finally moving to Eretz Yisrael after Succos.   I do not know where and how life will lead us, but I am confident that this year helped me prepare for some yet-to-be-accomplished worthy things.  Certainly, on Rosh Hashana, when מעשה איש ופקודתו, the actions of Man and his mission are judged and determined, we must beseech Hashem for a life of not only physical health and well-being, but of meaning and purpose and accomplishment; knowing that:

הַשְׁלֵךְ עַל ה' יְהָבְךָ וְהוּא יְכַלְכְּלֶךָ לֹא יִתֵּן לְעוֹלָם מוֹט לַצַּדִּיק  
Cast your burden on Hashem, and He will bear you;
 He shall never allow a righteous man to falter
(Tehillim 55:23).

Our task is to get ready for His service; to do the best we can, and then get out of the driver’s seat and let Him drive the bus. 

Finally, I heard a beautiful insight from Rav Yaakov Glasser regarding the cloud on the mountain that could be seen on the way to the Akeida.  The Midrash relates that Avraham asked his companions, if they too saw the place that Hashem wants them to arrive at.   Yitzchak said yes, the others said no, and stayed behind.

 What did Avraham and Yitzchak actually see?   A cloud.   

The others saw the cloud as well, but they saw it as a gloomy impenetrable place to be avoided. Avraham and Yitzchak embraced the opportunity in the cloud, knowing that if  they entered there with confidence, Hashem would guide them to their ultimate goal. 

We are all at times faced by clouds, places which seem dark and gloomy.  We wonder why Hashem has placed them there; why He makes it difficult to see the way forward in His service, and so challenging to persevere though the obstacles that have been placed in our path.   But the lesson of the Akeida is that Hashem wants us to be willing to have Mesirut Nefesh (self-sacrifice), often in the form of proceeding to follow the quest for purpose in Life “no matter how hopeless, no matter how far”, and hope that the bright light of his Presence will make those clouds disperse, and eventually 

וְזָרְחָה לָכֶם יִרְאֵי שְׁמִי שֶׁמֶשׁ צְדָקָה וּמַרְפֵּא בִּכְנָפֶיהָ 
And the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings  for you who fear My Name 

May we all merit to have a sweet and good year, filled with good health, purposeful meaning, and a contented sense of living in His presence.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Kotel - Deja vu all over again

This will be a short post -- mainly because I will point to a longer (too long?) post from last year.

Once again there is much controversy about the Kotel, and the fights between the various movements, over the right for non-traditional prayer at our holiest site.  If one did not know better, one would think that there are new developments and that the "terrible chareidim" have once again blackmailed the government into reneging on its agreements and promises, to the ultimate shame of the Netanyahu government, according to some.

Actually, however, rather than coming to the inevitable compromise that has already been made and is the only realistic way forward, extremists on both sides are determined to fight.  As I wrote about a year ago (please read that detailed article), there is, and has been for a long time, an established place on the southern section of the Kotel for non-traditional prayer.  No one is seriously challenging this.  It is, or should be, a gift to all sides -- except the extremists.

All that happened recently was that the plan to build a more co-equal entrance way to that area was scrapped, and the status quo will remain.

If only the sensible public would realize that the Kotel is a place to pray, and that rather than fighting, everyone ought to go to the area that appeals most to them to pray, life would be much sweeter.

But no - fight we must and fight we shall.

And we wonder what is delaying the Mashiach

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Can this Nation Remain United?

I haven't written in a long while.  I have been going through a lot of personal stuff that has consumed me, which I will perhaps discuss in the future.   However, watching the level of social and political discourse in the USA (and for that matter around the world) descend into deeper and deeper levels of hostility, I want to see if I can contribute something useful.

The horror this week in Alexandria VA, as an evil person tried to massacre Senators and Congressman during their baseball practice in cold blood, shocked some people into silence, at least for a few hours.  I was moved to write the following on facebook, which apparently resonated with many people:

Lots of silence from all my friends on the left today.

Unlike you, I will not blame the horrible act of this Trump hating, GOP hating, Bernie supporting excuse for a human being on the Democrat party, nor will I blame all of the terrible violence, rioting, and horrific hatred that the left has been exhibiting since the elections on the DNC, although there is more than ample reason to do so.

But I hope that -- just for a minute -- you give some thought today to where your terribly hateful, disrespectful, overblown obstructionist speech and attitudes have lead us, and know that there are many more crazies out there, drinking your Kool-aid, who are eager to escalate your civil war.

Time to tone it down, accept the election results, get off the “we will blindly block everything the Republicans propose, even if we are not opposed in principle, just to resist“ platform,let the special counsel do his job and accept that for now there has been ZERO evidence of collusion with the short, be a responsible, patriotic, peaceful opposition who will soon enough have an opportunity to compete in another election and try to sway minds and hearts in your direction without resorting to lies, hate speech, and violence.

Be a proud American, and make it great again, in your own way.
I have since had some further thoughts on the matter, that I would like to record here.

