Friday, April 11, 2014

Transformations Happen Before They Occur

Some thoughts on Pesach, and on life. How the real change we see on the outside is preceded by inner changes. The article is linked here.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Something is not quite kosher with the PQ election strategy

My piece in Saturday's Gazette is linked here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Torah AND Army

– sermon delivered March 15th. (please note the style is not written, but much closer to oral remarks)

I generally avoid political hot topics in sermons, because they generate more heat than light; and any attempt to introduce nuance is usually ignored. And in particular, I find it pointless to “preach to the choir” on issues that most of you will agree with me.

But today, I will break both of these rules, and talk about the issue of Yeshiva students in the army. I was inspired to do so after hearing a sermon on the importance of the “asifa”, the gathering against the Israeli government that was held in New York. The Rav who gave the sermon is an exceptional Talmid Chacham, and someone I greatly respect; but his words on this topic were not only unconvincing, they actually convinced me to speak out for the other point of view on this topic.

The analogy used to describe the Israeli government’s attempts to enlist Yeshiva students into the army is that ‘the government will send Yeshiva students to jail for LEARNING TORAH”. The Israeli government has been equated with Communist Russia, Amalek, and even the Nazis for this law. And it was this rhetoric that really bothered me. There is true sinaat chinam, pointless hatred, implicit in making an analogy that equates Jews you disagree with to the worst anti-Semites in history; that certainly concerns me. But what is equally disturbing to me in this entire discussion in the Charedi world is proceeding as if the shitah, the point of view, of the Hesder Yeshivot doesn’t even exist. Does going to the army for 17 months mean a person cannot study Torah? Is it impossible to accept that you can learn and be in the army; that even with army service, Torah can still thrive? The presentation of one view, and one view only, in all of the Charedi  discussion of army service as if it were Halacha l’Moshe miSinai is disturbing.

And therefore, I felt I need to speak to my congregants about this. As the Talmud says:

אין חכמה ואין תבונה ואין עצה לנגד ה' - כל מקום שיש חלול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב
“When there is a desecration of God’s name, one does not worry about honoring Rabbis.”

Yes, we must always speak with civility; the language used by polemicists on both sides is appalling. A true lover of the Jewish wouldn’t want to cut the Jewish people in half, no matter what. And if there is one place to begin this discussion, it is with the caveat that ahavat yisrael must be our guiding principle in all this, and respectful language is a must, particularly because so many divisions have opened up over this issue. But I don’t want our civility to be mistaken for a lack of passion. Our brothers in the Charedi world deserve civility, even if we disagree absolutely on the topic; but our brothers in the army deserve our passion, because they put their lives on the line every day so we can have a country all Jews can call home.

2. Why yeshiva students must serve in the army

I must begin with some direct words to frame this discussion. What is remarkable to me is how detached the exemption of Yeshiva students from army service is from a simple reading of halacha.

The opinion of Hesder is based on a simple quote from the Mishnah which says:

משנה ז
[*] במה דברים אמורים במלחמת הרשות אבל במלחמת מצוה הכל יוצאין אפילו (יואל ב') חתן מחדרו וכלה מחופתה אמר רבי יהודה במה דברים אמורים במלחמת מצוה אבל במלחמת חובה הכל יוצאין אפילו חתן מחדרו וכלה מחופתה:

For a required war, a war of survival, one brings the groom from his marital chamber, and the bride from her chuppah. Even though the Torah explicitly exempts a newlywed man from battle, in a required war, when the Jewish people face an existential threat, no one is exempt. Imagine the picture: a war begins, and the groom in his kittel and the bride in her gown are dragged away immediately. Their honeymoon is cancelled, their mitzvah of joy is overridden. And the point of the Mishnah is: there are no exemptions for a required war.

To evade this conclusion, a multiplicity of explanations as well as several aggadic passages offered to rationalize the exemption of Yeshiva students from army service. I accept other people can arrive at other conclusions; what does surprise me is that a psak based on extremely creative interpretation of sources is treated as if it were Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai. Here, the disconnect between the basic texts of Torah Shebaal peh and the Halachic views of the multitude is astounding; people who would go into shock if a woman read the Megillah for men act as if  Hesder is a bizarre and marginal psak.

The opinion of Hesder is that the work of the army is the work of hatzalat nefashot, saving lives, the highest responsibility in Judaism. Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1888-1978) argued that because of this, army service must be first performed by the most pious, and they should not look for exemptions. He cites the word of Maimonides:

הלכה ג
כשעושים דברים האלו אין עושין אותן לא ע"י גוים ולא ע"י קטנים ולא ע"י עבדים ולא ע"י נשים כדי שלא תהא שבת קלה בעיניהם, אלא על ידי ג גדולי ישראל וחכמיהם, ואסור להתמהמה בחילול שבת לחולה שיש בו סכנה שנאמר +ויקרא י"ח+ אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם ולא שימות בהם, הא למדת שאין משפטי התורה נקמה בעולם אלא רחמים וחסד ושלום בעולם, ואלו המינים שאומרים שזה חילול שבת ואסור עליהן הכתוב אומר +יחזקאל כ'+ וגם אני נתתי להם חוקים לא טובים ומשפטים לא יחיו בהם.

“When such treatment is administered, it should not be delegated to gentiles, or to (lesser members of the Jewish community) so that they will not view the Sabbath flippantly. Instead, the treatment should be administered by the leaders of Israel and the wise.”

Serving in the army is a critical mitzvah. And like all practical endeavors, one must figure out how to integrate it with the study of Torah. We are told to find a way to support ourselves, even though it will take away time from Torah. Indeed, the Talmud notes that marriage will take time away from Torah study; but we don’t allow people to remain livelong bachelors, devoted only to Torah. Instead, they marry, and find a way to integrate Torah with married life.

The view of hesder accepts that Torah is critical; instead of the normal 3 years of army service, Hesder students only serve 17 months. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein put it:

“ Hesder at its finest seeks to attract and develop bnei torah who are profoundly motivated by the desire to become serious talmidei hachamim but who concurrently feel morally and religiously bound to help defend their people and their country; who, given the historical exigencies of their time and place, regard this dual commitment as both a privilege and a duty; who, in comparison with their non-hesder confreres love not (to paraphrase Byron's Childe Harold) Torah less but Israel more.”

Hesder is about accepting and integrating the value of Torah and the value of klal yisrael.

3. Valuing Service

Perhaps of  greater concern is the creeping suspicion that even the mainstream Charedi community has decided it is no longer in any way Zionist. Indeed, the Neturei Karta has used this standoff to make anti-Israel ads, and Lakewood “East” has made a compact with Satmar. But this was not always the case. Agudah’s representatives signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence; in the aftermath of the Holocaust, even those who used to oppose the state now understood it to be a lifeline for the future of klal yisrael. Yet 70 years later, we forget what history has taught us too many times.  And as Israel has gotten more settled, there has been a loss of wonderment about the importance of having a Jewish State.

And with it comes a loss of respect for those who protect and guard Medinat Yisrael. After listening to all of the arguments against this law, one gets the impression that the simple soldier, the 18 year old who risks his life for the klal, is no longer respected.

And that is a tragedy.

I am old enough to remember a time when Israeli soldier was thanked, for all he did, even by the greatest of Rabbis. And indeed, many of the gedolim of the previous generation saw things differently. Rav Ari Kahn writes:

“Among the rabbis who saw things dierently, two come to mind: one was
my revered teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Gustman, who, upon seeing the graves in
the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, declared, “Kulam kedoshim”, “They
are all holy martyrs.” Another is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. When a
student asked the Rabbi’s permission to take a short leave from the yeshiva
in Jerusalem to travel to pray at the “graves of the righteous,” Rabbi
Auerbach told him that he need go no further than Mount Herzl, to the
military cemetery.”

Who are the holy ones to Rav Gustman and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach!!!!

Sadly, in all this talk about Torah study, the mitzvah of saving lives is getting thrown under the bus. In all the talk about Yeshiva students, the heroic soldiers of the Israeli army are getting thrown under the bus. And as one segment of the population asks for an unprecedented exemption from communal responsibility, communal unity is getting thrown under the bus. The Torah tells us that Moshe exhorts the tribes of Reuven and Gad and says:

Numbers 32

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי־גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה:
“Will your brothers go to war and you sit on the other side of the Jordan?”

Fairness is the foundation of any unified community. And it is a chillul Hashem to act as if Torah allows you to turn your back on the community. How can anyone deny the psychological impact that a father whose son has died for the State of Israel feels when he sees young boys who are exempt from service sitting around and laughing and drinking coffee? And do we really believe all of these young men in Yeshiva are truly studying? Can’t at least some of them go and serve?

Yes, perhaps there is no pressing need today for Yeshiva students in the army. But there will be a need in the near future, as the Charedi percentage of the population rises. Will a community that treats the army exemption as sacred be able to change in time for future circumstances?

4. We can do both

The opinion of hesder is that one can study Torah and serve his country. The months spent in the army will not hold one back from progressing in Torah; gedolim every generation have had their learning interrupted by work, secular studies and even persecution. With it all, they persevered; and the gemara in brachot remarks that those Torah scholars who combined learning with mesirut nefesh, self sacrifice, were all the more better for the experience. And we can see this in the soldiers of hesder, who continue to learn even while on the front lines. Rabbi Josh Fass, of Nefesh B'Nefesh wrote about one of these soldiers:

“A few months back, I was meeting an Israeli, in my office in Jerusalem, regarding a small project. Throughout the meeting, the person across my desk, was completely lost and preoccupied in his own thoughts.  I was just about to confront him and draw him back into our discussion, when he looked back at me with tears in his eyes -and stated rather bluntly. My son is an incredible human being.

Before I had the chance to respond, he continued: My son is 20 years old. He is currently serving in a special elite unit in the IDF. He spends days on end, over enemy lines, camouflaged, sometimes as a rock, a bush, a pile of mud – you name it.  And every three weeks or so he comes home for Shabbat exhausted, with those beautiful blue eyes and a pile of laundry.


He continued telling me that that very morning before he left his home to come to our meeting, his wife was doing the laundry and had to actually hose down their son’s uniform, before washing it, to remove all of the caked on mud.  And then she discovered something remarkable in the pants pocket.  There was a Gemara, with the hard cover removed so that it could be easily slipped into the army pants, and a tiny LED light holding the place of the Daf.

Both parents confronted their son to ask about the Gemara. The son explained that indeed during the wee hours of the night – (camouflaged as a rock, a bush, or a pile of mud -   he would make sure that he maintained his steady learning schedule.) He would use the tiniest of lights so that he would not, God forbid, alert the enemy’s attention to his position.

The stunned parents asked how long had he kept up this practice, in response to which the young man retrieved a couple of other volumes, both missing their hardcover’s with the folios stained in mud.

This exceptional soldier, although beyond the boundaries of his beit midrash, and in truth actually beyond the borders of our country, was anchored and ensconced in his Torah study.”

If I was making a rally, it would be to pray that the Jewish people can create a few more soldiers like this young man,; a few more soldiers who reflect a Torat chesed, a Torah combined with the love for klal yisrael, eretz yisrael and medinat yisrael.


Shabbat shalom.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Mandela’s Lesson for the Orthodox Jewish Community

The introduction to my speech sounded more like an apology than an endorsement.

I was invited to address a memorial held for Nelson Mandela in Montreal, along with several prominent anti-apartheid activists and leaders in the Black community. When the Master of Ceremonies called me to the podium, he began by saying “you might think it’s strange to invite a Rabbi to speak tonight…”. After all, what would a Rabbi have to do with the anti-apartheid movement? So the MC explained that Mandela had a longstanding and deep relationship with the South African Jewish community, (including many Rabbis), and that including a Rabbi on the program was both understandable and fitting.

But the sad thing is, there are many in the Orthodox community who would consider it strange for an Orthodox Rabbi to speak at a memorial for Nelson Mandela. Some have been preoccupied by Mandela’s support for the Palestinian cause. (Although many, including Abe Foxman, have noted Mandela’s connection to Israel and multiple Israeli leaders.)  But in other forums another, uglier attitude has bubbled up to the surface. To these views, Mandela was undeserving of any Orthodox Jew’s attention because Mandela was a lowly black.

Racism is a significant issue in the Orthodox community. In the last two weeks, while away on vacation, I got to visit two different synagogues in New York and Florida. In each, I overheard nasty remarks about blacks. (I get to hear more on vacation than in my own synagogue; in my own synagogue, people are much more guarded about what they say when the Rabbi is around.) Sadly, I cannot dismiss these remarks as outliers. While there are no direct studies on anti-black prejudice in the Orthodox community, anecdotally, there are too many examples to be dismissed. Looking around the internet, from comments on blogs, to videos of well known lecturers, to multiple Facebook posts, one can see numerous examples of racism in the Orthodox community. David Klinghoffer, who was then an editor for the National Review, wrote a two page letter in 1994 to the journal Tradition recounting multiple instances he heard bigoted remarks in the Orthodox community on the Upper West Side. As he put it, “Orthodox bigots express themselves without the concern that anyone present will disagree enough to take offense”. Sadly, things haven’t improved very much in the last twenty years.

Of course the vast majority of Orthodox Jews bear no prejudice. But the fact that a noisy minority can harbor such views is shocking and intolerable, in particular because Orthodox Jews are the last people on earth who should be racists.

A serious believer in the Torah cannot accept racism. Each human is created in the image of God, and has infinite worth. The Mishnah tells us that the reason why Adam is created alone is in order to teach the lesson of equality, so that no man can say “my father is greater than yours”(Sanhedrin 37a). And of course the commandment to “love the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt” (Deteronomy 10:19) which would include a responsibility to any group that is marginalized and oppressed.  As Rav Ahron Soloveichik wrote “from the standpoint of the Torah…. any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity.” The religious imperative to treat people of every color and race equally is beyond dispute.

But what worries me even more about Orthodox racism is how it corrupts the values our community treasures. In this community, where the Yeshiva is the central institution, the intellect is prized and moral sensitivity is treasured. And despite this, people will mindlessly accept something as stupid as racism, the belief that somehow the color of your skin has a correlation to the content of your character. (And if the external attributes matter that much, why just skin color? Why not eye color? Or hair color? Or nose size?) And the same people who can appreciate a Torah insight talking about showing moral sensitivity to everything, even inanimate objects, will then go and treat Blacks worse than dirt. Racism undermines our identity as wise and understanding nation.

Racism is very dangerous. It can destroy the lives of those who are the objects of racism; but it can also destroy the souls of those who are racists. And in the Orthodox community, we need to focus on how racism can destroy our souls.

This is a lesson we can learn from Nelson Mandela.  After having sat in prison for 27 years, he refused to respond by hating the white community. He wrote that a “man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness…. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”.


This lesson is one our community needs to move to the forefront, because our souls depend on it. The goal of Judaism is to make a Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God’s name. But you cannot sanctify God’s name when you mock and mistreat other human beings because they have the wrong skin color.