ICYMI: A conversation about Jewish Presence on the Temple Mount

Over the past week, I had the privilege of hosting a conversation with Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer, Rabbi Yehudah Glick, and Professor Shaul Magid on my TOI blog, using the ReplyAll platform.

The conversation is now closed. I am reposting it below.


The Brilliance of Bibi's Big Lie: A Dramatization

Scene: Bibi’s office. In attendance are Prime Minister Netanyahu and everyone who would be played by a main character in an Israeli version of "The WestWing" (which would be called "The Aquarium"): media advisers, speechwriters, PR gurus, pollsters, etc.

Bibi: We’re three weeks into this new uprising and the world media narrative is all about how Palestinian violence is terrible but understandable given the Occupation™. We need to show that the occupation is the result of violence, not the other way around. How do we do it?

Speechwriter: We tell the truth. The truth is on our side. Their leaders lie about Jewish connection to holy sites. They lie about Ashkenazic Jews coming here as colonialist occupiers. They lie about and deny the Holocaust. About poisoning the wells. About defiling the Temple Mount with our filthy feet. They say Jesus was a Palestinian. Let them bury themselves with lies. We need to stay on message with the truth. Haters will hate.

Bibi: Who do you think you’re talking to? When I was Ambassador to the UN, I used to give these history lessons all the time. I was Mr. Context. Mr. Nuance. But it doesn’t work. Not anymore. Their lies are now presented as a side of the story, one that we have to refute.

Media Adviser: Correct. The news cycle is fast and fickle. Media outlets need click-bait. Truth, especially complicated truth, doesn’t attract eyeballs. Forget about history lessons.

Speechwriter: So we lose the media and keep the truth. Let’s stay on the high ground.

Pollster: What high ground? The media is a real battlefield today. World leaders are constrained by public opinion. If you can win public opinion, it gives your allies much more freedom and shackles your opponents. Look at Obama. There was only a certain amount of leeway he had to act against us, because American public opinion is on our side. In contrast, Sisi can’t say what he really thinks of us because public opinion is so poisoned against us.

Bibi: Agreed. But what are our options? There are a dozen groups who exist to call out the lies and inaccuracies of the media against Israel. CAMERA, HonestReporting, CIFWatch, etc. How many editions of Myths and Facts have been published? But they’re playing defense. Our enemies still control the discourse. We need to stop getting bogged down in arguments within their frame of reference. How can we play offense?

PR Guru: Talk about the Mufti.

Media Adviser: Who?

Bibi: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. He was behind the Arab uprisings in 1920-21, he was behind the massacres in 1929, and he was behind the Arab Revolt in the 1930s, which closed the door to immigration to Mandatory Palestine just before World War II. He was behind the Farhud in Baghdad in 1941. Then he fled to Germany, where he was a guest of Hitler for the rest of the war.

PR Guru: A very bad dude, and a Palestinian founding father. If we can draw attention to him, it totally undermines the narrative that violence is the result of the occupation. He was hobnobbing with Hitler before there was a State of Israel.

Pollster: Still, too much information for the average consumer of the news. Dates, numbers, all just bugs crawling across a screen.

Media Adviser: Any pictures?

PR Guru: Yeah. There’s one of him with Hitler. There’s one of him with other high-ranking Nazis. No shortage.

Bibi: That’s the angle. We need to get that picture out there. A leading Palestinian cozying up to Hitler before there was a State of Israel.

Media Adviser: Not so simple. What are we supposed to do, send a photo of the Mufti and Hitler to all the newspapers? He’s old news. He needs to be in today’s news.

Speechwriter: What if we drop his name in a speech in English? It’ll make the newspapers.

Media Adviser: Maybe the Israeli and Jewish media. Everyone else will just ignore it or bury it. There’s no meat. Nothing to really capture the world’s attention.

PR Guru: We need to overstate the case. We need to tell a lie that will provoke reaction, that will get everyone to “set the record straight” about the Mufti.

Pollster: But it needs to be sticky. We need people to remember in a month that the Mufti is a really bad dude, but there’s disagreement about just how bad. That’s got to be the residue that’s left over in people’s minds.

Media Adviser: Especially if that picture gets out. People will remember that he had something to do with Hitler, even if they don’t remember what.

PR Guru: Great. We’re in agreement. What’s the lie that we tell?

Bibi: We tell them that the Mufti convinced Hitler to kill the Jews.

Speechwriter: With all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister, that’s insane. You will be a laughingstock. Everyone will say you’re a liar or an idiot.

Pollster: They’ll spin it against you. They’ll say that you absolved Hitler from the crime of murdering six million Jews. That you trivialize or deny the Holocaust.

Media Adviser: The memes will be flying around the internet.

Bibi: What’s a meme?

Media Adviser: Something like this.

Bibi: That’s pretty funny.

Media Adviser: Hilarious. But you will be the butt of thousands of these jokes.

Bibi: As you said, though, the news cycle is quick. I can take a round of jokes at my expense. I can clarify that Hitler is to blame for the actual killing. But what are the strategic implications? What will we lose, what will we gain?

Pollster: You won’t lose much in the polls. Haters will hate, and I don’t think you’ll lose much support. They’ll say it was a stupid gaffe and move on.

Media Adviser: It will change the discourse on the violence. People will remember, if nothing else, that Palestinian violence and opposition to the Jewish state predates any occupation. It will put the Palestinian leadership on the defensive for the first time I can remember.

Bibi: And what about my credibility? This is a major strategic shift we’re talking about. It means no one will ever trust us again. 

Speechwriter: And the Holocaust... I mean, falsifying Holocaust history is dangerous.

Bibi: I'm not talking about school curricula. I'm talking about what to say to the media. What you tell the media is not what you tell your kids. I'm not advocating a complete abandonment of the truth.

Speechwriter: I'm not comfortable with this.

Pollster: There’s a risk. No question. On the other hand, you’d be amazed at the degree to which supporters overlook the flaws of their favored candidates and magnify the flaws in the ones they don’t like. It’s crazy. You’d think they’d realize by now that the vast majority of politicians are borderline sociopathic. But no.

PR Guru: Look, everything you say is filtered through the media anyway, and they’re understandably not credible. People pick their news sources based on what they want to hear. If someone looks to the media, any media, for truth, they get what they deserve. And that’s the overwhelming majority of people. All we’re doing is getting the media to tell the lie that we want them to tell instead of the one that they would tell otherwise.

Media Adviser: Look, if we tell the truth, they respond with lies. If we lie, they'll respond with truth or lies. We can still respond to their lies with truth, but honestly, nobody knows the difference anymore, anyway. And there’s also the truthiness factor.

Bibi: The what?

Media Advisor: Truthiness. The quality of feeling true even if it isn’t. The word comes from Colbert, the American comedian, but it’s basically driving American politics right now. Take Trump. His overall message resonates with people, and they don’t care about details, accuracy, reasonability, etc.

Speechwriter: That blathering idiot?

Media Adviser: That blathering idiot is a juggernaut who might be the next POTUS. If you read the Dilbert Blog, you’d also know that he’s a genius.

Bibi: I don’t want to be compared to Trump.

PR Guru: You won’t be. He’s an extreme case. But there’s value in taking notes from a master. He absolutely dominates coverage of the 2016 elections.

Bibi: Okay. And what about our relationship with the PA? Long-term damage?

Speechwriter: Actually, it can advance your overall vision. You’ve said time and again that peace can only come with mutual recognition of each other's claim to the land, and that any two state solution has to acknowledge that Israel is the state that embodies the self-determination of the Jewish people, just as the Palestinian state will be the nation-state of the Palestinian people. A major obstacle to that is this notion that we’re foreign occupiers with no connection to the land. Attention to the Mufti will help marginalize that narrative, which, after all, was propagated by a Nazi.

Bibi: Interesting. I like it. When’s my next scheduled major English speech?

Media Adviser: World Zionist Congress on Tuesday, October 22.

Bibi: Draft the speech. Plant the bombshell in it. Then, gentlemen, we will sit back and watch as the whole world acquaints itself with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.


A Note on the Khazar-origin Theory of Hungarian Jewry

An advantage of davening in a minyan in a local yeshiva is that you never know what seforim might turn up or what you might find in them.
This past Shabbat I found a copy of Mateh Levi (it's a bit different from the standard printed volume; much fewer responsa). This book, which is mainly about writing Gittin but also contains responsa on all sorts of issues, was written by R. Dr. Mordechai (Markus) Halevi Horovitz, a Hungarian rav who eventually became the rabbi of general (i.e., non-secessionist) Orthodox community in Frankfurt (or Vrankvurt, as it is spelled in this book). That is, he was a rival and critic of RSR Hirsch.
As you can see from the stamp, this particular volume, printed in 1891, belonged to the library of the Berlin Jewish community. There are actually stamps indicating that it was checked out of that library several times in the early 1920s. It eventually found its way to the yeshiva high school in Modiin, where I peruse it on Shabbat.
The first responsum begins with a question from R. Asher Grossberg of Eszlar. 
R. Asher begins the query by reintroducing himself, reminding R. Horowitz that they studied together in Ujhely (a major Hungarian yeshiva) and met again at the famed Jewish Congress that took place in the winter of 1868-9. He also mentions that R. Horovitz was then working on a treatise to prove that Hungarian Jews are descendants of the Khazars.
That may be surprising, so a bit of background. When the Dual Monarchy was established in 1867, Hungarians became a minority within their own kingdom. To help alleviate that, they extended full civil rights to the Jews, on condition that the Jews would declare "Magyar" (=Hungarian) as their nationality. The Jews, by and large, saw the opportunity and went along with it. Some, like R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, were strongly opposed, maintaining that this is a betrayal of Jewish nationhood (he was a Haredi and a Zionist, by any definition of either). Eventually, it became popular to claim that Hungarian Jews were descendants of the Khazars who migrated westward along with the other Hungarian tribes in the Middle Ages - that is, that Hungarian Jews are indeed as Hungarian as any Hungarian.
It is surprising to me that such theories were being propounded by respected rabbanim so soon after the process of Magyarization began.
To dispel doubt: I do not believe that Hungarian Jews, or any other Jews, are the descendants of the Khazars, nor do I believe that there was ever a mass conversion of Khazars to Judaism.


Ritvas on Eidus and Briskers on Gittin...

Ritvas on Eidus and Briskers on Gittin,
Threats, bans, and cherems, both oral and written
Trashing the arguments each rabbi brings
These are a few of my favorite things...

Cream colored parchment for writs of divorces
Snow jobs and flame wars and broadsides remorseless
High moral ground to which ev’ryone clings
These are a few of my favorite things

Girls in white dresses who might still be married
Rabbis who don't speak their minds cuz they're harried
Comment threads spurred on by violent mood swings
These are a few of my favorite things.

It’s our mission
It’s tradition
Though it seems arcane
I have expertise in my favorite things
So women can be unchained.


My Writings on Religion and State in Israel - All in One Place

I've been getting a lot of questions about my views on religion and state in Israel since this past Saturday night, when Israel's Channel 2 News interviewed me for a story on Orthodox rabbis who officiate at weddings not under Rabbanut auspices (and TOI followed up with an article that makes it look far riskier than it is). I've also been asked to write a manifesto of sorts on my religion-state views; someone's even talking about a book project.
Either way, here is a list of articles and blog posts that I've written on the subject over the past 8-9 years for various outlets. Meanwhile, I'll get working on that manifsto:
The Riskin Opportunity for Religious Privatization

The Myth of the Conversion Crisis

Why Rabbi Goren Matters: The Legacy of the Langers

Elazar Stern's Conversion Bill: Bad for Religion, Bad for the State, Bad at Math

The Israeli Rabbinate: The Origin Story

Jerusalem Post
Got Kosher Milk?

Jewish Ideas Daily
Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate

Tal Tales

Yair Lapid's Religion

New York Jewish Week
God's Gatekeepers: Signs of Progress?

Does the US now have a Chief Rabbinate?

Regime Change, Realpolitik, and the Rabbanut

Middle Class Rising? (not about religion and state per se, but touches on it)

Not all Orthodox Rabbis Oppose Civil Marriage in Israel

A Gaon in Every Sense (an obit for Rav Ovadia)

Intermountain Jewish News (cross-posted to TOI)
A Jewish Holiday and a Civic Dilemma

Book Chapter

TOI Blog Posts
Why Israelis don't Realize that Martin Luther King Jr. was Religious

Same-sex Unions and Intermarriage: Against as a Jew, For as a Citizen

An Ironic Observation on Freedom of Religion at Israel's Holiest Site

Personal Blog Posts

On Tzohar Rabbis Accepting Pay to Officiate Weddings

Conversion Collision Course


Be-zot yavo Aharon el ha-kodesh

[A devar Torah on Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (last week's/this week's parsha depending where you stand) and a thought about R. Lichtenstein zt"l]

Acharei Mot opens with a prohibition against entering the sanctuary whenever one wishes--"al yavo be-khol et el ha-kodesh"--and recalls the death of Nadav and Avihu, who perished as a result of coming ‘too close’ to God. The Torah then describes the special Yom Kippur offerings. Following that is the prohibition of shechutei chutz, bringing sacrifices outside the precincts of the Temple, which the Torah explicitly compares to foreign worship, here called ‘zivchei se’irim’.
These two prohibitions are antithetical. The first prohibits too much proximity to God, the second, too much distance. The first is rooted in a lack of boundaries between man and God, over-familiarity, unbridled and unrestrained love. It threatens to burn man up, to eradicate his ego and subsume it in the infinite. To function in this world, man must keep his distance from God.
The second prohibition is explicitly compared to idolatry. It expresses overwhelming reverence, a sense that God is absolutely unapproachable, that there is no way to bridge the gap between us and Him.
Taken together, these two prohibitions strike a balance. We are not to come to close to God, nor may we run too far away. We must operate in the space between too much love and too much reverence. We can live because we avoid those extremes.
In between these two prohibitions, the Torah describes the Yom Kippur service. On Yom Kippur we have the exceptions to these two prohibitions. On one hand, the high priest performs a service in the sanctuary itself. On the other hand, a goat--the "se'ir la-Azazel," the "scapegoat"--is taken outside the Temple precincts and hurled off of a desert cliff. This is the only sacrifice brought outside the Temple.
How are we to understand these Yom Kippur exceptions? Reb Tzadok has a wonderful piece (Dover Tzedek pp. 98-99) in which he describes a state of consciousness that lies beyond good and evil. It is attainable only rarely, but when it is attained, there are no limits or boundaries on how one approaches God. Extreme love and extreme reverence are acceptable.
There is another possibility: that Yom Kippur represents a much more difficult and heightened balance. Extreme proximity to God is warranted, but only when balanced by extreme distance. Extreme love must be countered by extreme awe. The two must be commensurate, or the hazards of each on its own still applies. This is very different from the paramount, year-round reality in which we remain balanced by eschewing the extremes of ahava and yir'ah. This is a balance achieved, rather, by experiencing those extremes in tandem.
This type of balance is rare and difficult. It is a tightrope with no safety net. Only on the holiest day of the year is the feat performed.
We have been privileged to see how Rav Lichtenstein zt"l held together passions that we did not think could coexist. Like the spectators who lined up to see the high priest perform his sacred duty, we must have no pretensions of being able to accomplish this service, but we can bear witness to the fact that it is indeed possible in this world and appreciate the fact that we were able to behold such a marvel.
אשרי עין ראתה כל אלה


A Free Verse Hebrew Translation of U2's "Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For"

"חיפשתיו ולא מצאתיו"
מאת: בונו
תרגום חפשי: אלי פישר
על הרים ועל גבעות
תוך כרמים ושדות
את שאהבה נפשי

ברחובות ובשווקים
ובחומות הערים
את שאהבה נפשי

אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו
אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו

שפתותיך דבש נוטפות
אצבעותיך לי רופאות
כרשפי אש כשלהבת
ועזה כמוות

שוחחתי עם מלאכי עליון
אחזתי בידי השטן
בחום ליל ויום
בקור אבן דום

אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו
אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו

הנה ימים באים
ונתאחדו כל הצבעים
ארוץ לא איעף
ולא איגע

למוסרי אכן פתחת
ובעול כלימתי נשאת
ואני מאמין
באמונה שלמה

אכן ביקשתיו, ולא מצאתיו
אמנם ביקשתיו, לא מצאתיו


A Memory Jog on R. Barry Freundel, the RCA, and the Rabbanut

Jogging my memory by reviewing the whole history of the Rabbanut-RCA crisis that led to the revamping of the conversion system, I came across something significant (I collected the best posts from that era under the label "best of giyur")

In June 2006, Rabbi Barry Freundel and Rabbi Heshy Billet traveled to Israel on behalf of the RCA to meet and negotiate with the Rabbanut on conversion policy. There were some people close with Rav Elyashiv, notably R. Nachum Eisenstein and his Vaad Haolami Leinyonei Giyur, who wanted to make sure the negotiations failed so that the RCA is not recognized and so that a new initiative, the EJF, would be the address for conversions in the US.

To that end, they whispered some terrible things about Rabbi Freundel in the ears of Rabbanut officials. What is the worst thing they found to say about him, this group of rabbis with an interest in completely ruining Barry Freundel's reputation?

That his shul has a women's prayer group, even against the ruling of his rebbi, R. Hershel Schachter.
There are some important takeaways:
  1. The man was 54 years old and had a squeaky-clean reputation. Not everyone loved him, but nobody had any dirt on him. There was nothing. [UPDATE: It seems that there was some bad behavior at the beginning of the 2000s, maybe earlier; this doesn't detract from the main point - that his reputation was squeaky clean.]
  2. He enjoyed enough respect amongst his colleagues that he was selected to lead the negotiations with the Rabbanut.
  3. The initial reports about bad and bizarre behavior - which certainly pointed to control issues but were not sexual in nature - would have been addressed within the context of a lifetime of exemplary behavior [by reputation if not fact]. I still think that I would have responded to his treatment of prospective converts as cheap or slave labor more harshly and removed him from conversion on that basis, but I understand why colleagues familiar with his reputation would have given him the benefit of the doubt and simply asked him to desist.
  4. I do not claim to know how truly dark is the heart of any man, and I can't claim that I would resist the temptations of power if I had them. The moral of the story - the moral that I will keep coming back to, again and again - is that no person can be entrusted by our community with that much power over over another person.

Conversation on Learning and Teaching Hebrew

For the next week, I will be participating in a conversation on Learning and Teaching Hebrew, hosted by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education.
It's using the really cool ReplyAll platform.
Follow along below: