Friday, July 22, 2016

When being right is wrong: RCBC bans Israeli produce

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is prohibiting all area establishments it certifies as kosher from using imported Israeli produce.

Halachically, the RCBC is doing the right thing based on its understanding of Jewish law, but it is doing so at the very wrong time.

Of concern to the RCBC is whether all halachic requirements are applied to Israeli produce. The Torah alone has 58 mitzvot associated with agriculture, and the Sages of Blessed Memory modified and added to these mitzvot. These include forbidding eating fruit that comes from trees planted within the previous three years, any produce grown and harvested in a sabbatical year (such as occurred last year), and whether the produce was properly tithed. Torah legislation requires Jewish farmers in the land to separate from their produce a small portion for the Levites, another small portion for the priests, and a third portion for the poor.

The tithing is of greatest concern because Israel’s chief rabbinate does not regulate it as it does the sabbatical year restrictions.

Tithing, of course, made sense in biblical times. Priests and Levites are prohibited from owning any land, and their careers are tied to the needs of the sacrificial cult. Tithing provided the Levites especially with an income they could not get otherwise. That is not the case today, but the Torah law itself still stands.

Yet I respectfully submit that there is another law the RCBC should consider.

Leviticus 18:5 states, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.”

The Talmud, in several places, interprets this to mean that in all but three specific areas, life takes precedence over law. Thus, Shabbat “stands aside” when life is merely suspected of being in danger. (See, for example, the “broken bone” discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 148a.) In BT Yoma 83a, the Talmud calls it “obvious” that even in a case of “safek n’fashot,” where there is merely a possibility that life is danger, concern for life takes precedence over strict adherence to the law.

The Talmud, however, never put forth a general principle. Perhaps the Sages assumed, as BT Yoma stated, that the principle was so obvious, it did not need stating. Maimonides, the Rambam, did codify it in his own way in his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of the Foundation of the Torah, 5:1. The Torah’s laws, he explained, were given so that “a person may live by them, not die by them.”

Rashi earlier made a similar observation, albeit as a commentary to a statement in BT Sanhedrin 74a. “For the Merciful One said to violate the mitzvot because of ‘by the pursuit of which man shall live,’” Rashi wrote, “because the souls of Israel are precious to Him.” (See his commentary to ‘sevarah hu.’)

Most of these discussions center around the question of what a person should do if offered the choice of either violating a law or being killed for refusing. Only in three instances—being told to kill someone else, being told to commit a sexual crime, or being told to apostasize—is death to be chosen (and apostasy may be limited to a public act of apostasy).

The principle, however, is much broader. When life is in danger, the law must stand aside. A case in point is a discussion regarding fasting on Yom Kippur found in BT Yoma 83a. If “there is a possibility of danger to human life,” it states, the law takes a back seat. Specifically, if a person says he is ill, he must be given food, even if 100 physicians who are present say that person is not in any danger.

Life takes precedence over law.

This is an incontrovertible fact: The lives of the people of the State of Israel are in danger if the economy of the State of Israel collapses. A country with no money is a country without the ability to adequately defend itself.

This, too, is a fact: The whole point of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is to bring Israel to its economic knees. The BDS movement is of Palestinian origin, and it demands not only an end to Israel’s presence on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, but the right of return of Palestinians to their pre-1948 homes and properties.

The impact BDS has is negligible today, but its power grows as its support grows. World leaders support BDS, even if only unofficially. In the first half of 2016, officials of the Swedish, Dutch, and Irish governments have publicly cheered on the BDS movement. For example, Ireland’s foreign minister, Charles Flanagan, stated that the BDS movement holds a “legitimate political viewpoint,” adding that it is wrong “to demonize those who advocate this policy.”

In January, the New Yorker reported on the growing list of BDS supporters, especially in the United States:

“These include the student councils of seven of the 10 University of California campuses, which have voted at various times to demand that the Board of Regents divest from American companies allegedly profiting from the occupation, including Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard. The pension board of the United Methodist Church…has blacklisted Israel’s five major banks….The American Anthropological Association, the American Studies Association, and the National Women’s Studies Association have voted to boycott Israeli universities.”

The magazine also noted that Israeli “exports fell in 2015, including a drop of about two billion dollars to the [European Union], its biggest trading partner.” Expect those exports to drop even further in the coming year.

Given this, I respectfully submit, now is not the time to further damage the Israeli export market. The RCBC has legitimate concerns about the halachic acceptability of Israeli produce. Yet those concerns should be made to stand aside as long as an existential threat looms over the heads of Israel’s citizens.
To again quote Rashi, “the Merciful One said to violate the mitzvot because…the souls of Israel are precious to Him.”


The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) would like to correct the record in light of Shammai Engelmayer’s recent column entitled “When being right is wrong: Local ban on Israeli produce.” The RCBC has no policy prohibiting produce from Israel. Halachic intricacies posed by Israeli produce demand far greater supervision than what many establishments can practically maintain. As such, our policies are consistent with industry-wide Kashrut practices across North America regarding produce from Israel.

RCBC rabbis are vigorous supporters of the State of Israel and encourage our synagogue members to support Israel and her economy. The mere mention of the BDS movement in a discussion of RCBC practices is wholly irrational and offensive.

Rabbi Chaim Poupko, President
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, Vice-President
Rabbi Ari Zahtz, Vice-President for Kashrut


I am not surprised by this response to my column. Of course, the RCBC denies it has such a policy and, in truth, it does not have one—not in so many words. It does, however, have such a policy in practical terms. Read the response carefully. While it would never tell anyone not to buy Israeli produce, it will tell them they cannot use what they buy because “Halachic intricacies posed by Israeli produce demand far greater supervision than what many establishments can practically maintain.” Those “halachic intricacies” were detailed in my column. I also made it clear that I respect the RCBC's decisions regarding these "intricacies." That is made clear from the headline itself: "When being right is wrong." I do not object to the policy. I did raise a question about whether the policy should be put on hold in some way at this time.

