Thursday, June 04, 2020

How Bad is He Really?

Tiananmen Square in Beijing 30 years ago
The answer to the question posed in the title is - Terrible!

I can’t take it any more! Donald Trump is the worst President in my lifetime. Bar none. (In many respects worse even than Carter!) 

As much as I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, it is becoming more difficult with every passing day. His reaction to the current protest is appalling. I know he wants law and order. So do I. But to ignore the legitimate reasons for the protest and focus only on the violence is heartless and cruel. Although he says that he sympathizes with them, it seems almost like an afterthought.

To use teargas to disperse peaceful protesters just so he can take a walk over to a church to have his picture taken there with a bible in his hand is an outrageous use of his power. Instead of making a public appearance to express the horror of what everybody saw a white cop do to a black man; express solidarity with the black community and all people of good will;  he talks about invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 so he can activate the military against his own people.

Can anyone even fathom a tank rolling down the street about to run over one of those protesters? Then again – you don’t have to imagine it. Thirty years ago, the Chinese army opened fire on student-led, pro-democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Is this what America has descended to under this President? How can there be anyone that is not outraged by such a thought?! I don’t care how pro Trump you are!

I have just about had it with the level Trump’s incompetence in office.  Every day seems worse than the last. Every word coming out of his mouth indicates more ignorance and incompetence. He is a terrible leader. He does not know what he’s doing. And his critics keep increasing.

Just yesterday his own former Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis denounced him as threat to the constitution. He said this after promising never to criticize a sitting President. But I guess he couldn’t take it any more either. Not to be outdone, the current Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper broke with the President and said the following: 
"The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," Esper, who once served in the National Guard, said. "We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act." 
He opened his comments by saying what the President should have said: 
Esper called the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis policemen a horrible crime. "The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder," he said. "It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times."
The secretary said racism is real in the United States, and "we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it and to eradicate it."
 
The Oval Office has been disgraced by this President. I am disgusted!

That said, I have not changed my views about some of President Trump’s polices. Especially when it comes to Israel. There has never been a more pro Israel President in American history.

Yes…. I know all the counter arguments: That support has done nothing to improve the lives of a single Israeli. Some will even argue that the President has actually made things worse… that possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is more distant now than ever because of the ‘pro Israel’  things he’s done. These are typical comments I have heard in reaction moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Has it not instead immeasurably damaged the peace process?

My answer is the typically Jewish one of answering a question with another question. Which is, ‘What peace process?’ The truth is that Palestinians were no better off before Trump than they are now. If anything Israeli Arabs (who are technically Palestinians that are citizens of Israel) have more representation in the Israeli Keneset than ever!

What the President has done for Israel is symbolic. He has made the relationship warm. It is a relationship that does not have any ‘buts’ in it.There is nothing conditional about US support for Israel under this President. UN resolutions condemning Israel will not happen under this President. The phrase ‘settlements are an obstacle to peace’  is scarcely heard anymore.  Financial aid given to the PA for humanitarian purposes that was routinely diverted to the families of terrorists killed by Israel - has ended.

And then there is his economic policies which - until the pandemic - contributed to the longest economic expansion in American history, more consumer confidence, and the lowest level of unemployment in decades even among minorities. Investment portfolios were swelling at record levels. I don’t think any fair minded person would dispute that.

What does all this mean with respect to the next election? That is one of the most depressing questions I have had in a long time. Joe Biden is pure gold compared to Donald Trump when it comes to, competence, leadership, and demeanor. 

But his pro Israel stance comes with all the old baggage. We can expect to start hearing again that settlements are an obstacle to peace. He might even put pressure on Israel to do his bidding. He has promised to reinstate the deal with Iran, easing their sanctions, making it easier for them to re-double their terrorist spreading activities all over the world. And he has promised to restore financial aid to the PA. Which means they will be able to resume rewarding the families of terrorists killed by Israel.

And who knows what will happen to the economy when a ‘tax and spend’ liberal Democrat takes over!

It will not be an easy choice for me this coming November. Going from Trump to Biden will be like going from the frying pan to the fire.  And as things stand now, that is exactly what will happen. I do not believe that Trump has a chance in the world of winning a second term. I don’t think he deserves one.  And yet...

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

‘I Assure You Mashiach is Not Coming!’

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, ZTL (Wikipeida)
I have long been a fan of Rav Ahron Lopiansky, An Ish Emes who is the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington - a Charedi Yeshiva. I believe that his perspectives on Judaism are right on target. As is his understanding of the reality of how many of us are woefully ignorant of important aspects of it.

That said, I have had disagreements with some of his publicly stated positions. Most notably when - during a session of a recent Agudah convention he was asked about the propriety of publishing pictures of woman. But that did not diminish my respect for his intellectual honesty nor his appraisal of Orthodox Jewish life.

Which he once again expressed last week in Mishpacha MagazineBefore I get to that let me first explain the somewhat shocking title of this post. 

No - I have not suddenly become a heretic. I still believe in the 13 fundamentals of our faith as per the Rambam. One of which is in the coming of Mashiach. It’s just that I do not think his arrival at this particular time is any more likely than it was at any other time in Jewish history. The title of this post is based on a story reported by Rabbi Lopiansky in that article: 
A rav excitedly told Reb Yaakov about a member of his shul who was not shomer Shabbos, but was prompted by a “Mashiach is coming” moment to finally close his store on Shabbos.
Reb Yaakov told the rav to tell this congregant, “ I [Rav Yaakov] assure you Mashiach is not coming.” He explained, “Right now, he is a mechallel Shabbos but at least he’s a believer. But when this frenzy blows over, and Mashiach hasn’t come, he will stop believing as well.” 
Rabbi Lopiansky refers to a phenomenon he calls a “Mashiach is coming” moment. That happens during a national time of crisis for our people – such as the pandemic we are currently in the midst of. That often elicits comments like 'It must be Mashaich's Tzieten (time)'. Or 'Moshiach is surely just around the corner.'

The concept of Moshiach has been mentioned a lot that way lately by a variety of believing Jews. But whenever I hear someone saying that, my eyes roll.  I have to wonder why they believe now is that time?

The answer to that was beautifully laid out by Rabbi Lopiansky. Which in a nutshell is that people that think this way are woefully ignorant of both Jewish history and the very concept of Mashiach.   

If the severity of a crisis is the determinant that  heralds Mashiach’s  arrival, there are many other times in history that makes what we are going through now a picnic by comparison. Surely the Holocaust surpasses all of them - including our current crisis - by orders of magnitude! Our homes are not concentration camps. Jews are not being slaughtered wholesale.

As Rabbi Lopiansky indicates, the purpose of Mashiach’s arrival is not to solve our personal problems. Or to save us during a national crisis.  

What then is Mashiach all about?

The best source for that is the Rambam. Which in essence says when Mashiach arrives nothing will change for us except that we will once again be able to rule over ourselves; that God’s presence will be restored through the re-building of the Beis HaMikdash; there will be no more wars and no more disease; and the whole world will finally recognize God.

What about all the things we do have in our day? Such as the unprecedented amount of Torah study. And  the unprecedented freedom to practice Judaism? Do we not have Rabbinic leaders that can lead us? Why then do we need Mashaich if we have all that? I loved his answer to that. He is exactly right:
Yes, thankfully we have our gedolei Torah, but even that seems to be subjective depending on who you are speaking to. For those who point to “The Moetzes” as “leadership,” I would ask, do you mean Agudah’s Moetzes, Degel’s Moetzes, Peleg’s Moetzes, or Shas’s Moetzes Chachamei HaTorah? Is it the Crown Heights Beis Din? And what about Satmar and others who do not subscribe to any of the above? And Centrist Orthodox and Modern Orthodox? And the many Yidden who do not fit into any of those categories? 
What about the return of Eretz  Yisroel into Jewish hands, and shortly after the return of the Kotel and Har HaBayis (the Temple Mount) - for the first time since the destruction of Bayis Sheni (the 2nd Temple) 2000 years ago? 

His response was that just because we have religious freedom does not mean we can practice all the Mitzvos. There are many Mitzvos that can only be done after Mashiach comes and the Beis HaMkidash is restored. God’s presence (the Shechina) is still missing until his abode on earth is restored. 

Nor should we be satisfied with the growth of Orthodox Jewry since the Holocaust. How can anyone define Klal Yisroel as only those of us that are observant?... or satisfied having Har Habayis in our physical possession when 90% of us are so estranged from it?  He then quotes Rav Soloveitchik to illustrate: 
 “I reply, ‘Have you ever seen an estranged son sitting at his father’s table? There is only one foot of distance between their bodies, but a thousand miles between their hearts! This creates an unbearable tension, intensified, not ameliorated, by their physical proximity.’ So too, to be so close, yet so estranged…” 
How right he is!

Rabbi Lopiansky touches upon a theme often discussed here.Which is the way many Orthodox Jews are educated. 

That there is so little knowledge of Jewish history is a failure of Jewish education. Especially in the Yeshivos of the right. The religious curriculum consists of Gemarah, Rishonim, and selected Achronim - 24/7/365. (And let’s not even talk about the lack of any secular studies curriculum in certain Chasidic circles.)

In the world of the right, girls are actually given a much broader Jewish education than boys. There is absolutely no reason that boys shouldn’t get the same thing. Why should boys grow up to be ignorant of Jewish history? To the extent that anyone knows anything at all about it is to the extent that it is self taught. 

I will close with the following comment from Rabbi Lopiansky with which I heartily agree: 
Besides not allowing us to understand the events unfolding, our ignorance of history does not allow us to duly thank Hashem for the wonderful times we live in! How much hakaras hatov do we owe, for the plentiful food, advanced medical knowhow, tolerant governments, and incredible siyata d’Shmaya for our spiritual growth.
A wise man once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Black Lives Matter

One of many global protests against racial injustice (CNN)
That phrase his seen some controversy since it was first used. It was coined a few years ago during protests over the killing of Trayvon Martin a young black man - by a white self styled vigilante named George Zimmerman.

Black lives matter. I say that knowing full well that this this phrase has since become a movement wherein some of its leaders have shown antisemitic tendencies and rhetoric. Which is of course abhorrent. But I do agree with the sentiment, if not the movement.

Some people feel that the correct phrase should be ‘ALL lives matter’. Which of course is true. But I am with those that object to saying it that way. Because it is important to understand that it is racism that allows some people to actually feel that black lives really don’t matter that much.

Which is why I am solidly behind all the protests going on in this country over the past few days. The death of George Floyd at the hand (or should I say knee) of  Derek Chauvin a (now former) Minneapolis cop last week has generated outrage by all people of good will. There have been justifiable protests about this all over the world.

I get it. In the minds of far too many people, black people don’t really matter. Too many black people have been killed by police ‘doing their jobs’. Except that those killings would not have happened in most cases if the people they apprehended were white. Black people are routinely treated differently than white people by white police who assume guilt when a black man comes under suspicion for any reason. I don’t think that is arguable. I am fairly certain that racism -whether intentional or not - was as the core of what happened in Minneapolis last week.

There is a sense by many black people that the rest of America is indifferent to it. Which may be true in a lot of cases. They might see a story like this, shake their heads and go on with the rest of their day without ever thinking abut it again. Until the next time it happens.

Imagine if every time  there was a crime committed it was a Jew that was apprehended and treated like dirt - guilty  until proven innocent. Actually you don’t have to imagine it. That is exactly how Jews were treated in Nazi Germany after Hitler came to power in the 1930s. And no, the two situations are not comparable.

Imagine raising children in such an environment. What good does it do that a black President was elected to office when the common black man is treated like dirt?

The latest murder of a black man by white cop was the last straw. A lot of black people have just plain had it! There is a culture of racism in the fraternity of certain white cops all over the country - even while there are many black cops serving along side them. That culture has to change. That is what these protests are all about. Or should be about. 

So, as I said, I am with the protesters. What I am not with is the extremes of violence that has ensued at many of these protests. Which has devolved into all sorts of serious mayhem. Including destruction of private and public property; smashing car windows; setting police cars on fire, throwing Molotov Cocktails at buildings and cars; taunting the police sent there to protect them - endangering their lives and the lives of legitimate protesters. The violence we are now witnessing is not from those who are there for the right reasons. For the most part they have been protesting peacefully. 

