My Friends, it’s Up to Us

Originally published on the Times of Israel at:

Feb 23, 2023

Yesterday morning, sitting in my living room, I suddenly heard loud music.  It was Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of one of the happiest months on the Jewish calendar, and a truck was driving by, musically announcing: “When Adar enters, we increase our joy”.  But as I read the morning news over breakfast, I saw that President Isaac Herzog described feeling “sorrow” – not joy – due to the controversy over the judicial reform bills beginning to make their way through the Knesset.  The contrast was jarring.

By nature, I’m an optimistic person. But I must admit that over the past few weeks, I have been feeling kind of like the president does. Indeed, regardless of which side of this debate one is on, feelings of sorrow – and even despair and alarm – seem commonplace right now.  The rhetoric on both sides has reached a fevered pitch, theatrics in the Knesset and poisoned languages from both sides are worrying and embarrassing, and fears of violence – which at one point sounded like empty hysterics – are now starting to seem like a genuine concern.

Watching the tens of thousands of protesters packing the streets in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, I’m reminded of earlier moments in Israeli history that saw mass protests against the government – coming from a different segment of society: the right-wing protests against the Oslo Accords and, later, against the Disengagement from Gaza.  There are a lot of parallels between those situations and ours; in many ways, they are mirror images of each other.

Like the right-wing crowds back then, the vast majority of the (mostly leftist) participants in the recent protests are patriotic, passionate, and peaceful Israelis who care deeply about their country and are alarmed at a plan that, in their opinion, will bring devastating results.  People on all sides of the debate who care about Israel should be happy that our country allows peaceful and forceful protest, and that so many people care enough to take time off of work and their personal lives to express their opinions about their beloved country.

But there is also a small number of loud extremists – including some prominent politicians and public figures – who have spoken openly and dangerously about civil rebellion, armed insurgency, and murders of public figures.  These also mirror the vocal extremists who spoke out against Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo accords in the months prior to Rabin’s assassination, raising concern that history could repeat itself.

The crazy thing, though, is that a solid majority of Israelis – as much as 65-70% according to some polls – support a compromise based on the proposal presented by President Herzog about ten days ago.  With such widespread support favoring the middle ground, why does this argument threaten to tear the country apart? How did we get into this situation?

On one level, the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of politicians on both sides. Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Simcha Rothman, Chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, must be blamed for spreading panic among opponents of their plan by pursuing the legislation at breakneck speed, refusing to pause for even a short time to engage in dialogue. And certain MKs from all coalition parties are to blame for publicly gloating about their power, and flexing their political muscles by threatening to pass all sorts of provocative legislation blatantly targeting their opponents’ constituencies.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and others in his camp must be equally blamed for refusing to enter talks, and even setting an unrealistic 60-day total legislative freeze as his minimum requirement.  And all these politicians, together with many others from both camps, are to be blamed for the incendiary rhetoric and cheap political stunts, trying to gain attention and score points with their voters at the expense of badly needed national solidarity, unity, and brotherhood.

But here also, all these politicians – on both sides – can argue that they are merely following Israeli precedent. 

Right-wing defenders of Levin and Rothman point out that when past governments implemented controversial leftist policies with very far-reaching consequences that were opposed by large segments of the public – as Rabin did with the Oslo accords and Ariel Sharon with the Disengagement – they used their legal authority to push their policies through in the face of even larger demonstrations than the impressive ones we are currently seeing. Those leaders also mocked their political opponents instead of acknowledging their pain and listening to their legitimate concerns.

And Lapid’s supporters point out that his tactics are similar to those used by the previous Knesset opposition, led by the very people composing today’s government.  They used every tactic they could think of to bring down the Bennet-Lapid government, regardless of the consequences.  This included employing rhetoric equally poisonous to what we’re currently hearing, boycotting Knesset committees to inhibit the ongoing functioning of the parliament even on consensus issues, and even voting against important laws that they supported – causing damage to the nation that they openly acknowledged – just to bring down the government as soon as possible.

Our political leaders are following the pattern of the past – despite the immense harm this does to our country and society – because it works.  Netanyahu and his partners managed to overthrow the previous government after just one year by using tactics like these, and they were rewarded by the voters.  And now Lapid and his people are clearly trying to use the same tactics to return to power – because they work.

In a democracy, politicians will always do whatever it takes to win votes. The reason is simple: those who win the votes win the election, and politicians who – due to moral principles, national responsibility, or any other factor – refuse to engage in those despicable tactics, lose.  So ultimately, our leaders will always be those who say and do exactly those things that voters support.

And therefore, my friends, it’s up to us.  If we, the public, support President Herzog’s call to lower the flames of the argument, speak respectfully to each other, seek unity, and engage in real and meaningful dialog resulting in a genuine compromise based on his proposal – we need to demand that of our leaders. This change will never be led by politicians; it must come from a grassroots movement among the people.

Non-political leaders, influencers, and members of the general public on both sides must stand up and demand this from the politicians.

