Friday, January 15, 2021

An Educational Failure

Chasidic school bus - image for illustration purposes only (Brownstoner)
Most people have heard the joke about the fellow that killed his parents and then begged the judge for mercy because he was an orphan.

This is kind of the case with Zalman Zirkind. JTA reports that Zirkind pleaded guilty to laundering drug money and his supporters have asked for leniency when he is sentenced: 

Among the 24 letters submitted to the judge in the case was one from Abraham Boyarsky, a math professor at Concordia University in Montreal who said he has known Zirkind’s family for 40 years — and understands why Zirkind turned to crime.

Secular education is frowned upon in the Hasidic community, Boyarsky explained, but a combination of few job opportunities and the high cost of yeshiva tuition for large families can lead men into “financial and legal woes.”

“In desperation, they rely on a thwarted perception that justifies taking extreme risks in the false belief that supporting a family condones almost any action,” he wrote. 

If this doesn’t convince the doubters about the need for a decent secular education, I don’t know what will. 

Religious freedom has always been the argument given by their advocates. Chasidic schools have the right to teach their children any way they see fit. Which includes not offering them a secular studies curriculum. The claim is that they are just as productive as their secularly educated counterparts and should not be forced to study subjects that they do not need in order to provide for their families. Which they claim to do quite nicely. That most of them apply for state and federal financial aid is a right they have which they execute legally.  

My argument has always been that the level of dependence on such aid is so great (due to their very large families) - that it is conducive to defrauding those programs.  Even if the vast majority are scrupulously honest, the very large  numbers that rely on such aid makes it almost certain that more than a few will commit some form of fraud (like hiding income). And even if there were no fraud, the idea that one must rely on government aid as a means of income is not something to be proud of. Add to that the fact that opportunities for better jobs are severely limited to them because of that lack of education... makes the need for a secular curriculum all the more vital. 

I see little upside to their current educational paradigm. For these reasons and a few others that I have mentioned in the past I have long been advocating that they do what almost every other Yeshiva in the non Chasidic world (and even many Chasidic ones) do and offer a dual religious/secular studies curriculum.

That being said, I wonder if the plea for mercy based on the lack of a secular education is really the problem here. I think it goes much deeper. That Zirkind felt justified in laundering drug money tells you that he has very likely been indoctrinated to not really care about people on the outside. That the only people that count are religious Jews. Kind of reminds me of the attitude expressed by Don Corleone in the classic movie ‘The Godfather’. When the Mafia considered selling drugs as part of their organized crime operation (...they had always stayed away from drugs for ‘ethical’ reasons) they decided to only sell their product to black inner-city youth. 

That he was not educated enough to understand that making a living by breaking the law is never justified says more about their religious education than it does about their lack of a secular one. Maybe  that should be as much of a concern as their lack of any secular education! 

I’m sorry. I cannot support an educational philosophy that teaches young people to see the outside world as so evil that it leads people like Zirkind to feel justified laundering drug money to support his family. Are the defenders pleading his case really saying that only a secular education would teach him that?! Because if that's true their religious education leaves a lot to be desired.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Weaning Us Off of Trump!

I am occasionally taken to task for promoting unity only among Orthodox Jewry. Why, some ask, limit unity to Orthodox Jews? Shouldn’t we seek unity among all of our fellow Jews? Not just Orthodox Jews? 

That answer to that question is, of course we should. The Jewish people are a nation of holy people – so determined by God Himself! In that sense I embrace all of us - Jews of all denominations or even no denomination. I love all of the Jewish people. They are my brothers and sisters regardless of whether they are observant or not.

However, as a practical matter it is a near impossibility. American Jews are mostly assimilating out of Judaism. Hard to find common Jewish ground with Jews doing that. 

Orthodox Jews are an entirely different story. The ties that bind (or should bind) us is our observance of the Torah. To pick just one mitzvah as an example, albeit the most prominent one, observing Shabbos is universal among us all, regardless of where we fall on the right-left spectrum of Orthodoxy. This is something we all share. As we do with all the other Mitzvos in the Torah.

There is far more that unites us than what divides us. Why we can’t have an umbrella  organization reflecting this - I could never fully understand.

There is however one area where there is a unity of sorts. Not a particularly flattering one. Which is the fact that the majority of Orthodox Jews in America have expressed enthusiastic support for the President. The more religiously right wing, the greater the support. Still true in some cases even now after the attack on the Capital last week.

That so many Orthodox Jews still support him is about as irrational as can be. The fact that they are joined in that support by some of  the worst antisemitic elements in America makes this even more perplexing.  Shocking even! How can any Jew ignore that?

