Send Obama A Message!


— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Obama administration considers Israel a sponsor of terror — at least according to Dick Morris, the disgraced ex-advisor to Bill Clinton, and a host of self-styled “conservative” media. The news was shocking — well, maybe not to the clever folks who knew all along that the president is a secret Muslim, but certainly to the rest of us.

What turned out to be the case is that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency maintains a list of 36 “specially designated countries” whose immigrating citizens get extra scrutiny because their nations “promote, produce or protect terrorist organizations or their members.” Note the word “or.”

“Produce,” in this context, means that terrorists reside in the country. Thus, countries like the Philippines and Morocco, along with Israel, are on the list. Approximately a million and a half Israeli citizens are Arabs-many of whom have ties to Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. So no, with apologies to Mr. Morris et al, the U.S. does not consider Israel a terror sponsor.

What makes some people all too ready to misrepresent such things is that many Americans, especially in the Jewish community, have deep concerns about President Obama’s Middle East policies. My personal view is that these concerns are overblown. While I realize there are other opinions, as far as I can tell Mr. Obama’s positions on building in the settlements and on the terms of Israel-Palestinian negotiations have been American policy since long before his presidency.

Even doubters of Mr. Obama’s good will, though, should recognize the import of the administration’s declared readiness to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood. That stance risks the U.S.’s international political capital and may even, G-d forbid, come to threaten Americans’ safety. Might it speak more loudly about the president than his opposition to new settlements?

Speaking equally loudly is what happened on September 9, when Mr. Obama acted swiftly to warn Egyptian authorities that they had better protect Israeli embassy guards in Cairo besieged by a mob. When Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minster Barak were unable to reach the apparently indisposed Egyptian military leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spent hours hounding the Egyptian, finally reaching him at 1 AM to let him know that if anything happened to the Israelis, there would be “very severe consequences.” Egyptian soldiers protected the hostages until an Israeli Air Force plane safely evacuated them.

Mr. Netanyahu later recounted that he had asked for Mr. Obama’s help and that the president had replied that he would do everything he could. “And so he did,” testified the Prime Minister.  

It may not be meaningful for many, but I was struck two days later on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks when the president, betraying his Islamic beliefs (joke!), chose for his reading at the New York ceremony the 46th chapter of Tehillim. The one including the words (in the White House’s translation):

“Though its waters roar and be troubled… there’s a river whose streams shall make glad the City of G-d, the holy place of the Tabernacle of the Most High.”

And:

“The God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Whatever our takes on this or that statement or position, hard facts are not up for debate.

Let’s not forget some such facts:

  • The Obama administration has provided more security assistance to Israel than any American administration;
  • he has repeatedly declared (first in 2009 in Cairo during his speech to the Arab world) that the bond between the U.S. and Israel is “unbreakable”;
  • his Secretary of State lectured Al-Jazeera that “when the Israelis pulled out of Lebanon they got Hezbollah and 40,000 rockets and when they pulled out of Gaza they got Hamas and 20,000 rockets”;
  • his State Department has condemned the Palestinian Authority’s “factually incorrect” denial of the Western Wall’s connection to the Jewish people;
  • and much more.

Last week, in the lead-up to a Congressional election in Brooklyn  in which Jews had ample other reason to vote against the Democratic candidate, some ads presented the contest as an opportunity to “Send Obama a Message”-which some Jews took to mean an angry message about Israel.

Many thoughtful Jews, though, have a different message for Mr. Obama:

"Thank you."

Passports, Provisos and Photo Captions


— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

When you stop to think about it, the fact that so much of the world’s attention-not to mention so much jealousy, anger and irrationality-has for so many years been so keenly focused on so small a piece of real estate as Yerushalayim is astounding.

Actually, in a certain way it’s enthralling too, demonstrating as it so powerfully does how special the geographic epicenter of the Jewish People-the dynamo of holiness that sanctifies the rest of Eretz Yisrael-is, today no less than ever.

Over history, many empires claimed sovereignty over the quintessentially Jewish city, site of the batei mikdash, the central Jewish Holy Temples; and many marauders overran it. Now, to add to all the indignities visited upon the Holy City over the millennia, Jerusalem is being summoned to appear before the United States Supreme Court.

