Saturday, September 29, 2018

Memories and Teshuva: What can we learn from the Kavanagh circus

My sister Lisy and I have an ongoing dispute for many years; we have mutually decided that it will be resolved only after 120 when we can “review the videotape”.  She insists that, many years ago, she and I went to see West Side Story at a cinema, and that I embarrassed her by singing along loudly with the soundtrack.   I know that — after hearing my mom’s record many times as a child — I first saw the film much later life.   We are both absolutely certain that we are right, and that the other is totally mistaken.   At the same time, neither of us thinks that the other is lying; I think that she is nuts and vice versa.

Clearly, memories work in strange ways.  Whether “what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget”, or whether we choose to remember things differently than the way they really happened, it is quite common that our vivid memories, or lack of memory, may have little resemblance to what actually happened in the past.  Especially so when dealing with traumatic events, or in cases when one wishes to remember something a certain way, memories are notorious for playing tricks on people in ways unbeknownst to them.  I have had countless experiences as a Rabbi and an attorney in which I witnessed people who were present at the same event as I and claimed to remember it very differently, or when they claimed to remember an event, that upon some probing, turned out to have happened substantially differently than first reported.

It should be fairly obvious that it is hard for a fair-minded observer to decide whether to believe the memory of a long-ago trauma vividly recounted by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, or the deeply heartfelt total denial of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.  Like millions of others, I was riveted to the all-day gut-wrenching event and saw two very compelling performances.  One interesting commentary wrote, “The Kavanaugh Hearing Is Not ‘He Said, She Said’.   It’s ‘She Remembers What He Did, He Doesn’t’”. I think, however, that it is more complicated than that.

Dr. Ford remembers an event that may or may not have happened the way she remembers it, given the tricks that memories play on us.  While it is fairly clear that she did have a very traumatic experience about thirty-two years ago, there are several major problems with her story, such as:

  • She cannot remember the date, time, or place of the event with any certainty.
  • All the witnesses that she claimed would corroborate her story have denied knowledge of it
  • There is no other corroboration to be had.
  • Several of her statements clearly deviated from the truth, such as her alleged inability to fly in for the hearing, when it turns out that she is a frequent international traveler, and she denied knowing what the whole country knew – that the Committee had offered to come to California to hear her testimony.
  • Another man has come forward claiming that he, in fact, was the perpetrator.

And so on.   As for Judge Kavanaugh, it is clear that as a youth he drank often, that some of the groups he was associated with had questionable sexual standards, and that it is possible that something that he claims not to remember did, in fact, happen, at least to some extent.

For if there are undeniably clear villains in this sordid matter, they are Senators Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein and other Democrat Senators, who declared that they would oppose the nomination “with everything they had”, even before the nominee was announced.

I am pleased that Senator Flake asked for exactly what I would have wanted: a strictly time-limited FBI investigation into the new revelations, to see if they could uncover anything that was still knowable about this long-ago event to help clear away lingering doubts.  It is crucial that the one-week limit is strictly adhered to; this would ensure that the dirty politics underlying this whole affair would not be a factor.   For if there are undeniably clear villains in this sordid matter, they are Senators Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein and other Democrat Senators, who declared that they would oppose the nomination “with everything they had”, even before the nominee was announced.  Judge Kavanaugh was absolutely right in decrying that they had changed their senatorial function from “Advice and Consent” to “Search and Destroy”, and engaged in pure character assassination, surpassing what was done to Judge Bork.

As Piers Morgan put it “The Democrats, led by Senator Dianne Feinstein, timed this bombshell to cause maximum damage to the nomination process, and to exploit the inevitable scandalous headlines to influence the vital midterm elections in just 40 days time.
Feinstein knew about Ford’s allegation two months ago. The right thing to do would have been to publicly demand an immediate investigation – including, if necessary, by the FBI.
Instead, she held it back, waiting to strike when the potential political gain was at its most timely...
Shame on Senator Feinstein, shame on the Democrats.
That such an important moment in American history should be reduced to this horrific bear-pit is as absurd as it’s unacceptable.
Every American who genuinely cares about their country should share my outrage about what they watched today... The whole thing was a complete and utter disgrace.
Or as Senator Lindsey Graham put it today: ‘The most despicable thing I have ever seen in politics.’ "

Furthermore, the total abdication of basic principles of liberty, such as "innocent until proven guilty" by the supposed champions of "liberalism" has been totally disgraceful.   While the #MeToo movement has prompted much-needed change in societal attitudes, one must remember that there are too many cases of false sexual assault charges -- going back at least to Mrs. Potiphar against Joseph -- to reject the automatic belief of any woman making an unsubstantiated claim, as too many have done.

I will not comment here about the importance of this Supreme Court nomination, (see what I have written previously here and here). As things stand now, unless the FBI investigation unexpectedly comes up with corroboration for Dr. Ford’s story, it is clear to me that there is insufficient evidence to sink Judge Kavanaugh’s credible denial, and the Democrats should not be awarded for their despicable behavior by having the nomination postponed until after the election.  

However, I am taking the time to write on Hoshana Rabba eve in order to comment on what we might be able to take away from this in terms of our own experience.

if deep in one’s heart one knows that one is still struggling with the same issue(s) and has not really let go of that negative action or tendency, and perhaps still find themselves tempted to succumb to the same type of indiscretion, then their teshuva is obviously still incomplete.

When this allegation first came to light, I had the wonderful privilege of visiting with my Rebbe, Rav Michel Twerski שליט"א in Milwaukee for Shabbos Shuva.  I asked him, “This has caused me to think --What if there is something that I did in my past that I quite embarrassed about, that I suspect has hurt someone else who may not have fully forgiven me, or still makes me shudder when I think of it?  I have repented often on Yom Kippurs past – is this something that I still have to carry now?  How do I approach Yom Kippur with this feeling?

