Friday, June 14, 2013

Parading in the Middle - Principle or Moderation?

When I was given the honor of writing a regular column in the Queens Jewish Link, the question arose, “What should the byline be?”   I thought of ideas such as “A Rabbi Reflects” (too stuffy), “A Tree in the Forest” (a presumptuous reference to Forest Hills), “Libi BaMizrach” (my blog name) and even Mordechai Shmutter's “A Title Goes Here” (it had already been done).  But when I hit on “The Middle Road”, our talented editor Naftali Szrolovits warmed to the idea.  I am not sure what it meant to him, but to me it is a reference to my quest to help articulate the voice of what I believe is the silent majority of those who feel comfortable neither fully in the left nor right of Orthodoxy; seeing both positive and negative aspects of both sides, and seeking to embrace that which is good from all sides. 

I suppose that this is a way of moderation – of trying to live within the “Golden Mean” so eloquently described by Maimonides – to stay away from the extremes of both sides and to cleave to the middle path.  However, even the Rambam would agree that the middle road is not always the appropriate one.   In a beautiful essay, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm שליט"א described the tension between being a moderate and standing for principle.  In matters of character and personality – in developing character traits through which one interacts with others – one ought to be a moderate and keep a healthy distance from extremes.   “But when it comes to principle – to ideas, philosophy and commitments; to a code rather than a mode of conduct – then only the vision of truth may guide us.”   Furthermore, he quoted the Kotzker Rebbe זצ”ל as commenting in his inimitable style on the traffic conditions of his day that “only behemos (animals) walk in the middle of the road; not human beings.”   The Kotzker, a man for whom truth was everything, and to whom popular opinion mattered not a whit, was the ultimate man of principle – not by any means a moderate.  But I am confident that the Kotzker would agree that although matters of principle were vital, acting in a way that promotes Kiddush Hashem and assiduously avoiding actions and statements that cause Chilul Hashem, are equally important, even if it means adopting a moderate form of expression in public. 

The trick, of course, is being able to properly differentiate when something is a matter of principle – that must be upheld even if viewed by others as extreme – and when the matter is one that calls for a moderate stance.  This is particularly difficult when there are Rabbonim on different sides of an issue, and one is torn as to whom to listen to.   The topics of  “Aseh Lecha Rav” (the obligation for each person to choose a Rabbinic authority to follow) and “Da'as Torah (the authoritativeness of Rabbinic opinion) go way beyond the scope of this article (I have written extensively on this on my blog for those interested).   Once one has a Rav, one most certainly ought to follow their Rav's guidance as to how to conduct oneself on controversial (and all other) matters.   But there are certainly Rabbonim and schools of thought that believe that many issues are to be left up to the individual person to decide how to conduct themselves, under the general rubric  and guiding principles that they received from their Rabbinic authority.   It is in this area that it becomes difficult to decide whether it is a matter of principle that is at stake, or it is an issue about which the path of moderation is appropriate.

Two cases in point, on the last two successive Sundays.  The first Sunday was the occasion of the annual Salute to Israel parade.  In the last QJL edition I wrote about what a wonderful occasion the parade was, and how marvelous it was to see such a broad range of people joining together to “march for Klal Yisrael”.  I also noted that there was a group that was conspicuously absent – the Chareidim – and lamented that we could not all join together in support of Israel, much as many others had not joined with the Chareidim in celebrating the Siyum Hashas last summer.  
I received a fair amount of feedback regarding the article, most of it very positive.  However, I also received some criticism for the perceived implication that the Chareidim who did not attend were not acting correctly in so refraining.  My critics cited several reasons that  fully justified their absence.  These included (a) The fact that the laws of modesty and traditional separation between the genders would not be properly kept.  This was particularly problematic when considering that spectators were there to observe marchers dance and sashay down Fifth Avenue on a summer day when not dressed according to tznius standards acceptable in the Chareidi community, (b) the presence of several objectionable groups, such as the so-called LGBT synagogue groups, which was protested by many Rabbonim as a Chilul Hashem, and (c) a general ambivalence, or less, about the State of Israel and Zionism, which made this a non-optimal use of precious time.   In essence, they were saying that there were matters of principle that overrode the path of moderation that would argue for burying differences and joining with the others.

The next Sunday saw the large demonstration in Foley Square organized by Satmar to protest “the Persecution of Religious people in Israel”.  I do not want to discuss this event at length, other than to note that it was confusing for many who consider themselves Chareidi as to whether or not one should attend, given that there were some Rabbonim who said one must go, and others saying that one should not. (See my blog for a collection of the letters).   While most Chareidi Rabbonim would be in agreement about the principle that there is a need to fight the intentions of the current government, there seemed to be a disagreement about whether it was right to make a public demonstration upholding that principle, or whether  the appropriate path to take was one of moderation; not one in which the secular media could report as a massive anti-Zionist protest.  A question of principle vs moderation. 

