Impossible to Know… But Known

In this week’s reading, the Torah clearly lays out for us the animals, fish and poultry permitted under Jewish Law. In the course of doing so, the Torah makes a statement that — were it made by a human being — would have been beyond foolhardy.

The Torah lays out two signs by which we can recognize kosher land animals (both wild and domesticated): they must have split hooves and chew their cud. [11:3]

This is unremarkable — but then the Torah goes on to specify which four animals have only one of these two signs. Lest one think that these are merely examples, the Ramban (Nachmanides) spells it out: “it would have been appropriate to say the general rule, but [the Torah] specifies the camel, shafan and arneves in chewing cud, and the swine in its cloven hoof, for there are no others in the world with one sign alone.

That fact was entirely unknown to humanity even 500 years ago.

Two of these, the shafan and arneves, are wild animals. To which species, genera or families they refer may once have been known with certainty, but today this is a matter of speculation.

Not so, however, the camel and swine [the pigs and peccaries], which are domesticated and thus well known to us. The Camelid family is found in two distinct regions: from North Africa across to Central Asia, and in South America, and the species found in one place are different from those in the other. The many different genera and species of the suborder Suina also live in distinct regions — yet for Suina as for Camelids, their commonality is as obvious to farmers as it is to taxonomists. The llama is called the “New World Camel” for good reason!

The Talmud takes this even a step further:

Rav Chisda said, if one is going through the desert and finds a domesticated animal whose hooves are cut, check its mouth. If it has no upper teeth, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a… juvenile camel [which does not yet have upper teeth].

Do not say, if there is a juvenile camel, there is also a similar type of animal to the young camel [in that it also has no upper teeth]. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the camel, for it is a ruminant” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that ruminates and is impure [among the domesticated animals] except the camel, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

And Rav Chisda said, if one is going on the way and finds a domesticated animal whose mouth is damaged [its teeth have fallen out], check its hooves. If its hooves are cloven, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a swine.

Do not say, if there is a swine, there is also a similar type of animal to the swine. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the swine, for it has cloven hooves” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that has cloven hooves and is impure except swine, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

These statements are every bit as true today as they were thousands of years ago, when it was inconceivable that human beings could claim to know these things by studying the natural world. The platypus was not discovered until the very end of the nineteenth century — the first specimen sent to the British Museum has scissor marks at the end of its bill, because the curator was so certain he was examining a hoax that he tried to hack it apart.

To me, there seems to be only one reasonable explanation for how the Torah and Talmud could say these things!

The Laban Brand of Hate

What is the connection of “Arami Oved Avi” — “An Aramean [Laban] destroyed my father” — to the Haggadah?

The Haggadah says that “Pharaoh decreed only against the males, but Laban tried to uproot everything.” Again, why connect the two? The goal of the Haggadah is to tell us about the Exodus from Egypt, so why go back in history to find another example of someone who didn’t like Jews?

Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, zt”l, known by his name’s acronym the Netziv, explains that Laban was the paradigm of anti-Semitism. He began with the false notion that our forefather Yaakov was stealing from him — something obviously false, both because Laban owed his wealth to Yaakov (as Laban himself recognized), and because Yaakov was impeccably honest.

Yet Laban, the dishonest swindler who kept changing Yaakov’s wages, projected his own evil upon Yaakov. Rather than Laban stealing from Yaakov, in his mind it was Yaakov stealing from Laban. And how could Yaakov, such an honest and G-d-fearing person, steal? Laban blamed Judaism. Yaakov was a Jew, father of the “Chosen People,” dedicated to a special kind of Divine Service. In Laban’s mind, this meant that Yaakov was a supremacist — that Judaism itself permitted Yaakov to steal from anyone who wasn’t Jewish. And Laban thus concluded that he needed to eliminate this evil: to destroy Yaakov and all those who shared his beliefs.

