Kohanim and Kings Parshat Shoftim

Did you ever argue politics with an anarchist? How about theology with an atheistic communist? Well, I’ve done both and have learned a lot in the process.

It all goes back to a bench in Hester Street Park, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, near the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, where I attended high school. The veteran reader of these columns will remember my descriptions of the several disheveled older men who populated that park and spent much of their disrupted lives on those benches.

Their story goes back to 1917 and the Russian Revolution. The Communists were successful in overthrowing the czar and his regime, but were sharply divided among themselves about the direction that Russia should take. Two groups, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, fought for the leadership of the Communist Party. To make a long and bloody story short, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, prevailed. The Mensheviks, and an even smaller group who were not Communists, but anarchists, fled for their lives. Some made it to the shores of the United States and lived out their lives as exiles.

We high school students went to the park each day not to discuss politics, believe me, but to play basketball. But on the benches near the park’s entrance sat six or seven men who were among that group of refugees. They were desperately lonely and destitute, but they loved to preach their outdated and failed ideologies to us innocent yeshiva boys. Most of us passed them by, dribbling our basketballs to the nearest playing field. But I was numbered among those few who were so fascinated by these men that we passed up the opportunity to play basketball, so intrigued were we by their animated conversations, and so eager were we to test our immature intellects against their wizened debating skills.

I well remember the day that they brought up a passage in this week’s Torah portion. The passage reads:  “After you have entered the land that the Lord your God has assigned to you … and you decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,’ you shall set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Lord your God.”

The old anarchist on the park bench proclaimed words that sounded harshly heretical to our innocent ears:  “How can you hold such a passage sacred? How can you study this in your yeshiva as a holy text? Kings! Do you know how much brutality kings and emperors, czars and noblemen, have wrought upon this world? We may be exiled immigrants, but we will be forever proud that we overthrew the kings we knew. Yet, the holy book that you boys study advocates the appointment of a king!”

The old Menshevik Communist, who disagreed with the anarchist on almost every other issue, concurred with him on this one. But, being more knowledgeable about Judaism, he went even further.  “So, you are taught by your rabbis that it is a mitzvah to appoint a king! To us, appointing a king and reviving the institution of royalty would constitute a vile sin, a horrible aveirah.”

I no longer remember the feeble adolescent arguments that we marshalled to counter these forceful older men. But I do remember that in subsequent discussions we had amongst ourselves, we considered the  “controls” that the Torah itself places upon the Jewish king:  “He shall not keep many horses. … He shall not have many wives. … Nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. … He will not act haughtily toward his fellows.” We wondered aloud as to whether these admonitions would be obeyed and whether they would be sufficient to assure that the king would not come to abuse his position of power.

One of us was able to recall the biblical passage in which the prophet Samuel rails against the people who ask to appoint a king:  “He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen. … He will take your daughters. … He will seize your choice fields and vineyards. …  The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen!”

In time, these heated debates faded from our consciousness as we became preoccupied with ordinary teenage concerns. But somehow the topic of legitimate government remains important to me, and still remains important to those friends of mine from Hester Street Park with whom I maintain friendships.

With time I have come to consider the ways in which leadership roles are achieved. There are those who attain those roles through violence and force. Others achieve them by virtue of their personal charisma. Some inherit those roles. There are even those who achieve it by the acclaim of their people.

I particularly remember a discourse delivered by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who distinguished between the person who performs the function of the king, leading the people and governing them, and the person who is in his very essence is a  “princely” person, qualified because of his inner excellence to serve as a leader.

I am not entirely sure that the Rebbe would have agreed with my interpretation of his words. But I learned from him to distinguish, as sociologists do, between ascribed leadership and achieved leadership. In Jewish life there are those whose leadership roles are ascribed, or assigned, to them. An example of this is the Kohein, or priest, who is born into his role. He is entitled to various honors and privileges, and is even granted the spiritual authority to bless others.

There are others who are not born into positions of leadership, but go on to achieve leadership roles because of their own efforts, because of their distinctive intelligence, saintliness, and moral rectitude. For almost two millennia, the Jewish people have experienced no king of any sort. But we have been remarkably blessed with a wide variety of inspirational figures who have led us in diverse and trying circumstances.

They rose to positions of authority because of their ability to inspire, to encourage, and to educate us. They were not anointed, and not even officially appointed, into their roles. Rabbi Akiva taught us so much — from what it meant to be a loving husband to what it meant to die with honor — yet he was born into the humblest of families and achieved his remarkable intellectual feats through his own diligence. Maimonides had no royal role in Jewish society, yet his authority was revered throughout the Jewish world. The same can be said of Gaon of Vilna and the Baal Shem Tov, neither of whom were born into exclusively aristocratic families and neither was appointed to any formal position. They had royal capacities, which earned them the titles of kings of the Jewish people.

