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Obama and our not-so-humble opinions

 
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Miss the good old days?

When, that is, we had a president who refused to allow the United States to participate in the U.N.’s Durban Review Conference because he believed Israel would be unfairly criticized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMI MAGAZINE

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami.
Disclaimer
The views in opinion pieces and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Standard. The comments posted on this Website are solely the opinions of the posters. Libelous or obscene comments will be removed.
 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Yehoshua Solomon (of Adas Yeshurun) posted 27 Dec 2010 at 04:23 AM

Thank you Rabbi Avi for sharing once again the wisdom you have been granted on the worldly concerns of our times, as you would often do in our shul. It took me time in yeshiva to understand how the chachamim are level-headed and keep their calm, and that this is the true, mature path. Your words present that calmness to me. Also: your writing style, about which the Rabbi (as we in my family know him) says, “I do not know where he gets it from; it’s not from me!”

JOE THE PROFESSOR posted 28 Dec 2010 at 08:16 PM

I heartily agree with most of Rabbi Shafran’s comments. I am very curious however as to his political motives in issuing this statement which will be anatema to much of his “base”.
My guesses (in descending order of likelihood are
1) Fear that the “tea Party”  will become a major force for antisemitism. (“Orthodox Jews are not ‘Real Americans’ .”
2) Paul and company will cut off Fpreign Aid programs
3) The Republicans will dismantle parts of the Social Safety Net which aid Kollel Families

 

Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Clouds of glory, clouds of honor

That future generations may know that I made the children of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt — Leviticus 23:43.

‘Booths’ — clouds of honor (ananei kavod) — Rashi.

When we were young, many of us were taught that the sukkah — especially its essential covering — represents something otherworldly. The structure in which we were dining was meant to evoke the divine clouds that sheltered the Israelites in the desert.

 

 

A tale of two sermons

A few years ago, on the first day of Sukkot, Rabbi Yosef Adler delivered this sermon at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, where he serves as spiritual leader:

“During the Sukkot holiday, in birkhat hamazon, our blessing after meals, we recite the following prayer: ‘Harahamon hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofelet,’ ‘May Hashem establish for us the fallen sukkah of David.’

Why the image of a fallen sukkah for the Davidic kingdom, he asked. Why not a castle or some other sturdy structure?

 

 

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Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Past imperfect

For traditional communities, the past is normative.

The past, rather than the present, provides the best model for daily life. As the past’s standard-bearer, the traditionalist may even question the legitimacy of the present: Leaving aside technological advances, what moral or spiritual value can modernity offer, compared to the timeless legacy of the past?

Religious traditions especially, which are by nature highly conservative, judge new trends by their conformance to time-honored ways of life. Intellectual innovation, to be sure, may be encouraged, as long as it remains within the boundaries of tradition. In our own society, for example, a hallmark of Talmud scholarship long has been the ability to formulate a novel legal analysis, whose implications are normally theoretical. But in practical matters, custom rules. (There are notable exceptions among halachists of great stature; the Vilna Gaon, for example, often ruled against common practice based on talmudic sources.)

 

 

Support for depression is right around the corner

My friend and I stand in the doorway and survey the room.

A dozen or so chairs are laid out in a wide circle and I can’t tell if the setup is inviting or scary or both. My nerves are like jumping beans in my stomach. My friend nudges my left arm.

“You okay?”

I scan the room skeptically.

“Unclear.”

I watch the arriving participants as they straggle in, some in pairs, more often alone. They all look like regular, decent people. Some seem shifty and uncertain — I suppose just as I must appear to them — but no one screams “crazy” to me. There is no neon sign above anyone’s head that reads:

ABOUT TO CRACK!

 

 
 
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