Sunday, August 7, 2016

Har HaBayit BiYadeinu! Reflections for Tisha B’Av

     The Nine Days are, unfortunately, here once again.  One more year of mourning for the lost Beit Hamikdash.  One more year of introspection into what we have not done to sufficiently merit its rebuilding after the coming of Moshiach, in keeping with the famous dictum of Chazal, "Every generation that does not merit the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, is considered as if it was destroyed in their time” (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1).   We will, in addition to reading Eicha, saying Kinos, and mourning, wait to be enlightened by the wonderful work of the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and a great assortment of other sources as to what societal ills we might think about this year, in order to lessen unwarranted hatred (Sinat Chinam) and other personal sins.    This is important work, and in fact, as many have pointed out, perhaps the onset of the Teshuva process that continues with Elul and culminates on Yom Kippur. 

It is incumbent upon us to reflect on Tisha B’Av in light of the incredible gift that Hashem has given us in our time

     It strikes me, however, that there is another aspect of the Tisha B’Av experience that is too often missing from our commemoration of the day; particularly outside the Land of Israel, but there as well.   It believe that it is incumbent upon us to reflect on Tisha B’Av in light of the incredible gift that Hashem has given us in our time, on the unprecedented return of close to half of our people to Eretz Yisrael, and the return of sovereignty over it to the Jewish people, albeit in the far from perfect form that is Medinat Yisrael.

     It is (or ought to be) obvious that the Tisha B’Av mourning that we engage in today is in a very different context than that of the Jewish world just seventy years ago, when the overwhelming majority of  Jews lived in Europe, Africa, Asia, America ; i.e. places other than Eretz Yisrael.  To not do so, in my view, not only divorces the day from the real world, but makes much of the liturgy difficult to say with proper kavanah, as the literal meaning of many of the words seem incongruous in our reality . 

     Reading, for example, the words of Nacheim, that we recite at Mincha on Tisha B’Av, we refer to the city of Jerusalem as “ruined, scorned, and desolate: mournful without her children, ruined without her abodes, desolate without inhabitants”. It is quite difficult to square those statements with the vibrant bustling overcrowded populace of Jerusalem, that pulsates with Jewish life and Torah and holiness that we have come to know and love. 

     Of course, I am far from the first to comment on this. After the Six Day war, there was much debate about whether it was appropriate to change that Tefilla, with the majority of Poskim opting to leave it as is.  They pointed to the fact that the Beit HaMikdash is not yet rebuilt; that much of the city is controlled by non-Jews, including those who hate us; that the spiritual level of the Jewish people is not yet of the caliber that the city can feel that it has its true inhabitants back yet.  I suppose that most of us who bother to think about this have come to some of these same conclusions, or some combination of them.[1]  Thus while we do not change the actual text of what we say, surely one’s thoughts are, or should be, taking into account the reality in which we live.

     My sensitivity to this concern today stems from our general feelings about Eretz Yisrael and Yerushalayim not only on Tisha B’Av, but all the time.  Some Orthodox people see the State of Israel as a wonderful gift from Above, a matter of huge religious significance, as the Aschalta D’Geulah, (the beginning of the final great redemption) for which we have longed and prayed for thousands of years.  Imperfect as it may be from a religious and Halachic point of view, there is so much good — so much Torah being learned, so many people keeping mitzvos including mitzvos that were dormant for millennia, so many mekomos hakedoshim that we have become reacquainted with in the Holy Land —that we should bow our heads daily and thank the Ribbono Shel Olam for Medinat Yisrael.  Moreover, we ought to have great national pride that in our own country! It is an amazing place where any unbiased observer stands of awe of its economic, agricultural, technological, cultural and military accomplishments; we should feel constant gratitude about it.  

     Others see only problems.   They point to huge numbers led away from Torah observance by the rise of Zionism and the State of Israel.  The very anti-religious nature of many of its early leaders, the unfortunately true episodes of when impressionable Jews were intentionally and forcibly ripped away from Torah and observance are not only unforgivable, but to their mind, still a major part of the Zionist enterprise.  Even those who do not go as far as the Satmar Rav zt”l’s opinion that the Medina was the work of the Satan, refuse to grant any religious significance to the State, to recite the prayer for it or its soldiers on Shabbos, to not say Tahanun on Yom HaAtzma’ut, and in fact think of it as the latest — and perhaps most insidious ­— form of Golus, an Exile in our own land enforced by our own people. 

    These two groups see Tisha B’Av in very different ways.  The first mourn the lack of a Bet Hamikdash and the incomplete Geulah, while looking at much of the horror of the Churban and many episodes of Jewish History as something firmly in the past. The second pay little or no heed to anything that has happened in Eretz Yisrael over the past century; to the extent that modern times are considered it is largely regarding the Holocaust.