1) Our American Society - I am a big fan of Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street journal, who provides consistently excellent commentary on current events.   In  his June 15 column, Political Disorder Syndrome , he proffered an incisive analysis of the downward spiral of violent social phenomena we have been witnessing in recent weeks, including Kathy Griffin's appalling appearance with a bloody severed head of Donald Trump; New York’s Public Theater's production of “ Julius Caesar, ” in which Central Park audiences watch Caesar as a blond-haired Donald Trump is pulled down from a podium by men in suits and assassinated with plunging knives; campus riots against conservative speakers and other incitements to violence that have certainly contributed to the atmosphere in which the Alexandria shooting took place.  But then Henninger pointed to a fascinating social transformation:
We negotiate much of daily life now in tense, parallel universes: One is overflowing with individual political and social behavior that is deviant—flights from the norm—at a time when broader norms of political and social behavior are enforced with a vengeance. Today you can get shamed, sued or fired for almost any conceivable offense. 
In reaction, millions of people—including the president—seem to regard social media as a kind of wildlife refuge, where they can run naked against society’s dammed-up personal and political opinions.
I find this analysis brilliant -- and incisively descriptive of a deeply troubling phenomenon.   The utter contradiction that we all are aware of  --  that our society on the one hand demands that people stifle themselves and  publicly say only that which is non-offensive, non-challenging, and non-"triggering" to anyone's feelings, while on the other hand is replete with an undercurrent of unbridled chutzpah, outrageous opinions, unheard of lack of inhibitions that find expression in major media, social media, backroom conversation, and the underlying mindset of so many -- is deeply unsettling. There are truly "two parallel universes", making it very difficult for so many, particularly our young people, to develop honest, respectful and balanced views of the world.  These very well may be behind the ferociously partisan unwillingness of people to listen to opposing opinions and to wrestle with complex ideas, preferring to get all of their opinions from sources that are pre-disposed to their unchangeable mindset and to negate anything that does not already fit with their preconceived version of the truth.

It is a frightening time - one in which it may become harder and harder for us to remain a United republic without descending into civil war.   (This was also pointed out by an equally incisive column by Peggy Noonan, Rage is all the Rage, and it's Dangerous .)  It underscores what happens when minds close, and people no longer work on developing a deep respect for the dignity of difference; understanding that those with whom you disagree may well be lovely people of integrity and intelligence who just see the world differently than you do.

2) The Jewish Angle - I have written in the past, and will iy"h write more in the future, of my concern regarding the creeping extremism in the Orthodox world.   The paucity of "Middle of the Road" views that were once prevalent is deeply troubling. It seems that the extreme voices predominate, and they are inordinately influencing the younger generation.  Many very recent examples abound of this; one will suffice for this essay.

When people demonize "the other opinion", when they refuse to see that the others also have their good qualities, intentions, and accomplishments, the road to violent opposition and actions, occurring with growing frequency in Yerushalayim, Bet Shemesh, and other places, is not far.

 Just a few weeks ago, a major milestone was marked by much of the Jewish world - the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War and the Reunification of Yerushalayim.   It seems to me that it was marked, almost exclusively, in one of two ways.   Those with a more Religious Zionist leaning, celebrated grandly.   Parties, gatherings, shul events, magazine articles and other celebrations abounded; there was much talk of the incredible gift that the Jewish people were given in 1967, when virtually overnight, the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael was delivered from extreme danger and foreboding to an unprecedented quadrupling in size, total decimation of our enemies, restoration to the Holy lands of Yehuda, Shomron, Gaza, and the holy cities of Hevron and Shechem, and -- of course -- the thrilling notion of Har Habayit Biyadeinu.   The younger generation growing up today cannot even imagine what it was like to not be able to visit the Kotel or Kever Rachel, or to be able to live in Ramot or Ramat Eshkol or all of the yishuvim.   They see the enormous achievements that have transformed Medinat Yisrael in the past seventy years with enormous pride and gratitude, while aware of its imperfections and problems.

At the same time, in most of the places that I visited in New York, (that tended more towards the "yeshivish olam"), one was not even aware of the anniversary.   It was totally unremarked upon and ignored.  To the extent that one even brought it up in conversation one was either looked upon as a troublemaking outsider, who ought to know better than to talk about this issue with any seriousness, or written off as a jokester.   Even "out of town", in a community where I had the privilege of serving as a scholar in residence, the Rabbi was afraid to let me talk about the topic, as anything about Yom Yerushalayim was too controversial and would result in disapproval from the other Rabbonim in town.   In "Torah strongholds", the negation is, if anything, more extreme.   Children are taught that the State of Israel has zero or negative religious significance, that it is a place that actively tries to destroy Torah and Judaism.  I was very disheartened this week when my nephew told me that growing up in a Lakewood school, Israel was virtually never spoken of, except by one of his Rebbes who taught them that the Zionists are worse than Nazis; the Nazis after all only killed the physical bodies of Jews while the Zionists are trying to eradicate Torah.  While I am hopeful that this genius Rebbe's views were atypical, they are not rare nor shocking in the Yeshiva world.  (It remains a source of continuing frustration to me that a Rabbi who made similar statements two years ago continues to hold a prominent position in the world's largest yeshiva and is constantly welcomed with honorifics in many communities the Chareidi world, as ads highlighting his speeches constantly in the Chareidi press indicate.  (Yes, under pressure he retracted those statements, saying he was only "joking"; I remain unimpressed.)   Furthermore, these statements are mild when compared to those of the real extremists, such as those who backed and attended the disgraceful Asifa in Barclays Center last week.   I am speaking here only of what is taught, or not taught, in so called mainstream Charedi Yeshivos.)

