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You Can Save a Life

November 26, 2015 at 10:59 pm

wailing-wall-776369_1920What if I told you there was something you could do, right now, that could save a life in Israel? Would you do it?

In this week’s reading, Yaakov returns to the Land of Israel, only to meet his brother Esav — who years earlier tried to kill him. Yaakov prepared for this event, Rashi tells us, in three ways: with gifts, prayer, and preparation for war. All three were necessary.

Our Sages tell us that “maaseh avos siman l’banim” — the actions of the Fathers are signs for the children. Much of what we learn from the detailed accounts in Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, are principles derived from the accounts of the lives of our forebears, the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people.

Hatred of the children of Yaakov by the children of Esav and Yishmael is hardly new — it has been with us for thousands of years. The modern state of Israel is not facing a new challenge, but an ancient one; the children of Ishmael have aimed to destroy it since before it was created, simply because it is a state run by Jews. Today Ishmael is waging war with guns, knives, and “diplomacy” to gain world support against the Jews (as if that were difficult to garner).

Yes, we have to prepare for war, and fight back with diplomacy as well. But the Jews have a secret weapon: the Creator of Heaven and Earth is ready to help us.

Recently someone called my attention to a webpage (anti-Semitic, of course) purporting to translate content of the Talmud, to the effect that Judaism teaches that a non-Jew is not a human being, but rather a beast. It was a complete inversion of reality; the Talmud states that “the Righteous of all Nations have a share in the World to Come” [Sanhedrin 105a]. An animal cannot choose to be righteous; the Talmud is telling us that every human being has free will, and will be rewarded for making the right choices — and that this applies to every person, whether Jewish or not.

Of course, the “translation” was fictional. The part about non-Jews being beasts was whole-cloth fabrication; the rest, a distortion built upon a mistranslation. The Talmud does not use “Ish,” the word for man. Rather, it says that non-Jews are not called “Adam;” only Jews are called “Adam” [Bava Metziah 114b].

This is not a new anti-Semitic claim; it was used at the Dreyfus trial, when an innocent and loyal French Jewish soldier was accused of treason (in order to cover up the guilt of a pure-blood Frenchman). Several rabbis came from other European countries to support the defense, and they were confronted with this misrepresentation of Jewish teachings.

They explained as follows: Adam is not all of humanity. We are all the Children of Adam, and it is the Jews who brought the message that we are all brothers, all created in the Image of G-d, to the world. But Adam is one person, one body. We, the Jews, are all called “Israel,” the name given by G-d to Jacob — immediately prior to his family reunion with Esau. That is the meaning of being called “Adam” in the singular.

If a French person is hurt, a person of French descent living in another country is unlikely to be affected more than any other human being. But because a Jew was falsely accused, the rabbis explained, we were willing to come from other countries just to support him. That is what is different — all Jews are one. We are one unified body to an extent not shared by other nations, even in our dispersal. This is why the actions of Yaakov, one man, are taken as signs to guide all of his children, thousands of years later.

Like our forefather Yaakov, we have to fight in three ways: with diplomacy and offers of gifts, with preparation for war to defend ourselves, and with prayer and Torah study. As important as the first two of these are, only the third leverages our secret weapon, the key to our national defense.

Current events are a call to prayer and study. There is indeed something we can do right now, that can save lives.

Open Orthodoxy: An Amicable Divorce?

November 19, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Are the “Open Orthodox” finally going to leave Orthodoxy behind? Several months ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss and a few of his students publicly announced their departure from the RCA, given that organization’s refusal to certify Chovevei Torah alumni as rabbis. Recent articles and statements, though, suggest that Open Orthodoxy might explicitly leave Orthodoxy itself — to the great benefit of truth and transparency.

It is worth analyzing the article of Rabbi Chaim Landau in the Baltimore Jewish Times, both in order to correct multiple false premises and endorse his conclusion.

He describes Agudath Israel as having “combined forces” with the RCA in order to “denounce, reject, and neutralize the existence of a growing Modern Orthodox trend that accepts women clergy in synagogue leadership roles.” The problem, of course, is that the Moetzes failed to so much as mention the issue of women in its declaration about Open Orthodoxy. On the contrary, as Rav Aharon Feldman put it so eloquently, “If someone is walking down the street without clothing, you don’t ask him, ‘Why aren’t you wearing tzitzis?'” The Agudah spoke of Open Orthodoxy’s departures from basic Jewish tenets, while Rabbi Landau is confusing symptoms with the underlying illness.

He similarly asserts that “the attack is aimed primarily at Rabbi Avi Weiss,” yet this, too, misses the point entirely. It seems to be a common tendency among advocates of Open Orthodoxy to claim that criticisms of their ideology are nothing more than scurrilous personal attacks. This canard does not grow fresher with age. The fact that one individual founded all of its institutions does not mean that Open Orthodoxy simply refers, as Rabbi Landau claims, “to Rabbi Weiss’ philosophy of inclusivity.” It is a movement, and its ideology — far more varied and complex than simply “inclusivity” — is shared by many other individuals.

Yet, as I said, after these multiple faulty assumptions Rabbi Landau arrives at precisely the correct conclusion: that the Open Orthodox should “completely dissociate with the right-wing Agudath Yisrael and Yeshiva University groups whose philosophy… is out of sync with the Modern Orthodoxy of Rabbis Weiss, Riskin and others… Allow a clear line to exist between themselves and the more right-wing, red-lines-in-the-ground Orthodox groups.”

Yes, yes, and yes again. Open Orthodoxy should indeed completely dissociate with the Agudah, the RCA, the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, the Conference of European Rabbis, the Chief Rabbis of the UK and Israel, and all the other institutions and organs representing the values of Torah observance. Let it state for the record that like the Union for Traditional Judaism (formerly the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism), “Open Orthodoxy” represents the traditional wing of liberal Judaism, rather than the liberal wing of traditional Torah Judaism.

This is not just a political dispute, something with (at best) transient significance. To the contrary, this is about the nature of Judaism itself, and the Jewish identity of future generations.

Less than 200 years ago, the Torah-observant community was labeled “Orthodox” for failing to endorse the vision of the then-new Reform movement. Reform leaders both derided Orthodoxy as rejectionist and predicted its quick demise.

Orthodoxy is flourishing today, not despite its rejection of those “modern innovations,” but because of it. Orthodoxy is indeed, as Rabbi Landau so accurately said, about “red-lines-in-the-ground.” It is the Reform movement, divorced from Torah and unable to clearly articulate what beliefs and practices it mandates, that is collapsing. One who does not take a position stands for nothing at all.

In truth, the Torah-observant community never “rejected” Reform; the opposite is true. The Written and Oral Torah make affirmative statements of Jewish belief and prescribe a code of Jewish conduct; Reform rejected all of these.

The same is true today. The RCA “rejects” the desire of some to change the rules of Orthodoxy. The Agudah “rejects” a new movement that calls itself a type of Orthodoxy, yet rejects basic tenets of Judaism.

One of the leading lights of Open Orthodoxy, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, has effectively announced his departure, responding to the Agudah statement on Facebook by saying that “they put Open Orthodox rabbis together with other Jewish movements. It is an honor to be united with the full Jewish people. Some of my best friends & colleagues are Reform, Conservative, Renewal, Reconstructionist etc.” Yes — for Yanklowitz and his YCT chevrah, their colleagues are those on the non-Torah side of the bright red line.

Those who would call the Agudah or RCA divisive have it backwards for two reasons: this is not at all about Jewish unity, and it is “Open Orthodoxy” that has divided itself from Torah. Every Jew is a Jew, but it hardly follows that every philosophy espoused by Jews qualifies as Judaism. This is about the red lines Rabbi Landau mentioned — and about how Jewish survival depends upon staying within them. If the adherents of “Open Orthodoxy” have charted their course away from the moorings of Torah, that is both tragic and entirely within their rights. But integrity demands they cast off the “Orthodox” moniker as they sail to oblivion.

The Appropriate Blessing

November 13, 2015 at 11:06 am


This week we read that Yitzchak (Isaac) wanted to bless his older son Esav, but Yaakov came instead, as advised by his mother Rivka. As a result, both sons were blessed — and though Yitzchak was deceived, he was Divinely Inspired to give each child the right blessing.

In his blessing to Yaakov, Yitzchak says “And G-d should give you from the dew of Heaven and from the fat of the land, much grain and wine” [27:28]. But he blesses Esav by saying “from the fat places of the earth shall be your dwelling” [27:39]. Why does Yitzchok say that G-d should give Yaakov “from” the fat of the land, yet ask that Esav be blessed to always live in fertile places?

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains the difference — and that the blessing of Esav is indeed greater, in a way. The word “Elokim” [G-d] refers to the Divine attribute of justice. With regards to Esav, Yitzchak asks that G-d give him blessing whether or not he is truly deserving, but asks that Yaakov receive when it is correct and just.

Yaakov is required to demonstrate a higher level of trust in G-d. Often, Divine Justice is hidden from us. We don’t see the reasons why each person is receiving what is appropriate. But Yitzchak expects Yaakov to accept the Divine Will, and not complain that G-d is being “unjust,” as it were, even if it appears unfair to human eyes. He does not have the same expectation of Esav, and thus asks that Esav have abundance at all times.

Rashi points out that King Solomon learned from this, and pronounced similar blessings when the Temple in Jerusalem was completed. With regards to Israel, he said “give to every man according to his ways, whose heart You know” [I Kings 8:39] — give according to that person’s heart, according to what You know to be true deep inside. But then Shlomo HaMelech says “concerning a stranger that… comes out of a far country for Your Name’s sake” that G-d should “do according to everything that the stranger calls upon You [to do]” [8:41, 43].

Shlomo explains why he asks that G-d fulfill everything the non-Jew asks for during his prayers: “that all the people of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, like your people Israel [do], and to know that Your name is called upon this house which I have built” [8:43].

The People of Israel interacted with G-d directly, so Shlomo HaMelech takes for granted that they will fear G-d, even if G-d gives according to that person’s heart rather than his or her words. But Shlomo knows that if an idolator makes an offering to G-d and his request goes unanswered, and then he makes an offering to an idol and what he asks for actually happens, then the idolator might reach the conclusion that the idol actually has power, power that G-d does not!

The Jewish nation is expected to trust G-d and follow Him at a “higher standard.” Both Yitzchak and Shlomo ask G-d to favor the requests of all the people of the earth — even more than He favors the prayers of His own nation (!) — in order that every person on earth comes to recognize his or her Creator.

The Symptoms are Not the Problem

November 4, 2015 at 3:43 pm

Doctor_discusses_x-ray_with_patientIn the wake of the declaration by the leading rabbis of Agudath Israel of America (a body called the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages) regarding Open Orthodoxy and its institutions, many seem to have confused issues of Jewish practice with Jewish doctrine.

The JTA’s article about the Council’s statement concluded by noting that “it comes days after the RCA formally adopted a policy prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis,” thus connecting and implying a close relationship between the two. The Jerusalem Post discussed the Agudah and RCA statements within one article, further blurring key distinctions. Many comments in social media, as well, focused upon women as rabbis or other particular observances of Open Orthodoxy as issues of concern to the Agudah Council.

The Forward, always anxious to cast Charedim as angry or violent, declared that “Agudah Rabbis Declare War.” Asher Lopatin, Dean of Open Orthodoxy’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), wrote a response to the statement in which he argued that Open Orthodoxy stands for “creating an inclusive, welcoming, open community, where passionate Jews can, and should, disagree, but should never seek to impose their own ideas on others…” and will “continue to build an Orthodox community which brings us together rather than divides us.”

The Moetzes, however, made no mention of women rabbis. It did not discuss observance of particular elements of Halacha, Jewish law. And, of course, it said nothing about political control or impinging upon the right of any Jew, passionate or otherwise, to disagree. A medical analogy is apt: if someone has headaches due to a life-threatening illness, Tylenol will not cure him; attention must focus upon the underlying disease.

Lopatin is being less than forthright. For better or worse, “Orthodox” is a moniker with meaning. In the common vernacular, Orthodox Judaism is understood to be that “form” of Judaism committed to the credo maintained by Jews for thousands of years. Just as the Reform movement sought to unilaterally change the definition of Judaism 200 years ago, Open Orthodoxy seeks to impose a new definition upon the word “Orthodox” (and has even attempted to stifle dissent as it does so).

The statement of the Moetzes addresses one issue, and one issue only: that Open Orthodoxy and its institutions “reject the basic tenets of our faith,” and therefore “is not a form of Torah Judaism.” It is not about specific Open Orthodox practices, which Halachic opinions it follows, or who they do or don’t count for a minyan. The issue, said the Council, is what Open Orthodoxy believes.

As the Agudath Israel spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran, told the media, this is something the rabbis were “mulling around for months.” Nothing that they said is either surprising or new to those who have followed discussions of this new movement.

Over two years ago, Zev Farber, recipient of the highest form of ordination from Chovevei Torah and the former coordinator of the Vaad HaGiyur, the Conversion Council of Open Orthodoxy’s “International Rabbinic Forum,” wrote that “the Deuteronomic prophet,” whom he pointedly did not identify as Moses, “was still a human being” of “limited scope… [who] could not reasonably be expected to work towards correcting faults he did not see.”

Needless to say, this is to traditional Jewish belief as a ham sandwich is to kashrus.

Yet rather than condemning this statement outright — much less questioning the validity of conversions conducted under Farber’s supervision — others within the Open Orthodox community called this merely “a non-conventional answer” at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject.”

The above is but one example. What the Moetzes concluded, after examining statements and conduct across the range of Open Orthodox institutions, was that it could not remain silent, hoping that this sort of excess would disappear and more sober opinions, ones consonant with traditional Judaism, would dominate. On the contrary, representatives of Open Orthodoxy continue to state, and educate others to adopt, beliefs not merely at “the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking” but several light years beyond.

There are those, particularly in the Reform movement, who advocate for a “big tent,” in which most anything can claim to represent “Judaism.” Traditional Judaism has always taken a different approach, requiring observance of 613 Commandments and a similarly comprehensive list of beliefs, thirteen of which are so fundamental that Maimonides identified them as mandatory for anyone wishing to self-identify as a “Torah-observant” Jew — that which we have called “Orthodox” in recent centuries.

There are several practical ramifications of the Council’s statement, all of which are straightforward. Graduates of Open Orthodox institutions (regardless of gender) should not be considered Orthodox rabbis, at least as the term Orthodox is commonly understood. Orthodox synagogues should not appoint Open Orthodox rabbis to lead them. Communal organizations should not present lectures by “Orthodox” rabbis who are, in actuality, “Open Orthodox.” And, perhaps most critically, the media should no longer claim that “Orthodox” rabbis are entertaining a new idea or change in Jewish practice that only Open Orthodoxy could possibly condone.

In the end, it’s not about women, exclusion, or politics; it’s about truth in advertising. It’s about ensuring that when people are told that a particular opinion is “Orthodox” or grounded in traditional thought, it actually is. And in that regard, the Agudah’s Council has done the Jewish public a great service.

The Source of Moral Virtue

October 30, 2015 at 11:38 am

It is as predictable as sunrise. At roughly this time of the year, someone claims the mantle of religious authority in order to announce that Avraham “failed” the test of the Akeidah, of sacrificing his son. Why? Because, the speaker insists, Avraham should have told G-d that murder is wrong, and refused to follow the Divine Command.

This neatly turns Judaism on its head.

The Torah teaches us that we are not at liberty to make our own judgments about what is morally justifiable or correct. Why? Because a person judging his or her own moral behavior is similar to the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop. There is a famous adage about Aristotle deviating from his own philosophical principles, and defending his conduct by saying that “now I’m not Aristotle.” Whether or not the story is apocryphal, it is certainly logically consistent — temptation and personal bias can lead a person astray, even from his or her own teaching.

In Avraham’s time, child sacrifice was a common practice. He was the one who recognized the authority of a single G-d over Heaven and earth, rose to the level of prophecy, and, with his prophetic insight into G-d’s Will, taught humanity the principle that every life is sacred.

The supreme test of Avraham’s loyalty was to ask him, in one fell swoop, to do away with decades of teaching about proper moral behavior, a career encouraging belief in the one true G-d, the son who was following in his path, and the promise of generations of descendents. He was called upon to destroy everything he had worked for in his entire life, and what did he say? “Hineni,” I am here. He knew that what he thought about morals and virtue, and all his other biases and wants, must be set aside in favor of what G-d demands of him.

It is precisely that commitment to place G-d’s morality ahead of our own judgment that has enabled us to follow Jewish values under incredibly trying circumstances. Where did we get the strength necessary? We inherited it from our fathers!

The Har Nof Massacre, Knife Attacks, and BDS

October 25, 2015 at 5:58 pm

After nearly a year of fighting for his life, a fifth rabbi just passed away, murdered during morning prayers last November. The terrorists of that morning did not target a discotheque, settlement or military base, but a synagogue in West Jerusalem. They proudly desecrated a Jewish House of Worship in order to murder religious leaders, American, British and now Canadian, all men who came to the Holy Land only to immerse themselves in learning and teaching.

The Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the “moderate” Arab leader, celebrated the “martyrs” who butchered these innocent scholars.


Just two days prior to the Rabbi’s passing, a pair of knife-wielding assailants stabbed an eighteen-year-old charedi (ultra-Orthodox) man outside a synagogue in Beit Shemesh – the latest in a wave of violence against Jews in Israel. Ponder this ghastly detail: witnesses saw the attackers attempt to board a schoolbus filled with charedi children.

There is a pattern to these attacks. The Jihadists have not, as some argue, targeted Israelis at random. An extraordinary number of the victims have been in uniform – but not that of an IDF soldier, symbol of the “occupation” they purportedly oppose. Rather, a disproportionate number of those targeted – as in the examples cited above – have been visibly Jewish, clad in the distinctive attire of Orthodox Jews.

