Jewish History Blog

Free Advice

One of the many blessings bestowed upon the fortunate residents  in Jerusalem is free advice from strangers about all sorts of issues, petty and great. I was once again made aware of this compassionate bent of Israelis on my last visit accompanying my wife to our local shmitta approved fruit and vegetable store. As we were at the register checking out our purchases I asked that the box of produce be delivered to our home, a wonderful service of the store. I spoke in what I thought was flawless Hebrew and asked the manager if it could be delivered by noon. I used a noun that I believed could be perfectly understood as being noon.

A woman, a complete stranger, walking by the counter on her way to squeeze some tomatoes, said to me: “The word you used for noon is incorrect. The word is used only for midnight.” Before I could even thank her for that piece of linguistic instruction she was already giving the tomatoes a hard time at the other end of the store. I know that she meant well but it really was none of her business. If I wish to be grammatically incorrect it is my personal privilege to be so. The store manager understood my request perfectly. But I know that she, like all practitioners of the art of free and unsolicited advice, meant only well and for my benefit.

I appear on Israeli television three times a week on a pre-recorded “Ask the Rabbi” format as well as a once a week full hour lecture. I receive many comments, both oral and written, about these programs. I also receive a great deal of free advice about the contents and appearance of the program. A person pursued me for weeks insisting that the ties that I wear on the program are not the “right kind” and suggested a tie store here in Jerusalem that I should use to buy the “right kind” of tie. I suspected that the tie store was in actuality owned by his brother-in-law but then was angry at myself for harboring such negative thoughts about a fellow Jerusalemite who undoubtedly had my best interests at heart.

After so many decades of serving as a congregational rabbi I am quite accustomed to receive much free advice in copious amounts from varying sources. Every person has a number of people, confidants, whose unsolicited advice he is prepared to hear and perhaps even follow. But most unsolicited advice from people who really don’t know or understand you should be shrugged off. And if a rabbi is to keep his sanity – a prime requirement for the profession – then he must become semi-immune to free advice being offered so generously and regularly to him. I receive unsolicited advice on every facet of my life from well-meaning people, many if not most times about issues that are obviously out of their realm of expertise.

I try to smile, thank the person, and then continue on my own merry way. Even parents have to be wary of giving unsolicited advice to their children when those children are grown and out of the house. Even though honoring one’s parents is a cardinal commandment in Jewish life, one is not bound to follow their advice or wishes in personal matters, such as the choice of a mate or profession. Parents often and naturally find it difficult to let go. But I have witnessed many times in my rabbinic career families torn apart because of unsolicited advice and instructions given by parents to adult children. I once had a case of a married couple who were constantly warring over the penchant of the husband to advise his wife, who had her own tastes, as to the type and style and color of the clothing she wore. If one’s opinion is not requested then it should not be given gratuitously. Free advice in family matters, no matter how small and seemingly unimportant, is usually a recipe for contentiousness and difficulties. Thus free advice is rarely free of later consequences, usually completely unforeseen.

The main reservoir of free advice here in Israel, as perhaps in other parts of the world as well, is the taxi-driver. There is no subject about which he is not well-versed and more than willing to share his knowledge with his long-suffering fare customer. A taxi-driver who somehow recognized me once advised me as to the proper topic for next Shabbat’s sermon in my synagogue, a synagogue which he never visits or attends. I think he wanted a sizeable tip for the advice that he gave me on top of the taxi fare on the meter. People should rein in their good intentions and wisdom as far as others are concerned. Free advice is often wrong and most times unwanted. How did that woman in the fruit and vegetable store know that I did not perhaps mean midnight? After all who wants to receive a fruit and vegetable delivery after midnight? Well, I don’t know why I am offering you all of this free advice on free advice. Please feel free to ignore it at your discretion. Free is rarely valuable.

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  • March 3, 2021

THE JUDEAN DESERT

        One of the most beautiful areas in Israel is the Judean Desert. Even though the word desert in English conjures up a sandy wasteland such as the Sahara and much of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, the Judean desert does not fit that description. The area is not devoid of animal, vegetable and human life. It is not sandy, but rather rocky, with the craggy formations of rock forming heights, canyons, cave formations and geological shapes of breathtaking beauty. It reminds one more of the breathtaking beauty of Utah than of the desolation of the great deserts of the world. Because of its Biblical and post-Biblical history, it is also a historically memorable and at times spooky place. The spirits of Kings Saul and David, of Elijah the Prophet, of Bar Kokhba and of the various sects and cults, Jewish and non-Jewish, of the beginning of the Common Era, all of who inhabited the region lends it a special significance and deep meaning. The Bible and much of later Jewish history in the Land of Israel spring to life from the hills and rocks of the Judean Desert.

The Judean Desert

                                There are many underground springs of water in the Judean Desert. The largest is Ein Gedi, hard by the Dead Sea. This spring nurtures a thriving kibbutz that owns a mineral water bottling company that bottles and markets, not surprisingly, Ein Gedi spring water. It also has large agricultural holdings, almost exclusively devoted to date palms, nurtured by the waters of that same spring. And it is a great tourist site in Israel, famous for its Dead Sea spa and skin treatments center and one of the most interesting botanical gardens in the world. The botanical garden is not formally landscaped but rather it is scattered throughout the grounds of the kibbutz itself. The climate of Ein Gedi – temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for seven months of the year – with the presence of the spring water combine to allow an enormous variety of plant and tree life to flourish. There are over a thousand different species of cactus in the garden, with natural shapes that challenge one’s imagination. The flowering bushes are a constant riot of color while the great fig and fichus trees tower over the landscape. A two to three hour walk through the grounds of the kibbutz, and especially through the rain forest component of the garden, will convince one of the absolute magnificence and infinite variety of nature in God’s world. And all of this possible because of that great underground spring of sweet water that exists in the middle of the desert next to the brackish waters of the Dead Sea.

                                The Dead Sea itself is one of the major attractions and landmarks of the Judean Desert. The Israelis, early on in the settlement of the Land of Israel, established major manufacturing plants alongside the Dead Sea in order to extract and commercialize the mineral riches of the area. Bromides, manganese, salt and potash are the major chemical products that are processed in the Dead Sea Works. These chemicals are exported to the entire world, mainly through the port facilities of Ashdod. A tour of the Dead Sea Works is a fascinating experience.

                                The caves of the Judean Desert were the storage place for the famed Dead Sea Scrolls and other important archeological and scholarly finds. The Bar Kochba caves, explored by Yigal Yadin, revealed a new picture of the famed Jewish leader whose rebellion in 135 CE almost succeeded in freeing the Jews in Israel from the domination of Rome. Aside from the historical treasures of the desert, there is varied plant and animal life. At the rest stop at Kfar Adumim near Jericho, tame gazelles and ibex come to share your lunch with you, if they can. There are large signs all around that forbid feeding these animals, but the true Israeli blithely ignores such signs, especially if some type of governmental agency erected them. And the animals know that and therefore they come to the rest stop in some numbers.

                                The views from the Judean Desert, in every direction, are breathtakingly spectacular. One gazes down on Jericho, the oasis and spring of Joshua and Elisha, and sees the sprawling Arab town that now occupies the place. The Bedouins still make their homes in tents in the desert, but in decreasing numbers. Most of the Bedouins have become urbanized and find work at the Dead Sea hotels complex and other enterprises in the area. But the desert itself remains unchanging – seductive, serene, sinister and silent. In my opinion, any visit to Israel should include a visit to the Judean Desert.

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  • December 22, 2020

Chanukah

                            The wonderfully joyous holiday of Chanuka occurs this month. In light of the horrific events of the past few months, the message and lights of Chanuka could not come at a more appropriate and necessary time. For Chanuka, in its essence, represents the ability to withstand oppression and evil, coercion and bigotry, and to believe in the improbable miracles that have always marked Jewish history and advanced the cause of all human civilization. The story of Chanuka is made up of two radically different components. One is the war, the battles of the Hasmoneans, the blood spilled and the casualties sustained, the human sacrifice and tragedy that always accompanies the struggle for Jewish survival and a better world for all humankind. The other is the miraculous, supernatural event of the small pitcher of oil that supplied oil for eight days while physically holding oil only for one night. Chanuka is thus the culmination of man and God in the joint effort to improve our world and society. There is no message that could be more fitting for us this Chanuka season than this one. 

                            Our current struggle, whether here in Israel where we face a foe (just as the ancient Syrians of Mattisyahu’s time) that has yet not reconciled to our right to exist in our homeland and be different than our neighbors, or in America where terror stalks the land, if not in fact any longer but certainly in mind, requires of us these same two elements that make up the Chanuka story. There are no cheap victories in the cause of human progress and freedom. “According to the effort and the pain is the reward,” was one of the favorite aphorisms of the rabbis of the Mishna. We, the Jewish people, out of all nations should realize by our history how costly the battle for good and fairness and tolerance and independence truly is. Assimilation, ignorance of Jewish values, fear of losses, fright as to being a minority, are all eventually to be cowardice in the Jewish view of things. Risk, sacrifice, devotion, integrity and tenacity are the weapons of the success of the Chanuka story. They are our weapons of success today as well in our war against terrorism in Israel and worldwide.

                            Light in the world cannot be judged as being man-made alone. We do not have enough fuel by ourselves to light eternal lights that burn on for centuries and millennia. According to most historians this year is the 2165th Chanuka. That is a pretty long time to keep a flame going. But since this flame is inspired by faith in the Creator and by loyalty to His value system and lifestyle and is not merely the product of another good human idea, its eternity is guaranteed. It is the miraculous, the unexpected, that makes for the natural continuity of Israel and goodness in the world. So, as we light and view the flames of Chanuka in this troubled year, literally in the winter of our current discontent, we should take heart and hope about the eventual triumph of good over evil, of holiness over profanity, of the few over the mighty many, of the original story of Chanuka repeating itself  “in our time as in those days.”  So, may I wish you, my friends, a happy, joyous, meaningful, memorable, and latke/doughnut filled Chanuka.

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  • December 3, 2020

LOOKING BACK

Whereas younger people in their adolescent and early adulthood years constantly look forward (I think that is why history teachers find it so difficult to interest them in the subject at hand) we older folks are much more prone to look back and restudy past events that were meaningful to us. The advantage of age and life experience allows a perspective on life that the younger generation has not as yet gained.

Those of us who lived through the last two-thirds of the twentieth century experienced one of the most turbulent and certainly the most violent and murderous period in human history. Between Hitler, Stalin, Mao and an assortment of lesser murderers, over one hundred fifty million people lost their lives by governmental action, war and terror. This represents a greater number than the entire estimated population of the then known world at the time of Julius Caesar. To this astronomical number needs to be added another forty million people who died in World War I and in the influenza epidemic that swept the world in its aftermath. There had never before in human history occurred such a bloodletting over a condensed period of less than a hundred years.

The twentieth century also recorded the destruction of the old order that prevailed in Europe and the Middle East for many centuries. The four great empires of Europe – the Ottoman, German, Austrian and Russian – were destroyed in World War I. The surviving empires – the British, French and the minor colonial powers – were greatly weakened by that great war even though at the time they failed to truly realize that their days as imperial powers were now coming to an end. But the generation of World War I is almost gone from the scene and all of its horrors are now relegated to the pages of books and to grainy films.

