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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.
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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).

 

 

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!)

 

 

Scandals in the rabbinate

In the wake of the recent, highly publicized mikvah scandal, I wonder what possesses men and women who have dedicated themselves to the perpetuation of Judaism and its values to abandon those values.

Often enough this occurs in the domain of sexual wrongdoing, but there also are recorded instances of such ethical offenses as the misuse of discretionary funds for personal or family needs, and criminal activities including the embezzlement of synagogue or Jewish organizational assets. The parties involved often have sterling records of service to the Jewish community and are well-respected as clergy in their denominations and then suddenly all hell breaks loose regarding a discovered transgression that is not a mere peccadillo. Why does this happen?

 

 

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Speaking about the unspeakable

 

A view from the pew

The recent debates over the so-called Jewish State basic law was the catalyst, though not necessarily the true cause, for the collapse of Israel’s coalition government.

What was this debate really about? As a Chanukah gift to ourselves, I suggest that each of us do a Google search of the following list of internationally recognized legal documents: the Balfour Declaration; UN Resolution 181, dated November 29, 1947; the Israeli declaration of independence; and UN Resolution 242, dated September 1967.

Each of these internationally recognized legal documents are proof that for nearly a century, the international community has affirmed and re-affirmed the right of the Jewish people to re-establish ourselves as an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel. You will note as well that over that same century, the Jewish community in the land of Israel and in the diaspora has affirmed our responsibility to recognize the political and religious rights of non-Jewish residents of the pre-1948 community and of the equality under law of all citizens of Israel.

 

 

Divided we fall — united we may stand

As I look out on the world from my vantage point in relatively safe and protected Teaneck, I am often reminded of these lines by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Here, in the United States, we seem less united than at any time since the Civil War. In much of the Arab world internal sectarianisms and a return to tribalism seem to hold sway. Within the Jewish world we seem to have splintered into ever smaller, more closely defined, exclusive and exclusionary fragments. Even in Teaneck, we are deeply factionalized.

 

 
 
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