We learn from this week’s Torah portion that there are historical circumstances in which there may very well be a mitzvah to coronate a king. But, absent those special circumstances, the lowliest among us can become a king if he has the inner commitment to exercise his God-given skills and talents faithfully and creatively.

A Shining Exemplar



There’s no question that Israel faces an uphill battle getting steeper with time in the court of public opinion. Whether from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, entrenched institutional and societal anti-Semitism in Europe or an American predisposition to back the perceived underdog in any conflict, the Jewish state largely faces a deck stacked against it no matter what it does.

So what can be done about it?

For years, the Israeli-backed American Jewish communal effort toward pro-Israel advocacy, known as hasbara, has been a sort of “falafel dance,” as Shahar Azani, the former consul for media affairs at the Consul General of Israel in New York, describes it. Speaking humorously to several hundred people during a session at last week’s National Jewish Retreat in Washington, D.C., Azani, now the Northeast Region executive director of StandWithUs, remarked how the standard response to charges of Jewish colonialism or Israeli militarism has been, “Oh, but Israel has such wonderful falafel!”

His point, of course, was that for any debate to be effective, pro-Israel advocates must actually address the other side in a way that acknowledges detractors’ points of view. Otherwise, the vast majority of people who haven’t made up their minds about Israel will tune out whenever they get a whiff of a “PR campaign.”

I shared that panel with Azani. We were joined by Shimon Mercer-Wood, Azani’s successor at the consulate. While I agreed with the majority of their points, particularly Mercer-Wood’s hilarious retelling of an experience he had as an Israeli Foreign Ministry official on a trip with a Georgian diplomat as an illustration of the necessity to shut up every now and then and focus your energies on finding shared interests, I took issue with Azani’s implication that the “falafel dance” doesn’t have a proper place in Israel advocacy.

While advocates should strive to keep their points to the confines of the debate — in other words, a proper response to the charge of Israeli militarism is to demonstrate how the exact opposite is true — perhaps it’s time to shift the entire nature of the debate. Fundamentally, many of those who support the BDS movement, whether they consciously accept this or not, have a problem with the very existence of Israel as a majority-Jewish state. The only proper response to their fundamental objection is to show how vibrant a country is Israel.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, Israel, as it always has been, is a nation of contrasts. It’s a vibrant democracy that not only allows spirited debate, it empowers and encourages its citizenry to question authority, quite visibly in the case of the Museum of the Seam, a project by a local artist located at what literally was Ground Zero during the Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem.

It’s also a place where in an area the size of New Jersey you can find snow-capped mountains, desolate deserts and the lowest point on Earth.

In many ways, all of the praises bestowed on the United States — its geography, its pluralism, its vigorous spirt of political debate — are equally applicable to Israel. Far from shying away from the question of Israel’s existence, there is a very strong case to be made for Israel’s ability to be a shining exemplar of democracy in action, even as it faces an onslaught of Islamist terror, internal religious disputes and a growing chorus of detractors in the international arena.

This is a debate that Israel and her supporters can — and must — win.


No Room for False Information

In the words of beloved President Ronald Reagan, “There he goes again”  (Marc Caroff’s Aug. 7 Your Say letter). Unable to Refute Stephen Arkan’s Unimpeachable Facts (Your  Say, July 17), the ZOA’s Caroff instead resorts to a Fox-TV-style engorged jihad of intimidation in an effort to silence opposing voices. Because for bullies, questions that are not flattering are seen as unfair (See Trump, Donald, first GOP presidential debate).

By contrast, President Barack Obama, speaking to American Jewish leaders on Aug. 4, made it clear  that “the (Iran agreement) debate is too important for the promotion of inaccuracies and misleading misrepresentations.”

Jewish Hysteria Unfounded on Iran

The hysteria among many in the Jewish community, both locally and nationally, in opposition to the Iran deal (“A Time to Act,” July 31) is unfounded and dangerous.  Let’s look at this rationally and dispassionately.  Without this agreement, Iran will have an atomic bomb in less than a year, according to the U.S.’s best intelligence. Yes, this is an imperfect agreement, but what international accord isn’t? Isn’t the possibility of a bomb in 10 to 15 years better than the certainty of one in six months to a year?  Furthermore, the verification protocols are much more stringent than opponents realize or care to admit.  A lot can happen before the agreement expires, including negotiations to extend the agreement and maybe, God willing, an end to the current Iranian regime.