The "Middle of the Road" approach is almost never heard.  I deeply believe that there are MANY people who, on the one hand, do not consider themselves Zionist, and who believe that there are many stages that still need to happen before the Flowering of the Redemption rises to the level of saying Hallel.  On the other hand, they are deeply appreciative of the opportunity Hashem has granted us in having a Jewish State and care about it and its people passionately. Furthermore, they recognize that the unprecedented flowering of Torah in it and largely supported by it is a tremendous blessing.   Although those who agree with this approach are many, they are blocked out of the public discourse by the loud voices on either side.

This divide is, I believe, not unrelated to the broader societal divide I spoke of earlier.   When people demonize "the other opinion", when they refuse to see that the others also have their good qualities, intentions, and accomplishments, the road to violent opposition and actions, are occurring with growing frequency in Yerushalayim, Bet Shemesh, and other places, is not far.

The season of the Three Weeks and Tisha B'Av is almost upon us.  When we reflect on the themes of Sinas Chinom and the disunity that caused the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash, let us endeavor to look at our own thoughts and feelings towards those with whom we disagree, and see what we can do to be able to maintain the dignity and intellectual honesty of holding on to our beliefs, while respecting -- and loving -- our fellow Jews with whom we may have differences of opinion.   Only thus can we look forward to the coming of the Mashiach, speedily in our days.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Great Jewish Women: Maharats, Ivanka . . . or Rebbetzins?

Something special happened to me last week – I experienced what it means to “go viral”.

As measured by “hits” on this blog, some of my essays have proven more popular, and some less, in ways I could not have predicted.   But nothing prepared me for the reaction to my recent essay The Miracle that is Ivanka Trump, which received close to 20,000 hits in a few days.   Not much perhaps, compared to some popular sites, but an enormous reaction for me.   I sought to understand, why; hence today’s essay.

I believe there were two major reasons. (1) Because of the celebrity of Ivanka Trump, and my statement drawing a relationship between her and Queen Esther, and (2) Because it touched on the role of prominent women in the Orthodox world in general.  Let’s take them one at a time.

Ivanka Trump and Queen Esther
The week after publication, I learned that in the Queens Jewish Link, where I regularly publish, my fellow columnist Warren S. Hecht, took me to task on several grounds.   He claimed that my essay, in celebrating “the miracle” of Ivanka was guilty of glorifying intermarriage, albeit with a proper conversion; that I insulted Jewish women of the past 2,400 years by saying that in the intervening time there had not been anyone as great as Queen Esther, and that I had made her into a “tzadekes (righteous woman) for the ages”.  I was quite surprised by this reaction; mainly surprised that an astute reader could so totally misread what I wrote.

I never suggested that Ivanka is a Tzadekes, (at least any more than any person who makes the heroic choice to become a Righteous Convert – גר צדק), by any stretch.  She clearly is aware that others adhere to higher levels of observance and modesty – and she herself adhered to those standards when visiting in more rigorously observant communities – but has chosen to follow the more permissive view of her community.  Clearly some of the "hetterim" she and Jared received are debatable (although I am impressed that they asked a "shyla" for Rabbinical guidance).   She herself has been quoted as saying that Jared & I are “pretty obervant, more than some, less than others.” There was and is, of course, no attempt to compare her observance to that of Queen Esther, one of the great צדקניות (Righteous Women) of all time.

Rather, the main points of my essay were: (a) It is a miracle that a person so close to power identifies proudly as an Orthodox Jew, and (for the most part) does so with dignity and grace that brings credit to us and is thus a Kiddush Hashem, even if she is not in competition to win the Tzadekes award, (b) As far as I can tell, she is the Jewish person, and certainly woman, closest to great power since Queen Esther.  In fact, the only observant men that were even close to that level of access to political power since Queen Esther were perhaps Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi and Don Isaac Abarbanel; she is closer yet.  That is something to be immensely grateful for, and (c) We need to stop the sniping and casting aspersions on her conversion and being guilty of causing pain to a convert.  I referred to the fact that she has become an Orthodox Jew as “a miracle”.  Perhaps this was a little over the top, or perhaps, in the Megillas Esther mode of Hidden Miracles, it was accurate.   (Her conversion is certainly a greater miracle than the very unlikely pair of two-point conversions (!) that allowed for the miraculous result in the Super Bowl.)  Either way, this is what I meant, as I think most readers understood.

