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Friday, July 24, 2015

On Mutual Interests




On Mutual Interests

Jonathan Pollard.

There, I said it: The two most uncomfortable words for American Jews. Let me say it again:

Jonathan Pollard. Jonathan Pollard. Jonathan Pollard. JONATHAN POLLARD!!!

For those who argue that U.S. and Israeli policies are or should be in perfect alignment, one need merely cite these two frightening words - the Jewish Voldemort, the "He Who Shall Not Ne Named" of the current and previous generation as a reminder that US and Israeli interests are not always in alignment.

There is no more notorious nor controversial contemporary American Jewish persona than Jonathan Pollard (no, not even Woody Allen or Shmuley Boteach or Amy Schumer or Ari Mandel). To this day, he remains in a secure prison for spying against the U.S. The good news, of course, is that he gets free cable, and as much time to study Toirah or surf porn as he wants.

To this day, there is debate over whether he was a hero, a villain, or a fall guy. He is the elephant in the room, the uncomfortable fact that everyone wants to forget but cannot. He is the criminally insane grandfather that you want to hide from your date before you “close the deal”, if you know what I mean…

So, what were his crimes? That itself is subject to debate.

There are those who believe him a hero who uncovered secret military documents of security relevance to Israel that were meant to be shared with Israel based on a mutual security pact and yet were not. In this narrative, Pollard committed an act of conscience, fulfilling an American commitment not met by the Reagan administration, the US administration at the time.

Those who believe him a villain point to the fact that the information passed to the Israeli government was done so at a price of tens of thousands of dollars. What hero requests payment? He sounds more like a Shnorer collecting for a yeshivah that has more Rabbeihim than Talmidim.

And those that consider him a cad suggest that the information he provided was unsolicited and valueless, that the U.S. was in full compliance with its commitments, that Pollard offered information to other countries – not just Israel, and that Pollard himself created the “spy network” by tempting the Israeli government of the day, a violation of the Biblical injunction of "Lifnei Iver Loi Sisain Michshol", “do not place a stumbling block before a blind man”.

There are even those who believe that the information provided had nothing to do with national security issues. According to this narrative, Pollard’s real crime was that he stole the secret formula for Crabby Patties or Coca Cola or McDonalds fries or the Colonel's special batter recipe at KFC. These are crimes that could potentially impact every American, as they would enable Israel to drastically catch up in the global obesity race.

To my friends who believe that the Republican Party is closely aligned with the long term security needs and aspirations of the State of Israel, I will remind you that Pollard was arrested during the Reagan Administration, charged - perhaps singled out for example - by Republican Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and not pardoned or released by Presidents Reagan, Bush I or Bush II.

To my Democratic friends, I will remind you that Pollard rotted away in prison despite Oslo I, Oslo II, and the failed negotiations at Camp David where Israel offered the Palestinians a state with a shared capital in Jerusalem, all under Democratic President Clinton. And Pollard remains in Prison under Democratic President Obama.

Both major Israeli political parties were complicit in the Pollard affair, which occurred during the rotational shared government between Likud and Labor, Labor and Likud between 1984 and 1988.

Everyone is guilty in the Pollard affair.

And yet the public remains largely unaware of the exact crimes of Pollard. Some Israelis believe that he is a "Prisoner of Zion" and pray for his return alongside soldiers who disappeared in action in Lebanon and Gaza. I have even attended synagogues in the US where his name is mentioned in prayer alongside Israeli MIAs. I personally find the comparison offensive, but who am I to disagree with a Gabbai? I mean... There is no greater abuser of authority in a Shul than a Gabbai.... unless, of course, it is Barry Freundel's Kehillah.


So why do I raise the thirty year old unresolved mess that is the Jonathan Pollard affair? Because I can think of no more potent example of clear misalignment between American and Israeli security interests at a time when we are all discussing the failures and/ or merits of the nuclear treaty with Iran.

Once the treaty was announced, there was a grand voice raised by much of Klal Yisroel - a seeming unity. It is a charge led by the Israeli Prime Minister, with much of the Jewish community, especially in the Orthodox community and in AIPAC circles falling in line like Lubavitchers waiting to get a dollar from the Rebbe. The last time Jews got this upset was when there was a one day, two-for-one sale on Taleisim at Macy's on Yom Kippur.

The facts of the matter are as follows:

- For years, Iran was perceived as being ten years away from a nuclear bomb, five years away, and then two years away.

- The Iranians upped their achievements in nuclear development in the 2000s, coinciding with the fall of Saddam Hussein, who was the despot and distraction on Iran’s western border. Without this historical enemy on its border, Iran was freed to focus more fully on its nuclear program. Thanks, Dick Cheney!

- In the late 2000s Iran came close to achieving the capacity to develop a bomb. Israel advocated and threatened a military solution, and Prime Minister Netanyahu came out explicitly against economic sanctions.

- The Iranian nuclear program was delayed by several “mysterious” occurrences, including the Stuxnet virus that caused severe damage to Iran’s centrifuges, and the assassinations – even within Iran – of several key Iranian nuclear scientists.