Allan Bullock

It is the generation of World War II that is now also beginning to pass from the scene as well. This realization makes me more likely than ever to look back at that watershed of human history and its aftermath, much of which still influences all of humanity today. How could such a disaster have occurred? Who was responsible for it? Was it inevitable or was it caused solely by evil individuals? And of course hovering over all of this is the specter of the Holocaust and its disastrous effects upon world Jewry. I therefore, in my dotage and in a looking back mode, purchased a book by Allan Bullock, the British historian, entitled “Hitler and Stalin, Two Parallel Lives” and read all one thousand pages of it avidly. Bullock’s talent is to interweave the lives of these two monsters together and show how they almost by themselves created the disaster that was Europe for a large part of the twentieth century. It is a masterpiece of detail and research and so easily readable that it turns into a page turner. Its ability to explain the madness of each of the protagonists, to make sense of the inexplicable and almost indescribable decisions and policies of these two men and to describe the power that each of them had over entire nations of millions of people is truly enviable.

Bullock enters the warped minds of each of his subjects, Hitler and Stalin, and shows how their behavior and policies, self-destructive and insane as they may have been, made perfect sense to them from their own perspective. It is chilling reading but it certainly puts the century into some sort of perspective and emphasizes to the reader how history is made by people and their policies and beliefs and not by blind historical forces of economies, social systems or class struggles. The Jewish view of life is that all individuals are responsible for their actions and decisions and the consequences that flow from them. Hitler and Stalin, and later Mao and Pol Pot and others of this ilk, are responsible personally for all of the tens and tens of millions done to death through their decisions in the twentieth century. As being a member of the generation that witnessed these events, I remember vividly the impressions they made upon me.

As a small child I remember my parents listening in dismay to the screeching hysterical speeches broadcast and translated over American radio of Adolf Hitler. The voice of that evil person is deeply embedded in my memory. I remember the sight of the first Holocaust survivors reaching Chicago in 1947. My mother and father gave away our dining room table and chairs to one of the survivor families who had nothing. We ate in our kitchen for a number of years thereafter and never felt the poorer thereby. I never thought my parents’ behavior in this matter strange or even especially magnanimous. It was natural to me having grown up with my grandfather and my parents and watching their daily behavior and acts of hospitality, charity and kindness towards others.

At that time the Irgun and Lechi were fighting the British and the Arabs in the Land of Israel. The only newspaper that regularly carried news about the situation then in Palestine was the New York Times, which obviously did not yet appear in Chicago at that time on a regular basis. About once every two weeks a copy of the paper miraculously appeared in our school and everyone waited in line to read the old news. It was heroic for us to feel that Jews were actually fighting others for their rights and land. The Friday that the state was declared, May 14, 1948, I walked to the synagogue with my father as was our customary behavior. I remember that he wept every step of the way. It was at that moment that the idea of my living in Jerusalem in a Jewish state crystallized in my mind and heart. It took almost fifty years for it to be realized, with a great many twists and turns along the way, but somehow the Lord allowed it to truly happen. My gratitude for that knows no bounds. The enthusiasm in the Jewish world, in all of its sections and circles, was then overwhelming. At a mass rally that was held at the Chicago Stadium to mark the occasion of the creation of the state, the blue and white flag of Israel was raised to the rafters. Uncontrollable weeping swept over the nearly twenty thousand people crammed into the stadium. The entire two thousand year- long exile with all of its tragedies poured out of the Jewish souls gathered there. It was an electric moment. I regret deeply that my children and grandchildren do not have such a moment to remember when their time will come to look back.

Though not yet of army draft age, I remember my trepidation at the announcement of the invasion of South Korea by North Korean troops and the subsequent American response. Stalin was still somewhat of a revered figure in America, especially in liberal Jewish America. His true nature and the real face of Soviet Communist life had not yet been fully revealed. I attended college at a university infested with left leaning fellow-travelers to whom the Soviet Union could do no wrong and the United States could do no right. However, my teachers at the yeshiva, some of whom had tasted the paradise of Soviet life during the Russian army’s occupation of Lithuania in 1940 and 1941, set us then naïve Americans straight about atheistic Communism and the benevolence of the great “Father of Mankind,” Josef Stalin.

Reading Bullock’s book only served to confirm to me a fact that I have long known in my life experience – how right my rabbis were and how wooly-headed and wrong most of my college professors were. And this rule applies not only in relation to attitudes and judgments towards Stalin and the Soviet Union. It has proven itself true regarding almost all other matters of life and the world itself. The opinions of Torah scholars on all matters of life should never be discounted or shrugged off lightly. They are the pegs upon which the tent of our lives holds firm. Looking back should not be a matter of nostalgia solely. Nostalgia often distorts reality, both past and present. The past is a masterful teacher if we only let it penetrate our minds and hearts and learn from it. And only if we have an accurate and mostly true assessment of what that past actually contained and was. The past can never be reconstructed to operate in the present. But making intelligent decisions, personal and national in the present, requires a knowledge and appreciation of the past. Looking back is an essential part of wisdom and probity in life. Every generation is individual, special and unique. But it must be admitted that those of us who lived through the last two-thirds of the twentieth century certainly lived through an unequalled epic time in human and Jewish history.