Once a person passes through the vetting of a qualified Beis Din they are to be accepted with nothing less than love and open arms
(Parenthetically, I was troubled by the implication that there is something wrong with marrying a convert who has undertaken a proper commitment to Judaism.  Heaven Forbid!  Contrary to what some people think, it is a great mitzvah to accept and welcome Gerim, and they are some of our best and finest people.  Of course, Mr. Hecht is correct that conversion in anticipation of marriage raises a very grave possibility that the conversion is being done primarily for an ulterior motive.   In the past, and in some communities today, this raises an insurmountable barrier to conversion; the candidate would be told "If we accept you, you must marry someone else".  In our communities it is more on a case by case basis. A responsible Bet Din will have the conversion candidate undergo a long and arduous process to make sure that they are fully aware of what they are undertaking and do so with informed consent, and disqualify those who are insincere or whose ulterior motives outweigh their sincere independent desire to live as an observant Jew.  But once a person passes through the vetting of a qualified Beis Din, they are to be accepted with nothing less than love and open arms).

Having said that, I suspect that a reason my essay went viral was due to Ivanka’s glamor and celebrity, and that people were interested to hear that – in contrast to some of the sniping out there – there are Orthodox Rabbis who are appreciative of Ivanka and what she represents, and who look forward to her and Jared playing an important role in bringing our values to the President and being a positive influence.

Already this past week there have been several instances of it.  One prominent example was that several commentators have noted that “It is not a coincidence that Trump controversies come while [the] Kushners observe Shabbat”, or that President Trump tends to get into trouble between sundown on Friday and nightfall on Saturday .  That is perhaps not the type of “Kiddush Hashem” that we are used to hearing about, but I believe it is one that brings honor to Torah and those who follow it, hence a Kiddush HaShem.  It is not at all unimaginable that the moment will come when the words of Mordechai (Esther 4:14) will ring in their ears, 
וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת 
"Who knows if  for this moment that you came to royalty".

The Role of Prominent Women in Orthodoxy
This is a huge topic; one that goes far beyond the space I have here.  Ivanka’s celebrity and prominence are a unique case, but there are even larger issues that are brewing in the Modern Orthodox world (and more quietly in some parts of the more “yeshivish” world) in trying to define the appropriate role of women in Jewish communal leadership.  The Maharat controversy is far from over, as Open Orthodox adherents and their counterparts in Israel continue to ordain women as orthodox clergy with a variety of titles, much to the chagrin of Rabbonim, Poskim, and the majority of traditional minded communities around the world, particularly in the United States.
One large unsettled area in this dispute was the lack of clarity regarding the position of the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella of Orthodox congregations in the United States and Canada.  On the one hand, the Rabbinical Council of America (of which I am on my second term on the Executive Council), which is closely associated with the Orthodox Union has clearly and unanimously resolved that “RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not (1) Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; (2) Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or (3) Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a [female] teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution”.  On the other hand, a growing number of Orthodox Union shuls have, in fact, hired Maharats and other female clergy persons, with no protest from the Orthodox Union leadership.

In major news this week . . . a blue ribbon panel commissioned by the Orthodox Union has rendered a unanimous opinion of the notion of female rabbis

In major news this week, two papers were published that put this issue to rest.  A blue-ribbon panel of very well-respected Rabbonim and Poskim in the Modern Orthodox Community,  including several Roshei Yeshivat, have met for several months, and came out with clear statements about the issues.

The first was a responsum from the panel, which sought to answer two questions:

  1. Is it halakhically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?
  2. What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by a woman?

In a seventeen page learned and sensitive answer, the panel went through the Halachic literature and process, and unanimously ruled that awoman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position”. 

In a parallel document, the lay leadership of the OU eloquently described the “way forward”, whereby “It is essential that the voices of individuals who are yirei shamayim and committed to Torah values, both men and women, are heard in communal discussion and leadership. Accordingly, the Orthodox Union commits to explore and identify approaches by which the concerns identified herein, and other challenges and opportunities, can be discussed and studied.”  
Furthermore, it announced the forthcoming Department of Women’s Initiatives, and in every way possible and consistent with our mesorah “to encourage women’s involvement in all appropriate areas of leadership and participation within member synagogues”.
Of course, the responses have already started pouring in from the opposition, particularly from the so-called Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and its supporters.  Much more will yet be heard about this.