- As the economic sanctions took their toll, and Iran cheated on several commitments, negotiations began in earnest, resulting in the current agreement.

So how should a Ben Toirah like you think about this agreement?

The pundits in the US are split, largely along partisan lines. In Israel, the political echelon has largely come out against the agreement, but they are not the only voices to be heard.

In favor of the agreement: Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet security service; Amos Yadlin, the former chief of Israeli Military Intelligence; Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, the former chief of Israeli military arms technology division, current chair of the Israel Space Agency, and a two time winner of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor; former head of the Mossad Efraim Halevy, and others.

Against the agreement: Prime Minister Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu; Opposition Leader Yitzhak (“Buji”) Herzog; SHAS Leader Rabbi Aryeh (“Ex-Con”) Deri; Rabbi Morris Goldberg of the Young Israel of East Hempstead; and Bessie Rabinowitz, 102 years young, living in the Palm Springs Jewish Home For The Young At Heart.

Clearly, none of the issues associated with the Iran nuclear deal are simple. There are fundamental concerns about ensuring Iranian compliance and the long term direction of the Iranian regime. These are critical questions which will ultimately determine the success or failure of the deal.

However, this is where we need to keep in mind the alignment of mutual interests between Israel and the United States.

What are Israel’s interests vis a vis the Iran nuclear agreement? What are the US’s? What are the Saudis’? What are the interests of the other parties to the agreement – The Germans, French, British, Russians, etc.?

While many voices are screaming out that Israel faces an existential threat, is that indeed accurate? And is that exact threat shared by the US and the other players?

Israel and Saudi Arabia are situated in the Middle East, while the other players have extensive interests in the stability of the Middle East, for both geopolitical and economic reasons. The Europeans are in fact no less in striking distance of an Iranian missile than Israel is.

When the Iranians take to the streets shouting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, does that in fact imply that the existential threat to each country is equal? Absolutely not. Does the United States have thousands or Iranian supplied conventional missiles on its northern border aimed at its population centers the way that Israel does? Not unless Canada has overnight been taken over by Hezbollah.

Consequently, the alignment of interests between Israel and the Unites States is in fact limited. And it is critical that we understand this reality in order to understand our leverage and influence a favorable outcome.

So when Prime Minister Netanyahu opposed sanctions several years ago and pushed for military intervention, he was essentially asking the United States to launch a war on Israel’s behalf. And when the US instead decided to launch sanctions, and, later, negotiations with Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to take an oppositional stance to any arrangement, rather than provide collaborative input. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu pretty much endorsed Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, against President Obama, he shifted Israel from being a bi-partisan issue in Congress to becoming a Republican versus Democratic issue. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, an American born former Republican operative, arranged for Netanyahu to be invited to address Congress by the Republican Majority Leader without consulting the White House, circumventing standard diplomatic protocol whereby it is the Executive Branch that extends such invitations to heads of state, he built upon the already tense relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu by even more closely aligning the cause of Israel with the Republican Party. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu got up in front of Congress and attacked the plans of the President of the United States to the cheers of the Republican Party, he solidified even more the alignment between Israel and the Republican Party.

But that alignment is a fiction. Because the mutual interests of Israel and the United States – whether the US has a Republican or a Democratic administration – can never be in full alignment.

And if you do not believe me, just ask Jonathan Pollard.


So how should we relate to the Iran nuclear deal?

What is certainly clear is that the key to success is Iranian compliance. And the United States and the other parties to the agreement must work to ensure compliance in order to achieve the objectives of setting back the Iranian nuclear program by at least ten years, essentially turning back the clock to where it was prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein.

And what should be Israel’s role? Israel needs to have a seat at the table to influence the monitoring and compliance of Iran. And in order to do that, Israel must itself step back from being positioned as a partisan player in Washington, and return to being a bipartisan issue supported by both Democrats and Republicans.

Israel should be involved in the negotiations, at least in the background. For example, Israeli should lend technical expertise to enforcement. It should also contribute to the demands, for example, heavy water and nuclear material shipped out of the country should also include a large delivery of handmade Persian Carpets. Perhaps the non-military ties can include cultural exchanges, for example, an exchange program between the Mullahs and the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Instead of Reagan’s “Arms for Hostages” deal, it can be a “Turbans for Shtreimels” deal. And if that is too aggressive, the Mullahs can simply be exchanged with representatives of the SHAS party, since their leaders already wear turbans.


The fact of the matter is that in the absence of a military strike, which itself would have high casualties and not be assured of success, there is no alternative to a negotiated outcome. Economic sanctions crack over time. But negotiations require compromise, and no one ever likes to compromise. That is why the Iran nuclear deal is opposed by the Iranian hardliners and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard no less than it is opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, many Jews and the Republican Party. It is great to see that have at least found something in common.


So if Israel and the United States are not fully aligned and will never be fully aligned, then what is the guarantee of Israel’s long term well-being? As always, Israel is and must remain the master of its own fate. It must make sober decisions in a sober manner, and must refrain from the panic and hyperbole that has been so abundant in recent days.