     Although it seems that more and more people are being drawn to one or the other camp, and are being indoctrinated from early age in one or the other opinion, I still want to believe that there is a Middle Road — one that is populated by many silent voices — that see a path somewhere between these positions.  There are those, like myself, who on the one hand are deeply appreciative of the gift of Medinat Yisrael; who see unlimited potential in this opportunity, who see the glory of the People coming back to their Homeland and marvel in its accomplishments and are fiercely proud of and supportive of the Israel Defense Forces and the enormous advances in religious life there; yet on the other hand feel deep pain when seeing the secular depravity in so much of the country and in hearing pronouncements of many of the State leaders and intelligentsia, and who shudder when seeing some of the causes that so many in Israel are devoted to and feel exasperated when religious life is mocked and ridiculed so openly in the media and the press.  It is the path of the Ponovezher Rav, who said neither Hallel nor Tachanun on Yom HaAtzma’ut while demanding that the Israeli flag be flown at the Yeshiva.  Those in the middle certainly have much to reflect upon on Tisha B’Av.

     In a future article I hope to convey the wonderful way in which Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch perfectly captured the situation in which we find ourselves, and gave us a very important way to think about it.  For now, I would like to conclude with one final reflection, having to do with the Har Habayit, the Temple Mount.

     There has been a recurring issue over the past several years in regard to Jewish Prayer on the Temple Mount, with strong feelings on both sides of the issue.  

     There are those who are certain that (after careful research in exact measurements that we are now privy to that were unavailable to previous generations) not only is it permissible to pray on certain areas of the Har Habayit, but it is important to do so.  One of the worst decisions of the Israeli government ever, they say, was Moshe Dayan’s decision in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, to publicly “hand the keys” of the Temple Mount back to the Waqf, giving the Arabs sole authority over the area at a time that Israel could have done whatever she wanted.  That a Jew can be arrested and imprisoned for moving his or her lips on the Temple Mount in a way that might be praying, is a self-inflicted insult and travesty, and one that every sense of Jewish pride must oppose.  

     Others, however, besides disagreeing on Halachic grounds about the propriety of going anywhere on the Har Habayit, see the “Temple Mount Faithful” as dangerous lunatics who are giving the Arabs a provocative excuse to attack and kill Jews, and “are directly responsible for bloodshed in Israel”.

     In the aforementioned future article, I would like to discuss this dilemma in greater detail.  But for our purposes now, in regard to Tisha B’Av, the realization of the reality of our helplessness  despite the fact that we are ostensibly in control of the very epicenter of our dreams and hopes, this sense of “so close and yet so far”, is surely yet another area for rumination on this national Day of Mourning.

     My Rebbe in Eretz Yisrael once said that in thinking about this, we should recognize that Gen. Motta Gur was, whether he knew it or not, speaking prophetically when triumphantly and famously declaring at the moment of victory “Har Habit Biyadeinu, Har Habit Biyadeinu!” (The Temple Mount is in our hands!).  He surely was speaking in the euphoria of victory in that glorious 1967 battle.   Nonetheless, what he said goes much deeper, and ought to be fodder for our thoughts, especially on Tisha B’Av. 

     Whether we will merit to have the Beit Hamikdash again, speedily in our days, is indeed largely in “our hands”.   It is up to us to correct the many interpersonal issues that plague us, the Lashon Hara, the Sinat Chinam, and all the other matters that draw us apart and prevent the Moshiach from coming.   At the same time, it seems to me that we need to tell the Ribbono Shel Olam that while we are so very grateful for His bringing us once again so close to Him in his Holy Land and Holy City, and to be living in a time that our grandparents could have only dreamed of, we still long so much for a Geulah Sheleima and Yerushalayim Habenuya Be’Emet, when there will be the peace and glory of Hashem’s serene presence in the Bet Hamikdash Bimheyra Beyameinu. 

Truly, Har Habayit Biyadeinu!

[1] On a personal note, when I had the privilege of being in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av in years past, I would go up to Har HaTzofim (Mt Scopus), where I could observe Shualim Hilchu Bo, the haters roaming over the Har Habayit (Temple Mount) as we were privileged only to pray on the outside of the Wall (Kotel).  I would intensify this feeling by then going for Mincha to the Kotel HaKatan, a strip of the Kotel deep in the Moslem quarter that looks and probably feels much as the Kotel did before 1948, and where I could more readily connect to the Tisha B’Av feeling of loss and mourning.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Does Secular Wisdom Have Anything to Teach Us?

