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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

 

Tzitz, tefillin, and the halachic process

Recent weeks have seen much discussion about the permissibility of women wearing tefillin.

Although I do not question the sincerity of the parties involved, and maintain high regard for the individuals involved, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on the unique mitzvah of tefillin and on maintaining the integrity of the halachic process. In addition to the specific halachic question involved, this controversy also raises the broader question of how halachah functions, and I would like to provide some perspective on both of these issues.

 

 

Ask the right questions

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

 

 

Holy water

Two weeks ago I visited a place in Israel that I had never seen before.

Shafdan, as the place is called, is a high-tech water reclamation plant just a few kilometers outside of Rishon Letzion. It looked a little like Area 51 in Nevada and it smelled a bit like the New Jersey Meadowlands. But what is happening there is amazing.

In the simplest of terms, Shafdan takes more than 90 percent of waste water — that’s water from kitchen and bathroom sinks, showers, drains, and toilets — from a large region in northwestern Israel. Shafdan repurifies the water, and then it can be reused.

 

 

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Passover reflections

Freedom is a tricky entity.

It can open avenues of positive imagination and creativity because a free people’s potential belongs ultimately to them and need not answer to a master who may limit that potential.

This is why the Haggadah must open with questions. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that if a person celebrates Pesach alone, he must ask himself the questions that lead into the story of the Exodus. The right to question, the ability to challenge authority, is the sign that a person ultimately is free. As long as an authority can say, “Keep that unacceptable idea to yourself,” you are not free. Therefore our Festival of Freedom must start with questions, which are always in some way subversive.

 

 

Why be Jewish? I’ll answer the question myself

In March I wrote in the Jewish Standard about the challenges posed to the organized Jewish community by my generation, the much- (if not, over-) discussed Millennials (“So, really, why be Jewish?”).

We need to refocus ourselves, I said, by turning away from questions like “Who is a Jew?” The key Jewish question of our time is this: Why be Jewish? “With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millennials, the question, ‘Who is a Jew?’ is rather passé,” I wrote. “The fact is that ‘Who is a Jew?’ is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance—to regain it, really—the question we must ask today is ‘Why be Jewish?’”

 

 

Hudson County is welcome to the federation

I read Joshua Einstein’s op-ed piece in last week’s Jewish Standard with great interest (“Hudson County needs a federation”).

He’s made a great case for creating a formal connection between Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Hudson County Jewish community. His argument makes sense. Northern Hudson County has been in our coverage area for many years, so we already have connections there. We now provide services to southern Hudson, including those services Einstein mentions, and more. So it all seems like a natural fit.

 

 
 
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