To quote recent statements from Former Prime Minister, Defense Minister (under Netanyahu), and Military Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, “Israel is not in an apocalyptic situation. We are not in Europe 1938 and not Palestine 1947… Israel can live with whatever happens (in Iran, including the development of nuclear capabilities). We are the strongest state in the Middle East, militarily, strategically, economically — and diplomatically, if we’re not foolish.”

And what would foolish behavior look like? Ummm… Just ask Jonathan Pollard.


Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Thursday, July 16, 2015

On Reciting Kaddish

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On Reciting Kaddish

Yisgadal VeYiskadash Shmey Rabbah...

I have been saying Kaddish in recent weeks in the wake of the passing of my uncle, Reb Velvel Henach Naftali HaGadol, also known as the VELHUNG, most noted for his commentary on the shape of Rashi script. The VELHUNG passed away after a long battle with a terrible disease that robbed him of his Toirah, as well as his collection of baseball cards from the Lithuanian Baseball League of 1941.

Kaddish is a strange prayer. It is in Aramaic, and declares fealty to the sovereignty of the Reboinoisheloilum. It is said as part of Davening, and, of course, by mourners themselves. Daily. Multiple times a day. On days when I say Kaddish both as a mourner AND Daven for the Amud, I recite Kaddish about 400 times. It is perpetual. Then I go home and recite Kaddish in my sleep. In a store, when a clerk brings me what I asked for, I reply "Umayn". When a waiter comes to me in a restaurant and asks me for my order, I respond "Brich Hu". And when I achieve my... errr... Makka BiPatish with my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, I declare "Yehei Shmey Rabbah Mevorach LeOilam U'LeOlmey Olmayah". Shoyn.

What is the history and purpose of this custom, which in many ways is an anchor in ritual and popular participation in the Jewish liturgical service? And why is it an Aramaic prayer rather than a Hebrew prayer?

There is a famous Braisah brought down in Gemarrah Yuma that suggests that Kaddish is said in Aramaic to ensure a special bond between Klal Yisroel and Hakadoshboruchhu, since the Malachim, the angels, do not speak Aramaic. This is according to Rabbi Meir. But according to Rabbi Yehuda, the prayer of Kaddish is explicitly addressed to the angels, who are keeping score as to how many times a person meets his responsibility to say Kaddish for a loved one. And according to a Medrish in Eichah Rabbah, the Angels have an office pool to bet on who will say the most Kaddishes during their year of Aveilus. Almost every year the winner comes from the Lubavitch community: Not only do they insert several additional Kaddishes at the end of their Tfillois, but they also say Kaddish after reciting the obligatory, "Yechi Moreinu VeRabbeinu Melech HaMashiach LeOilum Vo'ed" after key daily events: After Davening, after Benching after meals, after getting some poor schmuck in the street to put on Tefillin even though he is dressed in a Santa outfit, and after Teeth Brushing.

Indeed, there are many types of Kaddish - A fact you do not realize until you have to say it 400 times a day. They are:

-- Chatzi Kaddish: The Half Kaddish recited multiple times by the Shaliach Tezibur -- the leader of the prayer service – To punctuate different segments of the prayer service, as well as to enable congregants to engage in a quick conversation with the person standing next to them.

-- Kaddish Sholem: The Whole Kaddish, typically recited once every prayer service, towards the end of the service. According to a Pnei Yehoishua, the purpose of this Kaddish is so that when a Shaliach Tzibbur accidentally stops halfway though, thinking that a Chatzi Kaddish was in order, members of the congregation can take turns humiliating the Chazan by screaming, “Nu, Tiskabel!!!!” at him at the top of their lungs.

-- Kaddish Yasoim: The Mourner’s Kaddish. This is the “bread and butter” of the year of mourning. Literally. There are people like me who are constantly going to Shul to recite this many, many times a day. Yet others hire a Litvak Yeshiva Bochur or some Hairy Chussid looking to supplement his Welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Section Eight by reciting Kaddish on behalf of someone who actually has a job.

-- Kaddish DeRabbanan: The Rabbi’s Kaddish. Like the regular Kaddish, it praises the Omnipresent and acknowledges Eternity. However, it also praises rabbinical scholars and their students, and the students’ students – essentially it is a prayer written by rabbis, praising rabbis. In other words, it is a bit like Congress voting to give itself a raise. This is also recited by a mourner, usually after content that includes rabbinic discourse, after a rabbinic lecture, or after an infomercial.

-- Kaddish D’Ischadasa: The Kaddish After Burial. This one is a lot of fun. Trust me. You have just buried a loved one, you are standing at the graveside, and then the rabbi asks you to recite this Aramaic tongue-twister in front of a bunch of crying relatives. About a half an hour before I needed to say this, the rabbi slipped me a Viagra; he said that “performance anxiety” was common the first time…

-- Kaddish Achar Hashlamas Masechta: Kaddish recited after completing a tractate of the Talmud. This is quite the opposite experience from the Kaddish After Burial. This comes at the end of a very long, complicated page of Aramaic, which, among other things, lists all of the sons of the Sage Rav Pappa. With that many children, it is a wonder he ever had time to get out of the house.

There are also a few lesser known forms of Kaddish

-- Kaddish D’Nittel: Special Kaddish recited on Christmas asking Santa for the most expensive gifts in the store.

-- Kaddish D’Gemoorrah: Kaddish recited after completion of a long cycle of events. This is typically said by Ashkenazim during half time of the Superbowl and during the seventh inning stretch during World Series games, and by Sephardim after the finals of a Soccer tournament.

-- Kaddish D’Kiddush: Kaddish recited upon completion of a bottle of good single malt Scotch or good tequila at a Kiddush after Shul on Saturday. When you can no longer pronounce the Aramaic without completely slurring your words (“Yehei Shmayay Robot… ummm… Robert…. Whatever…”) then it is time to go home and sleep it off.

Of course, the fundamental question one asks about Kaddish is “why?” Why do we say Kaddish in the first place? What is the purpose or intent of this tradition? To answer this properly, we need to review the history of prayer in general and Kaddish in particular.

Once upon a time, there was no Tefillah in Klal Yisroel. There – that is the truth. Worship was done by the priesthood on behalf of the nation and on behalf of individuals. This was the purpose of the first Bais Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, and all of the local Mikdashim. (Sure, you were told growing up that there were no other Israelite temples than the one in Jerusalem, but a quick trip to Arad and other archaeological sites will prove otherwise.) Perhaps there was an occasional festival that was celebrated by the broader populace, like Pesach – celebrated by the popular sacrifice of the Karban Pesach, Shavuois - celebrated by eating from the first fruits, and, of course, Shabboskoidesh, the weekly Sabbath, celebrated by refraining from work and trying to avoid being caught while checking in on Facebook.

However, during the Babylonian exile, the Jews needed to live religious life in Babylon, Alexandria and elsewhere without the Temple. Public reading of the Toirah, and likely prayer, became a part of the life of the common Jew. This phenomenon flourished during the Second Temple era, resulting in the emergence of the synagogue (itself a Greek word), and was more formally institutionalized after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash, reflecting the need to have a mechanism to engage the Divine, as well as a place to discuss politics, sports and the local Hot Chanies with your friends on Saturday mornings.

As Tefillah evolved over the centuries, the liturgy grew. First it was primarily comprised of Psalms and select Biblical writings. Later it incorporated Rabbinic compositions and then Piyut, liturgical poetry and prose. Among the compositions was the Kaddish. It is likely that Kaddish was originally composed to end a study session – hence composition in Aramaic, the Jewish lingua franca of the Talmudic period. However, at some point, Kaddish was adopted as a prayer for mourners to recite at the end of prayer services. The first extant documentation of a Kaddish for mourners is in the thirteenth century writings of the Or Zarua, who wrote that Kaddish should be inserted at the end of the Prayer book, right before the letters to the editor and the daily crossword puzzle.

Ironically, of course, Kaddish has no reference to death. It has no reference to the afterlife. It is actually an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the Divine in eternity. So why are mourners required to recite Kaddish? This is the subject of a famous Machloikess.

According to the Netziv, the Kaddish is recited in order to pronounce ultimate faith in the Divine by someone who suffered a personal loss – That no matter what happens in this world, the mourner acknowledges the Aimishteh’s ultimate mastery of the universe. Consequently, the Netziv holds that someone should recite the Kaddish in the months after losing a loved one, going bankrupt, or getting a permanent ink stain, ruining his favorite shirt.

However, according to the Netziv’s Rabbinic arch nemesis, the Brisker Ruv – Reb Yoisheh Ber Soloveitchik – Kaddish is recited by the mourner for a more spiritual purpose – to power the transition of the Niftar’s Neshama, the soul of the person who passed away, towards the afterlife in Gan Eden. It is like providing fuel for the travel of the soul. However, not all fuels are equal. For example, when I, a great Ruv, say Kaddish, it is like rocket fuel. When a Shmendrick like you says Kaddish, it is like unleaded regular at the local gas station. And when a Reform Jew says Kaddish, Chass V’Sholom, it is like lighting a couple of wet twigs on a cold winter day.

Given the complexity of fulfilling one’s responsibility to say Kaddish at the three different prayer services every day, CHAZAL struggled to find an appropriate metaphor to describe the commitment.

According to the Ba’al HaChavas Da’as, it is like visiting a hotel that has set meals, and making sure to construct your schedule around those meals.

According to the Ketzois HaChoishen, saying Kaddish is like trying to catch an airplane flight three times a day for eleven months straight.

However, according to the Chasam Soifer, it is like having to constantly report in to a needy girlfriend or wife, and it is for this reason that we only say Kaddish for eleven months instead of a full year, so that we can get that woman off our backs already, for Reboinoisheloilum’s sakes.

I am reminded of a famous Maiseh Shehoya about the Vilna Goyn and the Baal Shem Toiv. The Gruh and the BESHT were each traveling to collect money for their respective movements. One Shabboskoidesh they ended up in the same Shul in the town of Yapchik. When the Gruh looked up from his Davening and saw the BESHT walk in, he stormed over to him, screaming at the top of his lungs, “Hey, Charlie, don’t you people believe in Zman Kriras Shmah?!”

The BESHT stared at the Gruh for a moment and the said in a forceful voice, “Reboinoisheloilum! IT knows how to say something that was not written down on a piece of paper by his Rebbe!”

They argued vociferously until the end of Davening. But when it came time for Kaddish, they both stopped immediately and began to recite the Kaddish in unison. The BESHT was saying Kaddish for the passing of his mother. And the Gruh was saying Kaddish following the recent death of his beloved black Labrador Retriever, which unbeknownst to the Gruh, was the source for the fur on the BESHT’s Shreimel.

As Jews, there are many things that divide us. Some are serious and border upon the existential. Some relate to cultural shifts and the balance between tradition and modernity. And some relate to the painful tension between Mistvois Bain Adam LaMakoim and Mitzvois Bain Adam LeChaveiroi.

But Kaddish is one thing that unites us. It reminds us of how infinitesimally small we are. In the words of the Paytan:

“Muh Anu. Meh Chasdeinu. Mah Tzidkoisainu, Mah Yeshuoisainu, Mah Koichainu, Mah Gevuroiseinu

“Mah Nomar Lifanechah HaShem Eloikeinu V’Eyloikei Avoiseinu

“Halo Kol HaGiboirim KeAyin Lifanecha

“VeAnshey HaShaym KeLoi Hayu

“VeChachamim KiVli Madah, U’Nevoinim KiVli Haskel

“Kee Roiv Ma’aseihem Toihu, V’Ymei Chayeihem Hevel Lifanechah

“U’Moisar Ha’Adam Min HaBeheima Uyin

“Kee Hakol Hevel”

“What are we? What are our lives? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our bravery?

“What can we say before you, Reboinoisheloilum our Hakadoshboruchhu, the Aimishteh of our ancestors?

“The mightiest of men are like nothingness before you, and the men of renown are as if they never existed

“Wise men are like people without knowledge, and the insightful are like people without any sense

“For the majority of their accomplishments are meaningless, and the days of their lives are nothingness before you

“And mankind’s supremacy over the animals is a fantasy

“Because all of existence is emptiness.”


Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Friday, July 03, 2015

On Navigating the Rivers of Ambivalence


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On Navigating the Rivers of Ambivalence


I am writing this Drasha as I embark on the longest flight I have ever taken. I have of course traveled to Eretz Yisroel many times. And I have traveled to many countries in Europe to visit the Kevarim of the Gedoilim, dedicate Mikvaois in scenic beach resorts, and collect money from suckers…. errr… donors in exchange for my Peninim, my pearls of wisdom. I even once presented one of my very attractive female donors with a pearl necklace, but that is a Maiseh Shehoya for another day…

Rabboisai, we live in a very complex world. The only people who are completely certain “in their Kishkas” of their basic beliefs, be they religious or political, are those who subscribe to doctrinal foundational philosophies:

-- For some that means a core intellectual belief in a Reboinoisheloilum who is involved in our world, who counts every Bracha, every act – good or bad – and who is responsible for everything that occurs in the world of humanity, which is a component of the broader cosmic reality. In addition to national well-being and personal health and happiness, He is also responsible for whether your wife will wear that French Maid costume from Victoria’s Secret and perform Metzitza BiPeh with the strength of the Hoover Turbo Vacuum 9000.

-- For some that means a complete rejection of the notion of a deity in any form. The thinking goes, “Of course Hakadoshboruchhu did not write the Toirah, which bears many conflicting ideas and multiple authorial fingerprints. Plus how can you believe in an Aimishteh in the knowledge that your grandmother and aunt were stripped naked, forced to lie in a mass pit on layers of the already slaughtered, and then shot by the Nazis? If there is a Reboinoisheloilum, where the Gehennim was He?”

There is similar absolute surety on Israel related political beliefs:

-- For some, there is a Hakadoshboruchhu-given right to Eretz Yisroel. The Aimishteh promised the Land to Avraham Avinu, fulfilled that promise in the time of Yehoishua and the Shoiftim, through Malchus Bais Duvid, and again in the period of Bayis Shaynee. The establishment of the State of Israel, Medinas Yisroel, in the period immediately following the Shoah, is part of a cosmic plan, and represents the dawning of the Messianic era. And to make any compromise, territorial or otherwise, is an act against the Divine plan.

-- For some, the establishment of the State is rooted in the Jewish experience of the Diaspora, and is a twentieth century manifestation of nationalism informed by Jewish culture and history, but will only reach its culmination with an Israel at peace with its neighbors, abiding by the letter of universal morality and ethics, which includes making agreements with individuals or entities with whom there is a century of distrust and violence, even if the person signing the agreement from the other side is wearing a suicide belt.

Similarly, there are rigid beliefs on American politics:

-- For some, President Oibama is an evil Communist and closet Muslim who hates Jews and Israel, and is secretly negotiating away Israel’s and America’s future. In addition, he hates Christians – as judged by his recent reference to comparing ISIS to the Crusaders. But on the bright side, he is hung like Moishe Rabbeinu’s Makkel.

-- For some, President Oibama is well meaning, He seems to be putting his foot in his mouth quite a bit lately, especially on issues related to global affairs and ethnic and religious tensions. But that does not reflect the broader Centrist-Progressive philosophy that he represents, that views the modern world as rooted in a commonality that requires tolerance and mutual understanding. It also requires the wealthy to share with the less affluent. People should either be willing to pay higher taxes in exchange for providing more social services, including access to health care. Or they should voluntarily participate in Adopt-A-Kollel, so that the working class should support a bunch of able bodied men sitting on their asses and learning Toirah all day, while their wives wear three thousand dollar Sheytels, cook, clean, raise the children and work three jobs. Except after they give birth, when they spend two weeks in bed and force their husbands to be Mevatel Toirah. Those lazy bitches.


Rabboisai, I must tell you, I am guilty of violating the Toirah. Because the Toirah tells us not be jealous, and I am FUCKING JEALOUS of everyone who is so 100% certain of their beliefs, to the point where they dismiss the beliefs of others, do not give a fair hearing to arguments from multiple sides, and overall act as if they were on top of Har Sinai with Moishe Rabbeinu and the Aimishteh. In their minds, they are the illustrious grand faithful human witnesses to the giving of the Toirah, Torah SheBichsav and Toirah SheBaal Peh, and should be held in reverence because of their moral certitude.

I too view such people as if they were on Har Sinai with Moishe and the Reboinoisheloilum. But instead of seeing them as “illustrious grand faithful witnesses”, I see them as mountain rats who hid behind a rock and overheard part of the conversation between Moishe and Hakadoshboruchhu while gnawing on Moishe Rabbeinu’s leftover Entenmann’s doughnuts. And when Moishe and the Aimishteh were looking away, the mountain rats made Mei Raglayim or Farkaktah Maisas all over the Luchois HaBris, which resulted in the Luchois slipping out of Moishe’s hands upon his return to Klal Yisroel and his discovery of them worshipping a golden calf and having an orgy at the base of the mountain.



Rabboisai, I recently finished reading a book about Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKoihain Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of all of Mandatory Palestine (he died 13 years before the establishment of the State of Israel). Rav Kook had a classical Lithuanian education, but was also extremely knowledgeable in Kabbalah and Chassidus, and was also self-educated in secular philosophy and poetry and literature, including the nationalist and antinomian (anti-religious practice) literature of his day. He spoke many languages and traveled all over the world, including America, where he was involved in Zionist advocacy and fundraising, as well as in working as an extra in silent Charlie Chaplin movies. (Rav Kook would take banana custard pies in the face, but always made sure to make a SheHakol.)

One of the keys themes of Rav Kook’s life was his enormous ambivalence (in its literal meaning of the world -- being pulled in multiple directions) in the face of the rapidly changing world in which he lived. The Jews were abandoning tradition in droves, rejecting the hegemony of the rabbinical establishment, and embracing secular teachings of all sorts; traditional borders and political leadership structures were being upended by the rise of nationalism across Europe; the working masses were beginning to rise, rejecting the near feudal hierarchy that defined the relationship between owners and workers even into the industrial revolution; and mankind discovered its capacity for mass murder, committing atrocities of all sorts in a world war that reshaped the global political map forever, and included mass instances of genocide, including one million Armenians murdered by the Turks.

In pre-state Israel, there was a gradual shift from the “Old Yishuv”, the Ultra Orthodox focused on maintaining independence and hegemony and rejecting the influx of largely secular Jewish immigrants from around the world, and the “New Yishuv”, which ultimately evolved into the polarized political movements in Israel that we have today (the Workers/ Left vs. the Revisionists/ Right), as well as the National Religious Movement, which largely moved from Center to Right after 1967, more than 30 years after Rav Kook’s death. There were also Arab movements inclined towards working with the Zionist leadership (for example, Abdullah I, King of Transjordan) and Arab movements who viewed any Zionist or Jewish presence as an affront to the post-Ottoman concept of a Pan-Arab Nation (such as the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin Al Husseini).

And let’s, of course, not forget cosmic struggles of that era between the Yankees and the Red Sox, between Laurel and Hardy, and between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.

How did Rav Kook deal with such conflicting ideas? He struggled with them, seeking compromise positions, both at the practical level and at the cosmic/ theological level. He engaged regularly with the secular immigrants, many of whose leaders had been Lithuanian Yeshiva students or Chassidic followers who rejected traditional faith practice, but manifested their ties to their Jewish identities through Jewish culture, literature, commitment to the Land, and institutional nation building. And at the same time he developed Kabbalistic ideas that embraced the role of the secular as key contributors to the emergence of a new Jewish ideal. And he also viewed the Jewish People as part of a larger humanity, not divorced from the broader whole. And, like President Oibama, he was also hung like Moishe Rabbeinu’s Makkel.

