Navigating Our National Meltdown — With Torah Guidance

In response to the political chaos enveloping the country, we turn to our leaders for direction. We are privileged to present insights from Harav Elya Brudny, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Mirrer Yeshiva, Brooklyn; Chaver, Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel of America, and Dayan Harav Chaim Kohn, shlita, Av Beis Din Machon l’Choshen Mishpat; Mara d’Asra, Khal Chasidei Gur of Flatbush.

Harav Elya Brudny, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva, Mirrer Yeshiva, Brooklyn; Chaver, Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, Agudas Yisroel of America

What does the Rosh Yeshivah feel about the assertion that some make that we owe President Trump a measure of hakaras hatov for the many good things he has done?

The truth is that I, too, feel gratitude for some of what the President has done, which has helped both yechidim, Klal Yisrael, and especially what he has done for Israel. But we have to understand a fundamental concept when it comes to the notion of hakaras hatov.

More than a century ago, there was a yeshivah that went through a difficult period, and the leader of another yeshivah helped them out by supplying staff and talmidim to establish the said yeshivah and its leader on firm footing. As time passed, the Rosh Yeshivah called in the visiting talmidim and thanked them but told them it was time for them to leave, since his path in running his yeshivah diverged from their path.

The guests expressed surprise. “After everything we did for you, where is your hakaras hatov?” they asked. The Rosh Yeshivah’s answer applies to our situation as well. “In the entire inyan of hakaras hatov, we only find that the receiver of a favor must recognize and thank the giver. However, we do not find that he must give back the favor. If I were to keep you here in my yeshivah, it would terminate the core of my yeshivah as I envision it. That is not included in hakaras hatov.”

This idea applies here as well. As I said, we certainly appreciate the acts that President Trump has done, and of course we internalize that the Eibershter chose him to accomplish what he did, and we are grateful to him for that. But hakaras hatov does not obligate us to return and undo the tovah that was done. The public exhibition of blind adulation toward the President with the refusal to recognize his shortcomings during the past four years and over the last three months is difficult to understand, and the image we are presenting to the public at large impairs our ability to thrive in this malchus shel chessed.

In addition, as I’ve said many times, it is vital for us to remember that we remain in galus, and we should not take a public role in determining the political direction of the country.

How concerned is Rav Brudny about the effect of the President’s behavior on society and on the Jewish community in particular over the past four years?

Let’s be honest. President Trump is lacking many of the core values with which we have been raised, values which are part of the DNA that runs through an ehrliche Yid. He has a poor relationship with the truth, and he seems not to think twice about disparaging another person, whether in private or in public. These actions certainly have had their effect on everyone who is exposed to it. Granted, we do not come in direct contact with him, but we are affected, nonetheless. Unfortunately, today many chareidishe Yidden follow the media outlets, and it has an effect.

When you see the leader of the United States, with all the prestige due the President, ignore protocol and established etiquette, it has to rub off on us. His defeat was partially a result of his lack of respect for the truth along with his abrasive mannerisms. If we tie ourselves to him in a personal way, we will be affected by all these faults as well.

Why are so many Yidden caught up in his cause? What is his power to convince so many to follow him?

Why are so many people stricken with the adulation of a player who can hit a ball far, or toss a ball into a basket? There is this celebrity draw that captures certain people. Or perhaps he has demagogic characteristics and knows how to play on the feelings of people.

What is the proper way for parents and mechanchim to communicate with the young children and adolescents who hear what is transpiring?

Like Leah Imeinu declared, one should proclaim loud and clear, “Re’u mah bein bni l’ben chami — see the difference between my child, who was raised in kedushah, to the person who is not!”

Let me tell you what I said on the first days of Sukkos. I was in Cleveland, and during those days Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and, l’havdil, President Trump, both came down with the virus. With Rav Chaim, it was a bechinah of mishnah lo zazah mimekomah — his learning continued unabated. He did not change his daily routine in the slightest. He conducted himself with serenity, with true emunah and bitachon in the Ribbono shel Olam. President Trump, on the other hand, was rushed to Walter Reed to receive the latest treatments, and in what could have been a teachable moment, he squandered an opportunity to elevate the country. What was the Eibershter showing us here?

I mentioned the Gemara in Brachos (9b), which states, “A person should always exert himself and run to meet Jewish Kings, and not only to Jewish Kings, but to Kings of non-Jewish nations as well. Because if he merits, he will be able to tell the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish Kings.”