It has become obvious to most observers that the violence is fomented by extremists and radicals who have infiltrated and are taking advantage of the protests. Their motives have nothing to do with the goals of the protests. Their purpose it is to undermine our way of life by fomenting chaos and destruction. And very likely drag some of the peaceful protesters into the fray who are frustrated and angry over their station in American life.

It’s a perfect storm. which is exacerbated by the frustration over the COVID-19 restrictions most of us have endured for the past three months. Which includes the protesters. That alone could cause some people to lash out at the slightest provocation. Which in the case of George Floyd’s murder-by-cop is anything but slight.

As if that were not enough, there are the looters taking advantage of these protests - ransacking stores and stealing all of their merchandise. They could not care less about the cause.They are merely taking advantage of. an opportunity to steal knowing they will likely get away with - blaming it all on racial injustice.

So instead of peaceful protests we now have mob violence of such magnitude that many states including my own Illinois has called out the National Guard to help protect American citizens and their property.

The people getting hurt the most are the black store owners and businessmen whose establishments have been destroyed by this violence. I saw one black man interviewed by the news media in tears because his new business venture was demolished. And he was not the only one.

City and state officials - whether black or white - such as Illinois Governor Jay Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot were unified in their disgust and condemnation of the extremists, criminals, and thugs causing the looting and violence. Both are unified in their support for the National Guard that was called upon for help.

As of last night over 6500 of these thugs have been arrested in this country. And hopefully jailed. Where they should stay for a very long time if there is any justice the world. Hopefully a lot more will join them. We must however never allow the  narrative to become that innocent black protesters were arrested for exercising their free speech rights. Because nothing can be further from the truth.

Aside from the obvious pain and suffering Derek Chauvin has caused to the family of the George Floyd, the damage he has also done to the country cannot be overstated. His cruel and careless treatment of a black man that resulted in his death is what precipitated all of this. If there is any humanity left at all in this individual, he has to realize what he has done. Which should haunt him for the rest of his life.

As bad as all this is, there is yet more. The violence feeds the hate-mongering by white supremacists who must really be enjoying this. I can just see them all slapping themselves on the belly gleefully exclaiming how all this black violence justifies their hateful racism. Which just might catch an ear or two of mainstream America.

Not so insignificant is the fact that precautions of social distancing that had been taken by these protesters has been thrown to the wind. Massive angry crowds all over the country shouting at the top of their lungs is a good way to spread the COVID-19 contagion and cause a spike in the disease. Even if many of them wore masks Which many did not. 

Black people are aggrieved by a culture of racism that exists in many areas of this country. Some intentional and some unintentional. Far too much of it by police. Although I believe it is a minority, it is nonetheless a significant minority.

That said, I would be remiss if I did not point out that there are many good cops without a racist bone in their body. I believe the vast majority of them are like that. That was demonstrated by the many white police officers that joined in solidarity with black people in peaceful protest.

In the meantime black lives do matter. We need to change the culture of racism to whatever extent it exists at any and every level of society. And root out this evil so that the American  motto of liberty and justice for all can finally become a reality for everyone.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Zichrono L’Vracha

Baruch Dayan HaEmes, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, OBM (YU archives)
By now most of the Orthodox world has heard the terribly sad news about the passing of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. I intended to talk about the violent protests going on all over the country for the past few days, but that will have to wait. Dr. Lamm was a major influence in my life even though I only met him once at the wedding of a common relative. We were distantly ‘related’ through marriage – his mother and my great aunt (through marriage) were sisters.

I had always valued  the importance of studying worldly knowledge along with the study of Torah. But I had never crystallized exactly what the relationship between the two was aside from a deep feeling that worldly knowledge was an important part of life. I felt that ignoring or minimizing it would be at our own peril. 

Rabbi Lamm provided that connection in his seminal work, Torah U’Mada. It was clear from his introduction that he too had some questions about that connection.  And since Torah U’Mada (TUM) was the motto and logo of YU (Yeshiva University), the institution he presided over, he took it upon himself to define that concept as best as humanly possible.. He believed that TUM should mean more than simply having the two disciplines in the same building. (Which is how Rav Hershel Schachter characterized it when Rabbi Lamm approached him about his thoughts.) 

It was with his great intellect and intellectual honesty that he developed severall models uopon which Torah U’Mada could be based. All of which resonated with me. 

In the attempts to get as wide a range of opinion on the subject he asked for input from several prominent Orthodox thinkers. One of whom was my own Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveitchk. Who did a masterful job in providing his own perspective in two essays on the subject. 

Sadly Rabbi Lamm’s book was not well received by the rest of the Yeshiva world. (Not that YU was ever given respect by the right. But that is another subject.) 

One of TUM’s harshest critics were adherents of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE). They had their own reasons for asserting the importance of studying Mada and did not want people to confuse it with TUM - which they rejected. 

That had always bothered me since he actually included TIDE as one of his models although admitting that it was not a perfect fit - preferring another model he felt more closely followed his philosophy. Personally I see them as two versions connecting Torah to Mada - each being a legitimate approach (Elu V”Elu - if you will). But I digress.

Even though he was educated in one of their Yeshivos (Torah Vodaath) before moving on to become a student at YU, (or perhaps because of it) Rabbi. Lamm was a controversial figure to the world of the right. Aside from their rejection of TUM, he was viciously attacked for a variety of other reasons. For me, two of the most memorable were from Philidelphia Rosh HaYeshiva,  Rav Elya Svei and Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Mordechai Gifter.

Rav Svei had some choice words for Dr. Lamm about a speech accusing him of calling right wing Yeshiva students cavemen. Which was a gross mischaracterization of what Rabbi Lamm had said about them.

Rav  Gifter strongly criticized Rabbi Lamm for permitting ‘gay clubs’ in his alma mater. (R’ Gifter had attended YU as a student.) Rabbi. Lamm’s response was as follows: 
“To deny gay clubs the right to function would be to deny Yeshiva University its right to exist. We have no intention of closing our doors over this ... It is more important [to keep the clubs so] our school stays open.”  
Since YU had become non-sectarian so that it could qualify for government funding, he had to follow their rules. Or in the alternative shut down the school for lack of funding. Rav Gifter felt he should have shut the school rather than tolerate any form gay activity.

