Sunday, January 22, 2017

Leave Ivanka Trump's Judaism Alone!!!

I am thoroughly and totally disgusted by the blatant and vicious shaming of Yael (Ivanka) Trump, especially by ostensibly Orthodox people.

Facebook and Twitter are ablaze with snide, smarmy comments that call into question the sincerity (and by extension, the validity) of Yael Trump’s conversion to Judaism, because she attended her father’s Inaugural Ball on Friday night and was driven home afterwards, out of concern for her safety. Those behind these posted comments are the same people who (correctly) protest when the Israeli Chief Rabbinate questions the religious bonafides of converts. Their hypocrisy screams to the heavens. Thirty Six times times the Torah condemns hurting, or oppressing or discomfiting a convert (Baba Metzia 59b). The Torah makes absolutely no distinction between the daughters of kings or the sons of day workers. People are entitled to oppose the policies of President Donald Trump. However, they have absolutely no right, none, to vilify his daughter, a woman who chose to join Klal Yisrael and who is, by all accounts, a sincere Shabbat Observer.

Yes, they snidely object, but what of attending the Inaugural Ball on Friday Night?

It's a good question, and perhaps there was room to demur. However, there is also halakhically unassailable precedent for Jared and Yael to attend her father's inaugural ball, on Shabbat. Indeed, those who carp and criticize are showing their abject ignorance of Halakhah, or they are revealing that their political convictions take precedence over their religious convictions.

The Rabbis made allowances for those in public office, and the family of the President definitely falls into this category (cf. Rambam, Hil. AKuM 11, 1-3). The same holds true of being driven home on Friday night, which was justified on the grounds of the couple’s personal safety (Piquah Nefesh). Does anyone doubt, especially in the white hot atmosphere that obtains in the US today, that someone might try to harm them? Furthermore, Jared and Yael apparently did nothing that was forbidden on Shabbat.


All of this leaves me thinking of the words of the second century BCE Hasmonean king, Alexander Yannai to his wide, Shlomtzion Alexandra: ‘Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees, but [fear] the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri but they expect a reward like Phineas’ (Sotah 22b).

Friday, January 06, 2017

My Mother's Legacy


       Every year, the 9th of Tevet catches me unawares. No matter how many years have passed, and this year marks twenty six, I find myself unprepared to again confront the reality of a world which my Mother ע"ה doesn't inhabit. As those who had the privilege of knowing her are well aware, my mother was larger than life. She was smart, incisive, fun, principled, with a very clearly defined sense of personal morality. She was also incredibly strong in character. She had to be, in order to carry on after being widowed at 49, left with three not easy boys under the age of 16, and a financial situation that was (at best) precarious. 
       My mother was a woman of incredible dignity. One of her guiding principles was to always be sure to do the right thing in life, the proper thing, even if it was uncomfortable. The 'right thing' could refer to always dressing properly ('like a mensch') when you went into town, or to being polite and restrained even under the most distressing circumstances. One kept one's dignity, one's self-respect, always.
       I often think back to her words on the morning of my Dad's passing, forty-six years ago. It was before 7AM, and we had just heard from the hospital that my father had passed away in his sleep, a month after suffering a massive heart attack and the morning he was due to be released to recover at home. My mother gathered the three of us in the room I shared with my brother, David. I remember her holding us and saying something like this:
       'Daddy wanted you to grow up into proud, God fearing, moral Jews. You must always remember that, at the end of the day, all you really have is one another.'  
        Fear of God. Pride in being Jewish. Leading a moral, upstanding life. Devotion to Family. These were the values that my mother instilled in us, and which we try to instill in our children (two of whom, sadly, never got to know her). 
       Trying to pass on her legacy doesn't ease the pain of her absence. It does give us a way to ensure her immortality.
                               לעי"נ פעשא בת יוסף ושיינא פייגא ע"ה                            
תהי נשמתה צרורה בצרור החיים 

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Azariah Case Requires Nuance, Not Vitriol