He gave an entire shiur in answer, and I can only hope to capture a smidgen of it here.  But if I remember correctly, the essence of it was – it depends.  There are youthful indiscretions or other matters in one’s past that required teshuva and repentance.  If one has a deep sincere inner feeling that they have truly worked through those issues, and have since grown and accomplished a sincere change of character, and as the Rambam (Teshuva 2:4) says, are capable of saying “I am no longer that person”, then they need to put that in the past and not let it interfere with their current life and Avodas Hashem.  They need to believe that the power of teshuva atones for sins, and we are given a clean slate and should focus on the present and the future.

However, if deep in one’s heart one knows that one is still struggling with the same issue(s) and has not really let go of that negative action or tendency, and perhaps still find themselves tempted to succumb to the same type of indiscretion, then their teshuva is obviously still incomplete.  Even then, the healthy way of dealing with it (according to Hassidic tradition) is still primarily by focusing on acting positively rather than wallowing in the shmutz of the past.  (He quoted the Rebbe of Kotzk as saying that if you spend time dealing with mud, you will inevitably get muddy).   But certainly, part of Yom Kippur should be about still trying to let go of the ugly past, and asking for help in finally making that break for a better future.

In the case of Judge Kavanaugh, even ASSUMING that he is truly not remembering an event that did happen long ago, it seems clear to me that he is no Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Bill Clinton or Bill Cosby, who in their adult lives continued their despicable and lecherous behavior, and fully deserve all of the censure and shame that has come upon them.  Although Brett Kavanaugh has not repented for this alleged act (which he appears to truly not recall ever happening), he has for the last thirty years by all accounts led a model and virtuous life that bespeaks a different person, incapable of such actions (hence his very raw emotions and pain on display in his visceral denial).  Given that there is (so far) far too little to corroborate the account of his accuser, and given who he is today, I would hope that he will be confirmed by the Senate and faithfully decide cases according to the Constitution’s original intent for many years to come.

And in dealing with the skeletons in our own closets, let us hope that we did our best in this season of Teshuva in truly affecting the necessary changes in our persona, and rejoice in the joy that our Father in Heaven allows us by cleaning our slate, and move forward in life with Simcha and fulfillment. 

May we merit to be among those who will be privileged to dance at the Simchat Bet HaShoeva in the Bet HaMikdash, who would be able to say: Happy is our old age, that atoned for our youth when we sinned. (Talmud Sukka 53a)

Monday, August 13, 2018

There is no such thing as an Ir Hanidachas -- Wayward City -- If WE care enough

This past Shabbos we encountered the very difficult topic of עיר הנדחת  (Ir Hanidachas), a wayward city of idolaters.  The entire city and its inhabitants and wealth are to be destroyed and burnt – a terrible result.  Some of our sages say that “there never was, nor will there ever be, an עיר הנדחת, and it appears in the Torah only for some lessons that we can learn” (Sanhedrin 71a). 

I have heard Rabbi Yissochor Frand שליט"א say on several occasions that when he was growing up in Seattle, they considered the Jewish community in Portland, Oregon to be a virtual עיר הנדחת.  The community seemed so irredeemably lost to Torah-true Judaism that there was no hope that anything positive would come from it.  Surely that was meant hyperbolically; it has been proven quite wrong, as a wonderful community has developed since the days when we had the privilege of planting some seeds.  But living now as the only Shomer Shabbos family in Lavon, I contemplated whether the עיר הנדחת concept is indeed possible.

Case in point —After barely getting a minyan together last Shabbos morning (which happened only with the help of my three guests; in the summer it is more difficult as people are going on tiyulim), we sat down to a Shabbos Seudah followed by zemiros.   We began singing Koh Echsof with much harmony and feeling and were thoroughly enjoying the warm kedusha of that beautiful melody, when a knock came at the door.  Hassidic stories flashed through my memory of the power of Neginah to melt the hearts of those far away from observance, and we answered the door, hoping that someone had been moved to join us in enjoying the Shabbos spirit.  My neighbor stood in the doorway, and we heartily wished him “Shabbat Shalom!”, ready to invite him to join us.  “Shabbat is supposed to be a day of rest,” he informed us.  “You’re making too much noise here – I am trying to get some sleep before my outing later today!”   We apologized for disturbing his Shabbat . . . and wondered what hope there was of making a dent in this secular Yishuv. 

Our greatest success is when we present ourselves as praying with and for the community, and not making our case based on our individual merits, great as they might be.

But a fascinating Rambam made me think again. He writes in regard to an עיר הנדחת, that after establishing that the city is guilty:

They send two Torah sages to warn them and to motivate them to repentance. If they repent, it is good. If they continue their wicked ways, the court commands the entire Jewish people to take up arms against them.
Hilchos Avoda Zara 4:6

Apparently, if they do Teshuva, the Court will not exercise judgment against them.  The Ra’avad  protests that this cannot be true:
It is certainly good if they repent, but I have not found anywhere that repentance mitigates after due warning and action 
(ad loc.)

The Ra’avad argues that Teshuva can only change a judgment of the Heavenly Court.  If, before sentencing, a convicted murderer says to the Court “I sincerely repent and will never again do this”, it has no effect on the sentence.  The law is clear; “A human court cannot change a decree because of repentance”. (Makkos 13b).   What can the Rambam possibly mean here?

Many have grappled with this Rambam, but the recent Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l explains it in a way that is important for us to absorb as we begin Elul and the season of Teshuvah.  He notes (vol 9, Re’eh, essay 2) that the essential law of עיר הנדחת pertains to an entire Tzibbur (community – in this case a city) that succumbs to idolatry.  This is a terrible and frightful phenomenon that must be eradicated.  However, if the sin was committed only by individuals, the public effect is much lower and the pursuant consequences are far less grave.   What the Rambam is saying, explains the Rebbe, is not that Teshuva takes away the guilty status – that can indeed not be undone by a human court.  But Teshuvah is transformational; no longer will it be seen as a communal sin, but rather as an act committed by some (or even many) individuals.  The community, Knesses Yisroel, remains intact.  Although it has always been true that there are individual sinners, an עיר הנדחת “never was and never will be”, for the teshuva that surely took place by some individuals removed them from that ignoble status.