Looking through last week’s edition of the Queens Jewish Link, I came across the front page article by Gerald Harris, entitled “Was Benjamin Franklin Influenced by Torah Thinking”.  In this informative article, Mr. Harris cited many ideas regarding frugality and money management popularized by Franklin that are consistent with Torah values, leading him to speculate whether, in fact, Franklin had been exposed to Torah teachings.  It was taken as a matter of course that – given that Franklin lived long after the Torah had taught similar values – Franklin in all probability was “familiar with Jewish thinking . . . advice [was] strongly influenced by verses in Mishlei and various musar seforim.”  In other words, Franklin had, knowingly or not, probably received these values from Torah, directly or indirectly.

It is, of course, highly likely that Franklin, who was known as a man of uncertain religious beliefs (especially in regard to Christianity) but nevertheless a passionate pursuer of wisdom and virtue, studied the Book of Proverbs (Mishlei) closely; less likely that he had access to our musar seforim.  I am convinced that Franklin learned of Mishlei through Christian teachings, in keeping with the famous dictum of the Rambam in Hilchos Melachim 11:11-13, regarding the importance of Christianity and Islam in spreading Ethical Monotheism to the larger world.[1]  But perhaps Mr. Harris is correct, and Franklin did have direct exposure to Torah teachings.

Be that as it may, the implicit attitude -- not uncommon in the orthodox world -- that if we find wisdom in the secular, or non-Jewish world, it must have come from Torah sources[2], is what moved me to write this essay.  I have found that many seem to believe that the non-Torah world has little or nothing of value to teach us, and one should focus exclusively on Torah sources in seeking wisdom, guidance, and aids to self-improvement, or that of society.  There are, of course, many sources that could be cited to buttress this attitude; the most famous perhaps being the Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:22

בן בג בג אומר: 
הפוך בה והפוך בה, דכולא בה. 
ובה תחזי, וסיב ובלה בה, ומנה לא תזוע, שאין לך מדה טובה הימנה.
Ben Bag Bag says: Search in it, and search in it, for everything is in it. In it you shall look and grow old and gray with it. From it do not move, for no characteristic is better than it.

Rav Ovadia of Bartenura comments: Do not say, “I have learned the wisdom of Israel, I will now go and learn Greek wisdom”, as it is not permissible to learn Greek wisdom except in a place that it is forbidden to contemplate words of Torah, e.g. in a bathhouse or in a bathroom. . .”

This fascinating topic, i.e. the propriety of accepting wisdom from non-Torah sources, is the subject of an enormous amount of debate and scholarship, and there are strongly held views on all sides.  The extent of the applicability of Ben Bag Bag’s statement is certainly viewed differently in Yeshiva University and in Lakewood (and within subgroups of those communities), although all claim to honor that Mishna, including the comment of Harav MiBartenura.[3]  I daresay that differences of opinion regarding this issue represents one of the great divides between the Hareidi and non-Hareidi communities today. It is a critically important topic for those of us who are not cloistered in New Square or Meah Shearim, but proudly live within the modern world and enjoy and appreciate the many wonderful advances that science, technology, and secular wisdom in general has brought to our lives, while at the same time are all too aware of the  depraved nature of much of modern culture.  As an avowed “middle of the roader” and a disciple of Rav Samson R Hirsch zt”l, the balance between the primacy of Torah and the benefits of worldly wisdom, i.e. the application of Torah Im Derech Eretz for individuals and society, could not be more important.

I thus found it fascinating that this article purported to show how Franklin derived his wisdom from Torah sources, including musar seforim, when, most paradoxically, the reverse may be true.   As I will describe below, there is a little-known but fascinating relationship between the work of Benjamin Franklin and none other than Rav Yisrael Lipkin, known as Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l, famed Tzaddik, Gaon, and father of the Mussar movement.

When perusing seforim stores in Yerushalayim or New York, one often sees posters that displayed the program of the famous Thirteen Middos Of Rav Yisroel Salanter .  These 13 principles, it is said, were formulated by the famous tzaddik as a program for growth and self-improvement.  By focusing on one of the middos for one week for each of 13 weeks, and then repeating the cycle, one would go through this process four times in the course of a year and be greatly enriched by it.  This program of 13 principles is one of  the most famous of all of Rav Yisrael’s many teachings.