Which is the proper approach in these matters?  That is not for me to decide.  In my humble opinion, however, it is incumbent for every person to decide for themselves which Rabbonim to follow in these matters.  (Factors in making that decision would require a long discussion, but it is an extremely important question that ought to be given a great deal of effort and thought).   It is also crucial that people really think through why, by commission or by omission, they are acting to uphold some principle, and whether they really think that the cost of doing so is worthwhile if it goes against principles of moderation that would have one act together with the majority of the community.

Finally, I am thinking of principle vs moderation in a professional context.  As of this month I will begin practicing law and mediation, while continuing as a Rav on a part time basis.   In the area of mediation, one of the main objectives is to help the parties to a conflict see that if each of them stands for the “principle” that they are arguing for with no room for compromise or moderation, they will likely never achieve resolution of the matter at hand, nor peace with the person with whom they are arguing.  Ways must be found for the sides to feel that they are engaged in moderation of behavior without sacrificing principles that are important to them, particularly in a severe conflict such as a divorce.  It is my honor and privilege to help the parties achieve this balance, and I hope to help many others in resolving their differences.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Without much comment . . . Should one attend the Demonstration today in Manhattan?

There is a demonstration that will take place  in Manhattan today, organized primarily by the Satmar community, to protest the proposed actions of the Israeli government regarding the Hareidi Yeshivot.

I am not going to comment at this point on my view regarding this demonstration.   I only want to record here the circus that is being put on by those claiming to report on what "Da'as Torah" is on this issue.

Letter #1 allegedly from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, שליט"א - one should not attend the demonstration

Letter #2 allegedly from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, שליט"א - one should attend the demonstration

Letter from Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky שליט"א - one should not attend the demonstration

Letter from Rav Dovid Soloveichik שליט"א  - one should attend the demonstration

Letter from the combined Lakewood Roshei Yeshiva  שליט"א  - one should not attend the demonstration

Letter from Rav Eliyahu Ber Wachtfogel  שליט"א - one should attend the demonstration

I also note for the record that I was in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin on Thursday, and there was a sign posted on the door in the name of the Hanhalah encouraging the talmidim to attend.

What is a person who is serious about Da'as Torah to do?    I don't know.  Other than to pray hard:

השיבה שופטינו כבראשונה, ויועצנו כבתחילה, והסר ממנו
 יגון ואנחה, ומלוך עלינו אתה יי לבדך בחסד וברחמים וצדקינו בצדק ובמשפט

Restore our judges as in former times, and our counsellors as of yore; remove from us sorrow and sighing, and reign over us, You alone, O L-rd, with kindness and compassion, with righteousness and justice

PS - A statement from the Rabbinical Council of America, which I think is a bit over the top as the demonstration is not about support for Israel but rather the new government attitude to the Hareidi community, but nevertheless:

RCA Statement Concerning Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Israel Rally in New York
The Rabbinical Council of America Condemns Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Israel Rally   
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest Orthodox rabbinic group in North America, deplores the attempt of a small but vocal group to undermine the image Americans have of strong, unshakeable, wall-to-wall Jewish support of Israel. Two chassidic communities well known for their rejection of a Jewish state have agreed to a joint rally in Manhattan on Sunday, June 9.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, RCA President, said, "It is an insult to the memory of the Satmar Rov, ob"m, that his disciples a generation later would take to the streets to publicly aid the many enemies who stand ready to destroy, G-d forbid, the Jewish State - and all Jews. For all his well-known opposition to a secular state, he always put the protection of Jewish lives first. It is unthinkable that as the largest Jewish community in the world deals with a nuclear threat from Iran, a military front opening with Syria, and the mushrooming of global anti-Semitism, that he would have countenanced aiding and abetting our enemies."

Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President of the RCA, added, "We call on all Jews, Orthodox and not, to redouble their efforts to explain to their fellow Americans their commitment to the Jewish State and its central position in their thinking, even when they find fault with certain positions of its government, as happens with the policies of any true democracy."

Monday, June 3, 2013

Marching for Klal Yisrael

Perhaps I have been marching in this direction for a while, but today I attended my first Fifth Avenue “Salute to Israel” Day parade.

If today’s parade is reliable evidence, virtually all of the more Modern Orthodox leaning schools and institutions in the NY area proudly march up Fifth Avenue in support of Israel during this annual event.  Having gone to more “right-wing” schools and yeshivos growing up, this massive parade was not on the radar screen for me.  I did not know people who marched, did not associate much with those who might attend, and was never given information to believe that this was a worthwhile event.  It seemed like a place for the local politicians to demonstrate to gullible liberal Jews that by their attendance at this event they “proved” their love for Israel and Jews, and not something that made any real difference to anyone. 