Well, okay, not exactly. What the High Court will be considering is the passport of a Jerusalem-born boy. Menachem Zivotofsky’s parents, American citizens, requested of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv that “Israel” be listed as the country in which their son entered the world. Then-President George W. Bush had mere weeks earlier signed a bill directing the U.S. State Department to do just that upon parents’ request.

More after the jump.
But Mr. Bush made clear at the signing that the law “impermissibly interferes with the president’s constitutional authority to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs.” That proviso, in which Mr. Bush essentially rejected the authority of the law he signed, was reminiscent of the executive orders issued by every sitting president since 1998 that, despite the 1995 “Jerusalem Embassy Act” mandating the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the move would not actually happen. The justification for the orders is the need to “protect the national security interests of the United States.” The guardedness, in other words, is seen as necessary to preserve the government’s claim of objectivity with regard to any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

And so the State Department maintains that U.S. passports of individuals born in Jerusalem list only the city’s name, without anything appended.

In 2003, the Zivotofskys sued the State Department on behalf of their son, and that litigation-dismissed, and then resurrected on appeal-is what the Supreme Court will begin to consider next month. An alphabet soup of Jewish groups have jumped into the fray with “friend of the court” briefs, almost all in support of the Zivotovskys. An exception was the American Jewish Committee, whose representative contended that while it does consider “West Jerusalem” to be part of Israel, it believes that “all issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict have to be settled at the negotiation table.”

In the meantime, the Obama administration came in for some criticism on the issue. The New York Sun’s website reported recently that photographs posted on the White House website that had carried captions referencing “Jerusalem, Israel” had been altered to read simply “Jerusalem.” The changes were presumably an effort to avoid the captions being invoked in the upcoming Supreme Court case-although photo captions obviously have something less than legal import.

In response to an inquiry, a White House official said the “U.S. policy for more than 40 years has been that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final-status negotiations between the parties. As in prior administrations, the White House photo captions should reflect that policy.”

Indeed, the White House site’s captions during the Bush years also omitted “Israel” in at least some Jerusalem-datelined photos. Former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams told the Washington Post that the White House during those years “did not have a hard-and-fast rule” for statements and press releases about identifying Jerusalem as being in Israel.

In the end, the Supreme Court will decide what it will. And Israel will negotiate what it will. And believing Jews everywhere will continue to know what we have always known: That, whatever any court or any country might contend, Yerushalayim, the city Jews have faced in prayer thrice daily for thousands of years, is the heart and home of Klal Yisrael.

In fact, maybe that phrase is what passports should put after Jerusalem’s name.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine.

Cartoon reprinted courtesy of Yaakov Dry Bones Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com.

Compromising on “Principle”

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

“Those are my principles!” famously declared Groucho Marx. “And if you don’t like them, well… I have others.”

Principles are important, to be sure. But Groucho wasn’t entirely wrong. There are principles… and there are principles.

For a believing Jew, of course, religious principles are sacrosanct. And there are high principles, many in fact derived from Judaism, that have come to be embraced by much of humanity.

But there are also things that people, including religious Jews, may call principles but which are really just preferences, inclinations or stances. And it is important to keep that distinction, well, distinct.

What musters that thought is the language that flowed forth after the agreement between President Obama and Congressional leaders on a budget deal. Commentators pontificated about this politician “standing on principle,” that one “abandoning his principles,” a third being sent to the principal’s office (okay, maybe not).

More after the jump.
That undeserved elevation of economic and political views to high principle yielded much rhetoric. Vice President Biden was reported to have said that tea party Republicans had “acted like terrorists,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) called the deal a “Satan sandwich”; and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) labeled those who disagreed with his position “arsonists.”
The New York Times editorialized that the deal represented “capitulation to… hostage-taking demands.” Columnist Tom Friedman called the tea party the GOP’s “Hezbollah faction.”

The vitriol was a bit much. But, of course, it was over matters of principle-at least in the eyes of the vitriolic.

The one word that was treated as an expletive was “compromise,” which, of course, in the end, well described the deal. It was the ninth word (the nine including “Good afternoon, everyone”) uttered by President Obama in his brief remarks announcing the agreement; and he repeated it several times.

To some, the compromise was lopsided, hence the anger at the president from within his own party. But a compromise it was, and it had to be.