Opponents offer several alternatives, all of them unrealistic, and one of them profoundly dangerous. First, as to a “better deal,” that won’t happen because the entire world supports the present agreement, and it is unlikely that anyone will come to the table after American credibility has been critically undermined by Congress. Second, sanctions won’t work anymore because the European and other powers who negotiated this agreement have made it clear that they won’t participate in sanctions if the deal is scrapped. The only other alternative offered is bombing.  A war with Iran would be a catastrophe not only for the U.S., but especially for Israel and the entire Middle East. It will make the conflicts in Syria and Iraq look like warm-ups for the main act, and it won’t delay Iran’s program as many years as this agreement will. And the retaliation from Iran will be directed first toward Israel.  It is interesting that, despite widespread opposition to the agreement in Israel, the former director of Shin Bet and others in the Israeli security establishment have come out in favor of it.

Looked at rationally, it is clear that this is a good deal for both the U.S. and Israel, the hawks in Congress and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu notwithstanding.  The president and Secretary of State John Kerry, rather than being excoriated, should be congratulated on accomplishing what they set out to do: block Iran’s pathway to a bomb.  History will prove them right.

Forget Robert E. Lee; Name the Park Socrates

There seems to be some contentions regarding renaming Robert E. Lee Park (“Robert E. Lee Park to Receive New Name,” July 31). I suggest that the new name should be Socrates Park. Socrates has been respected and admired for thousands of years. He is politically neutral and not controversial since very few people (including me) have read his books. In addition, people calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson monuments across from the Museum of Art should consider replacing them with a statue  of Venus de Milo. It’s old and famous. That is good enough for me.

Adding Insult to Injury

President Barack Obama has considerable chutzpah when he tells the supporters of a very bad Iranian deal to get active, ignoring millions of dollars already pouring into that campaign (“Presidential Call,”  Aug. 7).  To add insult to injury, he has attacked his opponents by calling them ridiculous and even worse, as the full dimensions of the deal shows its folly. Let Congress act without interference from the president to at least rebuke for his vendetta against its opponents.

Right to Fly Flag Is the American Way

I am Carl Berenholtz’s brother-in-law (“Confederate Battle Flag Comes under Fire,” July 3), and over the past half-century I have disagreed with him as much as agreed with him. I read Jodie Zisow’s July 24 letter to the JT (“Mr. Berenholtz: Take Down That Flag”), and I feel compelled to speak up.

The Civil War was as much about a way of life, a region’s economics and the right to object to the actions of our government as it was about slavery. I agree that slavery was wrong just as I agree that the KKK was as evil as Germany and Hitler.

But democracy has shown that the right to question government leads to a free place to live. I agree that the Confederate flag should not be flown on government land, but to deny an American the right to fly any flag on his own property is not what America stands for. Would you deny a Jew the right to fly the flag of Israel in his yard or put Chanukah lights on his property?

We are blessed to live in this country. Appreciate what it has to offer.

Iran Deal: The Risks of Rejection

Within hours of the announcement of a deal with Iran, pro-Israel organizations led by AIPAC condemned the agreement and called upon Congress to reject the deal.  Over the ensuing weeks, significant and valid objections have been raised.

For example, many of the constraints on Iran begin to lift after only 10 years, when the reduced number of centrifuges can begin to increase; and in 15 years, the stockpile restrictions on enriched uranium can increase. Further, numerous conventional arms limitation, particularly in the area of missile capability, will be lifted in less than 10 years. The end result is that the agreement risks delaying, but not preventing, Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state.

Secondly, Iran gets not only sanctions relief for compliance, but also a release of frozen assets. Many rightfully suspect this will enable Iran to enhance its support of terror networks such as Hezbollah. Iran remains unbowed and sees itself as the winner of the negotiations.

In short, this deal is deeply flawed. It should be denounced as such.

But we do have a deal that prevents (to a reasonable probability) a nuclear Iran for up to 15 years and arguably much longer.  If we are to oppose it, we are obligated to analyze with proper depth, what comes next.

It appears that AIPAC has inadequately made the case for the benefits congressional rejection will provide.

Here is what has been offered so far:  Rejection will lead to a “better deal.”

This is the hope, but what is the path that takes us to this conclusion? Is there the risk rejection actually benefits Iran? What if the sanctions crumble or if the P5+1 refuse to back a toughened negotiation position? If either event occurs, Iran’s position is enhanced, and we may lose the advantages of the deal we had (monitoring, extension of breakout times, no economic leverage, etc.).

Lastly, if a better deal fails to emerge and Iran proceeds with nuclear-weapons activity, we may face the prospect of military action. The irony is that  numerous American and Israeli intelligence reports (that have been made public) conclude that military strikes on nuclear-research facilities and reactors will only buy the world two or three years.

Does AIPAC favor military action when the Iranian deal gives us a longer time line?

AIPAC has the resources to lead us. It should provide the evidence in logic and fact (if available) to prove that rejection will lead to a better outcome.

Yes, the Iran deal is flawed and dangerous for both Israel and the U.S.