Rav Mordechai Elon drew a comparison between this and a wonderful insight by Rav Shlomo Kluger on a well-known question raised in the Yerushalmi regarding Rosh Hashana.  If any of us faced a court appearance in which our lives and those of our loved ones were in jeopardy, we would be in an anxious and somber mood, not wearing festive clothing and eating celebratory meals – but that is just what we do on Rosh HaShanah.  How do we hold this dichotomy in hand?

The answer brought in the Tur exclaims (text below):

What a people this is 

that knows the nature of her G-d!
We know the nature of Hashem — that he will forgive us.  What does this mean, however?   Is Rosh HaShana a charade?   Do we not say that on Rosh Hashana it is decided who will live and who will die; who will prosper and who will suffer...?  Do we not see all too often that a negative decree has descended on so many?  What can Chazal possibly mean?

Rav Kluger says that we should know that there are two types of judgment on Rosh Hashana; that concerning the community, and that concerning the individual (or many individuals).

Regarding individuals, there are no guarantees.  We may be acquitted, or chas veshalom not.  We may be in for a year of joy and happiness, or G-d forbid the reverse.  Concerning that judgment, we really ought to be concerned – and it does seem to be absurd to celebrate on Rosh Hashanah.  

However, there is another judgment that also comes on Rosh Hashana -- that of the fate of the community as a whole.  And even though there may be many who prosecute against the Jewiswh people, both on Heaven and earth, and say that we are not deserving of His Grace, we are confident that the “Eternal One of Israel shall not be changed nor falsified”(I Samuel 15: ), and that the community and the Jewish people will be given the strength to go on to accomplish our Eternal mission.  And it is thus that we take solace and comfort and confidence that whatever may happen with us as individuals, we will be found worthy as a community in G-d’s judgment. (see text of Midrash below)

Of course, in order to accomplish this, one must strive to be within the community and for the community – the whole community of Israel.   We must seek to emulate the Shunamite woman, who – when asked by Elisha whether she has any personal requests – said, “I sit amongst my people”.  The Holy Zohar (below) says that Elisha was specifically asking her before Rosh Hashana whether she wished that he intercede for her before the Great King.  She taught us all that this is not the way – our greatest success is when we present ourselves as praying with and for the community, and not making our case based on our individual merits, great as they might be.

Here in Lavon – and in other similar communities that Ayelet HaShachar is reaching out to – it is easy to feel that the odds of reaching out to those far away are insurmountable.  But as I told my almost minyan this past Shabbat, the fact that a few of us are coming together to daven and to try to form a minyan surely makes an impression in Heaven.  No, we are not a “עיר הנדחת”- a totally secular community.  We are the holy community of Lavon, where there are Jews observing Shabbat at some level, striving to come together to daven, who all love and respect each other as fellow Jews.   And yes, there are many who do not join us, and perhaps never will.  But they are respectful toward us, and we are all part of Klal Yisrael. 

And in all other communities in the Jewish world as well, to the extent that we see ourselves as part of a greater whole — who love and care about each other, and who know that we all are precious brothers and sisters — we  have confidence as we approach the Yom Hadin that we will be signed and sealed – as a community – for a good and hopefully sweet New Year.
Text of Tur
א"ר סימון כתיב כי מי גוי גדול וגומר ר' חנינא ור' יהושע אומרין איזו אומה כאומה זו שיודעת אופיה של אלהיה פי' מנהגיו ודיניו שמנהגו של עולם אדם שיש לו דין לובש שחורים ומתעטף שחורים ומגדל זקנו ואין חותך צפרניו לפי שאינו יודע איך יצא דינו אבל ישראל אינן כן לובשים לבנים ומתעטפים לבנים ומגלחין זקנם ומחתכין צפרניהם ואוכלין ושותין ושמחים בר"ה לפי שיודעין שהקב"ה יעשה להם נס לפיכך נוהגין לספר ולכבס בער"ה ולהרבות מנות בר"ה ומכאן תשובה למתענין בר"ה ונוהגין באשכנז שאין נפילת אפים בער"ה כמו בשאר עי"ט אף על פי שנופלין על פניהם בבקר באשמורת:
טור אורח חיים הלכות ראש השנה סימן תקפא

Text of Midrash
כך בר"ה כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, אף ישראל עומדין לפניו בדין, ואומות העולם אומרים אנו זכינו ונצחנו בדין, ואין אדם יודע מי נצח, אם ישראל אם עו"א, עבר ר"ה, וכל ישראל באים ביו"כ ומתענין, ומתעטפין לבנים, עבר יו"כ ואין אדם יודע למי נמחלו עונותיו, אם לישראל אם לעובדי אלילים, כיון שהגיע יום טוב ראשון של חג, כל ישראל וצאין, הקטנים והגדולים ולולביהן בידיהם, מיד הכל יודעין שנצחו ישראל בדין, 

ונמחלו עונותיהם, שנאמר נצח ישראל וגו'.
ילקוט שמעוני תהלים רמז תרע
Text of Zohar

ותא חזי שונמית כד אמר לה אלישע (מלכים ב' ד') היש לדבר לך אל המלך או אל שר הצבא, היש לדבר לך אל המלך ההוא יומא יום טוב דראש השנה הוה וההוא יומא דמלכותא דרקיעא שלטא למידן עלמא וקודשא בריך הוא אקרי מלך המשפט בההוא זמנא, ובגין כך אמר לה היש לדבר לך אל המלך, מה כתיב ותאמר בתוך עמי אנכי יושבת, מאי קאמרה לא בעינא למהוי רשימאה לעילא אלא לאעלאה רישאי בין סגיאין ולא לאפקא מכללא דלהון וכך בעי ליה לבר נש לאתכללא בכללא דסגיאין ולא לאתייחדא בלחודוי בגין דלא ישגחון עליה לאדכרא חובוי כדקאמרן,

זוהר כרך א (בראשית) פרשת ויצא דף קס עמוד ב

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Disgraceful Attack on the Chief Rabbinate

People seek fame and recognition by many means -- some make positive contributions while others seek to tear others down.  