The opposition protests must continue, but they must change their tone.  In addition to chants supporting “Dem-o-krat-ya”, there must also be calls for “Hee-dab-root” (dialogue)!  Lapid and other opposition leaders must be told loudly and clearly by their voters that they want real dialog, not political posturing. They must drop the counter-productive demand for a total legislative freeze and enter talks immediately, with no preconditions. 

And voters for coalition parties must let their leaders know that while they support judicial reform, there must be real compromise, not a mere façade of dialog and cosmetic changes to the legislation.  Real compromise means neither side gets everything it wants. In this case, real compromise will mean that the High Court’s composition and power will change significantly, but that Levin and Rothman will also not get the total, unchecked government control they seek.

Compromise means that in one sense, both sides will lose, but in a much bigger sense, both will win.  And if the public demands this and makes clear that we will no longer support shameful, disrespectful politicians and their zero-sum policies, they will change their tone. And then, we will all win.

My friends, it’s up to us.

Shabbat (HaAretz) Shalom

Yesterday, even before the Shemita year begins, I had the privilege of leading my first Shemita tour, with my students at MTVA.

We started in the Bet Midrash, learning the Biblical portions describing this incredible commandment, and trying to understand the inspiring messages and challenging vision the Torah sets out for us: an entire year devoted to spiritual reflection, to bridging social gaps and showing concern for others, to recognizing the fundamental equality of all people, and to internalizing the truth of our complete dependence on our Creator.

After this, we continued out to an archeological site in the Jerusalem mountains, where we learned some more texts and understood what Shemita observance would have meant in ancient times. Then, in the afternoon, we moved into the modern era, touring the beautiful historic town of Mazkeret Batya and hearing the tragic and inspiring story of a small group of determined farmers who risked everything they had in their attempt to keep this mitzva in the first modern Shemita year, 5649 (1888-1889).

The most inspiring part, though, was at the end of the day, when we met a farmer who was completing his final preparations for Shemita. Although he has simpler options, this dedicated Jew is investing a huge amount of time and risking a lot of money to run his farm throughout the Shemita year in a way that will (with Hashem’s help) provide the Jewish people with kosher lemehadrin grapes and tomatoes. He showed us his specially-outfitted greenhouse (מצע מנותק) where the tomatoes grow indoors in special flowerpots, so that he can grow vegetables while simultaneously fulfilling the commandment ושבתה הארץ – to let the land rest. And then he took us out to one of his vineyards, all of which he pruned now, before Rosh Hashana (three or four months earlier than he would in a regular year), in order to keep the mitzva. He showed us the potentially detrimental effects of this action, and emphasized that now, he is relying directly on Hashem’s blessings.

In the late afternoon, before returning to Jerusalem, the girls recited mincha right there in the vineyard, barely 24 hours before the Sabbatical Year was to begin. Before they started, I told them of a beautiful custom that is carried out today on Kibbutz Shaalvim – shortly before Rosh Hashana of the Shemita Year, they go down to the fields in order to do a “Kabbalat Shabbat” and wish the fields a “Good Shabbos” just before this new year of holiness and hope descends on Eretz Yisrael. We decided that our mincha in the vineyard can serve a similar purpose.

And so my friends, wherever you are in the world, let’s all embrace this unique once-in-seven-year opportunity as we welcome in the Shnat Shemita of 5782.

Yes, I know it’s Monday, but still…Shabbat Shalom!

Listen, O Israel!

Protest in front of Prime Minister’s Residence, Jerusalem July 21, 2020

My daughter took this picture this week, a few blocks from her apartment in downtown Jerusalem. This man was participating in a “black flag” protest against Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The protesters accuse him of corruption (they call him “Crime Minister”) and are demanding he step down. Netanyahu and his supporters argue that he’s innocent, and since his trial hasn’t even begun, that he can stay in office.

I’m not taking a position on that debate right now. What got me was the guy’s t-shirt.

I’ve been thinking about it for a few days, and I think that shirt can teach us two important lessons. For those who don’t recognize it, those words come from the book of Isaiah: “How can it be? The faithful city become like a harlot…. Your leaders are rebellious, a band of thieves; they all love bribes and pursue profit.” (1:21,23). Those verses – which resonate particularly loudly as they are part of this week’s Haftara, to be read in preparation for Tisha B’av – were first spoken about 2800 years ago in this very city, in a context not all that different from this week’s rally.

The piercing words of the ancient prophecy scream out on today’s street: Isaiah correctly predicted the city’s destruction, due to a lack of justice. Now that the city is finally rebuilt, the urgency of heeding the ancient words becomes even stronger, regardless of whether Bibi is innocent or guilty. We simply cannot continue to tolerate the many injustices perpetrated in our society: corrupt public officials putting their personal benefit over the nation they’re supposed to serve, powerful sex offenders protected by cover-ups, racism towards Arabs, foreign workers or even Ethiopian Jews, refugees denied basic human rights, agunot chained to marriages with abusive husbands…unfortunately the list goes on and on.

Again, without taking a position on the specific questions regarding Netanyahu, when looking at the big picture the protester is absolutely right! Eicha – how can it be? Year after year after year we read this Haftara, and then sit on the floor to mourn the destruction of the Temple. Much has been accomplished, but our exile and suffering are still far from over. What will it take until we hear the message???


There’s also a second lesson to be learned from the guy with the Isaiah shirt: something remarkable about this “only in Israel” scene. I don’t know the protester personally, but from his appearance, he doesn’t seem to identify as a halakhically observant person. And yet, here he is marching in the streets of Jerusalem, rebuking people (including many passersby whose clothing identifies them as very observant) for not living up to the ancient prophet’s words.

Many of those religious people probably don’t think they have anything to learn from a guy who looks like this – but for the majority of them who are not as bothered by corruption as he (and Isaiah) is, they’re wrong. They have a lot to learn, just from reading his shirt.

On the other hand, of course, those people probably feel they have a lot to teach a guy like him if only he would listen (and, as someone who shares their commitment to Torah Umitzvot, I agree with them too). So that’s the second lesson I learned from contemplating the t-shirt: how much better things would be if we would all just listen to each other. We don’t have to agree on everything – in fact we shouldn’t. Just listen.

Isaiah’s spoke during the time of the first Temple. The second one, our Sages tell us, was destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. What they meant by that was the poisonous, destructive way they argued in their very heated political debates (if this assertion sounds strange to you, see Gittin 56, and compare to Josephus War IV, 3:2, 6:2-3). And yet, here we are – 2600 years after the first Temple was destroyed and 1900 years after the the second, and we are at risk of falling again to the same failures!

The message is also very relevant to what’s happening now in America, with all of the protests rocking the land and dividing the people. Both sides are screaming at each other. But is anyone listening? If they would take a moment to do just that, reasonable people would need to acknowledge that actually, both sides have a point.

Can any sane, moral person deny that racism is evil, and that black lives matter? And can any sane, moral person deny that hatred, violence, and wanton destruction of other people’s property is wrong, even in the name of a noble cause? There are legitimate disagreements, but both sides are saying important things. If only people would listen to each other.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his translation of the Siddur, renders the words Shema Yisrael (ordinarily translated “Hear O Israel”) as “Listen, O Israel”. Hearing is easy, but listening is much harder. That, however, is what we really need, and maybe that’s the biggest lesson we can take from these challenging times. This Tisha b’Av, let’s all commit to LISTEN, especially to those we disagree with the most.

Mourning in a Rebuilt Jerusalem

“Alas, she sits in solitude – the city that had been filled with people has become like a widow….  The roads of Zion are [as if in] mourning, for lack of festival pilgrims. All her gates are desolate….” (Lamentations 1:1,4)

“Console, O God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate….” (Mincha service for Tisha b’Av)

Every year around this time, I find myself engaged in conversations and reading statements on the internet, with a recurring theme.  In this period of national mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av, many people are struck by what they see as great incongruence.  Texts like the above ones, which are traditionally recited in synagogues on Tisha b’Av, simply don’t seem relevant any longer. Indeed, reciting these texts in a rebuilt Jerusalem, capital of the sovereign Jewish state of Israel even seems out of touch with reality.

Also, every year around Yom HaAtzmaut time, I find myself engaged in conversations and reading statements on the internet, with a similar – but opposite – recurring theme.  At that time of year, many people (usually members of the non-Zionist haredi community, but sometimes also post-Zionist secular people) question how we can celebrate Israel’s independence, when there are so many problems, and so much that is wrong.

In truth, both arguments are correct – and that’s precisely why they’re both wrong!  We live in complex and confusing times.

To those who can’t celebrate on Yom HaAtzmaut, I respond with the arguments made by those who object to mourning on Tisha b’Av.  And for those who find it incongruous to mourn now, I offer the perspectives of those who didn’t celebrate back then.  Both viewpoints are true – and therefore, we must mourn on Tisha b’Av, just as we must celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut.  This is bewildering and paradoxical, but it’s the truth.

So how do we mourn a destroyed city that has already been rebuilt?

Undoubtedly, Tisha b’Av must be understood somewhat differently today than it was over centuries of exile.  But in truth, its meaning has changed throughout the ages as well.  It has never been only about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

Our rabbis (Mishna Taanit 4:6) list five different tragedies to be commemorated on Tisha b’Av, including events that happened both before and after the destruction of the two Temples.  Later in history, kinnot (elegies) written about other calamities were added to the Tisha b’Av liturgy.  Tisha b’Av is the day of collective national mourning, on which we focus on all the things that aren’t as they should be, everything that needs to be fixed.

In that spirit, here are four things I think are worth noticing, lamenting and pondering this Tisha b’Av:

  1.   We are blessed with a prosperous, powerful and stable country with a powerful army to protect us. Still, though, (as we were tragically reminded this morning with the murder of Dvir Sorek, may God avenge his memory) we still lose beloved Jews every year to terrorism and military attacks.  Each of these lives is precious, and we must mourn the loss.  We must also lament the fact that although we have a high degree of security, we still don’t have peace and we aren’t always able to protect every single person.
  2.   We are blessed with an independent Jewish state in our homeland, and approaching a demographic milestone as close to 50% of the Jews in the world live here. But that means that over half of our people are still in exile, and far too many of those are estranged from our nation or assimilating.  We must mourn every Jew who (consciously or not) opts out of participation in our nation, and do everything we can to bring them back in.
  3.   A well-known rabbinic adage (Yoma 9b) states that the second Temple was destroyed as a result of “baseless hatred” between Jews. I understand that statement to refer primarily to the different political and ideological factions at that time.
    The problem was not the disagreements themselves – those disputes are actually very important.  The problem was that rather than forcefully but respectfully deliberate the issues, the arguments descended into harsh mutual condemnations, and eventually to violence and bloodshed.  As we enter the second election season of 2019, I am deeply disturbed by the tone and content of much of the rhetoric, and I fear that we are still guilty of the type of “baseless hatred” that destroyed the Temple.  Maybe fasting and lamenting about this on Tisha b’Av can help us atone for this sin by learning how to passionately advocate for what we believe in without delegitimizing those who see things differently.  Maybe we can even learn to see the value in opposing points of view.
  1. And finally, we must still mourn the loss of the Temple itself. For many people, this is the most difficult thing – it seems so archaic and foreign, with descriptions of priests offering animal sacrifices and burning incense on sacred altars. But the more one studies the symbolism of the Temple and descriptions of it in the various sources, the it becomes clear that the Temple had so many other facets to it.  It was the pinnacle of holiness, where mortals can touch infinity.  It was the seat of justice where all people could expect to get a fair hearing.  It was the center of the nation, where millions gathered on the Festivals.  And it’s not only ours – it has the potential to unite all of humanity around these noble principles, ending wars forever (see Isaiah 2:1-4).
    Indeed, the Temple is so foreign to us that it’s almost impossible for us to relate to, let alone mourn its loss.  That, however, may be the biggest tragedy of all.

Our rabbis teach (Taanit 30b) that whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit seeing it rebuilt.  Tisha b’Av is actually a great chance to remind ourselves of what we are lacking, so that we can take the necessary steps to improve things.  Let’s use the opportunity.


Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away!

שיטפון_בביר-עסלו'גSomething beautiful, and noteworthy, hapened in my synagogue this past Friday night.  

Here in Israel, we experienced an unusually powerful storm, with high winds and torrential rains.  As I entered the synagogue soaking wet after walking the few blocks from my home, the scene looked pretty much like what one would expect anywhere in the world: Coatracks overflowing with raincoats, and people wearing boots with their shabbat clothes,  muttering about the weather as they shake water from their hair on the way in to pray.  

As often happens at times like this, the Kabbalat Shabbat service in the well-lit and heated sanctuary was particularly lively.  The chazzan chose the “Carlebach” tunes and everyone was celebrating the beauty of welcoming the Shabbat, perhaps with an added feeling of victory and accomplishment for doing so despite the apparent obstacle. At the conclusion of lecha dodi, the congregation continued singing the lively tune without words, and people began to dance in the aisles. Again, this inspiring scene was similar to others I have witnessed in comparable conditions in other parts of the world as well.

But then came the part that can only happen in Eretz Yisrael.  After the singing petered out and as people were preparing to return to their seats, someone spontaneously began singing a completely different song.  It took a few seconds to recognize what he was singing, and another moment or two to understand the point he was making. Then the entire congregation joined in enthusiastic agreement, and another round of joyous dancing ensued.

The song was based on the words of the prophet Malachi (3:10) “I will pour upon you a blessing, with unlimited abundance”.  It was a genuine, heartfelt communal expression of gratitude to the Creator for the blessing of rain.  Afterwards, our rabbi recited the prayer of gratitude for rain after a drought, and everyone responded “Amen”.

This storm came after a few very dry  months, on the heels of several years of below-average rainfall.  Thankfully, Israel now has large desalination plants providing over 30÷ of our drinking water (that number will rise to 50÷ in the next few years when additional plants come online), and therefore we have not suffered from a lack of drinking water.  Still, agriculture is suffering, the economic costs are growing, and the danger of severe ecological problems is looming.  Our beautiful country has been drying up, crying out for water.  We’ll need many more days of abundant rain to repair the damage, so Jews all over the world must continue to pray for rain in Israel.  Still, this one storm was a huge improvement for a situation that was becoming critical. We must all thank God for that great blessing.

