Yaffed and the War on Jewish Education

by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Jeff Ballabon

There is an ongoing machlokes l’shem shamayim, an “argument for the sake of heaven” within the Jewish world, concerning the correct blend of religious and secular education. Some Jewish schools aggressively compete with the finest prep schools in the country. Others aim to satisfy more basic levels of secular instruction while focusing more intensively on Jewish studies. Yet a third group minimizes the study of secular subjects, producing graduates barely fluent in English, much less geography or biology.

It is appropriate for this topic to be actively debated and discussed, for Rabbinic leaders to encourage schools to follow their educational paradigms, and for parents to choose schools for their children which best meet their own priorities and beliefs. But no matter where we fall in our own philosophies of Jewish education, it is irresponsible and dangerous to direct the heavy hand of government against the choices of others.

That is the approach taken by the “Yaffed” organization, which claims to promote discussion by “rais[ing] awareness” in the community, but in reality aims to end it via coercive action. Yaffed sued New York State in Federal court, demanding that the state Education Department force Jewish schools to change their curricula — and this was a key motivator behind recent state draft requirements for private schools which, at least initially, appeared to relegate religious education to an afterthought.

Jewish survival has always hinged on Jewish education, and our history is replete with notorious examples of government interference — often with active assistance and even prodding from Jews. Whether those Jewish antagonists had a chip on their shoulder towards Judaism or were motivated by genuine concern for children, the results have always been disastrous. From the Greeks and Romans to Tsarist and Communist Russia, educated Jews — that is to say, Jewishly-educated Jews — know that government intervention in Jewish education has been a consistently destructive force.

It has become commonplace for the outside world to cast Jews with secular university educations as more highly educated than those without. Yet as alumni of both elite Ivy-League Universities and revered yeshivos, we know that the scholarship, energy and forward-looking motion within Judaism today arises primarily from those who sacrifice an advanced formal secular curriculum in favor of additional Torah study.

This is one reason why we chose schools for our children that heavily favor Torah subjects and long hours in the beis medrash at the expense of some secular studies. We fully respect the right of other Jews to make other choices. We demand the right to make our own.

This does not mean that the content of our schools’ curricula should not be debated. On the contrary, it is something which must constantly be monitored, discussed, and optimized — but within our community, never imposed upon us from the outside.

We are disturbed, therefore, to encounter an attitude of indifference or acceptance even among some Orthodox Jews, who disagree with those who consciously choose a more cloistered existence — and who believe that these government regulations will lead to no harm. The machlokes about the balance of limudei kodesh and limudei chol may be l’shem shamayim, but there is nothing l’shem shamayim about government interference in a community’s yiddishkeit. It’s also remarkably short-sighted to imagine that if we permit increased government intrusion, it will stop at a few more hours of limudei chol in chassidische chadorim.

The obvious dangers of the Yaffed approach should be self-evident to anyone paying attention to the state of education outside our community. Schools, textbooks and mandatory curricula have become petri dishes for social engineering — culturing growth in directions diametrically opposed to a Torah worldview.

Jewish schools in Great Britain are threatened with closure if they fail to teach “tolerance and respect” for “alternative lifestyle choices,” or if they offer a religious viewpoint on Creation “as having a similar or superior evidence base to scientific theories.” In the United States, schools teach “Palestinian” history while referring to “Holocaust Fatigue” to dismiss the need for education regarding the Nazi genocide. And a Canadian teacher was dismissed for mentioning to a group of high school seniors, during a discussion of differences between personal opinions and the law, his personal belief that abortion is wrong.

The only ordained rabbi on Yaffed’s Advisory Council is Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. That the Reform movement pursues an aggressive statist, anti-religious-freedom, progressive agenda is just as relevant to Mr. Yoffie’s involvement as his history of aggressive hostility towards traditional Judaism and its rabbis, both in America and Israel.

In Great Britain, the government claims that “even though children may have to go to a different school, and this might not be the school of the families’ choice, the enforcement action would ultimately be to the benefit of children.” In other words, state authorities explicitly posit that they are better qualified to determine what is “to the benefit of children” than the children’s parents.

That, of course, is the tacit mindset behind the recent decrees of the New York State Education Department. That is why although the current regulations may not create an immediate problem for our schools and our children, unless we join forces to push back, the next step certainly shall. For governments to tell our schools how to teach our children should offend not only a subset of the Orthodox community, but anyone who values civil liberties, religious freedoms, and parental rights.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Managing Director of the Coalition for Jewish Values (CJV). Jeff Ballabon is chairman of B2 Strategic and advises CJV on strategy and policy.

Originally published in the Jewish Press. This version is without the edits made by the Jewish Press for space and style reasons.

The Politicization of Anti-Semitism

In the Oct. 24 issue of Mishpacha magazine, popular in the Orthodox Jewish community, columnist Jonathan Rosenblum interviewed Jonathan Neumann, author of the excellent book dismantling the false equivalence between Jewish values and liberal activism, “To Heal the World?” Rosenblum closed by inquiring “what, short of an outbreak of violent anti-Semitism, might recreate a feeling among young Jews as being members of a unique people.”

While Neumann’s answer remains instructive, the intervening days have shown that the premise was wrong. The outbreak of violent anti-Semitism transpired that same weekend, but a celebration of Jewish unity has not resulted… because for many Jews, the aforementioned liberal activism came first.

I feel I have yet to adequately process my grief and sorrow regarding the horrific slaughter at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. This is due not only to denial, but how I learned about this atrocity.

As a Sabbath-observant Jew, I knew nothing about what had transpired until after nightfall, when I had returned from synagogue and started up my computer. I happened to look at social media before the news.

So the first thing I read was not the report of the worst anti-Semitic crime in U.S. history. What I read first was that it was my fault.

The blood of the victims was not yet dry, and already people were diverting our attention from the simple fact that Jews are still murdered for being Jews – and not hesitating to blame Jews for anti-Semitism, in classically anti-Semitic fashion.

The question for Trump-haters was why he was to blame. By that, I do not mean an incredulous “why” would Trump be responsible for the actions of an individual who opposed him – and did so specifically because Trump is “surrounded by kikes” and “there is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation.” They had no such question; for them, blaming the President was a given.

Rather, a better word is “how” to justify this improbable connection. They offered multiple, mutually-contradictory rationales, connected by nothing other than the writers’ pre-existing hostility towards the President. Others incriminated Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with no greater consistency except in their previous opinions of their target.

Consider that many of those who say this barbarian felt empowered by Trump also claim that anti-Semites in Gaza turn to violence because they feel powerless. There is no consistency, for none is required. Their underlying concern is not understanding anti-Semitism, but how to leverage it for political gain. For multiple Jewish writers, tweeters and pundits, partisan agendas come before Jewish unity. It is possible that this is even a greater tragedy than the attack itself.

Anti-Semitism is a unique form of hatred. Xenophobia says the “other” is shiftless, worthless, and criminal. The Jew, on the other hand, is conniving, resourceful, plotting. The “other” robs banks; the Jew controls the banks. And one of the basic anti-Semitic ideas is that hatred against Jews is something other than Jew-hatred, and that to the extent that it is, the Jews brought it upon themselves.

No one likes to be hated, and without a clear theological understanding of why anti-Semitism exists, it is comforting to pretend that it is going away, or tied to a political ideology that we can potentially eliminate. And thus it is understandable why Jews fall into this trap. Understandable, but horribly wrong.

Anti-Semitism is found at the extreme ends of all political movements, rather than stemming from one. That Farrakhan referred to Jews as termites, while Bowers referred to a “kike infestation,” is no coincidence – because their ideology is the same, at least when it comes to Jews. The image of Jews as parasites was common in Nazi literature, and long before.

It is true that anti-Semitism increased in 2017 – if we include the 163 bomb threats against JCC’s made by a mentally-disturbed Israeli teen and the Obama volunteer who was stalking his former girlfriend. Of the twelve violent hate crimes against Jews in New York State, nine, fully three-quarters, were in Brooklyn and directed against easily-identified Orthodox Jews – the vast majority (over 90%) of whom support President Trump. Not one of the perpetrators has been identified as a white supremacist. So the leftists are not merely wrong, but are blaming the very Jews who clearly know anti-Semitism far better than they do.

No explanation of the Pittsburgh massacre is valid that does not address the shootings at the Overland Park, Kansas JCC in 2014 and the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2009, and the Crown Heights riot of 1991. It must also encompass the Hypercacher killings in 2015, why synagogues from France to Denmark are defended with armed troops less than 75 years after the Holocaust… and the Holocaust itself. It must, finally, explain why international media reported a rioting mob in Gaza, gathered in order to “rip down the border, and rip the Jews’ hearts from their bodies,” as a “peaceful protest” – and described the precision elimination of fifty terrorists in that mob as a “massacre.”

Jews cannot pretend that this hatred afflicts only those of particular political affiliations. That delusion only makes all Jews less safe.

Jew-hatred is not about politics. It is tied to no other agenda. As it has been for thousands of years, it is about hatred for God, Torah and values — and the same genocidal mission shared by Haman, Hitler and Bowers: “All Jews Must Die.” It cares not whether a Jew is conservative or liberal, religious or secular, rich or poor.

That is exactly why all decent people must fight it, and why all Jews must continue to proudly identify as Jews. Together.

This article first appeared in American Greatness.

The Audacity of Obama

Few things could be more embarrassing than giving Barack Obama a prize for “ethics in government,” as the University of Illinois did on Friday. One is reminded of the Nobel Peace Prize given to Yasser Arafat for graciously accepting a base for his terrorist organization in the middle of Judea and Samaria.

The media has made a great deal of Donald Trump’s personal moral failings and fabrications. The funny thing is, his exaggerations and braggadocio don’t affect our lives. But when Barack Obama told us that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” knowing full well that this was untrue, he defrauded every American. And when he and his staff knowingly misinformed the media about the nature of the Iran Deal, he made every American (and every Middle Easterner) less safe.

Obama told his audience in Champaign-Urbana: “Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different. The stakes really are higher. The consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.”

Which headlines does he mean? Surely he is not discussing getting North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un to the negotiating table for the first time to discuss denuclearization. Obama could not be referring to the growing demonstrations and efforts to topple the Iranian dictatorship in the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the “deal” which propped up that barbaric regime. And one could only hope that he was not discussing Ambassador Nikki Haley taking the chair of the United Nations Security Council, as she confronts and rejects the same U.N. bigotry that the Obama Administration permitted to fester unabated.

No, it is far more probable that he was discussing subjects which he mentioned elsewhere in his address: Trump successes for which he would claim credit, and problems Obama cultivated for which he would blame his successor.

Let us remember that in 2016, when President Trump said he could renegotiate trade deals and bring jobs back to America, Obama ridiculed this as impossible. His precise words were, “what magic wand do you have?”

And now that Donald Trump has waved that wand, sparking the economy, renegotiating trade deals, bring America to the point that—for the first time in history—the Department of Labor reported more jobs available than people looking for work. Obama wants you to believe it was all his doing.

“I’m glad it’s continued, but when you hear about this economic miracle that’s been going on,” he said Friday. “I have to kind of remind them, actually those job numbers are kind of the same as they were in 2015 and 2016.”

No, they weren’t. Unemployment declined from 5 percent to 4.7 percent in 2016, which Obama declared to be about as low as reality would permit. Today it is 3.9 percent, thanks to job creation he dismissed as a pipe dream.

And then, Obama called upon Americans to reject “the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry and keep us cynical.” Though it wasn’t what he meant, his words clearly call upon us to reject the legacy of Barack Obama.

As president, Obama needlessly and repeatedly injected racial hostility into race-blind incidents. Even the Washington Post called his remarks on the arrest of Professor Henry Gates “divisive,” and acknowledged that “Obama’s image as a racial healer never recovered.” Despite the fact that Gates refused to provide ID while standing near the damaged front door of his home, Obama declared that police “acted stupidly” and claimed the incident demonstrated that “race remains a factor in this society today.” In reality, the one who made race a factor was Barack Obama.

After Michael Brown robbed a corner store, refused to comply with police orders, and brought about his own death by attacking the responding officer, Obama called it “heartbreaking and tragic,” and lamented that Brown’s family “will never hold Michael in their arms again.” His words appeared to blame police for the death of a brutal assailant. And Obama’s words had violent and ongoing consequences, encouraging mob reaction not only locally in Ferguson, Missouri, but later in Baltimore, Dallas, and elsewhere.

And then there was Obama’s comment, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” If I had a son who resembled the guy who gave an innocent neighborhood watch member a fractured nose, two black eyes and multiple lacerations to the back of the head, I wouldn’t call attention to that fact—much less speculate on the hypothetical similarity of a hypothetical child. Either way, I would not claim to promote racial healing while calling attention to the race of “victims” who in each case had initiated the confrontations in which they were involved.

What was Trump’s “crime?” To call out violence “on many sides,” pointing out that Antifa was no less violent or dangerous than neo-Nazis. While Nazis are reviled, Antifa is celebrated by the Left as it continues to suppress the free speech of all with whom it disagrees (today, they call it “no-platforming”)—with an uncanny resemblance to the behavior of the Nazi brownshirts of the 1930s.

No one elected Trump imagining him to be a paragon of morality. But those who supported the vastly more consequential lies and frank divisiveness of the Obama era are in no position to lecture. To condemn Trump on the one hand, while awarding Obama for his “ethics” on the other, means that someone’s moral compass is in sore need of calibration.

This article first appeared in American Greatness.

The Nation-State Law is Not the Problem

We hear it repeatedly: Israel’s “right wing” government is unfair to “Palestinians,” and now the new Nation-State law, which declares Israel the home for Jewish self-determination and Hebrew its official language, cements into place “racist” policies towards its minorities.

Begin at the beginning: “Palestine,” rather than describing an “indigenous” population, is a name associated with colonialism, supremacism, slavery and bigotry — especially against Jews. “Syria-Palaestina” was the name used by Greeks and Romans to establish hegemony over the Holy Land and its surroundings, including, of course, Israel, the homeland of the Jews. And when the Romans ethnically cleansed most of the Jews from Israel, they continued to use the name Palestine. The name “stuck” through centuries of aggression and hostility by one murderous empire against another, all trying to claim Jerusalem as their own. That the Al-Aqsa mosque is built upon the site of the Holy Temple is no coincidence — a church once stood there as well. All wanted to dominate the Jews and their homeland, towards whom they displayed a uniquely virulent hatred.