Seth Farber belongs in the latter category.  His goal is to be the “enlightened” voice of Orthodoxy, and his modus operandi is to tear down the legitimacy of existing Orthodox institutions, particularly the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. 

In a particularly egregious example, Farber last week caused a huge Chilul Hashem by slandering the Chief Rabbinate in the New York Times, with his essay Fighting for Judaism in the Jewish State.  He succeeded in giving its large readership of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews a maliciously false and negative impression of that institution, in order to further his personal agenda.

After stating “valiantly” that “I am an Orthodox Rabbi dedicating my life to breaking the Ultra-Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life in Israel”, Farber set out a laundry list of complaints and talking points that actually have little to do with (a) the Chief Rabbinate or (b) the so-called Ultra-Orthodox. 

Briefly, his complaints are the following:

  • 1) A conservative rabbi was questioned in the early morning by the police because he was trying to perform a marriage.   The truth is that:
  • The reason he was being questioned was not that he is a non-orthodox rabbi -- standard policy for a long time has been to not enforce this law and many non-Rabbanut rabbis have performed marriages in Israel, and
  • The main reason that he was being questioned is that he was about to perform a marriage of someone who was considered a “mamzer”, which would result in severe future consequences in Israel, and
  • It is standard practice that police arrive to pick people up for questioning early in the morning: this had nothing to to do with the Rabbinate.

  • 2) The new Nation-State law makes some people (Arabs and other non-Jews) feel second class in Israel.

    Aside from the fact that the law says nothing of the kind, only affirming that Israel is a firmly a Jewish State, this has nothing to do with the Chief Rabbinate, but rather is the brainchild of various groups on the right, including many Religious Zionists.  It certainly has nothing to do with the Ultra-Orthodox, who may have voted for it but did not sponsor nor promote it.

  • 3) Gay couples are not allowed to have a child using a surrogate. 

    Again, there are many reasons that reasonable people might conclude that a child should have a mother and a father - the surrogacy Law was rejected by the Knesset on the recommendation of a committee of experts it had formed - mostly secular. Again, this has nothing to do with religious coercion or the Chief Rabbinate or the Ultra-Orthodox

  • 4) A “new” law would give the Chief Rabbinate “unprecedented power” over conversions. 

    Again, the “Who is a Jew” question is an old one, and there is nothing really new happening, other than that the Orthodox population in trying to maintain the status quo that has existed since the founding of the State, in which conversions must be Halachically acceptable to be valid.

And so on and so forth.

The truth is that the Chief Rabbinate is valiantly trying to hold the line so that Israel does not fall into the huge problems that exist in the rest of the Jewish world, in which the very Jewishness and personal identity of people who consider themselves Jewish must be questioned.   When I was a Rabbi in a West Coast city, a young woman named Shaina Schwartz (similar name - slightly changed) asked me to perform her wedding.  It turns out that although her father is Jewish her mother had a reform conversion, and thus she is not Halachically Jewish. Her sister, Fruma, was born from a mother who married her father after not having a proper get, and was therefore possibly a mamzeret.   That is, according to the Orthodox.  However, in the reform temple wherein they had their Bat mitzvah they were considered fully Jewish eligible to marry other Jews because of their doctrine of patrilineal descent and the acceptance of civil divorce as halachically sufficient.

The Chief Rabbinate is determined to keep problems like this out of Israel.   The supposedly “Orthodox Rabbi” Seth Farber is determined to oppose that -- by smearing the Chief Rabbinate and the “Ultra-Orthodox”.

The truth is that the Chief Rabbinate, despite Seth Farber's calumnies, is NOT an “Ultra-Orthodox” institution.  Very few Chareidim rely on the Rabbanut Hechsher on food, they prefer their own Hashgachot.  Very few, if any, Chareidim look to the Rabbanut or the Chief Rabbis for Psak Halacha or spiritual guidance; in fact, in the more extreme Ultra-Orthodox circles, the Chief Rabbinate is unfortunately vilified even worse than by Farber for being too Zionist and too lenient.  While many of the employees of the Chief Rabbinate are Chareidi, this is mainly because the most qualified candidates tend to come from those circles (although there really ought to be more Religious Zionist employees as well).  In short - the Chief Rabbinate is far from being an Ultra-Orthodox institution.

I am fully aware that the Chief Rabbinate does have its warts, and deserves some criticism.  The fact that a former Chief Rabbi is sitting in jail for corruption is a huge and awful Chillul Hashem. Furthermore, there have been far too many reports of people being treated poorly by the bureaucratic hacks who work there.  And there is too much job patronage going on, where it is difficult for someone without "protektzia" to find a position within it.

Nevertheless, most “Ultra-Orthodox” would agree that the Chief Rabbinate plays a vital role in maintaining at least minimum standards, so that the Jewish State can remain a place where Jews of all types can function.  They ensure that – at least – the lowest level of Kashrut is maintained in the food industry. (This is the reason that those who truly are concerned about Kashrut want a more stringent hechsher).  They ensure that situations like the Schwartz family (described above) do not happen in Israel. And they ensure that those who wish to join the Jewish people through conversion undertake at least a minimally serious commitment to observe Halacha.

Why does the Chief Rabbinate (thankfully) have this power?  It is a vestige of the pre-state Turkish law norms that prevailed even before the Mandate that placed personal status matters are in the hands of the religious authority.   Similar to the rules in many European countries, every person was assigned a religious authority that they would adhere to. Thus in Israel today, marriages between Muslims are handled by the Waqf, between Christians by the Church, and between Jews by the Chief Rabbinate.   This was not a power grab by the Chief Rabbinate -- it is just a continuation of the status quo.   

And Orthodox Jews, particularly Orthodox Rabbis, ought to get down on their knees and be grateful for this status quo, as this ensures the proper continuity of at least minimal standards in matters of personal status.  The standards that the Chief Rabbinate strives mightily to uphold – despite fierce opposition – is not for the sake of the Orthodox; the Orthodox will uphold standards for themselves with or without the Chief Rabbinate.  The Chief Rabbinate is upholding these standards for Klal Yisrael, for the multitudes of Jews of all types, so that at least minimal standards of Kashrut, personal status, conversion etc are upheld by the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, the Farbers of the world are trying to break down this authority by pandering to the emotions of people who are unaware of the true issues and of the lies that they are being fed.  Farber claims to be an “Orthodox Rabbi”; he, in fact, is advocating for the acceptance of reform and conservative Judaism.  Farber claims to be fighting the “Ultra-Orthodox”; in fact, he is attacking all of Torah true Orthodox Jews, right left, and center, including Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist,  all of whom are opposed to his agenda.  (Note:  Farber represents only the “Open Orthodox”, which in many ways, as evidenced here, has placed itself outside the Orthodox camp - See here for a recent important article on the subject.).

We in the Orthodox camp - of all stripes - need to counter this falsehood and support the efforts of the Chief Rabbinate, and of the very worthy current Chief Rabbis.

Note: A slightly edited version of this essay appeared in the Jewish Press

Friday, August 3, 2018

My Fifteen Minutes of Fame - some media write-ups of our Aliyah to Lavon

     The thousands of regular readers of this blog  might be interested to know that fortune smiled on Lonni and I twice last week, and we received some attention in the media.  I assume that it is because the Lord wills that we be a vehicle to publicize the wonderful work that Ayelet HaShachar is doing.  

     The part that we have been privileged to play will hopefully serve as an inspiration for many others to follow in our footsteps and come home to Eretz Yisrael, and hopefully do so in a way that will make an impact for others.

Below the following letter that I wrote to Rabbinical colleagues, appear the two media pieces that were written about us: one in the Queens Jewish Link (with pictures of Lonni) and one in Mishpacha (without).

If anyone is interested in hearing more about this or joining Ayelet HaShachar, please contact me at

Shabbat Shalom!!!

Dear Chaveirim

I want to let you know about something that I have been doing for the past few months since I had the great zechus to come on Aliya, that hopefully will interest more than a few of you.

I have been wanting to come live in Eretz Yisrael again during my many years of absence.  I told myself that I was accomplishing more by serving Kehillos in Chutz LaAretz than I could in Eretz Yisrael.  After all, as it is well known, unless you are a superstar Rabbi or have “protektzia”, it is very hard for American Rabbonim to find a position in Eretz Yisrael that will provide not only income but some degree of sipuk Hanefesh.  This is due to at least two reasons:
  • ·        The Supply/Demand ratio of Rabbonim to positions is very skewed to the supply side; there are too many candidates for any available position
  • ·        Although I believe it is very much needed, Israelis do not see the value in an American style kehilla Rav.  They look at shul as a place to daven, period, and often go to multiple shuls for various tefillos, and learn and socialize elsewhere.
  • ·        It is rare to find a position that provides a full-time income, and additional income is not easy to come by.
As a result, there are many American Rabbonim who came to retire in Israel who end up feeling “useless”, underutilized and unappreciated, knowing that they still have much to give but not finding an outlet for their talents.  Given this, I stayed in my shtellers for twenty plus years in America.

However, as I approached age 60, my feelings of אם לא עכשיו אימתי grew progressively stronger.  I wanted to come to Israel when I felt I still בע"ה have enough years to still make a significant contribution. Additionally, I knew that with the movement in American Rabbonus to hiring young Rabbonim who can draw in younger families, my options in America were very limited once I decided to leave Forest Hills.

To make a long story short, after doing much research in Israel, I was introduced to a wonderful organization called Ayelet HaShachar, run by Rav Shlomo Ra’anan.  They do many wonderful things — including the Israeli version of Partners in Torah, building shuls in outlying communities, establishing kiruv type Kollels in outlying areas and other work — but there was something of special interest for me, and I hope, for some of you.

Ayelet HaShachar pioneered the idea of moving frum families into completely secular communities, with no overt agenda other than to be a good neighbor, foster relationships, and model how frum Jews are different than the negative stereotypes that they have from the mostly anti-religious Israeli media.  Over time, couples who have done this have often been successful in doing wonderful outreach work, not by lecturing at and trying to persuade people through preaching, but by giving love, openness, non-judgmental acceptance, and modeling a Torah lifestyle.

My move to Lavon, however, represents a new phase for Ayelet HaShachar. As an American, there are fewer barriers that are needed to overcome; everyone likes welcoming an idealistic Oleh Chadash who wants to come and live with them.  Furthermore, as an “older couple” who are basically empty-nesters, we do not have chinuch issues to contend with, and thus are able to make a longer-term commitment to living in a secular community than a young Avreich who may have to leave after a few years.  Baruch Hashem, it has been going quite well, as the recent article in Mishpacha magazine (attached) describes.  Ayelet HaShachar has helped me move here in many ways, including help with paying the rent, logistical support, programming and general chizuk.

I write here today to let you know about this opportunity.   If there is someone who wants to explore this option for themselves or someone they know, or if they know of generous individuals who might be interested in helping to sponsor this wonderful organization, please be in touch with me.

Hatzlacha to all,

Yehuda L. Oppenheimer


original Queens Jewish Link Article viewable here


Excerpt of Mishpacha article viewable here.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Why is Roe v Wade so important – Especially during the Three Weeks

By the time you read this essay, we will all know the name of President Trump’s second Supreme Court pick.  One thing, however, we already know with absolute certainty.  The person, whoever they will be, will be strenuously opposed by the democrat party. “President Trump hasn’t even announced his Supreme Court nominee and already liberal advocacy groups are pumping millions into campaigns pressuring Republican lawmakers to oppose his pick”, say the media reports.

Why all the hysteria? Why the enormous gloom and doom?  Why does Senator Schumer say that we are dealing with “the most important vacancy on the Supreme Court in our lifetimes”? (Besides the seemingly inevitable labeling of virtually every issue du jour as the “most important in history” . . .)

Of course the answer you will probably hear is that abortion rights are at stake; another conservative Justice may provide a Supreme Court majority that will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, and affect other rights claimed by liberals.  You will be told that “women’s health care rights” lie in balance, that a women’s “right to choose” should be sacrosanct, etc. etc.

Beyond the ludicrous nature of “we don’t know who it is, but we will oppose” mentality, there is something deeper that must be explored.  I refuse to believe that for millions of otherwise decent Americans, the right to kill a fetus is the issue that they care about most passionately.  Or that for so many voters, that is the single most important issue in a candidate for political office, and certainly for judges.  

It is also hard to believe that the great passion in the other camp to overturn Roe v. Wade is only because people – a far greater number of people than just fundamentalist Christians – are so offended that abortion is legal.  In fact, there is much more at stake, which is often not properly understood.

Gov. Mike Huckabee quipped “Democrats Would Oppose Moses for the Supreme Court”.  I take that as more than a witticism, I think it goes to the core of the real issues at stake.  

The real impact Roe V Wade is not about abortion.  Rather, it is about whether the people and the elected officials who are answerable to them should decide matters of social policy, or whether that policy should be made by unelected judges answerable to no one.  It is about whether the US Constitution means what it says, or whether it means whatever judges think it ought to say.  It is about whether social policy should be decided by the will of the majority of the people through the elective process, or whether it should be taken out of the hands of the unwashed masses by societal elites who dictate what the “correct” and “moral” policy is.  It is about whether the fundamental law of the Republic should be treated as coming from Moses like “founding fathers”, or whether we should be able to say that we can change that fundamental law at will if it suits us.  That is the real question when considering Roe v Wade

To summarize the history of the case, there were and are strong differences of opinions as to whether abortion on demand should be legal, based on a whole host of reasons. Various states wrote differing laws as to its legality, depending on the prevailing opinion in those states, until Roe  was decided.

Writing for the majority, Justice Blackmun held that although the Constitution is completely silent about abortions, one could discern from an “emanation of a penumbra” of several of the Constitution's rights – particularly the Fourteenth Amendments provision, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, (a phrase repeatedly
contorted by the Court into many different meanings in order to justify whatever the Court wished to hold) – that there is a general right to privacy, including a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy. This was a classic case of Judicial Liberalism, in which the words of the Constitution were said to mandate a result that – while appearing nowhere in the text – were what the Judges claimed that the Constitution taught when considered more broadly.

The main dissent, written by Justice White, set out the basic approach of a Judicial Conservative:

I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court's judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant women and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 States are constitutionally disentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the woman, on the other hand . . .

The crux, then of the question of whether Roe v Wade should be overturned is really less about abortions than the power of the Supreme Court, less about right to life or choose than the whole
approach to Constitutional law.  

As Orthodox Jews, frankly, we are conflicted about whether we want the government regulating abortions or other personal matters.  Although Halacha forbids abortions (at least for Jews), it does not take the fundamentalist Christian approach, which forbids abortions absolutely under all circumstances.  There are extenuating circumstances that a posek can look at (beyond the scope of this article) in rarely permitting an abortion. As such, we would hold that the decision should be between a woman and her Halachic Authority.

Nevertheless, I believe that Roe v. Wade was a terribly decided case, which ought to be overturned; not because it resulted in abortion on demand.  Rather, Roe  was a most egregious example of judicial overreach, which laid the precedent for many subsequent cases in which Judges felt free to read their personal and political biases into the constitution’s “penumbras”.  (I wrote about this at length in regard to the Obergefell decision.) It is this attitude that Justice Scalia fought against, and that judicial
conservatives find it so important to oppose, and judicial liberals (activists) find it so important to support.  This, I believe, is the REAL reason that Roe continues to be such an important and polarizing case that garners such passion from both sides.

As we go through the Three Weeks and look ahead to Tisha B’Av, it is important to think about this in terms of our priorities.  There is no question that the Churban happened, and the Bais Hamikdash has not been rebuilt, primarily because we thought we knew better than the Torah and messed up our priorities.   

Both in the first Bais HaMikdosh, in which too many people exchanged service of Hashem for service of idols – idols that allowed them decide what laws they should follow rather than the
Torah – leading to horrible distortions and corruption, or the second Bais HaMikdosh, in which petty grievances between people were allowed to develop into major conflicts and hatred, people decided that their personal biases should be paramount, and that the Law should bend before it.  The Bais Hamikdash will be rebuilt only when we recognize that Hashem’s will is what should govern our lives, and it is our greatest privilege to be able to do what He wishes of us, and not impose our desires on the Torah, pretending that it says what we wish it to say. 

May we merit to see its rebuilding through our rebuilding, speedily in our days.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

It Isn’t just Yeshivish or Chassidish: There are many ways to seek Hashem

Are there really only two monolithic paths?  An article published in the Shavuos edition of Mishpacha magazine, Meeting the Baal Shem Tov in 2018, and an ensuing debate in response between Rav Noach Shafran of Ner Israel in Baltimore and Rav Moshe Weinberger of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, touched on themes that have been near and dear to my heart for virtually my entire adult life.

Briefly, the original article noted the growing attraction to Chassidus for thousands of people – even those who do not take on the external trappings of Chassidic dress and hairstyles – and sought to attribute it primarily to the spiritual emptiness many have felt with classic yeshiva experiences, shuls, and communities.  Rav Shafran protested, defending the “Litvishe” derech and its importance, and ascribed the lack of fulfilment felt there primarily to external factors such as technology, the desire to substitute an actual connection with Hashem through Torah, with “sugarcoated feelings toward Hashem”, which is “immensely easier to attain than ameilus in Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafos”. In a rejoinder, Rav Weinberger argued that Rav Shafran’s letter showed how “misunderstood and misinterpreted this spiritual uprising is”.   He went on to describe what Chassidus is really about, noting that blaming technology will not answer why Chassidus started in the first place in the time of the Baal Shem Tov.  Further, that true delving into Chassidic texts etc. requires no less ameilus than deep study of Talmud – the difference being the search for pnimiyus haTorah that speaks directly to the soul.  I have not done justice to any of these important essays, I merely wanted to very briefly recap them as an introduction to some thoughts I am moved to share.

I just spent two days learning intricacies and commentaries and questions and answers about . . . oxen goring cows.   


I begin by remembering a watershed event in my life when I was about 19 years old.   Sitting by myself one evening after fairly successfully wrestling that day with a sugya in Baba Kama at my prestigious Yerushalayim yeshiva, when it occurred to me, “I just spent two days learning intricacies and commentaries and questions and answers about . . . oxen goring cows.   WHO CARES ABOUT THAT ANYWAY???   What possible difference will it make in my life, or anyone else’s, to know this stuff?   So what if the Rashba and the Ritva disagree on this or that detail?   The Ketzos came up with a brilliant way of viewing it – but . . . so what?  Why am I spending years of my life struggling with this, when there are so many more interesting – let alone practical – things I could be reading about and trying to master?  Furthermore, why is the yeshiva world seemingly determined to focus so much passion in the public and private sphere on issues that seem so small-minded and unimportant?   Why are there demonstrations and newspaper articles and endless discussions about minutiae of alleged halacha and hashkafa violations – where is Hashem in all this?”

Having formulated questions that had been gnawing at me for some time, I grew increasingly disinterested in my studies and looked for something more.  I had enough exposure to have a strong sense that there was more to be had, but I had no idea know where to go to find it.

I received an additional incentive when I subsequently served as an advisor on one of the early NCSY summer seminars.  I will never forget the first Erev Shabbos that we had.  There I was, urgently helping the new NCSYers to prepare for Shabbos, going through some Shabbos dos and don’ts for the non-observant kids, when they began to ask me “Why can’t we do X?  Why do we have to do Y?   Why do you think it is important to put on tefillin, and so on and so forth . . . and I realized that – other than because Halacha says so – I had NOTHING intelligible to offer them!  I shamefully realized that had never asked myself these questions, and never had heard anyone else ask them either.

I could write a book about my journey since then if space would permit. Suffice it to say that those experiences were life-changing.  Baruch Hashem, I had the very good fortune of meeting several wonderful Rabbonim and fellow Jews who inspired and continue to inspire me, by introducing me to the “spiritual side” of Torah, literally saving my spiritual life.  These Rabbonim included most notably Rav Nachman Bulman זצ"ל, and יבלחט"א Rav Michel Twerski שליט"א, with whom I was blessed to be able to develop a close relationship.  But for their loving teaching and personal attention, I fear that I would have been lost to Klal Yisroel, despite my fine family and yeshiva upbringing.

I wrote this to describe that I am very familiar with the spiritual malaise underlying the issues raised in the article; a condition shared by a great many, though they would never admit it publicly.   Given this background, I wanted to make several points that I do not feel were sufficiently addressed in these articles.

Spirituality is generally understood as the experiencing of a deep sense of feeling for the sacred; for acts laden with great purpose and meaning 

1) The Importance of Spirituality – In his essay Rav Shafran shared that:

“This new approach reminds me of a sign I recently saw. It was an advertisement, and it went something like this: ‘Spiritual but not religious? This class is for you.’ We all understand the fallacy of such an advertisement. Only the One we attempt to connect with can decide how that spiritual connection is made.”  
With all due respect, the fallacy, in my humble opinion, is in Rav Shafran’s thinking.  There is a great deal of “spiritual seeking” in the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, which (at least on the surface) has little or nothing to do with Torah.

In my first major effort as a writer, published in  September 1996 in the (Mishpacha predecessor) Jewish Observer, I wrote in part:

I had trouble recognizing spirituality in the yeshiva world as I experienced it. I certainly saw abundant love of Torah learning, great care taken in mitzvah observance, and considerable effort to pray well . . . But yet, the wonder and beauty of experiencing Shabbos through the eyes of a newcomer; the delving into those parts of the Torah that made not just the what, when and how, but the why of mitzvah observance come alive; the examination not just of the obligations of our souls, but of their essence . . . these "spiritual" activities are not emphasized by many of us.
When one hears the term "spirituality," one generally understands it to refer to a person who experiences a great and deep sense of feeling for the sacred, and for religious acts laden with great purpose and meaning. A spiritual person is usually understood to be one who strives for inner peace resulting from a profound understanding that the belief system and set of actions that he or she subscribes to are in fact greatly moving and meaningful. It is a person who is not satisfied with doing things by rote or ritual, but constantly seeks to infuse those actions with deeply personal meaning.
While I find a great appreciation and love for Torah in most of my frum brothers and sisters, I find little evidence of effort to delve into the implication of mitzvos for one's personal growth, to look for what this or that mitzva means to the self. . .  what is generally referred to as "spirituality'' usually means a derech in which people seek to instill in their actions, life, and thoughts a deep sense of the inspiring, the moving, and the sacred; and often this is not what is emphasized in parts of our communities.

With all due respect, the spiritual seeking of those who are currently not finding it purely in yeshiva type learning is to be respected and encouraged.   Hopefully, they will someday find a closeness to Hashem in learning.  But again, as I wrote then:

There is a “deep sense of spirituality that is out there in the form of a "Hunger, not for bread, nor for water, rather to hear (understand) the word of Hashem." Perhaps it would not be too bold for me to suggest that these neshamos are not yet ready for "lachma shel Torah" (the bread of Torah), meaning the basic world of halachic learning and observance. They first need to deeply "hear" the word of Hashem, to sense that Hashem is speaking to them in a way that they can relate to as being meaningful.

2) It should be obvious that those who find their spiritual path in Chassidus are among the fortunate ones.  

Unfortunately, there is a far greater number that have taken their dissatisfied souls to another place – the one we call “Off the Derech”.   This is so pervasive a phenomenon that there has been much written about it; I need not discuss it here.  I mention it only to note that (a) those defending the Litvishe Derech surely ought to acknowledge that for many people it is not working, and much thought must be given to how to adapt it so that it works better for all.  Furthermore, (b) all is not well in the Chassidic world either.  Taking nothing away from the beautiful descriptions (in the original Mishpacha article) of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere and Ashreinu in Seattle – and I admire and am very personally familiar with both – it would be disingenuous to ignore the all-too-many in the Chassidic world who are just going through the motions, “Orthopraxic” (keeping up external appearances while dying inside spiritually), and moreover the great many who have dropped out of Chassidic communities altogether.  Recognizing that neither the Litvish or Chassidic approaches fully solve the problem brings me to my main point.

3) It is crucial to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” path for all spiritual seekers to achieve greater spiritual meaning.   I daresay Rav Weinberger would readily agree that Chassidus is not for everyone.  In fact, he has devoted a great deal of his efforts in teaching classic "Litvish" learning, as well as non-Chassidic spiritual sources, particularly the beautiful Torah of Rav Kook זצ"ל.  There are those who are drawn by the emotional/spiritual/mystical/ pull of Chassidus, while there are some who are “allergic” to it and are completely unmoved by its practice and teachings.  Even within Chassidus there are many different schools of thought, practice, and flavor. . . a person may be drawn to one and totally uninspired by the other. 

Chazal taught us that the twelve tribes differed not only genealogically, but that each had its individual flavor and approach.  Hashem was teaching us, from the beginning – that within the boundaries of Halachah there are many valid spiritual paths, and they all should be respected as appropriate for different personalities.

Spiritual paths include those of the Sefardic world, with its deep and moving teachings of the Ben Ish Chai and so many other greats – and in the teachings of the Zohar and Kabbalah – which require great Ameilus to master.  Others find that the teachings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and the path of Torah Im Derech Eretz opens many beautiful vistas on pnimiyus Hatorah, making some otherwise stale subjects – in particular, the Korbonos and Bais Hamikdosh – come alive with deep, personal meaning.  And then there are those who love the study of non-Chassidic seforim like the Meshech Chochmah and many works of Jewish Philosophy such as the Ramchal, Maharal, Kuzari, and so many others that can inspire many to deeper thinking, having nothing to do with Chassidus.   Of course, Mussar as developed by Rav Yisroel Salanter and many greats of the Mussar movement, including contemporaries such as Rav Shlomo Wolbe זצ"ל provides a deeply spiritual practice that, presented properly, (as opposed to too many Mussar shmuesen that leave the listeners feeling guilty and inadequate) can inspire adherents to great and noble spiritual heights, while again, having little or nothing to do with Chassidus.

And last but not least, the straight and narrow litvishe approach, which focuses on Gemara and Halacha as the spiritual path to Hashem, and which appeals to many who are not inspired by any of the above, can and should be taught in ways that don’t leave 19-year-old bachurim wondering why they are “wasting their time” on this irrelevant stuff.  It is not difficult, with just a bit of effort, to translate oxen goring cows into traffic accidents; shtaros into mortgages and deeds, and to bring the sugyos into real life Halacha L’Maaseh.  After all, the main point of so many sugyos is not the “Heicha timtza” of the case at hand, but rather the sensitivities Chazal are working with while discussing how human frailties and idiosyncrasies can be respected and transformed by applying proper Halachic principles.  Talmidim can be shown how Chazal are training us to think and apply Halachic principles and sharpening our minds to be able to properly know how to question, analyze, and gain insights into Pnimiyus HaTorah.  

Furthermore, as Rav Joseph B Soloveichik writes so beautifully in Halachic Man, the quest for Halachic perfection and exactitude is exciting if we properly understand the context.  It is about how we – pitiful, puny humans – seek to discover and perform the wishes of the great Master of the Universe, who has given lowly us the incredible privilege of serving Him who, incredibly, is concerned with our actions.  That alone is reason enough to want to learn and do the mitzvos as perfectly as possible and transforms it into a deeply compelling spiritual quest.

The path may be exclusively in one direction.
It might also be an amalgam

So how does one sort this all out?  I only have one answer.  There is a need for an educational system that will expose talmidim to a variety of approaches, and for spiritual guides to help them find that to which their neshama is drawn, cognizant of many different valid approaches.   

One educator who did this in an amazingly successful way was Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz זצ"ל.  He embodied and taught many different derachim, being a student of Chassidus, Rav Hirsch, Rav Meir Shapira, Chasam Sofer, and the litvishe yeshivos.  He made sure that his yeshiva, Torah VoDaas had many different influences, allowing talmidim to find their own way, and encouraging them to be serious about their quest, wherever it led them.  I believe that with proper exposure to many derachim, coupled with a wise guide who could help people find their own “spiritual aptitude” a great many more souls would find their way to the place they belong.


The path arrived at may be exclusively in one direction.  It might also turn out to be an amalgam.  I was privileged to be present when Rav Bulman was the keynote speaker at KAJ in Washington Heights on the 100th Yahrzeit of Rav SR Hirsch.  He began his remarks by saying, “Here I stand, having been brought up in the Gerrer Shteible, learned in Yeshiva University under Litvishe Rabbonim, about to lecture to Yekkes about Rav Hirsch.”  He was, in fact, a beautiful amalgam of all of those approaches, a path I have sought to emulate.  In some areas, Rav Hirsch is my guiding light.  In others, the teachings of Chassidus has brought so much beauty into my life.  I treasure as well the rigor of Litvishe learning to which I was exposed, and take much pleasure in learning works of Jewish philosophy. This approach works for me; it is important for everyone to find their own path for their unique neshama.

In summary, the problem of too many people being uninspired in their Torah lives, even within the great yeshiva systems, is a very real and painful one.   Chassidus may be in vogue, but it not for everyone.   Baruch Hashem there are many other approaches available for those who seek.   Rav Soloveichik spoke often about how the Torah tells us:

וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֥ם מִשָּׁ֛ם אֶת־הֹ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּמָצָ֑אתָ כִּ֣י תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ

And you will seek from there Hashem your G-d and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and soul.  (Devarim 4:29)

We were born with a soul that presses us to search for Him.   How to do that search?   Which direction to go?   The only direction that we are given is to do it with all our heart and soul.  Which is different for each of us.