But no one questioned his loyalty to the school and his natural ability to lead it, both intellectually, religiously, and financially. Rabbi Lamm was a Talmid Chacham, a scholar, and widely respected pulpit rabbi even before he accepted the leadership role at YU. A brilliant thinker, a consummate speaker, and a magnificent fundraiser. 

After taking the job as President of YU, he brought it from a serious deficit to a surplus by the time he retired at age 75. He gave the position the intellectual and religious heft it needed to be both a Yeshiva and a university. I truly admired him and will forever be grateful for what he has given me. 

Rabbi Lamm was a towering giant of great intellect, whose dominance and influence on the world of Torah U’Mada has yet to be matched. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

What Virus?!

NIH NIAID Director Anthony Fauci (NIH)
I took another walk yesterday, the second day of Shavuos (Shabbos). It was a beautiful day in Chicago. Not a cloud in the sky. Which was as blue as I’ve ever seen it.

My day began as it has for the least few weeks with my wife and I Davening in a manner that mimicked Tefilah b’Tzibur. During which I peeked out the window and glimpsed a few men actually going to Shul. Some wearing masks. Some not. Strangely enough I was not as jealous of them as I thought I would be. I guess that might be because Yeshivas Brisk’s Minyan (where I Daven) has not reopened yet.

About midway through the day, My wife and I thought it would be a good idea to visit one of my daughters and her family while wearing masks and keeping at least 6 feet apart. The moment we ventured outside and saw how blue the sky was, how clean and refreshing the air felt, I asked myself, ‘What virus?!’ There was absolutely no indication whatsoever that there was anything at all out there that could hurt us. It felt like the perfect day!

But then I immediately thought about the over 100,000 people that have died from this invisible ‘bug’. Just moments before I left the house I had finished reading a story about a beloved 54 year old Rosh Yeshiva who quickly succumbed to the virus, and the way it affected his parents. Both of whom had contracted the disease as well. While both of them survived, the father suffered so badly at the time of his son’s death that his wife did not inform him about it until a few days later. Needless to say neither of them were with their son when he died, nor were they able to attend his funeral.

Almost every day the electronic media features stories like this about a variety of people of all ages. Otherwise healthy people with the virus dying alone with none of their loved ones at their side. Yesterday, it became a bit more personal as I read this story about one of ‘our own’. I can only imagine how many times this has happened in the observant community. This is of course not to say that every life isn’t precious. Of course it is. There are a lot of people suffering unimaginable pain this way. But when it hits closer to home, you feel it more.

So there I was just having walked out the door and having this double feeling. On the one hand wondering what the commotions was all about. And on the other hand fearing that something like this will hit even closer to home. Or that my wife and I could get that sick and possibly even die. While we are both in excellent health, that obviously doesn’t mean that getting the virus won’t be deadly.  It is with that mixed emotion that my wife and I ventured forward.

What I observed on the way among the observant Jews from all segments of Orthodoxy that live in my neighborhood - was what seemed to be an almost complete abandonment of the precautions urged upon us by health officials. Precautions designed to prevent an unintentional spike in the disease. 

People were out in droves. Some people wore masks. Most did not. There were tons of people walking to and fro, many of them in groups. Most not really paying attention to the required six feet of social distancing.  

The feeling I got was that everyone was just fed up with being cooped up in their homes for the last 3 months, saw the beautiful weather, threw caution to the wind and decided they were just going to go out and enjoy the day. Perhaps they had subconsciously had the same thoughts I did initially without the second thoughts I had.

I am not here to criticize anyone. I don’t really blame anyone for having this feeling. At the same time I worry about the consequences. That being said, my hope is that - as the number of people dying from, or test positive for the virus decreases; and as the number of people that have had the disease and have fully recovered,  are now immune and no longer contagious.  And that the chances of the rest of us contracting the virus has decreased. 

Additionally, if COVID-19 is seasonal the way other forms of coronaviruses are, then what I saw yesterday will be of little consequence. Hopefully no one there was unknowingly infected. And all will be well. 

I’m just not sure we are there yet. Either way it is far better to err on the side of caution and follow the precautions recommended by health of officials. There is still not enough known about it to even be sure whether it is in fact seasonal. And even if it is, there is the prospect that it will spike in the fall when others seasonal viruses tend to spike. 

All Shuls should be opening a couple of weeks. But the Shul experience will be nothing like it was before this virus hit. The same rules put in place by those who decided to open up early will surely be the case for the rest of the Shuls. I assume that masks. social distancing, Plexiglas dividers at the Bimah, limiting who and how many can attend will be the order of the day,  This will be the new normal for a awhile.  At least until a safe and effective vaccine is available for all of us.

On that score, I saw an interview with the NIAID director of the NIH, Dr. Anthony Fauci. He said that he was optimistic that a vaccine will be ready by the end of the year. A lot sooner than what is normally expected when new vaccines are developed. I think this might be because of the intensity with which researchers are treating this and the unprecedented number of researchers doing it all over the world.

This is very hopeful news. When that happens, we will probably be able to go back to normal. Although even then there will be some things that this pandemic will have permanently altered. What these might be remains to be seen. In the meantime -  I know it doesn’t seem like it but - we must treat this disease with the seriousness it deserves. Enough people have gotten sick. And enough have died!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

A Different Kind of Shavuos

Shavuos 2020 (Chabad)
Shavuos celebrates Matan Torah – God’s gift to the Jewish people - and ultimately to all of humanity. It is customary for many Jews to stay up all night studying the Torah in a Shul or Beis HaMedrash. That is not happening for anyone this year. But for those who manage to stay up at home tonight, there might actually be Neitz (sunrise) Minyan for them. I will not be attending it.

Observant Jews take the laws of the Torah seriously, and try to follow them as scrupulously as possible. Not that we always succeed. But that we try.

Perhaps one of the most important laws of the Torah is the requirement to do what’s necessary to stay alive and healthy. V’Chai Bahem. We are told to live by those laws. Not die by them. Making this particular law one that overrides other Torah laws.