In Judaism, compromise is no uncouth word; it is in fact something of a high principle itself.

The Shulchan Aruch, Jewish law’s mainstay-text, states: “It is a mitzvah to ask litigants at the start [of their case] ‘Do you wish [for the case to proceed through] strict law or compromise?’… Every court that regularly delivers compromises is praiseworthy.” (Choshen Mishpat, 12:2)

Thus, the coming together of two parties, each of which agrees to not stand on “principle” (i.e. position), is the Jewish ideal. Likewise when it comes to “principles” like one particular economic theory over another, or this political philosophy vs. that one: the praiseworthy path is compromise.

Every special day on the Jewish calendar is a “learning moment,” an opportunity to glean a keener appreciation of the concept that attends it. Tisha B’Av is past, but as we move on we should carry its message: The evil of baseless hatred, the sort of factionalism and infighting that preceded the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdosh, or Holy Temple.

Our Orthodox Jewish world today has its share of the same, of course, which is surely why the Temple has not been divinely rebuilt. And while true Jewish principles may never be compromised, many contemporary disputes are based on illusory “principles”-personal positions, not timeless truths.

We approach a happy day, Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Jewish month. It is a day of rejoicing, the Talmud teaches, partly because of the breaking down of barriers between Jews. So many contemporary barriers masquerade as principles. Recognizing that they are not, and appreciating compromise, are worthy things to carry from the ninth of the month to the fifteenth. Not standing on personal “principle”-whether with our spouses, our friends, our business partners, our employers, or our employees-is key to reversing what we mourned on Tisha B’Av.

Because the willingness to compromise is a true Jewish principle.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine.

The Silicon Emperor’s New Soul

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

“A donkey loaded up with books.”  That’s the term the Chovos Halevovos (Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekudah) uses to describe a scholar who has memorized much information but lacks the judgment, character and/or human insight to transform what he carries into wisdom.

Donkeys bray and smell bad.  Computers whir (at least if they have fans or rotating hard drives) and are odorless (though some keyboards are redolent of coffee).  But donkeys and computers share two things in common: Each can hold much, and neither approaches being human.

More after the jump.
The media minions were gushing of late over the performance of an IBM computer that bested a pair of bright and well-versed human beings in a game show competition that tested knowledge in a broad array of areas.  Christened “Watson,” the computer brought to the podium a 15-terabyte data bank of facts.  And it answered questions (or, better, supplied questions to proffered answers or hints, the conceit of the game show, Jeopardy!) with aplomb.  
Just as it was programmed (by humans, of course) to do, “Watson” zeroed in on key words in the clue, combed its mega-memory for associations and, if its program rated the result sufficiently likely to be correct, sounded the game buzzer in a tiny fraction of a second.  The flesh and blood contestants didn’t really stand a chance.

Hosannas sounded from all directions.  The accomplishment was hailed as a quantum leap toward Artificial Intelligence, the holy grail of some scientists who believe that a machine can be constructed that is indistinguishable in its cognitive abilities from a human being.

What Watson made me think of, oddly, was PETA, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”  

The silicon scholar and the extreme animal rights group might not seem to have anything to do with each other.  But both foster the same disturbing and deeply wrong notion: that human beings are not an utterly unique part of creation.

PETA morally equates animals with humans.  Its “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign compared the killing of chickens and cows to the murder of men, women and children. Its president memorably lamented that “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.”

Watson’s inventors and promoters exhibit no such mental aberration.  For all I know, they may well enjoy a good steak.  But all the same, a subtle offense lies in the Artificial Intelligence crowd’s notion that a sufficiently advanced computer could achieve consciousness, sentience, self-awareness.

Because it, too, presupposes that humans are not qualitatively special beings, that, in our essences, we ourselves are just fantastically well-engineered pieces of software.

But we’re not.  We may share our basic biologies with the animal world; and elements of our information-processing abilities may be mimicked (even bested) by machines.  But we are neither wallabies nor Watsons.  We don’t just feel; we emote.  We don’t just compute; we conceive.  We don’t just act; we choose.  Our reflections in a mirror mimic us too.  But they’re not us.

There’s a Purim thought here.