As I explained to my students a few months ago before Sukkot (audio link here), Israel’s arid climate is a great blessing.  Although (like many other things) it makes life here more difficult at times, that very fact enables us to develop a much closer connection with God (see Deuteronomy 11:10-12).  In other places, children are disappointed by rainy days, and sing songs like the one referenced in the title of this post.  But here, they are happy, because they are also able to see God’s hand in these seemingly mundane events.

May we continue to merit divine blessings, with unlimited abundance.

Shabbat, Social Justice and the High Court

shabbat candlesIn what is being called a “landmark decision”, the High Court of Justice yesterday rejected an appeal and  upheld a Tel Aviv municipal bylaw that allows certain grocery stores to be open on Shabbat.  Predictably, politicians and news outlets on both sides of the religious/secular divide reacted with the usual hype, immediately recycling old, tired clichés and baseless exaggerations as if reading from an oft-repeated script.  Haredi politicians blasted the decision as an unprecedented attack on the sanctity of the Shabbat which, they claim, enforces the views of a small secular elite in defiance the clear wishes of a solid majority of the population.  Meanwhile, secular politicians hailed it as a historic victory of freedom, democracy, sanity and enlightenment over the forces of darkness and intolerance represented by the religious establishment.

Sorry, but this is all fake news.  In truth, the decision was not a “landmark” – both because it related only to a very narrow legal issue (the division of authority between the national government and local municipalities) and because it may soon be overturned anyway, due to new legislation that haredi politicians have vowed to begin advancing as early as this Sunday.  And for now, nothing is changing in Tel Aviv either – these stores have been open on Shabbat for years.

But actually, there is something fascinating and significant about the debate and struggle behind the ruling.  Although the media and politicians are presenting this as a struggle between religious and secular Jews, it isn’t.  The failed petition against the Tel Aviv law was actually filed by a group of small business owners, most or all of whom aren’t observant.  They want the day off on Shabbat to spend with their families, but say that competition from the chain stores forces them to remain open, robbing them of their right to a day of rest.  Their argument is that the groceries open on Shabbat are owned by big business tycoons who enrich themselves at the expense of their poor minimum-wage employees and small-business competitors who are forced to work on Shabbat.

In other words, in total contrast to the screaming headlines, the fight in Tel Aviv has almost nothing to do with religious coercion.  Rather, it is a struggle for social justice by weaker members of society against oppression by the wealthy class.  I find it sad that politicians from left-wing parties who were elected to support causes exactly like this found it more expedient to abandon those principles to earn a few cheap points by joining another easy attack on religion.

In truth, those of us committed to halachic observance have a lot to learn from the heroic struggle being waged by those small business owners in Tel Aviv.  If you ask most observant Jews what Shabbat is about, they will probably tell you that we refrain from work on the Shabbat to remember God’s creation of the world – just as He worked for six days and rested on the seventh, we are to do the same.  That answer is, of course, correct, as it is based on the Torah’s succinct presentation of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8-11.

But there is also another, less well-known version of that commandment, in Deuteronomy 5:12-15.  Fascinatingly, there the Torah gives a completely different reason for observing Shabbat: “…in order that your slave and your maidservant may rest, just as you do.”  To be sure, Shabbat is about God, religion and holiness.  But it is also about equality, social justice and workers’ rights.  Indeed, Shabbat teaches that those two objectives must go hand-in-hand, as they are inextricably linked to one another.

In an irony that most commentators seem to have missed, the controversial High Court decision was announced on a Thursday, shortly before tens of thousands of normally non-observant Jews around the world prepare to participate in the 5th annual global Shabbat, organized by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s amazing Shabbat Project.  In announcing the decision, outgoing Supreme Court President Miriam Naor protested that the ruling “does not detract from the status and importance of the Sabbath as a national asset of the Jewish people”.   Whether or not one agrees with that assessment, and while the politicians and courts prepare for the next battle in Israel’s ongoing struggle over the religious “status quo”, maybe the rest of us can use this weekend to focus on the deep, powerful and profound messages conveyed by the unique gift called Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom to all!


“Baseless Hatred” and the Temple Mount

I assume I am not the only one who noticed the significance of the timing of the recent violence surrounding the Temple Mount, during the three-week period leading up to Tisha B’av.  Beyond the tragic loss of life and the general frustration of having to deal with this type of disruption, the recent events also forced us to confront the insulting demand – respected by governments around the world including the White House – that our government protect a “status quo” denying any Jewish connection with the site of the Bet Hamikdash, and that we respect the sensitivities of worshipers at this “important Muslim holy site”.  The sight of our government feeling compelled to capitulate to these demands was simultaneously infuriating and humiliating.  I couldn’t help thinking that if we needed a reminder that in spite of all the blessed accomplishments of our generation, the Temple is still very much in ruins, we got it.

