Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

A Study in Contrasts: Our Heroes and Anti-Heroes

 

 

Our fifth grade teacher probably gave us one of our earliest essay tests, demanding that we compare and contrast something. In the Torah, we often do the same in order to determine what is unique or singular about something. The past two weeks have provided Klal Yisroel with some stark and dramatic differences between two people or groups. These are not merely superficial or ephemeral, but go to the heart of how a Jew should act and behave in this world. Let us therefore review a bit of the recent news and compare and contrast.

We will begin with the sad and infuriating saga of Jonathan Glazer. Much has already been written about this film director who took advantage of his fifteen minutes of fame upon winning an Academy Award. Ironically, he directed a saga titled “Zone of Interest,” which contrasts the life of Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz and the innocent Jews he was gassing and burning to death. While he was perpetrating this evil in what was practically his backyard, he and his family enjoyed a serene family life undisturbed by the smoke and ashes of our brethren. Instead of seizing the moment to highlight the plight of the Jewish hostages still in the clutches of Hamas or the growing anti-Semitism in the world, Glazer cravenly sought to distance himself from his people forever. His toxic words, which as Churchill said will “live in infamy,” declared that “right now we stand as men who refute their Jewishness.” He went on to lambast Israel for the “occupation” and genocide against the poor Hamas victims of the war that we all know they started and savagely inflicted upon women, children, the elderly and the ill.

Let us now compare this horrendous act of perfidy with the pain of a gadol and posek who agonized over a youthful moment when he saved his life by what his later self thought might have been forbidden. Rav Menashe Klein was a blond blue-eyed teenager who was able to pass for an Aryan in Nazi-occupied Europe. This allowed him to traverse the S.S. guarded streets, while others were locked in with little or no food or provisions. He bravely walked the streets forbidden to other Yidden, bringing life-saving bread, water, medicine and other basics to many who were starving in hiding. One astute Nazi, however, spotted something strange in the young boy, demanding “Ein Yude, nicht wahr? – You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” Thinking quickly on his feet, the future rov of Ungvar, responded ambiguously, but in perfect German, “Kein Jude,” ostensibly meaning, “No, I’m not a Jew.” Now, even at that tender age, Menashe knew that he probably should not be denying his Jewish identity, even to save his life. However, he ingeniously thought to himself that in his Chassidishe intonation, the word kein could also be understood as the Hebrew word for “yes.” Thus, in his own mind, he was actually responding, “Yes, I am a Jew.”

Over half a century later, Rav Menashe Klein, now the author of the multi-volume Shailos Uteshuvos Mishneh Halachos, analyzed his actions of 50 years earlier. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 157:2) rules that one is not permitted to declare himself an idolater even to save his life. However, the Rama adds that he may say something ambiguous that can be interpreted as such if his life is in danger. Rav Klein was extremely concerned about the view of the Terumas Hadeshen (No. 197) and the Sefer Chassidim (No. 199) that the prohibition to convey the impression that one is not Jewish includes actions and even implications or body language.  However, the Sefer Chassidim offers a proof from the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 18b) that one can do anything but make an actual statement denying his Jewishness if his life is in danger. All of this had been bothering and tormenting Rav Klein until he had proven to his own satisfaction that he had not transgressed a sin that had required him to give up his life.

Now let us compare. Mr. Glazer, to assuage whatever his Jewish self-hating tendencies were, renounced not only his own Jewish identity, but that of others of his own ilk as well, just to curry favor with people who are already anti-Semites and will hate us whatever we do or say. How pitiful and how pathetic!

But while we are it, let us examine the strange case of the senior senator from New York, Mr. Chuck Schumer, the self-declared “Shomer Yisroel, Guardian of Israel.” In a nakedly self-serving attempt to curry favor with the anti-Semitic “Squad” of Jew-haters, he stabbed Israel in the back recently, blaming Prime Minister Netanyahu for all the problems in the Middle East. Aligning himself with the depredations of Hamas and the latest allegations of Joe Biden, he assured himself a place in the history of traitors to the Jewish people. It is one thing to disagree with some policy or other of a politician. We have all done that quite properly. But to place the blame for the evil of Hamas on the shoulders of those attempting to battle them is beneath contempt and in earlier generations would have precipitated immediate excommunication from the fold.

If we may stay with the Democratic Party for a moment, we must contrast Senator Schumer’s outburst with the steady hand and kiddush Hashem of the recently departed Senator Joe Lieberman. Mr. Lieberman often walked miles on Shabbos to fulfill his senatorial duties, while making sure not to be mechallel Shabbos. By doing so, in the words of a number of his admirers, he paved the way and made it acceptable to be an observant Jew in the public eye and secular world. He managed to support the State of Israel without compromising any of his own high standards of honesty and integrity, earning him the respect of Jew and gentile alike. Senator Schumer should be ashamed of himself and considered persona non grata to the Jewish people. Whatever distancing he has done from his sanctimonious diatribe, the harm has been done. He may have already cost many lives by putting a so-called Jewish imprimatur upon an ancient canard.

We have already discussed in these pages the tragic phenomenon of the self-hating Jews. However, the actions of Mr. Glazer and Senator Schumer catapult them into the category of “mehorsayich umacharivayich – your ruiners and your destroyers” (Yeshayahu 49:17). This has often been interpreted as the internal enemies of Klal Yisroel who have always plagued us. Rav Dovid Cohen (Maaseh Avos Siman L’bonim 1:42) includes in this diabolical club the likes of Freud, Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and others. We unfortunately can now induct a few new members into this league.

As Torah Jews, we cannot help but point out another aspect of this dangerous phenomenon. The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:11) rules that “those who abandon the ways of the tzibbur, the collective nation of Klal Yisroel, even though they may not have committed any sin other this abandonment, have not entered into the pain of their people or fasted on their fast days, have made themselves into another people, are no longer a part of them, and will not have a share in the World to Come.” In other words, people who, for their own self-indulgent reasons, reject the pain of their brethren are not considered brethren at all.

Since we are approaching the beautiful Yom Tov of Pesach, we would do well to remember the words of the Brisker Rov (Haggadas M’Bais Levi) and my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, No. 54). They both, in slightly different language, raise the question of why the Haggadah mentions the history of Eisav on the night of Pesach. Why is it important for us to remember that Eisav inherited Mount Seir, while we went down to Mitzrayim as slaves? They answer that the end of the Haggadah mentions our return to Eretz Yisroel and Yerushalayim. Our triumphant redemption is predicated upon the fact that we paid the price for Eretz Yisroel by suffering for centuries as slaves in Egypt. Eisav and his progeny were not interested in the pain and anguish, opting instead not to fulfill the covenant with Avrohom Avinu, therefore denying them the reward of Eretz Yisroel.

We do not embrace pain for its own sake, but we wear the badge of its honor when confronted by those who would deprive us of its compensation. Those who deny Jewish suffering also deny our eternity and essence. The contrast between them and Rav Menashe Klein couldn’t be greater. As the Seder teaches us, we go from darkness into light, from slavery into freedom, and, most of all, being slaves to Paroh to being servants of Hashem and loyal adherents of His Torah. Let us cling to this with pride and anticipation of the great future ahead.

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