Wednesday, May 12, 2021

My Take on the News

The Supreme Court Rules the Land

The crisis in Hadassah Hospital shows no sign of coming to an end. The situation sounds insane – and it is. Based on the events that have been taking place, one might have thought that we are in a Third World country. Dozens of cancer-stricken children are sitting in a protest tent in Sacher Park and trembling with fear, while the Ministry of Health and the hospital administration both refuse to budge from their positions. That is not to say that they do not have a rational basis for their positions; the Ministry of Health is reasonably opposed to the unprecedented opening of a new ward in Shaare Zedek, while Hadassah Hospital is also within reason in its efforts to open the department to patients from abroad, which will result in a large increase in its revenues. At the same time, there is logic in the doctors’ insistence that they cannot provide appropriate service under the new conditions in the hospital, and in their desire to open a new department in Shaare Zedek.

The most important thing, though, is that these children are sick and in need of constant medical care, for which they cannot be expected to travel to Tel Aviv or Petach Tikvah. But without their doctors, there is nothing for them to gain by going to Hadassah. And they are suffering. Consider the fact that if a child with cancer develops a fever, even on Shabbos or in the middle of the night, he must go immediately to his hospital ward and his doctor. What will these families in Yerushalayim do now?

This situation has now come under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. The court heard the case this past week and forced the children and their parents to accept a mediator: Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who recently retired from his position on the court.

As I have said many times, the Supreme Court is the ruling power in this country.

There were many other noteworthy events this week as well, including an emotional visit of the Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, to Russia. As a Prisoner of Zion, Edelstein sat in a Russian prison; this week, he spoke in the Russian parliament as the visiting head of Israel’s legislature. “I never dreamed that this would happen,” Edelstein admitted. Indeed, his visit seemed like a dream. He even visited the very prison where he was once interned!

A Court Date Is Set

And then there is the Supreme Court. The court is scheduled to hear the case of the grocery stores in Tel Aviv that have been operating on Shabbos, and that has led to a conflict between the Minister of the Interior and the attorney general. Aryeh Deri, the Minister of the Interior, feels that the government’s response to the court, as it was formulated by the attorney general, is too weak and practically invites defeat. According to the law, though, only the attorney general can represent the government before the court. Deri’s insistence managed to bring about a compromise: In an unusual step, he will be permitted to respond on behalf of the Ministry of the Interior. Deri’s argument is that the Tel Aviv municipality does not have the authority to enact a municipal bylaw that permits stores to be open on Shabbos, since there is a national law that prohibits businesses from operating and employing workers on Shabbos. We are hoping for the best possible outcome in this case.

Another court case looming in the near future concerns the conflict over the Kosel Hamaaravi. Following an ultimatum delivered by the chareidi parties, the government decided to freeze its decision to accept a compromise with the Reform movement. This led to a massive outcry, which I discussed in a separate article. In some ways, the freeze is a good thing, since it prevents the Supreme Court from having a basis in law to force a concession to the Reform movement. On the other hand, in the absence of any proposal from the government, the court might come up with its own plan, which could be far worse. The court’s discussion has already been scheduled for July 30, when it will address the Reform movement’s petition for the government to explain why it has not implemented the agreement. To that, the government will respond that there is no agreement; the previous decision has been suspended, and it is working on a new plan to replace it. Once again, we are hoping for the best.

A Member of the Knesset Votes Against Himself

Last week, MK Yaakov Margi submitted a motion for the agenda concerning an officer in the Prison Services who had severely abused a prisoner and had received the mildest possible punishment. Margi delivered an expertly constructed speech, giving eloquent expression to the outrage against the abuser’s exceedingly light punishment. The prisoner, incidentally, was chareidi.

Here is a brief excerpt from Margi’s speech: “About a year ago, a chareidi youth was incarcerated in Prison 4, where he made the acquaintance of Adir Malcha, the commander of the unit in Prison 4. The prisoner, who was charged with desertion from the army, was severely abused by the prison commander. This is a young chareidi man, for whom this was his first encounter with the army and with its commanding officers. At the end of his imprisonment, the young inmate turned to the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and the committee filed a complaint with the military police. It took the military police almost a year – pay attention to that – to investigate the complaint, and it was ultimately found to be justified. The fact that it took a year is bewildering. According to the complaint of the chareidi inmate, Malcha did not allow him to wear tefillin, and he slammed his head into the wall, choked him, and shoved him onto the floor of the room when it was filled with water. Afterward, the commander forced him to sit on a bench with wet clothing, where he handcuffed him tightly and left him in that position for about five hours. During this incident, a sefer in his possession was also confiscated.

“After an entire year had passed, the abusive officer was finally put on trial. But listen to the punishment that he was given: He was given a suspended sentence of ten days in prison. The judges noted in their ruling that Adir Malcha had blackened the name of the IDF and the State of Israel. The abusive officer himself was quoted as saying, ‘I wish that I could turn the clock back.’ So I ask you, the honorable Deputy Minister of Defense, what message we are giving to these soldiers. What will wipe away the scars of this behavior? What message are we sending to the candidates for positions in our security services, from the chareidi community in particular and from the rest of our society as well?”

It is a sad story, but the real subject of interest is what took place after Margi’s speech. The government’s response was delivered by Deputy Minister of Defense Eli Ben-Dahan, who asked Margi to be content with the fact that he had aired his sentiments publicly, and not to pursue the matter further. Margi refused, insisting that the issue had to be placed on the Knesset’s agenda. The chairman of the sitting, following the standard practice, therefore ruled that the Knesset would vote on whether the issue would be dismissed or transferred to a committee for discussion. The result was that it was removed from the agenda, by a majority vote of two to one. There were exactly four people present in the Knesset at that time, and only three of them voted.

You are undoubtedly certain that the single vote in favor of transferring the issue to a committee was cast by Margi himself. But that is not the case. The opposing votes were cast by Ben-Dahan and Margi. The only other members of the Knesset who were present in the plenum were Yoel Hasson, who was chairing the session, and Amir Ochana of the Likud party. Ochana abstained, not wanting to vote against either Ben-Dahan or Margi. Hasson supported Margi, but Margi’s vote was cast in favor of Ben-Dahan, who opposed his own motion.

How did that happen? Margi simply made a mistake. The options were to vote “for” or “against,” but it was unclear which of those options meant that the motion would be accepted. After the results came in, Margi protested vociferously, but the chairman ruled that it was a fait accompli; his vote could not be changed. And on that subject, the chairman was mistaken. According to the Knesset regulations, the chairman of a sitting has the authority to allow a member of the Knesset to change his or her vote.

Of Cats and Common Sense

Elyakim Rubinstein, the recently retired Supreme Court justice, cannot stay out of the news. He has now been appointed by his colleagues on the court to mediate the dispute over the hematology-oncology department at Hadassah Hospital. And just a few days ago, newspapers reported that in his penultimate ruling as a justice on the Supreme Court, Rubinstein discussed the Yeshiva of Ponovezh. (His final ruling dealt with conditions in the prison system; Rubinstein ruled that every inmate in an Israeli prison should be given six or seven square meters of space, rather than four.)

The Supreme Court’s ruling dealt with an appeal submitted against a decision of the District Court, which ruled that a borer in a zabla proceeding can be declared unfit as a result of tensions between the borerim involved in the case. It took Supreme Court Justice Yoram Danziger a full 13 pages to decide that the District Court was mistaken. Incidentally, Danziger contradicts himself within his ruling: He agrees that “each of the borerim sometimes sees himself as representing the party who appointed him,” yet he goes on to state that there are significant similarities between the criteria for a borer and the qualifications for a judge – and no one would ever disqualify a judge because of a tense relationship. To that, I ask: How can he equate a judge, who is supposed to be objective and is not supposed to have a relationship with either party, with a borer, who is appointed by one of the two sides and cannot be expected to show objectivity?

In any event, Rubinstein concurred with Danziger’s ruling, and he used his own written decision to give some historical background about the Ponovezher Rav and his yeshiva. (The decision doesn’t introduce any new information; it merely quotes an article written by Dr. Shlomo Tikuchinsky.) Most of his praise for Ponovezh is meant as a springboard for his acerbic criticism, but I will not repeat any of those comments here. I will share with you only one line from the document, which I actually enjoyed: Regarding a certain point, Rubinstein asserts, “This isn’t a matter of the law; it is simply common sense.” He then quotes Rav Yisroel Rosen, who attested that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once said to him, “It isn’t written anywhere that one shouldn’t put cats in an aron kodesh, but it is simply common sense.” I found that to be a brilliant remark.

A Shocking Picture of a Former Prime Minister

This week, tens of thousands of Israeli citizens saw a photograph taken of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert while he was hospitalized in Sheba (Tel Hashomer) Medical Center. Olmert was rushed to the hospital from prison after he complained of chest pains. The picture is shocking: Olmert appears gaunt, emaciated, and pale as a ghost, and is seen dressed in pathetic-looking garments, either a prison uniform or hospital pajamas, and eating out of a plastic tray.

In spite of anything he may have done, Ehud Olmert was once the prime minister of Israel. He is a man who dedicated many sleepless nights to the welfare of his country. And the picture evoked tremendous compassion among the citizens of Israel.

Even before the picture circulated, the Minister of Justice had said, “We must consider granting clemency to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He has already served two thirds of his sentence, and I think that this is the time to adopt the attribute of mercy.” After the picture was disseminated, other government ministers also spoke out on his behalf. Although the parole board had already rejected Olmert’s request for an early release (which is typically granted to prisoners who have served two thirds of their sentences and have demonstrated good behavior) two weeks earlier, the board changed its mind on Thursday and ordered Olmert released immediately after he had completed two thirds of his sentence. In general, Olmert was not permitted to attend his grandson’s bar mitzvah at the Kosel, and he was barred from receiving visitors after he reprimanded a warden. The latter was a particularly vindictive move on the part of the Prison Service. Both of these decisions were the subject of parliamentary queries submitted to the Minister of Internal Security, and both queries received highly unsatisfactory answers.

A word about the parole board: Over the past few years, there has been a steady decrease in the number and percentage of prisoners who have been granted the usual one-third reduction of their sentences. This trend is the opposite of what is taking place in other developed countries, where there is an interest in encouraging good behavior and lowering the unbearable level of crowding in prisons. In 2010, the parole board acceded to 37 percent of the requests for early release; in 2014, out of the thousands of prisoners who applied for the reduction, only 30 percent were approved. It is a pattern that seems to reflect increasing cruelty, and it can only be a negative thing.

Felled by a Heart Attack in Prison

On a similar note, a chareidi inmate recently passed away in Ayalon Prison. The inmate had just returned to his cell from a rehabilitation workshop that he had attended for the first time, in advance of his expected release. He was in a state of high emotion, and he began feeling pain in his chest. He spent two and a half hours calling out for help; when a doctor finally arrived, he had passed away. The inmate had a complicated medical history; he required medical treatment several times, and was hospitalized on several occasions. In case you are wondering how I have this information, the answer is simple enough: I am in constant contact with religious inmates in several prisons, and I try to help any inmate who suffers abuse or unfair treatment. And how do I help them? By submitting parliamentary queries to the Minister of Internal Security.

The inmate who passed away, a resident of Rechasim, was previously interned in the religious wing of Maasiyahu Prison. He was transferred to the religious wing of Ayalon Prison because Maasiyahu lacks a rehabilitation program. The transfer from Maasiyahu, which is relatively more comfortable, to Ayalon, where conditions are harsher, was one of the reasons for the decline in his condition.

In a different case, another religious prisoner, the son of a well-known rosh yeshiva, was transferred to Dekel Prison in the south, also because the religious wing of the prison where he was interned lacked a rehabilitation program, which is required for an early release. The chareidi inmate was forced to share a cell with Jews who were mechallel Shabbos, and with non-Jews. The Prison Service treats its inmates as if they are subhuman until they have proven their worth, or until an influential person has interceded on their behalf. But why should that be? It seems that the Prison Service does everything in its power to degrade the inmates, who are already dehumanized simply by virtue of being incarcerated. A religious prisoner has to fight even for glatt kosher food.

Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Internal Security, is in charge of the Prison Service, and that makes him the designated recipient for any parliamentary queries on the subject. His answers, though, tend to be infuriating. He seems to act simply as a rubber stamp for the most appalling responses sent to him by his underlings. Several months ago, for instance, a question was sent to Erdan about a religious prisoner who was rushed from Maasiyahu Prison to Assaf Harofeh Hospital for a cardiac procedure. On Friday, the inmate asked for tefillin from the hospital shul, but the guards rejected his request. On Shabbos, he asked to be allowed to daven in the shul, and he was turned down once again. He was not even permitted to make Kiddush.

Erdan replied to the query, “The prisoner asked for tefillin on Friday night, at a time when tefillin are not worn.” Now, does Erdan think that the prisoner is a fool? Or perhaps he thinks that the MK who submitted the query is a fool? That response is simply a blatant untruth. Erdan added that regulations prohibit a prisoner from receiving anything other than medical equipment from a hospital; in other words, he agreed with the guards’ decision. Nevertheless, he went on to add, “At the same time, because of your question, I have given instructions for greater sensitivity to be displayed. From now on, when a prisoner asks for tefillin, the unit overseeing him has been instructed to assist with that.” The lesson, then, is that in order for a Jew to be allowed to wear tefillin in the year 2017, a member of the Knesset must petition a government minister to allow it!

Rav Lopian’s Brochah

Rav Binyomin Finkel, who is known as Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik, is always a source of tremendous comfort and encouragement to others. In recent days, though, Rav Binyomin himself has been receiving comfort, as hundreds flocked to his home in Givat Shaul to offer their condolences after the tragic passing of his wife, Rebbetzin Mina Finkel, who passed away after an illness.