The trial of Elor Azariah has expanded well beyond its original contours. From the case of a single soldier, who was yesterday convicted of manslaughter in the death of a neutralized terrorist, it has ballooned into a polarizing event, which expresses and exacerbates many of the fissures within Israeli society. The latter development is deeply regrettable, inter alia, because it encourages imprecise and irresponsible declarations, when what is required is nuance, precision and caution.
           A particularly egregious example of the latter appeared in yesterday’s English version of Haaretz, authored by Jerusalem rabbi, Rabbi Daniel Landes (‘Elor Azaria’s act of murder, and the rabbis who justify it, defile Judaism’). In his intemperate if sincere, exposition Landes makes several assertions that are deeply troubling and factually problematic.
           To begin with, he declares that ‘shooting a terrorist is an obligation that is necessary if it can prevent bodily injury or during the act before more damage is committed. That is without question. But after the terrorist act has finished and the perpetrator contained, to harm him is itself murder.’ The first portion of Landes’ statement is undoubtedly correct. However, it is simply not the case that ‘after the terrorist act has finished and the perpetrator contained – itself a judgment call – to harm him is itself murder.’
Azariah was convicted of Manslaughter, not Murder. His actions were, even per the court, the result of the explosive, adrenaline laced situation on the ground. That of course, does not excuse him. However, that is apparently why the army chose to charge him with manslaughter instead of murder, which they initially considered. The circumstances, intent and state of mind of an individual are critical elements to the evaluation of a crime. Calling his acts murder is, therefore, deeply irresponsible, a wanton distortion of both Israeli Law and Halakhah (Cf. Yam shel Shlomo Bava Kamma 8:42). In addition, according to Jewish Law, it is by no means clear whether the case of Azariah would be deemed a violation of civilian or military law (i.e. Hilkhot Rotzeach vs. Hilkhot Melakhim).
           Rabbi Landes devotes most of his attention to a vitriolic condemnation of rabbis who deny that ‘the court’s decision is absolutely just, and in full accordance with Halakhah. Those rabbis who say otherwise or who remain silent are accomplices in this tragedy/travesty…Those rabbis are part of a not so hidden, indeed blatant, racism that pervades our yeshivot’s batei midrash (study halls) and common conversation….Fueled by messianic imagery of this being an apocalyptic moment in Jewish history, restraint is shoved aside. And with it, Jewish notions of the horror of murder are dumped into the sewer of messianic madness…’
           Let us put aside the fact that Elor Azariah is not the product of a Religious Zionist home or education. To whom is the author referring in this sweeping, demagogic condemnation? All rabbis? Some rabbis? A few rabbis? In the absence of names and citations, Rabbi Landes proves himself as guilty of the kind of conspiratorial mind-set as the chimerical Religious Zionist (I assume it is to them he’s referring) eminence noire that he invokes in his article. Honestly. Are there religious and political extremists within the Religious Zionist Camp? Absolutely. They are as real, and nefarious, as radical Leftists who demonize not only the political Right (and Center-Right), but every aspect of Judaism. Are these extremists representative of their entire community and its institutions? Absolutely not.
           The same is true of the author’s invocation of ‘messianic imagery of this being an apocalyptic moment in Jewish history.’ As with his legal analysis, Rabbi Landes is only partially correct and his conclusions, accordingly distorted.
           It is true that messianic aspirations are an integral, and abiding part of Traditional Judaism. It is extremely odd to find an ostensibly Orthodox rabbi decrying them. However, and more to the present point, it is also true that messianic aspirations, based on the teachings of Rabbis Kook (père et fils) motivated and energized the settlement movement from the seventies until the nineties. What Rabbi Landes seems to have missed is that the signing of the Oslo accords started a period of messianic disappointment and crisis within the Religious Zionist world, a process which came to a head with the Disengagement from Gaza (as Ari Shavit once noted). The Religious Zionist community no longer bases its political positions on messianic or apocalyptic conceptions (if, indeed, it ever did). All one needs to do is compare the many and varied responses in the Religious Zionist leadership to the Amona issue, compared to the anti-Oslo demonstrations, to see the tectonic shift that has occurred. Reading Landes’ words, I was tempted to paraphrase Barack Obama’s retort to Mitt Romney: ‘Peace Now wants its 1980’s Antichrist back.’
           At the end of his remarks, sadly, Rabbi Landes descends into out and out demagogy. ‘To those who admire Azaria and seek to emulate or defend him, we can only say: This is not the Torah’s path.’ As I already wrote, there are obviously those in Israeli society who admire Azaria. There might be those who think, like Lt. Gen. Raphael Eitan, that no terrorist should be allowed to emerge from his actions alive. I challenge, Rabbi Landes, to adduce proof that Israeli children (much less religious children) are being taught or encouraged by their parents and teachers and rabbis to emulate him, with malice aforethought! As to defending him, I would like to call his attention to the fact that the Hebrew social media are full of nuanced assertions that both admit Azariah’s guilt, while noting the impossibly complex, highly charged nature of anti-terrorist, urban warfare. These type of statements, from both Right and Left, provide the type of critical nuance and precision that the tragedy of Elor Azariah requires and that Rabbi Landes’ article so lacks.    
       Here, at least, I can agree with our author. Heated rhetoric, flawed legal analysis, historical myopia and hyperbolic rhetoric are absolute ‘not the Torah’s path.’           