We have a Melech Yisrael, a Jewish King — who are the monarchs? The Rabbanan. Besides being the Gadol hador, we have a Melech Yisrael. The Machatzis Hashekel (siman 57) quotes Maharam miPano that, since the end of the second Beis HaMikdash, the crown of Malchus comes together with the crown of Torah. On the other hand, with the nations of the world, the President of the United States, the most powerful nation, serves as the King. On Erev Sukkos, Hashem showed us the difference between the two. Even the malchus of the nations of the world is bestowed upon them by the Ribbono shel Olam. We must remember that when we recite the brachah upon seeing a non-Jewish King, we say, shenassan mikvodo l’bassar v’dam — that He gave from His honor to a mortal of flesh and blood. The blessing upon seeing a Jewish King is shechalak mikvodo leyerei’av — He apportioned from His own kavod to those who fear Him.” His malchus is part of kisei Hashem, the throne of Hashem. Should we give adulation to a person who does not have the dignity to carry the malchus which the Ribbono shel Olam bestowed upon him? If you are looking for malchus, we have it. We saw the difference.

In the summer of 5734/1974, I was a fresh yungerman and I stopped by my parents’ house, where I noticed that my father was uncharacteristically dejected. President Richard Nixon had done something illegal; there were public hearings in Congress, and he was about to be impeached. When I asked my father what was on his mind, he said, “The concept of malchus was denigrated for the country.” A few weeks later Nixon resigned.

At the time, I did not fully comprehend the significance of the demise of malchus in America. But now, 47 years later, I can be omeid al daas Rabbo, I begin to grasp the importance of it. I learned from my father’s comportment that there is much to learn even from a non-Jewish ruler. We recite a brachah upon seeing a non-Jewish King. Furthermore, the Gemara in Brachos (58a) tells us that Rav Sheishes was blind, and nonetheless went out to greet the King, and revealed that the pageantry of the Kingdom on earth is similar to the Kingdom of Heaven. Even the monarchy of a non-Jewish king is included in hamamlich melachim velo hameluchah, it maintains an element of kvod Shamayim.

We cannot underestimate how much the conduct of the last four years has damaged the concept of nassan mikvodo l’bassar v’dam. The Eibershter gives malchus, and this has been torn asunder when the President and his detractors descended to the behavior of bullies brawling in the street.

Unfortunately, there are many in our circles who are caught up in the Trump frenzy. What do we say to them? Should we try to convince them?

I think this indicates that we have not developed or encouraged enough our own healthy hero worship. When I was growing up I remember seeing, with the greatest adulation, Harav Aharon Kotler, Harav Moshe Feinstein and Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky. I saw the Satmar Rebbe while he was still healthy, and heard a Shovavim Torah and his leining on Simchas Torah during the day. My father would listen to the Rebbe as he said his sugyos on Thursday night and he was amazed at his gaonus. I saw the Skverer Rebbe; the Skolyer Rebbe lived around the corner from me; the Kopycznitzer Rebbe; the Boyaner Rebbe was in my building for the bris of my cousin.

Unfortunately, this generation is missing out on this. We should introduce them to the individual character traits of our leaders. The intensity of the learning, the asceticism, the austerity. The way the Gedolim live, with simplicity and austerity.

I think there are a few themes we must work on. Number one is that we are in galus even in America, and we must curtail our vocal partisanship. Even if it would be a correct cause, the public display of taking such strident stands is inconsistent with our role in galus. We are galinu mei’artzeinu — we have been exiled from our land — and such behavior is acting as if this country is our homeland.

We cannot have adulation for a figure who does not represent Torah and avodas Hashem. We must have respect, but where does it say adulation, hero worship? That is regardless of any negative characteristic of the object of the adulation, who is not a role model for the behavior we want to infuse in our people. Do we want our children to emulate this type of conduct?

Even if one feels that the policies of a candidate outweighs the behavior of the person, and one should cast their vote based on policy concerns, is that an excuse for hero worship, partisanship, and showing reverence? It is a tough choice to vote for someone with such a dichotomy between policy and personality, but certainly it should not be done with animation.

Does the Rosh Yeshivah have any closing thoughts?

Unlike many among us, I am not overly worried about the incoming administration. If we look back at the Obama administration, we see that, overall, Hashem protected us from harm. President Obama sent the Iron Dome, which protected Israel from missiles and, taken as a whole, his presidency was not a disaster. True, his Iran policy was terrible, but many countries supported it. And the Ribbono shel Olam sent a shliach who helped get us out of it.

Furthermore, policy is in the hands of Hashem: Lev melachim v’sarim b’Yad Hashem — the heart of the Kings and leaders is in the Hand of Hashem. But the personal behavior, even for a King, is his own doing and his own responsibility.

We must keep in mind what the Gra says. In Nishmas, we say, “Ad heinah azarunu — rachamecha.” We must be aware that the help we received was because Hashem treats us with mercy. “Velo azavunu — chasadecha.” The reason we are not lost is because Hashem is gracious with us. Therefore we can trust that, “Al titsheinu Hashem Elokeinu lanetzach.” Hashem will never abandon us.

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The Right Perspective — Our Political Involvement

Dayan Harav Chaim Kohn, Shlita, Av Beis Din, Machon L’Choshen Mishpat; Mara D’Asra, Khal Chasidei Gur of Flatbush

Many people, many perspectives — not anymore. The aggressive assault of the media on its audience with constant news updates, and analyses disguised as news, eliminated this seemingly obvious truism. The viewpoint of the reporter, regardless of his agenda, precludes impartiality. The proliferation of printed material slowly chipped away at the individuality of people’s thought processes, a phenomenon that has only become more prevalent with the advent of ever more advanced communication technology.

Especially in our times, where many people carry the media around with them in their pockets, independent thinking is almost obsolete. While this is a problem for all of humanity, it is an even more acute problem for the Jewish mind. If the ordinary citizen is aware of it or not, accepts it or not, it is not a matter of life or death. For us, it is critical, as it is a matter of our essence.

My aim is not to join the right-wing chorus that left-wing media domination unfairly molds the minds of Americans. They may be correct, but right-leaning media outlets influence their audiences with their preconceived notions as well. It is the concept of submission to any preconceived worldview that deeply damages all that sets the Jewish mind apart.

Part of the essence of a Jew is his ability to think independently, primarily from the world at large and, sometimes not less, from other Jews around him.

When Gedolei Yisrael saw the urgency for Torah-observant Jewry to publish its own newspaper, Harav Chuna Halberstam of Koloshitz, Hy”d, uniquely observed the inherent danger that the homemaker, the merchant, the tradesman, and even the talmid chacham, would now lose his or her individual perspective. This was not a frivolous or far-fetched fear. It addressed a core concept in our belief system. The purpose of the Jew in this world is to perfect his unique self. Undermining the uniqueness of one’s mind impairs the most important tool for this mission.

What does the study of Torah teach us if not to use our minds to develop our own views and question the assumptions of others? Is that not the very method that we use to explore the depth of the oral law, Torah Sheb’al Peh? Even the central written text, the Gemara, is not a monolithic code of law, but a presentation of different opinions subjected to the scrutiny of constant questioning. It is no coincidence that many innovations in all fields of knowledge have come from Jews, as part of our intrinsic makeup is wired to think critically.

Current events demonstrate that this has become an acute challenge in our community.

Too many of our brethren have become so deeply entrenched in the pervasive culture of political reporting and commentary that they see themselves as members of one team or another, rejoicing in their victories and mourning their defeats.

As Jews we must understand that the political winds are not our business. This goes far beyond the reality that “the hearts of Kings are in the Hand of Hashem,” and that how governments affect our lives is a matter of hashgachah — Divine Providence. This is about a simple realization that a Jew is by definition an observer of the political activities of the country he lives in, not an active player.

We are the Am Hashem. What that means in the most practical of terms is that while we pledge loyalty to our host country, we have a higher calling than to bind our hearts and minds to partisan causes. In a sense, we reflect the way that Hakadosh Baruch Hu interacts with the world He created. As Chazal explain, He provides the foundation for Creation but is not bound to Creation. Klal Yisrael’s intended relationship with this physical world, the Olam Hazeh, and civilization at large, is to fulfill a mission, but we do not have our roots in this world. The primary realm of our actions in this world is doing what the Torah commands us to do. The stage of this world as an end to itself is the domain of the nations, not ours.

That is not to say that we should not follow world affairs or advocate for our interests. The Torah commands us to make reasonable efforts to protect and improve our position in society. Standing up for standards of morality, fighting to protect our religious rights, and the realization of Hashem’s reality are part of our mission and it is therefore appropriate that our community should care about the morality and decency of the society around us.

We are right to be concerned about threats to our freedoms and safety from extremes on both the right and the left and we should take steps within our power to fight their influence, as radicalism has never smiled upon Jews.

What that does not mean is that we should identify ourselves with the political personalities or entities that we feel fare best for those interests. We should respect them and show our gratitude when accomplishments that we view positively are achieved, but we must stop short of becoming adherents of their ideological camp. Our ideology is the Torah.

Part of the cause of this confusion is rooted in the nature of America, the great melting pot. America, much to its credit, makes Jews and other peoples feel that this nation is theirs and that they have the same stake in it as those who are here since the time of the Pilgrims. We must be gracious for this attitude of acceptance, but not lose ourselves in it. We must be loyal to our host nation, but realize that we remain Jews in America, not American Jews.

A key element of the uniqueness of the Beis HaMikdash was the experience of entering a different sphere of existence, a place where because of its kedushah, Jews acknowledged the world that they truly belong to.

We have lost that precious gift — the Beis HaMikdash — but yearning for it and living within the standards of Kedushas HaTorah will save us from becoming entrenched in the galus that its destruction left in its wake. This yearning and adherence to parameters of kedushah will bring us and the world at large back to the glory of Hashem’s presence. n