Despite my efforts to get the RCBC to comment (and I did make such efforts), I was unable to do so. I assume that I was correct about the nature of the "halachic intricacies," and the RCBC response does not question my take on them. Perhaps, however, there are other “halachic intricacies” of which I am unaware.

For the record, Rabbi Poupko did tell me in an e-mail on July 12, “I’ll be in touch later this afternoon.” On July 14, he apologized for not having done so. “I'm sorry I wasn’t able to be in touch sooner,” he wrote. “I left for Israel on Wednesday. I wish I had known you were rushing to post an article this week. But what's done is done and I see no need to communicate with you on this matter further. The RCBC will handle this on its own.”

This response from the RCBC is what he must have meant.

Also, I did not rush to publish without doing the other due diligence required, in addition to asking for an explanation from the RCBC. In this case, that meant confirming the policy by three unimpeachable sources. I did so by speaking to the owners of three establishments certified by the RCBC, all of whom confirmed—off the record, out of fear of reprisals, one said—that the RCBC will not allow them to use Israeli produce.

As for equating the RCBC with the BDS movement—the clear import of the statement, “The mere mention of the BDS movement in a discussion of RCBC practices is wholly irrational and offensive”—this is simply wrong. I never equated the RCBC with BDS. I did say that as long as the BDS movement is trying to damage Israel’s economy, thereby placing the lives of the citizens of the State in jeopardy, perhaps the RCBC should consider softening its demands regarding those very “halachic intricacies” in view of what I believe to be the compelling halachic guideline that life takes precedence over nearly all of the Torah’s commandments. I do not see how I can make an argument that life takes precedence without also explaining why.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Blame ‘the Big Lie’: Without truth, Mideast peace is not possible

This past summer was not a good one for the Jewish people or the Jewish State.

Operation Protective Edge reportedly embarrassed too many Jews in this country, none of whom should have been embarrassed. It also put Israel in a bad light, with accusations of war crimes, immorality, a genocidal agenda - accusations heard day after day over the airwaves, or read in newspapers, none of which bore relationship to the truth.

Protective Edge was not an "operation" as much as it was a full-scale war, fought against an intractable enemy with a very real genocidal agenda.

Make no mistake - Hamas wants all Jews dead, not just Israeli Jews. It says as much, without any sense of shame. It is part of Hamas' charter. According to that charter, Muslims are obligated - obligated - to "fight Jews and kill them." There is nothing ambiguous about that.

According to the Hamas charter, we Jews are a "warmongering" people who have been plotting for centuries to take over the world. For proof, the charter says, just read "the Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

The so-called "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" is an infamous, flat-out fraud. It is not even original. It is less a forgery, and more of a gross example of plagiarism. It first appeared in France in the late 19th century, and apparently was written by someone who worked for the Russian secret police. It was a rewrite of a pamphlet written 30 years earlier that named France's emperor at the time, Napoleon III, as the one planning to take over the world. The emperor was deleted, the Jews were inserted, and a fraud was consummated.

Proven fraud though it is, the "Protocols" is at the heart of why it is almost impossible for Israel and the Palestinians to trust each other enough to make peace.

The real obstacle to peace is the Big Lie. Say something often enough, report something often enough, and it will be believed, no matter how untrue. Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's minister of propaganda, the master of the big lie, taught us that.

Perhaps the biggest lie in the Arab-Israel dispute is that Jews and Arabs have hated each other, and have been fighting each other, for thousands of years. This is Big Lie No. 1.

Genesis 21 is often cited as the origin of that eternal enmity.

Nothing in Genesis 21 suggests any such thing. All we see there is Sarah urging her husband to send away Ishmael and his birth mother, Hagar. We do not really know why she wanted him to do so; Ishmael, after all, was legally her son; Hagar was only the surrogate who gave birth to him. We only know what Sarah herself told Abraham - she did not want Ishmael to share in Abraham's estate; "the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac," Genesis 21:10 has her saying.

Maybe, just maybe, Sarah and Hagar did not trust Abraham, as Rabbi David J. Zucker proposed some years ago in an article in Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.

Maybe, just maybe, they were worried Abraham might harm both Ishmael and Isaac.

After all, just a few years earlier, when he was 99 years old, Abraham took a knife and circumcised himself, then he circumcised Ishmael, and then he circumcised the hundreds of other males in his household. Abraham said God told him to do it, and we accept that He did, but they had no way of knowing whether this was true.

Maybe Sarah and Hagar feared something even more terrible might happen to Isaac, and so they conspired to set up a second home to which Sarah and Isaac could flee just in case. As it is, after the Binding of Isaac, we next see Sarah living apart from Abraham; she in Hebron, he in Beersheva.

Such a scenario is not beyond belief. In the very next chapter, Genesis 22, Abraham actually puts Isaac on a pile of wooden branches, and takes a knife to his throat.

After that incident, we never see father and son together. In fact, when we next encounter Isaac, he is living in a place called Beer L'chai Roi, a place Hagar herself named years earlier, and probably where she went after leaving Abraham's camp. It is possible, then, that Isaac was living with Hagar and Ishmael, or very near to them.

When Abraham is buried, Isaac and Ishmael are pictured standing side by side. Says the Torah: "And Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the Cave of Machpelah....And Isaac settled in Beer L'chai Roi." Even for a time after Abraham died, Isaac, it seems, avoided anything that was his father's.

When Isaac marries, he brings his wife into his mother's tent in Hebron, not his father's tent in Beersheva.

Isaac appears to have gone to live with his brother and his stepmother. Yet the Torah sees nothing to remark on that, or in showing the two brothers standing side by side at Abraham's funeral. Neither of these speaks to hatred between the two.