I was wrong.  

I was privileged to attend the parade today with my daughter Diti, in the VIP section, as a guest of Jean and Eugen Gluck, wonderful members of our shul and prime supporters of the parade for the past twenty five years.  I had several thoughts at the parade that I thought were worth noting:

  • There was such a wonderful diversity in the crowd, which was marked by many very different groups – all joined together in support of Israel and in a friendly spirit.   All too often Jewish gatherings manage to highlight our differences; here, friendliness and brotherhood reigned supreme.  While a great many of the marchers, and the spectators, seemed to be from Modern Orthodox leaning circles, there were plenty of others as well.  There were Reform and Conservative groups, Federations, Zionist organizations, non-affiliated, and even plenty of non-Jewish groups.  Several of the marching bands were clearly not Jewish, nor were the Christians in support of Israel.  It was great to see so many thousands join together in support of the Jewish State and nation, when there is usually so much animosity directed toward us.  I am not sure what ultimate affect the parade has on the fortunes of Israel, but it was a magnificent and beautiful show of support and goodwill.

  • The energy of so many of the young people was exciting and palpable.   We always hear about how the youth are turned off to Judaism and are so rapidly losing their connection to all things Jewish.  The parade was a sign of great hope.  So many wonderful young men and women, marching, singing, dancing and cheering – proud to be Jewish and proud to demonstrate it.   The problems of alienation, assimilation, and intermarriage are far from being solved, of course.  But it was heartwarming and so encouraging to see this wonderful spirit on display.  Which brings me to my next point

  • I had the great privilege of watching the parade with several Holocaust survivors.  Watching Jean Gluck stand on her very painful feet – smiling, waving, handing out candy, and joyfully taking it all in for hours – was such an inspiration.  I could not help thinking that surely it crossed the mind of many survivors that they had participated in a parade of a very different sort almost seventy years ago – the infamous and horrible Death March through the forests of Europe.   One of the cruelest and most horrible things that the accursed Nazis, may they eternally rot in hell, made Jews endure was to force the weak, starving inmates – who they had worked to the bone –  to march in the freezing cold at a fast pace for many days in the freezing European winter, for no purpose at all, often on a purposely circuitous route to nowhere.   The camps were abandoned, the war lost; but rather than just letting them go, they forced these poor people on the terrible march where untold thousands who had made it through all the horrors of Auschwitz fell when they had no more strength to go on.  Elie Weisel’s harrowing account in “Night” of his father’s death on the march sticks in one’s mind forever as a symbol of the senseless barbaric cruelty that our people endured.

    And yet, there I sat with survivors of those marches, who took such solace in seeing thousands of free, strong, proud, committed young Jews marching with joy and abandon.   When I mentioned these thoughts to Sam Weisinger, he said, “No one who was not there could even begin to know what I am feeling today”.   What an incredible privilege to share a little bit of this with the precious survivors that we still have with us!

  • Unfortunately, there was a down side as well.   One looked far and wide for any participation from the Chareidi community – in vain.  With one glaring exception – the terrible Reshaim of Neurei Karta who seem to dedicate their lives to Chilul Hashem – the Chareidi community was absent.  As I mentioned earlier, this was my first parade, and thus I am no one to criticize others.   I only can feel pain and angst that the entire Jewish community can come together in joy and celebration and appreciation for the wonderful gift that is the State of Israel – except for the Chareidim. 

    I am well aware of all the arguments that they would present; all the imperfections of the State especially when it comes to Torah and religion, all of the people who left a Torah lifestyle to embrace secular Zionism, and all of the hard feelings that exist between the communities.  But those ought to be internal arguments.   As in the famous formulation of Rav Soloveichik zt”l, we are entitled to, and must uphold our principled positions and disagreements "כלפי פנים" when it is a matter of Torah importance.  However when we are dealing “כלפי חוץ”, in a Jewish stand vis a vis the outside world, we must stand together.   But that is a dream – one which it seems will have to wait for some future time.

Finally, in thinking about very large groups of Jews, my mind wandered back to an even larger, though less public, gathering less than a year ago – the magnificent Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium.   That evening was such a wonderful Kiddush Hashem, and created such good feeling amongst people, and motivated so many to dedicate themselves to Torah learning.  Although the crowd there was mostly Chareidi, a substantial number of non-Chareidi participated as well, as Jews came together to celebrate Torah. 

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the participants at one celebration were absent at the other.  

We look forward to a day when all of Klal Yisrael can gather together and celebrate, and on that great day the Lord will be One, and his Name will be One.