Always New

For seven days and nights, Aharon and his sons sat at the entrance to the Tabernacle, as they were commanded to do. Then the eighth day arrived, the first day of Nissan, a year after leaving Egypt, and it was time to bring the first offerings to G-d.

Aharon first brought sin and elevation offerings for himself, and then the sin offering on behalf of the nation. The verse reads [9:15]: “And Aharon brought the offering of the nation, he took the goat of the sin offering of the nation, and he slaughtered it and offered it like the first one.”

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky zt”l (o.b.m.) is struck by that last expression, “like the first one.” Why does the Torah emphasize this point? Yes, the Torah describes the process in more detail the first time, in the previous verses. But we have a model for how a sin offering is to be done, as there is a (different) process for an elevation offering. It is unnecessary to tell us that Aharon did it the same way — and indeed, in the very next verse it says, “And he brought the elevation offering, and he prepared it according to its laws.” So what was the point of underscoring that Aharon brought the sin offering “like the first one?”

Rabbi Galinsky explains: the Torah is telling us that Aharon prepared the sin offering on behalf of the nation, the third offering which he brought in the Tabernacle, with precisely the same excitement that he had the first time, exactly as if this were the first sin offering he had ever brought! That is what it means, “like the first one.”

It is simply human nature that when we do a particular action repetitively, or even see a particular site often, that the impact naturally diminishes. The tour guide leading people down to the Grand Canyon does not gasp along with the tourists. Even those who pray at the holy Western Wall every day may no longer feel as they did the first time they touched its stones — but we know that we all should.

When I was a student in Lakewood, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, a tremendous scholar and teacher of Mussar (spiritual and ethical improvement) came from Israel, and spoke in the yeshiva during his visit. People came from everywhere for the special privilege of hearing him, including people who were no longer in the school or who studied elsewhere. Needless to say, most every student was sure to attend.

To me, this was the biggest lesson of his address that day.

The reason is that I had previously studied in “Lakewood East,” the branch of the yeshiva located in Jerusalem. Rav Wolbe was the father-in-law of the Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) of the Jerusalem branch, (ylctv”a) Rabbi Yaakov Schwartzman shlit”a, and Rav Wolbe spoke in that yeshiva once every two weeks.

While I would hardly say the room was empty, people naturally try to postpone other tasks until they are done studying with their partners (which is how most learning is done in a yeshiva). People are much less particular about staying for “mussar seder” when other things arise. So the room was much emptier than earlier in the afternoon. They didn’t “pack in,” they “packed out.” It’s that same element of human nature: people specifically came to hear him when they knew they might only be able to do so once, but those who could hear from him biweekly willingly gave up the opportunity.

The Haggadah tells us that every person is obligated to see him or herself “as if he left Egypt,” personally experiencing the miracle of the Exodus, and the gratitude to G-d for bringing us out of slavery. We are told that every Jewish soul was at Mount Sinai, that we ourselves experienced the Revelation. And we say in our prayers that G-d “renews the work of Creation, every day, constantly.”

It is a similarly great challenge to renew ourselves that same way, to experience each day as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the same way G-d constantly renews His Creation around us. But it is the truth: every day is our one and only opportunity to experience that day. We will only experience Parshas Shmini 5778 once in our lives. We will only pray tomorrow morning once in our lives.

Like Aharon, we must learn to take advantage of each once-in-a-lifetime spiritual opportunity!

When Jews Target Jews

Hostility toward Judaism, Jewish observance and observant Jews has always been a central part of anti-Semitism. Sadly, it doesn’t always come from non-Jews, as Eli Steinberg noted recently in The Forward, in an op-ed called “Anti-Orthodox Is the New Anti-Semitism.”

Steinberg could have been referring to another opinion piece which emerged but two days earlier, by Elad Nehorai, also in The Forward, titled “White Nationalism Is Spreading in the Orthodox Community.”

We cannot minimize the problem of racism. It exists in all communities and needs to be extinguished in all communities, ours included. But to stereotype a particular group, whether religious or ethnic, as being racist is part of the problem, not the solution. How would we react to an op-ed titled “Nationalism Is Spreading in the Latino Community”? Does this not prove Steinberg’s point, that targeting the Orthodox is somehow more acceptable?

We must recall that Jews, who have suffered at the hands of whites more than most anyone, have never themselves been leading racists. And yet, the belief that Jews are supremacists who despise humanity and care about only their own is a core anti-Semitic canard. This is how Rabbi Naftali T.Y. Berlin, dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, summarized anti-Semitism a half-century prior to the Holocaust (Commentary to the Torah, appendix, Gen. 31:29):

This is the way of the nations: that if they see one Jew steal, they say that all those who serve G-d are thieves — and that Judaism itself gives them permission to do so. And for this reason, one should do badly to [Jews] and stamp out Judaism.

This belief, that Jews are anxious to plunder the rest of humanity for Jewish benefit is found in the fabricated “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” in Nazi literature, and in the minutes of the Mahwah, New Jersey, town council, as Steinberg showed. Look at what we are routinely told about Israel. Myths of Jewish control of the banks, government and the media all grow from this same sickly root, and, exactly as Rabbi Berlin explained, this has been used to justify everything from pogroms to expulsions to genocide.

And yet, despite the proliferation of this idea, a canard it remains. And just as Jews are not a group of evil, self-interested plunderers, they are also not becoming white supremacists, contra Nehorai’s article.

Nehorai’s piece begins with the report that President Trump made a disparaging reference to countries designated for Temporary Protected Status and/or to Third World countries in Africa. Some said the comment was aimed at the racial makeup of the countries and was thus racist. But these accusations were in line with false accusations of racism and anti-Semitism that have dogged the president from the beginning of his campaign, as the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg reminded us.

The use of crass and unbecoming language, which the president denied, doesn’t make him a racist, and neither does the underlying sentiment. The TPS program protects foreign nationals from deportation “due to conditions in the [home] country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.” If one were to list countries to which one might wish to move, considering everything from human rights to medical care, indoor plumbing and high-speed internet, those countries would end up near the bottom of the list.

It is not racist to admit this, unless of course you believe that the TPS program, established with bipartisan support in 1990, is distinguishing between countries based on race or ethnicity. I don’t believe this, and I don’t think Nehorai does, either.

That Haiti is not a country to which we would aim to move is not a racist sentiment. On the contrary, humanitarian concern over the conditions of their home country is the very reason we do not deport Haitians. We give preferential treatment to them over people from Norway, or Barbados, and to those from El Salvador and Nicaragua over those from Costa Rica and Panama.

To be sure, racists like Richard Spencer and David Duke were eager to co-opt the president’s comments for their own use. But it is neither fair nor appropriate to use guilt by association to paint anyone with the temerity to defend the president’s dismissal of those countries as a racist.

Yet the writer does precisely this, quoting an Orthodox Jew who said roughly as follows:

Option A: El Salvador isn’t a ‘dump,’ so they don’t need 17 years of Temporary Protected Status, and migrants from there should be sent home immediately. Option B: El Salvador is, in fact, a ‘dump.’

Nehorai claims that he “was amazed at how similar” that commenter sounded to Spencer. This is astounding. Spencer said that solving Haiti’s problems requires more European, white Frenchmen and fewer Haitians. The commenter explains, using the president’s vulgar term, that countries are designated for TPS because they are in bad shape. This explains why we harbor El Salvadorans in the United States, a humanitarian practice that racists like Spencer would oppose.

Yet Nehorai not only describes the similarities of the two statements, but also their differences. On these grounds, he accuses the entire Orthodox community of turning to racism.

He does the same when it comes to the neo-Nazi Unite the Right rally. The protesters had a permit to march, and were violently attacked by Antifa, the same group that tries to prevent Ben Shapiro and other conservative and pro-Israel speakers from being heard.

Video footage from that rally showed that there was violence perpetrated by both sides, which is exactly what the president said, and condemned. I do not believe the transcripts support the claim that he called Nazis “fine people.” He said that both good and bad could be found on both sides. Still, regardless of whether you agree with me, to call this view racist is wrong.

So how much actual proof of the spreading white nationalism among the Orthodox are we left with? None at all.

Unfortunately, that didn’t matter. To many, Nehorai’s article merely confirmed what they already “knew.” How often do we hear that Orthodox Jews care only about themselves, and don’t even accept the Jewish status of other Jews? You see? This proves (ultra-)Orthodox Jews are racists, like we’ve always said.

Many of the most prominent Orthodox institutions are devoted to serving non-Orthodox audiences, including Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somayach, the Community Kollel network and Chabad — which now has centers in all 50 states. Could we imagine young couples moving out to the proverbial middle of nowhere to serve people they don’t care about?

The myth of Jewish supremacy, that Jews care only for themselves, is not borne out in the observant community, either. In Israel, where the Orthodox comprise a much higher percentage of the total population, it is difficult to have something go wrong anywhere in the country without an Orthodox-led organization offering help without regard for race, ethnicity or religion: United Hatzalah, Yad Sarah, Ezer MiTzion, Ezra L’Marpeh, Laniado Hospital and Zaka are just a few examples. So it should be obvious that those claims are ridiculous calumny, yet they still have “traction.”

If we are going to celebrate diversity, we must go far beyond platitudes about coexistence. The very least we can demand is that we refrain from stereotyping other Jews. Tolerance begins at home.

This article was originally publshed in The Forward under a different title.

Egyptian Amnesia

As we concluded Sefer Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, last week, the nascent Jewish People found themselves in very good circumstances. Yosef was second only to Pharoah himself, having saved the entire country from famine. There was no reason to expect what actually transpired.

The verses themselves suggest what happened. “Yosef passed away, and all of his brothers, and that entire generation. And the Children of Israel multiplied and spread, grew and were very strong, and the land was full of them. And a new King rose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef.” [Ex. 1:6-8]

The generation to whom the Egyptians owed gratitude passed away. As long as Yosef was alive, no Egyptian King would imagine that the Jews would be disloyal, but now Yosef is gone. And the Jews were successful, so much so that “the land was full of them.” In other words, “there were too many Jews.” And that is when a new king arose who forgot all that Yosef had done, all that the Jewish people had done to benefit Egypt.

There is an argument in the Talmud about what it means that the king “did not know Yosef,” as Rashi tells us. One school of thought is that there was truly a new king, but the other says that the same Pharoah stopped thinking of the Jews as a benefit to the country, as if he had never known Yosef.

In truth, these opinions are not as different as they might seem to be. The Egyptians wrote and depicted what happened in their country. There were records of what Yosef had done. They presumably did not knock down the storehouses. Certainly Egyptians were telling the story of how they had famously saved themselves and even fed neighboring countries during the years of famine. Even common people knew this, much less the successor to the throne. He did not need to have known Yosef to know what he accomplished on behalf of all Egypt.

Fundamentally, the new Pharoah expressed a lack of gratitude to the Jewish People, and demonstrated the familiar pattern of anti-Semitism. The reality was that the Jews had only benefited the Egyptians and the entire region. The myth was that the Jews were disloyal, and would exploit the Egyptians and the resources of the country. And the myth won.

Look at what is happening in the Middle East today. The reality is that Jews built a flourishing country on their ancestral homeland, inventing new technologies to make it fertile, advancing medicine, and bringing democracy, limiting the power of government, to that portion of the world — not just for themselves, but for everyone. Arab citizens of Israel have rights and opportunities found in none of the dozens of Arab countries. The myth is that the Jews are occupiers, exploiting the resources of the country, creating problems throughout the region. And before the United Nations of the world, the myth wins.

Our obligation is always to do better. We must model gratitude. When someone does a kindness for us, we have an obligation to recognize the generosity of that person, express our thanks, and above all not reciprocate good deeds with bad ones. That is the Egyptian model, the one we help eradicate every time we thank those who help us!

Envy Isn’t Jewish

As a typical Jewish child attending a suburban prep school, I lived through the season just concluded with a certain feeling of envy. Most friends and neighbors were celebrating a big, gaudy holiday season, while I and my Jewish friends were left out. They decorated houses and trees, painted shopping malls red and green, and you couldn’t find a station on the dial that wasn’t playing music from earlier generations.

Little has changed, save my attitude. Having learned more about the unique responsibility and privilege of being a Jew, I have nothing of which to be jealous. My own children, growing up with the Jewish education I lacked, also do not suffer the least hint of that envy. We don’t want what they have; we want what is ours.

And it is fortunate that it is so. In the Sayings of the Fathers, our Sages caution us that envy is one of the dangerous traits that “removes” a person from the world. A person consumed by jealousy no longer sees and enjoys the world. He ignores his own blessings, caring only for what someone else has.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem could (and should) be a place of Jewish unity; instead, it has become for some a target of envy. To them, someone else — traditional Jews, whom their leaders impugn as “ultra” Orthodox — have a place for prayer, and they don’t have a place of similar size and prominence. Thus they are jealous — but of what?

Let us step back and be objective.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of Israel’s 6.5 million Jews are traditional or observant. And in another recent survey, the pluralistic Panim organization determined that under 3% of Israeli Jews, or just over 150,000, are affiliated with the American Reform or Conservative movements. Even this is an excessively optimistic figure, given the paucity of liberal synagogues in Israel. But using these numbers alone, it would be excessive for American liberal leaders to demand even 5% of the space afforded to traditional Jews.

And there is another factor. The average Orthodox person prays several times each day, and gravitates towards Jerusalem’s Old City and the opportunity to pray facing the Temple Mount, which Jewish tradition reveres as the holiest site on earth.

The average non-Orthodox Jew, by contrast, prays several times per year. And the Reform movement expressly rejects the Temple Mount as having special sanctity, and calls its synagogues “temples” to supplant it.

So even were their adherents equal in number, the need for space for American-style egalitarian prayer would likely be less than 1% of that allocated for traditional prayer. Take the two factors together, and the most that liberal leaders could reasonably demand is a space 0.05%, one in two thousand of that allocated for traditional prayer.

The government has thus already done far more than objectively necessary. Since the early 2000s, space at Robinson’s Arch has been available for “alternative” prayer services of whatever kind. Several years ago, then-Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennet upgraded the space, creating a new Ezrat Yisrael platform for this purpose.

Usage of that space — or lack thereof — proves the accuracy of the above analysis of need. Whereas the traditional plaza is filled to overflowing several times each year, Ezrat Yisrael has not once been used to capacity, and is rarely used at all.

What, then, explains the demand for a space of similar size and prominence to that used for traditional prayer, given an objective lack of both theoretical and demonstrated need while even the existing, smaller space is left vacant? It defies explanation, unless we acknowledge that envy is a powerful force. “They have it, so we must have it too.”

How much more good would these American leaders do, were they to not increase jealousy but reduce it? Why should Jewish children be left envious of non-Jewish peers celebrating non-Jewish holidays? I’m hardly the first to observe that when someone has a strong Jewish identity and an understanding of our unique national mission — and recognizes our disproportional impact upon civilization and history — it is obvious that we have nothing for which to be jealous.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate Past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, has called this “the most Jewishly ignorant generation in history.” The crisis for American Jewry is not 6000 miles away, but all around us. There is so much that liberal leaders could and should be doing to solve this crisis.

Yet Jewish camps are in decline, and the various educational initiatives launched by Rabbi Yoffie during his tenure have long since flamed out. New efforts are clearly and urgently needed. Synagogue attendance will not increase if the rabbi wastes congregants’ time discussing a site that most have never seen. The intermarriage rate will not decline if rabbis do not teach the privilege of being Jewish.

Liberal Judaism in America will not rebuild from its collapse if its campaigns focus upon jealousy. When Jews are bringing “Hannukah Bushes” into their homes in America, to sermonize about Israel is to “fiddle while Rome burns.”

This piece first appeared in the Times of Israel.

Not Just Jerusalem: Why America’s Rabbis Voted Trump and Don’t Regret It

Yes, you read correctly. America's rabbis voted for Donald Trump.

Given the common belief that Jews are liberal, this may come as a surprise to many. But not only do Orthodox Jews (the traditionally observant) have very different political leanings from their more liberal brethren, but they now encompass the vast majority of American Jewish clergy.

Lakewood, N.J. is the home of the largest rabbinic seminary in America and home to tens of thousands of its alumni. In a few square blocks, you'll encounter more rabbis than liberal seminaries have produced in several decades. Lakewood also produced the largest pro-Trump majority in 2016 of any New Jersey town, despite a higher percentage of immigrants, impoverished, and non-whites than most other pro-Trump communities.

Rabbis voted Trump not for financial benefits; it is liberal candidates who support generous government programs. They supported him not simply because of his pro-Israel posture, although he has exceeded expectations with his new, commonsense approach to the right of Israelis to live in peace and security.

Neither did they blind themselves to Trump's failings. They do not support what he said on a bus 12 years ago or appreciate the un-presidential things he says or tweets on a daily basis. They look askance at casinos and beauty pageants and have little patience for "reality TV."

So what is it about Trump that they liked on Election Day, and like even more a year later?

First of all, Trump understands that good and evil remain vibrant in today's world and refuses to point fingers only at those who liberals agree are evil. Charlottesville provided a great example of this phenomenon.

No honest reading of the president's remarks has him calling white supremacists "fine people." This nonsense, so loudly proclaimed in the media, was designed to prevent sober analysis of Trump's true crime: he dared point out that violence and bigotry are not unique to those perceived as "right-wing." This, liberals could not countenance. As Maxine Waters put it, "No, Trump. Not on many sides – your side."

That liberal narrative is both false and profoundly dangerous. Our First Amendment liberties depend upon protection of free speech even for those with abhorrent views. Disruption of opposition events was a Nazi tactic, and had Antifa not violently employed it against the Nazis, we might hardly have heard of Charlottesville.

In the succeeding weeks and months, Antifa repeatedly proved President Trump correct, using force to stifle free speech not from Nazis, but from anyone with whom they disagreed — including Ben Shapiro, the conservative, yarmulke-clad Jew who was the journalist most targeted by anti-Semites in 2016. Trump deserved an ovation for stating that hatred is not a one-sided phenomenon.

The leading belief of anti-Semites is that all Jewish property is stolen; this is something rabbis know from both rabbinic literature and world history. It is why Jews were forced to live in ghettos and barred from most professions during the Middle Ages. It is why the Nazis began with a boycott that declared that Germans should "protect themselves" rather than buy from Jews. And it is why the Arab League co-opted the German boycott, which leftists then renamed BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) to make a "human rights" cause out of economic warfare against Jews living in their ancestral homeland, something visited upon none of those engaged in true, unquestioned occupations of the homelands of others around the world.

Thus, anti-Semitism travels seamlessly between the far right and the far left. It is too real and too dangerous to be wielded as a partisan cudgel.

We already had a president who said Israel is "occupying" Palestinian land and who sat idly while the U.N. called Jewish life in Judea "illegal." Similar language was seven percentage points away from being part of the Democratic platform. The only foreign flag flown inside the DNC was Palestinian, while they burned the Israeli flag outside. That's not about Israel's politics, government, or policy. That's about anti-Semitism.

The Republican platform rejected the "false notion" that Israel is an occupier, and President Trump has unquestionably acted in accordance with those positions. He has a history of trusting visibly observant Jews, and he put two of them, Jared Kushner and Jason Dov Greenblatt, in charge of negotiating peace with Mahmoud Abbas. Their first demand was that Abbas stop funding terrorism. In any other context, this would seem obvious, yet this revolutionary idea entirely escaped previous negotiating teams.

Nikki Haley's indignant, even furious reaction to the U.N. Security Council's attempt to tell the United States where it can put its embassy to Israel was merely her latest verbal fusillade against U.N. bias regarding the world's sole Jewish state. Trump's decision to move the embassy, recognizing that no peace can be achieved that does not recognize the attachment of Jews to Jerusalem, showed that he is unafraid to speak truth to world powers. The administration was far too busy protecting Jewish interests to pay attention to Jewish liberals claiming that Trump was "encouraging" Alt-Right hatred.

And then there is the "big picture" – the underlying vision for the future of America. Western civilization traces its roots to what are called Judeo-Christian values, which trace their roots to a small community of liberated slaves clustered on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

Their Bible sanctified human life and peace, while surrounding countries glorified warfare and considered fights to the death a form of entertainment. They taught that a ruler's power must be limited, that even a king must live within the law. They pioneered universal education, which other cultures reserved for the wealthy. And they valued family and social responsibility while others regarded these as signs of weakness.

Western civilization depends upon choosing biblical values over those of Greeks, Romans, Huns, and Visigoths. This is not a political posture, but reference to our moral foundation. It is a sad commentary that one party seems devoted to tearing down traditional moral norms, expressing the belief that what is new is automatically superior.

Rabbis were guided by rabbinic scholarship and their consciences. We do not look to politicians as role models, and the idea of a perfect human is foreign to Judaism in any case. Rather, an election is a binary choice. Which candidate and which party will better protect innocent lives – our lives – here and around the world, and keep America closer to our core values?

This is why rabbis voted for Trump in 2016 and are yet happier with that choice today.

First published in the American Thinker.

The Misunderstood Maccabees and Miketz Miracles

There is a lot of misinformation about the Chanukah holiday. People teach that the Greeks took over Israel, the Jews fought back, the Jews won the battle, and then there was the miracle of the oil — enough oil to explain the Menorah, Latkes, and Sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts). That one small flask of oil certainly went a long way.

But if there is one phenomenon that exemplifies the confusion, it would have to be the Maccabiah Games. It offers young Jewish athletes from around the world the opportunity to participate in… a pale imitation of the Olympics, which are, of course, modeled after the original Greek games. We, too, can be just like the ancient Greeks!

And that is exactly the wrong message. Because the victory of Chanukah came from being as unlike the Greeks as one could imagine.

The war that gave us Chanukah was not fought between Jewish Maccabees and the Greeks alone, but the Jewish Maccabees versus Hellenized Jews as well. There were many Jews who fell for the Greek ways, and their glorification of the human body — the reason behind the original Olympic Games. Jews competed in those games, and worshiped Greek idols.

The Maccabees were the very opposite of the Greeks. They neither celebrated nor possessed physical or military prowess; it made no sense that they won the war. The Medrash says that with prayers alone they felled thousands of Greek officers, leaving the military in disarray. The miracle of the oil was only one of many miracles that happened at that time, but showed Divine favor towards the Maccabees. The war did not end before Chanukah; it continued for several years after the miracle of the oil. But at that point to the Maccabees knew that they would emerge victorious.

In this week’s Torah reading, which is always read during Chanukah, we find a similar sequence of miracles happening to Yosef. He was sitting in an Egyptian prison, jailed because of a false accusation. Thus he could have despaired — but instead knew that everything came from G-d. And when it was time for him to leave that prison, he went from prisoner to viceroy, second only to Pharoah, in just a few hours. Another person could have lost his mind from this sudden, bizarre change of circumstances, but Yosef knew that it was all in accordance with a Divine plan.

Yosef knew that the dreams he had as a young man were prophetic revelation: he would eventually rule over his brothers. And it was the plot of those same brothers, their selling him to be a slave in Egypt, which led to the fulfillment of that prophecy! It makes no more sense than the idea that a single prayer could kill Greek military officers, but there it was.

The lesson of Chanukah is that, just as with Yosef, things are not as they seem. Everything is happening according to a Divine plan, though it may be beyond our comprehension. The Jewish obligation Is to recognize that “many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the prescription of G-d which will be fulfilled” [Proverbs 19:21]. Chanukah tells us that our path is not one of physical, intellectual or business prowess, but Divine Intervention. And in the end, victory is preordained: the Jews survive against all odds.

Reform’s Celebration of Lawlessness

by Rabbi Pesach Lerner and Rabbi Yaakov Menken

On Thursday, November 17, Rabbi Joshua Davidson did something truly extraordinary: he prayed the weekday morning service. The synagogue which he serves as Senior Rabbi, Temple Emanu-El in New York City, apparently offers no such opportunity, so what inspired his religious fervor?

Perhaps a better question is whether his fervor was indeed religious. Rabbi Davidson claims that “because the Kotel’s regulations do not permit egalitarian worship, and because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on his promise to create a prayer space there that would, we began our worship on a distant platform over the Southern Wall excavations.”

While this assertion may play well in his Temple and at the UJA, one does not gain allies by slandering them. To Israelis, Rabbi Davidson’s words are not merely false and defamatory, but contribute directly to the anti-Semitic depiction of Israel as a supremacist, apartheid state where only some citizens have rights.

There is no factual support for his claim that the “Kotel” regulations do not permit egalitarian worship. Thanks to overwhelming popular demand, a small section of the Kotel, comprising only one-sixth of its total length, has been allocated for traditional Jewish prayer. During the high holiday season alone, that traditional plaza saw over 1,000,000 visitors, and on multiple occasions was filled to capacity.

For nearly two decades, the Israeli government has provided facilities for egalitarian and other nontraditional prayer elsewhere along that same 1600-foot-long Western Wall. This section was upgraded and dubbed “Ezrat Yisrael” by then-Religious Affairs Minister Naphtali Bennet during the previous government; it features tables with large umbrellas, comfortable chairs, and Torah scrolls under the administration of the Masorti (American Conservative) movement.

Though it may be smaller in absolute terms, this space has never been filled, and thus is less in need of expansion. Less than 0.3% of Israelis affiliate with the American Reform or Conservative movement, according to a survey conducted by the pluralistic Panim organization — and, of course, weekday prayer is mostly foreign to them. During the same High Holiday season, the Ezrat Yisrael section stood almost entirely empty.

Rather than conduct their prayers at the space allocated for their use, Rabbi Davidson and his peers brought eight Torah scrolls from the outside and pushed their way into the traditional plaza — purportedly for a weekday morning service that requires only one scroll for a brief reading.

They had no need to enter the traditional plaza in order to conduct their non-traditional, egalitarian service. The only time eight Torah scrolls are carried is while dancing on Simchat Torah. And that is exactly the point: they were not coming to pray, but to dance. They came to provoke and create a disturbance, using eight holy Torah scrolls as props for their political theater.

They were not content to simply protest; they forced their way past the soldiers and police guarding the plaza. Although Rabbi Davidson’s family was safely back in New York, Israelis know that these soldiers — often members of their own families — are putting their lives on the line to protect visitors every time they search a bag. It is also against the law to bring in Torah scrolls, because someone might thus be able to steal one of the scrolls belonging to the Holy Site. To whatever extent Rabbi Davidson was “roughed up” — and those guarding the security barrier tell a different story — this transpired while he was physically breaking past the guards, breaking the law while interfering with the soldiers’ attempts to protect life, safety, and the sanctity of the Torah scrolls Rabbi Davidson claims to revere.

So, no. No one was “roughed up” due to being a Reform Jew, much as saying so delighted anti-Semitic bigots around the globe. Whatever violence transpired was directly attributable to the behavior of Rabbi Davidson and his colleagues.

Israelis recognize political theater for what it is. The current situation was described thusly by Moshe Dann, a former Professor at the City University of New York who has spent the last quarter-century living in Israel: “Unable to achieve their objectives through dialogue, negotiations and good will, without an appreciation of Israel’s distinctiveness and differences, liberal/progressive leaders are turning their communities against Israel.”

This is undeniable. The same Reform leaders also refused to take a phone call from President Donald Trump before the High Holy Days, not long after Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs and several colleagues sat down for a friendly chat with Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority. After that meeting, Husam Zomlot, PA ambassador-at-large to the United States, told the Jerusalem Post that “we see eye-to-eye with the Reform movement.” Most recently, the movement explicitly turned against both Israel and America, stating that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the move of the US embassy to that city, must be held hostage to a “peace process” that Abbas refuses to pursue.

If Reform now sees “eye to eye” with a Palestinian Authority that refuses to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, and would withhold recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is clear who has abandoned whom. Is it any surprise that Israelis have lost patience?

The authors are the President and Managing Director, respectively, of the Coalition for Jewish Values This article first appeared in the Times of Israel.

War & Peace… Together

Our reading begins with Yaakov returning to the land of Cana’an, re-encountering his brother Esav after several decades of separation. This was, however, no ordinary family reunion.

After Yaakov received his father’s blessing intended for Esav, Esav decided to kill Yaakov. It was for this reason that Rivka, their mother, advised Yaakov to run to the house of her brother Lavan [27:41-43] Rivka told Yitzchak that she wanted Yaakov to marry a non-Canaanite woman, and thus Yitzchak sent Yaakov there to marry Lavan’s daughter [27:46-28:2] — but this was engineered by Rivka to save Yaakov’s life.

Now, Yaakov is returning. Will 34 years of separation have placated Esav, or will he greet Yaakov with murderous intent? Yaakov was afraid, and sent messengers ahead with gifts for his brother “to find favor in your eyes” [32:6]. To which Rashi adds, “for I am at peace with you, and request your love.” Yaakov did not want to fight, he wanted peace.

Yet we also learn that Yaakov divided his caravan into two camps — so that at least half would escape if they were attacked. Rashi quotes the Medrash which says that Yaakov prepared himself in three different ways: with gifts, with prayers, and with preparation for war.

Modern day pacifists would claim that two of these things were contradictory, that one cannot simultaneously claim to want peace while arming for battle. Our Sages say, “the stories of the fathers are signposts for the children.” On the contrary, sometimes being well prepared for war is the best way to ensure peace!

First, Choose a Direction

This week’s reading begins with Rivka’s pregnancy, which came about only after many years and many prayers. And then we read a verse which, according to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki himself, begs further explanation: “And the children struggled within her, and she said ‘if so, why am I here?’ And she went to inquire of G-d” [25:22].

First of all, what’s the problem? Different children behave differently in utero. Some move around a great deal, while others are more placid. Women can often tell how their children will behave before giving birth.

So Rivka’s baby moved around a lot. Admittedly, a child like that is likely to be somewhat more taxing (and that may be an understatement). But this is not, to use the expression, “the end of the world!” So why does she say “if so, why a why am I here?”

Second question: where did she go? G-d fills the world, yet the verse says “she went to inquire” of Him.

And what is the answer she receives? “And G-d said to her, ‘there are two nations in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you; and the one will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger'” [25:23]. They are two brothers, and they will not get along. One will bully the other, she is told. And she is reassured and goes home, and indeed eventually gives birth to twins.

This, then, is the reassuring answer, that they are brothers who won’t get along?

Our Sages explain that what Rivka perceived was not “conventional” movement of a baby. There was a House of Study, dedicated to understanding G-d, led by Shem the son of Noach, and his great-grandson Eyver. And any time that Rivka went by this House of Study, she felt her baby (not knowing that there were, in fact, two babies) trying to get out to go study with them.

But by this time, there was also a great deal of idolatry in the world. And every time she walked by a house of idolatry, she also felt her baby trying to get out, to go worship the idols!

It was to the House of Study of Shem and Eyver to which she went to seek guidance. And that is where she learned that she was going to have twins.

Our Rabbis say that what bothered her so much was that her baby appeared to be pulled in every direction. He or she wanted to simultaneously serve G-d and serve idols. And the consolation was, these are two different children, each of whom is naturally drawn in one direction but not the other.

This was a consolation, they say, because then one could hope that the child naturally drawn to idolatry would nonetheless defeat this inclination and serve G-d. But if he didn’t perceive that idolatry and service of G-d were different and mutually exclusive, then he was lost at a much more fundamental level.

Unlike babies in the womb, we have within us both good and evil inclinations. We are all, in our lifetimes, drawn to both sides — and every person, on his or her level, sometimes makes the wrong choice. But our very first task is to know that there is indeed a choice to be made, that some actions are superior than others. The Torah tells us how to discern between them. And then, we must take stock. We must know in what direction we are going, rather than allow ourselves to be lost in our daily affairs. That will enable us to change for the better.

Our goal is to grow. We must attempt to become more G-dly, and bring more G-dliness into the world through our actions. If we are “all over the place,” lost in a cloud of good and bad behaviors, then indeed “why are we here?” We must take stock of our actions, choose our direction, and pursue the good. Then the bad will be subjugated to the good, even if the bad appears to be “greater,” dragged to the House of Study to be elevated and purified.

Arguing About Not Arguing

It’s good to have differences of opinion on Cross-Currents. Robust debates between authors here are hardly new, and continually put to bed the old canard about how Orthodox Jews don’t think or have their own opinions. And I am particularly glad that Rabbi Shafran was motivated to have at it one more time, because as we refine each of our opinions, we find ourselves arriving at fewer and fewer differences.

At no point did I say that we should favor leaping onto partisan bandwagons. Rabbi Shafran and I certainly agree that we should not regard any American ideology as our ideal. In early December, there will be a conference on “Jews and Conservativism” at the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York. It’s not for us. We don’t use Judaism to explain why we are conservatives; Judaism is the -ism to which we subscribe. Rather, we all recognize that the Torah forces us to side with conservatives on a host of issues. I believe it is an error to confuse acknowledging this truth with “political bandwagon-jumping.”

To quickly address specifics:

There is no question that Hillary Clinton isn’t the only one whose opinion on marriage “evolved.” I’m not sure why Trump’s suggestion that the 1964 Civil Rights Act be extended to that group is relevant — we are all against discrimination, even against people who celebrate behavior the Torah condemns. But, for us, that also includes opposing discrimination against the religious, which is exactly why Agudath Israel filed its brief in the “Masterpiece” case. Rabbi Shafran surely agrees that most of those joining Torah Jews in supporting the Masterpiece Bakery are conservative Republicans.

I didn’t say that the Democratic Party is anti-Israel. I said that “to an increasing extent, one must also believe that Jews in Israel are stealing ‘Palestinian land'” in order to be a mainstream Democrat. Again, we surely agree on this; Barack Obama said in front of the UN General Assembly last year that Israel should realize that it cannot “permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.” The Republicans passed a party platform stating that imagining Israel to be an occupier is a “false notion.”

When it comes to abortion, it is absolutely true that there are Republicans who have proposed “life begins at conception” standards, and these should obviously be opposed by us. In the current environment, though, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and what those in the “pro-life” camp regard as even remotely achievable would permit abortion in cases permitted or demanded by Halacha. We surely agree that this would be closer to our moral ideal.

I don’t see what argument remains about Charlottesville. The fact that the President’s comments were criticized doesn’t make the criticism reasonable or fair. Rabbi Shafran attempts to distinguish Antifa’s band of goons from the peaceful anti-white supremacist rally, to call only the latter “organized.” But to me that doesn’t make sense. Of course there was an “‘organize-organize’ gezera shava” as he put it: between the neo-Nazis and Antifa. Both were organized and came looking for violence. Along with saying that Antifa was not “organized,” Rabbi Shafran seems to insist that there was no peaceful, non-white-supremacist group there against the removal of the monument. The New York Times implies otherwise. It is clear that President Trump believed otherwise, and it is thus unfair to distort his comments as if he intended to equate peaceful demonstrators on one side with neo-Nazis on the other. It is obvious that he did not do this, in any of his prepared or extemporaneous remarks.

Apparently I have to clarify my sarcastic remark about “government welfare programs that end up encouraging single motherhood.” Of course it is possible to “support welfare programs that assist a wide variety of innocent poor.” However, there has been a tremendous amount of social decay since welfare programs became popular in the 1960s, when roughly 2/3 of black children were raised in two-parent families; today that has fallen to one-third. There is a great body of evidence that welfare assistance removed so much of the hardship of being a single parent as to make it an “acceptable option.” It is not, as Rabbi Shafran says, that girls chose to be single mothers wanting government assistance. It is that welfare vastly reduced the risk of giving into temptation. People stopped worrying about the consequences of getting pregnant. Yes, we as a society could do better than that, at least ensuring that single mothers do not feel there is a financial benefit to remaining single. I have heard that there are even frum couples that do not marry legally in order to obtain benefits only available to single mothers. Does anyone not see a problem here?

As for immigration, I didn’t say anything about Mexico or India. I did not mock those who support a legal version of DACA, because I do, and I imagine most of us do. What I did (and do) find worth mockery was opposition to Trump’s insistence upon firmer standards for immigration from several hostile states, and imposing a travel ban in the meantime. Across Europe, we see the consequences of unfettered immigration from Arab states where children are raised to be hostile to Western values. There is a humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the fact that neighboring Arab states are not accepting Arab refugees from Arab Syria makes the problem worse. But I would disagree that making these refugees our neighbors is the appropriate resolution. And there is every reason to believe that Obama’s “strict” vetting standards were not nearly strict enough, especially given his personal attitudes towards the Arab world.

So let’s get to the final, ultimate question. Rabbi Shafran asks, “does the fact that one political party seems at present more in line with most observant Jews’ feelings about moral or Israel issues mean that there is some imperative to embrace the entirety of that party’s convictions?”

Again, we do not disagree here. This is my point, we have no argument — of course not. I claimed that “there is no one Torah position on gun ownership or tax reform,” and I am sure that for any Torah-based argument for one side, we could have a Torah-based argument for the other.

So that’s not the correct question. The one I would ask is the following: “When we, as Torah Jews, acknowledge that we are perceived as conservatives on a host of issues where the Torah mandates our positions, recognize that Republican candidates will more likely express positions closer to our own on moral and social issues, and publicly express ourselves on these issues and defend these positions and these candidates, is that ‘political bandwagon-jumping,’ or responsible hishtadlus?”

That’s really the only point of contention here.

I join Rabbi Shafran in wishing him and all readers a Gmar Chasima Tova and a blessed year.