And this is the classic model of anti-Semitism. Pharaoh similarly concluded that Yaakov’s descendents were gaining too much power, and would use that power to steal Egypt from the Egyptians. By murdering the boys and marrying the girls, he as well hoped to eliminate Judaism.

Thus the story of Laban is especially relevant, appearing as it does after the paragraph “V’hee She’Amdah” — “It is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation the rise against us to annihilate us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.” Laban is the paradigm. He gives us the model through which to understand all those who follow this well-worn path of hatred.

The Haggadah also tells us the inevitable result of this anti-Semitism: in the end, the Jews are liberated from oppression and connected more closely to their G-d. The Egyptians were destroyed, while the Jews were brought out to receive the Torah. The Torah stands with us throughout history, enabling us to withstand oppression when it happens, and to prevent our destruction. From Laban until this day, Torah is our best protection!

No Angels on Earth

In this week’s reading, we begin the third of the 5 Books of Moses, Vayikra, or Leviticus. It was undoubtedly dubbed “Leviticus” because much of it concerns the Temple services, done by the Kohanim, the Priests, descendents of Aharon HaKohen, of the tribe of Levi.

Here, at the beginning of the book, some of the first offerings to be discussed are those when various individuals commit a serious transgression through negligence — by, for example, forgetting that the behavior was prohibited. And the Torah prescribes different offerings based upon who committed this sin: there is an offering for a High Priest who transgresses. Then there is one for “all of Israel,” by which the Torah means if the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court, were to rule incorrectly in a matter of law, only realizing its error later. Then there is one for the King, and finally for the common individual.

Long before the modern era, the Jews had a Balance of Powers. No one could claim absolute authority; rather, King David himself had to consult with both the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the Sanhedrin.

But furthermore, everyone had to second-guess his own conduct — even the King, even the Sanhedrin itself. There is no equivalent to “papal infallibility” in Judaism; on the contrary, no individual could avoid the possibility of transgression.

We could seek no better proof for the idea that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. So no one should look back at the past, and lose hope for the future. Nothing can stand in the way of sincerely turning back to the correct path, because G-d will always accept a sincerely repentant person. And as we see in this week’s reading, everyone does indeed make mistakes — even the judges themselves!

The Philo-Semitic President

First published in the American Spectator.

The Orthodox Jewish community is still reeling from the slapdown President Trump gave reporter Jake Turx in his press conference several weeks ago. Turx is the first senior White House press correspondent to work for an Orthodox journal, Ami (My People) Magazine. There are fewer than 100 reporters permitted to attend the daily briefings, and Turx even got to ask the President a question.

But no one gave Turx a microphone, and the President couldn’t hear him clearly. He thought he was being asked to defend against charges of anti-Semitism… again. This ridiculous calumny has dogged him since he began his campaign. Trump was piqued and he dismissed the question. Turx was frustrated by the experience, and so were Orthodox Jews. As TAS columnist Jay Homnick jested, “Trump let My People go and Turx let My People down.”

In truth, the man who really let my people down is Steve Goldstein of the Anne Frank Center, who is the paradigm for those in the Jewish community who have done their best to fan the flames. Director of an organization pledging “mutual respect,” Goldstein repeatedly calls the Trump Administration anti-Semitic, using flimsy claims that collapse upon rudimentary fact-checking, both in his Facebook posts and his confrontation with Kayleigh McEnany on CNN.

He and others of his ilk were strangely silent when the previous President called Judea “Palestinian land,” declaring invaders from the Arabian Peninsula to be the indigenous population of the only homeland of the Jews. They expressed no outrage when Berkeley students chanted “we support the intifada,” or when those at Columbia recently declared that “resistance is justified, when people are occupied.” Arab “resistance” is, of course, murdering civilians, a tactic that no one condones unless the victims are Jews. Yet these Jewish liberals were silent in the face of obvious hate.

From the beginning, Trump has surrounded himself with Jews who observe classical Jewish practices. David Friedman and Jason Dov Greenblatt are not merely hired hands, but close friends of the President. Trump traveled to Queens to visit Friedman when he was sitting shiva — in a snowstorm. He does more than “tolerate” his Orthodox grandchildren; Jared Kushner is one of his most trusted advisors. Turx himself said the President has done “unprecedented” outreach to the Orthodox Jewish community.

So if supporters of the anti-Israel “J Street,” such as Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, are opposing Friedman for Ambassador as a “zealous partisan” and claiming his boss is an anti-Semite, one must question: do they honestly believe Trump doesn’t like Jews, or are they offended that Trump’s inner circle includes so many who take Jewish tradition far more seriously than they do?

Anti-Semitism is far too serious a matter to be used as a partisan political weapon, and academic justification of barbarity is vastly more dangerous than memes created by “alt-right” Trump supporters. To those a wee bit more objective, this administration is shaping up to be the most philo-Semitic since George Washington wrote his letter to the Jews of Newport.

Team Trump tried to stop the anti-Israel UNSC resolution of last December, and convinced the UK to block the statement of the French “peace conference.” He appointed Friedman as Ambassador to Israel and Nikki Haley to lead the mission to the UN. Her first post-Security Council press conference was both a memorable smackdown of UN duplicity and double standards and a pledge to confront them:

The Security Council is supposed to discuss how to maintain international peace and security. But at our meeting on the Middle East, the discussion was not about Hezbollah’s illegal buildup of rockets in Lebanon, it was not about the money and weapons Iran provides to terrorists, it was not about how we defeat ISIS, it was not about how we hold [Syrian dictator] Bashar al-Assad accountable for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

No, instead the meeting focused on criticizing Israel, the one true democracy in the Middle East. I am new around here, but I understand that’s how the Council has operated, month after month, for decades. I am here to say that the United States will not turn a blind eye to this anymore.

We have not seen anything similar since Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the UN resolution likening Zionism to racism to be “an infamous act” and an “obscenity.” That was in 1975, under President Gerald Ford.

The UN’s hyperfocus upon Israel has far less to do with conventional international politics than irrational anti-Semitism, and Donald Trump seems to know this well. If Trump is what an anti-Semite looks like, I’ll take “anti-Semites” like him over “friends” like Obama any day of the week — and twice on Shabbos.

UPDATE: Since publication of this piece on American Spectator, several additional things have happened:

Education Secretary DeVos strongly praised Agudath Israel for its “leadership and commitment” working to ensure that “every child, regardless of where they live or their family’s income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education.” As reported by the Washington Post, AI tweeted that this meeting was “truly historic.”

The Trump Administration proposed a budget with massive cuts” to State Department funding, threatening aid to nations around the world, but specifically preserving aid to Israel.

Haley once again condemned a UN statement for anti-Semitic bias (without saying so) using language unheard of since Moynihan:

The United States is outraged by the report of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). That such anti-Israel propaganda would come from a body whose membership nearly universally does not recognize Israel is unsurprising. That it was drafted by Richard Falk, a man who has repeatedly made biased and deeply offensive comments about Israel and espoused ridiculous conspiracy theories, including about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is equally unsurprising. The United Nations Secretariat was right to distance itself from this report, but it must go further and withdraw the report altogether. The United States stands with our ally Israel and will continue to oppose biased and anti-Israel actions across the UN system and around the world.

And during a recent US-Israel meeting, the Jewish touch wasn’t merely providing Kosher food — the diplomatic service had to facilitate Mincha so that one of the participants could say Kaddish. That person was Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to Israel.

Celebrating the Miracle of Jewish Survival

What is the miracle of Purim?

The great majority of Jewish holidays were mandated at Sinai: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot. Most of the Rabbinic enactments are fast days, times of mourning. So the one other (happy) holiday decreed by the Rabbis is Chanukah, which celebrates a great miracle, a clear sign from G-d, blessing the Jewish response to Greek oppression. Why did the Rabbis, then, make Purim into a holiday?

There is, in actuality, a deep connection between Chanukah and Purim, in that both celebrate a reprieve from annihilation. Haman asked to murder all Jews; the Greeks wanted to stamp out Judaism.

And this helps us to recognize the miracle that we celebrate on Purim: the permanent nature of Jewish survival. Not everything is obvious. It doesn’t have to be an open miracle for us to analyze our circumstances and realize that something truly supernatural has transpired.

The very name given to Hadassah, “Esther,” comes from the Hebrew word for “hidden.” It recalls the verses in Deuteronomy [31:17-18], “I will hide My face from them … And I will surely hide [haster astir] My face on that day, for the evil that [Israel] did, for he turned to other gods.” Throughout the Megillah, G-d’s name is never mentioned; our Sages teach that every time the Megillah refers to “the King” without specifying Ahasuerus, we are to read it as referring to both King Ahasuerus and the King of Kings. Purim celebrates a hidden miracle.

In the global context, Jewish survival is perhaps the greatest miracle of all Jewish history. It defies clear historical patterns. Whenever people move to different countries, they gradually integrate, following the beliefs and ideals of the local population. Yet the Jews were different, stubbornly so. On the contrary, it is those who have oppressed the Jews – the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Spanish, and the Nazis (to specify but a few of countless examples) whose ideologies rightly reside in the proverbial dustbin of history.

In the wake of Haman’s decree, the Jews of that era recognized that by participating in the party of Ahasuerus, in which he rejoiced in the desecration of the Jewish Holy Temple and the ongoing exile of the Jews, they were leading to their own destruction. And they changed course. They returned to the unique path that has preserved the Jews through history.

Amazingly, it is the idolatry of Haman and Ahasuerus that has declined. Today the majority of humanity at least purports belief in the Jewish G-d — and throughout the Western world, the principles of ethical monotheism found in our Torah are considered fundamental to development of a first-world civilization.

Anti-Semitism remains what it always was: the revolt of immorality and barbarism against the ongoing, inexorable turn towards the values found in our Torah. The Jews were prophesied to be “a light unto the nations,” helping to spread the moral principles taught by G-d… and that light will always burn.

That is, indeed, a great cause for celebration!

Why So Much Hate?

Why are Jews hated? It comes from this week’s reading. “Why is it called Mount Sinai? It is the mountain where hatred [Sinah] descended upon the nations of the world” [Shabbos 99a].

The Medrash says that G-d offered the Torah to various other nations of that time, but when they found out that the Torah had laws against murder, theft and immorality, each nation chose a reason why they did not want to accept its laws upon themselves.

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein of Torah U’Mesorah gave me a fascinating insight into this Medrash. Wouldn’t it make more sense, he asked, for nations to be bothered by incomprehensible Commandments, such as the laws of the red heifer, which even King Solomon could not understand? Every civilized nation has laws against theft and murder; otherwise you would have anarchy!

Yet what bothered them, he explained, is exactly this idea — that even basic laws, central to civil society, are in G-d’s Hands. Even a king is not exempt, he cannot do as he pleases. The prophets were very critical of David and Solomon, although they, as kings, did so much good, and wrote prophetic works of their own.

A king wants to see himself as above the law, as having absolute power. Everyone else isn’t allowed to steal, but he has eminent domain. Everyone else cannot commit murder, but he is able to call for a royal execution.

This idea, that we are not Kant philosophizing about our own moral requirements, but subject to an absolute standard that we cannot challenge or change, is what they found so offensive. That is the concept that those filled with hatred cannot abide.

Hitler said he was honored to be called a barbarian. His enmity for Jews went along with his enmity for the idea of conscience, which he called a Jewish concept. He even said that he wanted Germans to be ruthless and cruel.

In the end, anti-Semitism is about hatred for an absolute standard of morality. If you’re going to be hated for something, it might as well be for the very best of reasons!

There’s No (Real) Excuse

In this week’s reading, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. “And his brothers were unable to answer him, for they were disoriented in front of him” [Genesis 45:3]. Recognizing that not only had Joseph survived and even flourished in Egypt, but was even the Viceroy seated before them, was simply too much for them.

The Medrash says something more. Their disorientation was because all the various excuses that they had made and told themselves about why they had treated Yosef as they had — they all fell away. They knew they had no answer. They had nothing to say.

All of us have situations in our lives where we know we are not doing the best thing we could be doing. We often give ourselves reasons why we aren’t meeting our own standards. But we should also know that those reasons are merely excuses. They will melt away under the harsh light of truth.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky tells a story from the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, in which the prophet Elijah meets a person in his travels, and can tell that this person has not studied the Torah and Jewish ethics. He says to him, “my son, what are you going to tell your Father in Heaven at the end of your life?”

The man responds, “Rebbe, I have an answer to give Him, for understanding and knowledge were not given to me from Heaven in order that I should be able to read and study.”

“My son, what job do you have?”

“I am a fisherman.”

“My son, who taught you and told you that you should bring flax and weave it into nets, and toss the nets into the water, and bring up fish from the sea?”

“Rebbe,” he answered, “in this, understanding and knowledge was given to me from Heaven.”

And then Elijah said to him, “To bring flax and to weave it into a net, and toss it into the water and bring up fish, in all of that you were given understanding from Heaven, but in words of Torah, about which it is written: ‘for this thing is extremely close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ [Deut. 30:14], you were not given understanding from Heaven?”

Immediately, the fisherman began crying, for he knew that he had no answer.

We should learn from what happened to Joseph’s brothers when he identified himself. If we know that we could be doing better in a particular area, let’s dispense with the excuses. We should take the opportunity to do better, instead!

O-WOW Calls to End Prayer at the Wall

Originally published in HaModia.

In an unexpected moment of courtroom drama, Dr. Susan Weiss, attorney for the “Original Women of the Wall” (O-WOW), conceded last week what many observers have long recognized: that far from advocating for women’s rights, their agenda is to obstruct observant Jews attempting to pray.

When the “Center for Women’s Justice” filed suit last year on behalf of O-WOW, their stated claim was that the women of O-WOW merely wanted to pray in their own fashion — including reading from a Torah scroll in the women’s section. Preventing them from doing so, they argued, violated Israel’s anti-discrimination laws.

Their day in court revealed a very different interest. Judge Elyakim Rubenstein asked their lead attorney, Dr. Susan Weiss, what sort of alternative site might be acceptable to the group. She replied that in her view, none was necessary. Rubenstein then asked what she would do, were it up to her. She responded:

In actuality, there wouldn’t be a mechitzah (divider) there at all, and I would send all of them to their synagogue. Perhaps I would earmark certain hours for them … It needs to be a public plaza. ‘All of them’ includes both observant women and those women who want to wear tzitzis.

She went on to say that the Wall is not a synagogue, and should not be treated that way. Rather than arguing that women should have Torah scrolls at the wall, she in essence argued that no one should.

Leah Aharoni is co-founder of Women For the Wall (W4W), an organization created by women who pray at the Wall regularly and object to the disturbances created by O-WOW and Women of the Wall. Just recently, W4W requested to join in the case as respondents, because, she said, “they are ignoring the sincere desires of the much larger group that seeks to maintain the tradition of prayer at the Holy Site.”

Regarding Weiss’ statements in court, Aharoni commented that “this confirms what we have said from the beginning, that they are not advocating for women’s rights. Rather, they want to deny observant Jews the ability to pray at the Wall.”

A look back reveals that this is not a new argument. O-WOW is comprised of the majority of the initial, core supporters of Women of the Wall (WOW). And in previous years, Anat Hoffman, head of WOW, suggested herself that her ultimate agenda was to prevent Orthodox prayer at the Holy Site. She told Channel 2 that a day would come when people would look back and say about the Wall, “there used to be a mechitzah here all the time! You don’t believe it.” And before Natan Sharansky proposed a new section, she told a Florida audience that she would be open to “timesharing,” for the Wall to be open six hours a day as a “national monument, open to others but not to Orthodox men.”

Hoffman directs the American Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, described by writer Jonathan Rosenblum as “determined to make life miserable for Torah organizations in any manner possible.” This is entirely in accordance with the expressed interests of both WOW and O-WOW. But the Reform movement — an insignificant minority in Israel, comprised of Jews who do not pray on even a weekly basis — landed upon an even better option: to demand a site equal in size and prominence to the current plaza, used by hundreds of thousands of Jews who pray three times a day.

This is what precipitated the split between WOW and O-WOW. O-WOW’s primary interest is to force their practices upon observant women, while Hoffman now claims that WOW “is the right group for bringing about change in Israel, but not the right group for bringing about change in the Orthodox world.”

The end goal of all three groups — WOW, O-WOW, and the American Reform movement — remains the same: to change the Jewish character of the Jewish State. Hoffman told the BBC that the fight at the Kotel is merely a stepping stone on the path to changing marriage, divorce, and burial in Israel.

Aharoni’s focus, however, remains upon the here and now. She stresses that what O-WOW proposed to the Court is not merely offensive to the observant Jews who stream to the Wall on a daily basis. “For most visitors,” she said, “the idea that they can go to the Wall at any hour of the day or night, any time of the year, and find people pouring out their hearts to G-d … that is a critical part of the experience.”

This experience would be denied to millions of Jews, if the 50 members of O-WOW and WOW were to have their way.

Obama’s Antipathy Towards Israel

In I Maccabees, Shimon is reported to have said, “We have neither taken foreign land nor seized foreign property, but only the inheritance of our ancestors, which at one time had been unjustly taken by our enemies. Now that we have the opportunity, we are firmly holding the inheritance of our ancestors.” (I Maccabees 15:33-34)

The New York Observer today published my piece, which attempts to explain why Obama would go ahead and anger his allies such as Charles Schumer and Alan Dershowitz, and also provoke his successor, who could now prioritize dismantling the Obama legacy.

Ends and Means

trolley-dilemma-300x217There is an old joke of a mugger demanding of a Jew, “your money or your life!”

The Jew doesn’t move, and the mugger demands, “hurry up already!”

To which the Jew responds: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

Despite its play on antisemitic tropes, even Jews find it funny. Yet we know from the Bible that something very much like this actually happened. In the story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the people of the world did not merely rebel against G-d. They rebelled against humanity as well.

The Medrash teaches that if a person was carrying a brick up the tower and dropped it, people would cry. Dropping the brick slowed down the construction of the tower, their supreme goal.

But if a person fell off the ladder to his death on the way down, people would not cry. This, as much as the rebellious nature of the tower itself, represented the corruption of human values. They placed inanimate objects ahead of human lives.

Often, the questions are not so clear-cut. In modern ethics, there is something called the Trolley Problem, a question asked 50 years ago. Imagine a trolley running out of control down a hill, and there are five people tied to the tracks further down. You are standing next to a lever. Should you pull the lever, it will save those five people, yet the trolley will roll down a side track and kill someone else. Are you supposed to pull the lever?

As it turns out, this is not merely a theoretical question. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Hebron, bent upon massacre. Yet they gave the Chief Rabbi of the city a choice: if he turned over the Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin), they would spare the Sephardim (from the Arab world).

The Rabbi refused. The Torah teaches that we are in no position to judge whether five people are of greater worth than the one. We can sacrifice ourselves to save others, but not pass judgment on other people. We cannot pull the lever.

Why is this so? Because in our Torah, human life is of infinite value. Every person has within them a spark of Divinity, which is infinite. Five times infinity is infinity. Infinity divided by 20 is infinity. We cannot place one infinity ahead of another.

We must remain aware that every person around us is of infinite value, and deserving of respect. And, yes, we must also recognize that each of us is of infinite value. We are important. No person is unnecessary or “worthless.” So don’t take yourself for granted!