Since I moved to Givat Shaul years ago, I have become well acquainted with the Finkel family. I also knew the rebbetzin’s father, Rav Yitzchok Cohen zt”l, who was also a resident of the neighborhood. His wife, “Doda Sima,” was and still is an incredible source of inspiration for my family. One could say that the entire neighborhood is in mourning, including the hundreds of talmidim of Ner Moshe (an American yeshiva) and Acheinu (a yeshiva for baalei teshuvah), as well as many other yeshiva bochurim, all of whom were drawn to the Finkel household as if by some magnetic force. Rav Binyomin and his rebbetzin hosted yeshiva bochurim at their home every Shabbos. They always sought to inspire everyone around them; now, everyone around Rav Binyomin shares his pain.

This week, I accompanied Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl on his visit to Rav Binyomin. I had been informed in advance of when he would be coming, and I waited for him in the street along with my son-in-law, who is his grandson. Rav Nebenzahl is Rav Binyomin’s uncle; Rebbetzin Shifra Nebenzahl, who passed away a year and four months ago, was the sister of Rav Aryeh Finkel zt”l, who passed away last year on the sixth of Av. I was saddened to see Rav Aryeh’s expression of profound sorrow when he sat shivah for his sister in Rav Avigdor’s home. At the time, I said to him, “You haven’t just lost a sister; you have lost the closest person to you in the world. Now you are alone.” And now Rav Avigdor was at Rav Binyomin’s home, offering his condolences for the loss of his nephew’s rebbetzin. It was a painful sight.

Rav Binyomin shared an incredible story with his uncle. His father-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Cohen, was very active in kiruv in his youth, and had worked with Peylim to establish a yeshiva for the children of immigrants in a community near Teveria. The yeshiva was once visited by the great Rav Elya Lopian, who blessed Rav Yitzchok Cohen effusively for his efforts. Rav Yitzchok told the visiting tzaddik in an anguished tone that he had been married for several years and hadn’t been blessed with children, and he asked for a brocha. Rav Lopian willingly consented, adding that a person who cared for abandoned youths was certainly deserving of children of his own. Nine months later, Rav Yitzchok celebrated the birth of his daughter, the future Rebbetzin Mina Finkel.

For a long time – a very long time by Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl’s standards – Rav Binyomin’s illustrious uncle sat in the shivah house, making no effort to conceal his own grief. He had arrived in the middle of Maariv, whereupon he produced a Gemara and studied from it intently until after the final Kaddish. After the davening ended, Rav Avigdor sat down beside his nephew, offering his condolences to Rav Binyomin’s children as well. Before his departure, he answered a number of shailos from the aveilim: Should they daven at home or in shul on Shabbos? Was it permissible for them to sleep in the room where the sefer Torah was kept? Could a family member who was not actually an aveil attend a wedding that week? Rav Avigdor responded graciously to every question, although his expression of sorrow did not fade from his face.

When Rav Shneur Kotler Told Me I Was Wrong

Two weeks ago was the 35th yahrtzeit of Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l. I will never forget how he admitted me to the Lakewood yeshiva. He tested me during my interview, but I felt that it was merely a formality. As soon as I was accepted, I was assigned to a room in the dormitory and a seat in the bais medrash. Rav Shneur used to say, quoting his illustrious father, “Every ben yeshiva should know that learning in yeshiva should develop him to the point that he is able to write a teshuvah in halachah on any question that he is asked.”

I do not feel that there is a need for me to write about him. Everyone knows that he worked to expand the empire that is the Lakewood yeshiva, to incorporate more buildings and more talmidim. In addition, he was responsible for establishing satellite institutions in other cities, mostly by opening kollelim for yungerleit who had previously learned in the yeshiva. These institutions opened in places as diverse as Long Beach, Denver, Scranton, Saint Louis, New Rochelle, and many other locales. Today, Lakewood is not only in New Jersey, but in many other places in America – and that is because of Rav Shneur’s efforts.

I believe that I have mentioned this in the past, but I would like to share this story again. Immediately after I arrived in Lakewood and was accepted by Rav Shneur, he suffered the tragic loss of his son. I did not pay a shivah call, and when Rav Shneur saw me for the first time after the shivah had ended, he asked why I hadn’t come to be menachem aveil. I was completely flustered by the question, and managed to stammer two excuses: First, it couldn’t possibly make a difference if I visited him, and second, I had imagined that Rav Shneur wouldn’t remember if I came. He looked at me with his kind gaze and said, “You were mistaken.” To this day, I don’t know which of my answers he was referring to – unless he meant both.

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