Friday, March 27, 2015

Why Did They Die?

Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein has an answer
He doesn’t look like s a Kabbalist.  I don’t think he is a Sephardi either. Sephardim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) tend to be more Kabbalistic than Ashkenazim (Jews of European origin). He seems like a modern man. Clean shaven. No payos. He even has a fashionable Chup (Yiddish for hair that is a bit too long in the front). But… apparently Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein does dabble in Kabalah. And for that we should all be grateful. Not only to him for edifying us. But to Gabriel Sasson for providing the Kaparos for our sins.

Yes, my friends we sinners were all spared punishments so that we could do Teshuva and mend our ways. That’s because Rabbi Wallerstein in an attempt to try and understand what happened last Shabbos to the Sasson family, took a Zohar (the classic work of Kabalah) and opened it up randomly to see what it says.  He hoped that random opening would fall on a page that would give him some answers. 

Indeed it did. He found answers. It could not have been clearer. Who knew that all we need to do is look in a  book about Kabalah and presto… we now know how to  answer the unanswerable theodicy of Tzadik V’Ra Lo. (Why didn’t  Moshe Rabbenu think of that?! Chazal tell us that this was the only thing he did not know the answer to. Maybe he didn’t have a copy of the Zohar handy… I don’t know.)

So why did they die such a horrible death?

You see my friends, it’s our fault. Yes - we are all to blame. We are simply not religious enough. God had to get us to change our ways. So He sent us a message. And what better way to do that than by killing 7 innocent children?

Gabriel Sasson’s children were Kaparos, you see. Sacrificed because of our sins. They are like the chicken many Jews have slaughtered on Erev Yom Kippur saying ‘let this chicken die in our stead’. We then go into the next day, repent – and ask for forgiveness.

So yes, today too we should repent. But Hakaras HaTov is a very important concept in Judaism. So we ought to send Mr. Sasson thank you notes for providing his children for this purpose. That should comfort him the rest of his days.

Thank you Mr. Sasson. And thank you Rabbi Wallerstein for your wisdom on this subject and I urge you to contact Mr. Sasson and share your wisdom with him.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Corruption of Daas Torah

Centrist rabbinic leader, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein 
Once again, I have to give kudos to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. He is an Ish Emes… a man of truth that refuses to be cowed by excesses of the right. He has published an essay written by someone he describes as  ‘a card-carrying yeshiva-trained Charedi writer, living in Israel’.

Nothing that writer says is news to me. But it seems to be increasingly evident to the very people it is happening to. And it pokes a huge hole in the ‘Daas Torah’ of the right. In essence this Charedi writer has joined the chorus of those of us who realize that today’s rabbinic leaders, especially in Israel are being led down a path  - not of their own choosing.  A path that benefits Askanim - advisers upon which they rely for information upon which they make public policy proclamations.

What is most encouraging about this particular essay is that the writer lives in Israel. He has certainly absorbed the Hashkafos of Charedi Israel. He respects the concept of Daas Torah – whereby major decisions about public policy are decided by the great rabbis of the generation. And yet he laments that their decisions can easily be wrong based on their reliance on others – rather on direct examination of the facts.

Those ‘others’ each have agendas of their own and it is no secret that even great rabbinic leaders like Rav Elyashiv can be misled into making a decision based on fiction related to him by trusted Askainim. Askanim that lied to him in order to get the outcome they perceived to be the right one. Ask Rabbi Nosson Kamenetsky about that.

The reasons for his critical analysis of Daas Torah are immaterial. The point is that he no longer believes that their decisions can be trusted. 

Although his reasons are immaterial to his conclusions, they too are the result of a flaw in the Charedi world that has developed over time. A flaw that has resulted in the inability of many Charedim  to make decisions even in the smallest matter. The  concept of Daas Torah has been extrapolated to  include ‘asking a Gadol’ about every decision one makes in life. And today’s rabbinic leaders have done precious little to disabuse them of this notion. 

It is rare to go to a Charedi event these days without hearing the phrase ‘Daas Torah’ in every speech and lecture. Multiple times.  It should therefore not be surprising that there are many Charedim that believe that before making a decision about even the most mundane of matters, they must first ask a Gadol. To some the very suggestion that one need not consult Daas Torah on every matter is anathema. Of course most Charedim know that not every decision in life  requires a Gadol’s input. But there are many who do. From the essay: 
“today there is a growing phenomenon of the chareidi public insisting that every small matter be brought to the gedolim to decide on. While in the past, it was only major matters concerning all of klal yisroel that were brought to Rav Shach and his contemporaries to weigh in on, today every minor decision is brought to the gedolim in Bnei Brak…
The sheer volume of issues that the gedolim are being asked to get involved in have made it impossible for them to be able to research the issues themselves. They are forced to rely on those closest to them for information. And things will only get worse as the chareidi world continues to grow. This newfangled absurd idea that people cannot make even the most minor of decisions without consulting the gedolim in Bnei Brak has created a situation in which every aspect of chareidi life is now being controlled by a handful of gedolim… The gedolim will increasingly need to rely on those around them to help determine what is worthy of their support and what they should oppose. 
This is huge. Rabbinic authority as it has evolved in the Charedi world is being challenged. We now have a  closet  Charedi ‘skeptic’ about Daas Torah. Here is how Rabbi Adlerstein puts it: 
Many of us realize that the concept of Daas Torah underwent a transformation in the last decades. Some of it was for the better; much not. It has worked for some people, and put others on spiritual skids. The new Daas Torah has stifled individuality and creativity, and muted the voices of local rabbonim. It has narrowed the boundaries of our world, and erased diversity. 
I want to make clear that in no way do I advocate abandoning asking Shailos. Even in matters of public policy. It is vital to know what our rabbinic leaders (…and I do not of course limit it to Charedi rabbinic leaders) have to say on these issues. For an observant Jew public policies should be based on what the Torah has to say about it. And that can only be determined if one has all the facts. It appears that even the Charedi world increasingly realizes that they can no longer rely on their rabbinic leaders. There is no way of knowing whether they have been fed facts… or lies and distortions by their Askanim.  

This is what that Charedi writer said. I believe it is a major step forward. My only regret is that he fears retaliation were his identity to be exposed. I completely understand. The battle for Emes has a long way to go. But perhaps we are turning a corner.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Child Sex Abuse Prevention

I just received the following note from this champion of Jewish children, Rabbi Yakov Horowitz. I believe this is an important issue and feedback will help advance the cause of child safety. Please follow the link answer the survey questions that are applicable to you.

Reb Harry

Hi and I hope all is well.

I'm trying to collect important feedback/info regarding our child safety book and I'd very much appreciate it if you could post this link along with a short post explaining it so your readers can help me design the best possible child safety materials moving forward

We sold over 25,000 copies of our English safety book and over 5,000 of our Yiddish version. 

We are halfway through production on our Ivrit book and I need to get a better handle from users of the book as to its effectiveness -- along with lots of other questions.

Thanks so very much and best regards. 

To be Gay and Frum

Gay activist, Dasha Sominski (Tablet)
To say I am reluctant to discuss this subject is an understatement. It always presents challenges. Especially from people who are gay. Some of them get upset with me. And I can’t really blame them.

Being gay in the Orthodox world is not easy. This is a subject that I have discussed many times. My attitude about it is can be summed up in a phrase I have often heard used by Fundamentalist Christians, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’.  To briefly re-state my views here - I understand that nature of sexual attraction is at best difficult to control.  Most people are attracted to members of the opposite sex. But some people are attracted to members of the same sex. 

That in and of itself is not sinful.  As a prominent celebrity once said about his own personal desires, ‘The heart wants what it wants’. We can’t really help who we are attracted to. God does not punish people for having inclinations. Although Chazal do tell us to stay away from those things that may precipitate sin. But if being gay is defined as having a same sex attraction, there is no shame in that. People have to be respected for who they are.  Nor are we permitted to judge what we presume goes on behind closed doors. First of all we don’t know. And second of all, that is God’s domain. Not ours.

Nonetheless, we are required to respect the Torah point of view with respect to forbidden sexual relationships. So that the male homosexual act (male to male anal sex) is to be considered as sinful as the Torah says it is. ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’.

I bring all this up in light of a troubling new article in Tablet Magazine. It describes the efforts of a young woman who is trying to gain acceptance for the gay community in Yeshiva University circles. ‘Out, Proud, and Kinda Loud at Yeshiva University’, says the title of the article. And the subtitle: Students are challenging the Modern Orthodox school’s traditional stance on LGBT issues.

There are apparently a few students at YU that are gay and are apparently hurt by the lack of acceptance. However, when we start hearing the word ‘proud’ as part of the lexicon, it raises a red flag with me. Tolerance, acceptance, and love is one thing. Treating people with dignity despite their sexual orientation is indeed a basic Jewish tenet. It is called Kavod HaBriyos – honoring all of God’s creations. But being proud of having sinful desires crosses the line from tolerance to honor. We do not honor sinful desires regarding sex anymore than we should honor sinful desires to do any sinful act. Whether it be murder or cheating on your taxes.

It is difficult to know where to draw the line between honoring the sinner and not the sin. What if someone openly flouts his sinful acts? Should we honor that individual? My answer is an unequivocal no. We should not. Flagrant and open violations of Halacha are never to be honored. Even if those doing them are not aware of how sinful those acts are. Tolerance does not mean honoring sin.

What’s troubling to me about all this is that idea of normalizing a gay lifestyle – treating it as a lifestyle choice same as a heterosexual lifestyle. Besides, not all heterosexual lifestyles are acceptable. The only heterosexual lifestyle Halachicly sanctioned is one where a man and woman are married and they observe the laws of Taharas HaMishpacha (family purity).  

That said, we do not see what goes on behind closed doors. We have no clue whether a husband and wife completely observe those laws. But at least it is very possible and even likely that observant married couples do observe those laws and have a Halachicly permitted sexual relationship. But when 2 men live together, any kind of sexual relationship between them that involves spilling seed is not Halachicly permitted. So the two scenarios cannot be compared. They are not the same. One should not be proud of living that lifestyle. Nor should we honor it.

I should add that we still have no right to judge what people do behind closed doors. Unless we see a flagrant public violation we have no right to assume anything. Or to say or do anything. But at the same time we must never say that gay equals straight. It does not.

I say this not to be hard on those in Orthodoxy that are gay. I say it only to honor the Torah’s admonition against any non Halachic sexual act. We must never honor the sin. Completely normalizing the gay lifestyle implies acceptance of a sinful act same as it does a non sinful act. Which is why I am opposed to gay marriage. Gay marriage explicitly legitimizes it and implicitly normalizes it. Legal issues with respect equalizing the rights of a gay couple with the rights of a married heterosexual couple can be worked out in a civil society without the imprimatur of marriage.

I know that gay people want to be treated like normal human beings – equal with everyone else. And they should be. But if we are going to honor the Torah we have to draw a line. If one is gay he has to understand that gay sex is still sinful. No amount of societal acceptance is going to change that. Tolerance should not suggest pride. Tolerance means acceptance of the individual and honoring him for the content of his character. 

I can only imagine how difficult it is to be gay in a straight world. There is still a lot of prejudice out there that manifests itself in intolerance and even hatred. That can be very discouraging. It can and in many cases probably has caused a religious gay Jew to reject Halachic observance or worse send them into severe depression and even attempts at suicide in some cases. 

But gay Jews need not give up on being devoutly religious. On the contrary. Gay Jews can be as devoutly religious as anyone else. True they have a great challenge to overcome. And they may sometimes fail – as we all do. But that should not mean abandoning observance. 

An observant gay Jew that sometimes fails in their observance should never mean rejection by the heterosexual mainstream. Any of us – gay or straight - if we transgress, we do Teshuva and start again. God understands human nature and we all sin. We all have our own individual challenges. Which is why He gave us the means to repent and grant us forgiveness. We need not be ashamed of who we are no matter what our sexual orientation is. Only about what we do – if it is sinful.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

An Unimaginable Tragedy

Gabriel Sasson at speaking at the funeral of his 7 children in Jerusalem (JP)
I have hesitated commenting on the tragedy that befell the Sasson family last Shabbos.  That’s because it is so painful for me to think about. Losing a child to a fire is horrible enough.  I can’t even imagine it. My brain shuts off. It will not allow me to go there. I have 4 children. The horror of losing 7 children that way is impossible to contemplate. It almost becomes a statistic to an outsider not directly experiencing it. Much like the 6 million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. 

But it should never be thought of that way. Losing seven children aged 5 to 16 is not just a statistic. They were seven beautiful human beings that died a horrible death through no fault of their own… or anyone else’s. The classic theodicy.

Although reluctant to talk about it, watching the Jerusalem Post video of the funeral at Har Menuchos in Jerusalem moved me to say something. I defy anyone to watch the video and not shed a tear. The father of those children, Gabriel Sasson, asks the question of God:
“Why seven? Seven beautiful roses,” asked Sasson, as his voice trembled amid hundreds of unrestrained sobs at Har Hamenuhot Cemetery. “They were so pure. So pure.” “God Almighty took seven roses,” he continued. “He took my children and my future grandchildren – maybe 70 or 80 of them. He took their smiles. To you, my God, I gave my all. My soul. My everything.”
I have no words.  I don’t know how to console a father that has gone – is going – through this. I have never lost a child. I can only relate what it’s like to lose a grandchild, my beloved Reuven. That was to cancer. It was an excruciating loss. One which will be with me the rest of my life. But I know that it is nothing compared to the pain of losing a healthy child suddenly to a fire. Multiply that pain by 7 children. From the Jerusalem Post article they were: Eliane, 16; Rivka, 13; Sara, 5; David, 12; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; and Yaakov, 5. Just reading all of those names and ages in this context makes my eyes water.

And then there are the 2 survivors.  Mr. Sasson’s wife Gayle, 45, and daughter Siporah, 15. They are in critical condition having jumped out of a 2nd story window. And all this happened on Shabbos to a Shabbos observant family, no less. A day that is elevated by God above all the other days of the week.

It is enough to make an Apikores out of anyone. And yet Mr. Sasson’s Emunah, his faith in God and Judaism remains strong.  I suppose that those who suffered the tragedies of the Holocaust and remained with their faith had the same kind of challenges. Tzadik V’Ra Lo. Why indeed do bad things happen to good people?! It seems so unjust… so unfair… to seemingly punish innocent people in this horrible way… and in the case of an observant Jew - on a Shabbos no less. I have no answers. Just questions.

In the face of such a tragedy, there are some who want to use it to talk about how this could have been prevented. Now is not the time for such discussions. They just add to the pain (…if that’s even possible when the pain is so great!)

There are some who have implied that Shabbos observance itself  is the cause of this tragedy.  Have these vultures no feeling? Have they no empathy for the suffering of a man who one day had everything - and in a moment lost everything?! What is the matter with these people?!

Now is not the time for speculating about what could have been done. And it is certainly not the time to blame religion for the tragedy. Instead of blaming religion - let them look at the incredible faith this man has in the face of such a horrible tragedy. That tells you what he is made of.

Now is the time to let Mr. Sasson mourn his loss and to try and comfort him as best we can. (Which to me seems like a mindbogglingly impossible task. But that does not free us from trying.) I will end with the traditional consolation prayer made to the bereaved. HaMakom Menachem Eschem B’Soch Shaar Avelei Tzion V’Yerushalayim. May God comfort Mr. Sasson among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Way We Were

R' Shenur Kotler as a senior Yeshiva student in Chevron
When I was a Beis HaMedrash student at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, one of the senior students there asked Rav Mordechai Rogov, ZTL whether it was permitted to have mixed seating (men and women at the same table) at his wedding . This was the late sixties. The move to the right had begun. 

In the Yeshiva world mixed seating had always been the norm. Whereas in the Chasidic world separate seating had always been the norm. In an attempt not to be out-frummed the Yeshiva world started mimicking Chasidim. So some people started having separate seating at the weddings of their children. Banquets started going in this direction too. Probably for the same reason. They had to keep up with the Halberstams and the Teitlebaums.

The senior student’s entire family including extended family and their friends were not observant. So he had this dilemma and asked his Rebbe, Rav Rogov if he could accommodate them and have mixed seating. Rav Rogov’s response in Yiddish was the following; ‘In Der Lita, Zenin Mir Nit Geven Makpid’ In Lithuania, we were not particular (about such things as separate seating).

Rav Rogov was a Gadol who studied under Rav Baruch Ber Liebowitz. And had come over to these shores via Shanghai with the students of Mir during the Holocaust. It was this community that didn’t care about mixed seating at weddings. This was evident when other Gedolim like Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Moshe Feinstein sat with their wives at weddings in their early years in America.

This is just one example of what religious life was like in the Yeshiva world of Europe.  There numerous other examples of life at that time that makes our time look like the Taliban has taken over. The manner of dress among Yeshiva men was modern. They were all clean-shaven. None of them had Peyos or beards. In fact Yeshiva students that at that time tried to grow beards were told by many Roshei Yeshiva shave them off! 

Those who tried - looked at the Chasidic students that had been accepted into the Lithuanian Yeshivos. They came with beards and Payos. Some of the Lithuanian students tried to emulate them. But their Roshei Yeshiva stopped them from doing so because they wanted them all to look normal for public consumption.

The fact that many observant married women had abandoned covering their hair was a fact lamented by Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein in his magnum opus, the Aruch HaShulchan. It was an accepted fact that had no heated opposition. There were no bans. No threats of being ostracized. Just a resignation that this was the way it was. The rabbinic leaders of the day learned to live with it, despite the fact that it was technically considered a violation of Halacha.

I occasionally hear a lament to return to the glory of pre-war Europe, where the great Yeshivos were in flower. Mir, Ponevezh, Slabodka, Radin, Kletzk, Brisk, Volozhin, Telshe… just to name a few were the models upon which the Yeshivos of today base themselves. If only the Hashkafos of that era were as sought after. But alas, we no longer live in that world in any real sense. It is the Hashkafos of those who are the most right wing that are sought after.

We no longer live in a world Chasidim are separated geographically from the Lithuanian Yeshiva world. We all live in neighborhoods that are a stone’s throw from each other. The world has shrunken.  It no longer takes days or weeks to travel from one part of the world to another.  In just a few hours, we can travel from New York to Israel. And communications have advanced to the point where we can have instant communication in a variety of ways with people half way around the world without spending a penny… including face to face communication!

What this has wrought in my view is an unhealthy obsession with Frumkeit. Not observance. But Frumkeit. The kind that has little to do with Halacha but has everything to do with ‘membership’.  If one wants to be considered a member in good standing of the Charedi world, he can no longer be an individual. He must do as he is told or he is out! And as we all know membership has its privileges.  If one is a Charedi and is thrown out of the club - there can be no greater punishment than that. He will be an outcast that will not even get the benefits of charity if he needs it.

Think this is ridiculous? A canard by the Charedi bashers to make them look bad? Think again. From a translation of a Charedi editorial: 
The editor of the the weekly Charedi newspaper בקהילה, Avraham Dov Greenbaum, called on the Charedi charity organisations to not help help families where the parents did not vote for a Charedi party, either because they voted for a different party or didn't vote at all.  
You read that correctly. If you didn’t vote for a Charedi party, you have put yourself  ‘Chutz L’Machaneh’ - outside the camp! You have no food on the table? Too bad. You didn’t listen to the Gedolim and voted wrong – or didn’t vote at all? Goodbye.  Have a nice life!

This is sick! And yet a mainstream Charedi editor is advocating it.

Lest anyone say OK, this is Israel. US Charedim do not behave like that. Perhaps not. But it is not unreasonable to assume that they may act that way in the future as the right keeps turning to its right and looking to Israel as its model. This is already happening in education where some Charedi elementary and high schools in the US have abandoned any secular studies programs. And while others still have them, they are often degraded by their Rebbeim as a necessary evil forced upon them by the government. 

Oh how I long for the days where we were normal.  Not that I advocate going to the left. They have their own problems. But why can’t we strive for the golden mean? That point in the middle where normalcy lies? The point where our illustrious ancestors in Europe really lived? And not how the extremists of the right say they lived.

We need to get back to that. But as long as the right ignores the truth of history and looks Eastward for its paradigm we may as well start buying Burkas for our wives. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Echoing My Sentiments

Guest Post by Anonymous

Latest 'Tznius aid' from a Lakewood modesty org. (FM)
Last Monday I wrote about the disappearing woman. It was a post about the terrible direction the right seems to be going in matters of modesty. It got a lot of reaction. The post generated 249 comments. A lot of people came up to me and personally told me how much they agreed. 

I also received correspondences from a few prominent members of the Charedi world that either read my blog, or have some of my posts sent to them by interested 3rd parties.  Not so surprisingly they were all letters of support. Every single one of them.

I can’t name names because they all request confidentiality. But I asked one of them if I could publish his letter anonymously. He agreed. I think it is important to show that there are prominent members of the Charedi world that see the same things I do and are just as upset by them as I am. In fact it might be fair to say that they are even more upset. Since it is their community that they see going askew. His words follow:

Your post about the advertisement for the Yahrtzeit for Sara Schenirer makes a valid point.  I am penning a few lines to express it in my own words.

In so many ways, our generation has achieved a status of machmirim, far beyond anything known to earlier generations.  We have examined our water for crustaceans, we have created dress codes for talmidei yeshivos, and everything from zmanim to kashrus has moved into areas of shmiras mitzvos unknown to our ancestors.  I am not against this, and my chassidishe background supports the aspects of prishus, the separation from the physical and mundane as part of Avodas Hashem.  That’s all great.  Zehirus is a great midoh, as are many others on which our great Baalei Mussar expound.

The troubling piece for me is something that I believe was never known until recent times.  We have a distorted, even corrupted sense of priorities.  Looking at pictures of women in a compromised state of tznius is a problem on which we won’t argue.  And photos of women in general may also be considered something improper.  But the status given as if this is more important that other mitzvos is not just unfair to the Torah, but possibly even against Torah value.

The confusion of priorities has many areas of impact, and they are not good.  Yeshivos are more stringent with dress code than with basic interpersonal midos.  Why?  I don’t know.  But I do know that this ranking does not work.  Torah learning is valued above all else regarding shidduchim.  

That turns out to be completely misguided, as so many couples enter marriage with little to no preparation for the relationship or the raising of a family.  Kashrus has spread to the most recognized hechsherim being placed on foods and nosh that were never found in our communities.  Must we put a hechsher on every single thing but chazzer?  Is this considered over-indulgence?  Or are we supposed to consider this holy progression?

I never met the great leaders of chassidus, nor the gedolim of yesteryear.  What would they say to all this?  I have a sneaky feeling they would echo my sentiments.

Friday, March 20, 2015

United We Should Stand

Long may it wave!
I hope we don’t stay divided. But if the rhetoric before and after the last election in Israel is any indication, my hopes may have already been dashed. The divisiveness seems to be greater than ever. It is about how we see the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

There are 2 camps. One sees him as a savior. And the other as a saboteur. And they each cite chapter and verse to support their contentions. The divide does not end at Judaism door. The rest of the America seems to be just as divided.

When asked about Netanyahu’s explanation of his remarks about a 2 state solution being only campaign rhetoric and never having repudiated what he said about believing in a 2 state solution… you could see White House Press Secretary,Josh Earnest seething with anger as he rejected it by saying something like, ‘Words mean things.’ ‘He can’t just take back what he said.’  Thus the administration is still reassessing its policy with respect to the peace process. Many interpret that as supporting a resolution in the UN recognizing Palestine. I’m truly sorry to hear that. When the president called Netanyahu to congratulate him, he pretty much said the same thing.

It remains to be seen if they will make good on that threat. If the US does that. It will indeed be a low point in the relationship.  And my disappointment with the President will have reached a new low  – even as I know that he will not hurt Israel in any materially significant way. In the greater scheme of things the UN doesn’t mean much. But Israel doesn’t need to be any more ostracized by the nations of the world than it already is.

When asked about the President’s ‘lukewarm response to Netanyahu’s victory, House Speaker John Boehner  laughed. ‘Lukewarm?’ That is the  ‘understatement of the day.’ Boehner, who invited the Prime Minister to address congress - which he did to many a rousing standing ovation - will be visiting Israel in the near future. (As an aside - I'm happy to see that the majority of congress supports Netanyahu’s speech... and followed it up by affirming that is will have a say in the eventual agreement with Iran... if it comes to that.)

Republicans and Fundamentalist Christians are cheering the victory, while most liberal Democrats in America and left leaning politicians, those who voted for them, and Netanyahu bashers in Israel are condemning it. Calling the Netanyahu victory the biggest blow to US Israel relationship in decades.

The more liberal one’s politics, the more anti Netanyahu one seems to be and the more disappointed in the election results they are. The biased media has reacted the same way. The liberal media screaming gloom and doom, while the more conservative media is screaming joyous victory!

The reaction of the Jewish left was just as predictable.  Jeremy Ben-Ami of  J-Street and Joe Aaron of the Chicago Jewish News… are as disappointed as ever joining the chorus of doomsday predictors

Why is Obama’s reaction to Netanyahu so terrible? I think its personal. He seems to still be angry about their very first meeting where Netanyahu publicly lectured him about the realities of the Middle East. I wish he hadn’t done that. Not that I disagree with him. But by doing so in public he humiliated the President. If he wanted to tell the President his thoughts he should have done so privately. Not in front of the cameras. That event set the tone for the negative relationship to this day. Yes there are serious policy differences between the two. But that should not be the cause of the kind hatred that now exists between them.  Thankfully most members of congress do not see him that way. It is mostly the President and his supporters that do.

The problem with the kind of divisiveness is that it gives succor to the BDS crowd.  They will say ‘I told you so’ and encourage more boycotts sanctions and divestment… pointing to the current state of affairs as evidence of their position.  A divided country on this issue will become even more divided. The more supportive of the President one is, the more likely they will turn their anger on Israel and support things like BDS.

The Academics in universities whose hatred of Israel is palpable will also cite this as justification for their position. Jimmy Carter and friends (e.g. Zbigniew Brzezinski )  will also say ‘See?’ ‘I told you so.’ ‘Israel is an Apartheid State!’  People like James (blank the Jews - they didn’t vote for us anyway) Baker will say the same thing.

I should add that the divide between Jew and Jew does not necessarily fall between secular and religious lines. There are secular Jews that support Netanyahu and religious Jews that hate him.

I hate how this has devolved. There was a time where we could all disagree about politics but we all supported the State of Israel and its leaders. Now it seems that that the angry rhetoric  over the election has replaced the support of the nation.

I therefore think that all those that are so disappointed with the results of the election should put it behind them and unite in strong support of Israel.  Which means they should tone down the anti Netanyahu rhetoric. You can’t keep bashing a country’s leader and not expect others to see that as bashing the country - thus justifying their own bashing of it.

This does not mean we can’t disagree or criticize him from time to time. I have done so myself. Just did so right in this post. But the people of Israel have chosen who they want to lead them… and it was a rightward turn. We ought to respect that, stop the hateful rhetoric and move on.  If the current administration tries to hurt Israel in the UN - we should unite in full opposition to that.  

This is what I'm talking about. The US Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio gets it. He is a true friend of the Jewish people. And he's not even Jewish. He's Catholic. I wish more of my liberal coreligionists felt the same way. This speech was made yesterday on the floor of the United States Senate.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A New Deal for Charedim?

United Torah Judaism MK, Moshe Gafni (Jerusalem Post)
Now that all the bluster about the elections in Israel seems to be subsiding a bit, there is one area dear to me that has been under-discussed. What will be the fate of Charedi world now?

It is no secret that the Charedi world in Israel is in deep crisis with respect to its financial future. The poverty level is at an all time high. As is its exponentially growing population. If the trend continues this crisis may be their breaking point.

They will deny that of course. While admitting the extent of their poverty, they will deny that they will ever be threatened by it since they truly believe that full time Torah study for men – even at the expense of supporting their families - is what God expects of them. But the poverty is real and they know it. That is made obvious by new Kollel financing programs like Adopt-a-Kollel. The literal cries to support it from rabbinic leadership in both Israel and America is proof of that knowledge.

To an extent I suppose it has been helpful.  The American Orthodox Jew - already overtaxed by tuitions is somehow finding the monthly dollars to send overseas to Kollelim in Israel. But that is a drop in the bucket in the face of an ever growing population that is increasingly unable to feed their very large families.

The reason they are in such dire financial straits is because the vast majority of them do not work –and study Torah full time instead. Those that end up working are in most cases unprepared. So they do not generally get the kind of jobs that will not improve their financial lot all that much. Yeshivas and Kollels in Israel admittedly are not in the job preparation business and do not offer any kind of core curriculum that would help prepare them that way.

There are outside programs that are designed to help Charedim catch up with their secular counterparts and get training for good jobs. But I suspect that a lot of Charedim are simply not able to do it. They have big families to feed too – and they are stuck in low paying menial jobs.

