Lincoln and the Jews

From Abraham Lincoln and the Jews:

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, whose 203rd birthday we are observing, was a protector and friend for the Jews “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.”

At the outset of the Civil War the Jewish Community faced official discrimination as the legislation expanding the US Army restricted the chaplaincy to clergy of the Christian faith. Members of the Jewish Community energetically protested this exclusion. Petitions for change in the law, including one in the U.S. Senate presented by Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, later the author of the 13th Amendment ending slavery, were submitted. In response, President Lincoln wrote to Dr. Arnold Fischell on December 14, 1861:

I find that there are several particulars in which the present law in regard to Chaplains is supposed to be deficient, all of which I now design presently to the appropriate Committee of Congress. I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is deferred by you in behalf of the Israelites.

Truly yours,
A. Lincoln

President Lincoln was good to his word and on March 26, 1862 the act was amended to allow for brigade chaplains “one or more of which shall be of the Catholic, Protestant or Jewish religion.” The community reaction and Mr. Lincoln’s responsiveness set an important precedent for the far more dangerous threat that was to follow.

From Lincoln and the Jews:

In January 1863, Lincoln revoked the only incident of official anti-Jewish discrimination when he countermanded Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous Order No. 11, which expelled Jews from Northern Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky. Lincoln also appointed seven Jewish generals to the Union forces.

What were the reasons for Lincoln’s concern and kindly attitude toward the Jews? First and foremost was the fact that by the time of the Civil War, Jews had become a factor in American life. During the Revolutionary War and the founding of America, Jews numbered a miniscule 2,500 out of a population of approximately 4 million. By 1840, they had only grown to 15,000, but 20 years later, in 1860, the Jewish population had risen to 150,000, out of a nation of 30 million. The Jews emerged from a relatively docile and unseen element in the population to a viable minority, striving for its own rights and recognition.

With the increased Jewish population, the future president knew Jews as admirable neighbors even in the little towns where he grew up.

Louis Salzenstein was a storekeeper and livestock trader in the town of Athens, Ill., near New Salem, where Lincoln spent six years. When Lincoln was postmaster, he collected the mail from “Old Salty’s” store, which served as the regional post office. He became good friends with Salzenstein, who was remembered by a town historian as “doing more than any other man toward bettering the improvements and the mode of living in this section.”

First Published 2/21/2011

A Yeshivish Fourth of July to All

Gettysburg Address – English Version
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this…The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here for the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of their devotion– that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain–that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Gettysburg Address – Yeshivish Translation
Be’erech a yoivel and a half ago, the meyasdim shtelled avek on this makom a naiya malchus with the kavana that no one should have bailus over their chaver, and on this yesoid that everyone has the zelba zchusim.

We’re holding by a geferliche machloikes being machria if this medina, or an andere medina made in the same oifen and with the same machshovos, can have a kiyum.

We are all mitztaref on the daled amos where a chalois of that machloikes happened in order to be mechabed the soldiers who dinged zich with each other.

We are here to be koiveia chotsh a chelek of that karka as a kever for the bekavodike soldiers who were moiser nefesh and were niftar to give a chiyus to our nation.

Yashrus is mechayev us to do this… Lemaise, hagam the velt won’t be goires or machshiv what we speak out here, it’s zicher not shayach for them to forget what they tued uf here.

We are mechuyav to be meshabed ourselves to the melocha in which these soldiers made a haschala–that vibalt they were moiser nefesh for this eisek, we must be mamash torud in it–that we are all mekabel on ourselves to be moisif on their peula so that their maisim should not be a bracha levatulla– that Hashem should give the gantze oilam a naiya bren for cheirus– that a nation that shtams by the oilam, by the oilam, by the oilam, will blaib fest ahd oilam.

Weiser, Chaim M. 1995. The First Dictionary of Yeshivish. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, P. xxxiii.

Heal thyself

How and what should orthodox Jews report and comment on events that affect our world? A few weeks ago I commented here on a post in which discussion turned to broad-gauged condemnation of the orthodox media, as follows:

[W]hat you really object to, and not without justification, is what often seems like simple-mindedness in the haredi press.

This returns me to my point that hashkafa [philosophical outlook] is not a mere abstraction. . . . [It is problematic for publishers] trying to sell (key word) a newspaper or magazine to a population that is very sensitive to issues of loshon hora, hasagas g’vul, mesira and kavod hatorah… and which recognizes, sometimes painfully, certain limitations. These are imposed by the fact that the English speaking haredi world is unfortunately a very intimate community made up of a surprisingly small number of interlocking family-, neighborhood- and yeshiva-based groups. Therefore, much of what we would recognize as good journalism even permissible under halacha may still not be good business, or good humanity, because the subject of such journalism may be the relative, teacher, child, prospective spouse or benefactor of someone else who is vulnerable to the effects of publication.

