Thursday, December 13, 2018

Goodbye, Rav Elon

I write today on a painful subject, one that caused me great sadness and heartache eight years ago, and just when I thought that the wound had healed, the scab has been torn off and the pain is back, as raw as ever.

I write about the great tragedy of someone I greatly admired and will miss very much – Rav Mordechai (Motti) Elon.  This past week he has once again been accused of acting in a sexually inappropriate way with a young student who recently came to him for counseling, and the very esteemed Rabbis who have dealt with it have let it be known that the evidence is incontrovertible, and was admitted to by the perpetrator.

This is so personally painful to me on both on a national and personal level.

On a national level, it is painful for two reasons.  First, it is an enormous Chilul Hashem when respected Rabbis abuse their standing and power with young people for their own personal vices.  In this case, we are dealing with a Rabbi who is extremely loving, caring and sensitive, who has charisma that is off the charts, and who easily gains the confidence of many through his wonderful personality, charm, humor, incredible scholarship and wisdom.  When this is misused and abused, it rightly causes horror in the eyes of all who expect the highest level of propriety and morality from a celebrated religious figure and unfortunately reflects badly on the Torah and Hashem who they have claimed to represent.  The victims of this abuse are in a particularly difficult quandary; they greatly fear that they will be mocked, ridiculed and attacked if they dare to tell the truth about a beloved public figure, who they are in essence “ruining” for his admirers.

there is no one who more consistently took my breath away with the majesty, depth, profundity, and beauty of Torah than he.

Secondly, it is such a tragic national waste and loss.   I have had the great privilege of hearing beautiful Torah from many great Rabbonim and Torah teachers over my sixty years, but I can honestly say that there is no one who on a regular basis took my breath away with the majesty, depth, profundity, and beauty of Torah than he.  Week after week he would not just give a good shiur, but he hit it out of the park and blew me away.  As an incredible Talmid Chacham and master orator, he was on track to be a great Rosh Yeshiva (He already was a Rosh Yeshiva in Horev and HaKotel) or Chief Rabbi and was one of the most respected and beloved Rabbanim in Israel.  Thousands listened to his regular shiurim at public lectures, on the radio, and on television.  The message of Ahavat Yisrael, understanding between people, and the relevance of Torah to our modern world was compelling and vital. His loss as a teacher of Torah is incalculable.

 On a personal level, given what I had come to know of his Torah, I was totally immersed in it.  For almost the past twenty years I have been listening, watching and reading thousands of hours of his Torah.  A very large percentage of the Torah that I have given over to others in sermons, shiurim, Divrei Torah and Shabbat conversations were based on Torah that I eagerly drank from him.  My deepest neshama connected with his Torah intimately, and I felt so very grateful that I had found this incessant overflowing wellspring of inspiration that I could constantly turn to.   It came to a point that I conceived that my mission in life was to introduce the English-speaking Torah world to his teaching.  I recorded a weekly series on the OURadio website called “Torat Rav Elon”.   I was one of the translators of his Haggadah into English.  I had plans to increase this activity and to produce a book in English of his Torah.

Then, eight years ago, the bombshell hit.   Seamy allegations were released by Forum Takana, a group including several well respected Rabbanim.  He was publicly accused of sexual abuse.  He resigned his position at Yeshivat Hakotel and moved to Migdal, a small village near the Kinneret.  His website was shut down.  He underwent a criminal trial and – although many charges were dismissed as witnesses refused to testify and the statute of limitations applied for others – he was found guilty of inappropriate behavior with a minor and received a suspended sentence.  The reverberations of scandal rocked the National religious world. I and thousands of his students and listeners went through the classic stages of mourning: Shock, Denial, Anger, Grief, and finally Acceptance of the new reality.

Except that I, and many others, could never really go through the stage of Acceptance.  I was sure – given the stature of some of the Rabbanim involved with Forum Takana – that something bad had happened, but I was equally sure that it probably wasn’t quite as bad as they had made it out to be.  And although I tried to stay away from his recordings and his written shiurim, I still found myself inexorably drawn to them; the gaping void he had left in me was too deep.  I would sometimes quote him in my teaching and writing, but never by name, saying only “My Rav in Eretz Yisrael said …”.  And I increasingly found that I could not tear myself away from his teaching, as others had, despite the advice of many to stay away.

I felt that the pain, loss of stature and public humiliation that he had undergone were punishment enough for whatever harm he might have caused.  It was time to move on.