For numerous reasons, a terrorist concerned about the current political dispute would view Charedi Jews as unfavorable targets. Peaceful scholars of ancient texts, the charedim are underrepresented in Israeli’s military. Jews of the “old Yishuv” moved to Jerusalem long before the Zionist movement existed, without a scent of nationalist aspirations. Mainstream charedi Rabbis have consistently approved the principle of ceding land for true and lasting peace.

There is even the infamous “Niturei Karta” fringe group that calls for the destruction of Israel – though rejected by other charedim, they at least dress the part. This being the case, a terrorist attacking someone in charedi garb might conceivably be assaulting a political ally.

Yet despite all of the above, stabbers excessively target Orthodox neighborhoods and Orthodox Jews. This is not the “Intifada of the Knife,” but the “Intifada of Unmasked Anti-Semitism.” It is not about occupation or even about Israel; it is about Jews.

Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel claim to be different, modeled upon the boycott of South Africa. This, however, is belied by troubling facts. No one during that era picketed individual South African businesses, or threw their products off store shelves. No one contemplated requiring an artist of South African descent to disavow South Africa’s open racism before performing. And, of course, no one paraded through streets lifting knives overhead, like a young boy sitting on his father’s shoulders proudly did at a recent BDS demonstration in London.

This is not to say, however, that it is challenging to find a previous boycott endorsing hatred and even violence towards Jews – given the Nazi boycotts of the 1930s. That is the accurate paradigm. Again and again, today’s purported “anti-Israel” demonstrations slip into a familiar and ugly pattern of anti-Semitic bigotry.

Why are the Regents of the University of California forced to address increasing acts of anti-Semitism at campuses statewide? It is no mystery. At UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis, BDS campaigns immediately and inevitably led to anti-Semitic vandalism and posters – swastikas, grafitti such as “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” and “grout out the Jews,” even flyers blaming Jews for 9/11. At UCLA, divestment activists questioned the eligibility of a candidate for student government solely because she is Jewish. For weeks following BDS events, Jewish students report verbal and even physical harassment for wearing signs of Jewish identity, whether skullcaps or Magen David necklaces.

BDS activists can neither claim that this is mere coincidence, nor that they are uninvolved. Attendees at divestment meetings note the repetition of common anti-Semitic canards such as Jewish control of government and wealth, and claims that marginalization of Jewish students is justified by the Mideast conflict. Invited speakers characterize grisly murders of Jews as a “response to occupation,” claim to be merely “anti-Israel” while posting anti-Semitic memes to Facebook, and whitewash Hamas – a terror organization whose charter calls for genocide, and whose leaders openly celebrate the murder of Jewish civilians and even children – as a “progressive, left-wing” organization merely leading the “resistance” against Israel.

Precisely because honest criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, the BDS campaigns of today must be opposed and condemned. Groups sponsoring these events appear unable to tell the difference, and routinely feature speakers who cross the line from one to the other. “Anti-Israel” cannot continue to serve as a code phrase for incitement and anti-Semitism – precisely what is found so pervasively today.

Out of the Comfort Zone

October 23, 2015 at 12:28 pm

on-the-moveDo you like your house? “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.” It is human nature to find comfort in familiar surroundings, friends and neighbors, even habits.

What does G-d tell Abraham? Go. Leave your home, go out “from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your fathers.” And to where will Abraham be going? “To the land which I will show you.” [Genesis 12:1]

All Abraham knows is that wherever he is going, it’s where G-d wants him to be. For Abraham, that is enough, which is what makes him the first of the forefathers of the Jewish people. His closeness to G-d, his spirituality, is his priority.

Have you heard the expression, “no pain, no gain?” It actually comes from the Chapters of the Fathers, at the end of the 5th chapter: “Ben Hei Hei says: according to the pain is the reward.”

People often use this expression with regards to sports and building muscle. But in that realm, this simple adage can often be terrible advice. It’s possible to strain and cause permanent injury by doing something until it’s painful.

Maimonides reminds us that the Chapters of the Fathers were written by Sages rather than personal trainers. Ben Hei Hei was talking about Torah. The more one tries to understand, the more one delves into learning in order to internalize Torah, the greater the reward.

This is part of what makes Torah unique. The reward is not based upon how much knowledge one acquires, how great one becomes. The reward is based upon how hard you try.

G-d tells Abraham: I need you to leave your comfort zone. I need you to make efforts to come to me. I need you to make changes in your life. And without a second thought, Abraham follows — so much so, that the Torah records Abraham as describing himself as “walking before G-d!” [see Gen. 24:40]

This is what spiritual growth is all about — leaving our comfort zone, to be closer to G-d. And thanks to the strength bestowed upon us by our forebears, G-d knows we are up to the task. We merely need to put one foot in front of the other, to make the effort to go towards Him.