But I also noticed another irony.  Remember how, just a few weeks ago, the Jewish world was up in arms about who has the right to pray at the Western Wall, in what format, and especially about who “owns” or should “control” that site?  Remember the flood of angry and vicious statements, op-eds and blog posts either attacking the Reform or Conservative movements or Women of the Wall for demanding the right to non-Orthodox prayer at the Wall, or attacking the Orthodox establishment for using their political clout to prevent this?  Is it not symbolic that the Temple Mount humiliations came shortly after all of these harsh attacks and mutual incriminations, and at this particular time of year?  I see this as a reminder that apparently, the Jewish people – all of us – still don’t deserve access to the holy site over which we fight.

A well-known rabbinic adage (Yoma 9b) teaches that the second Temple was destroyed due to sinat chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. When the rabbis said this, they weren’t really speaking about petty gossip, jealousy, spitefulness and the like.  Mostly, they were talking about sincere and passionate disagreements over religious, ideological and political matters.

At the end of the second Temple period, the Jewish people was divided into multiple factions who argued about the correct way to serve God, and about whether and in what manner to confront the Romans (see Josephus Flavius, The War of the Jews II 8:2, V 1, 6:1; Gittin 56a).  In these debates, each side genuinely believed not only that its position was correct, but that all others were wrong and dangerous, and that nothing less than the future of the Jewish people depended on them prevailing over their opponents.  The problem wasn’t the fact that they disagreed, or that each side fought for what they believed was right.  Rather, the problem was how they conducted those arguments.

It is possible to respect a person while vigorously opposing his opinions.  When one does so, the tone of the struggle, and the methods deemed legitimate, will be very different.  Back then, though, Jews fought bitterly with one another, and all seemed to believe that the ends justified almost all means.  When Jews try to defeat each other this way, we all lose.  The only winners are the Romans.

To me, as we prepare again to sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of the Temple, the lessons are clear.  The reason we’re still banished from the Temple Mount is not because some women want to pray at the main Western Wall plaza with tefillin and Torah scrolls.  And it’s also not because other Jews, who believe this is prohibited, are trying to block them from doing so.  But it may well because of the type of rhetoric and methods that both sides use against each other.

Nowadays, I often hear people invoke the idea of sinat chinam, commenting how sad it is that we still haven’t learned the lessons of history.  The problem is that when people say this, they are almost always criticizing other people’s behavior.  Unfortunately, it is way too rare to see Jews look at themselves and make the honest admission that Tisha B’av requires: “The Lord is righteous; I have rebelled against His word…We have transgressed and rebelled, You have not pardoned…Return us to you, God, and we shall return” (Eicha 1:18, 3:42, 5:21).  So for now, our enemies dance on ruins of the Temple, mocking us while we fight over the wall below.

This year, let’s try to finally learn from the past.

Day and Night Intermingled

Twice this week, I led my students at Yeshivat and Midreshet Torah Va’Avoda (respectively) on short night-time walking tours through Katamon, the Jerusalem neighborhood where they live and study.  Our destination was the San Simon Monastery, located in a beautiful park at the top of the neighborhood.  Our purpose, though, was not to enjoy a pleasant walk in the park, nor to visit the monastery. We went there learn about and reenact the dramatic and decisive battle  that raged there on the final day of Passover 5708 – April 30, 1948.

san simon

At the beginning of the tours, I discussed the two commemorative days we’ll be observing this coming week: Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day, on Sunday night and Monday) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day, Monday night and Tuesday).  As anyone who’s been in Israel at this time of year can testify, the moods of these two days are quite different; in fact, they almost seem like opposites – the first is a day of national mourning, and the second of celebration. The sharp transition caused by the observance of these two days in immediate succession is very difficult emotionally, and also deeply profound.

I asked the students which of the two days they thought we’d be preparing for on the walking tour. Of course, the answer was both. Like many other incidents in Israel’s history, that battle was simultaneously tragic (21 Jewish soldiers were killed and many others wounded), and triumphant (it proved decisive in saving the Jewish neighborhoods of western Jerusalem and enabled the city to become Israel’s capital). So, I told them, when we are mourning next week on Yom HaZikaron, you can think about the things you will hear tonight, and you can think about the exact same things while dancing on Yom HaAtzmaut.

This paradoxical reality may be reflected in a somewhat cryptic comment made by Rashi about these verses at the beginning of the Torah:

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God divided between the light and the darkness. And God called the light “day”, and the darkness He called “night” …. (Genesis 1:3-5)

What, Rashi wonders, were things like before God “divided” the light from the darkness?

It seems, he says, that the original reality was a confusing state described by the graphic expression “ohr v’hoshekh mishtamshim b’irbuvya” – light and darkness were coexistent and intermingled. Since the light was “good”, however, God decided that this was not appropriate, and so He separated them into light/day and darkness/night.

Many see this imagery as a powerful metaphor for the great but confusing period we are living through today. On the one hand, as we approach Israel’s 69th anniversary, with close to half of the Jews in the world already living in our homeland, and with our economic and security situation constantly improving, it seems quite clear that the miraculous redemption promised by the prophets is well underway. But at the same time, it is also painfully evident that our pain and suffering have not yet ended, and we still face many grave dangers.

Just as the very beginning of the world’s existence was characterized by a confusing mixture of light and darkness (ohr v’hoshekh mishtamshim b’irbuvya), a similar intermingling exists now, at the dawning of the messianic era. Each year, the sunrise of the redemption progresses and the daylight shines more and more brightly – but the night of the exile is not yet over, and darkness continues to overshadow us.

This is a paradox, but it is as true today as it was 69 years ago when the Palmah soldiers were holed up in the monastery of San Simon. At the time, with bullets flying, bombs exploding and their comrades dying, they probably couldn’t have imagined that they were laying the foundations of a beautiful park in a lovely neighborhood in the sovereign undivided capital of the Jewish state.

A generation or two from now, similar words will be written about us and the painful events we’ve experienced over the past months and years. Eventually, when the sun finishes rising and the darkness recedes completely, it will all be clear. Until then, we must mourn and dance on the same week – and perhaps ponder these mysteries while strolling through a Jerusalem park.

Hag Sameah – Happy Holiday!

The OU and Women Rabbis: Look Again!

glgAround two weeks ago in the US, the Orthodox Union issued its now-famous proclamation formally prohibiting affiliated synagogues from hiring women to serve as rabbis or “members of the clergy”.

Predictably, many vocal supporters of the idea of female rabbis immediately denounced the ruling as yet another example of what they see as the intransigence of an overly traditionalist, cowardly, misogynist and increasingly irrelevant Orthodox mainstream. Meanwhile, some of their equally vocal opponents from the other side of the aisle gleefully announced that with this statement added to previous ones from other organizations, there is now a wall-to-wall consensus in American Orthodoxy against any change in policy regarding a role for women as religious leaders.

Unfortunately, though, it seems that most commenters on both sides did not bother to actually read the 15-page OU statement or the 17-page rabbinic position paper that accompanied it (both available here).  Those relatively few people who did read it noticed that while a headline like “OU Confirms Ban on Women Rabbis” is accurate, it is only part of the story.  The truth is that the two OU statements were much more nuanced than the earlier pronouncements, in two very important ways.

First, while its conclusion that women cannot serve as rabbis did echo previous rabbinic statements from both the US and Israel, the OU’s Rabbinic Panel presented a detailed and documented halakhic rationale explaining that ruling.  Like any piece of proper halakhic argumentation, in a number of places (e.g., footnotes 17 and 22) it acknowledged the existence of opposing sources that could potentially lead to different conclusions, and explained why the authors do not view those positions as viable or normative.  And the main halakhic section of the paper concludes by emphatically stating its position that women may not serve as rabbis, while simultaneously inviting further discussion on the topic, correctly noting that “the burden of halakhic proof [now] rests on the side of changing the established practice” (page 10).

This is very different than most of the other recent public discussions of this topic, which have consisted mainly of ideological pronouncements and slogans.  If and when a detailed response is published by scholars who disagree with the ruling (some discussion has already begun on various internet forums), this will turn the conversation into a proper and genuine halakhic debate, which will enable the move towards an eventual consensus of one sort or another.

Even more importantly, though, while the OU statements emphatically ruled out women serving as rabbis or “members of the clergy”, both of them also affirmed – equally emphatically – that women’s participation in the leadership of our communities is essential, and must be greatly expanded.  For the benefit of those who won’t read the entire statements, here are a few sentences that should be noteworthy even to those who were disappointed by the ruling:

  • “Women should most enthusiastically be encouraged to share their knowledge, talents, and skills – as well as their passion and devotion – to synagogues, schools and community organizations…. We believe that it is appropriate for women to assume…professional roles within the synagogue setting…[including] teaching ongoing classes and shiurim, delivering lectures, serving as a visiting scholar-in-residence…senior managerial and administrative positions…community educator or institutional scholar…professional counselor to address the spiritual, psychological, or social needs of the community…teacher and mentor to guide females through the conversion process” (rabbinic statement, pp. 13-14)
  • “The spiritual growth of our community is dependent upon a steady stream of talented women both serving as role models and teachers, and filling positions of influence. As a community, we need the best and brightest women – and men – to be motivated and well-trained to pursue careers in avodat hakodesh…steps should be taken to properly recognize women who dedicate their lives and their abilities to serving and educating our community, including the attribution of fitting titles that convey the significance of these roles” (rabbinic statement, p. 16, emphasis added).
  • “We, therefore, underscore that the responses of the Rabbinic Panel that we transmit today are but the beginning of a process and not its end. We envision a continuing process of dialogue and exploration to begin to address these – and other – critical issues in a deliberate manner…. The failure to fully embrace the talents of women and encourage women to assume greater lay and professional roles is a tragic forfeiture of communal talent. We should focus on creating and institutionalizing roles for women that address the needs of Orthodox Jews today, by removing barriers that impede women from further contributing to our community, in halakhically appropriate ways…. Consideration should be given, within acceptable halakhic parameters, to developing appropriate titles for women of significant accomplishment, holding professional positions within the synagogue and communal structure, thereby acknowledging their achievement and status….” (OU statement, pp. 10-11, emphasis added).

I will suffice with these quotes, although there are additional significant points in each of the two documents – again, I encourage everyone interested or concerned about this to read them.  Even these short excerpts, though, should be enough to demonstrate that while the OU said “no” to female rabbis, it also said “yes” to much larger roles for women than currently exist in almost any Orthodox community, including official titles for those women reflecting their leadership status.

About fifteen months ago, I published a blog post criticizing the RCA’s most recent statement against women serving as rabbis.  I complained about the statement’s lack of halakhic explanation, and about the fact that it was very emphatic about what women can’t do, but said almost nothing about what they can, should and must do.  On both of those issues, the OU’s statements represent a considerable improvement.

I propose, therefore, that we move the discussion away from the angry shouting that has continued unabated on blogs and facebook pages, and into these two other, much more productive areas: How to begin to create the greatly expanded leadership roles and titles that the OU and its Rabbinical Panel called for, while developing and continuing a genuine, sophisticated and scholarly halakhic conversation about the exact parameters and limits of those roles and titles.


Dear Mr. President

An Open Letter to Donald Trump from a conservative Republican who didn’t vote for him

Dear Mr. President,donald-trump

I want you to know that I didn’t vote for you.

Don’t misunderstand me – I didn’t vote for your opponent either, because I strongly opposed her policies and despised her corruption.  And in contrast, your party’s platform matches my views rather closely.  Frankly, I’m thrilled that Republicans continue to control both houses of Congress, and I’m also quite happy with some of the names being floated for senior positions in your upcoming administration.

I also identify very closely with the anti-Obama sentiment that swept you into office.  Specifically when it comes to foreign policy (which, as an American living abroad, I see most clearly), I believe that Barack Obama has single-handedly destroyed America’s influence around the world, and the world is much worse off for it.  Like millions of others who were dismayed by his “lead from behind” diplomacy, I too want to “make America great again”.

And finally, as an Israeli resident of the Judean Hills (they call me a “settler”, whatever that means), I’m grateful for the possibility of an American administration that might finally recognize the truth.  I’m hopeful that you and the officials in your administration will differ from your predecessors and understand that the real “obstacles to peace” are not me and my Jewish neighbors, but rather the religious and political leadership of my Arab neighbors.

Perhaps, therefore, I should have enthusiastically supported you in the election.  But I didn’t.  Instead, for the first time since I turned 18 over three decades ago, I chose to not actualize my right to vote for a realistic candidate.

Although we’ve never met, I think you know exactly why I didn’t vote for you.  It’s the same reason that many others (including some very prominent members of your own party) refused to support you: we were deeply offended and alarmed by your rhetoric, and by your persona.

Interestingly, the reasons that I didn’t support you are closely tied to the reasons I didn’t support Clinton and Obama.  In large part, I opposed them because I don’t buy into the distorted political and intellectual culture they represent.  I reject their distortion of liberal values into demands for willful blindness, their refusal to state the truth that militant Islam is currently the single greatest threat to world security, and their condemning anyone who disagrees with them as immoral.

Like most of your supporters, I’m frustrated that one can’t criticize “Black Lives Matter” without being called a racist, can’t advocate a crackdown on militant Muslims without being called an “Islamaphobe” and can’t object to transgender people using bathrooms that don’t match their anatomy without being called a bigot.  And I’m amused that Hillary Clinton’s supporters continue to speak of a “glass ceiling” that ostensibly prevented her from getting elected.  In reality, her failed candidacy was the ultimate success of the feminist movement: she was judged on the basis of her qualifications, not her gender.  She was subject to plenty of criticism and attacks, but none of her detractors – not even you, Mr. Trump (!!) – ever said anything about her being a woman.

So it seems you calculated that enough people were upset about these things that you could ride those sentiments all the way to the White House.  Apparently, you were right about that.  I’m no strategist; perhaps you were right that your offensive, anti-establishment tone won you many votes.  But it also lost you many, including mine.

You see, I am very against the politically correct definition of racism, hatred and bigotry.  But even more, I am against real racism, hatred and bigotry.  I expect the President of the United States – the leader of what is still the greatest nation on earth – to reflect the values that America stands for.  And the world also needs you to act with caution and responsibility, characteristics you haven’t shown yourself to possess.  You’re about to become the President, so it’s now your obligation to change your words and your actions.

Mr. President, you were elected legitimately and democratically.  Personally, I respect that and therefore, as an American citizen, you are now my president.  I’m excited about what I hope your administration will accomplish, even as I continue to be very worried about what you might do and how you might act.

On January 20, you will become the most powerful person on this planet.  I hope and pray that you will internalize that awesome responsibility, rise to the occasion and surprise us by becoming a great leader.

May God bless you.


An expat who still loves America