But rejection opens the door to uncertain and unmanageable risks. Any organization that asks Congress to oppose this deal should assume the obligation to teach us the benefits of rejection and not only the problems with approval. We have only a few weeks left. Please answer the call.

The Importance of Deeper Connections

Michael J. Elman, M.D.

Michael J. Elman, M.D.

Jewish tradition centers on the family. We celebrate our most deeply rooted observances, such as Shabbat and the Passover seder, in our homes, where we  transmit our eternal heritage and rich traditions from one generation to the next. No matter the size, Judaism begins and ends with our family. Indeed, the great contemporary Jewish sage, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, described the Jewish people as one large family.

Because of the vital importance of family, the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education aims to meaningfully engage families in a manner comfortable for them. The future of our community depends on the success of this ambitious mission.

Connecting Jews to each other and to our shared heritage is the CJE’s highest priority. An agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the CJE aspires to serve as a key catalyst for Jewish growth within individual families.  By creating innovative educational experiences, the CJE strives to inspire and motivate parents and children to connect with Jewish learning, Jewish living and Jewish community.

Through the millennia, Shabbat served as the focal point for family time together. For many today, Shabbat provides a nurturing, relaxed opportunity for families and friends to connect.

This year, our community will participate in projects that celebrate the beauty of Shabbat and enable people — from all levels of observance — to experience it in relevant and meaningful ways.

The Associated has partnered with other organizations to create First Fridays (firstfridaysbaltimore.com), a movement to inspire and encourage friends and families to bring Shabbat into their lives in some fashion on the first Friday of every month. This innovative project kicks off on Oct. 2 and is a wonderful way for anyone to make time and connect with their loved ones and their heritage in their own unique way.

Associated Women has collected resources on a website, associated.org/ shabbatresources, which encourages community members to spend Shabbat together and to open their homes to interested individuals and families.

Both of these sites provide resources to make Shabbat accessible and comfortable for people who may never have celebrated Shabbat and who need a starting point from which to embark on a Shabbat experience.

Once again, our community will participate in the Baltimore Shabbat Project, a worldwide observance of Shabbat, on Oct. 22-24. Programs include challah baking for women and girls, family and neighborhood-based Shabbat meals, programming for men and boys and a communitywide Havdalah concert. Around the globe, thousands of Jews will share in similar preparations for Shabbat and will observe the day in a way that is comfortable and inspiring for each of them. The Baltimore Shabbat Project aims to unify the global Jewish family through Shabbat.

All these important initiatives will help us make deeper connections. Even in our strong, vibrant Baltimore Jewish community, we unfortunately hear from people who feel disconnected from Jewish life. Through innovative engagement opportunities for families, educational resources and welcoming experiences, we aim to help people identify with our heritage, feel proud to be Jewish and feel connected to each other.

Finding Solvency in American Strategy

In the case of Sokolow v. PLO, a New York federal court jury recently issued an award of $665.5 million in favor of American victims of Palestinian terror and their families. The Palestinian Authority wants to appeal that judgment. In order to do so and avoid efforts to collect on the judgment while the appeal is pending, the P.A. would have to post a bond in the amount of the judgment, plus interest. The organization claims not to have the necessary funds and has asked U.S. District Judge George B. Daniels to allow it to post a lower amount.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken inserted himself and the State Department in the Sokolow case, raising a number of eyebrows in the process. Blinken began by making the understandable point that the P.A.’s continued viability is essential to U.S. security and diplomatic interests and that a worsening of the security situation in the West Bank could have negative repercussions for U.S. allies Israel, Jordan and Egypt. But he then ventured into very troubling waters by urging Daniels to “carefully consider” the risk that a substantial bond would push the P.A. to insolvency. Could it be that the State Department was urging a federal judge to require a lower bond amount from those found guilty by a jury of supporting those who killed Americans in terror attacks?

While it is troubling that Blinken and the State Department would weigh in on the side of the Palestinians in this terror compensation dispute, the
weakness of Blinken’s arguments gives us the most pause. What exactly is the evidence that the admittedly troubled and corrupt P.A. would be wiped out if it was required to post a full bond as normally required in any appeal? Moreover, if, as Blinken states, the ability of victims to recover damages under the Antiterrorism Act advances U.S. security interests, why weaken victims’ efforts and the corresponding American strategy of combating and deterring terrorism?

In any event, the P.A.’s economic argument is suspect. The P.A. is not without its funders. Aside from the billions showered on it by Arab states and the tax revenues forwarded to it by Israel, the United States has over the years provided billions of dollars in assistance to the Palestinians. Time and again, instead of governing its citizenry effectively, it has used donated funds to fuel corruption and support terror. In light of that clear history, the last thing Blinken and the State Department should do is support an approach that will further enable the P.A.’s criminal behavior.