The Charedi leadership does not see their poverty that way.They blame the last Israeli government for it. Subsidies to large families were severely reduced. Israel could no longer afford to increase budget deficits by subsidizing an exploding demographic. But the Charedi leadership saw government subsides given to large families as an entitlement. One that their very survival depended on – yanked out from under them. 

They characterized the people behind this as an evil cabal taking food from the mouths of babies! That their exploding demographic caused Israel to reconsider paying them increasing amounts of money that it doesn’t have - didn’t seem to occur to them. Decades of handouts was the unquestioned norm that was suddenly taken away be a government consisting of philosophical Amalekites!

I suppose they justified this to themselves by saying that their singular Limud HaTorah (Torah study) and Avodas Hashem (devotion to God) was deserving of that money. The anti Torah Jews in government who drastically reduced funding to large families purposefully did it to hurt Charedim.  

But the government didn’t just take away their entitlements and walk away. They tried to replace it with a program designed to enable them to help themselves.  It was a 2 pronged approach designed to kill 2 birds with one stone.

The need for security in Israel is beyond obvious. The most important cog in that wheel is the Israeli Defense Forces. Everyone in Israel must serve in some capacity. Many young people have died doing so. Many more have been permanently injured.  But Israelis who decide to study full time have been exempt from any service to country. That means all Charedim. That is what they are indoctrinated to do practically from the day they are born.  

Part of that policy was that one could not go to work unless he served in the army in some capacity. Which contributed to their inability to support their families. The last government did something about that. First they passed a law that all Charedim must serve except for the elitist of students. About 1800 would be fully exempt and supported. The rest must serve in some capacity. Failure to do so would be considered draft evasion. The penalty of which is jail. They also now required a core secular curriculum be established in any Charedi school that wanted financial support from the government.

These new laws were completely unacceptable to Charedi who still felt they had a right to educate their people any way they saw fit. They characterized the new draft law as putting people in jail for studying Torah! A ridiculous spin! But one which they still use. They considered it a ‘Gezeiras Shmad’!  A government law tantamount to forcing their people to convert to another religion! But they had faith that the ‘evil decree’ would be rescinded from heaven. That God would eventually see to it that the government who did this to them is destroyed.

Last Tuesday, that happened. Although the religious parties lost seats, they will gain power. That’s because the new governing coalition will almost certainly contain the religious parties. And they will demand an end to the laws they saw as being against them. They will demand that the draft laws be rescinded. They will demand a restoration of the child support entitlement, They will demand removing the requirement for a core secular curriculum. 

In short they will demand all the hard work and progress made by the last government be eliminated and that the status qou ante be restored. Netanyahu needs them in his coalition. They will basically support his polices that do not involve them directly. So he will give in to at least some or most of their demands. The only question is how many. Will Charedim get everything they demand? Will they refuse to otherwise join? Or will they compromise?

I hate to see all the progress made in this regard destroyed. That Charedim do not approve does not mean it won’t help them.  In my view the only way they can survive is if their financial situation improves. And that requires at least some of what the government did to remain in place. 

For me it is all about education. My hope is that the government sticks to its guns in at least one area:  requiring a core secular curriculum in their elementary and high schools in order to get funding. The same type of curriculum found in most Charedi schools in America. If the Charedi parties can agree to at least that one thing, then the entire enterprise of the last governing coalition will have not been in vain. And the Charedi world will flourish as never before.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Israeli People Have Spoken

Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu celebrating after the close of polls
I am mildly amused at all the Netanyahu bashers attempt to cast him as a maniacal self centered politician that will say or do anything to get re-elected.

Well that may be partially true. He is a politician extraordinaire.  The reason d’être of such people is to get elected. And good politicians will do whatever it takes to get the job done. But that does not make them bad people necessarily. There have some pretty great people that were great politicians. They got elected and did great things after that. Was not Abraham Lincoln a politician? Was not Thomas Jefferson a politician? ...and Reagan? ...and Clinton? Not all politicians are lower than a used car salesman. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being a used car salesman.)

The big thing everyone seems to be talking about in post election Israel is the surprise surge for Netanyahu giving his party, Likud, a whopping 30 seats in the Keneset!  24 seats go to Herzog’s Zionist Union. That’s quite a thrashing. Herzog has conceded. I guess my poll was not that far off. At least as far as Netanyahu being the preference of the voters. And the large voter turnout - that usually goes to the benefit of the challenger - went to the incumbent. That is truly remarkable.

