Thursday, June 15, 2017

Can this Nation Remain United?

I haven't written in a long while.  I have been going through a lot of personal stuff that has consumed me, which I will perhaps discuss in the future.   However, watching the level of social and political discourse in the USA (and for that matter around the world) descend into deeper and deeper levels of hostility, I want to see if I can contribute something useful.

The horror this week in Alexandria VA, as an evil person tried to massacre Senators and Congressman during their baseball practice in cold blood, shocked some people into silence, at least for a few hours.  I was moved to write the following on facebook, which apparently resonated with many people:


Lots of silence from all my friends on the left today.

Unlike you, I will not blame the horrible act of this Trump hating, GOP hating, Bernie supporting excuse for a human being on the Democrat party, nor will I blame all of the terrible violence, rioting, and horrific hatred that the left has been exhibiting since the elections on the DNC, although there is more than ample reason to do so.

But I hope that -- just for a minute -- you give some thought today to where your terribly hateful, disrespectful, overblown obstructionist speech and attitudes have lead us, and know that there are many more crazies out there, drinking your Kool-aid, who are eager to escalate your civil war.

Time to tone it down, accept the election results, get off the “we will blindly block everything the Republicans propose, even if we are not opposed in principle, just to resist“ platform,let the special counsel do his job and accept that for now there has been ZERO evidence of collusion with the Russians....in short, be a responsible, patriotic, peaceful opposition who will soon enough have an opportunity to compete in another election and try to sway minds and hearts in your direction without resorting to lies, hate speech, and violence.

Be a proud American, and make it great again, in your own way.
I have since had some further thoughts on the matter, that I would like to record here.

1) Our American Society - I am a big fan of Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street journal, who provides consistently excellent commentary on current events.   In  his June 15 column, Political Disorder Syndrome , he proffered an incisive analysis of the downward spiral of violent social phenomena we have been witnessing in recent weeks, including Kathy Griffin's appalling appearance with a bloody severed head of Donald Trump; New York’s Public Theater's production of “ Julius Caesar, ” in which Central Park audiences watch Caesar as a blond-haired Donald Trump is pulled down from a podium by men in suits and assassinated with plunging knives; campus riots against conservative speakers and other incitements to violence that have certainly contributed to the atmosphere in which the Alexandria shooting took place.  But then Henninger pointed to a fascinating social transformation:
We negotiate much of daily life now in tense, parallel universes: One is overflowing with individual political and social behavior that is deviant—flights from the norm—at a time when broader norms of political and social behavior are enforced with a vengeance. Today you can get shamed, sued or fired for almost any conceivable offense. 
In reaction, millions of people—including the president—seem to regard social media as a kind of wildlife refuge, where they can run naked against society’s dammed-up personal and political opinions.
I find this analysis brilliant -- and incisively descriptive of a deeply troubling phenomenon.   The utter contradiction that we all are aware of  --  that our society on the one hand demands that people stifle themselves and  publicly say only that which is non-offensive, non-challenging, and non-"triggering" to anyone's feelings, while on the other hand is replete with an undercurrent of unbridled chutzpah, outrageous opinions, unheard of lack of inhibitions that find expression in major media, social media, backroom conversation, and the underlying mindset of so many -- is deeply unsettling. There are truly "two parallel universes", making it very difficult for so many, particularly our young people, to develop honest, respectful and balanced views of the world.  These very well may be behind the ferociously partisan unwillingness of people to listen to opposing opinions and to wrestle with complex ideas, preferring to get all of their opinions from sources that are pre-disposed to their unchangeable mindset and to negate anything that does not already fit with their preconceived version of the truth.

It is a frightening time - one in which it may become harder and harder for us to remain a United republic without descending into civil war.   (This was also pointed out by an equally incisive column by Peggy Noonan, Rage is all the Rage, and it's Dangerous .)  It underscores what happens when minds close, and people no longer work on developing a deep respect for the dignity of difference; understanding that those with whom you disagree may well be lovely people of integrity and intelligence who just see the world differently than you do.

2) The Jewish Angle - I have written in the past, and will iy"h write more in the future, of my concern regarding the creeping extremism in the Orthodox world.   The paucity of "Middle of the Road" views that were once prevalent is deeply troubling. It seems that the extreme voices predominate, and they are inordinately influencing the younger generation.  Many very recent examples abound of this; one will suffice for this essay.


When people demonize "the other opinion", when they refuse to see that the others also have their good qualities, intentions, and accomplishments, the road to violent opposition and actions, occurring with growing frequency in Yerushalayim, Bet Shemesh, and other places, is not far.

 Just a few weeks ago, a major milestone was marked by much of the Jewish world - the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War and the Reunification of Yerushalayim.   It seems to me that it was marked, almost exclusively, in one of two ways.   Those with a more Religious Zionist leaning, celebrated grandly.   Parties, gatherings, shul events, magazine articles and other celebrations abounded; there was much talk of the incredible gift that the Jewish people were given in 1967, when virtually overnight, the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael was delivered from extreme danger and foreboding to an unprecedented quadrupling in size, total decimation of our enemies, restoration to the Holy lands of Yehuda, Shomron, Gaza, and the holy cities of Hevron and Shechem, and -- of course -- the thrilling notion of Har Habayit Biyadeinu.   The younger generation growing up today cannot even imagine what it was like to not be able to visit the Kotel or Kever Rachel, or to be able to live in Ramot or Ramat Eshkol or all of the yishuvim.   They see the enormous achievements that have transformed Medinat Yisrael in the past seventy years with enormous pride and gratitude, while aware of its imperfections and problems.

At the same time, in most of the places that I visited in New York, (that tended more towards the "yeshivish olam"), one was not even aware of the anniversary.   It was totally unremarked upon and ignored.  To the extent that one even brought it up in conversation one was either looked upon as a troublemaking outsider, who ought to know better than to talk about this issue with any seriousness, or written off as a jokester.   Even "out of town", in a community where I had the privilege of serving as a scholar in residence, the Rabbi was afraid to let me talk about the topic, as anything about Yom Yerushalayim was too controversial and would result in disapproval from the other Rabbonim in town.   In "Torah strongholds", the negation is, if anything, more extreme.   Children are taught that the State of Israel has zero or negative religious significance, that it is a place that actively tries to destroy Torah and Judaism.  I was very disheartened this week when my nephew told me that growing up in a Lakewood school, Israel was virtually never spoken of, except by one of his Rebbes who taught them that the Zionists are worse than Nazis; the Nazis after all only killed the physical bodies of Jews while the Zionists are trying to eradicate Torah.  While I am hopeful that this genius Rebbe's views were atypical, they are not rare nor shocking in the Yeshiva world.  (It remains a source of continuing frustration to me that a Rabbi who made similar statements two years ago continues to hold a prominent position in the world's largest yeshiva and is constantly welcomed with honorifics in many communities the Chareidi world, as ads highlighting his speeches constantly in the Chareidi press indicate.  (Yes, under pressure he retracted those statements, saying he was only "joking"; I remain unimpressed.)   Furthermore, these statements are mild when compared to those of the real extremists, such as those who backed and attended the disgraceful Asifa in Barclays Center last week.   I am speaking here only of what is taught, or not taught, in so called mainstream Charedi Yeshivos.)

The "Middle of the Road" approach is almost never heard.  I deeply believe that there are MANY people who, on the one hand, do not consider themselves Zionist, and who believe that there are many stages that still need to happen before the Flowering of the Redemption rises to the level of saying Hallel.  On the other hand, they are deeply appreciative of the opportunity Hashem has granted us in having a Jewish State and care about it and its people passionately. Furthermore, they recognize that the unprecedented flowering of Torah in it and largely supported by it is a tremendous blessing.   Although those who agree with this approach are many, they are blocked out of the public discourse by the loud voices on either side.

This divide is, I believe, not unrelated to the broader societal divide I spoke of earlier.   When people demonize "the other opinion", when they refuse to see that the others also have their good qualities, intentions, and accomplishments, the road to violent opposition and actions, are occurring with growing frequency in Yerushalayim, Bet Shemesh, and other places, is not far.

The season of the Three Weeks and Tisha B'Av is almost upon us.  When we reflect on the themes of Sinas Chinom and the disunity that caused the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash, let us endeavor to look at our own thoughts and feelings towards those with whom we disagree, and see what we can do to be able to maintain the dignity and intellectual honesty of holding on to our beliefs, while respecting -- and loving -- our fellow Jews with whom we may have differences of opinion.   Only thus can we look forward to the coming of the Mashiach, speedily in our days.