Monday, January 30, 2017

The Flaw in the Necessary Ban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Miracle that is Ivanka Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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