Thursday, June 19, 2014

Rav Schachter on Negotiating with Terrorists

In a fascinating passage from Rav Herschel Schachter's book, B'Ikvei Hatzon, he writes about the hijacking of TWA flight 741 during which, on a return flight from Israel to NY (with stops in Athens and Germany), a group of terrorists from the PLFP hijacked the plane and routed it to Amman, Jordan as part of a coordinated hijacking of planes intended to shock the world - which it did.

(Begin mini-rant: You can watch a documentary about the hijackings here. It's pretty amazing just how amateurish the hijackers were, how docile the Americans were, and how easily the El Al crew and passengers overtook the attackers. Simply by profiling the passengers and looking at the passports, El Al threw off two of the passengers - who then went and bought tickets, and hijacked a second plane! Almost incredible. What's even more distressing is that the United States learned nothing at all from the episode, because if it had, the events of September 11, 2001 would never have happened. End of rant.)

Among the hostages was Rav Yitzchak Hutner (I'm pretty sure that he appears in the footage of the movie at 24:57), the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chaim Berlin. As the crisis continued and the Jewish hostages were separated from most of the others, one of the supporters of the yeshiva proposed the idea of raising several million dollars to secure the Rosh Yeshiva's release. This prompted an extensive halachic discussion about whether paying an inordinate ransom was appropriate, and they concluded that it would be justified for a man of Rav Hutner's stature.
They went to Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky for his blessing in the matter. Rav Schachter writes that he flatly rejected their arguments, insisting that this wasn't a simple case of Pidyon Shevuyim (redeeming captives), but instead a case of war. In a normal case during peacetime, one could weigh the value of paying a ransom - even an extraordinary sum. But paying a ransom during wartime would only encourage, and strengthen the enemy, something that couldn't be considered, no matter who was being held hostage.
In retelling the story, Rav Shlomo Aviner adds another interesting point. During his visit to Israel, Rav Hutner visited with Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, who was Rav Kook's wife's cousin. Rav Kook asked: How are you traveling? Rav Hutner told him that he was flying TWA. Rav Kook told him, "Fly with El Al - they have security." Clearly, Rav Hutner had already purchased tickets, and he wasn't about to switch. The rest, is of course, history.
Interestingly, while the United States and the European countries agreed to negotiate with the PLFP, Israel flatly refused. Tragically, it took decades for the world to wear us down, but now negotiating with terrorists is simply part of the game. As Naftali Bennett so aptly put it, once we traded for the living, then we traded tens and hundreds for bodies, then we traded 1,000 terrorists for a single soldier, and finally this year we traded terrorists for...for nothing. For the suggestion that we'd continue to negotiate.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Audio Shiur - Parshat Korach - A Challenge of Faith

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Korach - A Challenge of Faith

Commentators interpret Korach's rebellion in a myriad of manners. Today, we look at the dispute from the perspective of faith, and that Korach challenged the divinity of God, the Torah, and Moshe's role as prime prophet for the nation. There's a lot of evidence to justify this perspective. And we conclude with a great story about JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series. (You can click on the picture of the article to read it yourself).

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Palpable Pain

It's difficult to accurately articulate the pain and confusion that has gripped most of Israel over the past few days. If you're living in Israel, you already know, and if you don't, you can't. That's not a criticism, but a reality. I doubt that many people got much work done yesterday. Today is a bit better.

Every parent in Israel who blessed his or her child this Friday night added an extra prayer of thanks, for the simple ability to spend Shabbat with that child. This kidnapping hit home precisely because it's so close to us all: it's our children; our yeshivot; our yishuvim. People from across the country send their children to yeshivot, seminaries, colleges, program - you name it - and they all get rides at some point or another. Children are frightened, and lack the tools to address that fear. Parents are similarly scared, and don't really have words of comfort for their children.

I'd like to share a few observations from the past few days about how this story unfolded.

The story first spread like wildfire on social networks. We first received word via WhatsApp, from a counselor of one of my children in Ezra (a local youth group) who studies in Mekor Chaim. You also started seeing strange things on the web. A popular group on Facebook just shared a chapter of Tehillim without explaining why. A website put up a post telling its readers to stop what they were doing, and say five chapters of Tehillim. It was a surreal feeling that the entire country knew what was going on while the official press which also had this information, withheld it under strict IDF instructions.

The State of Israel, so often the home of so much debate and discord, certainly knows how to band together when facing a crisis. It's either this or winning Maccabi Tel Aviv winning the Euroleague Championship. I don't follow Israeli basketball, but if we're looking for achdut, I'll take basketball any time.

On "tremping" (hitchhiking): It's simply a way of life here in Israel, and not just in Yehudah and Shomron, but anywhere where there's a lack of good public transportation. Moreover, despite the really frightening episode of this past week, it's truly a safe means of transportation (think of the statistics). If people are worried about young people they see hitching on the side of the road (and especially late at night), instead of clucking your tongues and wondering about their parents, stop and pick them up. Wouldn't you want someone to pick up your kids (and trust me, one day it will be). Moreover, I think that the "tremping" phenomenon is really one of the nicer aspects of the Jewish State. Not only do people hitch rides; thousands of people with cars stop and pick up those trempers, helping them get where they need to go, often quickly. Of course one should tremp carefully, and if you've got even a moment of doubt or concern, don't get in the car. But in the vast, far majority of cases, tremping is not only perfectly safe, but the most reasonable manner of reaching destinations without easy access to public transportation.
And, if you're still not convinced, why is hitchhiking considered dangerous, but using an app like Uber, where you're picked up by someone you don't know, who has no licensing whatsoever, considered not only safe, but trendy? How hard would it be for a predator to make up an Uber profile and pick up an unsuspecting passenger?

A note about the peace process and the cost of one of the steps that Israel has taken for peace:
I am in favor of peace, and hope that Israel can come to a reasonable arrangement with the Arabs living in Israel allowing them autonomy and self-determination, as long as that arrangement doesn't include their desire to either kidnap our children, or keep trying to drive us into the ocean. To that end, Israel has been taking steps to ease life for Arabs, including easing their ability to travel without impediment within the West Bank. That effort, which is largely under-acknowledged, has included the removal of dozens of check points and road blocks across the West Bank (see here and here). People around the world cheered and encouraged Israel's actions to give relief to the Palestinians, assuming that they'd be a win-win; no great cost to Israel, and a great benefit to the Arabs.
From a kidnapper's point of view, the most difficult aspect of successfully kidnapping these kids would not be getting them in the car (if one group doesn't get in, eventually someone else will). Rather, the hardest part would be successfully navigating the roads in order to smuggle them into Palestinian controlled areas. This week, we see the costs of removing those roadblocks. Looking at the map from the Etzion Junction (marked on the map) towards Jerusalem, it's pretty easy to identify a number of places that the car could have turned off into an Arab area without impediment. Had there been roadblocks and checkpoints in place before the entrance to the tunnel to Jerusalem, the kidnapping would have been far more difficult to achieve, and might never have been attempted in the first place.
The road blocks were there for a reason. Today, they're not there - because Israel took concrete steps to encourage peace. Those steps seem to have backfired.

Monday, June 9, 2014

ChoppingWood Mailbag: Responding to a Comment about Belief

My cousin and good friend (and digital guru) Avi Greengart sent the following comment to my last post, which I started to answer and then realized that my answer is really a full blog post. I have received other responses which I will address in a future post (hopefully this week).

Avi writes,
Let's say your neighbor [who said that many, if not most Orthodox Jews in the community he grew up in doubt the divinity of the entire Torah] is correct. (Because he is.) Your response? You want people to believe things that they do not (without explaining why they should believe things that they do not). Then you want them to act in ways that will cause them to confront their non-belief. Are you sure that's a good idea?
--What if they don't know what they believe and their version of faith is to keep doing mitzvot anyway?
--What if they've given great thought to these issues and their conclusion is, "I don't believe the version taught to six year olds; Truth is actually Complicated."
--What if they absolutely do NOT believe in "the Divine nature of the Torah?" but know that it is a good way to live / don't want to break up the family because the spouse is a Believer?
My response:
First of all, thanks for confirming my suspicion that my neighbor is, in your mind, correct. I suspected as much, but I'm not "there". It's also important not to cast aspersions on the entire Orthodox community. I'll only say that it's a significant phenomenon, which is what prompted me to write about it. I'll take your comments in order, because I believe this discussion is really, really important (and will be following up with at least one more post).

"You want people to believe things that they do not (without explaining why they should believe things that they do not). Then you want them to act in ways that will cause them to confront their non-belief. Are you sure that's a good idea?"
I don't really think it's just me. I also would not say that it's just that "I want" people to believe in the divinity of the Torah. This is a fundamental belief essential to our identity both as a religion and as a people. I believe that this is what God wants. I don't know if I am, in my blog, addressing those people that don't believe in the divinity of the Torah. But I do feel that people when people struggle (because belief isn't an all-or-nothing value), then focusing on the "yes" side can and does reinforce faith.
Moreover, in my mind I was primarily addressing people who do have the faith and belief. I feel it's critical today to emphasize that fact. Belief and faith as ideals are under siege in Western society. Assuming that you can just withstand attack after attack without taking strong steps to counter those attacks isn't realistic. It's not enough just to believe (and I don't know if it ever was). At the back of Shacharit in pretty much every siddur you'll find the 13 Principles of Faith of Rambam. I was never raised to say those each day (yes, I blame my mother), but perhaps we need to teach ourselves, and especially our children to recite these 13 Principles - and not to just say them, but to also know what they mean).

What if they don't know what they believe and their version of faith is to keep doing mitzvot anyway?
I'm OK with that - not just OK, but quite supportive. Everyone struggles with faith, on some level, and to say, "I can't claim to have all the answers, but submit and fulfill the commandments" is, to my mind, a wonderful expression of faith.

What if they've given great thought to these issues and their conclusion is, "I don't believe the version taught to six year olds; Truth is actually Complicated."
I find your formulation to be part of the problem. We were taught at age 6 (and 2 and 3) that God created the world. I still believe that, despite the fact that I learned that piece of information at a very young age. I was also taught that God gave the Jews the Torah at Sinai, that God split the Sea and rescued the Jews from Egypt - both at a very young age. Still believe both. The fact that we're taught these things at a very young age doesn't affect whether they're true or not, nor does using supposed axioms like "Truth is actually complicated" - which sounds true, but is in fact misleading. 
This also goes to the heart of what you mean by "truth", which is a loaded philosophical question (and now I'm even starting to bore myself). Some truth is complicated, while other truth is quite simple. ה' אלקינו ה' אחד - "The Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Complicated? Of course you could delve into the matters of Oneness, and the names of God, and give a series of shiurim on the topic. I have. But it's also very simple: I believe in the One True God. And I'm neither ashamed, nor upset by the fact that I was taught this idea at a tender young age, and using that fact to denigrate basic beliefs is part of the cultural war against belief that I mentioned earlier.
Truthfully, I find it ironic, that the very same society that loves to promote the fact that "Everything we need to know we already learned in Kindergarten", and by buying books and posters promoting those universal truths, will then turn around and ridicule any universal faith truth that we teach to toddlers.

What if they absolutely do NOT believe in "the Divine nature of the Torah?" but know that it is a good way to live / don't want to break up the family because the spouse is a Believer?
I'm against breaking up families. I don't think parents have to agree. But if I was the believer, I'd be very concerned about how I was going to pass my faith on to my child, when my spouse, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways - sends the very clear message that the very faith most critical to me, and fundamental to my way of life, believes that it's a bunch of baloney.

Maybe then the lesson is to start asking these questions earlier in the process, perhaps while dating. 
Instead of asking the really important questions like: "Do you care if I wear pants and cover my hair?" or "Do you want to live in Teaneck or the Five Towns" or even "Are you planning on making Aliyah"?, perhaps young people should first, in all seriousness, begin asking each-other: "Do you believe that God gave the Jewish people the Torah?"

Monday, June 2, 2014

Back to the Basics this Shavuot

Two important blog posts have been troubling me recently: the now infamous Social Orthodoxy post, which I've blogged about already, and a recent post by Yoram Hazony about Biblical Criticism in Orthodox shuls.
That post prompted me to ask a neighbor the following question: How many of the members of the shul where you grew up believe in Torah MiSinai - that God gave Moses the entire Torah?"
His answer? You don't really want the answer to that question, do you?
This, to my mind, is the greatest threat to traditional Judaism today. It's not Tzniut, or Lashon Hara, or the Internet.
It's basic belief in the Torah.
Someone living in the Western world find himself consistently bombarded with messages that ridicule belief in the divinity of the Torah, and the authenticity of Jewish Tradition. This is especially true on college campuses. It's ironic, in a way. At the same time that Orthodoxy (the movement) is trendy, growing and popular, Orthodoxy (the faith) seems to be antiquated, ancient and increasingly out of touch.

Every time we read the Torah in shul, after we're done reading someone is called to lift up the Torah, and the congregation proclaims aloud,
וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל על פי ה' ביד משה
This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel, from the word of God in the hands of Moshe
We actually point at the Torah (although I have no idea why people do it with a pinky), and some authorities insist that one actually must be able to see the words of the Torah when making this declaration. Commenting on the custom of lifting up the Torah Rav Eliezer Melamed writes,
וכל כך חשובה ההגבהה, עד שאמרו חכמים (מגילה לב א), שהגולל, והכוונה למגביה, נוטל שכר כנגד כל מי שעלה לתורה. ולכן ראוי לכבד בהגבהה את אחד מנכבדי הקהל.
So important is Hagbah that the Sages said (Megillah 32a) that the wrapper - meaning the person who lifts the Torah, takes the same amount of reward as every other person who received an aliyah. For this reason, it is worthy to honor with Hagbah an honored member of the congregation
Over the years, Hagbah has lost some of its luster. We give it young people who don't read the Torah, or strong people (if it's one of those old Torah's that weigh a ton). We don't give it much thought. I also wonder how many people think about the meaning of the sentence when reciting it at Hagbah. How many people who don't actually believe the sentence, say it anyway, without even thinking? How many of my neighbor's old shul-mates instinctively recite the verse, although if you asked them about it, they'd hem and haw and start talking about unfolding revelation.
In his list of the Foundations of Faith, Rambam writes,
היסוד התשיעי ההעתק, והוא כי התורה הזאת מועתקת מאת הבורא השם יתברך לא מזולתו, ועליה אין להוסיף וממנה אין לגרוע לא בתורה שבכתב ולא בתורה שבעל פה. שנאמר "לא תוסיף עליו ולא תגרע ממנו".
The ninth foundation is that of copying - that is that this Torah is copied from the Created, the Blessed God - and not from anyone else, and one cannot add nor subtract from it - neither from the written nor the oral Torah, as it is written, "You shall not add nor subtract from it."
We will soon celebrate Shavuot - זמן מתן תורתנו - the Time of the Giving of the Torah. It's the day that we celebrate the Revelation - the great moment when all of Israel stood as one, at the foot of a simple mountain, and literally experienced the giving of the Torah.
Do we experience Matan Torah on Shavuot morning? (Or are we too tired from a night of lectures, stale coffee and barbecue - if you're lucky - to even listen to the Torah reading, much less appreciate what it means?
This Shavuot, tell the story of Matan Torah to your children. Read them books on the event. Talk about what it must have been like to stand at Sinai with the Jewish people at that incredibly historic moment. Teach them the meaning of the verse וזאת התורה that they already know how to say. Make it real. And make it clear to them that you believe every word.
Because if they don't know - fully and completely - that their parents do actually believe in the Divine nature of the Torah, how can we ask them to believe it themselves?