Unlike the almost abstract limitlessness of the universes covered by the New Yorker and the New York Times, our little world is a very real place. And very real, little places pretty much never have good “coverage,” for these very understandable reasons.

When the BBT Administrators asked me to expand on these comments for a post here, it made me think of another post I wrote a couple of years ago on another blog, called “Asymmetric cultural warfare.” In that article I discussed the profound damage Internet defamation causes because of our inclinations to both encourage free speech and to protect the anonymity of speakers. Although these two values are consistently linked together by free speech advocates, I argued that modern technology has rendered them in fact contradictory.

The asymmetry I wrote of, then, is this: On the one hand there is no longer neither cost nor accountability to publishing. On the other hand what is published is instantaneously accessible to untold millions, and the damage done by it essentially impossible to repair. This is the very realization of the classic “now go collect the feathers” metaphor we apply here to lashon hora.

As I said in that post:

During the entire previous history of humanity until just a few minutes ago, elites — who usually had the stability of society, for good or for bad, as a central goal, as elites will — controlled the medium and the message. And the result was indeed a high degree of stability. You could not easily ruin a man’s life by communicating something false or scurrilous, though if you did it could hardly be undone. And little saw the light of day in print — be it by the hand of a scribe painstaking scratching out sacred writ, as the product of the crudest printing presses or over the air of the oligopoly broadcasters — without being weighed and vetted — no, not always, maybe not even mostly, for truth or neutrality, but at least for cost and usually for effect.

This sense of accountability flowed from the fact of accountability, often in its literal sense. Your quills could be blunted, your press smashed, and in a more enlightened era and place, your assets and good name put at risk through legal process. There was a high cost of entry to the market of expression, and that cost was, especially in unfree societies (as is still the case), often far greater than any true economic assessment; but once borne, this cost provided a counterweight — not a perfect one, but a real one — to the inclination to take no consideration of what costs others might bear as a result of your expression. . . .

In the old days, cranks and complainers and scandalmongers of this ilk used to peddle such wares via stolen reams of photocopy paper or purple mimeograph printouts. Mailed anonymously or pinned up on storefronts they were easily enough recognized as the rantings of marginal people; once pulled down and crumpled up, they were gone forever, and usually rightfully so.

Now we know not to believe everything we read in a blog, of course. . . . But slander has a way of sticking, especially when it is directed to those whose stations or dignity do not make response appropriate or practical. And the virtual eternity of anonymous defamation makes it more insidious than anything that preceded it. Potential employers, spouses or in-laws, business partners — anyone who can work Google can forever gain access to and read the rankest falsehood on the Internet.

The cost to the anonymous hit-blogger, or commenter: Free. The effect on people, institutions, communities: Unfathomable.

The magnitude of this damage resonates with particular, and painful, power in the world of online Jewish opinionating, a cottage industry if ever there was one. I avoid reading most “Jewish blogging,” but almost nothing justifies perusing the so-called “skeptic” blogs, works that could hardly be more grossly and misleadingly labeled. These “skeptics” are skeptical of nothing in the nature of claims or reports that reflect negatively on orthodox Jews and orthodox Judaism. Any observer, lacking knowledge of the underlying topics, would readily infer from the heavy sarcasm, negative tone, transparent bitterness and predominance of ad hominem attacks that these publications are presumptively not trustworthy. On further inspection, he would discern the utter lack of accountability on the Jewish attack blogs — for blogger and commenter alike are almost universally anonymous — and, again having no axe to grind of his own, would not waste his time or credulity on this boiling sea of words without speakers.

There is irony here both small and great. The small irony is that the predominant theme flowing through this sewage system is outrage over the orthodox establishment’s supposed lack of “accountability,” demanded by verbal terrorists who refuse to be at all accountable for the blood they shed with their words. They cry out for complete transparency, but only with regard to the lives of those they deem guilty. For themselves, a glatt kosher wall of anonymity behind which to quiver while loosing their righteous missiles is perfectly yosher [straightforward, square].