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On Platinum Partners and Orthodox White Collar Crime


The Modern Orthodox World is once again aghast at the news of a major financial fraud, allegedly involving graduates of YU and Gush Etzion. Social media are burning up with understandable angst and outrage. These are my initial thoughts:


There are (it seems to me), two separate issues: the punitive and the educational. As the commenters note, in a decentralized Jewish Community, punitive actions are very difficult. Deny someone Maftir Yonah here, he'll pay for it there. That doesn't mean that convicted criminals and their actions should not be excoriated. It doesn't mean one should honor them. [Yet, given the financial crunch of every school, yeshiva and shul I'm less than sanguine that this will happen. Will honest people make up for the donations of the wealthy corrupt?] The situation is extremely frustrating. 

More promising,I think, is the educational piece. This horrific phenomenon of widespread 'Orthodox' White Collar Crime is a function of a number of factors. 

1) We've assimilated the regnant culture of 'No Shame.' We have no shame morally, sexually, religiously--you name it. Compare the reactions today to the total abashment of the Orthodox Community when Bernard Bergman was exposed for abuse in his nursing homes. He was effectively driven out of the communal structure. 

2) This is the downside of the first time, that I can recall, in history that Orthodox Jews have massive amounts of money, and their education has totally failed to prepare us ethically for that circumstance. There were always wealthy Jews, but I have the impression that the amount of fraud that they might commit (and it did happen, as attested in responsa) was tempered by the awareness that if caught, all Jews would suffer expulsion or death. Also, sectors of the MO community have apparently become charter members of the Universal Church of the Golden Calf. While observing mitzvot (and giving Tzedakah), it puts its vacations, homes, cars, jewelry, posh Restaurants, the size and opulence of its weddings aand other smachot etc at the top of its agenda (never mind that it's destroyed Pesach along the way). There is nothing inherently wrong with these, but the prioritizing is a structural flaw. It preaches the centrality of money and that can spill over into evil. 

3) Aiding and abetting the distortion of values engendered by having money is the wholesale abandonment of Hoshen Mishpat. We don't teach it in schools or Yeshivot. We don't hear it from the pulpit. Nada. We are obsessed with ritual minutia (much of it unnecessary), while ignoring basic ethics. The Rav זצ"ל once told me that ritual that is not grounded intellectually AND morally is nothing less than ceremonialism. And, he added, ceremonialism is fundamentally pagan. 

4) This all, of course, is related to the phenomenon of Tax evasion, the inability to distinguish between taxes paid to the US Treasury and those paid to Phillip IV of France (who expelled the Jews anyway). 

