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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
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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

 

Why Ferguson matters to Jews

“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:

“That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.

“That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

This passage is read every Friday night at my synagogue, Barnert Temple, and I am moved each time it is read. Ever since I was a teenager, I would picture Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walking hand in hand in 1965, marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

 

 

To a daughter on her way to Israel

We spend much of Thursday at Marshall’s.

“What do you think?” I ask you, frowning. “Here. Add up these numbers.” I read you the measurements of the cute red wheelie bag, and you punch the figures into your phone.

“It comes to 44, Mom. Perfect!” Perfect for El Al, that is. Height plus width plus depth, the dimensions of your carry-on luggage may not exceed 45 inches.

“That’s great, sweetie!” I say cheerfully, and we wheel it to the cashier. One more thing we can cross off the list.

 

 

Jewish time

Have you forgotten that the seasons have no regard

for the sovereignty of the sun

and instead attend upon

the grace and glory of the moon?

have you forgotten that the day begins

with evening’s song

and ends with shadow’s conquest of the hills?


 

I never heard any talk about “Jewish time” until I moved to New Jersey. When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Reform temple in Forest Hills, New York, and maybe it still retained a strong sense of its German-Jewish origins. Punctuality is a value, some say an obsession, present in powerful form in British as well as German culture, and by extension the Anglo-Saxon-dominated culture of the United States. And it was marginalized groups that were known to possess a different sense of time from the mainstream.

That’s why, back when I was a college student in the ‘70s, I heard references to stereotypes about “Indian time” for Native Americans, “Spanish time” for Latinos, and “Black time” for African-Americans. But back then, I never heard anyone talk about “Jewish time” or “Hebrew time” to explain why, for example, services scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. might not actually start until 8:15 or 8:20.

 

 

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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).

 

 

Lord of the fruit flies

All right, I confess. Some Jews have Christmas envy.

Me, I have Halloween envy.

When it gets cool and the leaves change color, I long for cornstalks on my doorstep, candy corn in my candy bowls, gourds on my table, spider webs on my bushes, trick-or-treaters ringing my bell. Sometimes I drive to Bergenfield and Bogota to get my Halloween fix. And, O.K., maybe I wrote a short story that managed to incorporate both the Holocaust and a werewolf.

Still, I like to think I have it under control.

 

 
 
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