Yet today the Palestinian Authority attempts to deny that the site of the Holy Temple, or the Holy Land itself, has anything to do with Jews. This is because that simple historical fact utterly contradicts their narrative.

Not long ago, PA President Mahmoud Abbas visited Saudi Arabia, and wanted to present a sign of Palestine’s unique national culture. So he presented a framed copy of the cover of the Palestine Post… today’s Jerusalem Post, which then as now was a Zionist publication.

This is because until 1964, when Yassir Arafat created the PLO, “Palestinian” was used as a reference to Jews. The 1938 flag of Palestine was a gold Magen David superimposed upon equal-sized blue and white panels. Palestine was also the place Arabs began to boycott in 1945.

To create “Palestine,” Arabs revived a word used by Roman barbarians, a flag from the Arab Revolt (especially the short-lived Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan, which in 1958 used precisely the same variant as today’s PA), and a map from Israel — for, in contra-distinction to any true indigenous people, the map of Palestine “coincidentally” traces the precise borders of the 22% of British Mandatory Palestine not given to the Hashemite clan of Mecca.

We should not forget that the vast majority of British Palestine is today’s Jordan, which is three times as large as Israel. No one talks about Jordan’s “legitimacy” under its Saudi king. The morphing of maps of “Palestine” into maps of Israel has no connection to a distinct people. The purpose of this Palestine is to displace the Jews once again, while claiming that Jews are somehow not indigenous, and the descendants of marauders from Arabia, the homeland of all Arabs, from which they expanded during a period of Jihad following the death of Mohammed, are the “indigenous.”

The dishonesty is obvious. Arabs did not build the pyramids in Egypt or the ziggurats of modern-day Iraq. They enslaved and ethnically cleansed the indigenous (black) Africans from the lush Mediterranean coastline of Africa, and just in recent decades pushed Christians out of Lebanon. Note that an Arab cannot even pronounce the word Palestine in Arabic, because the language has no phoneme for P. “Palestinian” Arabs are the world’s only population to claim to be native to a land whose name they cannot pronounce.

There are refugees from every conflict. And what humanitarians do is help those refugees find new homes, where they can live in safety and comfort. We do not seek to repatriate them — which is why there is a big discussion now about Syrian refugees.

Today, there are people in America who call themselves “Palestinian-Americans” — but curiously far fewer Syrian- and Egyptian- and Iraqi-Americans. Many of these Palestinian-Americans have never lived in Palestine or Israel, and have family trees filled with relatives who lived, at various points in time, in every part of the Arab world — which constitutes 22 countries, 423 million people, over five million square miles of land. And if they search back to a common foundation, it will be, of course, in Arabia, just as every Jewish family tree eventually goes back to Judea.

Yet they claim “Palestine,” uniquely, as their “homeland,” describing themselves as a Palestinian-American — and they don’t mean the Jordanian part. They mean Judea. They have been indoctrinated in this false narrative — for across America, fraternal organizations of Moroccan, Libyan, Egyptian, Algerian, Iraqi, Syrian, and, yes, Saudi Arabians service Arab-Americans. They, too, are Arab-Americans.

Homeland denial is a close relative of Holocaust denial, which runs equally rampant among supporters of “Palestine.” Homeland denial pretends (a) that the Jews have not maintained an historical presence in their homeland for 3,500 years, save for brief periods of hatred, genocide and ethnic cleansing so severe that we simply don’t know if more than a handful of Jews survived; (b) that the Jews have somehow given up on praying towards Jerusalem and for their return to Jerusalem, which show that no people or faith has as dear a connection to their homeland as do the Jews; and/or (c) that the current Jews are all not merely Ashkenazi, but actually Khazars who converted — never mind the Yemenite, Iraqi, Moroccan, Syrian and Ethiopian Jews who recognize those supposed “Khazars” as their brothers and sisters. No one is hated for being Khazar — but as it has been throughout history, bigots continue to find new excuses to hate Jews.

Once we discard this distorted and frankly racist narrative, we recognize that accusing Israel of apartheid and other harmful “policies” is itself part of that same unique hatred. Before and after the creation of the modern country of Israel, the Arab world erupted into pogroms and hostility against their local Jewish populations. Over 99% of the Jewish populations of Arab countries have been ethnically cleansed over the last century — there isn’t a single Arab country with even 10% of the Jewish population it had 100 years ago. The land stolen from Jews during that ethnic cleansing is over five times the size of the State of Israel. And no one seems to accuse the Arab states of apartheid. After all, it’s only Jews they hate.

A simple, appropriate tit-for-tat response would have been to quite literally expel all Arabs from Israel, which we regard as unthinkable, extremist, and evil. But that would merely have applied the standards used by every Arab state against its Jews. By that calculus, Arabs in Israel would be not merely subjugated, but subjected to the very pogroms and needless killing of which Israel is routinely — and falsely — accused.

In other words, even if the mythology about Israel’s “policies” were actually true, that still would not mean that Israel was guilty of apartheid, but rather was responding in kind to the bigotry of the surrounding Arab nations — in most of which, to this day, a Jew cannot worship freely, seek employment, or in many cases even travel safely, including both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank cities under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority not only refuses to guarantee the safety of a Jew who enters its territory, whether Israeli or otherwise, but it also pays the families of terrorists and declares explicitly that no Jew (Israeli Jew, one who wishes to live in the Jewish homeland) will be allowed to live there. Yet no one seems to accuse the Palestinian Authority of apartheid.

What did Israel do instead? What are Israel’s “policies?” Try this question: how many Arabs in Arab states are able to vote in free, fair, open elections? Is it Israel’s fault that Mahmoud Abbas is in the 13th year of his 4-year-term as “president”? The third largest political party in Israel’s Parliament is the United Arab List. There are also Arabs on Israel’s Supreme Court — making the only country in the world with both Jewish and Arab Supreme Court Justices the one accused of “apartheid.” Arabs in Israel can explore, study and perform in any profession, women can drive, get an education and work without fear of an “honor killing” if they fall in love with the wrong person, and homosexuals can live without fear of being jailed or burned alive — all rights denied to them in many Arab states, and also in the West Bank and Gaza. By the definition of apartheid established in South Africa, the only legitimate description for characterizing Israel as an apartheid state is “false.”

Arab citizens of Israel have the same rights as anyone else. There is no country in the world with Israel’s ethnic diversity yet less racism. The valedictorian at Tel Aviv University a few years ago was an Egyptian Arab, who was courageous enough to attend college in Israel despite what he was told, yet shocked by the level of difference between the lies that he was told about what to expect, and the reality.

The life expectancy of an Arab in the West Bank is several years longer than in Jordan. Ditto the life expectancy of a Gazan over an Egyptian. Yes, despite everything you’ve been told about ethnic cleansing and genocide, the Arab population of Israel is five times as large as it was in 1967. The Arab population of the West Bank and Gaza is also five times as large. The number of universities in Gaza went from one to 18 between 1967 and 2005.

The three results of Israel’s “policies” towards Arabs are superior healthcare, higher education, and the right to vote. Certainly by all definitions of genocide and ethnic cleansing, describing Israel as doing so is, once again, false.

Actually, it’s a uniquely bigoted and appalling misuse of those terms, because the majority of Israel’s Jews are refugees from the Arab ethnic cleansing mentioned earlier. Think about it: Arabs now turn against Israel, the refuge of the victims of Arab ethnic cleansing and genocide, and accuse it of ethnic cleansing and genocide. It’s a moral obscenity. In no other situation would this be granted credence.

You want racism in Israel? No one but Muslims are permitted to pray on the Temple Mount, precisely as it is in Mecca. This is characteristic of the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt and Yazidis in Syria — and explains why Bethlehem, once 20% Christian, is merely 5% Christian today.

Israel’s policies and Nation-State Law are not the problem, any more than the dozens of countries where Islam is the official religion. The problem remains the unwillingness of Arabs to accept that Palestinian Arabs remain Arabs, part of the Arab nation, and that Judea remains the homeland of the Jews.

Published in the Times of Israel.

To Heel the World

Our reading this week begins with an unusual word in its opening verse: “And it will be that as a consequence [Eikev] of listening to these judgments, guarding and doing them, that HaShem your G-d will guard for you the Covenant and the kindness which He swore to your fathers” [7:12].

Literally, the word Eikev is best translated as the “heel.” This is how our forefather Yaakov received his name, because he emerged from the womb with “his hand holding onto the heel [Eikev] of Esav” [Gen. 25:26 — The name “Yaakov” prepends a Yud to the three-letter root Eikev]. The blessings of the Covenant follow on the heels of listening. As soon as we listen, the blessings are there.

But this also means that the blessings are not guaranteed on their own, regardless of our actions. As we see so frequently in the Torah, when we turn away from the path, we are pushed back towards it, and often with painful events — such as the destruction of our Holy Temples — as tragic consequences of our misbehavior.

So we must listen… and to what must we listen? “To these judgments” – the voice of a Higher Power, the Supreme Being, a voice greater than our own. We don’t make the rules, we follow the rules. We guard and do these judgments, because we want the blessings of the Covenant. The blessings come on the “heels” of our following the Divine Command. We must “heel” — using our intelligence and capabilities, but following the Torah as surely as a dog follows its Master.

Recently, I was sent a review copy of a book called “To Heal the World?” It is an elaborate critique of a popular school of thought which the author digests down to a single phrase: Tikkun Olam, healing the world. It asserts that the “Jewish left” is both “corrupting” Judaism and endangering Israel.

Without getting into his politics, when it comes to Judaism he has a good point. The authentic Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam found in our tradition has no practical consequences, other than following certain rules that our Sages set out to help other people perform the Commandments. [Whenever the Sages instituted a Takanah, it was to help us fulfill the Commandments (or to commemorate events such as Purim, Chanukah and Fast Days). When it helped other people fulfill the Commandments, rather than the person directly affected by the Takanah, it was Tikkun Olam — for the benefit of the world.]