What is less known, however, is that in all likelihood, the original source of the structure of these principles was not Mishlei, or another Torah source, but none other than Benjamin Franklin. 
Many know of Rav Yisroel's storied career as a Rosh Yeshiva and founder of the Mussar movement in Vilna and elsewhere in Lithuania.   It is less known that for almost the second half of his life, Rav Yisroel Salanter moved to Western Europe and spent decades devoted to Kiruv Rechokim, trying to combat the ravages that the Haskalah and Reform had caused turning masses of Jews away from the Mesorah.  It was during that period that he grew enamored of a sefer called “Cheshbon HaNefesh”, written by R. Mendel (Leffin) Satanover, who while being fully shomer Torah Umitzvos (observant), was in fact one of the early Maskilim.  Rav Yisrael felt that it was such an important and worthy primer on Mussar work that -- despite its origin -- he embraced and republished it, and encouraged his disciples to read and use it.
Germane to our discussion is that it seems true beyond a doubt that the book Cheshbon HaNefesh was based on the List of 13 Virtues that were written a generation before by Benjamin Franklin.  As Rabbi Berel Wein writes, “Menachem Mendel Lefin … read the writings of Benjamin Franklin, and became greatly influenced by them. He wrote a book of Jewish ethics based on Franklin’s ideas, almost quoting him verbatim but never mentioning his name. It was as though it was his book”.  Many other scholarly articles establish this fact beyond a reasonable doubt.
Franklin, for his part, attributed his amazing success and accomplishments to his constant focus on these principles that he authored at the age of 20, and which he worked on until his old age.  He formulated these principles when he realized that the “mere…conviction…to be…virtuous, was not sufficient” to effect behavioral change, because “habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason”  Towards the end of his life he wrote “It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor ow'd the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written.”
Incredibly, these celebrated virtues, that have been much cited by thinkers and ethicists the world over, were undoubtedly what R Mendel Satanover used when adapting them for his “Cheshbon HaNefesh”, and it was these that were further adapted by Rav Yisrael Salanter.
In a wonderful article, Rabbi Rabbi Micha Berger discussed this anomaly more fully; I reference my readers to presentation of this issue.  He included in his discussion the version of Rav Baruch Epstein (author of Makor Baruch and Torah Temima) in his biographical notes on Rav Yisroel Salanter.  In that article, Rabbi Berger designed a table comparing the various versions of these virtues, that I have reproduced below.
I conclude this essay hoping that my readers enjoy the delicious irony that I felt when reading Mr. Harris’ article, and that we accept the dictum of Chazal that
אם יאמר לך אדם יש חכמה בגוים תאמן: –מדרש איכה רבה פרשה ב סימן יג
“There is wisdom amongst the Nations”.   More importantly, I hope that we will be encouraged to use this wonderful and wise plan, whether of Rav Yisroel Salanter, or lehavdil Benjamin Franklin (or both), to pursue a virtuous life of self-improvement.

Benjamin Franklin
Cheshbon Hanefesh
Rav Yisrael Salanter
11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
1. MENUCHAS HANEFESH. Rise above events that are inconsequential — both bad and good — for they are not worth disturbing your equanimity.
5. MENUCHAH. Have a spirit that is at rest, without ever being hasty, so that you can do everything calmly

2. SAVLANUS. When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.
8. SAVLANUS. Bear with calm every happening and every event in life.
3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
3. SEDER. All of your actions and possessions should be orderly — each and every one in a set place and at a set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.
9. SEDER. Do all of your deeds and all of your undertakings in an organized and disciplined manner.
4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
4. CHARITZUS. All of your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without hesitating.
3. CHARITZUS. Do what you decide to do with industriousness and enthusiasm.
10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
5. NEQIYUS. Let no stain or ugliness be found in your possessions or in your home, and surely not on your body or clothes.
7. NIQAYON. Keep your body and clothes clean and pure.
13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
6. ANAVAH. Always seek to learn wisdom from every man, to recognize your failings and correct them. In doing so you will learn to stop thinking about your virtues and you will take your mind off your friend’s faults.
10. ANAVAH. Recognize your own shortcomings and pay no attention to those of others.
8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.               
7. TZEDEQ. What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
11. TZEDEQ. Do whatever Torah says is right, in its letter and spirit, and give in on what is rightfully yours.
5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
8. QIMUTZ. Be careful with your money. Do not spend even a penny needlessly.
12. QIMUTZ. Do not spend a penny that is not for a necessary purpose.
6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
9. ZERIZUS. Always find something to do — for yourself or for a friend and do not allow a moment of your life to be wasted.
2. ZERIZUS. Never waste a moment, to let it be for no positive purpose, and likewise actively do what you seek to accomplish.
2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
10. SHETIQAH. Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: “What benefit will my speech bring to me or others?”
13. SHETIQAH. Consider the result that is to come out of your words before you speak.

11. NICHUSAH. The words of the wise are stated gently. In being good, do not be called ‘evil’.
6. NACHAS. The words of the wise are with gentleness heard, so therefore always strive to speak gently.
7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
12. EMES. Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.
1. EMES. Never let anything out of your mouth that your heart cannot testify as to its truth.

4. KAVOD. Be cautious in the honoring of every person, even anyone whose thinking you consider to be imperfect.
1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. PERISHUS. Strengthen yourself so that you can stop lewd thoughts. Draw close to your [spouse] only when your mind is free, [occupied only] by thoughts of fulfilling your conjugal duties [to your spouse] or procreating.