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  • November 10, 2020

Herman Wouk

I know that it sounds strange but Herman Wouk is an important person in my life. I met him only three times in my life and probably we exchanged no more than twenty words between us in all of those meetings. Wouk passed away at the age of 104 on May 15, 2019 but remarkably in 2012 at the age of 97 produced another novel that was published by Simon and Schuster. This book, The Lawgiver, is a wry look at Orthodox and secular Jewish life in America, the Hollywood movie industry and at Wouk himself and his wife of sixty-three years who was his literary agent as well. Wouk’s wife Betty Sarah, passed away in her ninetieth year. The Lawgiver is written as a series of memos, emails, letters and recorded conversations between the characters presented in the book.

Herman Wouk 2014

As in all of Wouk’s works there is plenty of insightful humor present on the human condition and the foolish foibles of human beings, even of paragons of faith and religious observance. After all, Wouk was one of the gag writers for the famous radio comedian of seventy years ago in the United States, Fred Allen. But Wouk’s primary influence on me stems not from his written words, engaging and talented as they are, but rather from a speech that he delivered over sixty years ago to a banquet of the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, a banquet I attended (but did not have a place setting or food there). He had just received fame as prizewinning author and playwright and was outed to the general American public as somehow being a practicing Orthodox Jew. In those days such a successful American Jew who still observed the Sabbath and ate only kosher food was a rarity. And his speech at that banquet was masterful in delivery and content.

He predicted the wave of assimilation that would overtake American Jewry in the coming decades and warned that if there were no spirituality or traditional observance, no love of Torah or of Israel present in the coming generations they were doomed to disappear from Jewish life and history. I had never heard anyone put forth the case for traditional Jewish life and values so ably and bluntly. I said thank you to him after the speech as I stood in line at the dais with hundreds of others, many of whom asked him to sign copies of his book that they had brought along. The speech inspired me then and continues to inspire me now. It strengthened my then youthful and perhaps even naïve belief that Orthodoxy was the only way to go even in America and that I should somehow contribute to its defense and growth.

I met Wouk again at a Sabbath synagogue in Palm Springs, California where he then resided. And I met him for a third time in Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem where he owned a home and partially resided. He had vaguely heard of me and was courteous to me. I reminded him of his speech in long ago Chicago and he ruefully smiled and said: “them were the days!” And I thanked him for writing the seminal “This Is My God,” a book that I have used and given to others countless times in my long rabbinic experience and career. This book, above all others that he has penned will surely stand the test of time and changing literary tastes and forms.

At the conclusion of The Lawgiver, Wouk has written an epilogue about the characters in this novel. In concluding the epilogue itself Wouk wrote a beautiful, heart-wrenching farewell to his wife. He wrote: “We shared our time under the sun for sixty-three years, during which I did all my literary work. Before we met I wrote nothing that mattered. Whoever reads a book by Herman Wouk will be reading art deeply infused with her self-effacing and incisive brilliance, books composed during a long literary career managed by her common sense, with which I am sparsely endowed.

Here is Betty Sarah Wouk, the girl I met by God’s grace in 1944, a Phi Bete and an enchantment, working in Navy personnel. She rests in peace beside our firstborn son, who accidentally died in Mexico when almost five years old. My place at Abe’s other side awaits me in God’s good time.”

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  • August 12, 2020

SECOND CHOICE

            A friend of mine told me of an interesting conversation that occurred between two professors at a Catholic university in the United States. One of the professors was a nun, while the other professor was an observant Orthodox Jew. The nun said to the Jewish professor: “You know, that after long deliberation on the matter I am convinced that if I were not born and reared all my life as a Roman Catholic, I would choose Judaism as my faith. If you were not born and reared as an Orthodox Jew, then what do you think your faith would be?” The Jewish professor thought the matter over carefully and then replied: “I would still be a Jew, though I would probably not be as observant of the commandments of the Torah as I now am.” The nun thought quietly about that response and then said: “I fully understand that answer. Jews really have no fallback faith. It is only Judaism for them. The only issue for them is how observant they will be of its ritual demands.”

            In a completely unscientific survey that I decided to make after hearing of the above conversation, I asked the Arab custodian at the yeshiva where I teach, and with whom I have very cordial relations, the very same question: “If you were not born and reared as a Moslem, what faith do you think you would follow?” He looked at me very quizzically, fearing perhaps that I had some nefarious motive driving me in asking      that question. When I further explained to him that I really had no missionary, monetary or political motive in mind when asking the question but that I was just taking a survey on the issue and that his answer would be non-binding upon him, he squinted and thought for a moment. He then said: “Even though many of the Arabs  (not me, naturally) currently see the Jews as an enemy, if we were not Moslems we would probably follow Judaism.” He then added thoughtfully, “It is interesting that over all of the centuries, very few Jews ever became Moslems.” I walked away from that conversation in a very thoughtful and pensive mood. It seems that we are everyone else’s second choice, the true fallback, fail-safe faith for much of civilization.

            Young Jews that I have known here in Israel and some of who were later students of mine told me that when they toured Nepal and India and came into contact with gurus and the holy men of the Eastern religions, they were amazed by the curiosity and interest that these people evinced in Judaism. One young man even told me that the main reason that he opted to come to Jerusalem to study Torah was the fact that he was so ignorant of Judaism that he could not answer any of the questions posed to him by the head of the ashram about Judaism. That ashram head was very disappointed in him and severely chastised him for his Judaic ignorance. The Jewish boy decided to remedy that failing by enrolling in a Jerusalem yeshiva and spending time studying Torah. But the interesting point that he made to me was that somehow Judaism as a faith (not necessarily Jews as a people) was held in much higher regard in that part of the world than any of the other religions, such as Christianity and Islam. Now, I understand that Christians and Moslems can have a relationship with Judaism, since their faiths sprang from Judaism and its scriptures and values. But I was somewhat surprised to learn that the Eastern religions, which at least superficially seem to have no relationship to Judaism and its values, and in fact may still be considered to be pagan in the eyes of Judaism, also find Judaism as a possible second choice of faith and lifestyle.

