Pushed to the edge
The February 15 edition of the Jewish Standard troubled me. I am not yet a member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, but the Standard might very well push me over the edge into declaring my support.
There were two troubling pieces in the issue that spark this letter.
In his op-ed column, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner wrote about supporting Donald Trump for comments made during the State of the Union address (“Not everything fits neatly into a box). In so doing, Rabbi Kirshner creates some sort of moral equivalence between Trump and his critics (of whom I am one). I reject that assertion.
I find it difficult to disassociate character from beliefs and actions. Trump is a man who has had a lifetime record of sexually questionable behavior. He most recently (falsely) claimed that the Japanese prime minister nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee has rejected two former nominations, in 2017 and 2018, as forgeries.
As for beliefs and action, Trump has never repudiated the “very fine people” in Charlottesville, and has fueled anti-Semitism with his consistent support of white nationalism. And despite a great deal of hype over the past 15 years, none of Donald Trump’s real estate plans in Israel ever have resulted in a brick or golf course being built. Trump has never visited Auschwitz, and after a visit to Yad Vashem, he left a guestbook message that many found outrageous. At one of his rallies, a supporter was videotaped shouting, “Go to f…ing Auschwitz” at protesters.
Trump has abandoned the Middle Eastern peace process, with the result of chaos in Yemen and Syria, an empowered Hezbollah, and an Iran vowing to go nuclear with its hardliners vindicated by rejection of the JCPOA. And this past summer, Israel suffered the greatest outbreak of violence on its southern border since 2014. Against the background of all of this evidence, a few well-scripted words at an address before Congress are little more than window-dressing.
The second piece in the February 15 issue was a letter to the editor. The writer criticized former Representative Steve Rothman for not condemning the anti-Semitic views of two current members of Congress (“Rothman should attack Democrats”). So far, so good. But he then goes on to excoriate the entire Democratic Party for being anti-Israel.
He cites a recent Anti-BDS bill passed in the Senate, with 22 Democratic votes in opposition. But what he fails to mention is that the opposition (which included Rand Paul) was not based on support of the BDS movement. The bill had broad bipartisan support, except for a provision empowering state and local governments to ban BDS protests. There is a constitutional concern. The First Amendment prohibits government from restricting citizen’s speech. U.S. judges in Kansas and Arizona struck down similar state laws in 2018. In addition, the bill also ran into opposition, as it was passed during the government shutdown.
With all due respect to Rabbi Kirshner and the February 15 letter writer, Donald Trump does not deserve support for one brief moment of political grandstanding. And, the Democratic Party is not anti-Israel; it never has been and never will be.
Why fund hatred?
Rabbi Meir says he loves the Land of Israel “from Mount Hermon to the beaches of Eilat and everything in between” in his op ed, “The faith of a liberal Jew” (February 15).
Unfortunately, he belongs to a group, the New Israel Fund, that funds organizations that accuse the Israel Defense Forces of war crimes and wants to give up the in between to Palestinians who still teach Jew hatred, venerate terrorists, and kill fellow Palestinians for the horrific crime of selling land to Jews. I have a suggestion: Why don’t you join a group that seeks to change Palestinian society so that an accommodation can someday be contemplated, instead of afflicting a war-weary Israeli public with funding from groups that seek its harm?
Holding the line
I take the opportunity to respond to Mr. Joseph Kaplan’s February 14 column, “When our leaders fail us.”
Mr. Kaplan opens his column by recalling his participation in Lincoln Square Synagogue’s search committee for Rabbi Riskin’s successor. Mr. Kaplan notes the comments of two of the candidates (both more to the religious right than the shul) regarding the “role of women in Orthodoxy.” Mr. Kaplan uses these comments to launch his criticism of the decision by the overwhelming majority of Orthodox rabbis to not permit the ordination of women. It is thus noteworthy that Rabbi Saul Berman, the successor to Rabbi Riskin at LSS, has recently published a back story on “Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Opening Shiur at the Stern College for Women Beit Midrash.” In the article, Rabbi Berman writes that he specifically undertook to make clear that the intent of the program was not “the first step in YU’s broader plan to ordain women.”
Mr. Kaplan then describes the issue that has arisen between the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and one of its members, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. Because Mr. Kaplan claims that the controversy affects the “entire community,” he complains that the RCBC’s bylaws and proceeding have not been made public. As any organization, the RCBC is 100 percent within its rights to establish criteria for membership; the organization’s members can then either conform and continue membership or not conform and end membership. Notwithstanding the publicity and the ensuing commentary, this issue does not affect the “entire community”; rather this is between the RCBC and Rabbi Helfgot (and, indirectly, Netivot Shalom). As Rabbi Helfgot is a member of the RCBC, he does have access to the bylaws and proceedings; there is no basis for Mr. Kaplan’s complaint regarding the RCBC’s procedural processes.
In substance, the RCBC is aligning itself with the position adopted by the Orthodox Union following the halachic decision of a rabbinical panel of seven leading rabbis. In a thoughtful statement accompanying the decision, the OU described the panel being made up of “rabbis each enjoying an exceptional national reputation for scholarship and integrity, each a significant, recognized talmid chacham; individuals to whom large segments of our communities’ rabbis routinely turn for psak on issues of significance and who have, as a consequence, dealt with national issues in communities both large and small, and both homogeneous and heterogeneous in hashkafa.”
The conclusion of the OU’s rabbinical panel should come as no surprise. I have no doubt that all of the rabbis named in Mr. Kaplan’s article regard Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l as a towering figure and authority for centrist/modern Orthodoxy. In 2010, Rav Aharon disapproved of ordination for women. “The thornier problem is of course the issue of conferred or legislated leadership. In practice, this issue decomposes into two separate problems — the role of officer in a shul and semikha for women…. I am convinced that most of the points raised with regard to the first area are readily soluble. That is not the case, however, as regards the second, which touches upon elements long abjured by either fundamental Halakhah or minhag Yisrael. This relates, of course, to the formal spiritual status and not to administrative roles of different character. As regards the former, holding the traditional line is, for us, very much in order.”
Indeed, in a 2010 blog entry, Rabbi Helfgot describes himself as a student of Rav Lichtenstein and, while defending the halachic basis for the point of view to allow the ordination of women, Rabbi Helfgot expresses his personal view against the ordination of women. “My own view, which I have expressed elsewhere, is that taking into account the practical sociological-communal realities, a move perceived as ordaining women at the present moment is premature.” (Yes, Rabbi Helfgot continues to suggest that “as time passes there will be more receptivity to opening up more to areas of spiritual leadership for women.” With the overwhelming consensus of modern Orthodox rabbis against the ordination of women, that future — the ordination of women — has not yet arrived.)
Mr. Kaplan is concerned that this is causing a rift in the community and will alienate “a segment of the younger generation who, unlike some of their elders, are completely comfortable with women in Torah leadership roles.” I think it appropriate to reflect on the famous words of Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l in remarks made at the 1975 RCA convention in the context of another challenge facing the Orthodox community. “I want to be frank and open. Do you expect to survive as Orthodox rabbis? Do you expect to carry on the mesorah under such circumstances?… I know that modern life is very complex…. We are confronted with horrible problems — social, political, cultural — and problems of the family, of the community, and of the society in general. We feel, and I sometimes feel like you, as if we are swimming against the tide; the tide is moving rapidly, with tremendous force, in the direction opposite of the way in which we are going…. We are facing an awesome challenge, and I am mindful of all that…. What can we do? This is toras moshe; this is surrender; this is kabalas ol malchus shamayim. We surrender. The Torah summons the Jew to live halachically…. We surrender to the will of the Almighty…. The halachah has its own orbit, moves at its own certain definite speed, has its own pattern of responding to a challenge, its own criteria and principles.”
Finally, Mr. Kaplan’s article has been entitled with a phrase that reflects Mr. Kaplan’s characterization of the RCBC decision as a “blunder.” I wonder how that fits within the spirit of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s mutual respect that Mr. Kaplan calls for at the end of the article. It seems to me that in this area, the OU, the RCA, and the RCBC have acted with leadership, sensitivity, and nuance.
Continuing Mr. Kaplan’s analogy, this is a case where between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai “nimnu v’gamru” (see Shabbat 13b) — “they counted and decided”. From the OU rabbinical panel — “we believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.”