“Depressed” is the term that properly encapsulates my feelings after being subjected to the indignities of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to the Supreme Court.
More than anything, the process, the no-holds-barred nature of the sordid circus, made me worried perhaps for the first time about the future viability of the American experiment. For two centuries, America has been an amazing experiment in democracy, never before seen in the world. It has also been a force for good, peace and prosperity in the entire world, and has probably been responsible for the most benevolent period of our golus since the churban Bais Hamikdosh.
I am beginning to wonder how long the wonderful democracy of the United States of America as we know it will last. No, it does not appear that America will be defeated militarily. Neither China nor Russia will defeat America on the battlefield. If it falls, the most likely scenario is America falling due to the breakdown of civil society as a result of internal infighting that becomes irreconcilable and descends into tribal warfare. In short, it will fall from within, like a beautiful house built on a rotting foundation. Once the rot in the foundation reaches a critical level of decay, the entire edifice collapses.
That is why the Soviet Union fell without one shot being fired. It collapsed under the rot and decay of a system so corrupt that there was nothing left to keep it afloat.
This thought has spurred me to think about our own frum world as well. How safe is the amazing edifice of Torah and chesed that we have so painstakingly built in the more than 70 years since the end of Churban Europe?
Similarly, it may be safe to say that if chas veshalom anything were to happen to the frum world, it won’t be a result of outside forces. Rather, it will be a result of self-inflicted internal wounds. Those wounds are what can cause decay and rot to penetrate the very foundation of the beautiful spiritual edifice that we have so painstakingly constructed.
The Trump Presidency Has Revealed the Totalitarian Impulses of the Left
Let us first analyze the American political situation in light of the Kavanaugh episode and use that to better understand the nimshol as well.
The Kavanaugh story brought out the fault lines in American society in a stark, blunt way. It really told us where we are holding. What transpired was not a conversation about judicial rulings. In the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, “There was nothing particularly ideological about the narratives, nothing that touched on capitalism, immigration or any of the other great disputes of national life. And yet reactions to the narratives have been determined almost entirely by partisan affiliation.” If you were a Republican, you were with Kavanaugh, and if you were a Democrat, you were against him. End of story.
To me, however, the most depressing thing was the fact that almost half of the country has lost all sense of fairness and justice, advocating the character assassination of a man for no other reason than the fact that they disagree with his judicial philosophy. In the no-holds-barred tribalism that has infected the political discourse, anything is legitimate. Every means to an end is warranted.
That is the beginning of the unraveling of any civil society, and that is what is so worrying. The Left, especially, has poisoned the well so much that Antifa-style terrorization of the “enemy” has become mainstream. Republican lawmakers can’t enter an elevator without being accosted, yelled at and shamed as misogynists and worse, just because they have a different political view than the Left. We have seen politicians evicted from restaurants and shows. We have seen Republicans terrorized by large protests outside of their private homes, all in the name of saving the country.
Yes, it must be said that Trump’s style of governance brings out the worst in his opponents, because he is not cowed into submission by the classic triggers that have worked in the past. Although he keeps on winning, it would be foolish to think that there is no price being paid by the highly polarized atmosphere that is today’s reality.
Still, it must be said unequivocally that the Trump presidency has been a truly clarifying moment in that it has revealed the absolutely totalitarian impulses of the Left.
What is now becoming clear is that if we are not careful in stepping back from the abyss, we might be seeing the beginning of the breakdown of civil society – akin to a civil war – that may lead to the imploding of the country from within.
It is something that should give us all pause. We need real leadership on both sides of the aisle to help walk this country back from the edge of the abyss. Does it exist?
The Decay that Led to…Wholesale Abandonment of Yiddishkeit
Boruch Hashem, in our own frum world, we are not nearly that far gone. We have a flourishing community and exemplary mosdos of Torah and chesed, but it is important to learn from the current political situation in conjunction with a look back at history so that we do not repeat historical mistakes.
One of the most horrible chapters in our recent history was the Cantonist decree imposed by Czar Nicholas I of Russia in around 1827. The government forced Jewish children into the Russian army for a 25-year term. The children were treated with cruelty, and official policy was to encourage the children to convert to Christianity.
The worst thing about the decree, however, was that the Czar’s government made the Jewish community itself responsible for supplying the quota of boys who would go to the army. This led to terrible corruption, as, with money and influence, some people extricated themselves from the decree by having many children of poor, defenseless families taken in their stead. The internal damage to the community cannot be overstated. The fact that roshei kahal and other community leaders presided over or allowed such corruption, and the fact that rabbonim were unable or unwilling to stop them in many but not all instances, made so many young people lose faith in the Jewish establishment. This paved the way for the successful Haskolah movement and the success of socialism, communism and many other isms to lure Jewish youth away from Yiddishkeit en-masse in that era.
Similarly, the breakdown of the community structure in the aftermath of World War I with the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Yidden from Poland and Russia as a result of the war and the inability or unwillingness of the established community to properly care for the refugees contributed to the breakdown of the educational structure and the wholesale abandonment of Yiddishkeit between the wars – a wholesale abandonment that makes our own kids-at-risk problems look like child’s play in comparison.
The Danger of Losing Faith
The lesson is that when people lose faith in a system, when they begin to feel that the injustice and corruption among leadership reaches a critical level, they start to explore other opportunities. When they see that leadership is unable or unwilling to lead and curb these impulses, they become disenchanted, losing faith, and are tragically ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I don’t think we are anywhere close to that level yet, but certainly, the lessons of the past and the present should give us pause. Today, we live in a time of relative plenty, but there is plenty of injustice and plain pettiness that can become the seeds of decay that can ultimately bring a society down.
The fact that your average, middle-class family is having tremendous difficulty paying tuition, marrying off their children, and often even having difficulty getting their children into schools and yeshivos are problems for which the communal leadership must find solutions. Communal breakdown occurs when those in whom the public has faith are perceived as indifferent or even antagonistic.
Just like Russia or China won’t destroy America, government intervention into our educational system here in America or the army trying to force our boys to serve is not what will destroy us. Be’ezras Hashem, if we are united, we are strong enough to fend off such attacks.
What will, however, destroy us is the lack of achdus among us, the corruption and arrogance from within.
We must take the lesson of history and the lessons from the latest political scene and learn from them. Otherwise, the danger of the depressing foundational decay revealed by the Kavanaugh nomination may be closer to home than we realize.