In the context of this essay, however, I will close with the thought that it is so important that everyone, women and men, strive to find the right place to use the G-d given talents and resources which they were gifted with, for the betterment of Kvod Shomayim and Klal Yisrael.  Whether it is as a Rabbi, or whether it is in the incredibly important role of a traditional Rebbetzin; whether it is as a lay leader, or whether it is as a loyal and dedicated private individual; whether it is as a person who has been given an incredible place to influence the high and mighty or whether it is one who can help a child learn and smile or simply make a suffering person’s day brighter, we all should strive to make the maximum contribution to the greater good as who we are, while appreciating the special contributions that others are uniquely qualified to make – even Ivanka.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Flaw in the Necessary Ban

One thing Donald Trump cannot be accused of is dragging his feet. 
The dizzying pace of Executive Orders booming out of the Oval Office since the first moment has been described variously as a firehose, fevered, a flurry. . . it is hard to catch one’s breath as the pace of change comes fast and furious on so many issues. 

I cannot remember a time like this, where before you digest one major story two more come out, with some dramatic nonsense stories in between ( e.g. crowd size at the inauguration, how many illegals voted, etc); it is hard to keep up.   Given, in addition, the deep division between those who love him and those who hate him it is – at a minimum – non-stop entertainment, and makes it difficult to pull oneself away from all that and focus on learning and other important matters.

The purpose of this article is not to get into politics. While I was not a Trump supporter throughout the campaign, I must say that I mostly approve of his actions so far.  Getting going on the Dakota pipeline, moving ahead with securing the Mexican border, moving to repeal and replace Obamacare, slashing regulations, and many other orders this week are fine with me.   There is one order, however, that must give a thoughtful person pause, even if you are a Trump supporter.   That order, Executive Order # 13, which calls for extreme vetting  of refugees from “terrorist countries” who are attempting to seek asylum in the United States, has created a firestorm of protest and controversy.

Even after stripping away the bias and the spin (no, it was not anti-Muslim, it was anti-terror prone individuals, it does not apply to most of the Muslim majority nations; the seven countries listed were not determined by Trump, but by the Obama administration in 2015; it does not apply to legal immigrants who are already here, etc. etc.) there are still some aspects that troubled many people about this Order.   It was not planned well.  Not only did many affected people find out about the Order after they had already landed in the US, but even the immigration and border officials who were charged with implementing the policy had no notice or training, resulting in chaos and hysteria and unnecessary suffering which could have been avoided.

Due to the fact that it was done so hastily…with so little planning and consultation with the many parts of the huge Governmental systems that would need to implement it, it caused unnecessary hardship not only for the affected individuals, but also for the Administration; the legitimate complaints about the way it was done have given Trump’s opponents much unnecessary ammunition in their quest to discredit him.  In particular, it has caused great consternation in the Jewish community.  All of us remember all too well a time not too long ago when America’s door was slammed shut in the face of refuges attempting to flee from the inferno of the Holocaust.  The idea that America would turn its back on those fleeing from mayhem, persecution and death is reprehensible and would seem to go against the fundamental greatness of this blessed country.   It is thus quite understandable that so many people, particularly Jews, are up in arms about it.

I therefore find the comparison between today and the period of the Holocaust loathsome.

In truth, however, any comparisons between this order and the policies that caused the St. Louis to be turned back to Europe belie a refusal to see some enormous differences between the two cases.   First of all, this is only a temporary ban enacted until the government can do a better job of keeping out terrorist threats. Moreover, the refusal to grant asylum in those days was due to a combination of protectionism of American jobs in the face of the Depression, overburdening of the welfare system, coupled unfortunately with an unhealthy dose of anti-Semitism.   By contrast, this Executive order is a response to combination of the very real threat that a significant percentage of those posing as refugees are in fact Islamic terrorists, which justifies the Administration’s determination that America not suffer the fate of the European countries that allowed hordes of Islamic refugees in, only to find that the rate of murder, rape and other violent crimes skyrocketed, and whole sections of their great cities have been turned into viper nests of hostility and mayhem. 

Furthermore, a fair-minded observer ought to conclude that there is another huge difference between the two cases.  The desperate refugees in the 1930-40s facing almost certain death were asking nothing more than to come to this country and became loyal and appreciative citizens.  There was no Jewish state that should have taken them in.   In contrast, while there clearly are desperate refugees who need shelter, there is a real danger that many of them come not to be loyal citizens of the United States, but rather to take the Jihad to the “Great Satan” and to do harm to our fellow citizens, as has happened too often in the past few years.   One need look no further than France and Germany and Sweden and Norway and everywhere else these refugees have landed to see how much the benefactors of great largesse appreciate and feel loyalty to their host country.  They have brought great and mounting misery to their host, and have proven countless times to be not only ingrates but a source of tremendous harm in insisting that the host country bend to their demands of Sharia Law rather than their blending in to the host culture.  The ones who should be strongly encouraged to take them in are the Arab countries who share their culture, opinions, religion, and values; encouraged with every lever that America can bring to bear.  I therefore find the comparison between today and the period of the Holocaust loathsome.

Given this state of affairs, a majority of Americans supports the President’s efforts.  Rasmussen polls today show that 57% of likely voters support “a temporary ban on refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen until the federal government improves its ability to screen out potential terrorists from coming here” 33% are opposed, and 10% are undecided.

Nevertheless, I strongly believe that such a necessary and important policy goal could have been achieved with far more effectiveness, less chaotic harm to blameless refugees who were caught unawares, and less collateral damage to support for the Administration had been done with more wisdom and deliberation.  Despite the obvious fact the Administration wanted to do this quickly to avoid giving the bad guys notice of what was about to go down, they could have (a) given a five day warning, coupled with intensive scrutiny during those five days, (b) given more notice and training to the authorities at the airports and elsewhere who would have to carry out the directive, (c) coordinated with other branches of the security establishment who were apparently in the dark about this, (d) made a greater effort to explain why these seven countries (it was based on previous law passed by the Obama Administration) , (e) clarify the status of green card holders who were abroad, and why any of them might have a hard time returning, and other items that those far more expert than I could propose.  But it seems that getting this out quickly, letting the chips fall where they would, became the paramount concern.

Which brings me to the Torah Portion of the week.   We read in Parshat Bo of the Exodus from Egypt, and how, finally, Pharaoh not only lets the Israelites out of Egypt, but drives them out in a hurry.  On the Seder night we state, as one of the highlight moments:

מַצָּה זוֹ שֶׁאָנוֹ אוֹכְלִים, עַל שׁוּם מַה? עַל שׁוּם שֶׁלֹּא הִסְפִּיק בְּצֵקָם שֶׁל אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְהַחֲמִיץ עַד שֶׁנִּגְלָה עֲלֵיהֶם מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים, הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וּגְאָלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאפוּ אֶת-הַבָּצֵק אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם עֻגֹת מַצּוֹּת, כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ, כִּי גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לְהִתְמַהְמֵהַּ, וְגַם צֵדָה לֹא עָשׂוּ לָהֶם.

This Matzah that we eat, symbolizes what? It symbolizes the great haste with which we left Egypt -- haste such that we could not even wait for the dough to rise as we rushed out of Egypt.

This rushing that occurred is referred to several times in the Torah as חִפָּזוֹן֙ Chipazon, the great haste and speedy urgency with which the Exodus came.

It is very interesting that the prophet Yeshayahu, in referring to the time of the Moshiach says the following:

כִּ֣י לֹ֤א בְחִפָּזוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֔אוּ וּבִמְנוּסָ֖ה לֹ֣א תֵלֵכ֑וּן
כִּֽי־הֹלֵ֤ךְ לִפְנֵיכֶם֙ ה' וּמְאַסִּפְכֶ֖ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

For not with (Chipazon) haste shall you go forth and not in a flurry of flight shall you go, for the Lord goes before you. . .  (52:12)

The contrast is clearly drawn:  While at the Exodus from Egypt, an essential part of it was that you went out in haste, in the future it will be not in haste, but in slow deliberate progress.  Various commentaries, including the Maharal (Netzach 47) and Bnei Yisasschar (Nissan 8), make the point that the hasty exit from Egypt was not ideal, but rather was made necessary by the low spiritual level of the people, who were at the proverbial 49th level of Tum’ah (spiritual defilement); had they not  been taken out at that time, they would have never been able to  leave.  Without getting into that whole issue, the implication is clear that leaving in such a rush was a necessary evil.

The results of this hasty departure were quite evident later in the story.   The people demonstrated time and again that they were not really ready to leave Egypt, and although they were a great generation (Dor Deah), and  reached  awesome spiritual heights at Sinai, nevertheless after one bout of complaints after another, they eventually proved themselves unworthy to go into the promised land, and perished in the desert; only the next generation was ready to truly leave Egypt behind and to go into Eretz Yisrael.   In the future, however, the Geulah will come slowly (Kim’a Kim’a), bit by bit, as we move towards the Final redemption, as “all good things come and develop slowly”.  ( Shem M’Shmuel Shoftim 5676 quoting Midrash Shir Hashirim.  I will write more about this in continuing my series on the Isaac Covenant).

The danger of acting with chipazon is discussed earlier in the Torah as well, in the case of Reuven.  He is censured by his father in Parshas Vayechi, instead of getting a blessing, for acting Pachaz Kamayim , swiftly as water, and not properly thinking through the implications of his actions, resulting in tragic results.

This is a lesson that the Trump Administration might well take to heart.   It was important to hit the ground running, and to show that the President intended to take action and deliver on his election promises.  However, when issuing orders that have such huge ramifications, affect so many people, and  can be criticized so easily if things do  not go smoothly, time should have been taken to get it right.   The order was taken with too much chipazon, and thus caused unnecessary hardship and received avoidable criticism.  With his ill-planned haste, Trump did himself and those who could have easily seen the importance of this order a great disservice.