And the great irony? It is that — anger, ugliness, agendas and the worst of motives aside — the bitter anonymous bloggers and the fungus that grows around them often enough are writing about real problems that really affect real people in the real world — the real frum world that some of them, shockingly, live and work in. But their polarizing, vicious vitriol does more than assures a lack of sincere engagement. By choosing to take the route of personal, adolescent-style attacks and the imputing of the worst possible motives to their targets, any good they could do by using their understanding and insight (which is often significant) to publish measured, humane and respectful criticism is pushed further and further away than ever. This self-perpetuating cycle almost guarantees the worst-case scenarios they are constantly threatening, because their voices lack all credibility and no respectable person has any business listening to them any longer than necessary than to realize they are not to be heard.

As in the case of the obnoxious and deadly behavior known today as “road rage,” the complete departure from social norms by the Jewish world’s very special attach bloggers is possible only in an anonymous order. Few of them would admit to the personal cowardice their anonymity plainly reveals; frequently they will say they dare not reveal their own names out of concern for innocent family members or others connected to them. But when passing loud, public and acute judgment on those they deem blameworthy, they not only abandon any pretense of presuming innocence — then there is no accounting whatsoever for the innocent ones destroyed by collateral damage from their self-righteous, obscene and scurrilous broadsides.

The result is that by the actions of a handful of people with little more than vengeance and lashing out on their agendas, certain Jewish family names have, on the Internet, entirely absorbed the color of the opprobrium slung at them. The mutual admiration society of anonymous hacks has utterly polluted the flow of online discourse. Thus a even a moderately attentive search engine user could only assume that certain individuals whose lives are in fact virtual models for communal and spiritual achievement are scoundrels at best and notorious unindicted felons at worst. Some of the most distinguished people and organizations in the frum world, including many who have sacrificed vast shares of their lives and personalities for the communal good, have become, by virtue of repeated usage at the hands of people whose names will never be known and whose lives are bound for the scrap-heap of history, bywords for the most venal and perverted behavior. They are made punchlines, premises for escalating attacks, stand-ins for entire categories of unproved, disproved or unprovable offenses, thanks to the efforts of nameless nothings whose comments (and, when in some instances they are uncloaked, whose biographies) demonstrate lives devoted not to righting wrongs, but rather to sad attempts to numb the pain of their own failures in the manner known best to the mediocre: Destroying their betters from a position of safety.

It need not be this way, and the fact that it is not demonstrates why such publications are unworthy of anyone’s attention. There are many who write under their own names and unhesitatingly criticize personalities, institutions and trends in our community without resort to the ugliness of the anonymous flamethrowers. We may not always agree with these bloggers — either as to form, substance or style — but at least when an offended party believes one of them has crossed the line that party knows exactly the address to which concerns, or other action, should be directed.

Our world is a small world, and the Internet has made it smaller than imaginable. It has also made it far more ugly than could ever have been anticipated even ten years ago, thanks to these cadres of craven, irresponsible and angry destroyers. They make those who achieve, those who risk and endeavor, and those who care feel the fury of their anonymous impotence. They rejoice at real news of moral failure in our midst, when their hearts should be breaking. Theirs is a real pathos behind the cover of virtual bravura. But they do help us understand three things when we debate the role of Jewish journalism, Jewish historiography, and Jewish publishing.

One is that even where the truth might in fact set us free, half-truths do not make us fractionally more free, and may to the contrary irreparably deprive many of far more freedom than they grant a few.

The second is that while disease may justify invasion, or even surgery, on the intimate, personal and interconnected corpus that is the frum world, not everyone who claims to be one is properly reckoned a healer.

And the third is that no one would license, much less submit himself, to an anonymous physician, and certainly not one whose therapeutic choices are revealed by any objective reckoning motivated by his own sickness, his own pain, and an unremitting anger at those he calls his patients.

For these reasons no Jewish journalism, electronic or otherwise, will ever be worthy of the name if its author is not accountable, his biases identifiable, his humanity confirmable. And while in our free country anyone is legally free to report on, comment on, dissect and even with his words try to kill the frum world, anyone who is not committed to both standing behind his words and openly living in the world he is building or destroying by his works may call himself many things…

But not any kind of man. And certainly not one of us.

Jewish Media Coverage of the Torah Observant World

The Jewish Week ( “JW”) caters to LW MO and gives some token space to Chabad. It has long had no use for the RW MO world and only negatives for the Charedi world and now seems as if its role on Middle East affairs is ala ultra left. Like it or not, one learns precious little about Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim from the JW despite the fact that the MO and Charedi world are Federation beneficiaries. Instead, JW readers are treated to a “pluralistic” version of a Dvar Torah, and a veritable bombardment of coverage re scandals in the Charedi world, etc, as if that was the only news about that those communities and the RW MO world that are worth the reader’s attention and that by omission of such coverage, such scandals do not exist in the heterodox world.