And we can add this, from Genesis 28: "And when Esau realized [the] Canaanite women [he married] displeased his father Isaac, Esau went to Ishmael, and took as [another] wife Machalat, the daughter of Ishmael, the son of Abraham."

When Esau realizes his father is upset because his favorite son married Canaanite women, he goes and marries one of Ishmael's daughters. How would that make Isaac feel any better if he and Ishmael were mortal enemies? This also does not suggest hatred between the two. It suggests just the opposite.

When the Muslims conquered Babylonia in the mid 7th century, the leader of the Jewish community was known as the exilarch, and he was treated by the Muslim caliph as a king. According to Benjamin of Tudela, who witnessed it, when the exilarch visited the caliph every Thursday, the caliph sat the exilarch next to him on a second throne. The caliph also ordered everyone - Muslim, Jew, Christian, or whatever - to stand whenever the exilarch was present, and to salute him. Those who failed to do so faced 100 lashes of the whip. On those Thursday visits, as the exilarch made his way through the streets of the capital, runners would go before him ordering them to bow to him, "as is his due."

When Islam rose to conquer Spain in the 8th century, its chief allies were the Jews. Often, Muslim fighters would capture an area, put the local Jews in charge, and move on to the next battlefield.

The Muslim conquest inaugurated what in Jewish history is known as the Golden Age of Spain. Two people in particular were responsible for the launching of the Golden Age. The first was the caliph Abd al-Rachmân III. The second was a physician named Chasdai Abu Yusuf Ben Yitzchak Ben Ezra ibn Shaprut, whom we know as Chisdai ibn Shaprut.

The caliph made Chisdai his personal physician; gave him control of trade in and out of the caliphate; then made him both prime minister and foreign minister - without the title, but with the caliph's full backing.

With Abd al-Rachmân's help and his blessing, Chisdai turned Muslim Spain into a major center of Jewish culture and learning on virtually every level. He literally created Sephardi Jewry.

Then there was Ismail ibn Nagrela - Sh'muel Ha-nagid. He was a rabbi; a talmudist; a renowned halachist; a grammarian; a linguist; and a poet, both of liturgical and secular poems.

And for at least two decades in the early 11th century, he also was the power behind Granada's throne; in fact, in the last years of his life, he was the caliph in everything but title.

Officially, he was the caliph's chief minister and chief of staff of his army - a Jew (a rabbi, no less) in charge of a Muslim army. He spent 18 years on the battlefield, never losing to the enemy. (He died of natural causes during his last campaign.)  Shmuel Ha-nagid's son and successor Joseph ibn Naghrela - Joseph Ha-nagid - did not fare as well; he was ultimately killed by radicalized Islamists who slaughtered the Jews in Grenada.

For nearly two centuries, Jews and Muslims lived together in Spain in convivencia, a symbiotic relationship, in which each benefited from the other intellectually, culturally, and economically.

In that environment, the Jews and Muslims each produced great works of grammar, poetry, philosophy, and architecture.  As vizier, Joseph Hanagid as vizier, for example, built the earliest section of Granada's Alhambra palace.

Does this sound like millennia-old hatred and warfare between Muslims and Jews? No.

Did we always get along? Sadly, no.

Were there times when crazy caliphs made the lives of Jews hell on earth? Sadly, yes.

But millennia-old hatred and warfare? No. Not even close. And that probably is why for the first seven centuries after Islam came into existence, the majority of Jews in the world preferred to live in Muslim lands, not Christian ones.

In Christian Europe, Jews were brutalized, tortured, and killed as a matter of public policy. For century after century, Jews were denied livelihoods, forced to live in ghettoes, robbed on a regular basis. And killed.

This version of Jewish-Muslim relations no longer exists. It was destroyed by a Big Lie, one that began at the end of the 19th century, when we actively began to reclaim our ancient home acre by acre, dunam by dunam.

The Christian world was not pleased. A return to the Land was an affront to Christian theology. Christendom was the "New Israel," the "Old Israel" would never rise again, and the Jews had to be kept on the most servile rungs of society as witness to the truth of it all.

Certainly, the French were not pleased. In fact, the first version of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to be translated into Arabic came from the October 21, 1920 issue of the Newspaper, La Vielle France, even though it was a known fraud by then. They printed up thousands of copies of the translated text, and distributed those texts free throughout the Arab world.

Then the French, and the British too, mounted a campaign to convince the Arabs the Jews were coming to steal their land and enslave them. They used almost the exact same words we find today in Hamas' charter.

The so-called thousands of years of hatred and warfare between the Jews and the Arabs actually is a little over 100 years old, fueled by Christian anti-Semitism, not enmity between Isaac and Ishmael.

The more we hear journalists, pundits, and politicians talk about the millennia-old hatred between Jews and Arabs, both before Islam and after, the more that falsehood becomes truth, and the truth becomes falsehood.

It is easy to dismiss the above facts as ancient history; to dismiss it all as irrelevant because the facts on the ground have made them irrelevant. The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I would add that those who dismiss the past as irrelevant also are doomed to repeat it.

Truth is never irrelevant.

That finally brings me to my point, which is to examine how the Big Lie keeps the Palestinians and the Israelis from giving peace a chance.

The Big Lie comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We have dealt with Big Lie No. 1.

Now for Big Lie No. 2: From the time the Jews were exiled by the Romans until the end of the 19th century, there were hardly any Jews in Palestine.

Not true. The Hebrew word chalukah means "distribution," and it was the word used to describe the collection of funds in the Diaspora for the support of the Yishuv, the Jewish Settlement in Palestine. When we hear the word Yishuv, we think of early 20th century Jewish history, but from the Roman era onwards, there was always a Yishuv and it was always called the Yishuv.

In the 19th century, Jerusalem had over 15,000 Jews living in it. Late in that century, a British census showed that Jews made up the majority in Jerusalem.