It is a lesson we all should take heed of and apply in all of our dealings, following the advice of the very first Mishna in Pirkei Avos: “Hevu Mesunim Badin”, be deliberate in judgment.   Although it is, of course,  often important to move quickly and not  delay unnecessarily, at the same time it is crucial to take the time to think things through and plan properly, for the betterment of all.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Miracle that is Ivanka Trump

Virtually every Rabbi started their sermon this past Shabbos with a similar theme, I am quite sure.  The juxtaposition of the inauguration of President Trump with the verse from Parshat Shmos “And a new King arose” was too providential to ignore.   No matter what one thinks, in this very divided country, about the new President, it is certainly an exciting time to be living, with great promise of change in the air.

In the Orthodox Jewish community, of course, there is particular excitement, given that, for the first time, Orthodox Jews have such proximity to the most powerful human on the planet (at least for the next few years).   The long list includes Jason Greenblatt, special representative for international negotiations, David Friedman, Ambassador to Israel, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is clearly Trump’s most trusted advisor and right hand man.   The President has made it abundantly clear that he is very pro-Israel and intends to try to undo much of the damage that the Obama administration has been complicit in; Nikki Haley, his choice for UN Ambassador, could not have given a more pro-Israel speech at her confirmation. (It increasingly astonishes me how willfully blind the Jewish left is in accusing Trump of being anti-Semitic, of all things.)   Surely this is yet another manifestation of the "Isaac Covenant" times that I have been writing about lately (Please see here for more on this important topic).

She brings honor and respect to Torah and our way of life in a way unparalleled perhaps since Queen Esther

But, of course, the Orthodox Jew who is closest to him – and who we are most blessed to have as one of us – is his amazing daughter, Yael (Ivanka) Trump.  Extraordinarily well-spoken, intelligent, beautiful and successful, she is a walking Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d - the highest mitzvah a Jew can do) as she brings honor and respect to Torah and our way of life in a way unparalleled perhaps since Queen Esther.

Having written those words, I know that while hopefully most readers will agree with them, there are those who will feel that I have gone too far.   “Kiddush Hashem?” they will exclaim.  “Many of her clothing choices do not conform to Halachic standards of Tzniyus that we expect in our communities.” “She doesn’t cover her hair as a married woman should”.   “She does not seem to be as careful about physical contact (negiah) with members of the opposite gender as we generally consider acceptable.”  And this week, a new charge.   She and Jared sought and got a “Hetter” (Rabbinic Ruling) allowing them to be driven in a car on Shabbos (Sabbath) to attend the inauguration festivities, including photo sessions and even going into a church.     Most unfortunately, some even went as far as to question the validity of her conversion, given these deviations from the standards that they are accustomed to.

This attitude is most unfortunate, and (potentially) extremely harmful.   It shows an ignorance of some basic Hilchos Geirus (Laws of Conversion) and – as is all too often the case among us – belies a lack of tolerance for those with other viewpoints and standards than our own.   

This short article is not the place to go into this complex area of Halacha, but even a cursory look at Yoreh Deah 268 will show that – at the most basic level – what is required for a proper conversion is a deep desire to become a part of the Jewish People, to seek to share in their destiny with all of its difficulties, coupled with a complete acceptance of the obligatory nature of Halacha (Jewish Law) as presented to the potential candidate by the converting Rabbi and Bet Din, who themselves must be properly qualified to be Dayanim.

In the case of Ivanka, the Halachic community that she was introduced to by her potential husband (a graduate of the co-ed Modern Orthodox Frisch school) was the Modern Orthodox community of the upper East Side of Manhattan.   The shul that she attended and wherein she received her training in Judaism and Halacha was Kehillath Jeshurun, led by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.   In that community, as opposed to many communities that I have been privileged to be part of, standards of tznius, negiah and hair covering are quite liberal; what is considered perfectly acceptable – and in fact modest and dignified  there, would be considered wholly unacceptable in most other Orthodox communities.   Those are the standards that she was presented with, and it is on the basis of a completely sincere acceptance of those standards that the Bet Din converted her.

My aim in this essay is not to discuss the propriety of the standards of that community; that is between them, their spiritual leaders, and the Almighty.[1] 

Rather, I seek to make a simple point.  When Ivanka undertook a commitment to follow Halacha upon completing her conversion, I have full confidence (more below) that she fully accepted on herself to follow all of the Halacha as presented to her by the teachers that she had.   Given this, and the fact that she has, in fact, lived by those commitments, she is 100% fully Jewish.  As such, she must be accepted with love by us as a Ger Tzedek (Righteous Convert), who we are commanded on twenty six separate occasions in the Torah to love and cherish – and not Heaven forbid to cause pain to – by questioning her integrity and Halachic validity.

Why am I so convinced that this was a proper Geirus?  What about the questions raised above? Is it not well known that the Bais Din Harabbani HaGadol (BHG -The supreme Israeli Rabbinical Court) recently questioned Rabbi Lookstein’s conversions?  My conviction is based on one important reason:  The Conversion was done by the Manhattan chapter of the Beth Din of America under the GPS (Geirus Policies and Standards) system.  Permit me to explain.

