And so we have begun a new Jewish year.
In my column wrapping up 5779, I presented quite a bit of evidence that the old Jewish year was an unusually lousy one, full of tragic events and tragically full of Jews behaving very unJewishly.
I do have high hopes for 5780, which we are only about three days into. Any year which has good prospects of Bibi being indicted and Trump being impeached can’t be all bad.
But because last year was a year of Pittsburgh and Poway, of Jeffrey Epstein and Robert Kraft, a year in which lots of bad things happened, I’d like to begin this first column of the new year with a reminder that there’s a lot of good stuff happening for the Jews, something we too often forget or fail to notice.
Not everything is bad and we shouldn’t over focus on this anti-Semitic incident or that Jew hating word. We are too eager to believe everything is horrible, that it’s just like the bad old days, and so we must devote our resources and efforts and thoughts and kishkes to surviving, when, in fact, we should mostly devote our time, energy, feelings and emotions to thriving.
Yes, I know a lot of you don’t want to hear it but things are good for the Jews. Don’t let 5779 get you down when there is so much to be up about.
In just the last week or so, we’ve heard news that two new synagogues have opened in Budapest. That superstar singer Celine Dion will perform in concert in Israel on Tu b’Av, known as Jewish Valentine’s Day. “Shana tova Israel!” Dion said in a video announcement. “Can’t wait to see you all for the very first time in Tel Aviv.” That the United Arab Emirates will build its first official synagogue. That Vilnius, a hub of Torah study destroyed by the Nazis, will be getting its first new yeshiva, or Jewish religious seminary, since World War II. Vilnius used to have dozens of yeshivas and synagogues before the Holocaust, when it was a major center of Jewish religious and cultural life. That Bulgaria opened its first Jewish school in 20 years. That the International Judo Federation has suspended Iran over its boycott of Israeli athletes.
I could keep going, listing one amazing, positive Jewish thing after another, but I think you get the idea. I also think your Jewish brain is telling you not to believe any of it, that it’s best to be neurotic and paranoid and think only and always about the bad news and dismiss the good news. What a pity.
One of my absolute favorite pieces of good news is that Israel set up a temporary consulate in Uman during Rosh Hashanah. Uman is a city in Ukraine where the great rebbe of Breslov is buried. He is one of the most fascinating of all Chasidic rebbes because, before his death, he instructed his followers not to appoint a successor rebbe but that he would remain their eternal rebbe.
Breslovers are some of the most interesting Jews I have ever met. They are always happy, as Chasidim tend to be, and they are very devoted to the rebbe’s overriding teaching that the main job of a Jew is to have emunah, compete faith in G-d and recognition that everything that happens in one’s life is the result of G-d wanting it to happen.
Believe that or don’t, but I would urge everyone to read some of the books based on the Breslover rebbe’s emunah teachings. I think the best is ‘The Garden of Emunah,” which in simple and profound language explains what Jewish faith is all about. The first time I read it, it changed my life. I have in the years since read that same book at least 150 times and find it a source of inspiration and strength.
Anyway, every year, tens of thousands of Jews go to Uman to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Ukraine is not the most hospitable place for Jews. The pilgrimage has created frequent friction between the predominantly Israeli pilgrims and locals, many of whom resent the cordoning off of neighborhoods by police. Street brawls are not uncommon during the holiday.
And so Israel, the Jewish state, the protector of the Jewish people, set up a temporary consulate there this year to be there for the Jews there. This story really touched me. I am old enough to not take the existence of a Jewish state for granted. How blessed are we to live in a time where there is a strong Jewish state, able to defend itself, powerful in so many ways, a Jewish state that makes it its business to be in Uman to protect Jews.
We can disagree about policy and peace and Bibi and all the rest but we should never forget there there is a Jewish state, ready, willing and able to protect each and every Jew each and every place in the world.
I also think it’s very good news watching Avichai Mandelblit operate. Mandelblit is Israel’s attorney general and it is he who is conducting the investigation into Bibi’s many alleged crimes and the man who most likely will be soon indicting Bibi for fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
What is amazing is that Mandelblit served as Bibi’s cabinet secretary for several years, always sitting next to him at cabinet meetings, and was appointed attorney general by Bibi. In other words, he was someone who Bibi figured was a loyalist and so who would protect him.
But Mandelblit is not acting as Bibi would wish, in contrast to our attorney general, Bill Barr, who is fulfilling every one of Trump’s wishes. Bibi has disgracefully attacked law enforcement in his own country, bashing the police and accusing the justice system of being corrupt, all in his desperate bid not to be called to account for his criminal behavior.
He figured Mandelblit would be his guy, but instead he is turning out to be justice’s guy, doing what is right, acting the right way, no matter what or who.
It has been inspiring to watch him handle the investigation, being scrupulously fair to Bibi but not letting Bibi get away with his usual games and obstruction of justice. He has refused Bibi’s crazy requests for delay, ignored his showboating and focused only on fairly but firmly administering justice, even if it means indicting the prime minister, his former benefactor. We should be proud of him and proud that Israel still has government officials like him.
And so we have much to celebrate. But there is one huge thing that deserves not celebration but lamentation. As the recent election in Israel showed, the second election in less than four months, there is way too much mixing of shul and state in Israel, to the detriment of both.
Most Israelis hold religion and the religious in contempt and it’s not hard to see why. While it’s fine for rabbis to encourage their followers to vote, and fine for them to tell them who to vote for, it is nauseating to see the extent that rabbis, even the most esteemed, allow themselves to get dirtied up by getting way too involved in politics.
Before an election, the most senior of Israel’s rabbis attend campaign rallies, have their pictures plastered all over campaign posters, use their reglious standing and prestige for partisan petty political purposes. It is nothing short of disgusting and it is indeed why a recent poll showed that the vast majority of Israelis don’t want the religious parties to be part of the next government.
Jews, especially in Israel, should be able to look up to learned rabbis, look up to those who live a religious lifestyle, but their involvement in campaigns, their eagerness to engage in dirty political maneuvering only leads to anger at rabbis and religion.
Consider that the leader of the largest Sephardic religious party was convicted of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and given a three-year jail sentence. After doing his jail time, it was right back to politics for him, being embraced by the top Sephardic rabbi and holding top government posts while defaming Israelis who are not religious, as in about 90 percent of them.
And then we have the leader of the largest Ashkenazi religious party. The Israel Police have recommended indicting Yaakov Litzman for bribery and aiding an alleged pedophile. He could be charged with fraud and breach of trust for helping Malka Leifer, including preventing her from being extradited to Australia where she faces 74 counts of child abuse, including molesting several girls while the principal of a girls’ school. Litzman also faces bribery charges for allegedly helping to prevent the shutdown of a food business that the health ministry, which he heads, determined had serious sanitation violations. The police recommendation is that Litzman be charged with bribery, fraud, witness tampering and breach of trust.
When Israelis see religious politicians act like that, is it any wonder they lose respect for Judaism?
The depths to which the mixing of shul and state can sink was seen just recently when a haredi Orthodox rabbi refused to officiate at the marriage of the son of Avigdor Liberman, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Rabbi Baruch Diskin said he did not want to appear to endorse the politician, who is staunchly anti-haredi. Liberman’s son, Amos Liberman, lives a haredi lifestyle, attends Diskin’s yeshiva and maintains a close relationship with him. But he wouldn’t officiate at his wedding because he doesn’t like his dad’s political positions.
Not good news, indeed very worrying news about the Jewish state, where politicians should be politicians and rabbis should be rabbis. Separation of shul and state.
Maybe if that happens, Israelis will be able to respect both of them.