Fast forward to last year, and my coming on Aliyah.  Friends told me that he was once again giving shiurim in Migdal and in a new Bet Midrash in Yerushalayim.  I could not help myself and went once, and encountered what I perceived to be a changed man.  He had aged quite a bit, now all white-haired.  He had become a devout Chasid of Chabad.  (My theory, which I never checked out, was that besides deeply identifying with the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Torah, after being rejected by the Dati Leumi world, he found the Chabad community, accepting, inviting and non-judgmental, as is their wont.)  He seemed humbled, consistently talking about the importance of lowering one’s ego, and somehow more accessible.  I felt that the pain, loss of stature and public humiliation that he had undergone were punishment enough for whatever harm he might have caused.  It was time to move on.

And I found myself drawn to come back, again and again.  I loved attending his shiurim in Yerushalayim. I was thrilled that I live in the Galilee and could regularly attend his shiur in Migdal and celebrate special occasions such as Hoshana Rabba, and occasionally talk with him.  Most of all, I treasured his daily ten-minute WhatsApp shiurim that I played during my commute every morning to Karmiel for Shacharit.  I was happy that he was once again a big part of my life.

And then the news hit this week.  Once again, allegations surfaced.  Only this time, I would have to admit and finally accept with a heavy heart, that I could no longer see him as a teacher of Torah.

I wrote this essay partially because it is hopefully cathartic for me to write it down, but for another reason as well.

I must recognize that once again I have come face to face with a hard and cold truth.  Sexual abusers are rarely, if ever, cured.  Especially when they are not looking to be cured.

It was not an act of stupidity – he is far from stupid and this act went way beyond stupid. It is a sickness; one that likely cannot be cured.

This is not the only time in my life that I have had to learn this lesson up close and personally.   There was another sexual predator who I knew, who convinced me that he was “cured”.   I believed him, and the results were disastrous.   I now know the cold and hard truth.   Whatever it is that drives a person to be sexually abusive comes from a place that is beyond reason and beyond rational decision—and too often beyond control.   This case is a perfect example.   The man had everything one could want.  Genius, public acclaim, financial backing, a prominent position, a beautiful wife and family, a glorious future that was his for the taking, and he blew it all for some perverted small fleeting pleasure.  It was not an act of stupidity – he is far from stupid and this act went way beyond stupid. It is a sickness; one that is very difficult, but not impossible to cure.

May his victims, and all victims of abuse find comfort and healing from the trauma that they suffered.  (This is only the latest of three terrible cases of prominent Rabbis abusing their followers this year, let alone what is going on, lehavdil, in the Catholic church). And may we all be spared from having to go through these painful and shameful episodes, and may Hashem’s name once again be made great.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Do You Still Doubt That “Fake News” Is Real?

(Note: There are many clickable links in this article, although that may be hard to see)

       The mid-term election will soon be over.  And not a minute too soon.
      In my sixty years on this planet and the many elections that I have observed, I have never seen such acrimony, hate, distortion, vilification of the other side, and bald-faced lying for political gain as in this season.  And that includes the 2016 election, bad as it was.  I can only hope political discourse gets better from here, as I do not see how it could get much worse.  In particular, I was irked in the past week by several blatant examples of “fake news”.  Whether or not you are a fan of President Trump, it is hard to deny that he is right that the media is extremely biased, and attempts to shape the news, rather than just report it.  Here are some of the things that disturbed me.   I will not delve deeply into any of these examples here, as much has been written about each of them:

  1. Deliberate distortion of the words of Chief Rabbi Dovid Lau שליט"א – In a particularly cynical and ugly way, reporters distorted Rabbi Lau’s words, which were clearly intended to say that the Pittsburgh tragedy is not the time to discuss what divides Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, to say that the Rabbi refused to call the Tree of Life temple a synagogue.  Various activists and politicians seized upon this as an opportunity to vilify the Orthodox, and call for a change in Israeli policy towards the non-Orthodox movements
  2. Deliberate distortion of the words of Rabbi Jeffrey Myers – Instead of reporting the unifying message of Rabbi Myers of Tree of Life, in which he called for unity and the removal of politics, CNN reporters attempted to have him blame President Trump for the attack and say that he was unwelcome.
  3. Deliberate distortion in blaming President Trump for the attack -- President Trump’s immediate reaction to the Pittsburgh horror was dignified and supportive, while the media pile on hatred and blaming him for the massacre.  In general, the media have not given President Trump one moment to breathe since his election, continuing to foist false narratives to sow social discord and hatred of the President. In fact, just this week articles have come out decrying hundreds of anti-Semitic attacks committed in New York recently; NOT ONE by anyone associated with the “far right, or a Trump supporter.
  4. Deliberate distortion of the Pittsburgh Jewish community’s response to President Trump – seizing upon the pathetic grasp for attention from one far left extremist group, media attempted to spread the lie that the Jewish community in Pittsburgh blamed him for the tragedy and that he was unwelcome there, when in fact his visit was welcomed and was well-received as being consoling and supportive.
  5. Deliberate distortion of Vice President Pence’s invitation of a Messianic “rabbi” Dozens of stories criticized VP Pence for the invitation, while it is clear that it was not Pence, but the idiot local congressional candidate Lena Epstein who had been delegated to find a local rabbi to offer a prayer at the event, p, but nevertheless "proved again" that Trump/Pence are really anti-Semites who are insensitive to the Jewish community, interested only in sending out “yet Another Dog Whistle To Evangelicals. (Never heard about so many dog whistles in the past.)