Naturally, all of this that I am writing is not based on any scientific study or academic research. Yet my intuition tells me that the above conclusions that I have made are real and do reflect a prevalent attitude in those societies.

            Of course, one aspect of the “Jewish problem” is that the world may admire and appreciate Judaism but it has little tolerance for Jews. This phenomenon is ages old and I am not going to discuss the prevailing anti-Semitism in the world again in this column. However, I do find it interesting that there are some anti-Semites like Farrakhan who can refer to Judaism itself as being “a gutter religion,” while other Jew-haters restrict their venom only to the people of Israel while somehow still “admiring” the faith of Israel. Nevertheless, all of history and common sense has shown us that the practical reality of this world is that there can be no Judaism without Jews and therefore we will have to continue to annoy those who do not wish us well by continuing to survive.

            For almost a century there appeared to be a second choice for Jews as well. This second choice was not Christianity (although 250,000 Jews did convert to Christianity in Western and Central Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – these conversions were in the main for social and economic reasons and to a certain extent were therefore insincere and thus bitterly resented by the Christian society into which these Jews wished to assimilate) or Islam, but rather it was secularism in its varying guises.

The most virulent and damaging form of nineteenth century secularism was undoubtedly Marxism in all of its malignant forms. Since Marxism was a utopian dream, a vision of how all human problems could be solved by human society itself, it had great appeal to Jews, who are by nature and belief utopian and given to messianism. Marxism was secular messianism. And thus a large section of the Jewish people, though by no means ever the majority, deserted the old Judaic faith and climbed upon the wagon of their second choice.

This second choice cost millions of Jewish lives and hundreds of millions of non-Jewish lives. It destroyed families, institutions and values that had carefully been nurtured over centuries. It left a wasteland of disillusionment and spiritual emptiness in much of the Jewish world. But is has pretty much disappeared from the Jewish scene as of today. Last month, I heard a radio interview with the owner of the largest flag company in Israel. He remarked that this was the first May Day in the sixty-five year history of the company that not one red flag was ordered! The Jewish Left, vocal and shrill as it still is, nevertheless has pretty much been defanged by history and events.

            The other forms of secularism that formed the second choice for Jews a century ago have also undergone radical changes. Zionism was threatened by its ugly child, Post-Zionism. Post-Zionism was the force of the future in the Jewish intellectual and academic world until Arafat unveiled its true face and unbelievable danger. While assimilation, the desertion of Judaism for the “good life” continues unabated in America, it is not really a form of secularism. It is basically an abandonment of Judaism without any second choice at all, nothing that substitutes another form of faith or of idealism. It is certainly a type of soulless nihilism, built upon materialism and Jewish ignorance. However, here in Israel, secularism is alive and well but not as alive and well as one would think while reading the Israeli press or listening to some of the diatribes of its politicians. Here, secularism is a second choice, but almost only a default choice.

Though there is attrition in the Orthodox ranks, estimated currently to run at about six percent of the youthful Orthodox population, this is counterbalanced in actual numbers by the Teshuva movement – the number of secular Israelis “returning” and becoming observant and traditional. Most secular Israelis suffer not from disillusionment with Judaism or rebellion against it, as from complete ignorance of Judaism, its values, and teachings. As Berel Katzenellenson, the Labor Zionist leader of the 1930’s, put it: “We hoped to raise a generation of knowledgeable, but yet non-believing secular new Jews (apikorsim, is the Hebrew word); instead we have raised a generation of ignoramuses (am haaretz) who know nothing about their history and heritage.” The secular Jew in Israel is nevertheless very Jewish, simply because he lives in a society where a large section of the population is observant and an even larger section of the population is traditionally inclined. Militant Jewish secularism and anti-religious activity still exist here, but in my opinion, these are more closely bound to the political struggles, the budget allocations, army service, etc. with the religious political parties in the country than with Judaism as a faith itself. I am convinced that if there were no religious parties here in Israel, a much greater section of the secular Israeli population would be very receptive to the practices of Judaism and to a more religious lifestyle.

In any event, here in Israel, secularism is also a declining second choice. The destruction of the illusions of post-Zionism, the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Europe, the bias of the non-Jewish media and the hypocrisy of the United Nations, all have combined to force a most sobering assessment of our future here in the Land of Israel and our survival as a people. Whenever that situation of danger has occurred in Jewish history, Jews usually prefer to remain with their first choice, the old-fashioned thirty-three hundred year old Judaism of Torah and tradition.

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  • July 21, 2020

BIOGRAPHIES

I have recently completed reading two biographies about two very diverse but influential people.   I will admit going from the sublime to the very less sublime in the choice of reading these biographies.  But all human beings are fascinating, and their life’s stories are always engrossing. This is especially true when the biography book is itself well written, thoroughly researched, objectively presented and is not hagiographic. Both of these biographies had these positive literary qualities to them. Dr. Binyamin Braun of the Judaic Studies Department of Hebrew University has written an exhaustive study of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Karelitz (commonly known by the name of his scholarly books and his acronym, Chazon Ish.) Braun details for the reader the life and accomplishments of this remarkable scholar and traces for us the rise of the Chazon Ish in becoming the primary decider of halachic law in Israel in the 1940’s and early 1950’s and the leading authority on all matters – religious, societal and temporal  –  for much of the religious society of world Jewry. What makes all of this more remarkable is the fact that he never officially served as a rabbi or a teacher or the head of any religious or educational institution. He earned his livelihood by the sale of his books and from the income earned from his wife’s textile store. For a great portion of his life he operated in complete

anonymity. He even did not state his name as being the author of his works, hiding his identity in the acronym Ish – aleph, yud, shin, Avraham YeShayahu. Nevertheless, he was brought to worldwide attention and renown, mainly through the efforts of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the famed rabbi in Vilna and the leader of Orthodox Jewry in Lithuanian in the inter-war years of the first part of the twentieth century. Rabbis Grodzensky and Karelitz became very close to each other when Chazon Ish toiled to have Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky elected as the official rabbi of Vilna, a bid for that office that failed. Nevertheless, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky touted Chazon Ish publicly and incessantly as being the leading scholar of the generation. This was especially the case when Chazon Ish immigrated to Israel in the early 1930’s and took up residence in the then small dusty village of Bnei Brak.