Which brings me to an article in Ha’aretz by Hannah Lebovits, an Orthodox Jewish woman from a Chasidic family that attended Beis Yaakov Jerusalem (BJJ). She describes this phenomenon in more detail and offers some insights into how we can change. Here in what is a bit more lengthy excerpt than usual is what she says. I think she’s right: 

For the last four years, Orthodox Jewish institutions have shown broad support for the actions and rhetoric of President Donald Trump...

For years, those Orthodox institutions would not engage with those of us who pointed out the clear signs that Donald Trump was not a moral guide of any sort, but a childish, irrational, and even violent autocrat. 

(Instead) Over the last six months, these Jewish community organizations doubled down. They mobilized to get out the vote, but only for Trump: sending out mailers, statements from rabbis, and videos from prominent Roshei Yeshiva (yeshiva heads and community leaders). 

Only in the days since the siege of the Capitol on January 6 have some Orthodox organizations finally agreed that they were wrong to support the chaos and confusion of the last few months. There have been calls for change, for the community to engage in a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. 

But... Is a real soul-searching likely?

And while there have been statements that call for moral clarity, there have been few efforts to clearly frame the issue as one that demands our collective attention, based on our unifying identity as American Jews.

But there is hope. Based on the preliminary findings of my co-authored research studying synagogue responses to COVID-19.

Drawing on this existing infrastructure, I do believe that Orthodox institutions, particularly the federated ones, can encourage a soul-searching effort to shift the trajectories of their constituencies towards a definitive embrace of rational, pro-democracy politics. 

But, unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, Orthodox leaders must recognize that the threat to the viability of their institutions comes from within. This time, we will not be combating an external threat, but will be engaging the hearts and minds of our own.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Hotel Corona

R’ Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, ZTL (Wiki)
What the Jewish people needs now is more tragedy. Now there is a shocking statement if there ever was one. To be absolutely clear, I made that statement facetiously. But if unity is a value among our people, then tragedy seems to be the only way of getting there. 

I watched a short video today of what is being dubbed a ‘Corona Hotel’. If I understand correctly, these hotels house people that have tested positive for the coronavirus and need to be quarantined. Since these hotels are basically empty because travel has been severely curtailed, they have been repurposed.  

That video showed me something I never thought I would see. Yeshiva students from 2 factions that have absolutely nothing to do with each other in any way were studying Torah together. B’Chavrusa – as study partners. 

Religious politics have always seemed to get in the way of unity. I will never forget what an Avreich at a prestigious Charedi Yeshiva in Israel told me many years ago. It was while we were driving past Merkaz HaRrav, the flagship Yeshiva of the Religious Zionist movement. I  had been in their Beis HaMedrash earlier in the week and I commented to him about the intense level of Torah study I saw there. That it was a strong as any Charedi Yeshiva I have ever seen.  

So I asked him if his Yeshiva ever have anything to do with that Yeshiva. His response was somewhat shocking, but at the same time not all that unexpected either. He said that as far as his Yeshiva is concerned, Merkaz HaRav doesn’t even exist! 

The implication was that they might as well be a football stadium as far as the Charedi world is concerned. Considering that the students at Merkaz HaRav are the among the most elite young people of Religious Zionism, whose level of Torah observance and Torah study is equal to the best of any Charedi Yeshiva, I realized just how divisive religious politics are. 

It’s not like the right wing doesn’t know this about Merkaz HaRav. They know it darn well. They know that Merkaz studies the same Torah, the same way they do. And that they devote as many hours a day doing so. They also know how observant they are. And they know that the character of Merkaz students is of the same caliber as their students. 

But the fact that Merkaz places religious significance to the return of Israel into Jewish hands 73 years ago - places them outside the pale. To he point of not even acknowledging their existence. To their credit, Merkaz does not see the Charedi Yeshivos that way. It’s a one way street. So I lay the blame precisely at the feet of the Charedi leadership that perpetuate this policy. 

One may ask, if the Charedi world believes that Religious Zionism is a perversion of Torah, then why shouldn’t they treat them that way? Why would they want to give the slightest hint of recognition? 

I think one would have had to ask those questions to a  man that the Yeshiva world considered the Gadol HaDor back then, R’ Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, ZTL. Because if one feels so strongly that they don’t even recognize their existence, one should not even do so even at a moment of tragedy. 

And yet when 8 Merkaz students were massacred by a Palestinian terrorist a few years ago, R’ Elyashiv who was well into his nineties by then accompanied the mourners that were following funeral procession. He explained that although we have our differences with them, they learn the same Torah we do. 

That is the right attitude. That is the way we should think of each other all the time. We can disagree. But we should never treat the other as though they don’t they exist. Instead we need respect each other even while we disagree.  

Sadly that feeling lasted about 5 minutes back then. Once those bodies were buried, it was back to business as usual. Until the current tragedy. 

The pandemic has thrust students from both factions into the same building. The sight of many religiously diverse pairs and groups of observant students studying Torah together despite the type of Kipa or the color of their shirt - all while suffering the effects of COVID was heartening. They were doing what all Yeshiva students do. Studying the same Torah. Only instead of doing it apart, they were doing it together. 

Sadly, I predict that when this is all over, it will be business as usual again. There will be no reconciliation between the two factions. And the right will continue to treat Religious Zionist Yeshivos as non entities. The unity we are witnessing in these coronavirus hotels is just an illusion that will disappear like dust in the wind once we are out of the pandemic. 

What does this tell us about our people? I only hope it doesn’t tell us that the only way we can ever have unity is through tragedy. That is not the message we should be sending to God.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Impeaching the President: Good Idea or Bad?

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (Politico)
It appears that the attack against the United States Capital building last week was not at all spontaneous. It was planned. Although it ultimately failed in achieving its goals, it succeeded in doing something that was inconceivable: breeching the walls of congress. Scary as that was to witness, it never came close to being a coup de’tat. 

Why did they succeed to the extent that they did? I believe that law enforcement at all levels simply did not believe something like this could happen here. The United States is not a banana republic or a two bit dictatorship. It is the most successful and strongest democracy in the world. Whatever differences we citizens may have ever had with our government, we never came close to trying to overthrow it. No matter how politically divided we were, when the votes were in, we accepted them. Some of us enthusiastically and some of us reluctantly. But all of us accepted them and went on with our lives.

Of course there were always fringe elements in this country that did not accept the results or anything else about our government. With threats about a violent coup. But no one took them seriously. They were too minuscule to execute anything like that against the most powerful nation on earth - by far. 

The entire country was taken by surprise last week. It actually could happen here. The attempt at doing so got a lot further than anyone ever dreamed. 

What this says to me is right wing fringe groups consisting of racists and antisemites in this country are a lot bigger and stronger than I – or probably anyone in government – ever thought. Many of them belong to private militias and have trained in elite military units. And they are armed with military grade weapons.

So why did they decide to plan and execute their attack now? I think we all know the answer to that.    These ragtag militias united under the banner of our Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States. His behavior over the past four years solidified them into the mob that attacked the US Capital building last week.

The fact that this was planned long before last Wednesday does not exonerate the President. He is still to blame for incitement. He didn’t know about their plan, but he nevertheless unwittingly gave them the green light execute it. On that very day. They could not have asked for a better permit. They attacked on behalf of their leader, the President. It does however exonerate the majority of the President’s supporters who showed up there to protest what they (erroneously) believed was a stolen election. They are not to blame. 

The fallout of this has been humongous. We are still feeling the reverberations. Both here and abroad. But we are not done yet. The most immediate threat by these people is their promise to stage armed protests in every state capital on inauguration day. 

Armed protest! If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what does. And although I am not aware of any actual threat to President-elect Biden on that day, there is every reason to be prepared for the worst. 

I suspect that this time the government will be a lot better prepared. As will state governments. If there is any kind of silver lining in this, it is that the coalescence of all these right wing extremist factions can finally be dealt  with in a more substantial way all at once. My hope is that the vast majority of them will be arrested, tried, and convicted of crimes that carry very long prison terms. 

With the President carrying so much of the responsibility here, the question arises about whether he should be removed from office. Ordinarily I might answer in the affirmative. The President should not get a pass on what he has been responsible for ever  since he occupied the Oval Office – culminating with the attack on the Capital building last week. 

To that end there have been calls by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to invoke the 25th Amendment. That would allow the majority of the Presdient’s cabinet to declare him unfit to serve - and hand over the Presidency to Vice President Mike Pence. Who would then become the 46th President of the United States until the inauguration. Pence has already said he will not do that. 

Short of that the next step would be impeachment. But removing the President from office before the inauguration is a near impossibility. Even if a divided senate could get enough Republicans to go along with it. Which is unlikely even now.

I personally think it is a terrible idea. The one thing we don’t need at this juncture is more divisiveness. that will surely be one consequence of it. The fact is that the issues that motivated nearly half the country to vote for Trump are still there. While many Trump voters do not approve of what happened last week and realize the President’s part in it, they still support many of his policies. Impeaching him will not unite the country. It will further divide it (if that’s even possible). 

Not only that but an impeachment trial that will surely last well beyond inaugurations day. time that would be better spent doing the business of the Amercian people they were elected to do.  The new administration has a lot on their plate. There are a lot of things that need attention that are far more important than punishing a man who will be gone in 8 days. 

Congress ought to be thinking about things like getting more people vaccinated, The current slow pace is appalling and unacceptable. The layer upon layer of who gets to be vaccinated ahead of who has slowed thigs down to a snails pace. Instead of limiting who gets vaccinated first second and third, the government should be vaccinating as many people as they can - as fast as they can. An impeachment trial will not help expedite vaccinations. 