Big Lie No. 3: Israel, we are told over and again, illegally seized Palestinian land in 1967 and has illegally occupied it ever since.

Not true.

For one thing, Israel struck first, but it did not start the Six-Day War; the Arabs did. Egypt did. For another, Israel pleaded with Jordan to stay out of the war. It even sent Golda Meir on a secret mission to Amman to meet with King Hussein. It was to no avail. Hussein sent his air force to attack Israeli positions, and he put units of the Arab Legion on the Mandelbaum Gate to fire on West Jerusalem.

After the war, Israel wanted to give it all back, but the Arab League, meeting in Khartoum, issued its infamous "three no's": "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel."

You do not hear about that much any more; except from the more right leaning Israel supporters.

All you hear is that Israel illegally invaded and illegally occupied. More about the alleged illegality below.

Big Lie No. 4: Israel has prevented the Palestinians from establishing a state of their own.

Not true. On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly created two Palestinian states: a Palestinian Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state. The Yishuv accepted that two-state solution. The Arabs rejected it.

In the war that followed, Egypt occupied Gaza, Jordan occupied the west bank, and Syria seized the Golan. For 19 years, the land was illegally occupied by Arab states. For 19 years, a Palestinian Arab state was there for the founding. It was never born because Arab states stole the land from the Palestinians.

You never hear that anymore, either. The Big Lie is more important than the truth.

For sure, Israel, by its presence on the west bank, does stand in the way of a Palestinian state being created today. That is an overly simplistic view, however.

Thief No. 1 breaks into a house and steals a television set. Thief No. 2 breaks into the home of Thief No. 1 and steals that same television set. The police raid the home of Thief No. 2 and recover the set. Do they return it to Thief No. 1? The idea is absurd. The set would be returned to its legal owner, except that the legal owner cannot be found.

A series of foreign powers seized and then controlled all of Palestine, including the west bank and Gaza, for two millennia. After World War I, the region was administered by the British, who left on May 14, 1948. Jordan then illegally occupied the west bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza. Israel, in this case, stands in for the police in the television set scenario. It “recovered” the "stolen property," but there was no legal owner to be found. Until a "legal" owner does appear, there is no one to whom to return the land. (This is why Israel prefers the term "administered territories," rather than the ever-popular "occupied territories." It is administering the territories until their owner can be identified.)

Supposedly, the Palestinians are the "legal owner," although "Palestinian" as a national identity is less than a hundred years old (no one ever mentions that, either). Yet they have been unable to produce a stable government. They also are unable, or unwilling, to prevent terrorists from using their territory as a launching pad for attacks on Israel. Most significant, they have leaders who say the right things in English (we want to live in peace with Israel) and the wrong things in Arabic (today the west bank, tomorrow all of Palestine). The late unlamented Yasir Arafat was a master of such double-speak, but Mahmoud Abbas has been known to do the same.

This brings us to Big Lie No. 5: The Jews have no real legal claim to the land.

Not true.

Before the Jewish state came into existence on May 15, 1948, the last legitimate native government on that land was the Jewish state created 2,200 years earlier by Judah Maccabee and his brothers.

From the fall of that state to Rome until the creation of the State of Israel 66 years ago, there was no legitimate native government on the soil of the entire Land of Israel, which was part of the territory the Romans had renamed Palestine.

In essence, land illegally occupied for 2,000 years was finally returned to the successors of the last legitimate native government that existed there. (This, by the way, would make Israel the actual "original legal owner" of that stolen television set, meaning at the very least the west bank.)

A poll this summer reported that a majority of Jews age 30 and under opposed Operation Protective Edge, and were embarrassed by what they saw as Israel's immoral actions.

In New York and throughout the country, there were demonstrations organized by Jews against Israel,. One fringe Jewish group even staged a "die-in" at the offices of the Friends of the IDF in midtown Manhattan.

These people simply do not know the facts, or have been coopted by a mindset already fixated on opposition to Israel. What army in the world ever gave people a half-hour's warning to seek shelter before it struck strategic targets? Are the United States and its allies doing what the IDF did for the Gazan people, phoning, leafleting texting and "knocking" on the roofs before it bombs ISIS targets? Only Israel ever did such a thing.

And to the shame of Islam, in the name of which Hamas acts, Hamas forced people to stay in their homes, so they could die, so the death toll would mount, so Israel would be made to look immoral and genocidal.

Jews have nothing to be ashamed of in the Gaza war.

Israel has nothing to be ashamed of in the Gaza war.

Israel caused death and destruction in Gaza, true, and it grieves us, or it should grieve us. Israel, however, is not responsible for those deaths or that destruction.

Hamas is responsible.

Hundreds of missiles fired at Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Tel Aviv in a single month are responsible.

Building a series of tunnels to invade Israeli towns and villages in order to kill Jews is responsible.

In building these tunnels, Hamas also forced children to dig and killed the builders so no one could leak the locations to Israel; with no human rights violation charges claimed against Hamas.  This is who Hamas truly is.

Then there is Big Lie No. 6: Israel, in its aerial war against Gaza, violated international law and committed war crimes.

On September 23, the world woke up to the news that the United States was carrying out air strikes on suspected terrorist cells in Syria. The reason, the news reports said, was because there was credible information that the targeted groups, belonging to ISIS and al Qaeda, posed an imminent direct threat to the United States.

The United States bombed, and the West cheered.

The groups targeted beginning on September 23 are in Syria, many thousands of miles away from the American homeland.

An imminent threat is a threat that has not happened, and God-willing never will.

Israel did not face an imminent threat from some faraway terrorist gang. Hamas is right there on its southern flank, and in the months before Israel sent its military into Gaza, Hamas had already attacked Israel many hundreds of times with its missiles. Thank God for Iron Dome.

Until today, no American children have been forced to live in bomb shelters because of ISIS, or al Qaeda. Israeli children in the south were forced to live in bomb shelters most of every day for months because of Hamas and its missiles.

For acting against an imminent threat, the United States is praised, to the credit of the world.  There has not been much, if any, news reported on the damage and death America is causing to non military targets in Iraq and Syria.

For acting against an actual attack, Israel is condemned, to the shame of the world.

Talk about double standards. The top U.N. investigator for Gaza, William Schabas, openly admitted that the UN holds a double standard in regard to Israel and war crimes.

Britain, perhaps, stands out in the double-standard category. On September 26, at the urging of Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain's parliament overwhelmingly voted to set British warplanes into the skies over Iraq. "These people want to kill us," Cameron told NBC News anchor Brian Williams. "They've got us in their sights and we have put together this make sure that we ultimately destroy this evil organization."

To another interviewer, he said, "We have a need to act in our own national interest to protect our people and our society."

During the Gaza war, however, Cameron and his government did not think Israel had the right to act in its own national interest to protect its people and its society. “We are currently reviewing all export licenses to Israel to confirm that we think they are appropriate,” a spokeswoman for Cameron announced on August 4.

True, Cameron's government was not overly pressing suspension of arms sales to Israel, but it was being pressured by the opposition parties in Parliament to suspend them - immediately. Those same parties voted 524 to 43 in favor of doing to faraway ISIS what they objected to Israel doing to nearby Hamas.

Then there is Marie Harf, the U.S. Deputy State Department Spokesperson who said about The U.S., NATO and Ukraine taking steps against Russia after the invasion of Crimea the summer, "…there is no equivalence between countries taking steps to protect themselves, their partners, and their territories against someone who is sending arms and troops and men over the border into another country…No one's going to sit by and not stand up for our principals and say go ahead Russia, we're not going to take any steps to protect ourselves…."

Israel was not publicly given the same consideration, and was condemned, even while the instances occurred so close to one another that the duplicitous actions were fresh in the minds of those criticizing.

There is one more Big Lie that must be addressed, Big Lie No. 7: Israel never does anything wrong.

Israel has done many things wrong. Some things, it has done terribly wrong.

It has treated its own Arab citizens shabbily over the years. It has at times ignored the rule of law in dealing with Palestinians in the territories. As much as the Palestinians fail to honor agreements, Israel also fails to honor agreements.

Peace will never come to the Middle East, real peace, until truth comes to the Middle East.

Our task going forward as Jews in the diaspora is to challenge the Big Lie whenever it is spoken, wherever it is spoken, by whomever it is spoken.

Our task is to hold politicians responsible for the truth; the media responsible for the truth; the pundits and talking heads responsible for the truth.

Our task is to stand up for the truth, no matter how much people do not want to hear it, and even no matter if it hurts us; we must be as one "who stands by his oath, even to his own detriment," in the words of Psalm 15.

Our task as individuals is to stand together, united in common cause. Sitting on our hands no longer is an option, and neither is remaining unaffiliated with the Jewish community, as is the case with over half of American Jewry.

Israel is at risk and Jew-hatred is on the rise again throughout the world. You only need to open your newspapers to see how true that is. Do a Google search for the word Jew and see how true that is.

Human rights groups are lobbying government leaders in every capital of the world against Israel, and at times even against the Jews in general. Efforts, sometimes successful, in Western countries to ban ritual circumcision (Denmark, Sweden, and, for a time, Germany) and a failed effort in San Francisco, in the United States; or the kosher slaughter (Poland, Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and New Zealand) are part and parcel of this frightening trend.

Universities and the business world are being actively pushed to boycott anything Israel.

You can even buy copies of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion on

Never in the last 60 years or so has it been more important for Jews to affiliate with their communities.

If ever in the last 60 years there was a need for Jews to stand together, this is the time. The old adage is nevertheless a true one: In unity there is strength.

We show that unity by belonging to the institutions that serve our community. Politicians count heads. If Jews do not affiliate - and, as noted, over half the Jews in America do not - the politicians and policy-makers see that and say the Jews do not care about Israel, and they do not even care about anything but their own individual self-interests.

Sitting outside the community is no longer an option. Joining the community is the only option.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On Wednesday, the cantor saved a world

     “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”
     So the Talmud tells us, and so Chazan Eric Wasser did several weeks ago Wednesday, when he gave up one of his kidneys so that a congregant in his shul could live.
     Eric Wasser is cantor of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. The congregant is Harvey Jaffee, himself an extraordinary and selfless human being who in recent years has been a Judaics teacher to teenagers, many of whom often bring friends to class with them. Jaffee’s kidneys had failed him, and the prognosis for a long life (much less a productive one) was grim, to put it in the best light.
     Shortly before the surgery, Mr. Jaffee sat with Chazan Wasser. “My children want to know what they can do for you,” he told his cantor. “They want to thank you, but they can’t even begin to think of something appropriate for the person who saved their father’s life.”
     Wasser did not miss a beat. “I should be thanking you,” he said, “for giving me the opportunity to help extend a life of someone who does so much good for others.”
     I visited the two men in the hospital the day after their surgeries. In my time with Chazan Wasser, I thanked him for this tremendous mitzvah generally, and specifically for saving the life of a man who has taught me so much about selflessness and courage. The cantor repeated to me what he had said to Mr. Jaffee, that he is the one who is thankful for the opportunity. We both also marveled at a compassionate God who could put two people who were so perfect a blood and tissue match for each other.
     Both men also had something else to say—pass it forward.
     A healthy person can donate a kidney; a part of the liver, lung, or intestine; or bone marrow. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which maintains a running count on its website, as of the moment I write these words, 99,357 people in the United States are awaiting a kidney to save their lives; 15,715 people are waiting for a liver; another 1,621 are in need of a lung. Eighteen people die each day because no transplant is available in time.
     There are approximately 20,000 people who need donated bone marrow; the average is 3,000 deaths a year because no matching marrow was found in time.
     Blood is the easiest to donate, yet almost always is in short supply in emergency situations. The American Red Cross says that it takes 80,000 units per day to meet the nation’s needs; in one week in February, it announced that it was short 50,000 units of blood. Last September, a nationwide blood shortage caused postponement of elective surgeries in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, which were the heaviest hit areas.
     Clearly, the need is there and, in the case of blood, there is virtually no halachic barrier to donating. Under Jewish law, however, is it permissible to donate a healthy organ? And what about being an organ donor after death—what does halachah have to say about that?
     (A digression is in order. Consider the rest of this article to be a taste of what is available in the JFNNJ-sponsored Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, a program near and dear to the heart of Harvey Jaffee, the recipient of Cantor Wasser’s kidney; he has done much in the last few years to keep the Hebrew University-created program going. Much of the material cited here is the subject of two lessons its Ethics of Jewish Living curriculum, one of the program’s four core courses.)
     Because saving a life is a prime directive in Judaism—the Torah demands that we “not stand idly by” when another person’s life is in danger (see Leviticus 19:16)—whether it is permissible to donate live organs would seem to be a simple question to answer. It is anything but. There is a clear-cut conflict in Jewish values here: While Judaism maintains that we must do what we can to save a life, it also maintains that all humans are equally valued and, thus, are equally entitled to protection and preservation.
     If all human life is precious, we must go out of our way to save a life. Yet, if all humans are equal, we must draw the line when our own lives are put at risk.
     This is a valid concern in organ donations. After all, general anesthesia can pose a risk and complications can arise during surgery. Seventy years ago, 640 people out every 1 million who were administered general anesthesia died because of it. Today, the number is closer to seven out of every one million, although the risk is a bit higher for people over age 65. In December, a study of a popular anesthetic, etomidate, revealed patients given that drug “had 2.5 times the odds of dying [within 30 days] than those given propofol,” another popular anesthetic.
     Anasthesia is only the entry point in the risks associated with surgery. Perhaps a more serious concern is what is known as Health Care Associated Infections (HAI); one in every 20 patients contracts an HAI while in a hospital; too many die. The HAI-related death in our area two weeks ago of Rabbi Yossie Stern, founder of Project Ezrah and its executive director, undrescores that risk.
     The talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, in responding to an exaggeratedly hypothetical situation, ruled that we do not have a right to risk our lives to save the life of someone else. “Your life,” he said, “takes precedence.” (See the interesting discussion in Babylonian Tractate Bava Metzia 62a.)
     As noted, however, he was responding to an extreme hypothetical, one that requires absolute certain knowledge of the outcome. Absolute certainty is hard to come by, however. Is any risk forbidden, or is it a question of degree of risk?
     For this, we turn to a discussion in BT Sanhedrin 73a. There it is stated that the Torah demands “that if one sees his companion drowning in the sea or being dragged by an animal, or being attacked by bandits, he is obligated to come to his rescue,” either by himself, or by hiring others to do so, if the situation allows for it.
     Maimonides, the Rambam, codified this in his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of the Murderer and of Saving Lives, 1:14: “Anyone who is able to rescue and nonetheless does not, violates the prohibition of ‘Do not stand idly....’”
     In his commentary to Sanhedrin 73a, the 13th century French scholar Menachem Meiri went further: “Not only is he himself required, if he can do so without endangering himself..., but even through the assistance of others whom he must hire....”
     In other words, we are dealing with degree of risk. If there is a 50-50 chance of survival or less, the risk is considered a “vadai sakanah,” a certain danger, and Jewish law forbids taking that risk. Once the risk falls below 50 percent, however (safek sakanah), a strong minority of opinion allows the risk to be taken.
     The late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, in Yechaveh Da’at 3:84, applied this to kidney transplants.
     Because “God-fearing medical experts” state that “the removal of a kidney is minimal, and that roughly 99 percent of kidney donors recuperate fully...,” he ruled in 1980, “according to the halachah it is permissible, and even a mitzvah....And this worthy mitzvah will protect the donor as a thousand shields.”
     Rabbi Solomon Freehof, arguably Reform Judaism’s foremost legal authority, was not so positive in his response (see Freehof, S., “Kidney Transplants,” in New Reform Responsa, 1980), however, because “the operation on the potential donor to remove the kidney involves danger and may not go well,” and the operation itself “may not be quite successful.” Thus, while not banning the procedure outright, he ruled that “Jewish ethics does not require us to enter into potential personal danger...when the benefit of the one to be rescued is itself not absolutely clear.”
     Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis echoed this in a 2008 responsum regarding a live liver donation. It acknowledged that “Jewish tradition sees the preservation of human life as a mitzvah of the highest order.” However, “if the attempt to rescue another person would pose a mortal danger (vadai sakanah) to our own lives, we are forbidden to attempt the rescue...[because] ‘your own life takes precedence.’”
     The CCAR responsum referred to “live liver donation surgery” as a “safek sakanah. If so..., an individual is not obligated—and may well be forbidden—to donate part of his or her liver for transplantation.”
     “That decision,” it added, “is a valid Jewish choice, and we must not criticize a person for making it.”
     On the other hand, “The procedure's risks, though not insignificant, are manageable,” the CCAR responsum said. Thus, there is a need to “balance the predominant viewpoint, which grants us the necessary right to safeguard our own lives from danger, with the minority viewpoint, which reaches beyond this bare minimum standard of conduct toward a higher aspiration for our lives.”
     On balance, it ruled, “One is therefore permitted to serve as a live liver donor.”
     That ruling ran counter to an opinion offered in 2002 by Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler, certainly someone on the right halachically who nevertheless is more open to transplants and even favors stem cell research (he is also a Ph.D in biology and a recognized medical ethicist).