Even on issues affecting Israel, the JW is aping the NY Times to tell us that we should avoid criticizing a new far left group called J Street, and that we should side with an administration that is forfeiting American sovereignty so that we can fit into the “league of nations” and imposing a dictated settlement on Israel

Jewish Action and Tradition have long held the potential to serve the MO public but suffer from a few flaws of their own. JA is published seasonally and by the time a new issue is rolled out, a current issue is old news. The articles and letters in JA are always worth reading and do not avoid hashkafic or halachic controversies and JA’s archives are almost all available to the extent that the same are posted on line. JA has some excellent columnists and one sees a wide range of content of a high quality on a great range of subjects and much news about the OU and NCSY, etc. It is a far better read than the NCYI Viewpoint which IMO is a house organ with an occasional article of interest.

Tradition focuses on wnat it deems to be the intellectual issues facing MO at the expense of what is happening in the MO street. At times, Tradition strikes me as the ultimate example of the ivory tower like existence of some prominent MO thinkers. IMO, its web presence is better than it was, but the content is uneven except for the columns of R JD Bleich and R D SZ Leiman.

The RJJ Journal always has articles on important halachic issues by promiment and up and coming Talmidie Chachamim. Chaikirah strikes me as a very important and recent addition with a very committed and intellectually honest approach to issues of Halacha, Hashkafa and Jewish History as well as a great letters section.

Like it or not, while the Yated offers coverage of the Charedi yeshiva world and even respectful coverage of RIETS RY, which one never finds in the JW, one never sees or views women as spiritual personae who are known teachers of Tanach, etc or even spouses of honorees in the Yated, Hamodia ( which AFAIK is edited by a woman) or Mishpacha. Given the fact that Chinuch HaBanos involves very different issues than Chinuch HaBanim, I wonder why there is no Roundtable consisting of some of the wonderful educators and administrators of girls schools.

The Jewish Press and such papers as the Five Towns Jewish News offer a far more wide ranging view of the MO and Charedi world than Yated,which is obviously and almost totally Lakewood/Litvishe in orientation, Hamodia, which is Chasidishe or Mishpacha, which is Charedi lite and which tries to cover the Litvishe and Chasidishe worlds. In all of the Charedi publications, there are some excellent columnists and writers who are powerful advocates for their POV, who I respect as unapologetic proud Torah observant Jews and Talmidie Chachamim, even when I differ with their POV on a hashkafic or halachic issue. One can sense an attempt within the Charedi media to attract RW MO readers by offering editorials and columns that would at times attract RW MO and RZ readers such as their coverage of the massacre at Mercaz HaRav.

FWIW, many of the columnists, and the letters columns in the Charedi media, especially the Yated, offer a fairly good window into some of the halachic, hashkafic and sociological issues facing their communities. The Chinuch Roundtable and R Yakov Horowitz are two excellent examples. The Yated, in contrast to all of the other papers, also features a weekly interview with Malcolm Hoenlein. However, none of the Charedi media really make an effort to understand and distinguish between LW MO and what I would call a committed MO that looks to the RIETS RY for its halachic and hashkafic guidance.

On Arevim, there was a recent thread about the purported suspension of publication by the JO. IMO, whether the same is permanent or temporary is irrelevant because the JO”s role has been supplanted by Yated, Hamodia and Mishpacha and even the Charedi papers in Lashon HaKodesh, which publish on a weekly basis, thus filling and possibly replacing the need for the JO, especially when such JO columnists as R Jonathan Rosenblum and R A Shafran are available via email . FWIW, I find the Yated and Mishpacha far easier to digest than the JO, especially since I let my JO subscription expire after its infamous coverage of the Petirah of RYBS.

None of the Jewish media that purport to cover the Torah world offer the reader a review of recently published sefarim, articles in halachic journals or English Judaica on a regular basis. In view of the absolute flood of new sefarim, journals and English Judaica, IMO, such a column which R S Y Zevin ZTL wrote on a regular basis and which was compiled and is out of print, is long overdue for anyone who considers themselves a discriminating purchaser of sefarim and Emglish Judaica. Such a column, which could only be written by a Talmid Chacham with the broadest of shoulders, would go a long way in evaluating the merits of new sefarim and whether they add to the study and understanding of Torah. What passes for the same are essentially a few critical reviews in JA ,Tradition or the TuM Journal, but IMO, we need such a review on a far more wide ranging and steady basis.