Another thing that has disturbed some people is Netanyahu’s last minute turn to the right, saying that as long as he is the Prime Minister, there will never be a Palestinian State. I admit that this disturbed me a bit when I heard it, too. He has always said that he supports a 2 state solution, but only one that has the security of his people as a primary component. A security that could be enforced. His latest statement seemed to back away from that. But this is what he actually said. From the New York Times:
“I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” he said in a video interview published on NRG, an Israeli news site that leans to the right. “There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders.”
That is exactly the right position to have. As long as radical Islam has any say in the matter, it would be irresponsible for Israel to give up an inch of land, let alone give the Palestinians their own state.  A state on the  West Bank under those conditions would make Gaza look like Disneyland. Gaza terror via rocket fire will be nothing compared to what the West Bank would be like under radical Islamist rule. Hamas would no doubt do to the West Bank what they did to Gaza after we gave the Palestinians that! Until such time Hamas and their fellow travelers are destroyed, A Palestinian State is simply not relevant.

I do not see a policy change at all here. Just a lot of spin by a media (both here and in Israel) that doesn’t like him.

Among the  interviews of voting Israelis I saw prior to the election, many people said they were going to vote their pocket books and vote for a new government. Netanyahu has failed to improve an economy that is making it increasingly difficult to buy a new home. It is an economy where its citizens are highly taxed. I completely understand this. When Bill Clinton ran for his first term political adviser James Carville told him that of all the issues the American people cared about…  the economy is number one. He coined the phrase: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’  and put up that sign at Clinton campaign headquarters. 

While that is perhaps the important issue of the day to many Israelis, it should not be lost on anyone that Israelis are not worried about their security. They actually feel safe living in the land of Israel. Consider what’s going on right next door in Syria. Does anyone think that Syrians are worried about their economy right now?  Israelis that voted their pocket books fail to understand that the security Israel has did not come down like Manna from Heaven. It is the strong security measures taken by the Netanyahu government (and previous governments) that has given them the ability to think more about their money than about their safety. Security of his nation’s people is the first priority of any leader. That’s why Netanyahu talks about it so much… and that’s why he went to congress. For him, it’s not about the money. At least not as the primary concern. It’s about the security of his people. In the end, a great many Israeli voters realized that.

That said, the economy is definitely an issue that Netanyahu ought to tackle. Thankfully the socialist leaning party of Herzog will not be re-distributing the nation’s wealth. Hopefully Netanyahu will do more of what he did as Finance Minster under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He succeeded in passing many reforms that made Israel more of a market driven economy rather than a government controlled one.  This helped restore Israel’s economy from its low point during the 2nd Intifada.

Netanyahu will be forming the new government via a coalition with smaller parties that are politically to the right.  I’ll let others speculate about which parties will join Netanyahu in his governing coalition. But I do want to mention a few things about the possible role of the religious parties.

Shas lost out big time by Yishai’s split with them. Yishai’s party has not passed the threshold of minimum number of seats required for him to serve in the Kenseset.  And the Charedi parties are down a seat going from 7 to 6 seats. I don’t know if the religious parties will be part of the coalition. I suppose it’s possible that UTJ  and/or Shas will join the coalition – demanding that all the ‘evil decrees’ of the last government be rescinded. I am not, however, convinced that this will happen.

My only regret is that Dov Lipman will not be serving in this government. He was a bright shining star whose vision for Charedim was the right one.  He is a religious American Jew ordained as a Rav in a Charedi yeshiva (Ner Israel)… that brought his moderate American Charedi values with him to Israel. Lapid was wise to chose him as a member of his party,Yesh Atid.  He was not so wise in putting so far down on his list that it made his re-election to the Kenesset unlikely. I am not sure what kind of future Yesh Atid will have. I doubt that he will be in the new coalition… but you never know. In the meantime, I wish Rabbi Lipman the best and hope he finds another way to serve his country and his people. He is too valuable a resource to lose.

What all this means to the Charedim of Israel remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see how it all develops.

What about all the predictions that Netanyahu’s re-election would doom the relationship with the United States? Rubbish! That is not happening. We all know what the Republican majority thinks. And we all know what the Democratic minority thinks. But what about the White House?

From USA Today, here is the White House reaction so far: 
The White House indicated Wednesday it will wait until Israel forms a new government before commenting in detail on an apparent re-election win by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "We're going to give space to the formation of that coalition government," said White House political director David Simas, speaking on CNN. "And we're not going to weigh in one way or another except to say that the United States and Israel have a historic and close relationship and that will continue going forward." (emphasis mine). 
The US would be foolish to hurt its most stable and dependable ally in the Middle East. Not to mention the immorality of doing so. America is the Medina Shel Chesed. And for the foreseeable future the relationship remains as strong as ever. As the President constantly says, the relationship between the 2 countries is unshakable. That says it all.

VIN today reported the following (which validates what I said about it):
In the closing days of his campaign, Netanyahu said there could be no Palestinian state while regional violence and chaos persist — conditions that could rule out progress on the issue for many years. The comments, aimed at appealing to his nationalistic voter base, angered the Obama administration, which views a two-state solution as a top foreign policy priority.
Netanyahu said in a TV interview Thursday that he remains committed to Palestinian statehood — if conditions in the region improve. He said he remained committed to the vision first spelled out in landmark 2009 speech at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. “I haven’t changed my policy,” he said. “I never retracted my speech.”