While in Israel,

  1. Haaretz reporter  about the horrific death of a family of eight from Psagot insists that it not be referred to as a town but rather as an illegal settlement.
  2. Endless reporting regarding the Israeli election, and spiteful and hurtful false accusations about opponents on all sides – Left/Right, Religious/Irreligious, Chareidi/Dati Leumi, Chareidi Brand A/Chareidi Brand B – that leaves any thinking person revolted and perplexed as to whether they can support ANY of them.

I just cannot go on with this.

The magnitude and extent of distorted and outright untrue stories published by the press – those entrusted with the sacred role of speaking truth to power – it is truly depressing.

      The magnitude and extent of distorted and outright untrue stories published by the press – those entrusted with the sacred role of speaking truth to power – it is truly depressing.
      One important takeaway from this is to be aware of how the many opinions are formed and to understand that people are not fully to blame if they have a distorted picture of the world.  I learned this lesson years ago when I would sometimes watch the television news in Israel.  I would see Israel TV reporting on a certain event that happened that day.  Then I would see Jordan TV reporting on what seemed to be a completely different event, as their recounting of the story and analysis was completely at odds with the Israeli version.   Similarly, when one gets most of their information from the Wall Street Journal and Fox news, they are being fed a completely different narrative of what are purported to be the same events from what the purveyor of the New York Times and ABC/NBC/CNN will receive.  It is no wonder that the two receivers of the conflicting reports will have completely different views and opinions about politics, ethics, and virtually all important current events.
      (Personally, I believe that Fox and the WSJ do try to provide more balanced coverage, and have both liberal and conservative voices in their reporting, although their pundits are heavily conservative.  But I know that those with a liberal bent will disagree with me.)

      Additionally, I reflect with sadness on how easy it is to get sucked into all the back and forth of these disputes, and how much time it takes away from more important things.  I think that it is vital that we educate ourselves on what is going on in the world, and important that we do our civic duty and vote with the best information we have.  But one has to set limits and make sure that the passion that is generated in this area does not steal away our time for Torah, family, and personal growth.
      Finally, it is evident that Truth is not easy to perceive nor decide upon.   In the Parshiyot we are about to read, much of the narrative revolves around our father Jacob, who is described often in the Rabbinic literature as the paragon of Emes/Truth.  תתן אמת ליעקב.  However, as it is well known, on a surface level Jacob seems anything but the man of Truth, conniving and plotting to fool Eisav, Lavan, Eisav again, Shechem . . . many have been troubled that not only is Jacob not criticized for this, but it held out as the man of truth.
      Much has been written on this topic (here, here, and here for example), and it is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss it properly.  But one thought that we can reflect on is that truth can be viewed from different perspectives.   Those who wish to distort the truth can find many ways to create situations such that the actions of those standing for the truth are characterized as being fraudulent.  It is difficult to find real truth in this ???? ????? (World of Deceit) , but one must try one’s best to ignore the distortions and recognize them for what they are, and align themselves with truth as best they can.
רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר, על שלושה דברים העולם קיים
 על הדין, על האמת, ועל השלום
By three things the world is sustained: Justice, Truth and Peace.  (Avot 1:18)

      Three values, intimately intertwined.  If there is no peace, and no justice, there will be little truth.  Let us hope that – this time – people will make accept that the elections have been run with justice, that they will seek to find avenues to get along in peace, and that more truth and less falsehood will emerge in the narratives going forward.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Knowing One's Place

(This article appeared in the Jewish Press)
After a pleasant Shabbat in Lavon – a welcome break from the manic pre-election climate both in Israel and in the USA – I turned on my computer only to find two bad news items – one horrific, and the other sad.

The horrific one, of course, was the terrible tragedy in Pittsburgh, resulting in Eleven dead Jews and six injured by the vicious actions of the monster Robert Bowers, may his name be blotted out.  There are no words to describe the depth of evil this represented, on a par with some of the worst terrorist atrocities here in Israel.  I could only imagine how frightening it must have been for those who were at the Shabbat morning service and their loved ones.

The sad news was the identity of the person behind the wave of pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats. I had been quite convinced that we were seeing a false flag operation, as any Trump supporter with a brain larger than a cockroach would surely know that targeting Democrats with bombs would hurt – not help – Republicans come November 6. But it appears at this point that the culprit was indeed a Trump supporter.

I believe it noteworthy that these two acts were perpetrated by opposites – the one in Pittsburgh by a violently anti-Trump monster, and the pipe bombs by a pro-Trump monster.

As we know all too well by now, various people will be quick to place the blame for violence on President Trump, while others will place the blame for the violent environment on opponents of President Trump.  I believe it noteworthy that these two acts were perpetrated by opposites – the one in Pittsburgh by a violently anti-Trump monster, and the pipe bombs by a pro-Trump monster.

What should be clear, however,  is that both sides are to blame for too much violent rhetoric, and that instead of blaming the “other side”, both sides need to find a way to return to a civil discourse, and to find ways of disagreeing politically without the demonizing and hatred that has engulfed America.

I am all for passionate argument and of taking a stand for what one believes in.  But perhaps we can learn from our Patriarch how to advocate properly, and how to know when to desist.

We just read in the Sidra of Vayera about Avraham’s heroic argument to save Sodom.  (That alone should give us pause – who among us would powerfully pray that the absolutely wicked be spared G-d’s wrath?)  His prayer is prefaced by the words 

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע

And Abraham approached and said, "Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked? (Breishis 18:23)

Rashi comments on the use of the term “Vayigash” (And Avraham approached) that we find this word used when approaching to do battle, to mollify, and to pray; Avraham approached here with all three intentions.  While the second two intentions would be expected, the first is quite surprising – and out of character for Avraham, the man of love and kindness.  His words to Hashem are accusatory and harsh – it is frankly shocking that a human being who is the greatest of believers would veritably accuse Hashem of acting unjustly!  Truly words of “battle” against G-d, if one could use that term.  "Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?”  How could You!  More passionate words of protest were never spoken!

At the end of this mighty battle of words, we find 

וְאַבְרָהָם שָׁב לִמְקֹמוֹ
And Abraham returned to his place

Why did the Torah need to point this out?
I heard a beautiful interpretation of this verse from Rav Mordechai Elon, who cited the Mishna in Avos listing the 48 ways of acquiring Torah, the value of
הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ
One who recognizes his place. (Avot 6:6)

The idea the Mishna is conveying is that too often people have either an insufficient, or grandiose, idea of "their place".   Some people suffer from low self-esteem, and thus do not aspire to the greatness which they ought to achieve.  Others have grandiose notions of their importance, and arrogantly do not recognize that they are out of place in their self-aggrandizement.  A wise person knows where they belong, and strives not to be an iota less than their true potential, while at the same time not imagining themselves as standing beyond it.

In this story, mild-mannered Avraham would normally never dream of challenging G-d, certainly not in a harsh and accusatory fashion.  But he felt that such an injustice was about to happen, that he could not – he must not! – remain silent.  And so, challenge he did, forthrightly and fearlessly did he engage in a battle, while at the same time never forgetting whom he was addressing.

But when it was finished, and he realized that any further argument was futile, “Avraham returned to his place”.   He knew that the time for that stance was over, and he returned exactly to whom he was before the crisis; so much so that not long after we read of his total unquestioning subservience at the Akedah.

There are insane monsters out who will only take such talk, on both sides,  as an excuse to carry out their nefarious deeds.

Current events are, of course, vastly removed from the holy thoughts and actions of Avraham Avinu.  But it seems to me that the shocking events of this past week should give us all cause that perhaps the passionate arguments on all sides have gone as far as they should – and beyond.   It is time to “know our place”, to simmer down, to recognize that our political disputants are not evil, and that any hint of violent action or talk is totally out of bounds.  There are insane monsters out there who will only take such talk, on both sides,  as an excuse to carry out their nefarious deeds.

May we come together and reunify as a nation, and restore civility and polite discussion and end the bitter personal vituperative attacks, or we all lose.

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).

You can read more about our experiences in Lavon on this blog herehere and there.

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.