While it is true that Rabbi Lookstein has a long and distinguished career of not only being the Rabbi at KJ, but of also being the Head of the Ramaz school and a professor of Rabbinics at Yeshiva University, and is considered a Rabbi’s Rabbi, he has nevertheless taken certain public positions that were viewed as quite controversial over the years.  As I have no desire, nor am I in any position, to judge him, I will not go into any detail here.  Nevertheless, one position that he took is important in understanding this issue.   That was his public opposition  to the call of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) to have all of its member Rabbonim perform their conversion through the auspices of the GPS system.

The GPS system is, in my view, the single greatest achievement of the RCA.   While all know of the infamous “Who is a Jew” question regarding Conservative and Reform conversions, it is less well known that there are serious problems within the “Orthodox” Rabbinate, where for a variety of unfortunate reasons, some Rabbis “convert” people who do not have a sincere Kabbalat (acceptance of) Mitzvot and  thereby cause enormous problems.  From the RCA website, “GPS was established to aid potential converts to Judaism, while at the same time diminishing thorny questions of personal status. For years, conversion had been performed in ad hoc fashion by local rabbis, but without detailed mutually agreed upon standards and procedures. While the vast majority of conversions were handled appropriately, some were not. As a result, in recent years even those who had fulfilled the halachic requirements were finding their conversions unfairly questioned and scrutinized - not just in Israel but in many Orthodox communities to which they or their children had moved.”  To solve this problem, the GPS set up a system of regional Courts with policies and standards that will allows converts to be confident that their conversion will be recognized and prevents Rabbis from being put under pressure to convert people for ulterior motives.

For his own reasons (although Rabbi Lookstein was originally involved in the GPS formation) he is unhappy with what he sees as its rigidity, and has joined with some other RCA Rabbis in opposing it.  From what I am able to gather, this was perhaps the main reason that the BHG did not want to accept his private, non-GPS conversions.  Be that as it may, when it came to the very high profile conversion of Ivanka Trump, Rabbi Lookstein wisely chose to guide her conversion through the GPS system and the conversion was officiated by the Bet Din of America.

And that is good enough for me, as it should be for everyone in the Jewish community.

And that is why I think that all the “frum police” who are engaging in commenting and yenta-ing, whether on online forums such as Facebook and Twitter or at the shul Kiddush need to stop.   They have no right to question or criticize her level of observance, or the choices that Jared and Ivanka have made, any more than any of us
  who are so imperfect in our treatment of others, and lashon hara, and limmud hatorah, and tefilla   have a right to criticize anyone else.   

For those interested, there certainly is halachic precedent, brought in the Bet Yosef YD 178:2  (and the Taz and Prisha and Darkei Teshuvah ad. loc.) for one who is  קרוב למלכות  – in a position of close proximity to the ruler, where they can avert trouble from the Jewish people – that certain Rabbinic prohibitions, e.g. being driven on Shabbos in a car, may be set aside if need be to maintain their position with the ruler.  I do not know if this was the basis of the hetter they obtained, but one should be דן לכף זכות (assume the positive)  that they asked the Shayla (Halachic Query) of a legitimate Rov who gave them this answer.  

Certainly, the famous maxim  אַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ (Do not Judge another until you stand in their place - Avot 2:4) ought to apply.  None of us can know what sorts of intense pressures from the media, family, and everyone around them they are living with every day, and what sorts of compromises they are constantly being pressured to make.  And they have come through in a way that is making  שם שמים מתאהב , making Hashem and Torah look beautiful to the world while living under that incredible spotlight.

One might wish that instead of getting a “Hetter” to attend the inaugural ball on Friday night and be driven home (ostensibly because of the pikuah nefesh situation caused by many who were expressing their fear of how Trump will destroy America by destroying what they could of a great American city) they would have stayed home and perhaps have the President drop by for a l’chaim.  One certainly wishes that the spiritual and Torah aspirations of Jared and Ivanka will grow over time, leading them to take on more of the traditional ways of Halacha.   I do not know what the future will bring, nor any more details about where “they are holding” right now.   I take them at their word that their commitment to Halacha as they understand it is strong and deep.

One thing, however, I can predict with great certainty.  None of the snarky comments and questions about the legitimacy of her conversion or the level of their observance will draw them closer to observance; they are far more likely to drive them in the other direction.

Let us celebrate wonderful this gift that Hashem has given us in having such attractive and prominent models of serious Jews in our time.   My readers know that although I had many misgivings about Donald Trump as President, I think that if he can hold his negative side in check he is capable of being a great force for the good.  It is well known that the person who can influence him best in this direction, is “our” Yael.   

May she have the strength and courage to help her father stand up for all that is good in the very strange times in which we live, and may we come to properly appreciate Hashem’s putting her neshama in this very special place as she works for the betterment of the USA and Am Yisrael.

[1] I also will not discuss in this essay the difference between the “Very Modern Orthodox” community and “Open Orthodoxy”, which I consider to be beyond the pale, in that their deviations extend beyond mere levels of observance to fundamental matters of faith.  I have discussed related matters elsewhere .