An Awful Video from Awful Yvette
This week, I don’t know where to begin. The election? The coronavirus? Something else?
Perhaps I should begin with the election—not the general picture, but with a focus on Yvette Lieberman’s continued wild rhetoric. On Sunday, Lieberman filed a petition with the Supreme Court for Rav Yitzchak Yosef, the chief rabbi of Israel, to be dismissed from his position. I have already written about the tensions between the Russian community and the rov, which arose from statements that he made (in a closed rabbinic forum, after he asked his audience not to relay his comments to the public) about the vast number of non-Jews in the Israeli populace. Rav Yitzchak’s goal was to urge his listeners to exercise caution with respect to giyur and marriages; however, the context was ignored amidst the outcry over his statements. His comments elicited a major uproar, even though he was absolutely correct about the facts. I discussed this incident in two previous articles, so I will not reiterate the details here.
Yvette Lieberman has refused to be silent on this subject. He has been trying to derive the maximum possible political dividends from this conflict. In a video he released this week, Lieberman has the gall to describe Rav Yitzchak Yosef as a virus! He adds that only Yisroel Beiteinu can supply the cure for this “virus.” If that sounds deranged to you, I can assure you that it has the same effect here in Israel. But this is the insanity that was visited upon us this week by Lieberman’s court of wickedness.
The Supreme Court, for its part, did not even reject Lieberman’s petition out of hand. Instead, it asked the Ministry of Justice for a response. According to Israeli law, the Minister of Justice is responsible for appointing judges and dayanim, as well as for dismissing them. Therefore, the Minister of Justice has been asked to respond to Lieberman’s petition by explaining why he has not convened the Dayanim Appointment Committee to remove Rav Yitzchak Yosef—not from the position of chief rabbi but rather from his position as a member of the Bais Din Hagadol, in which he is effectively equivalent (in the eyes of the law) to a justice on the Supreme Court. Rav Yitzchak Yosef has even served as the nosi of the Bais Din Hagadol, the parallel position to the chief justice of the Supreme Court; however, due to the rotation between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis, that position is currently held by Rav Dovid Lau, while Rav Yitzchak serves as the president of the Rabbinate and is considered a “regular” member of the Bais Din Hagadol.
Why Don’t the Chareidim Fight Against Lieberman?
Fortunately, the current justice minister is not exactly a fan of the judicial system. The minister himself has been constantly locked in conflict with the judges and with the attorney general. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has the authority to make a decision even if he opposes it. So the religious community in Israel is in a precarious position at this time, all because of Lieberman. We can never know what the justices of the Supreme Court will inflict on us….
Perhaps you are wondering why the chareidi parties haven’t simply petitioned Justice Neal Hendel, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, against Lieberman. After all, there are rules governing election propaganda, and a video that borders on racism and incitement—and certainly one that crosses the line into that forbidden territory—is a violation of those rules. At the very least, the parties could appeal to Hendel to ban the campaign video in question, which would at least make the impression on the Israeli public that Lieberman is considered guilty of racism.
One answer to that question is that the judge might decide that Lieberman’s video did not actually cross a red line. If he were to make that decision, then the appeal would cause more harm than good. The judges of the State of Israel are experts at denouncing a particular statement and then making an about-face and declaring that freedom of expression is a supreme value, and even though the comments in question are reprehensible, that does not justify disqualifying them. In the past, in fact, the chareidi parties benefited from this tendency, when complaints were filed with the police department against Rav Ovadiah Yosef, and the attorney general at the time, Elyakim Rubinstein, decided that the same principle of freedom of expression made it unnecessary to launch a police investigation.
Furthermore, and this is the more important consideration, the chareidi parties have no interest in giving free publicity to Lieberman. That is why they do not file complaints or petitions against him, and they barely respond to him at all. If the chareidim make any public statements about Lieberman, it is always in a general sense; they will note that he worked closely with them for many decades and that now, for political reasons, he has assumed an anti-religious stance. Those reactions frustrate Lieberman and serve to demonstrate his duplicity. If the chareidi parties were to respond to Lieberman on his own playing field, they would simply be empowering him and his party further. In fact, the unofficial decision to ignore Lieberman seems to be working very well.
Three Israelis in Japan Contract Coronavirus
Then again, perhaps I should have begun this article with the coronavirus, which is a matter of life and death. In the words of the gedolei Yisroel, it has the status of a possible threat to life. Last week, a psak was issued in which gedolim called upon the public to heed the instructions of their doctors and the Ministry of Health, since the virus constitutes “safek pikuach nefesh.”
This week, the State of Israel went into high gear in its efforts to deal with the coronavirus. There is a sense that the dreaded virus is drawing closer to our country. The Health Ministry has set up a war room where every development is being carefully monitored. As everyone is aware, there were several Israelis on the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that has been docked off the coast of Japan for some time already, while the passengers have not been permitted to disembark. There has been constant talk of people on the ship falling ill, and the Israeli passengers have begged the government of Israel to have them released from quarantine. This weekend, Dr. Grotto, a senior figure in the Ministry of Health, was sent to Japan to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, the number of cases of the virus on board the ship rose to 285 (as of this past motzoei Shabbos, as the infection has been spreading between passengers), and it is believed that three of the Israelis on the ship, a married couple and one other passenger, have contracted the disease. That changed the picture; the Israeli passengers were transferred to a hospital in Japan.
The Ministry of Health has expanded the list of countries from which all arriving travelers are placed in quarantine. The list now includes not only China but Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore as well. That means that Rav Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, who is due to return soon from a visit to Singapore, will have to be placed in quarantine. It is not a pleasant situation. On the other hand, in what may be a misguided decision, the Health Ministry decided that flight crews arriving from those countries are not required to be quarantined.
In any event, panic and fear are already knocking on the doors of the State of Israel—as is the virus itself.
The Death of Avi Weinberg
As I mentioned, it was difficult to know where to begin the column this week, but the tragedy on Route 443 seems to dwarf all other stories. The accident took place near the entrance to the city of Modiin Illit. The initial reports were laconic as usual; we learned only that a person who was about 25 years old was killed when his motorcycle collided with a truck on Route 443 on the Yerushalayim-bound side of the highway. Unfortunately, due to the severity of his injuries, the motorcycle rider’s death was pronounced at the scene of the accident.”
As further details were released, the magnitude of the tragedy became even more formidable. The victim, Avrohom (Avi) Weinberg, had been recently married. He was a Slonimer chosid, and his sister was due to celebrate her own wedding this week. He was one of the founders of the chessed organization Yedidim, which released a notice describing him as “a lofty soul and a joyful spirit, whose entire essence was chessed and giving to others—Avrohom Weinberg, the director of the logistics department of the organization Yedidim, who gave of his body and soul to assist others.” A hesped was delivered at the funeral by Rav Shraga Shteinman; Avi had been a regular participant in his shiur.
I think about Avi’s parents, his young widow, and his friends, and I am pained by their suffering.
Disgrace in the Knesset
On Monday, the Knesset convened for a special discussion concerning MK Chaim Katz’s parliamentary immunity. The Knesset convened last week in spite of its recess, at the request of the Blue and White party, to discuss recent events in the south. This session was an absolute disgrace. It began with a boycott by the Likud party and a vociferous protest from their opponents, and it ended with the reverse: a boycott by Blue and White and a protest from their opponents. MK Margi of the Shas party substituted for the Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, who was visiting Germany. He began the session by inviting Benny Gantz to address the Knesset. “Chairman of the opposition or the coalition; I don’t know how to address you,” he said, as he began introducing Gantz.
Amir Peretz interjected, “Call him the former chief of staff.”
“What about chairman of the largest party?” Margi suggested.
One can presume that Gantz’s speech had been reviewed by his advisors. (It has become increasingly clear that Gantz experiences difficulty whenever the need arises for him to speak.) His first comment was about the empty room that faced him, and therefore was spontaneous. “Mr. Speaker, ladies and gentleman—those who are here,” Gantz began. “I will make a positive note of Ofir Katz, Moshe Abutbul, and Minister Bennett for their presence. This is supposed to be the holiday of the Knesset, but I am not sure that the number of people in attendance properly reflects the original intent to mark the holiday of the Knesset.” It was Tu B’Shevat, the “birthday” of the Knesset, but I did not find this statement comprehensible in the slightest.
This week, Gantz also participated in a series of interviews, in what was effectively a media blitz. He had a long list of preconditions, including the venue for those interviews (in an office that has been prepared for him and is remarkably similar in appearance to the prime minister’s office) and the identities of his interviewers. Time after time, Gantz stammered and faltered as he spoke. It was astounding!
Matzah and Marror
This week, an article was published with the title “Anyone Who Does Not Vote for United Torah Judaism Commits a Chillul Hashem.” The headline reflects Rav Shach’s view on Israeli elections, which was actually quite clear; Rav Shach always made sure to promulgate his views before every election, both in writing and in public addresses. Nevertheless, it is always important to reiterate his teachings. The article quotes Rav Shach’s talmid and close confidant, Rav Refoel Wolf, who is known for his meticulous commitment to accuracy. Today, Rav Wolf serves, among other things, as one of the senior figures in Rav Elimelech Firer’s organization, Ezra Lamarpeh.
To be fair, there is a slight inaccuracy in this headline. Both in the present elections and in the previous ones, the chareidi party has been known as Yahadut HaTorah (United Torah Judaism in English) or, to be more accurate, “Yahadut HaTorah V’haShabbos, Agudas Yisroel-Degel HaTorah,” the full name of the party as it appears on the ballots bearing the letter gimmel. UTJ is an amalgamation of two distinct parties, Agudas Yisroel and Degel HaTorah. However, there were some years when Rav Shach instructed his followers to vote specifically for Degel HaTorah (while there were other times when he saw the Shas party as the most faithful to his cause). In any event, Rav Shach taught that every voter is obligated to cast a ballot for the chareidi party of the election in question, and that a person who fails to vote is guilty of perpetrating a chillul Hashem.
Here is a remarkable excerpt from the article: “For Rav Shach, the obligation to vote in an election was exactly the same as the obligation to observe Shabbos. I will use an analogy that has often been quoted: It is said that the Satmar Rebbe once asked Rav Aharon Kotler if the mitzvah to vote in an election is exactly like the mitzvah of eating matzah. Rav Aharon reportedly replied, ‘It isn’t like the mitzvah of eating matzah; it is like the mitzvah of eating marror.’ In a similar vein, I can say that Rav Shach viewed it precisely like the mitzvah of eating matzah.”
Here is another powerful quote: “Having been very close to the rosh yeshiva, I can attest that this issue burned within him like a flame…. Failing to vote is not a shev v’al taaseh [a sin of omission] as some people believe. Instead, it is an active offense of strengthening the chiloni parties, as every vote not received by the chareidim gives more power to the chilonim to uproot the Torah and Yiddishkeit.”
Thousands of Chilonim Don Tefillin in the Street
Then there was the tefillin affair. This is a bizarre story that hardly makes sense in a Jewish country, but it happened nonetheless.
You are aware that there are several mayors in Israel who have decided to declare war against Yiddishkeit, such as Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv and Carmel Shama-Hakohen of Ramat Gan. There was also Ron Kobi of Teveria, but he is no longer on the political scene. Shama-Hakohen has begun encountering his own troubles: An investigative report this week revealed that he has been violating all of the municipal regulations when dealing with his family members’ real estate holdings. I will put that issue aside for the moment, since it is not our main topic of discussion, although it is fascinating to observe how Shabbos defends its honor against all those who oppose it.
This story, however, concerns the phenomenon of tefillin stands. These stands are generally erected by Lubavitchers who wish to give other Jews the merit of wearing tefillin. I do not believe that there is any person in the world, Jew or non-Jew, who should be disturbed by the existence of these stands. There is certainly no reason for anyone to fight those who wish to maintain them. Nevertheless, that is precisely what has happened—here in Israel, in the country of the Jews. There was a tefillin stand at the train station in Tel Aviv, and people complained to the management of the railway company about it. The Minister of Transportation—Betzalel Smotrich, who wears a yarmulke—responded that there was nothing illegal about the stand, and that he was actually in favor of its existence. With that, the issue was dropped.
But then someone announced that Mayor Ron Huldai had outlawed tefillin stands in the city of Tel Aviv. It isn’t actually clear that Huldai truly issued a ban, and after the resultant outcry, the Tel Aviv municipality announced that the matter had never been discussed in the city council. The religious members of the council were also quick to assert that the story had been fabricated. Nevertheless, the public had been made to believe that the ban was in place.
After this story began to circulate, a new trend emerged, as people began putting on tefillin in the streets of Tel Aviv, including Kikar Malchei Yisroel (which has been known as Rabin Square since the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin), outside the Tel Aviv municipal building. On Friday, a spontaneous mass tefillah gathering was held by a large group of traditional Jews, who were joined by chilonim as well, all of them wearing tefillin. Similar initiatives took place in other cities as well, where many people donned tefillin and quickly publicized the pictures. In cities such as Tzefas and Petach Tikvah, the mayors announced the designation of official areas in the municipal buildings for laying tefillin. Sets of tefillin were even made available to anyone who wished to use them.
The lesson is clear: The vast majority of Jewish people are inherently good, and the few evildoers who wish to battle against our religion are only a tiny minority. They may be very vocal, but they do not actually have any influence.
And there is another lesson as well: Sometimes, we must leave our battles to be fought by our traditional and secular brethren. From time to time, they turn out to be even better at it than we are.
An Uplifting Shabbos with American Bochurim
This Shabbos, I had a pair of guests: two 19-year-old yeshiva bochurim from Yeshivas Kerem B’Yavneh. They are Americans who are spending the year learning in Eretz Yisroel. One of the bochurim, Eliezer Hoch, hails from Far Rockaway, while the other, Yoni Goldstein, is from Baltimore.
The two bochurim are learning Bava Basra, and they were ready to speak for hours about Perek Chezkas Habatim and the concept of chezkas gimmel shanim. They enjoyed the view of the highway leading into Yerushalayim, which can be seen from my apartment, with the neighborhood of Ramot and the kever of Shmuel Hanovi in the background. Almost all of my efforts to engage them in mundane conversation met with failure. They were completely uninterested in Israeli politics, although they were aware of the upcoming election since Naftoli Bennett had visited their yeshiva and delivered a lecture on a previous Shabbos. Eli had even asked him a question concerning the light rail, and Bennett had promised to discuss the matter with Betzalel Smotrich, the Minister of Transportation. The bochurim also had little interest in American politics and the competition within the Democratic party.
I found it fascinating to spend Shabbos with them. Once again, I learned not to judge a person by his external appearance, as I saw that the lives of these two young men revolved exclusively around Torah learning.
Eli is a grandson of George Mayer (of Jacqueline Wigs), who is a cousin of my wife. My wife is the daughter of Rav Tzvi Tausky of Bnei Brak, whose sister, Hedy Mayer of Boro Park, is George’s mother. George’s Hebrew name is Yitzchok, and his mother’s actual name is Hinda. Thus, his name is Yitzchok ben Hinda; may he have a refuah sheleimah.
A Shabbos Pamphlet … Produced by Meretz
The Knesset sitting last Monday was exactly 50 minutes long, from 11:00 until 11:50 in the morning, but that was plenty of time for the Knesset to humiliate itself on its birthday, Tu B’Shevat. Naftoli Bennett, as the Minister of Defense, rose to respond to the speakers (Nitzan Horowitz, Amir Peretz, and Benny Gantz), but they left the room in protest. Of course, Bennett criticized them for their departure, but it did not do much good for him; he found himself addressing an empty room.
In their absence, Bennett told an interesting story: “This past Shabbos, I was in a shul and I found a Shabbos pamphlet published by the Labor-Meretz party. This is a campaign the likes of which I have never seen before. Everyone is targeting the religious Zionist sector. Blue and White is campaigning there, Lieberman has set his sights on us, and Labor is targeting us. Even Shas, for heaven’s sake, opened a religious Zionist campaign office. And that is to say nothing of the Likud. Last Shabbos, I was in Haifa at a hesder yeshiva. I visited about 12, 15, or 20 shuls and Bnei Akiva groups on that Shabbos. That is what we do during an election campaign. It is exhausting, but it is important.”
“When do you daven?” Yitzchok Cohen asked him.
“I daven; believe me that I daven well,” Bennett replied. “I daven as I should…. I was visiting a yeshiva—not one that is extremely famous—Rav Zini’s hesder yeshiva in Haifa. And yesterday, I received a message that the prime minister was going to visit the same yeshiva. Gentlemen, everyone is after us. And why? We have only a mere seven mandates. Why is everyone pursuing the religious Zionists?”
The answer to his question was clear, and Bennett himself said it: “The serugim are no longer considered charming but irrelevant; they have influence today. After all, who appointed the judges who were against disqualifying Heba Yazbak? Tzipi Livni and Gilad Erdan. And who appointed the judges who were in favor of disqualifying her? Ayelet Shaked. We have come to make a change, and there are people who are not happy about that.”
A Special Amalek
When Bnei Yisroel were attacked by Amalek, the Torah relates that Moshe said to Yehoshua (Shemos 17:9), “Tzei hilacheim b’Amalek machar—Go out and fight Amalek tomorrow.” Rav Dov Yaffe, the famed mashgiach of Kfar Chassidim, once commented, “There is a special Amalek called ‘tomorrow.’ Whenever a person is about to do something good or to take on a positive commitment, Amalek entices him to postpone it, to do anything other than beginning it immediately.
“I once delivered a shmuess,” Rav Dov continued, “and I suggested to the bochurim that they should accept a kabbalah upon themselves that they will never postpone a positive resolution. One of the bochurim approached me after the shmuess and told me that he had been profoundly affected by it, and that he had decided to commit to the kabbalah that I had suggested … beginning the very next day.”
The State of Israel and the Elevator at Meoras Hamachpeilah
For the third time, the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee discussed the proposed construction of an elevator at Meoras Hamachpeilah in order to make the site accessible to the disabled. Once again, it was a demonstration of national shame. An entire country, ostensibly one with sovereignty in the area, has been rendered powerless in the face of the Muslim Waqf and the Palestinian-run municipality of Chevron, which is headed by murderers. Over a year ago, Kobi Eliraz, the aide to the Minister of Defense at the time, assured that committee that the site would be made accessible. If the Palestinians agreed, it would be done with their cooperation; if they did not, then the modifications would be forced upon them. He claimed that the construction would be completed by “the end of the year,” and there was some debate as to whether he meant the end of the year 5779 or, l’havdil, the end of the year 2019. Well, we are now in the middle of the year 5780 and well into the year 2020. At another meeting of the committee, in June 2019, a promise was made for the work to be completed by Pesach 5780. This Monday, it became clear that that deadline is completely unrealistic. Thus, for three years already, this country has proven itself incapable of making the burial places of the Avos accessible to disabled visitors.
Brigadier General Rassan Elian, the director of the Civil Administration, dropped a bombshell at the committee session that went largely unnoticed. “The work of making the site accessible consists of two main parts,” he said. “One is the elevator into the cave itself; the other is the path running along the Gutnick stairs. These are two separate projects.” Elian spoke about completing the work by Pesach of the year 5781, but I sensed an imminent spoke in the proverbial wheels. I have no doubt that dividing the plan into two separate projects will result in plenty of mishaps. But in any event, the incessant delays are a disgrace to the State of Israel.
The atmosphere in the Knesset shul also suffered on account of the country’s political woes. Every year, one of the two chief rabbis of Israel, Rav Dovid Lau or Rav Yitzchak Yosef, or one of the chief rabbis of Yerushalayim, either Rav Shlomo Amar or Rav Aryeh Stern, comes to the Knesset shul for the festive Tu B’Shevat davening, along with Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset director-general, the Knesset Sergeant-at-Arms, and various other prominent figures. This year, that did not happen. The shul, which was expanded for the event, was still packed with mispallelim, and the refreshments, which someone managed to wring out of the director-general, were also respectable, but there was a sour note in the air. In spite of the morose atmosphere, though, we were able to enjoy the drosha delivered by the deputy finance minister, who is also the gabbai of a shul in Ashkelon and a gifted orator.