     “The Judaeo-Biblical tradition forbids self-sacrifice even to save the life of a loved one,” he wrote in On the Beat, the New York Organ Donor Network Newsletter. “Live donation of kidneys has proven to be a low-risk procedure for the donor. The same cannot be said for adult/adult liver lobe transplant. Until the surgical technique improves, the risk to the donor who must donate a major portion of the liver is too great to encourage this procedure. Adult/child transplants, however, requiring only a small lobe of the liver (which has the ability to regenerate in a short time) can be approved.”
     Because “the shortage of organs is so acute,” Rabbi Tendler in the same article took a far more lenient, albeiut cautious, view on the issue of paying donors for their organs. He admitted that this was a slippery slope, but one he felt was worth the risk.
     As he noted, he was not alone in thinking this way. “Leading medical journals (New England Journal of Medicine in the USA and Lancet in England) have published thoughtful articles suggesting that remuneration will not lead to the commodification (treating as a commodity) of body parts, or exploitation of the indigent, if the organs are donated to the national organ bank and not directed to a specified individual,” he wrote. “The Jewish tradition reluctantly concurs with this analysis because of the overarching consideration of ‘saving a life.’”
     Clearly, when it comes to live donors, most decisors argue that Jewish law encourages organ donations when the odds favor a full recovery for the donor. There is no risk to a donor who is already dead, however. It would seem, therefore, that organ donation after death is less problematic from the standpoint of Jewish law.
     Yet, the opposite is true, for a number of reasons.
     Foremost among these are the belief that we humans are created in the image of God, and how one defines death.
     If we are created in God’s image (assuming God has an “image,” which normative Jewish tradition insists He does not), then desecrating the human body in any way for any reason desecrates that image.
     On the other hand, if God commanded that we “must not stand idly by,” to not desecrate the human body to help others also violates God’s law.
     In an August 1995 article in Moment Magazine, Adena K. Berkowitz provided a heart-wrenching example of this conundrum. The case involved “an Israeli girl who flew with her family to the U.S. for a liver transplant. On the plane, the young girl, while on life support, was declared brain dead. The team assembled to try to save her life now turned to her family and asked if they would donate her remaining healthy organs. They said no. The Israeli family explained, ‘We feel for the other families and we want to help, but we have asked our rabbi and he has said that it is not permitted under Jewish law.’”
     If their rabbi did say such a thing, it was because he considered that leaving the body intact, meaning not “desecrating God’s image,” was of greater importance than the mitzvah not to stand idly by when someone’s life needs saving.
     Desecrating God’s image, in fact, is a non-issue in such cases, according to all but the most rigid authorities. Even the Talmud seems to acknowledge this. In a discussion in BT Chullin 11b, we are told parenthetically that when “an individual’s life is at stake, desecration of the deceased is permitted.”
     True, some authorities deny this—not because God’s image is being desecrated, but because the body of the deceased will not be whole at the time of the resurrection of the dead. No less a medical ethics authority than the late Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, for many years the supervising rabbi of Shaare Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem and one of the foremost Orthodox authorities on halachah and medicine, forbade a cornea transplant because the donor “will be blind in his eyes” at the time of resurrection. It is not clear, however, where Rabbi Waldenberg actually stood on transplant issues. In one instance, at least, he approved of a kidney transplant, despite his views on resurrection.
     Most people believe that Rabbi Waldenberg’s view, in fact, is the normative Jewish belief, but it is not. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, chief rabbi of Beit El in Israel and head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, called such assertions “nonsense.” The donor “will not be missing anything,” he wrote in 2004. “On the contrary, an organ with which this great mitzvah is done will reappear twice as healthy [at the time of resurrection].”
     The Agudath Israel of America, for one, does not permit organ donations after death, except in very narrow circumstances. Most rabbinic organizations, however, here and in Israel, take the opposite view. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and the Reform CCAR all encourage their laities to become organ donors, within set guidelines. Other rabbinic groups permit organ donations, but only to save the life of another Jew, or in some cases only an observant Jew by their definition of observance. Rabbi Tendler, among many others, considers such positions to be a chilul hashem, a desecration of God’s name.
     It should be noted, in passing, that virtually all authorities allow the acceptance of a transplanted organ, even if they oppose donating that organ, as in the case of the young Israeli girl just cited.
     The more serious halachic hurdle to post-death donation is defining death; more accurately, defining when death actually occurs. Jewish law maintains that if actual death (as opposed to some arbitrary medical definition of death) has not occurred, to harvest an organ is to commit murder (or, at the least, to hasten death).
     Time of “death” is critical in organ donation. Kidneys and the pancreas remain viable for a while even after death, but livers, hearts, and lungs must be harvested before the body of the donor has completely shut down.
     Traditionally, death has been defined since talmudic times as when breathing ceases. This is based on Genesis 7:22, which states, “All in whose nostrils was the merest breath of life.” In the 17th century, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena explained the Talmud’s definition as meaning that the brain has stopped functioning. “[A]ll opinions agree that the fundamental source of life is in the brain,” he wrote. “Therefore, if one examines the nose first [the Talmud’s test], which is the organ of servitude of the brain, and there is no spontaneous respiration, none of them [the rabbinic opinions] doubts that life has departed from the brain.”
     It is this opnion that was seized on as the game-changer in organ transplantation. If brain function, not respiration, is the key to “actual death,” then livers, hearts, and lungs may be harvested to save a life.
     The case of 20-year-old Alisa Flatow, the New Jersey native who was the victim of a suicide bomber in April 1995, is the paradigm here. After she was declared to be brain dead, her father, Steven Flatow, consulted with Rabbi Tendler and with his own rabbi, Alvin Marcus. With their approval, he agreed to allow his daughter’s heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas, and corneas to be transplanted into six people who were on the transplant waiting list. Although two of the six subsequently died, the lives of four people were saved.
     “Alisa Flatow will not only get credit in heaven above for the four people alive, walking around with her organs, but the many hundreds who will be saved because other people will be inspired to follow her example,” Rabbi Tendler was quoted as saying in the Moment article.
     Accepting brain death as the definition of actual definition would seem to be supported by a comment in Mishnah Ohalot 1:6a. According to that talmudic source, a decapitated person is dead regardless of whether blood continues to flow, or the body continues to twitch. Rabbi Tendler argues that a “brain-dead person is like a physiologically decapitated” one.
     Another noted and widely respected decisor, Rabbi J. David Bleich,  disagrees. In Time of Death in Jewish Law, he wrote, “only irreversible cessation of respiratory and cardiac activity accompanied by total absence of movement” is death according to Jewish law.
     Rabbi Bleich (who does support low-risk transplants in cases of live donors) does agree that decapitation ends life; a passing reference in his rather lengthy heavily-footnoted discussion indicates this. He simply does not agree that decapitation is the same thing as “brain death,” because it is impossible to say with certainty that a person’s brain is indeed “dead.” He quotes Dr. Henry K. Beecher, who headed a Harvard Medical School study on brain death published in 1968, who subsequently wrote, “Only a very bold man, I think, would attempt to define death....We felt we could not define death.”
     In the end, in the case of post-death organ donations, it boils down to which authority one is willing to heed, or to personal choice. Rabbi Bleich’s position notwithstanding, ever more authorities today are willing to accept “brain death” as actual death. Saving a life, or several lives, as in the case of Alisa Flatow, takes precedence, in their view.

Highlight of the gods?

Purim is upon us. All hail Marduk. All hail Ishtar.

Oy vey.

There are some decidedly Jewishly off-key elements regarding Purim (aside from the fact that pur means lot in Akkadian, not Persian), and uppermost among them are its heroes, Mordechai and Esther.

We know Esther was not the good queen’s Jewish name, because “her” book tells us her name was Hadassah. I prefer her English name, Myrtle (Hadassah derives from the word hadas, which means myrtle, a symbol of righteousness). “Esther” has nothing to do with myrtles or righteousness. The name derives from a Semitic deity, Ishtar, or Astarte, she whom the Greeks and later the Romans adopted, calling her Aphrodite and Venus respectively.

In other words, Esther is the personification of the pagan goddess of love, and she plays the role to perfection in M’gillat Ester (The Scroll of Esther). First, she goes out on one date and becomes queen of the Persian Empire. Next, she defies the rules of the Persian court, yet has the king blubbering about giving her whatever she wants, up to and including half of his empire. Such things did not happen because she was better at Scrabble than he was.

As for Mordechai, while the name appears elsewhere in the Tanach (Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7, both referring to the same person, but not our hero), this does not prove that the name is a Jewish one. “Mordechai” comes from the Babylonian god of war, Marduk (it actually means “follower of Marduk”). Our Mordecai leads a war of sorts when he thwarts Haman’s genocidal plan, and obtains the king’s permission for the Jews to take up arms against their attackers, killing 75,810 of them in two days of fighting.

Then there is the date for Purim—Adar 14 for most of us, Adar 15 for anyone living in a city that had a wall surrounding it during the days of Joshua (meaning Jerusalem, at least in current times). Adar 14 was “Marduk’s day” in Mordechai’s day (see, for example, II Maccabees 15:36). In his day, too, Adar 15 was a solar festival; Marduk, being the creator god of Babylonian myth, had a central role in that, as well.

All of this suggests that the Purim story is probably an adaptation of pagan mythology, as some scholars theorize. That Marduk and Ishtar never appear together in ancient pagan texts, however, would seem to work against such a theory. If anything, the story would be a combination of pagan myths.

Such a combination is not out of the question. M’gillat Ester has two separate ancient literary motifs—a court intrigue involving Mordechai, and a harem intrigue involving Esther. Each of those could have drawn on ancient Marduk and Ishtar legends, as well.

That such things troubled the sages of blessed memory is indicated by a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate M’gillah 7a—a tractate dedicated to the rites and rituals of Purim. In the discussion, we find the vestiges of a debate about whether M’gillat Ester should even be included in the Tanach.

Other problems entered into this debate, as well. There are, for example, several glaring omissions in the book. God is nowhere to be found, albeit indirectly; prayer is never heard, or even suggested; the Jews party hearty after their victory, but are not seen thanking the God who delivered them; “the Jew Mordechai” refuses to bow to Haman because to do so would violate a Jewish law that does not exist; and he appears to have no qualms about turning over his cousin and ward, Esther, to the harem of a non-Jew.

On the other hand (Judaism always has an “other hand”; just ask Tevye), there are just as many indications that pagan motifs were borrowed to retell biblical tales.

The story of Joseph comes to mind, for one. Joseph is imprisoned on a false charge; the Jews in Esther are falsely charged. Joseph’s life turns around because the king of Egypt’s sleep is disturbed; the fate of Esther’s Jews turns around because the king of Persia’s sleep is disturbed. Joseph is “dressed in fine linen” after his elevation; Mordechai “left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue and white.” Joseph was led through the capital city in a royal chariot, with a shouting runner before him; Mordechai was led through the capital city on a royal steed, with a shouting runner before him.

Another story that comes to mind is that of King Saul and Agag, king of the Amalekites, in I Samuel 15. Mordechai’s ancestor is someone named Kish; Saul had a son named Kish. Haman is called an Agagite, suggesting that he is descended from Agag. In the original, Saul is ordered to kill all the Amalekites, our bitterest and most dangerous foes, but spares Agag. For this, he has his kingdom wrested from him. The Esther story thus would seem to be a replay of the original Saul-Agag encounter, with the intention of vindicating Saul.

In the end, none of this matters compared to the message: The God of Israel keeps His promise. No matter what they throw at us, we are here to stay.

Chag Purim Sameach.