Perhaps the most important thing congress should be focusing on instead of punishing the lamest of ducks is trying to unite the country. That might seem like an impossibility at this point. But it need not be. If Biden is true to his promise of trying to do that, he can begin by being the centrist Democrat his record in the senate has shown him to have been. If he is smart he might want to look at some of the things Trump has done that bore positive fruit and caused so many people to vote for him. And expand on them. Instead of undoing them. 

He might lose some liberal support. But that would be more than replalced by the centrists votes he would gain. Which would in my view begin to heal the country. 

I would hope that those among us that were diehard Trump supporters give the new President a chance to keep his word about uniting the country. Wouldn’t it be nice if did and we could go back to defining ourselves as Americans instead of liberals and conservatives?

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Misguided Enthusiasm for the President Must be Abandoned

What I am about to say, I say is with great trepidation. That is because I value my friendships greatly. I take pride in the fact that I count among my friends many people whose  views span the entirety of left-right political spectrum. I have profound differences with some of them. But that has never hurt the relationship. The last thing I want to do is alienate them. 

I hope that we still can remain friends after this. I am talking about those among my friends that have developed what seems to be near slavish dedication to the President. Even after the events of last Wednesday when his supporters gathered in the thousands to protest an election they believed was stolen - based solely on the President’s claims.  

There is not the slightest doubt that the President lost. And yet there are so many among us that actually believe he did not lose. Some of whom may have been at that protest - albeit surely not having intended the insurrection that followed. There are also many other Orthodox Jews that did not attend but enthusiastically supported the protest harboring the same illusion that the election was rigged. I cannot emphasize how wrong that is. Even while I support their constitutional right to express their views in non violent public protest.  

Supporting the President now, well after it has become abundantly clear that he was the one that fomented the horrible scene at the capital last Wednesday is about the worst thing any of us can do as patriotic Americans. I realize that practically all of us condemn what happened. (At least I hope that’s true.) And yet some of us think that it was somehow justified. Making matters worse (and I hope I’m wrong) I sense that many of the President’s strong Orthodox supporters would still prefer he would remain in office even after this!  

I get why they feel that way. They see the same things I see. What the President has done for Orthodox Jews and all the people that support the State of Israel is unprecedented. I agree with them about that despite protestations to the contrary by the left. Who always place a negative spin on it. 

But to support him after last Wednesday shows a callous disregard for the principles upon which this country was built, and still stands for. Principles that have given us – the Jewish people - unprecedented freedom to be who we are. To live our Judaism to the fullest extent we are capable of. More importantly it's a betrayal of our values as observant Jews.  

We cannot support someone that undermines those values and principles. No matter how much they have benefited us. There is a Talmudic saying that goes as follows: Yotzah Sechoro B’Hefseidah! Which essentially means that whatever benefit one has is overwhelmed by the loss it incurs. That is certainly the case here. 

What about all the good he has done for is? The likes of which we will not see again soon? While that’s probably true, it nevertheless pains me that it was a man like the President that did it.  

Please do not misunderstand. I do not think Biden will be that bad. I just don’t think the interests of Orthodox Jewry will be as well served as they were under Trump. That it was a man like Trump who gave us these benefits should not be a source of pride. Those benefits are tinged by the stain of his terrible character. While we should nevertheless express gratitude for it, it should be muted - while at the same time we must express our outrage at the President’s conduct over the last few weeks since the election. 

We all need to unconditionally reject his false narrative and condemn his behavior. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof. The Torah implores us to seek justice. Supporting a man who is so egotistical that he is willing to trash the Constitution - and trash truth itself - is not something any of us should be doing. There is no justification for it. By continuing to support a man whose behavior is the antithesis of our values we make a mockery of our claim as an ethical people based on the Torah.  

I therefore humbly ask those among my friends and all Orthodox Jews to reconsider their enthusiastic support for the President. And instead turn their attention to - and support the next President.  If – as has been the case with some of my friends – the attitude continues to be that Biden is an illegitimate President, or continue to insist that his policies will be harmful to our interests, I can’t think of too many things more counterproductive that that. 

The next 9 days should be a time of reflection. When January 20th arrives we should all stand up and be patriotic Americans.  What about Trump? To paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur, like an old soldier, let him just fade away.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

An Inappropriate 'What If' Question

Capital Police Last Wednesday (NPR)
What if? That question can easily distort the significance of an event like the one that happened last Wednesday. But that question was asked be a few prominent people anyway.

There is no question that what happened was nothing short of an insurrection. Those that participated in any way should be imprisoned and forbidden from holding any office in the US. There is also no question that the President and his ‘Sergeant at Arms’ Rudy Giuliani participated. They are both guilty of inciting it - on the very day it happened. It was the crescendo of the President’s constant harangue about the election being stolen from him; convincing many (most?) of his supporters of that. He has been doing this ever since it became obvious he lost. The President has been whipping them into a frenzy ever since. The results of which unfolded last Wednesday. 

Thousands of his supporters descended upon Washington DC - all screaming various versions about how they and their candidate were cheated. To be fair, I don’t think most of those supporters had any intention of storming the capital building. But there were hundreds of Trump supporters there that had every intention of doing that. So when they were ‘greenlighted’ by the President himself, they acted. 

Most of those who first scaled those walls were the worst of the worst among us: a variety of  right wing paramilitary militias, white supremacists, racists, and antisemites. They saw the President as one of their own and came armed and ready. It is also very possible that many other Trump supporters - who are not particularly violent; or racist; or antisemitic got caught up in  the frenzy and followed them in.  

I believe that any objective observer of what happened that day would more or less agree with all of that. 

What also troubles me and many others is why those thugs were able to do that with relative ease. Capital security clearly broke down. There is no excuse for not having enough law enforcement there to turn away an angry mob who believe their candidate was cheated in a rigged election. They should have been prepared for any contingency. They weren’t. It is a total failure on their part. Heads have rolled, rightfully so. That insurrection should have been stopped before it ever started. 

Why wasn’t it? I suppose there are a variety of factors that contributed to that. (None of which excuse it.) Among them the following.  

The capital police did not expect - what was supposed to be a peaceful rally by a political base - to ever come anywhere near an insurrection. There was no precedent for this in recent history. There was therefore no increase in security personnel.

There is the delayed arrival of the National Guard. They should have been deployed immediately.

There is also the fact that a few of the police guarding the Capital actually supported the protesters. Although I haven’t seen any, there are reports that some of them actually took selfies with these thugs after they broke in!

In the middle of all this, a few prominent people have raised the race card with a ‘What if’ question: ‘What if this crowd had been black?’ ‘If they were this would have never happened’ ‘It  would  have been met with extreme force by police.’ The ‘proof’ was the way that some of the Black Lives Matter protests were handled. For example the National Guard was called in immediately at the first indication of violence. 

OK. There is not a doubt in my mind that there is racial prejudice in the world. A black mob will be seen as a bigger threat than a white mob. But that skin color alone guides law enforcement is patently false. It isn’t about skin color. That argument is refuted by the many black law enforcement officers all over the country. In many cases police departments are headed by black police chiefs. That a black mob will be judged more harshly is based on historical precedent. Precedent in the form violent black protests of the past. While the grievances protested were real (and still are) so too was the violence, looting, and destruction. It is not racist to acknowledge those facts.

Yes, there are legitimate sociological reasons for those facts (which have yet to be sufficiently addressed). But that does not mean the violence resulting form them should be ignored. In other words, it is about a legitimate fear. The kind that civil rights activist Jesse Jackson admitted he felt many years ago when he thought he was being followed down a dark alley by a black man – only to be relieved when he realized that the person following him was white. It may not be fair. But it is a reality.

This is not the case at political rallies. That there were many violent and armed racists there who had always been on the verge of violence did not occur to the police. Or at least not in the vast numbers of them that showed up. Maybe it should have been. But it wasn't. What they saw were people wearing red MAGA caps expressing their frustrations at what they had been led to believe by a sitting President was a rigged election! Which some of them actually agreed with. 

Not everything is about race. Certainly not what happened last Wednesday. The waters should not be muddied. Yes, the grievances protested by Black Lives Matter are legitimate. There is racism in this country. That has to be dealt with. But to mix racism into what happened last Wednesday, does a disservice to both issues.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Ignorance, COVID, and Rav Asher Weiss

R' AsherWeiss (Lakewood Scoop)
Even though the biggest news story of the day is the attack on Democracy by angry Trump supporters (and his part in it) there are other issues still plaguing us that should not be placed on the back burner. Not the least of which is COVID-19. New records of serous illness and death from that disease are broken every day. Even though the country is slowly but surely getting vaccinated, it has as of yet had no impact on the spread of the disease. 

This leads me to sing the praises of someone I have admired for quite some time. But my admiration  has now skyrocketed in light of what I recently heard him say. If were asked who I think should be the Gadol Hador today, I might very well say it should be Rav Asher Weiss. Even though he is Charedi and I am a Centrist. That is because he is widely respected by both communities… and may be just about the only one with that distinction. With good reason in my view.  

The latest illustration of that is his view on wearing masks and vaccines. In an audio recording (available on the Lakewood Scoop ) - R’ Weiss was introduced by Torah Vodaath Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yisroel Reisman. Rav Weiss then tackles both of these issues. 

He was asked about a debate among Mechachim in the Charedi world dealing with masking children in the classroom during the COVID pandemic. The question raised is whether it is worth the downside in learning that it inevitably causes in young children. There are those who feel the downside is too great and children should not be masked while in class. 