Because Amalek stands for meaninglessness.  From an Amalekian point of view, the world is, as they say, what it is; nothing more.  It offers no reason to imagine that we are something beyond animals who speak and wear clothes (and so what?) and analyze things (though not even as well as computers).  No reason to consider that there is good and bad, right and wrong, or some plan for history.

Klal Yisrael stands for the very opposite, the conviction that human beings are the pinnacle of creation, that they can consider and communicate not just wants, like animals, but ideas, concepts, truths.  And that a nation was chosen to be an example to the world of a human being’s highest aspiration, holiness.

And so let’s be wary of Watson, or at least of Watsonism.  And, amid all the cheering of the silicon emperor, let’s declare unabashedly that he has no soul.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The Cultural Jew Within

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

“Cultural Jew” is a term often used for members of the tribe who see their membership as essentially ethnic in nature, informed by things like culinary choices, celebration of the Jewish calendar’s holidays (though not, to them, holy days), and-at least for some-certain political leanings: “Cultural Jews.”

They may attend synagogue on special occasions, in particular on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, on the anniversary of a parent’s death-and even recite the Kaddish-not because they perceive spiritual power in those days or that Kaddish but mostly because… well, because that’s what their parents or grandparents did.  Because that’s what Jews do.  Tradition, so to speak, for the sake of tradition.

Another kind of cultural Jew, less commonly acknowledged but not altogether rare, is the cultural Orthodox Jew.

More after the jump.
That would be one who doesn’t limit his Jewish expression to gefilte fish and Chanukah but rather eats only foods graced with the best rabbinical supervision and drinks only Jewish-processed milk; who wears a black hat or fur one, and even a long coat; who prays with a quorum regularly and sends his children to yeshivot and may even attend Torah classes; but who does it all for much the same reason as his less Jewishly active counterparts: Because that’s what Jews-in this case, Orthodox Jews-do.  It’s not that he doesn’t believe in the Creator.  It’s just that he doesn’t give Him much thought-even while living a seemingly intense Jewish life.

Of course, valuing our forebears’ traditions, dressing like them, adopting Jewish family customs, are undeniably important.  But when the trappings of observance are essentially all that there is, when they aren’t accompanied by a consciousness of why they are important, what’s left is mere mimicry, paraphernalia in place of principle.

That there are “Cultural” Orthodox Jews helps explain otherwise baffling things, like how an Orthodox Jew can engage in unethical business practices, cheat, steal or abuse.  Or, more mundanely, how he can cut others off in traffic, act rudely, or blog maliciously.  Or, for that matter, how he can address his Creator in prayer with words so garbled and hurried that, were he speaking to another mortal, they would elicit laughter-or pity, for the apparent impairment.

To be sure, desires, compulsions, selfishness and greed are always at work.  But the check for such spiritual adversities is consciousness of G-d; and in some seemingly observant Jews it appears to have gone missing.  Their observance is a Fiddler on the Roof sort of “Tradition!”-miles wide, perhaps, but mere millimeters deep.

The phenomenon of Cultural Orthodox Jews should discomfit us.  After all, mitzvot, commandments, and Jewish customs are a Jew’s spiritual nourishment; but awareness of the Divine is-or should be-the very air we breathe.

Which leads to something even more painful to ponder:  Don’t even we who think of our Jewish consciousnesses as healthy and vibrant lapse at times into our own sort of temporary “cultural Jewish” modes?  Do we always think of what we’re saying when we recite a blessing on food (or even take care to pronounce every word distinctly)?  Are our observances truly religious, or do they sometimes devolve into rote?  Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety?

The celebrated thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) maintained that most of what we do, including our mitzvot, contain mixtures of motivations-including peer pressure, selfishness and the inertia of habit.  When the rabbis of the Talmud observed that “from lo lish’ma [ulterior motives] comes lish’ma [pure, Divine-directed intent],” Rabbi Dessler maintains, they mean that we are charged with elevating the pure motivation in our actions above the other intentions, intensifying it, making it the prominent factor in all that we do.

In truth, all of us live on a continuum here, some more aware of the Divine, of reality, some less.  The challenge-for us all-is to transcend whatever degree of “cultural Jewishness” we may harbor, and allow our lish’ma to come to the fore.  

© 2011 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Messages in the Mayhem

Rabbi Avi Shafran

You’ll log many a mile to find someone more disapproving than I am of the anger and vilification that characterize so much of American political discourse.  But to lay the tragic January 8 shooting rampage in Tucson on the doorstep of politicians or pundits is silly, and no less incendiary itself than any firearms metaphor.  To be sure, political opponents should not be compared to Nazis or have crosshairs superimposed on their faces.  But because such things are ugly and sophomoric, not because they induce violence.  

More after the jump.
Yes, there have certainly been politically and ideologically motivated murders, but much mayhem has also been visited on public servants by actors impelled not by creed but craziness.  

And delusions were clearly the demons prodding Jared Lee Loughner.  Teachers and fellow students of the alleged Tucson killer at the community college he briefly attended were sufficiently concerned by his odd behavior, inexplicable bursts of laughter, non sequiturs and bizarre tirades to have raised alarms with the administration, which asked him to leave the school.  His philosophy professor said that Loughner’s “brains were scrambled” and that he had never once brought up politics in class.  The shrine discovered in Loughner’s backyard, complete with skull and candles, rounded out the picture of a deeply disturbed person, not some earnest observer of current events pushed over the edge by political ads.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t societal soul-searching to be done.  There was a time, after all, when the disgruntled, disenfranchised and demented chose to express themselves by standing on soapboxes and ranting.  Guns, knives and explosives were no less available to them than they were to the angry workers, teenage school-shooters and wild-eyed conspiracy theorists who have spilled so much innocent blood at workplaces, campuses and shopping centers in more recent years.  Why have so many citizens, whatever their emotional state, turned these days to murder to make a point?  More important: What does the turning say to America?

Any Jew who received a proper Torah education has internalized the subtle but sage concept that, although we are not prophets, we do well to seek in tragic events some message about how we might improve our behavior.

No, it isn’t, as some simpletons assume, precise cause and effect that we seek, but some message, some pointing to where we might stand to improve.  Our country would benefit these days from a similar searching of the national soul.

Even if the Tucson shooter is a nutcase, in other words, his horrible act can and should serve as an impetus for politicos, pundits and all Americans to more carefully consider our patterns of speech (and “our,” dear Democrats and Republicans alike, means “our,” not “their”).  Political epithets may not yield violence, but incivility still coarsens society.

There may, though, be another introspection-ripe place pointed to by the disregard for human life that has woven its way into American society.  

Because a subtle waning of respect for life, particularly at its beginning and end, has been evident in our society over recent years.

Well over one million abortions, for instance, take place each year nationwide.  It was recently reported that fully 41% of all pregnancies in New York City this year were “terminated.”  

American ethicists have made pronouncements about what constitutes “quality of life,” advising medical personnel when further care of patients is “futile.”  “Brain stem death,” where activity in higher parts of a brain might still be present, has become an enthusiastically embraced criterion for the removal of vital organs.  

Princeton Bioethics Professor Peter Singer considers “the life of a newborn” to be “of less value than the life of a pig” and advocates for the euthanasia of severely disabled infants.

Asked by The New York Times in 2005 what value he thinks may disappear in the next 35 years, he responded: “the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.”

People like Jared Lee Loughner may already be ahead of that treacherous curve.

And America needs to begin blocking the road.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Jewish Traits Gone Bad

Rabbi Avi Shafran

I have long suspected that the Jewish stereotypes invoked by comedians, impolite pundits, and anti-Semites contain some grain of truth.  After all, even a powerfully positive middah, or personal trait, can, if mangled or misapplied, devolve into a parody of its essence.  And when that happens, a negative stereotype results.

More after the jump.
Take, for instance, the obsession with money and possessions about which Jews are regularly impugned or mocked.  (Some may recall-it was before my time-the Jewish radio jokester Jack Benny who, accosted in a skit by a mugger demanding “Your money or your life!” pauses a few seconds and then, when the stick-up man repeats his warning, responds: “I’m thinking!  I’m thinking!”)

But concern with currency is only mockery-worthy when it has degenerated into stinginess (as in the case of the fictional muggee) or thievery.  In its pure form, it is called frugality, and is lauded by the Torah.  

“The possessions of the righteous,” the Talmud teaches, “are as dear to them as their bodies.”

That comment is not meant to counsel miserliness; it conveys a deep and quintessentially Jewish thought: Every honestly earned penny has true worth, for it can be turned into something meaningful.  We might think of someone who, say, rinses out and re-uses a Styrofoam cup as some sort of miser; and maybe he is.  But he might also be a truly righteous man, appreciative of, and reluctant to waste, something still usable.  If he’s generous to the needy, we know which one he is.

And so while stinginess may be ugly, frugality is not; indeed, it is a Jewish trait, and should be proudly embraced as one.

Similarly, the stereotype of Jews as cliquish is rooted in our very real and proper sense of peoplehood.  When, however, we unwittingly give the impression that we look down upon others similarly created in the image of G-d, we offer mockers (and haters) ammunition.  It is important to not let our special bond with the “family” that is Klal Yisrael, the Jewish People, send a negative message to others.  But internalizing that special bond, in the end, is essential to being a Jew.

Of late, I’ve been thinking about another Jewish stereotype: the worrier.  The fellow who frets about whether he turned the oven off or locked the door before he left home, about what might happen if he boards that plane, or what that stomach pain might mean.  Of course, all sorts of people worry about small or far-fetched things.  But there does seem to be a particular stereotype of Jewish overanxiousness.  What middah might it, in a twisted way, reflect?

What occurs is that worrying about unlikely things that might go wrong might be the flipside to something very Jewish indeed: Appreciating the myriad things that regularly go right.

We say “Modeh Ani” (the daily acknowledgement of gratitude to G-d each morning) to acknowledge the all-too-easily-ignored miracle of our waking up.  We say “Asher Yatzar” (the blessing recited after using the bathroom) to remind ourselves not to take the functions of our bodies for granted.  We say “Modim” (“We acknowledge,” one of the silent prayer’s blessings) during each of our prayer services to thank G-d for His continuous gift of our lives and sustenance.

That all reflects a fundamental Jewish middah, “hakarat hatov”-in the phrase’s most literal, most fundamental, sense: the “recognition of the good” that G-d bestows on us daily, indeed every hour, every minute, every second.

To be exquisitely sensitive to all the blessings from which we constantly benefit requires us, on some level, to realize all that could go wrong.  There are people, after all, who don’t wake up from their night’s sleep; whose bodies do not function normally, whose lives or livelihoods are imperiled.  Only a keen recognition of such possibilities can lead us to fully appreciate what so many people mindlessly take for granted.

Could that quintessential Jewish characteristic be what sometime decays into “Jewish worry”?  Might anxiety be a warped expression of what, ideally, should be a feeling of joyful gratitude to the Creator for (in Modim’s words)  “nisecha sheb’chol yom imonu”-the “miracles that are with us each and every day”?

Perhaps, in other words, the Jewish worrywart, by obsessing over the myriad things that can go wrong, is mangling the Jewish trait of gratitude to the Creator for when things go right.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami.

Missing The Good Old Days?

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

Do you miss the good old days when we had a President who refused to allow the US to participate in the UN’s Durban Review Conference because he believed Israel would be unfairly criticized.

A President who rejected the Goldstone report, and refused to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey when Ankara insisted Israel be excluded.

A President who asked Congress to approve a $205 million package to help Israel build a new anti-missile defense system.

A President who spoke up on Israel’s behalf to help it gain acceptance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A President who didn’t shy from authorizing the killing of an American-born radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen.

A President who, in a speech delivered in the heart of the Arab world, told his listeners that they need to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

A President who, addressing the UN General Assembly, stated clearly and unequivocally that “Israel is a sovereign state and the historic homeland of the Jewish people” and went on to say that “It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the US.”

A President who, on the domestic front, signed an executive order that preserved the faith-based social service funding initiative and pointedly did not forbid participating religious groups from discriminating in hiring in order to be faithful to their religious beliefs.

Well, take heart.  The good old days are more recent than you think.  You have that President.  His name is Barack Obama.

No, I didn’t vote for him in 2008.  I’m a lifelong Republican, an alumnus, in fact, of Young Americans for Freedom. (I was once young.)  

But it bothers me that Mr. Obama is negatively viewed by so many Orthodox Jews, ostensibly because he treats Israel badly and is hostile to religion.