JW – Jewish Week
MO – Modern Orthodox
LW – Left Wing
RW – Right Wing
JA – Jewish Action
OU – Orthodox Union
NCSY – National Conference of Synagogue Youth
NCYI – National Council of Young Israel
RIETS – Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
AFAIK – As Far As I Know
RZ – Religious Zionists
RY – Rosh Yeshiva
FWIW – For What It’s Worth
RYBS – Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik
JO – Jewish Observer
IMO – In My Opinion
ZTL – Zecher Tzaddik L’Vrocha

A Challenge to Religious Liberals

By David Klinghoffer

Over at the interesting website Beyond Teshuva, devoted to issues raised by Jews returning from secularism to Judaism, Kressel Housman comes “out of the closet” as…a liberal. As someone “raised on liberal values,” she reflects:

I know liberalism is unpopular in frum [religious] circles, and I know there are good reasons for it. Israel is number one, of course, but then there are matters like abortion and gay marriage.

I salute the author for being open, and for giving me an occasion to formulate Klinghoffer’s Law, based on my experience of hearing many people’s personal stories:

Jews who return to Jewish tradition often become more politically conservative, sometimes stay as they were, but almost never become more liberal. This is a strong indication that the natural political stance of a believing Jew is conservative, not liberal.

I suspect a similar dynamic could be identified among Christians who have experienced a renewal of or return to faith. I bet it’s also true of Reform and Conservative Jews who were previously less committed. If true, this poses a major challenge to liberals who see their religion as supportive of their politics.

Think I’m wrong? Let’s put it to a test. I invite readers, Jewish and Christian, to share their own experience. Did your spiritual recommitment translate into changed political views?

If so, how? My hunch is that we will find few if any cases where religious involvement translated into a leftward movement across the political spectrum, but many cases where it translated into enhanced conservatism. Again, if you think I’m wrong, and if you think you can prove it — not with insults, please, but with examples — go right ahead.

If your experience fits my proposed Law, please also let me know.

In my own memoir about teshuva, or spiritual return, The Lord Will Gather Me In, the political element was among the most controversial. My current book, How Would God Vote?, goes into detail about why Torah’s politics are so conservative.

The argument in a nutshell is that conservative views on a variety of issues (though not all) are linked by a common insistence on personal responsibility, an emphasis that pervades Torah, especially as understood by the great modern Orthodox sage, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Originally published on BeliefNet.Com.

I Think I Owe a Big Thank You to Susie Essman

I owe a big thank you to Susie Essman. Yes, you read right—Susie Essman, the vulgar fouled mouthed comedienne now staring in the forthcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame documentary “Loving Leah.” Its not because she makes me laugh—believe me, she doesn’t, but Essman reminds me of why I am here and why I want to stay with Yiddishkeit.

When I first started thinking about writing this column, I felt flooded with self pity about how painful my teshuva journey has been. All kinds of unpleasant memories came back— my son being rejected from a yeshiva, my daughter being insulted by the Bais Yaacov principal, my other son getting potsched by his rebbe . No, the frum world hasn’t turned out to be heilige Disneyland I was, in my foolish naiveté searching for not now, but then I watched the YouTube clip of Susie Essman’s interview on the View.

In case you’ve been living Meah Shearim ( probably not a bad choice but then you wouldn’t be online would you) or in a cave, Essman is the star of the television drama “Loving Leah,” the latest media attempt to portray our people are bizarre primitives. “Loving Leah” is actually the story of —get this—a “modern thinking” Hassidic woman, a Lubavitcher ( no, not of the Rivkah Holzberg O”H ilk) who by a strange quirk of circumstance engages in a Levirate Marriage (yibum) with her late husbands secular brother.

And of course, , rather than the brother in law turned husband discovering the delights of the religious life, (that would have been the Artscroll plot) the opposite takes place, with lovely Leah letting her hair down and learning just how lovely it is to be secular, well maybe not quite secular but certainly a little less far frumped than she had been because being too frum is just, well, uncool, almost un-American.

Does everybody read the subplot? We , the uncompromising orthodox, the bnai aliya those of us who see our lives as a pursuit of holiness are a subversive group. Our culture is antithetical to the American way of life (the pursuit of happiness through whichever means suits you) and we need to be put in our place ie: made to seem ridiculous. That is what ‘Loving Leah” is all about..
Read more I Think I Owe a Big Thank You to Susie Essman