His response was unequivocal. He said that COVID is a matter of Pikuach Nefesh; that we must take it seriously; and that we must abide by the guidelines of health officials. Telling children to wear masks does not take away from their Chinuch. It is instead a part of it - by showing them that we care about other people. And that we care about value of human life! 

I only wish that the rest of the Orthodox world would understand these values. Even though most of us do, more than a few of us behave like ignorant fools. Believing they are actually serving God more ideally by ignoring the rules. Especially when it conflicts with certain ritual habits like Davening with a Minyan. The sincerity of that belief does not make them any less foolish. And it certainly does not make them right. It just makes them selfish and wrong. The latest example of that is the unfortunate event reported in Arutz Sheva

A man who tested positive for the coronavirus was caught by police while trying to violate his quarantine by leaving his home to go to pray at a local synagogue, a police spokesperson said Friday.

In footage of the incident released by police, the suspect is seen wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and a tallit (ritual prayer shawl) while stepping out of his home.

Officers confronted the man outside of his home in northern Israel, noting that after testing positive for the coronavirus, he was placed in isolation at home.

Police had received a telephone complaint about the suspect’s violations of his quarantine order, and dispatched officers to confirm that the suspect was in isolation as required.

When officers arrived at the suspect’s home, family members said that he was in his room, but was unable to come to the door to verify that he was adhering to the isolation order.

While searching the surrounding area, officers spotted the suspect attempting to flee the scene in his car. He was called in for interrogation at a local police station, before being sent home to remain in isolation. 

Ordinarily, it would be laudable to go great lengths to perform a Mitzvah. Tefilla B’Tzibur (Davening with a Minyan) among them.  

Those of us fortunate enough to have had a Yeshiva education have had the importance of Tefilla B’tzibur drilled into us. It is indeed a clearly a superior form of prayer.  Chazal tell us that such prayer is more readily accepted by God. 

But there was something missing in that Chinuch. Which is that there are circumstances where that is not only NOT true, but might actually have the opposite effect. That Tefilla B’Tzibur will not be seen favorably in the eyes of God.

The Torah  requirement of respecting human life is above almost every other Mitzvah. While that principle is taught, it is almost taught in a theoretical way. Not in a way where we might be required to apply it. 

The focus on the importance of Tefilla  B’Tzibur is so intense that when challenges like COVID come along, it becomes almost unbearable to change the habit of Davening with a Minyan. The idea of davening alone at home is seen as such an inferior way to pray that some people will break the law in order to do so if need be.  

What about the dangers of COVID? That pales in comparison to prayer. A belief supported by the lack of faith by so many of them in the medical community. That makes it imperative to ignore the rules in favor of doing this very important Mitzvah. 

The ‘Frummer’ one is, the more likely it seems they will have this attitude. Which explains why there was so much pushback by the Charedi world in New York and Israel against restrictions placed upon Shul attendance. The desire to Daven with a Minyan by the fellow described in Arutz Sheva was so great that he was willing to do it while infected with COVID. This guy actually thought he was doing something good. And that hiding it from authorities was a Mitzvah! 

He is not alone. There is at least one young Chasidic Shul Rav here in Chicago that not long ago tested positive. He decided that missing Tefila b’Tzibur was too high a price to pay. So he built himself a little cubicle made of transparent plastic sheeting and placed it around his seat in Shul. He Davened there while he was infected. I don’t know how he got into that cubicle without walking from his house to Shul and back. But I doubt he was teleported ala Star Trek.

Why did he do that? There is only one answer. He placed so much importance on Davening with a minyan than he fooled himself into thinking he was not endangering anyone.  And teaching that by way of example to the Shul members that Davened there with him. That he might believe that what he did was safe, does not make it so. 

If only he and people like that fellow in Israel would listen to a man like Rav Asher Weiss who does understand that reality, we might all get out of this pandemic a lot sooner. Getting there with a lot less casualties .

Thursday, January 07, 2021

A Day that Will Live in Infamy

One of the rioters that broke into the Capital Building yesterday (Japan Times)
I am still shaken. After what happened yesterday, it’s hard to talk about anything else. Every time I think about the images I saw of our own people, many of them carrying the flag of the United States, Trump flags, or even Confederate flags breaching the walls of democracy it gives me a chill. 

Hundreds of rioters - many wearing red MAGA caps - broke windows and knocked down the near impenetrable doors to the inner sanctum of our democracy. That is a sight I will not soon forget. If ever. Just like the day JFK was shot and 9/11. It will be burned into my memory forever. To paraphrase FDR in his finest moment, Yesterday, January 6, 2021 is a day that will live in infamy. But unlike the event that precipitated FDR’s remark, we were not attacked by enemies from without. We were attacked by enemies from within. Our own people! 

There is little doubt in my mind that the rioters most directly involved were the most extreme of right wing bigots and racists. The kind you find in home grown armed private militias. These are people that live on the fringes of society ready to violently take on federal authorities when it suits their purposes. 

But they weren’t the only ones involved. Even though they very likely led the charge, most of the thousands of people that showed up yesterday were angry! They genuinely believe that their President is being removed from office illegitimately because of a fraudulent election. They were about as angry a mob as I have ever seen. Some of them may be racist and some not. But all believe the same lie that has been perpetuated by the President even before the election. Where he constantly said that the only way he would lose the election is if there was fraud.

And when he did lose, he doubled down on that. Time after time after disgusting time. Nothing else mattered to him. The country could have been attacked by North Korea or Iran and he probably would not have noticed or even much cared. He was obsessed with the claim that he really won and that his enemies conspired against him by conducting a fraudulent election. 

Yesterday about an hour before that mob attacked the building that houses both chambers of congress, the President spoke to them and said the following: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” And then urged them to march up to the capital building and express their dissent at what was going on in there. 

Well, they dissented. 

There is little difference between what the President did yesterday and what tin pot dictators do. He is an autocratic ruler that cares little about the constitution and has lost the little political credibility he ever had. But still has delusions of grandeur! The good news is that he’s only got 13 days left before we are rid of him. 

Trump’s everlasting legacy will be what happened yesterday. It will not just be a footnote. It will define it. He will certainly go down as one of the most destructive Presidents in US history. By his word the very democracy upon which this country was built – was attacked. I cannot emphasize enough how terrible that is. 

There is talk of another impeachment. With 13 days left, that would be a colossal waste of time. There is talk among some of his own cabinet members of invoking the 25th amendment. Which allows a majority of them to remove him from office as incapable of performing his duties- replacing him with the Vice President. I don’t think it has ever been used. I don’t think it will be this time either. !3 days is not that long from now. For what its worth, I don't see anything like this happening during that time. However that the 25th amendment is even being discussed by his own people makes a pretty loud statement. As did some of the resignations from the President’s staff in protest. And there may be more coming.

How is this playing overseas among our allies?  Every world leader that I have seen commenting on it is as shocked and dismayed as I am. They all unequivocally condemned what happened yesterday, including the Prime Minster of Israel. In some cases hinting very strongly that it was the President’s own fault. Which it clearly was. If there is any saving grace coming out of this it is that some of them said they had always looked up to the US as the best example of what a democracy should be. It was nice to hear a positive statement about us from our European allies for a change. Too bad it took something like this to evoke it. 

I think it is imperative for the all Jewish leadership across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy to strongly condemn what happened yesterday. But more importantly to publicly recognize and acknowledge the President’s part in this. This should not be considered being disloyal to one’s country. Quite the opposite. It would show patriotism. It would show that we respect the rule of law and the foundational principles upon which this country was built. Principles that even a sitting President cannot undermine. No matter how much he tries. 

It also does not contradict the many times they have expressed gratitude to the President for the many good things he has done for us. There is a time to praise and a time to condemn. This is the time for condemnation. 

Saying nothing is not an option in my book. That would be tantamount to approval. And perhaps more importantly it would give the President’s enthusiastic supporters among us the green light to keep idolizing him. That must not be allowed to continue! 

In my view the only thing that can stop that is a combined statement from across the entire spectrum of Orhtodx Jewry, from Satmar to Chabad to Lakewood to YU. All rabbis, Roshei Yeshiva and all Admorim (Chasidic Rebbes) must act in unison to once and for all put an end to the idolization of a man that is the antithesis of everything the Torah stands for. Nothing less will do. There can be no wiggle room. If we don’t stand up and do the right thing now, it will be difficult to ever claim the moral high ground in this country again. And that would be tragic.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Insurrection!

'Protesters' storming the Capital (Wbur News)
I  am in a state of shock. This is the worst thing I have ever witnessed in America since the assassination of JFK. With even worse implications. And I cannot  help but place the blame squarely on the President of the United States. 

The United States Capital has been stormed by radical right wing supporters of the President. The Senate was evacuated in the middle of counting the electoral votes. Which had to stop. Members of congress  have been evacuated

The President’s constant denial of the election results claiming the it was stolen from him by massive fraud is clearly what generated this. A protest was scheduled with the encouragement of the President. But I NEVER would have believed that anything like this would result. This is not peaceful protest. Which they certainly had a right to do. Even if the vast majority of the world disagreed with them. This is insurrection! The only thing missing is a military coup! The kind of thing that  happens in 3rd  world dictatorships. Not the kind of thing that happens in the greatest democracy on earth. 

The President recorded  a message that told these people to go home and that we need peace. But it was made in such tepid tones that it sounded insincere. He peppered that message with sympathy for the protestors and repeated several times his false assertion that he was cheated and really won by a landslide. 

None of those protestors are going home based on that message. They are staying put. 

To be clear, I do not believe for a moment that this has even the slightest degree of approval by the vast majority of the 74 million people that voted for him. I'm sure that most of them condemn what is going on there as much as I do. But it doesn’t matter. What is perfectly clear is that all of the people participating are Trump supporters. Probably consisting mostly of the entire panoply of  right wing extremists.  Including white supremacists, racists, and antisemites.

This cannot stand. If the President has a shred of decency left, he ought to come out right now and condemn everyone that  took  part in this, insist they be arrested, and then have the book thrown at them. These people are criminals who are probably guilty of treason! 

But the President is incapable of that. That has been made abundantly clear.  I am so disgusted and angry by what this poor excuse of a human being has wrought, that  I can barely think straight. This is not the America that I know and love. 

These people are thugs. Not much different than the radical thugs that infiltrated the Black Lives Matter protests and caused chaos looting, and destruction. 

I never thought that tis could happen in the United States of America. And yet it is happening right before my eyes – and the eyes of the world.

It behooves all Orthodox Jews - including and especially those that voted for him to stand up and forcefully condemn what is happening right now in Washington. And to understand and admit that it was the President that  incited it. It is high time for the truly good Orthodox Jews that voted for Trump to face reality. To sober up and admit that they supported a monster! I know he did some good things for us. But what is happening now because of him makes that all seem trivial by comparison.

A New Day in America

Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock (Hollywood Reporter)
The great Yogi Berra once said, ‘It ain’t over til it’s over.’ Well my friends, it may not be official yet, but…short of a miracle - it’s over. 

With the sure win of Warnock and the likely win of Ossoff who is winning with 98% of the vote counted - the senate will be equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. The tie vote will go to the Vice President. (Liberal Democrat, Kamela Harris). With the House already controlled by a Democratic majority it looks very much like Congress is about to become a rubber stamp for the man who will be President in not much longer than the blink of an eye (politically). In 14 short days at 12:01 PM, Democrat Joseph R. Biden will be sworn in to become the 46th President of the United States. 

I say this without any particular rancor. I say it only as a pretty much indisputable fact. Ordinarily this would not be much of a concern to me. In the not too distant past there wasn’t all that much difference between the 2 parties. Democrats and Republicans were not all that far apart on the major issues of the day. Although there were always exceptions, most members of congress were more or less political centrists albeit a bit right or left of center depending upon which side of the political aisle they were on.

But this is not your father’s ‘Oldsmobile’. Times have changed and politics right along with it. The exceptions are now in the center. Congress has never been more divided. Democrats are far more liberal and Republicans are far more conservative.  And there are elements in both parties pulling them in even more extreme directions. 

It is too soon to tell how far left the new Democratic congress will be at this point in time. But that is the direction it has been going, even if it isn’t fully there yet. The one saving grace about it is that Biden is an old time Center-left Democrat. But it is also true that Biden owes the hard core ‘Berne Sanders left’ a debt. Because without their support, we would be looking a second term for Trump. 

What does all this mean to the issues that matter to Orthodox Jews? There are several to consider. 

One is what the new US policy with respect to Israel will be. It was a nice reprieve during the last 4 years not to hear the word ‘settlements’ in the context of being an impediment to peace. I fear that we will shortly be hearing that again. We will surely be hearing the world ‘occupation’ a lot more as well. 

There is also the distinct possibility that the US will not be vetoing UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel.  

On the plus side, I don’t think the US embassy will be switched back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I also believe Biden and his ‘Amen Chorus’ in congress will actually continue the policy of pursuing peace with additional Arab nations. How that will all shake out remains to be seen.  (Yes... I know who coined the term.)

Another thing that seems likely is that J-Street will once again have the ear of the President. (Might as well be Rashida Tlaib. Birds of a feather.)

Next there is Iran. That this rogue nation is a threat to world peace in not in dispute. Which is why their quest towards developing nuclear weapons while simultaneously working on delivery system capable of reaching the US - should be taken seriously. As should their spread of terror throughout the region - most of which is aimed at Israel via their proxies in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon.  

Should Biden focus only on the nuclear problem, death and destruction from Iran will continue with impunity as it did after consummating the nuclear deal (JCPOA) with the US and our allies. My hope is that Biden understands this reality and does not re-enter a deal that had these major flaws. And instead renegotiates it to include dealing with those flaws. 

But all is not lost. Thankfully there is a very important 3rd branch of government equal to each of the other 2.  The Supreme Court. Thanks to the outgoing President, the court is no longer liberal. It is conservative. Which very much favors Orthodox Jews and other religious groups. No longer will religion be taking a back seat to other issues. Religious rights will be better protected and our interests advanced. How so? For one thing, people that are denied jobs because of Shabbos have a much better chance of fighting that. The details of which are discussed by attorney Nathan Lewin in a JNS article

Will any of this play out the way I described? I guess we’ll find out.