5) So what's to be done? Educate in Hoshen Mishpat (in school curricula, sermons, parsha sheets etc.) Take the hit and refuse donations (and honors) from convicted criminals (and let the other wealthy and less wealthy share the burden). Impose serious sumptuary practices on the community. (Think of what the $100,000 a family pays for Pesach in the Alps could do for a Day School.) Every participant in a Dinner or Even should be asked to write two checks, for the dinner and the donation. (The message will be obvious. Doing less is really לפני עיוור). Anyway, that's my two cents. Here in Israel, the present challenge is dealing with Men harassing women and how to deal with them in a communal setting. Similar problem, slightly different set of considerations.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Islam and the West: A Medievalist's Ruminations

                                          The Battle of Vienna   September 11, 1683


I. 
   This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Bernard Lewis' now-famous article, 'The Return of Islam.' Lewis presciently (actually, prophetically) anticipated the return of Islam as a central actor in World Politics; even before Samuel Huntington had ever thought about a 'Clash of Civilizations.' One key element of Lewis' argument was that the Christian, now Post-Christian, West had long ago forgotten what it was like to confront the Islamic World, even though the latter had long been its major adversary. That process of historical amnesia began (eerily enough) on September 11, 1683, when the combined forces of the Hapsburg Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth turned back the armies of Kara Mustafa Pasha, vizier of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV, from the gates of Vienna. Thereafter, the Muslim World began a period of deep decline and decay, just as Europe entered the Age of Science, Enlightenment, Imperialism, and Colonialism. 
     Europe, Lewis observed, had never really 'seen,' understood either Muslims or Islam. As he put it: 'This recurring unwillingness to recognize the nature of Islam or even the fact of Islam as an independent, different, and autonomous religious phenomenon persists and recurs from medieval to modern times.' Instead, Christendom consistently projected itself and its world view upon the Muslims; in an ongoing habit of that which noted historian Richard Landes has aptly termed, 'Cognitive Egocentrism.' If, prior to 1683, Europe had respected the Muslim World, that was out of respect for its proven military prowess. After their victory in the Battle of Vienna, as the Ottoman Empire slid into receivership, whatever fear or respect Christian Europe bore its erstwhile enemy metamorphosed into benign contempt.
    To continue Lewis' line of thought, one should add that during the subsequent three centuries, the European West (and later the United States) entered into an era of dizzying growth and unparalleled achievement; one that ended in de facto, world domination. During that time, and especially since the end of World War II, West has also undergone a dizzying cultural transformation. Some term it Modernity. Others prefer to call it Post-Modernity. For the present purposes, neither the terminology nor the etiology matter. What does matter is the result. In varying degrees of intensity, Western culture and thought have become profoundly materialist (in the Marxist sense), morally and epistemologically relativist, anti-authority, individualist, and increasingly atheist. At the same time, the (now Post)-Christian West has lost none of its intellectual arrogance. Like their medieval forbears, Western intellectuals (and their mimics in the media), not only assume  that they represent the only possible worldview; but that every other person on earth must, perforce, subscribe thereto by dint of their own humanity. To put it more homely. The Contemporary West is afflicted with Cognitive Egocentrism on steroids.
     In a sense, the West (e.g. Western Europe and United States) hasn't changed all that much. It still assumes that it represents the only path to Man's, now secular and atheist, salvation. There is, however, a key difference. Owing to its deep seated moral relativism (with more than a soupcon of post-colonial guilt), the West cannot find it within its capacity to criticize the Muslim World, even when actions undertaken by Muslims, Muslim States and Organizations and supported by normative Muslim legists and theologians contradict its most cherished values and ideals. However, and paradoxically, Western thinkers are as convinced of their absolute truth as were their Christian ancestors. These two facts seem mutually contradictory. You can't respect others. You can't be truly multi-cultural, if you dogmatically maintain only your point of view. So how do contemporary pundits resolve the conundrum? They simply project their relativist Truth upon everyone else, and deny the existence of any alternative (except, perhaps, as a benighted aberration).
    If we were to confine the discussion so far to the hallowed halls of academe, we could file away this delicious irony under 'Ironic Curiosities,' and go on to another topic. However, we do not have the luxury of confining the discussion to the Ivory Tower. The stakes we are gambling are far too high for detached, ever so sophisticated discussion over drinks. It is important to parse and understand the reality that emerged from the above conundrum. What is it about Islam that the West can't get? The answer(s) to that question can be best be provided by searching not the present, but the Past.
 
II.
In its blindness to any value system other than its own, lies the weakness of the West and the seeds of its potential destruction. For it has, in the course of the developments outlined above, forgotten the lessons that its medieval progenitors knew well; and which allowed it to survive over the course of 1100 years of confrontation with the Civilization of the Crescent.

1) When Cross and Crescent faced off in the eighth century, both sides were deeply aware that they acted in the name of God, Whose Revelation represented absolute Truth and the sole path for Human Salvation. And while, of course, Muslims would not literally subscribe to the assertion that extra ecclesiam nulla (est) salus (There is no salvation outside of the Church), they would certainly have endorsed the sentiment if formulated around belief in Allah, the mission of Muhammad and the Qur'an as representing the final and perfect expression of God's master plan for man. What both sides had in common was an appreciation of the total, absolute devotion that the other side would have for its beliefs. Both sides appreciated the commitment that would drive a person to sacrifice all he had to do God's Will, as he understood it. Both sides could understand the idea of total sacrifice in testimony to faith in God. One called such a one martyr. The other called him shahid. Both words mean witness, and make the same point (even as they, at different times, understood the specific nuances differently). [Indeed, there each side paid begrudging respect for the other by attributing its successes to the Anti-Christ or the Shaitun.]
Contemporary Western life has no room for Absolute Truth, at least not one that lies outside of wo/man, him/herself. Its worldview is relativist, materialist and dedicated to the proposition that society must strive to fill one's desires. Hence, our society cannot accept the idea that there might be a Truth that not only obligates, but also demands the sacrifice of comfort, convenience, material goods and, yes, even one's Health or Life. Besotted by our self-importance and impressed by our achievements, contemporary culture absolutely refuses to accept the proposition that one might defer to the demands of Faith and Tradition, even (or, especially) when these are both inscrutable and inconvenient. When one adds that worldview to a strong dose of cognitive egocentrism, the result is the inability to accept that anyone else could maintain such beliefs, either. The result is frequently either denial ('They really don't believe that'') and/or social engineering ('If we solve their economic woes, they will not be forced to resort to such things').                                                                          [The most extreme version of this response, though, is also (in my opinion) the most egregious, as it constitutes the ultimate in Western Paternalist Cultural Imperialism. I refer to the bon ton of non-Muslim deciding what is and what is not legitimately Muslim. Properly addressing this deeply disrespectful activity would take me far beyond the limits of a blog post. Suffice it to say that it is the ultimate expression of the double bind that I described above.] 

2) There is another quality of medieval life that is a direct corollary to this first. Both Christianity and Islam are all enveloping ways of life. All of reality is refracted through the prism of each faith (though Islam, based as it is upon a vast legal code, is more all-inclusive). Throughout the Middle Ages, religion provided the all-pervasive context within which people experienced and evaluated their lives. This, of course, is not be any means intended to imply that people were not moved by circumstances or interests, by passions or by privilege. However, they understood these (including their sins and trespasses) against the background and through the mirror of their religiosity. Secularism did not really exist until the turn of the seventeenth century. And, while moderns might smirk at sinners who bequeathed ill-gotten gains to the Church for prayers for the salvation of their souls, we must not forget that they believed therein.
This is a point that even medieval historians forget. Trained to reconstruct (and evaluate) past events and personalities in light of material causes, historiansfrequently fall into the trap of reducing the actions of historical personages to their apparent interests and responses. What they fail to recall is that prior to the advent of secularism, Christians and Muslims understood themselves (or, in some cases, convinced themselves) that their actions accorded with the demands of their faith. As an historian, I am absolutely convinced of the religious sincerity of the overwhelming majority of historical personages whose lives I have studied. Certainly this is so when their actions go against what are, prima facie, their material interests (e.g. the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which wreaked permanent havoc on the Spanish economy). Nevertheless, here too, the Post-Christian West cannot comprehend the kind of all-encompassing worldview that still obtains in broad swaths of the Muslim world.            