I am going to be Machmir (stringent). I would prefer to be Mekil (lenient) and am a bit jealous of those who are.  But I have chosen to observe this Mitzvah in its more stringent form because of its relative importance to other Mitzvos.

So I will once again be Davening at Beis Tzvi. Which it might interest people to know, is an egalitarian house of prayer. There will in fact be an equal number of men and women in attendance. Actually it will only be one man and one woman. I will be the ‘Shaliach Tzibur’ (Chazan) and my wife will be the ‘Tzibur’(congregation).

(Tzvi is my Hebrew name. Beis Tzvi is my house.) Sadly, though, there will not be the requisite 10 people required for a Minyan. So that what is really happening in my house is that we will be Davening B’Yichidus – each of us as individuals and not really as a Tzibur.

But we both try and make it close to a Shul experience as we can. We both dress in our Shabbos finest –  the way we would for Shul. I stand at a Shtender (lectern) and face East – ending each segment out loud the way a Shaliach Tzibur would. But… there is no Borchu, no Kaddish, no Kedusha, and no Kriyas HaTorah or Aliyos.  However, I ‘Lein’ out of a Chumash and recite the HafTorah. All in order to make the experience as realistic as possible. 

This is the way it’s been since the very beginning of the pandemic restrictions that shut down every Shul in Chicago. And for the time being it will stay that way - for me. But that is no longer the way it will be for everybody.

As I noted a short while ago, Agudah wants to be Machmir on Tefillah b’Tzibur. Which in my view means being Mekil in Pikuach Nefesh.

Not that they are being careless. Quite the contrary. They are demanding strict adherence to the rules they have set in place on pain of expulsion if violated. But they want desperately to be able to say to say Borchu; hear Kaddish; and say ‘Yehei Shmeh Rabbah’. So even though they are being careful to minimize the dangers, they are nevertheless being Mekil on Pikuach Nefesh and Machir on Tefillah b’Tzibur.  That is the way I see it although I’m sure they would not put it that way.

That being said, I admit to being jealous of the people I saw going to Shul this morning. Bnei Ruven, the Shul I had been attending for Shachris daily for decades, is one of those being Machmir on Tefillah b’Tzibur. Watching the people I had been Davening Shachris with day after day until last March made me feel like I should be doing that too. I actually felt bad that I Davened at home this morning instead of joining them. 

But at the same time I know it was the right thing to do – and keep doing until conditions improve enough so that all Shuls will be comfortable opening up. Sadly that is not the case yet. Which is why the CRC is being Machmir on Pikuach Nefesh instead of Tefillah b’Tzibur.

I suppose the temptation to Daven with a Minyan on Shavuos was too great to resist for some rabbis. So as long as there is a way to do it safely they are going to do it. What the cost of that might be on the health of those attending remains to be seen. Having reached 100,000 deaths due to a disease that is contagious before it is symptomatic is nothing to sneeze at. (No pun intended). 

With the improved weather hitting us all across the nation, people are out in droves. Seemingly oblivious to the disease. The chances of increased community spread is quite real. The chances that one of the attendees at a Minyan may have encountered one of those irresponsible people who may have had  the virus albeit unbeknownst to them - have now increased. My sincere hope and prayer is that I am being overly cautious and that everyone will be fine.  But for me - I’d still rather be overly cautious than face an increased chance that I may end up dead or seriously ill.

At the same time, it will be difficult seeing people going to Shul tomorrow while my  wife and I stay home. But I will grin and bear it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Being Black in America Should Not Be a Death Sentence!

Crowds protesting the killing by police of a black man (Time)
America is not a racist country. Or is it? It’s almost hard to tell these days.

It is nevertheless my belief that America is not racist at the core. If it were Barack Obama would never have been elected President. Twice. It is clear to me that if the majority of Americans were racist, it would have been President John McCain. Not President Barack Obama.

And yet there seems to be an almost endless series of racist events in this country, some of which have been deadly. How is that possible? I have to believe that there is a substantial number people in this country that are racist, even if they may not realize it. 

(Although I am willing to bet that most people that have racist feelings know they have them deep down. They may not admit it publicly. But it comes out in other ways making it clear what they really think. I think the extreme animosity towards Obama by some Americans was in part a function of that racism despite vehement protestations to the contrary that was only about his liberal policies. That may have been why they opposed him. But it doesn’t explain the virulent animosity that often accompanied it.)

Racism has many expressions. Some are simply condescending feelings of superiority toward the black man - but with not malicious intent. For others those feelings will spiral into a deep and irrational hatred, For still others it might lead to persecution, violence, and even death. There is in fact an entire spectrum of racism extant in this country.

One of the more insidious forms of it is how a black man is treated by police when encountered in suspicious circumstances. They are often treated as guilty until proven innocent. This is not to say that all police react this way. But it happens far too frequently for it to be a coincidence. Black comedians have called this ‘Driving while black’. Although they don’t have to be driving to be treated that way.

Black men are far more likely to be treated like criminals by police than white men. That is just a fact. Not all police. Maybe not even most. But too many for it to be a rare exception.  I’m sure that those police officers that do this will say that racism has nothing to do with it. That they are just doing their jobs and following standard police procedures. But it is obvious to me that in far too many cases there is a difference between how black men and white men are treated.

I believe that is is very likely behind what happened yesterday in Minneapolis. Which resulted in black man being killed by a  police officer. There is little doubt in my mind about that because it was recorded on a smartphone. 

Two police officers were apparently looking for a man accused of forgery. They found a suspect and handcuffed him. But for some inexplicable reason he was next seen on the ground with one of those officers pressing his knee onto the suspect’s neck who was begging him to stop because he couldn’t breath. Meanwhile the other officer seemed to be standing guard to fend off onlookers who were trying to help that poor man. A few minutes later, he was unconscious. 911 was called, they came and shortly thereafter he was pronounced dead.

The mayor of Minneapolis had all the cops involved fired immediately saying that being Black in America should not be a death sentence!

That was a good start. But this was murder. Maybe not premeditated murder. That cop probably did not intend to kill him. But he did kill him. If that recording is an accurate representation of what happened (and there is little reason to doubt that it is) then this cop and his partner ought to be prosecuted accordingly. If found guilty – they ought to pay the maximum penalty allowed by law. 

Sure. They deserve their day in court. They have the right to present their side of the story. But I doubt they will be able to squirm their way out of this. They are probably as guilty as that video shows them to be. 

Would they have done this to a white suspect? I doubt it. They saw a black man and assumed guilt. And then treated him like dirt. I applaud the passersby who saw this happening, tried to help  - and one of them at least had the presence of mind to record the whole event.

I wish I could say this is an isolated incident. But just a few weeks earlier another video appeared where a former cop chased down an innocent black man. And during a scuffle with the ex-cop’s son over a gun - he shot him and killed him.

There have been many cases like this over the past few years. Innocent black men being killed by police who treated them as guilty. Using violent restraint that turned deadly. Or by shooting first and asking questions later. It is rare to find this happening to a white suspect.

By coincidence there was another racist incident yesterday captured on a smartphone.  A woman walking her unleashed dog in New York’s Central Park was asked by a black man to leash her dog as required by law. She started yelling at him and threatened to call the police and tell them that an African American man was threatening to kill her. Which she promptly did. 

This woman said she is not racist. She might actually believe that about herself. (Hence the use of the politically correct term ‘African American’.) But it was not beneath her to use racism as a tactic to get the attention of the police. She probably thought that describing him as black would be taken as a more serious threat than had she left out what his race was. (When her employer found out about that, he fired her immediately.)

So yes. Racism is alive and well in the USA. Not a pretty picture. But a real one. It permeates all segments of our society. And manifests itself in a variety of ways. Which once again turned tragic  yesterday in Minneapolis. I doubt that those two officers were white supremacists. I believe they are a part of  mainstream America. The same America that elected the first black President.

How is this contradiction even possible? Is it possible that a lot of white Americans are racist at some level?  Even if they don’t think they are. Even if they might have voted for a black man for President?

Aside from being guilty of murder, the damage those two cops did to our society is immense. They have reinforced the public perception of racism in police departments all over America. They have generated violent protest by people fed up with black people being treated as criminals. Black people  justifiably feel that if they are stopped for a simple traffic violation, their very lives are at stake no matter how innocent they might be. 

It’s not that I condone the violent protest against the police resulting from what those two cops did. I do not! Two wrongs do not make a right. But I can certainly understand the frustration that generated it.

Police are now suffering the consequences of racism that permeate so much of America. I do not believe that most police are racist. Many of them are in fact black. Including police chiefs in major cities. Like Chicago for instance.

But when a cop kills a black man under the pretext of subduing a suspected criminal, he has hampered the primary mission of serving and protecting the public. Good cops will now fear using violence even when it is necessary. Criminals will now have a bit more freedom to commit crimes knowing the reticence the police will now have to apprehend them. Which actually increases the danger to the police themselves. Instead of the public honoring their service, they will now be more alienated than ever and despise the very people whose mission it is to protect them. Especially in the high crime areas where they are needed the most

That is what those two cops have wrought. I wish I could say that things will change. But I doubt they will. Past incidents like this did nothing to save that innocent black man yesterday - kneed to death by a cop with a reckless disregard for human life.

I would hate to think that what happened in Minneapolis yesterday will keep happening.. But I guess it will. And the protests will surely become more intense and violent each time. 

Unless something is done and a solution is found.

What that might be seems to be as elusive as ever. I fear the consequences if we don't find one, though. I think it needs to start with us. We need to reject every last vestige of residual racism that some of us might have. And start treating all human beings  all of whom were created in the image of God with the dignity they deserve. That would be a good start.



Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Media and Hydroxychloroquine

Dr. Zev Zelenko - proponent of the controversial drug Hydroxychloroquine
My eyes have been opened. I used to give the benefit of the doubt to most journalists. I thought that even though every news story reported is skewed somewhat by the bias of the individual reporting it, I still believed that reputable and responsible journalists would try as much as humanly possible to leave their personal biases out of it.

Over the course of the 3 years of the Trump Presidency that belief has been decimated. This has nothing to do with whether I believe Trump is a good or bad President. Or whether I like his polices or not. Or whether his character is good or bad.  (Although I’m sure that some will read this post that way. It is not about Trump.)

This is about how the mainstream media reports on the President. Which is with unmitigated bias in every story. For the most part I don’t think most journalists even realize it. His every act - his every statement - is expressed negatively or accompanied by evidence showing he’s wrong. In TV reporting it is sometimes accompanied by a reporter’s smirk. I have never seen anything like it.

The exact opposite is true about journalists that support him (such as most of those on Fox).  To them he can do no wrong. They blame the mainstream media for their extreme bias and yet don’t see that in themselves.

I am so done with my belief in journalistic integrity. It does not seem to exist. At least not anymore. Or at least when it comes to this President and anything he touches.

I now look at every single news story with a jaundiced eye. No matter the subject. It is hard to know what the truth is about any subject. Especially those that have any connection with the President. One such subject is a medication called hydroxychloroquine. Which is a commonly used to treat malaria and lupus.

Now a disclaimer. Let me be absolutely clear. I do not under any circumstances think that anyone should be taking this drug for any reason without being advised to do so by a responsible physician. I have no clue how dangerous or effective hydroxychloroquine is for treating COVID-19. I do not believe people should be taking chances with unproven controlled substances

That being said, this drug is now associated with the President. Which is no secret. He was an early advocate of taking it as a possible effective treatment for those affected with COVID-19.  He based it on the anecdotal findings of an Orthodox Jewish physician who had good results with patients taking a cocktail whose main ingredient was hydroxychloroquine. Versus patients that did not take it.

Once Trump endorsed it, almost immediately a small study found it to be ineffective and possibly even dangerous.  At the same time that study clearly stated that their sample was too small to be conclusive. Adding that a much larger sample was needed to prove what their smaller clinical trials indicated.

Nevertheless, in almost every report about hydroxychloroquine since then, it is mentioned in this negative light.

When the President started taking that drug himself (after being exposed to a valet that tested positive) he was both ridiculed and harshly criticized. Mostly saying that - as President he was setting a bad example.

Meanwhile, it has been at least 2 months since that first report came out. One might conclude from the way the media has been talking about it - that any medical research on hydroxychloroquine would have long ago been discarded like the plague! (No pun intended).

Except that it hadn’t been until yesterday. According to CBS, Hydroxychloroquine was one of 5 possible treatments undergoing large clinical trials by the World Health Organization (WHO). A lot of people were being injected with this ‘dangerous’ medication to see what the truth really is.

CBS also reported that based on the warnings from a respected medical journal (Lancet) about its dangers WHO stopped their clinical trials. Even though their own research had thus far not shown any adverse effects on their test subjects.

Why has WHO decided to stop their trials now without a single adverse affect on any of their test subjects? Could it be politics? Why did they not trust their own researchers?

I have no clue about whether or not a respected medical journal like Lancet reports their findings without political bias. I know that the science behind it isn't biased. But maybe the dangers Lancet  reported on are not exactly as bad as they are presenting it? 

Journalists are human. Like everyone else, they have all kinds of biases. Political, religious and otherwise. Even scientists writing in medical journals. Scientists are human too.

That is all I see now. A fully biased media with pretenses of unbiased reporting.  I don’t even think I can trust respected medical journals anymore. Maybe they’re right.  Maybe hydroxychloroquine is as dangerous as they say it is. Or maybe not. Who knows?!

Monday, May 25, 2020

Rabbi Twersky versus Insanity

The, Rosh Yeshiva of Tiferes Avigdor (screenshot)
I remember Wickliffe.  Wickliffe is a quiet suburb of Cleveland where Telshe yeshiva is located. It is where I spent the  1st 2 years of high school (1960-62). That is where I first saw Rav  Chaim Dov Keller, who then was about to move to Chicago to open up the Chicago Branch of Telshe with his brother-in-law, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levine, ZTL. (I mention this town because of an incredibly foolish video by a Rosh Yeshiva who is located there. More about him later.)

I am sad to report that Rav Keller is currently very sick - suffering from the effects of COVID-19. Rabbi Keller is in his nineties and his health is compromised. He is in need of our prayers. (Chaim Dov ben Kreindel) He was among a few others that apparently caught the virus at the Telshe Megilah reading last Purim. He has been suffering ever since.

A friend of mine in his 50s with no underlying health conditions (an avid cyclist having competed in many grueling bike marathons) is an alumnus of Telshe-Chicago. He attended that same Megilah reading in Telshe (as he does every year) and caught the virus too. He was so sick that he had to be hospitalized, placed in an ICU on a ventilator. Thankfully he is off the ventilator and back home. But still weak and not fully recovered. He was quoted recently saying that when he was on the vent he believed one foot was already in the Olam Ha-Emes (the world to come)! He didn’t think he was going to make it. I’m told that quite a few others that attended that Megilah reading caught the virus too.

It is a story like this that makes me wary of attending any Minyan now. It’s true that Megilah reading was done before anyone understood the dangers of COVID-19 and none of the precautions now mandated were in place. No one is to therefore to blame for what happened to Rabbi Keller and my friend. I mention it to only to demonstrate how serious this insidious illness is and how contagious it is even before any symptoms appear.

This is why I am still opposed to Shuls opening up right now. Although many of them have, setting up the complex precautions recommended by health officials, the idea that they will all be as strictly adhered to as Shul officials intend them to be is at best questionable.

A factor complicating matters is that yesterday, huge numbers of people completely ignored the guidelines. Beaches, boardwalks, and parks all over the country were filled with people not wearing masks crowded together oblivious to the possibility of being affected by an asymptomatic individual right next to them. Health officials have expressed concern that this may very well cause a spike in the numbers infected – spreading out in all directions (while yet undetectable) making contact tracing a nightmare.

Someone getting infected and ending up on a ventilator a distinct possibility. Perhaps even greater than what it was just a few days ago. Hopefully nothing will happen to those attending those Shuls now. And if it God forbid does – they will end up the way most people who got it did - with relatively mild cases and fully recovered 2 weeks after onset. 

But as I am sure my friend will tell you, it is definitely not worth taking the chance. That and the near 100,000 people in this country that have died as a result of contracting the virus should tell you all you need to know.

This is why a Teshuva (responsa) written by Rav Mayer Twersky (who asked Rav Hershel Schachter to vet it and was advised to spread it far and wide) is so important. He understands what is at stake.

He says that because of the threat to our lives (Sakana) our people must stay home. It is forbidden to Daven with a Minyan (inside or outside) or any other type of gathering in this country! No Yeshivos day schools or summer camps. Even if it is now technically permitted by the government.  Further details can be read (in Hebrew) at this website.

Pretty strong words. But necessary ones in my view. Which are being listened to by the OU/RCA/CRC. And which contrasts with the view of the right as expressed late last week in an Agudah public announcement in Chicago. While they understand the dangers and are installing a massive amount of precautionary rules, they felt that since the government allows it, they will tempt fate with the hope that the relaxation of public restrictions based on solid medical advice, their precautions, and the merit of Tefilah b’Tzibur will protect them.

I hope they are right. But I agree with Rav Twersky. One should not take chances with a disease like this and congregate for any reason.

Which brings me to that Rosh Yeshiva in Wickliffe. He begins by attacking those who photographed illegal Minyanim and reported them to police. He said they are guilty of Mesirah (iInforming on fellow Jews to a hostile government).  And then incredulously he says Halacha permits killing such a person without a Beis Din! (quickly adding that one must first ask a Posek. That’s nice.)

He goes on to ridicule health officials and praises all the Minyanim in Lakewood for having Minyanim all over the place  - long before the relaxation of restrictions of public prayer. And ridiculing any doctor or Posek that says Shuls should be closed. 

This is not an elderly Rav in Bnei Brak. This is an American that is well aware of what is going on in the world. But he chooses to ignore what health officials say – accusing them of not having sufficient understanding of our religious needs. ‘Ki Heim Chayenu Ve-Orach Yameinu’ he says. What do these health officials know about that?! Practically accusing them of being anti religious he says: They allow grocery stores to be open so that families can have fresh vegetables – why should houses of prayers be shut?!

Talk about being clueless. And more importantly dangerous. I wish I could say I am surprised at his attitude. But there are some people on the right who just can’t get passed the idea that the world is out to get us. For this Rosh Yeshiva, this isn’t about Pikuach Nefesh. It’s about Esav Snoei L’Yaakov. The evil Goy, the gullible Jew, the ignorant doctors, and the incompetent Posek. In his view, Shuls should have never been shut. I guess he doesn’t know about Rabbi Keller. Maybe someone in Wickliffe should tell him?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

An Appeal to Skeptics

Blaise Pascal (Wikipedia)
Life goes on.  Albeit nothing like it was just a couple of months ago. There is lots to talk about in this regard, but I need a break. So I will save it for another time.

The issues that existed before, still exist now. One of which is when Jews that have been raised as observant - experience a crisis of faith. Causing many of them to no longer believe in God or the basic tenets of their faith.

People that experience a crisis of faith do so in a variety of ways. A lot depends on the circumstances of one’s life; how they were raised; whether they come from a mentally healthy family or a dysfunctional one; whether they are raised in an insular society Chasidic society, the bit more open Yeshivishe society, or a modern Orthodox society.

Those who stop being observant for rational reasons are different in many respects from those who stop for emotional reasons. In either case the reaction  of going OTD is understandable. 

If one is raised in the tortured environment of dysfunction in an observant family, it’s very understandable that they will associate the mental (and sometimes physical) pain of an abusive situation - with their religion. This especially true when someone with the trauma associated when sexual abuse is part of the dysfunction. It is also understandable as a result of simply falling through the cracks of an intensive yeshiva type education where one is not cut out for it, or suffers from some form of learning disability went unaddressed. And is therefore ignored or pushed aside by his Rebbeim (teachers of religious subjects).

Although there are exceptions, I believe that some of these situations can be reversed with the proper guidance and therapy. As long as it is caught early enough by loving parents who accept and love their children without being judgmental.

Then there are those that lose their faith as a matter of searching for truth via the rational mind and finding it elsewhere. That is a much more difficult thing to change. The questions raised are legitimate and sometimes difficult if not impossible to answer in rational ways. What often happens is that the rational side takes over and one’s spiritual side is set aside.  Scientific inquiry drives the rational mind. The ‘Null Hypothesis’ drives scientific truth.

If I remember my basic science education accurately enough – The Null Hypothesis is presumption that something is not true until it can be proven in a laboratory. And repeated several times with the same results . Only then is it accepted as fact – replacing the presumption that is wasn’t.

It is obviously impossible to prove the existence of God in a laboratory. The fallback to that is the Null Hypothesis - He does not exist. The argument then goes the other way: There is so much evidence that He does not exist! What they apparently fail to recognize is thate there is so much evidence that God does exist. Conclusive proof either way? That is another matter.

I am not here to debate the issue. Only trying to understand where the skeptics get their doubts about God and Judaism. In the face of lack of any proof of God’s existence, an intellectually honest individual that places value only on science can easily have a crisis of faith, stop believing in God (and certainly Judaism) and stop being observant.

In my view people like this are almost impossible to ‘bring back’. Their rational minds won’t allow it. They are certain that the lack of any proof of His existence - plus the ‘evidence’ to the contrary shows that God does not exist. 

This is a bit of an oversimplification. But I think it more or less describes how they arrived at their current  state of skepticism.

What I do not understand is the certainly so many of these skeptics have. To be certain of a negative is to deny the possibility of a positive. Just because one cannot prove something exists, doesn’t always mean it doesn’t. This is not to say, that I expect a skeptic to re-think his skepticism. It is only to  ask why an intellectually honest person is so sure that God does not exist.

Seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist, Blaise Pasclal’s intellectual honesty led him in exactly the opposite direction. In not knowing - and in not being able to prove God’s existence he decided he had nothing to lose by acting and living as though He does.  This is known as Pascal’s Wager.

When I pose this question to a skeptic, the answer usually falls along the lines of… OK. But even if I were to concede that God exists, maybe another religion is the right path of belief. Why Judaism? Or maybe God exists but doesn’t care what goes on in the world or what people do.

I hear that argument. But I must still ask why an intellectually honest individual should not accept Pascal’s Wager at least with respect to God’s existence? 

Arguments about which belief system is valid, may be a legitimate topic of discussion with each religion arguing that theirs is legitimate to the exclusion of all others. And no one will concede that their version of truth is not the truth. 

Fine. But if raised in the Jewish tradition and one is unable to conclude which argument is more true, why not act in accordance with the one in which one is raised? Absent proof to the contrary, it is at least as legitimate as the others claim theirs is.  What have you got to lose? Doesn’t intellectual honesty force you to admit that God may in fact exist and that there is meaning to life which might be beyond what the mind can grasp in rational ways? After all even science has such  conundrums. As in (for example) the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics. 

There is another reason for a Jewish skeptic to remain observant even while having those major doubts. One which is much more practical.  In a Facebook group that hosts dialogue between OTDs and observant Jews, one very bright skeptic who was raised as an observant Jew recently made the following comment:
Every once in a while I look at myself or my family and get a bit of a shock, "what the heck is a nice yeshiva bochur / kollel guy doing in a secular neighborhood and not wearing a yarmulka and not going to shul for minyan?!" 
He then asked if anyone else like him felt that way. There were a lot of responses in a variety of ways. It got me to thinking of another reason why a skeptic should remain observant. Here in major part is what I said:  
It's interesting to see how one's past affects a radical change in lifestyle. Yet another thing to think about when considering leaving. I suppose that - as some are saying here - after time this feeling might fade.
But I still have to believe that staying in the community that one is used to and being Orthoprax is a far better solution to crises of faith than would be a complete break with one's past.
I realize this is much harder if the individual going through that crisis is from Chasidic world or (to a lesser extent) a Right Wing Yeshivish world.. than would be by someone from the MO world.
But I still believe one can avoid the kind of feeling you experienced and perhaps more importantly retain the bond with family and friends by staying and being Orthoprax. The freedom to drop all pretenses of observance comes at a price. one need to ask if losing all that is worth the price. 
Warning
As always when this topic comes up, it should not be taken as a means to argue against belief in God or Judaism. This blog is premised on the belief that God exists and the Judaism by which we Jews live is His truth as expressed in the Torah as interpreted by the sages throughout Jewish history.  The purpose of this post is to bring skeptics closer to ways of their forefathers. Not to chase them away.