This has little to do with the way that the phrase “Tikkun Olam” is used today. Rather, today we are told that any number of causes (universally with a particular bent, as he emphasizes) are not merely worthwhile, but actually mandated under the Jewish concept of “healing the world.” And, of course, we are the ones to determine what is or is not Tikkun Olam.

It is not merely that this is not true Tikkun Olam… it’s not even Judaism.

Judaism is not about determining for ourselves what is right, but submitting to a greater judgment then our own. We are not promised blessings for finding a new ideal and associating it with repair of the world. We are promised blessings if we listen.

Our Torah is about listening, listening to judgments from a Higher Power. Our mission is not to “heal” as much as it is to “heel.” That is what brings the blessings of the Covenant, towards which we must strive.

Wisdom in the Skies

In the Talmud, the Sages tell us to study the skies, or more specifically the calculations of the calendar: “says Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeini in the name of Rebbe Yochanon: from where do we know that it is a Mitzvah to calculate the seasons and the months? For it says, ‘for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations’ [Dev. 4:6]. What is the wisdom and understanding which is [apparent] to the eyes of the nations? It is said that this is the calculation of the seasons and months.” [Shabbos 75a]

Given today’s scientific knowledge, the unique wisdom of the Jewish calendar is not as obvious as it once was. But let us look, for comparison, at the calendars used elsewhere in the world — and we soon realize that the Jewish calendar is unique, as it not only correctly determines the length of lunar months and solar years to extreme precision, but reconciles the two, ensuring that the Jewish holidays fall in their correct season.

The Muslim calendar is exclusively lunar. As the lunar year is roughly 355 days, Islamic holidays fall 10 days earlier in the solar calendar each year — Ramadan was from mid-May to mid-June this year, but in just thirteen years, it will begin in the middle of December. To this day, lunar sightings in Saudi Arabia are used to determine when new months begin for much of the Islamic world.

Christianity, of course, uses an exclusively solar calendar — and even determining its length, though much easier than the lunar cycle (as we will see), is still not simple. The Julian calendar was first created during the Second Temple era, and adopted by the Church in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea. By 1582, mathematical errors had caused their holidays to “drift” ten days out of place — Easter, for example, is supposed to fall near the spring equinox. At that time, the church recognized that the deliberate dissociation of their holidays from the Jewish calendar was done by individuals who chose to be “wrong with the moon rather than right with the Jews.”

As we know, we did not merely rely upon sightings, but had a very precise determination of the length of each month: 29.53059 days. This is stated as a day, an hour, and then a division of an hour into 1080 parts. To my knowledge, no one divides an hour into 1080 parts for any other reason than the calculation of the lunar cycle: 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 parts. How precise is this? Consider that 792/1080 is 11/15, or 44 minutes — so had the rabbis wanted to use a round number, one was easily available. Instead, they used a very precise number.

But how accurate is it? Even with all of our modern tools of measurement, the calculation of the lunar month is not at all trivial. The “synodic” month is based upon when the moon returns to the line between sun and earth — because the moon reflects light from the sun, and the new moon occurs when the earth blocks sunlight from reaching it. Because earth’s orbit itself is elliptical, the length of a month can apparently vary from 29.18 to about 29.93 days. The average used to calculate eclipses is … 29.530587981 days. Which is to say, 23.53059 to four more digits of precision, amounting to a net difference of 0.1744416 seconds.

The Sanhedrin knew precisely when the moon could appear, and what it would look like at that time, and thus they knew what to ask witnesses to ensure the new moon had indeed been sighted. This is also what enabled Hillel II to establish the calendar in use today, when, due to our dispersion, it became clear there would no longer be a Sanhedrin to announce each month — and why the calendar has needed no adjustments since then.

As a non-Jewish scholar recently wrote, this was “knowledge shared by the Jews with all who had interest.” Indeed, “for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.”

[Photo: Rabbi Sheeya Ostreicher teaching lunar cycles. Credit: NJ Jewish Link.]

Coming off the Back Bench

The Torah portion of D’varim, beginning the last of the 5 books of Moses, is universally read on the Sabbath proceeding the Ninth of Av, when we commemorate the destruction of both Temples and other tragedies throughout Jewish history.

Each week’s reading is divided into seven sections, one for each of the seven men called to read. But it is universal practice (or nearly so?) to stop the first person’s reading this week one verse prior to the end of the first section, and begin the second person’s reading at that point. This is because the first verse of the second section begins with the word “Eichah” — the same word the begins the Book of Lamentations (which is thus called “Eichah”). Literally, the word “Eichah” simply means “How” — but it has a sad connotation. In the Torah [Dev. 1:12], Moshe asks: “how can I alone bear your pestering, burdens and arguments?” [In the Book of Lamentations, Yirmiyahu [Jeremiah] begins, “How can she sit alone? The city of a great nation is like a widow…”] So rather than have the second person begin with such sad and even accusatory words, we have him begin a verse early.

Many have spoken about the connections between this verse in our reading, and the Book of Eichah. Perhaps one of the most straightforward is Moshe’s mention of Israel’s self-destructive behavior. What does Moshe mean by the “burdens” that Israel forces him to bear? Rashi explains:

And your burdens — this teaches that they were Apikorsim [heretics]. If Moshe would go out early, they would say “why is Moshe going out early? Perhaps things are not good in his house. And if he would go out late, they would say “why is he not leaving already? What do you think? He sitting there thinking of bad guidance to give you.”

“Heretics” is a strong word. Because they sat around speculating about Moshe’s behavior, even in an uncomplimentary fashion, that makes them heretics? Actually, yes it does. The Sifsei Chachamim says about Rashi that when he uses the word Apikorus, “he means to say rebellious… like a horse without reins.” We find this thought in the Talmud as well [Sanhedrin 99b]: one of the definitions of Apikorus is “one who disgraces a scholar.” That itself is the rebellion against the Torah’s guidance.

Sadly, in our day everyone imagines themselves to be an expert, and even demeans the experts for not being as wise as they are. And if this applies to every area of life, certainly it applies to Torah and its teachers! You can find essays today which describe Moshe in terms no less disparaging than those described by Rashi. And if that is what they say about Moshe himself, you can only imagine what they say about the leading scholars of our day.

The Torah is telling us that this behavior is truly self-destructive. It is the same behavior that Moshe talked about, in the verse tied to the Book of Lamentations itself. Without guidance we are indeed like a horse without reins, imagining we ourselves know the right way forward through the darkness.

On the Ninth of Av, we are not merely looking back at the past, we look at the promise of a bright future. By seeking guidance and following the Torah’s path, we will come out of the darkness of exile and into the light of Final Redemption. May we see that happen quickly, in our days.

What Do you Live For?

The Talmud, at the end of the first tractate, Brachos, learns a fascinating lesson from the verse: “This is the Torah [the law]: when a person dies in a tent…” [19:14] This verse speaks about impurity that attaches to everything in the same building as someone who passed away. But Rebbe Shimon Ben Lakish says that the beginning of the verse is hinting that Torah is not truly established in a person unless he ‘kills himself’ over it.

In order to truly acquire Torah, he says, a person has to work himself to exhaustion trying to understand.

The truth is that this applies to any endeavor or field of study. The more time we spend on it, the more effort we put into it, the better the results we will achieve. Certainly natural talent is important, but effort is just as crucial. And in the case of Torah study, it is actually far more so.

While a person might “kill himself” to acquire Torah, it is not about choosing what we die for — but what we are living for. What is our goal? How do we find satisfaction?

Rabbi Moshe Luzzato tells us, at the beginning of his famous work “The Path of the Just,” that his work is intended to remind us of things which we probably already know ourselves. And then he goes on to say many things which we would never have recognized on our own. But one thing he says, which we must admit is rather obvious when we think about it, is that a soul cannot find true satisfaction in the material world.

The Rabbi gives us a parable of a princess who marries a peasant. Nothing the peasant can bring her could possibly compare to the wealth found in the palace of her childhood. Similarly, the soul cannot find satisfaction from money, material goods, or physical pleasures. True happiness and satisfaction are found in spiritual endeavors — charity, doing kindness for others, prayer and study.

I was reminded of this after seeing an article regarding the recent, tragic suicide of a famous chef, Anthony Bourdain.

Bourdain had a true love for good food, which he was able to articulately share with others. He was an author, he was a TV host, he traveled the world sampling exotic dishes.

But there was one particular clip of him that accompanied the news reports, which to me was a warning sign. People say that they were worried about him when he didn’t come to dinner the night before his death. But long before that, there was this particular clip.

It shows Bourdain sitting in a Vietnamese street restaurant, with assorted dishes and a local beer before him. He is holding a traditional bowl in one hand and a pair of chopsticks with the other, picking up Vietnamese noodles. And he says:

“Fellow travelers, this is what you want. This is what you need. This is the path to true happiness and wisdom.”

I’m not mocking him; it’s tremendously sad, and a commentary on the world today. I think it’s obvious he wasn’t completely serious, no matter his entirely straight delivery. No one could truly imagine that the path to true happiness and wisdom lies in a bowl of Asian pasta.

And obviously, none of us knows the true nature of Bourdain’s personal struggles. But it also seems that he didn’t know anything better, that he had no other source for happiness and wisdom.

Do we, also, find ourselves pursuing trivialities, giving them undue importance? It goes back to the question, what do we live for? A person who “kills himself” over Torah certainly knows the path to true happiness and wisdom. And that is the road on which we all hope to find ourselves.

The Importance of Good Company

This week, we witness Moshe throwing up his hands in despair. Moshe, Moshe Rabbeinu, our master teacher, he who transmitted the entire Torah directly from G-d to the Jewish People, has had it with the Jews. He’s done. “And Moshe said to Hashem, ‘why have You done such a bad thing to Your servant, and why have I not found favor in Your eyes, that You would place the burden of this entire nation upon me?'” [Num. 11:11]

What did Israel do that was so wrong, so horrible, that Moshe gave up?

Think about it. The nation believed the report of the spies, and mourned their (supposed) inability to inherit the land of Israel, and Moshe did not give up. So this was a bigger problem than their refusal to believe Hashem’s promise.

The people tried to replace Moshe with a Golden Calf, and not only did Moshe not give up, he demanded that God forgive them. “Why, Hashem, should your anger flare against Your nation, which You brought out from the land of Egypt with great strength and a strong arm? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out for evil purposes, to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from off the face of the earth?’ Return from your flaring anger, and set aside the bad for Your nation.” [Ex. 32:11-12] Moshe even said, “And now, if you will lift their sin [from upon them, then that will be good], and if not, erase me from Your book which You have written!” [Ex. 32:32] So what Israel has done here must be far, far worse than trying to undermine Moshe himself.

What did they do? They asked for variety on the menu! They asked for meat. They got tired of eating mahn all the time, so they wanted to go to a restaurant for a day. And this was the thing Moshe found unbearable. Why was it so wrong?

The answer is that Manna was a perfect food which took care of all their needs. In fact, it had whatever flavor they wanted, so they could have been tasting the finest broiled steak if they so chose. Those who ate it produced no excrement, as it provided full and complete nutrition with no waste. And it was provided each and every morning (except Shabbos) with no effort, so Israel did not have to worry about their physical needs, and could devote their time to Torah.

And that was the problem. Israel was demanding less spirituality. They couldn’t handle such a perfectly spiritual food, ingesting an open miracle all the time. They wanted to go down a few levels.

What inspired something so patently crazy? How did they come to think such a silly idea? “The gathered ones that were among them had a desire, and they sat and cried, also the Children of Israel, and they said ‘who will feed us meat?'” [11:4] Who were “the gathered ones?” Rashi explains, this was the “mixed multitude” who came out of Egypt with the Jews.

The mixed multitude was a corrupting influence. They were the first to worship the Golden Calf, and the first to demand meat. If not for them, the Jews themselves would never have thought about wanting a less holy food, but once somebody else was talking about it, suddenly it became “the rage.” It became the “conventional wisdom.”

I recently made the mistake of posting to a forum on Facebook which purports to be for open discussion of Jewish topics. Someone had posted, essentially, “how can some Jews be so foolish as to disbelieve {X}?” Now I’m sure some of you will immediately figure out what {X} was, but the scientific topic is not my point. I simply called to their attention that many (in fact, among the ‘charedim’, nearly all) who had attained an advanced education in the hard sciences, and also adopted Jewish observance as adults, had come to no longer believe {X}, so perhaps the issue is not as settled as they imagine.

If I imagined that an intelligent discussion would follow, I was to be sorely disappointed. For every person who attempted to address the issue, there were five who focused upon discrediting religious thought, the experts who dared buck the conventional wisdom, even my own credentials. The people I described, they said, must have had a psychological need to “fit in” with their new group (never mind that becoming observant requires willingness to deviate from a peer group). These scientists must reject scientific facts, ones that I had already mentioned they continue to regard as accurate. I was even told that I, personally, had “falsely” claimed a science or engineering degree by someone who didn’t understand the difference between a degree and a major — and someone restated the fallacy even after I showed that it was obviously wrong. To be certain, some also insisted that knowledge of mathematics and statistics is less relevant than biology to understand a question of mathematical probabilities. That was the tenor of the entire discussion.

It was an exercise in groupthink, in order to avoid critical analysis. Two days later, someone contacted me privately to tell me that he found my arguments very interesting, and that it was obvious to him that many in the so-called discussion were unable to respond objectively. “Anyone,” he wrote, “should have been able to see the prejudice in their approach.”

And he was right. Anyone should have been able to see that they were being irrational, but you had to be willing to question conventional wisdom in order to do that.

How do people imagine that soldiers defending lives are doing a bad thing? Because they are told by their neighboring influences, which is to say the media, that people were shot “protesting the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem,” rather than that armed terrorists were answering a call to “tear down the barrier, and tear out the Jews’ hearts.”

Thanks to radio, TV and the Internet, we are constantly barraged with false facts and false priorities. We have the “mixed multitude” close at hand, in fact in our hands, on little screens, telling us what to think and what is correct — to drop spirituality and embrace materialism and falsehood.

It is so obviously wrong to do so, that it is incredibly disheartening to those trying to lead us in a better direction. This is what brought Moshe to throw up his hands in dismay. May we have the discernment to reject false thinking, no matter how common, in order to embrace the truth.