As Braun details for the reader Rabbi Karelitz lived a very painful and troubled personal life. His marriage, to put it mildly, was not a happy one. The marriage produced no children, a fact that he deeply mourned. His health was always precarious and for most of his later years he studied, wrote and received visitors while lying in bed. Despite all these personal difficulties, through his scholarly works and forceful opinions he rose to become the chief decider and shaper of the non-Zionist section of the religious society of Israel. To a great extent, he was an iconoclast. Not having himself ever studied in the Lithuanian yeshivot system he was not at all enthusiastic about their Talmudic study methodology and educational philosophy. He also felt that the Mussar movement was incorrect in its approach to Torah study and matters of simple faith, and its types of interpretation of Biblical events and Talmudic sayings and anecdotes. He was an early supporter of Poalei Agudat Yisrael and was the original halachic mentor of its kibbutzim and moshavot, though he later distanced himself from many of its political decisions. In the matters of agricultural plantings and the milking of cows on Shabat he was more lenient in his rulings than, for instance, was Rabbi Kook but he was a firm opponent of the implementation of the obviously fictitious but legally technically correct sale of the land owned by Jews to Arabs during the shemitta/sabbatical seventh year. He came up with other solutions to help the Jewish farmers and land survive during that time period.

(more…)

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  • November 25, 2019

The Frighteningly Familiar New Russia

His political opponents are either in Western exile or in Russian prison on dubious charges of tax evasion and money crimes- this in a country where financial corruption is rampant on every level of its commercial, political, governmental and social society and its court system is classic case of cronyism and blatant corruption. And Russia is again a great troublemaker in the international scene. It backs Iran and sells it nuclear fuel. It rearms Syria. It confronts United States ships at sea with overflying military aircraft. It demands a role in Mideast peacemaking, such as that moribund task may be. Its military leaders make bellicose and provocative statements about its intent to use military prowess to achieve its rightful goals. In short, Russia remains the very large elephant in the room of world affairs. It certainly has not as of yet joined the pacifist at any price crowd that so dominates Western Europe. The bear is not really in hibernation.

Whoever thought that after the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia would turn into a democratic, cooperative European country, no longer expansionist and bullying, now has another thought coming. Russia has reverted to a form of dictatorship again under the malevolent Vladimir Putin. Whether officially President or a member of parliament, Putin is the man that runs Russia and all of the other new generation of apparatchiks are merely his dutiful stooges. He declares that he is the next premier of Russia and does not discount his return to the presidency once more. In short, in the time honored hubris of the powerful and cruel he is the head of Russia for life – his life at least.

In terms of human suffering Russia and its communist cohort, Mao’s China, inflicted the most damage, in numbers and quality of life, of any other ideal or system of government in human history. They were ruled for decades by men who were paranoid, ruthless, uncaring of human life and emotions and who demanded absolute obedience and brooked no independent voices or thinking. After the fall of the official Communist government in Russia it has, as a nation, waxed rich because of its vast oil reserves and the skyrocketing price of that commodity.

Individual Russians still struggle to make ends meet and to achieve the standard and quality of life present in the Western world. In the time honored fashion of all of the dictators, Putin takes credit for Russia’s national income and scoffs at all rumors that somehow he has personally profited from this new found cash cow. China, while officially still Communist and Marxist, is really a ruthlessly capitalistic society. It exploits its main natural resource – tens of millions of people – in a ruthless fashion just barely above the concept of slave labor. As such it has become the provider of cheap goods of all kinds to all of the rest of the world. It does so by using an overvalued currency, ruthless exploitation of its working force population and an enormous consumption of oil and other natural resources. It certainly is a major force to be reckoned with. It is Russia and China who are responsible for the failure of effective economic sanctions against Iran. In fact it is Russia who is supplying Iran with much of the technical knowhow and with the nuclear fuel necessary for it to become a nuclear power.

So Russia is once again engaged in its history-old policies of brinksmanship and xenophobia. It is still smarting from the loss of the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine as well as some of its richest resources to the fractured nations of the Caucuses. A few hundred thousand Russians are still stranded is Kaliningrad, a land-locked piece of Russia surrounded on all sides by Poland, Lithuania, and Germany. In addition many thousands of Russians are stuck in inimical societies in the Baltic states and other former parts of the Soviet Union that are now independent countries.

All of this is a potential witches’ brew of trouble and strife waiting to be mixed and served. The Soviet Union and Communism are relegated to the ash heap of history but they have left behind a tragic and most dangerous legacy. Putin may not be Stalin – after all, who can equal that champion mass murderer? – but he is a far cry from a democratic leader. Under him Russia has regressed in its attitudes, policies and influence. It is no longer viewed as a force for good and progress in world events. It has resumed its old obstructionist stances in diplomatic events and its military commanders again have resorted to its old fashioned use of saber rattling invective. In our very dangerous and violent world this is certainly not good news and it bears considerable and serious viewing and decision making on the part of the Western world…..a full plate of problems and issues

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  • August 20, 2019

EMPTY PROMISES

In an article in Commentary magazine, Professor Ruth Wisse wrote a very thoughtful article about anti-Semitism in our time. She discussed the anti-Semitism of the outside world, especially that of the Arab world, which persists in blaming the West and especially Israel for all of its own ills and societal dysfunctions. But she also touched upon the increasing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel mood of many assimilated and “intellectual” Jews, both in Israel itself and in the Diaspora. She ascribed much of this current Jewish frustration with the only Jewish state that the Jews have had in two millennia to the unfulfilled promises of Zionism and of the “peace process” that has gone nowhere. In their frustration with these unfulfilled promises these Jews have turned against Israel and essentially against themselves by coming to the very erroneous conclusion that somehow the Jews and the Jewish state are the guilty ones in creating this climate of hatred and condemnation of Jews and of Israel. Thus they justify the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel behavior of our enemies while at the same time encouraging the de-legitimization and eventual dismantling of the entire Jewish state. And the root causes for this suicidal behavior and warped thinking are the unfulfilled promises made by the Zionist movement at its very inception and the equally unfulfilled promises made by Israeli leaders at the outset of the Israel-Palestinian “peace process.”

In the nineteenth century, long before the rise of the Zionist movement, there was an almost spontaneous movement of Jews to the Land of Israel, then under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. Jews from Bukhara, Yemen, Lithuania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland immigrated to their ancient homeland in small but steady numbers. They harbored no illusions about creating a Jewish state let alone a “new Jew.” Almost all of them were deeply religious, idealistic and ritually observant Jews. They moved to the Land of Israel for spiritual fulfillment. They certainly hoped that the vicious anti-Semitism that they experienced in their home countries would be less in the Land of Israel under seemingly more benign Turkish rule but they had no illusions that they were entering into a rose garden paradise where the illogical and unjustified hatred of the Jew would be entirely absent. They came to the Land of Israel for their own personal and spiritual fulfillment and not for the purpose of solving or ameliorating any “Jewish problem.” Thus the latent anti-Semitism of the small Arab population then in Palestine was accepted as being natural – a continuation of the situation that they had faced for long centuries in their home countries. Since the Jewish world was powerless there was not much that they felt that could be done to combat this anti-Jewish attitude and behavior. This passivity and acceptance of the reality of anti-Semitism marked the yishuv hayashan – the original pre-Zionist Jewish settlers in the Land of Israel in the nineteenth century.

When Theodore Herzl founded the Zionist movement officially in 1897 he made a promise that was the basic philosophic underpinning of secular Zionism for a century. That promise was that the creation of a Jewish national home (anywhere in the world, by the way) would solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Herzl believed that the hatred of Jews emanated from their unnatural and abnormal situation of being a people without a homeland and a state of their own. Once Jews achieved an independent home and state of their own anti-Semitism would disappear, for Jews would no longer be viewed as being different and abnormal. This in essence was the promise of Zionism. It lay in the statements of the Zionist leaders immediately after World War II that if a Jewish state would have then existed in the 1930’s then the Holocaust could never have occurred. The fact that the UN recognized the right of a Jewish state to exist in 1947 seemed to confirm the connection between the existence of such a state and the amelioration of anti-Semitism generally. But this promise of the Zionist movement and its basic ideological underpinning never has been realized or fulfilled. In fact the existence of the Jewish state of Israel has only exacerbated the problem of anti-Semitism in the world. Morphed into anti-Israel behavior, anti-Semitism has become intellectually, socially, diplomatically and publicly institutionalized as being legitimate, protected by the liberal values of freedom of speech and expression. Herzl would be saddened and amazed to see that his goal and promise has been turned on its head.

Since the basic promise of Zionism has not been fulfilled and does not appear to be able to be fulfilled in our lifetime, the post-Zionist syndrome arose both in Israel itself and in the Diaspora. Post-Zionism in essence states that Zionism itself is no longer relevant and that the Jewish state is not part of the answer to the continuing “Jewish problem.” The answer must therefore lie in promulgating liberal and tolerant values throughout the world and in assimilating the Jewish people into general world society, abandoning Jewish particularism and no longer confusing the survival of the Jewish people with the security  and survival of the Jewish state. Simply put, the failure of the Jewish state and of Zionism to eliminate anti-Semitism in the world as it originally promised it would, undermines its basic right to exist. Thus many now say that the creation of the State of Israel in 1947-8 was a “mistake.” The failure of the fulfillment of Zionism’s basic promise destroys even its basic right to exist. These partisans cannot justify the existence of a state that in its view somehow has not fulfilled its mission and kept its promise. This is the psychological elephant in the room that haunts the secular liberal, assimilated Jew. It is what turns him willingly or unwillingly, into an enemy of his people and himself. The religious Jew sees living in the Land of Israel itself as a supreme value. The State of Israel has to solve no external issues for him. It only has to provide a relatively safe and Jewish environment in which to live. And this it has done and continues to do quite successfully.

Shimon Peres promised that the Oslo Agreements would create “a rose garden” in the Middle East. Yitzchak Rabin promised that territorial concessions to the Palestinians would result in peace for all concerned. Ehud Barak promised that unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon would create a peaceful northern border for the Galilee. Ariel Sharon promised that dismantling the settlements of Gush Katif would enable Gaza to become a peaceful neighbor to southern Israel. Ehud Olmert promised that relinquishing East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount would settle the Israeli-Palestinian struggle once and for all. None of these promises have been even remotely fulfilled. Instead because they were not possible of being fulfilled and since they were promised to the Arabs and to the world by successive Israeli political leaders it must be that they were not fulfilled because Israel somehow does not wish to fulfill them. So Israel continues to basically negotiate with itself without a viable partner present or even necessary in this “peace process” charade. It must therefore be its fault that its promises of peace have not become reality, so more concessions must be offered and more of Israel’s security jeopardized. Since Israel was the party that promised peace and the “rose garden” – you will notice that the Arabs made no such commitments or held out no such hopes publicly – and the promises have not been fulfilled, so ipso facto it must be Israel that has failed to make the necessary progress on the peace front.

Many times in life, and certainly almost always in political and diplomatic life,  promises no matter how well intentioned remain unfulfilled. The problem lies when those promises appeared to be so alluring and necessary and achievable that their remaining unfulfilled crushes morale and saps willpower and strength and negates belief in the rectitude of one’s own cause. However, merely recognizing why those promises remain unfulfilled and who is responsible for their remaining unfulfilled will in itself strengthen the possibility of eventual fulfillment of those promises. The Jews are not the responsible party for anti-Semitism. It is a disease, pernicious and contagious, which has affected civilization for millennia. No amount of Jewish “normalcy” can cure it. Only a determined effort by the civilized world can fight this scourge and shove it back down the black hole from whence it first emerged. And no amount of concessions or creative peace plans will settle the Arab-Israeli struggle without a complete recasting of the mindset  of the Moslem world towards the West, other religions and the State of Israel and the Jewish people. And these are the blunt facts but I feel that they are the only accurate promises for the foreseeable future of our times.

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  • June 3, 2019

May Day

May 1 was always the traditional day of commemoration and inspiration of the Socialists and Communists and their supporters and fellow travelers. Parades of workers, scouts, pioneers and sundry members of the proletariat, gigantic displays of armies and military hardware including intercontinental ballistic missiles, speeches about the socialist paradise and the bright Marxist future of mankind, all were standard May Day fare for most of the twentieth century. May Day was the highlight of the year for the Bund (the militantly secular Jewish Labor Union in prewar eastern Europe) and the other Jewish leftist parties including the Labor Zionists that vied for control of the minds and hearts of the Jewish street. Here in Israel the Labor party and the Hisdatrut Workers Union celebrated the day with a zeal and awe that their ancestors had reserved for the commemoration of Yom Kippur. A massive parade was held yearly through the streets of Tel Aviv and members of kibbutzim from all over the country gathered to participate. But in one of the great ironies of history all of this has disappeared as though it never existed. Here in Israel it is especially no longer noted or marked. In fact it pretty much no longer exists in most parts of the world except for China, where it is paid lip service to, and in North Korea, the weirdest country in a very weird world. A relatively small parade was conducted on May Day this year in Tel Aviv but it gathered little media attention and public notice. And anyway, its main concerns were on spreading the capitalist wealth of the present and not on bringing about the Marxist utopia of the future.

There are many reasons for the decline of May Day. The humiliating disappearance of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe twenty years ago certainly is the main catalyst for the diminution of May Day as well. Communism/Marxism proved itself to be a bloody, murderous, inefficient and economically disastrous way of life. It literally poisoned the air that people breathed, stifled all human creativity and enslaved millions of hapless victims – all in the name of a utopian and essentially foolish goal of achieving a worker’s paradise. The complete collapse of the communist system has left very little room for any May Day celebrations. May Day was in essence a pagan holiday dedicated to the false god of Marxism. Like all pagan holidays and social norms it had its day of popularity and seeming triumph before it collapsed of its own accord, a victim of its supreme arrogance and abysmal failures. The power of labor unions all over the world is being contested as never before in the past century. The recent death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher reminded everyone of her titanic struggle to free England from the grip of the tyrannical union bosses that were strangling the country. Her victory over them has created the new United Kingdom still struggling with its socialist past but struggling nevertheless. No May Day parades for the “Iron Lady.

The unstinting support and arming of the Arab countries in their series of wars against Israel by the Soviet bloc certainly helped sour the Israeli public’s view of May Day. And the fact that millions of Soviet Jews were held hostage for many decades to implement Soviet domestic and foreign policies also contributed to the ending of the romance between the Jewish masses and the political left. The bitter anti-Semitism and the falsification of history practiced and still in practice today by the Left against Israel, its state and people, also immunized the Israeli public to the blandishments of utopian Marxism. Israelis found it difficult to be devoted to the cause of Marxism when Russian made bullets and shells were killing their husbands and sons. The Communist world itself contributed greatly to the demise of May Day here in Israel and in fact throughout the world. The reality of evil wrought by Marxism trumped the false vision it trumpeted of the workers’ paradise.  

What is most significant in viewing May Day as it occurred here in Israel this year was its unlikely juxtaposition with the day of Lag B’Omer. I must admit that I am quite dubious about some of the customs that have attached themselves to that day. Bonfires and visits to the purported graves of the righteous are not rigorously observed in my household. However, one should never underestimate the power and effect that Jewish customs adopted over time have on the national psyche and worldview. Three hundred thousand Jews traveled to Meron, the reputed site of the grave of the famed and holy rabbi of the Mishna, Shimon ben Yochai, on Lag B’Omer. There is no May Day celebration here in Israel now or ever that can dream of having such a turnout of people to commemorate the day. Even when May Day was in its heyday here in Israel such numbers of devotees were unattainable. There is a lesson present here in this scenario that speaks to the eternal bond of Jews to Torah and tradition and to the ineffectiveness of pagan holidays, no matter how noble the goals that they claim to represent. The Torah is on the side of the worker and against his exploitation. But that is based on God-given law and revelation and not on wild theories of nineteenth century Enlightenment history, economics and denial of human nature. It is not surprising therefore that May Day is not what it used to be, especially here in Israel.  

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  • May 15, 2019