3) Medieval historians with an anthropological bent (e. g. Mikhail Bakhtin, Aron Gurevich and Jacques LeGoff) have noted that Medievals (as with members of other Traditional societies) pursued their lives with a sense of intimacy with the past. Biblical events, Foundation Legends were experienced as imminent, even by illiterate peasants (as expressed by the fact that the roots of European Theater lie in the portrayal of Biblical stories). Islam, in particular, cultivated historical awareness. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun is often credited as the founder of Historiography and Sociology. Christians and Muslims alike had long historical memories, and the formative moments of each were relived (in the Eliadean sense) and ever accessible. Consider, for example, the little appreciated fact that the bloody battle for Kosovo, twenty years ago, was for the Serbs revenge for the fall of their kingdom to the Ottoman Muslims in 1389. Or, there is the enduring potency of Ali's victory over the Jews of Khaybar in 628; the invocation of which is a leitmotif of anti-Israel demonstrations 
Needless to say, the hic et nunc quality of modern day life does not jibe with this kind of sense of permanently accessible, identity forming past. If anything, contemporary historical discourse tends to dismiss and debunk, trash and tear up events and figures that were earlier admired. The past, far from being a source of inspiration, is today judged (and severely so) in light of the same constellation of relativist values that creates the cognitive disconnect with traditional societies, such as is most of the Muslim World.

III.
The prime directive of Islam, of all stripes, is to bring all of mankind to submit to the Will of Allah, as received by Muhammad and passed on through the ages. Optimally, submission means acceptance of Islam. Less than optimal is a situation in which the world is ruled by Islamic Law, Shari'ah, but wherein non-Muslims exist as tolerated, protected minorities (dhimmi). The process by which areas not regulated by Shari'ah (Dar-al-Harb; the House of War) are made part of the 'House of Islam' (dar al Islam), is 'struggle' (jihad). Desiring this outcome is a principled, understandable position for a faith community which recognizes only One Truth, imparted by the One God. Many strains of Islam (especially within the Shi'a) have a strong messianic component, which infuses the drive to spread the Word of the Prophet with powerful millennial force. In the binary worldview that characterizes Orthodox Islam, one can easily understand how the three forces noted above (absolute commitment to God and His exclusive Truth, an integrated religious outlook and a profound connection and identification with the formative events and figures of Islamic history (Muhammad, Ali, Salah-a-Din, Suleiman, Khaybar, Karbala, and so on) can combine into a prodigious wave of religious fervor. We are, as Lewis predicted forty years ago, in the midst of just such a wave (whether all Muslims support the timing, or not).
The difference, the potentially tragic difference, is that the Christian West now lacks every one of those qualities that once allowed it to stand against Muslim attempts to fulfill its own, principled mission (from the Battle of Tours in 732 to the Victory of Jan Subieski at the gates of Vienna in 1683). It no longer believes in Truth. It values nothing beyond the individual's needs, rights and desires. It holds its own history in contempt. And, arrogantly contemptuous as it is of the fabled 'other,' it refuses to acknowledge that that 'other' subscribes to a very different value system. That refusal contains the seeds of the West's undoing. For, if it does not learn to respect the 'other,' it may end up facilitating the dream of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha---only three hundred fifty years later.  

[Note: Related to this discussion is my professional conviction that the conflict over Eretz Yisrael is, and always has been, religious and civilizational. That, however, requires a separate discussion.]