When Rav Kook would walk the streets of Jerusalem, he was often jeered by the Ultra-Orthodox and attacked in the Pashkevalim, the poster placards that line the walls of the Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem to this day. But he was also supported by many in the Orthodox, even Ultra Orthdox, circles. Amongst his inner circle was Rabbi Issur Zalman Meltzer, the father in law of Rav Aharon Kutler – the man who would found the Bais Medrish Gevoha in Lakewood, and also invent marijuana gummy bears.

So Rav Kook was internally conflicted and both lauded and condemned in his society. However, his middle-of-the-road approach defined him, and his willingness to seek compromise made him stand out as a key foundational figure still studied and lauded to this day.

And what is the key lesson of Rav Kook’s life? That the world is not simple. Reality is not simple. The nature of the Divine is not simple. Politics is not simple. Humanity is not simple. And if there are Absolute Truths, they are far from obvious, can likely never be attained, but must always be pursued, even by Menuvals like you.


Rabboisai, as I read the news headlines of the day, nothing makes sense: The American negotiations with Iran; the Republican invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress issued in a way that circumvented political norms and scheduled for two weeks prior to the Israeli election; the latest struggles in the Middle East with ISIS – which hates Israel – battling the Syrians, Iran and the Hezbollah, who hate Israel; the struggle of Jordan – a key ally of Israel – against ISIS; the Egyptian army – also an ally of Israel -- firing on Gaza; Jews being attacked in France, the country that houses the third largest Jewish population in the world; the Argentinian President possibly involved in a political assassination designed to cover up Iranian fingerprints on the bombing of the Argentinian Jewish Center twenty years ago, and so on. I no longer know what to believe or what to think.

When I look at the growing Palestinian population, restive in its national, somewhat self-inflicted purgatory, but, yet a population that is not going anywhere and is fated to live alongside Israel, the Democratic Jewish State, I no longer know what to believe or what to think.

When I look at President Oibama tiptoeing around the global rise of radical Islam, likely well-intentioned but lacking the gravitas required of the leader of the free world, I no longer know what to believe or what to think.

When I look at the corruption of the Israeli body politic, and the failure of so much of Jewish communal leadership around the world – political and religious -- to manage its own house, including numerous scandals and coverups, I no longer know what to believe or what to think.

So I am jealous. I am jealous of all of those who believe that they have the answers, grounded in their own self-assurance. My own conscience and consciousness tells me that the world is far too complex for any human being to understand.

And so I arrive at the same conclusion: The world is not simple. Reality is not simple. The nature of the Divine is not simple. Politics is not simple. Humanity is not simple. And if there are Absolute Truths, they are far from obvious, can likely never be attained, but must always be pursued, even by Menuvals like you.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Menuval


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess

Friday, June 26, 2015

On Gay Marriage and Mel Gibson

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On Gay Marriage and Mel Gibson

This week I was traveling with my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah, to San Francisco for the Chassanah of her cousin Yerachmiel Guttvuch to Rebbetzin Morris Goldenbergsteinowitzsky. Under the Chuppah, Rebbitzin Morris walked in circles around Yerachmiel six times, but on the seventh circle tripped on his Gartel, which looked a lot like something out of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

So went our entry into the newly transformed world of institutionalized Mishkav Zachor.

Later that day, my Bashert and I returned to our hotel, and after a quick mitzvah involving fur-lined handcuffs and a rider's crop, we decided to order in a little Traifus and watch a movie on Netflix. We thought we were ordering up some soft core porn, Chass V’Sholom, so imagine my shock when “The Passion of the Christ” started: I looked up at the screen and saw Yushka Pandra, Koihanim, Am Haratzim, long haired Apikorsim, torture, and Tzailems.

Ich Vais -- what a disappointment! Two and a half hours of R Rated Hollywood magic, and not even a hint of skin! It was enough for me to open my laptop and dig up my downloaded pictures of Rebbetzin Kutler engaging in Zumba!

The whole episode poses a series of disturbing questions about our changing world:

- What should a Ben Toirah's attitude be towards gay marriage overall?

- How should we relate to a film written and directed by Mel Gibson about Yushka Pandra that may raise the specter of age-old anti-Semitism and deprive us of discounts on goods and services?

- If you watch "The Passion of the Christ" and you eat cholent, popcorn, or fried Chazer knuckles, can you make a Bracha, or will the Aimishteh get insulted and think you are praying to someone else, if you know what I mean?

- What's Pshat in an R rated movie with less hot Shiksa action than a benign exercise regimen?

I am reminded of a famous Medrish in Eichah Rabba about Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai were best friends who shared everything. Hillel was the Nasi, the Patriarch of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisroel, and Shammai was the speaker of the Sanhedrin. They lived together in a small Tudor style house, where Shammai loved to tend the garden on weekends. Once, while on a business trip to Chevroin on a Friday they realized that it was nearly Shabbos, and decided to be Toivel Zein in the river. Shammai wanted to go in first, insisting that because he was older, that was his right. Hillel wanted to go first, insisting that he was entitled because he was the Nasi. This was an argument that shattered their relationship.

When it became time to divide their physical assets, neither wanted to give up his share of the house. So they divided the house in two. Shammai got the dining room, the kitchen and one of the bedrooms, while Hillel got the living room, the office, and two bedrooms. However, whenever they talked about the house, each one referred to it as his own, so Hillel's half became known as Bais Hillel, and Shammai's half became know as Bais Shammai. Shoyn.

The Medrish tells us that when dividing their joint property, Hillel and Shammai approached the assets as business partners, but had Yoichanan the Koihain Gadol serve as mediator. This all brings to mind the question: Is a same gender partnership like a marriage? How do chazzal resolve these issues, given that they knew everything, had Ruach HaKoidesh, and were completely infallible, except when it came to avoiding persecution?

A famous Gemarrah in Tainis teaches us about the Talmudic principle of Hekesh, a juxtaposition of verses or opinions that imply a connection between two seemingly disparate ideas. This rule, applied to our new world, has some profound implications.

The biggest opponents of gay marriage in America are also the biggest proponents of the movie "The Passion of the Christ". Which clearly means that to oppose gay marriage is to support the evangelical view of the world, Christ's death, Jewish culpability, the Resurrection, Eretz Yisroel Hashleimah and the 700 Club.

To oppose the film, however, means that you would like Mahmoud Abbas as your next door neighbor, and suggests that the reason you like to stay until 1:00 am in the Bais Medrish with your Chavrusa is NOT because you are really fascinated by that Gevaldikah Toisfois, if you know what I mean.

Indeed, the entire history of Klal Yisroel is filled with similar confusing paradoxes of logic and circumstance. Esther HaMalkah saves Klal Yisroel by playing "hide the scepter" with Achashveiroish. Aron Hacoihain, the Minuval, leads Klal Yisroel into worshipping Avoidah Zorah, yet gets a promotion. King David, Dovid Hamalech, is Mezaneh with his most loyal soldier's wife, and subsequently has the soldier killed, yet still accumulates residential apartment buildings and other valuable investment properties.

At the same time, Moishe Rabbeinu touches a rock and is punished like a three year old child. Yoishiyahu Hamelech leads a significant return to Toiras Moishe, and is rewarded with an arrow through the heart. Rabbi Akiva develops the category structure for Toirah Sheh Baal Peh that we still use today, but later becomes the tragic subject of somber dirges read by starving people twice a year.

Of course, Yushka Pandra was perceived, is perceived, by his followers to be the Moshiach. We ourselves have also longed for salvation. It was that same Rabbi Akiva who once declared Bar Koichba to be the Moshiach. And who is to say he was wrong? (Well, actually the Romans, come to think of it.) The Lubavitcher Rebbe apparently thought that he himself was Moshiach, and years after his death, he lives on, Boruch Hashem, through the infighting of his followers.

Come to think of it, I may be the Moshiach. Follow the logic: I have more Toirah in my Payis than you have in your whole head of hair, you Vilda Chaya. I have never said that I am NOT the Moshiach. And can you think of anyone in our generation more qualified to be the Moshiach than me?

So life is fundamentally complicated and makes no sense to simple minded people like you, you Am Ha’aretz. And if you don't like it, go take it up with the Hakadoshboruchhu.

So how can we possibly understand this complex world?

The Ari Zahl explains the complexities of the world through his conception of the secret workings of the universe. He describes our world as originally designed by the Reboinoisheloilum to be perfect; however, through some cosmic accident, the world became fundamentally flawed. And our mission in the Oilam Hazeh is to rescue the lost bits of Kiddushah, the "holy sparks," that have been scattered throughout the cruel nether underpinnings of the world.

And how do we capture these sparks? By doing Mitzvois. By giving Tzedakah. By focusing not only on Bain Adam LaMakoim, but also on Bain Adam LeChaveiro. By helping old ladies across the street. By being Mezaneh with fat chicks that no one else is willing to sleep with. By opening up your home and your heart to others, even when they are different than you. By helping the widow and the orphan, the single parent and the foresaken child.

Who are we to reject the feelings, the physical needs, or the emotional needs of the Aimishteh’s creations, ALL of His creations, whatever their creed or color or gender or economic status or sexual orientation? So what's a little Mishkav Zachor or Mishkav Nekayvah between friends? This is OUR world, the real world, created by the Melech Malchei HaMelachim, Hakadoshboruchhu, not some fictional construct created out of someone’s imagination.

Indeed, good can come from strange places. Take crucifixion for example. It was the cruelest form of punishment developed by the evil Roman Empire. It was designed to spread fear and intimidation. It killed people slowly, as they suffered from hunger, thirst, and the impact of the elements. However, if I can ever get a hold of Mel Gibson, I've got a big Tzailem in my backyard with his name on it.

Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval


Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess