Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Israel, the Irrational Nation

One of President Barack Obama's former Jewish advisers on Middle East matters, Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, recently paid us a great compliment. Of course, he didn't exactly mean it that way.

Chastising Israelis for being “ungrateful to this president” for his wonderful support of the State of Israel, he impugned that we “are an emotional nation, not a rational nation.” Why, thank you, Mr. Indyk. I didn’t know you cared. For the truth is that we are not a rational people, nor do we want to be.


Please let me explain.


Last week, I had the great zechus of saying a few words on behalf of the amazing Lev L’Achim outreach organization and introducing the leader of the teshuvah movement in Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Uri Zohar. I shared with the audience in the gracious home of my friends and members of my shul, Aron and Rachel Solomon, my halachic concern about speaking of Reb Uri’s past. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 58b), followed by the Chinuch (mitzvah 338) teaches that it is forbidden to remind a baal teshuvah of his early life. The Torah states clearly, “Al tonu ish es achiv,” which Chazal interpret as hurting someone’s feelings by dwelling on actions and deeds he has long since abandoned. So how could I possibly speak of Uri Zohar the entertainer, television star, comedian, etc? Now he is a profound talmid chochom, tzaddik and Torah leader for over four decades.     


Then I remembered. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, maamar 61) once explained, in another context but applicable here, that it all depends. If the baal teshuvah uses his entire previous life to draw Jews back to Hashem, and if he recreates the fabric of his early years so that every moment is a vehicle for kiruv, then one may not only invoke those years, but they constitute the essence of his praise and commendation. After I defended my approach and sat down, to my relief, Rabbi Zohar thanked me profusely and concurred. “Indeed, that is my essence,” he shared with his signature smile. “People do not listen to me because I quote a Rashi or a Tosafos. They are willing to consider what I say precisely because they know me as the entertainer, television star and comedian.”


To the rapt attention of everyone in the room, Reb Uri told the story of his own journey back to Yiddishkeit. The part that is relevant here is the challenge he encountered 40 years ago, when he had his first meaningful conversation with an observant Jew. “If someone were inventing Judaism,” the person confronted Mr. Zohar, “why would he make up something so illogical? Imagine the following scenario. A new religion is presented to people with the following rule. An old lady is knitting on Shabbos. She is not hurting or disturbing anyone. Two people enter the room and warn her that if she completes two stitches, she is transgressing G-d’s will. Furthermore, if she does not stop the work she is doing, she will be subject to capital punishment by stoning. Why would anyone but G-d Himself make such rules, which have very little incentive, motivation or pleasant attraction. Aren’t they illogical? Wouldn’t any human invention make more sense?”


Reb Uri confides in all of us that he had no answer. Judaism makes sense only if it was indeed promulgated by a G-d who had no need to be popular or logical. He was giving the truth and required no public relations department or advertising campaign. To Rabbi Zohar’s eternal credit, he acted upon his new convictions and began the long, difficult but ultimately rewarding path to complete teshuvah.


So Mr. Indyk, we are indeed – quite proudly so – “not a rational nation.” We are not natural. We live by the supernatural and we are not rational because we are guided by Someone far above human reason and logic.


The story is told of the young Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz zt”l, later rosh yeshiva of Kamenitz and author of Birchas Shmuel, when he first met his rebbi muvhak, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt”l. The young genius presented voluminous chiddushim to the revered rov of Brisk, which were promptly rejected. Rav Chaim taught his new talmid a novel way of thinking and understanding. Thenceforth, whenever Rav Boruch Ber presented a chiddush to Rav Chaim that was not acceptable, the founder of the Brisker derech would simply comment, “That is logical,” which would signal Rav Boruch Ber that it may fit the worldly definition of logic, but it did not conform to Torah logic and must be rejected.    


If memory serves, I once heard Rav Hutner tell the story of a young rabbi in Eretz Yisroel who was attempting to institute some liberal innovations into certain aspects of hilchos Shabbos. Some of these were designed to ease the Shabbos restrictions on religious soldiers in the Israeli army. When he presented some of these kulos to Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky zt”l, av bais din of the Badatz of the Eidah Hachareidis, the Chuster Rov was not impressed. The brilliant young scholar persisted in offering proofs to his approach from sundry abstruse and recondite Talmudic sources. Finally, somewhat exasperated, the venerable sage banged his cane on the floor and concluded, “Yingerman, I only know one thing. My bubby told me that you are not allowed to be mechallel Shabbos.


Sometimes, logic, casuistry, inductive and deductive reasoning are beside the point. Some things are just wrong. I think particularly of Rav Yisroel Belsky’s response to the ill-fated hapless “Kosher Switch”: “There is but a one-word response to these machinations – assur.” Similarly, in my opinion, one must react without argumentation and justification to the recent claims that one may believe in so-called “corporeality” (belief that Hashem, chas vechalilah, has a body). What every child has known from his earliest moments should not be debated today because someone has made heresy sound logical.


Indeed, with all due respect to Mr. Indyk, a brother but a misguided lost one, the survival of the Jewish people has nothing to do with logic. It in fact defies logic. Mark Twain, often a harsh critic of our people, marveled that “the Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded away…and passed away… The Greek and Roman followed… The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew, all other forces pass but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (Harper’s Magazine, March 1898). As Rav Yaakov Emden famously put it, better and more succinctly, “The greatest miracle of Jewish history is our survival itself.”  


Finally and most importantly, our gedolim, such as Rav Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Maamarim, No. 1) and Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:36), often warned of the limitations of human logic when faced with the distortions of the yeitzer hara and human subjectivity. They demonstrated dramatically that while the Torah insists that we use our minds and intellectual capabilities, they are not enough. Just as the Jewish nation as a whole functions above the limitations of the human brain, so must every individual know when applying mortal logic might be the most illogical thing one could possibly do. As Rabbi Gabi Sassoon taught us, sometimes submitting to the Creator’s infinite wisdom is not all that we can do. It is the wisest path of all.                      




As Rabbi Gabi Sassoon taught us, sometimes submitting to the Creator’s infinite wisdom is not all that we can do. It is the wisest path of all.                 



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