[1]  Briefly, the Rambam held that it is Hashem’s plan that the world become “filled with the mention of Moshiach, Torah, and mitzvot” through exposure to the "daughter religions" of Judaism, namely Christianity and Islam, both huge advances over paganism and primitive idolatry.  When Moshiach finally arrives, it will then be far easier for the whole world to come to the Ultimate Truth, at which time “all flesh will call in Your name”

 In fact, Franklin wrote shortly before his death "I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this ... As for Jesus of Nazareth ... I think the system of Morals and Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw ... but I have ... some Doubts to his Divinity”.   I believe that this is very much in keeping what the Rambam hoped would happen!

[2] As I do not know the author, I emphasize that this is a general comment, as I do not know his views on this issue.
[3] One way of understanding Ben Bag Bag is that although it is true that all wisdom is in the Torah, it may be close to impossible for anyone but the very greatest to access that wisdom.  So, for instance, it is true that the Chazon Ish had an uncanny understanding of the workings of the human body exclusively from Torah sources, most people would probably be well advised to seek medical advice from a medical profession who gained his knowledge from secular sources.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Peace We Can Win - A War We Will Surely Lose

Once again the holy city of Jerusalem, the "City of Peace", is gripped in controversy.   Although somewhat quiet over the past few months, painful conflict is again raging regarding the mixed gender prayer section, recently opened at the Kotel HaMa'aravi.

First championed by Natan Sharansky and now embraced by the Netanyahu government, an attempt has been made to restore serenity and end the distressing conflict caused by the longstanding monthly prayer services of the so-called "Women of the Wall" (WOW) (whom I have written about before). Under this initiative, in addition to the existing Ezrat Anashim (Men's section) and Ezrat Nashim (Women's section) that  are under the jurisdiction of the Rabbanut,  there is now an "Ezrat Yisrael" at the southern end  of the Kotel with no mechitza; where all are welcome to worship however they see fit, not bound by traditional norms.  The Reform and Conservative (R&C) and the “Orthodox” WOW (led by paid Reform radical Anat Hoffman) claim this as a victory in their long-standing battle for legitimacy by the State of Israel, which up until now regarded only Orthodox as the arbiters of Religious Judaism.

This new section has been functioning for some time.  Until now there was a doorway before the main entrance leading to a long flight of stairs to the designated area.  It is completely separate and far away from the main Kotel plaza; one cannot see or hear anything of the goings-on from one area to the other.

Unfortunately not satisfied with this arrangement, non-Orthodox advocates have lobbied hard for an area that is more equivalent to the main Kotel plaza.  After much discussion, the government on January 31 decided to invest 9 million dollars in providing enhancements including easier access to the egalitarian side. The entrance will be via a new combined Kotel gate that will lead to all three areas, i.e. two separated gender and one mixed gender path, attempting to create an impression of equal dignity to all three sections. Furthermore, the Rav of the Kotel, the Chief Rabbinate, and the Minister of Religion will have no jurisdiction over the egalitarian space; it will be governed by a special council including Reform/Conservative representatives.

Reactions to this decision have come, fast and furious, in two basic flavors. 

The reaction of almost all Orthodox spokesmen and writers has been fierce.   Many statements were issued characterizing this as a terrible development, a desecration of our Holiest of all places,  an affront to the myriads of Orthodox Jews who pour out their hearts there 365/24/7, and even to G-d Himself who desires that prayers be offered in a separate gender setting.  Furthermore, it is unacceptable in that the Kotel has, and always has had, the status of an Orthodox Beit Knesset, in which mixed prayer is forbidden.   Worst of all, it is, for the first time, a formal recognition of the legitimacy of the various non-Orthodox  forms of Judaism, and as such a dangerous slippery slope of a precedent towards forced concessions on many future matters.  In fact, the very week that the decision was announced, the Reform movement hailed this decision as a historic breakthrough from the heretofore total rejection of Reform Judaism.  This dovetailed with a Supreme Court decision released the same week ruling that mikvaot (Ritual Baths) built with State funds must allow Reform Rabbis to perform conversions using their facilities, further stoking fears of the continued movement towards full recognition of Reform Judaism, including  validation of their marriages, divorces, and conversions.   These matters, of course, go to the heart of the ultimate divisive "Who Is A Jew" question; one that could potentially divide the Jewish people irreparably.

The reaction in many non-Orthodox circles has, predictably, been the polar opposite.  Trumpeting the values of Equality, Pluralism, Religious Tolerance and abhorrence of Religious Coercion, these developments have been met with joy and renewed vigor to build upon this towards an ever more official status of the Non-Orthodox movements in Israel. 

While apparently this puts me outside of mainstream Orthodox thinking, it would seem to me that not only is the approach of “going to war” against the R&C on this issue doomed to fail, it will only further strengthen them. 

Virtually every Orthodox person I met in Israel, from Chareidi to Religious Zionist, is supportive of efforts to go to war, if necessary, on this issue.  Headlines and posters everywhere scream about the awful decree that has befallen us; the strongest language is being used to vilify the Reform, etc.  No compromise can or should be tolerated, R&C in Israel must be obliterated at all costs. While apparently this puts me outside of mainstream Orthodox thinking, it would seem to me that not only is the approach of “going to war” against the R&C on this issue doomed to fail, it will only further strengthen them.  We have seen this pattern again and again in various matters, like the recent killer in Orlando who -- far from ding harm to the cause of LBQT recogntion -- only garnered massive worldwide support for the victims of hatred and intolerance.   It is hard to understand why this is not plain to any observer of the modern scene.  But apparently, it is not.

To understand this better, I would like to make several observations:

1)      Up until quite recently, Reform and Conservative Judaism has had little traction in Israeli society.  This was not for a lack of trying, nor for a lack of money or effort on their part.  Hundreds of millions of Dollars, if not more, have been spent, endless lobbying with the Israeli government has been attempted, and an enormous political and legal campaign has pursued in this effort.  But at the end of the day, until quite recently, they have just not caught on with mainstream Israelis, as they did (in the past) in the Diaspora.

        Chareidi spokesmen typically claim that the main reasons that R&C have been unsuccessful are (a) that the Orthodox have succeeded in stymieing their efforts through political pressure in various forms (mainly coalition agreements and demonstrations), and (b) that it is (or should be) self-evident to most Israelis that R&C are illegitimate, and thus even secular Israelis deep down want that the "Shul that they don't go to" should be Orthodox.

Truth be told, however, these were far from the main reasons for the failure of R&C in Israel. In my opinion, the main reason that Reform & Conservative Judaism have not (till now) been able to replicate in Israel what they accomplished  in America is a simple one: they were seen by most Israelis as both unnecessary and irrelevant. Permit me to explain.

Over the years, R&C Rabbis, Academics and thinkers have provided a mountain of  scholarship purportedly justifying their deviance from traditional norms.  They claim that it is this more enlightened interpretation of Judaism that has led so many to leave Orthodoxy behind, and that they, in fact, represent the authentic version of Judaism for the modern world.

The main reason that Reform & Conservative Judaism have not (till now) been able to replicate in Israel what they accomplished  in America is a simple one: they were seen by most Israelis as both unnecessary and irrelevant.

The falsehood in this position is immediately apparent when speaking to and befriending non-Orthodox Jews.  It is decidedly not ideology nor theology that moves 95% ─ or more ─ of R&C adherents join those congregations.  Rather, the reason they join is that R&C provide a  way to be officially recognized as part of the Jewish community based on social and cultural activities;  G-d, Torah, and Spirituality are not what they seek.  "Belonging" to a Congregation bestows official allegiance with the Jewish people and one’s roots.  It provides an avenue for social justice and cultural programs that move them; the "religious" aspect of the experience is tolerated but not the incentive for joining. 

For Jews steeped in a mostly secular, non-Jewish environment, a need exists to officially identify Jewishly, motivated by factors such as nostalgia, tribal identity, history, social interaction and the desire to stand together in response to Anti-Semitism.  Certainly there are some who are seriously interested in Jewish worship and observance; but they are a small minority.  In particular, I have met very spiritual and sincere women, and their families, who desire a more active participation in the Services than Halacha provides for, and but for that issue would probably identify as Orthodox. Notwithstanding those individuals, most R&C attend only for the reasons noted above, and even then attend mostly on special occasions, such as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and other life-cycle events, or the High Holidays.   It is reassuring to be told by one's Rabbi that there is no reason to hang on to the superstitions and fundamentalism of one's observant ancestors and whatever positive one does is to be celebrated, with no guilt needed for lack of observance of those mitzvot that are inconvenient.

Indeed, little Halachic observance, if anything, is demanded to be considered a fully committed R&C Jew; the choices are wide open. For those who want to select any observance they choose, or none at all, Reform’s doctrine of personal autonomy is perfect.  For those who like a somewhat more traditional format, with more Hebrew and familiar tunes, Conservative feels more comfortable.  (It has been often said that the theology most Conservative Jews are seeking, all their denials notwithstanding, is "Not Orthodox, but not so Reform")  In short, R&C Judaism is primarily a way of identifying Jewishly without the burden of Halachic observance.

It is crucial to understand this in order to comprehend the very plain reason that R&C has never been much of an attraction for Israelis.  An Israeli does not need any external structure in order to feel Jewishly connected.  He/she lives in our ancient homeland, speaks Hebrew, the Jewish holidays are their legal holidays, they serve in the Jewish army defending the Jewish State, and are surrounded by Jewish culture (in some form) everywhere they go . . .  in short, their whole environment is Jewish.   Nothing further is needed for Jewish self-identification.  

Those who do become interested in sincerely pursuing G-d, Torah, spirituality and ultimate meaning in life are drawn to the "real thing"; not a paltry version manufactured primarily for those basically uninterested in religion and spirituality.  For those occasions that secular Jews felt the need to interact with Tradition, Orthodoxy was fine, even quaint and nostalgic, as long as it was presented in a pleasant atmosphere.  R&C with its mixed pews, driving on Shabbat, diluted services and female Rabbis and Cantors, seemed strange and inauthentic; decidedly uninteresting and unnecessary for the average Israeli.

2)                  Over the past two decades these attitudes have begun to change, due to many factors.   Here are three that I consider very important:

a)      Frustration with the Chief Rabbinate (CR).    As a vestige of Turkish Law, all personal status matters in Israel are handled by the Religious Authority of one’s ethnic group.  For Christians it is the Church, for Moslems the Waqf, and for Jews it is the CR.  Thus even completely secular Israelis must go to the CR to effectuate a marriage or divorce.  This law has been a great blessing for ensuring, until now, that fundamental matters of personal status -- whether or not a person is Halachically Jewish, properly married or divorced  -- were in the hands of a responsible Halachic authority. 
Unfortunately, all has not been well at the CR.  Too many stories of corruption and callous treatment by functionaries in their offices have emerged.  For secular Israelis who resent having to come to the Rabbinate in the first place, terribly negative feelings are created when they perceive themselves as having been mistreated.   A new, and awful, low occurred when the previous Chief Rabbi was indicted for corruption, and resigned in disgrace.

Among the Orthodox respect for the CR reached an all-time low as well.  Chareidim have never accepted the authority of the CR; many Religious Zionists are disgusted as well.   Furthermore, advocates of so-called "Open Orthodoxy", such as Rabbi Avi Weiss, have done their utmost to repeatedly attack and disparage the CR in pursuit of their own unfortunate agenda, doing much harm to the respect, dignity, and authority that the CR needs to function effectively.

Bottom Line - A void has been created in which new alternatives that might have never gotten a hearing in the court of public opinion before, are now gaining strength.

b)      The unhelpful reactions by the Chareidi leadership to the excesses of their extremists.  For many years now, the WOW have insisted on poking their fingers in the craw of the overwhelmingly Orthodox worshippers at the Kotel.  Wearing Tallis and Tefillin, trying to read from a Seder Torah, singing loudly, occasionally accompanied by instruments, they engaged in behaviors that they knew would enrage the Traditional worshippers, and elicit strong reactions.

In my perfect world, those reactions would have consisted of well thought out responses that would have sought to solve the problem, while maximizing damage control. Responses that would have made every effort possible to warn young hot-heads to not engage directly with the WOW, and to let the police do their job.  It would have been best to encourage people to ignore them, drown out their demonstrations with louder positive davening and music in response to them, as in fact done by the brave Women for the Wall.  Instead, there were ugly fights, reports of chairs and dirty diapers with feces and other miserable objects being hurled at WOW.   All this succeeded in doing was inflaming the WOW and R&C activists, as well as additional proof that the Orthodox are unruly violent bigots in the eye of the secular public.

 A good example, one of many, of a an unfortunate response happened this past week, when the Chareidi press was full of accusatory messages  and even calls for violent protests about the “terrible provocation” that occurred when R&C held a protest service in the upper Kotel plaza, going so far as to accuse PM Netanyahu as lacking a Jewish heart because he allowed this to happen due to being bribed by R&C money.  What they gloss over is that this protest was in response to the service that was led by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Amar last week at the Southern Kotel area, which had been designated as an egalitarian prayer area, decrying “these evil people” who are defiling the holiness of the Kotel, attempting to alter the uneasy new status quo.

As should be fairly obvious, there was no way that R&C, or the government, would allow this to pass without a response.  Perhaps I am wrong, but I cannot imagine that there was anyone whose mind was changed positively by that demonstration; all that it accomplished was an escalation of the political, legal and interpersonal fight between the sides who will be even less likely to find a peaceful solution to this intractable problem.

The truth is that, away from the public spotlight, responsible Chareidi leaders had agreed to the Sharansky proposal, knowing that it was a good, respectful, and sensible way to ease the tensions brought about by WOW and those who fought them, and at a minimum, the lesser of two evils.   But as usual, the extremists will not let sanity prevail, and we have what we have.

A golden opportunity for outreach to Orthodox Judaism is presenting itself, if we would only seize it in a positive and loving way.

c)       The Rise of Spiritual seekers among the Secular   -- space does not permit a full development of this aspect, but it is important to note that a great change has been quietly happening in Israel for a long time now.  That change is that in many ways, the current generation of secular Israelis, for the most part, are not as rabidly anti-religious as their forebears a generation or two ago. There is more and more tolerance and respect, and even interest, in Torah and spirituality, and far less kneejerk opposition, even amongst those who formerly were allergic to any talk of religion.  Tens of Kibbutzim and Moshavim associated with Hashomer Hatzair, who used to hold Tisha B’Av parties and feature pork on their menus now have functioning Batei Knesset and people coming to learn Torah, and the “Lehach’is” excesses of are a thing of the past.  Ayelet HaShachar, a wonderful organization that I am involved with, along with others, have introduced Torah and yiddishkeit in scores of places around the country formerly devoid of any religious observance.  As more Chareidim enter the army and the workforce, there is less resentment against the religious population.  A golden opportunity for outreach to Orthodox Judaism is presenting itself, if we would only seize it in a positive and loving way.

This good news, however, comes with a proviso.  People seeking connection to Torah provided that it comes without religious coercion, condescension, “holier-than-thou” criticism, and certainly ugly and offensive accusations and threats.  To the extent that Orthodoxy is seen as angry, threatening, restricting, and mocking, a golden opportunity is handed to R&C to present themselves as an enlightened, empowering, celebratory and welcoming alternative.  Many of those Israelis who have been attracted to R&C might easily have joined with the Orthodox, if only they had perceived Orthodoxy as a having a welcoming smile rather than angry condescension.  “Going to War” at the Kotel will IMHO lead to far more sympathy for R&C than for the Orthodox, and drive these precious people straight into their hands, rachmana litzlan.

It hurts me that the Orthodox are fighting a battle that they cannot win and surely will succeed only in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

   What then is the solution?   The Orthodox world will have to come to terms with the fact that, like it or not, the State of Israel is a pluralistic society, in which Jews (and non-Jews) who hold widely divergent beliefs and levels of traditional observance have to co-exist, for better or worse.   Although many on all sides would like to have us believe that THEY are the only ones who have a legitimate right to be in the land for reasons that need not be discussed here, the truth is that, Baruch Hashem, All Jews are at home in the land.  The words of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld zt”l, a fierce defender of the Chareidim, when asked in 1920 by the British High Commissioner whether the Yerushalmi community wanted all these secular Jews to come and live in and inevitably change the religious nature of the Yishuv (attempting to justify the British policy of severely limiting Jewish immigration), ought to come to mind.  He unhesitatingly said, "The Land of Israel is our mother: a mother has room for all of her children".   There must be respect from the Orthodox community that other Israelis have no less of a right to the land than they do, much as they deplore their attitude towards religion. 

Furthermore, not everyone sees the Kotel as an Orthodox Beit Knesset.  Of course, that has been its primary function for a long time, and many poskim have stated that it has this status.  But it is not its only function.  It is a national shrine, a vestige of our History, a place to which Jews for millennia have directed their hopes and dreams, and a place where all Jews ought to feel welcome to pour out their hearts to G-d.   (It should be noted, as well, that prior to 1948 there was no mechitza at the Kotel [due to the governmental pressures at the time], and somehow this did not take away from its status as Judaism's holiest site.)   

   In fact, the Sharansky compromise, approved by the government, should be seen as a great win for the Orthodox.  Under this plan, the Kotel as it has existed since 1967, is to be left alone.  Those who wish R&C or egalitarian, or other forms of worship, agreed to go to a completely different area, where they bother no one who does not wish to be disturbed, and can do what they choose subject to a pluralistic oversight commission.  One need only search superficially to see how disappointed the R&C and WOW were by this compromise, as they had been arguing for their right to take over at least part of the main Kotel area.  It hurts me that the Orthodox are fighting a battle that they cannot win and surely will succeed only in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  If the legal battle continues, there is no question that the same playbook by which progressives have won the battle for recognition of civil liberties, gay marriages, and so much else will be successfully used here, and there is no legal recourse that will withstand this onslaught.

If the Orthodox really want to win the “war” with R&C, it will not be done with violence, power struggles, and public insults.   It will be done by focusing on Ahavat Yisrael and making sure that Orthodox Jewry is seen as open, inviting and encouraging for Jews of all levels of faith and observance.  

   It will be by presenting authentic Torah with as much love, ingenuity, and attractiveness as possible.  Any visitor to the Kotel will see what is already evident now; the Orthodox main plaza has hundreds of people davening 365/24/7, while the Southern wall is mostly empty most of the time, due to lack of interest on the part of R&C Jews in actually praying there, rather than making headlines. 

   It is time that we learn from mistakes in the past, and focus on how we can bring Jews together with messages of respect, acceptance and love, and prove that the Ways of the Torah are those of Pleasantness and Peace.