I have no statistics, only anecdotal evidence and journalistic gleanings, for my feeling that he is so viewed by many intelligent and otherwise well-informed frum folks.  But if I’m right and he is, one has to wonder why.

Maybe it’s his fiscal strategy.  Economics is an esoteric, inscrutable science to me, something on the order of particle physics.  And so it may well be that the President deserves opprobrium by the heapful for his fiscal policies.  But those policies are not the major part of the criticism one hears about Mr. Obama “in the mikvah,” so to speak.  There he is indicted on charges of insensitivity (or worse) toward Israel or religious Jews.

Surely our community is not so uninformed as to consider Mr. Obama’s middle name, given him at birth, an indictment of his character; or so credulous as to doubt his citizenship; or so crass – one hopes – as to distrust him for a surplus of melanin.

There may well be reasons to feel negatively toward the current Administration (certainly many people, and they are hardly limited to our community, do).  History will have its say in time.  But if any readers were surprised a few paragraphs above to discover that the “good old days” of American support for Israel and concern for religious rights are the here-and-now, they must admit that they were not as well-informed about our President as they thought.

The real problem here, though, isn’t Mr. Obama or our feelings about him.  It’s something deeper.  

One of the most basic Torah imperatives is modesty.  Not only in dress and in speech but in attitude – in recognizing that there are things we don’t know, in some cases can’t know.

And yet so often we seem to feel a need to embrace absolute, take-no-prisoners political opinions; to reject any possibility of ambivalence, much less any admission of ignorance.

Certitude is proper, even vital, in some areas of life.  But in the realm of politics it can be, in fact usually is, an expression of overconfidence or worse.

Part of wisdom is knowing what one doesn’t know.  And part of modesty is acting accordingly.

© 2010 AMI MAGAZINE

Theodore Sorenson 1928-2010


— Rabbi Avi Shafran

Most people will be forgiven for not imagining that the late Theodore Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s close confidant and speechwriter, born in Nebraska to a father whose first name was Christian, might be Jewish.  But in the eyes of halacha he probably was.

Mr. Sorensen, who died on October 31 at the age of 82, was born to a Russian-Jewish mother, Annis Chaiken, although he was raised as a Unitarian.  He was responsible for much of the soaring oratory associated with President Kennedy, who once called the celebrated speechwriter his “intellectual blood bank.”  Sorensen had an extensive role (some say a full-fledged ghostwriting one) in producing Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, and the president included him in important foreign policy discussions, including those revolving around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a truly hot point in the Cold War.

More after the jump.
Although Sorensen was not a self-promoter, his death brought focus to the considerable role he played in the Kennedy White House and, thus, in American history.  And, for those who take pleasure in (or are suspicious about, or just find curious) the influence that Jews – recognizable as such or not – have come to wield on world affairs over the ages, he was but another good example.

As he was an example of the particular prominence of Jews in progressive causes.  In his teens, Sorensen registered with the military as a conscientious objector and in his later years he relentlessly championed liberal ideas and ideals, working with Nelson Mandela on voter registration in South Africa and with President Obama’s presidential campaign.  He served, too, as a board member of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which seeks to pursue accountability for human rights abuses.

Such activities well fit the stereotype of the American liberal Jewish activist, which engenders pride or disdain depending on the observer.  What is striking, though, is how noticeable Jews are on the other side of the American political spectrum as well.  The Kristols and Podhoretzes, peres et fils, are examples that most readily come to mind.  But there are many others.  New York Times columnist David Brooks famously observed that for some people, “con” in the word “neocon,” is “short for ‘conservative,’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’.”

So how exactly does one make sense of the fact that Jews, presumably channeling some deeply-ingrained ethnic inclination, end up moving and shaking both ends of the political seesaw?

One approach is to simply note that Jews tend to be cerebral (a generalization, to be sure; many of us don’t seem to do much thinking at all) and so there will always be a good sized pool of bright and motivated Jews from which influential political players and activists of varied stripes will emerge.

But there is something else at work here, and it has less to do with brainpower than with a sense of Jewish mission, of wanting to better society.  To effect, in the phrase fashionable these days in some Jewish circles, tikkun olam – the “perfection of the world.”

And that drive, holy at its roots if not always in its fruit, has long taken Jews in different, sometimes diametric, directions.  Wherever on the political/social spectrum they may end up, though, what drives them there – often without their realization – is sourced in a desire… to serve G-d.

Yes, G-d.  The Torah makes clear that the Jew is intended to be an instrument of the Divine, to help bring the rest of the world to recognition of His glory.  That is true tikkun olam, as the phrase is used in the Aleinu prayer. Every Jew is hard-wired to want to do the will of the Creator.

The shame lies in the obliviousness of most Jews to how, in fact, they can create a better world.  To be sure, Jewish tradition requires empathy and charity; as it does personal responsibility and morality – “liberal” and “conservative” ideals alike.  But the Torah’s bottom line is that the observance and study of its laws comprise the ultimate path to perfection – our own personal perfection and that of the entire world.

Many Jews would – and do – scoff at that contention.  G-d, if they think of Him at all, is there to be beseeched for sustenance, health and success.  But making a better world, they insist, requires political or social activism; observing often challenging or arcane laws and studying ancient texts could not possibly lead to world peace, security and human welfare.  Of course, the scoffers will happily use their computers without a thought to how this or that click here or there manages to yield this or that effect.  But to imagine that the Engineer of the universe may have programmed His creation to respond to Jews’ observance of the Torah’s laws somehow taxes their imagination.

And yet, the seed of that truth lies waiting somewhere in every Jew’s soul.  Sought out and nourished, it will grow.

The nourishment might be said to lie in a paraphrase of a thought often associated with Theodore Sorensen (although he insisted the words were those of his boss, the 35th president):  

Ask not what your Creator can do for you. Ask what you can do for your Creator.

Maryland Supreme Court To Hear Religious Freedom Case

Orthodox Jewish plaintiff claims court’s refusal to recess trial over Shavuot violated his religious rights.
— Rabbi Avi Shafan

A Silver Spring, Maryland Orthodox Jew’s claim that judges in the Montgomery County Circuit Court violated his religious rights by refusing to recess his medical malpractice suit over the Jewish holiday of Shavuos is now before the state’s highest court.

Alexander Neustadter is charging that the judges considered the “efficiency of the docket” to trump his need to observe the Jewish holiday, which observance includes restrictions that prevented him from appearing in court.

Agudath Israel of America filed a “friend of the court” brief  in the Maryland Court of Appeals in support of Mr. Neustadter’s position.  The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s protection of citizen’s free exercise of religion, the brief claims, well covers cases like the one being considered by the Appeals Court.  It notes that Mr. Neustadter filed a number of motions calling the court’s attention to his inability to appear in court during the two days of Shavuos, and the similar inability of his lawyer, who would be acting as his agent, to attend the trial on those days.  The motions were denied.

Although the Agudath Israel brief makes clear that the organization takes no position on Mr. Neustadter’s malpractice suit itself, it takes strong issue with a contention made by the defendant in the suit that the holiday of Shavuos is strictly observed only by “a subsect of the Orthodox Jewish faith” – an assertion Agudath Israel calls “completely untrue and legally irrelevant.”  As to what is legally relevant, the Orthodox group’s brief cites U.S. Supreme Court rulings that being forced to choose between a religious obligation and a court penalty generally constitutes an abrogation of an American’s religious rights.

Only a “compelling state interest,” the brief continues, can legally justify such an abrogation of a fundamental right – and the “efficient and orderly administration of justice” – which the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate appellate court, ruled justified the lower court’s rejection of Mr. Neustadter’s motions – does not satisfy that requirement.

Although there are in fact scattered legal precedents for considering the efficient administration of justice to trump individual rights, the Agudath Israel brief cites the particular cases and explains how each of them is qualitatively different from the case before the court.

The Agudath Israel brief was authored by the organization’s Washington Office director and counsel, Rabbi Abba Cohen, Steven A. Loewy, a prominent Rockville, Maryland attorney, assisted by Agudath Israel legal intern Miss Jenny Figa.

“The courts of our country are looked up to by the public as the guardians of the laws of our country,” the Agudath Israel submission concludes. “If a court can trample on an individual’s ability to observe his religion, as was done in this case, the message to employers, teachers, and all others in positions of authority over others is clear: interests of efficiency are more important than respecting an individual’s religious observances.”