After a recent speech in Los Angeles, a local kiruv person with whom I spent a Shabbos dinner a few years back, approached me and levelled a critique at some of my recent writing. "You used to be the first person I would recommend to thoughtful newcomers for an understanding of the Torah viewpoint. But lately, you've been writing too much about politics, and I can't show your columns to the graduate students I work with."
I was stunned. But I'm one of those people whose natural tendency is to agree with any criticism – a far cry from the mask of self-confidence and omniscience behind which columnists often hide. And I could not deny that there was something to what he said.
One would need a lot more Torah than I possess to be able to illuminate another aspect of life every week from a Torah viewpoint. Recourse to larger societal issues and intellectual trends is, in that sense, often an easing of the burden of multiple weekly columns. (At least I try to avoid writing about politics as a spectator sport or as if I were a racetrack handicapper.)
Yet over Pesach, I found in Rabbi Moshe Antebi's recently published Reflections and Introspection, a 650-page collection of Rav Moshe Shapira's profound shiurim on Exile and Exodus, a new way of looking at my forays into contemporary intellectual discourse and the potential value thereof.
There are two ways in which the ultimate geulah can come about, Rav Moshe taught, and they correspond to the middos of netzach and hod. The first is through an infusion of the great light of Hashem that vanquishes the darkness. That is netzach. The second is that the self-contradictions of evil are so evident that it becomes clear that a world without Hashem cannot long exist without destroying itself. That is hod, or confession.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (97b-98a) records a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua about the circumstances for the coming of Mashiach. According to Rabbi Eliezer, "If Israel repents, they will be redeemed, and if not, they will not be redeemed." Rabbi Yehoshua responds, "If Israel does not repent, is it possible that they will not be redeemed? Rather, the Holy One Blessed be He, will appoint a king over them whose decrees will be harsh like those of Haman, and Israel will repent."
The obvious problem with Rabbi Yehoshua's position, which appears to be the conclusion of the Gemara, is that he too requires that Klal Yisrael do teshuvah. The difference, however, is the teshuvah he discusses does not result from the triumph of good over evil, in which the truth of Hashem is too overwhelming to deny. Rather it comes from reaching a situation in which existence is no longer possible, and the Jewish people must concede that a life apart from Hashem cannot continue.
From this perspective, pointing out the rapid degeneration of a society that has lost any connection to Hashem – i.e., "bringing evil to realize its own impossibility," in Rav Moshe's words – serves an important purpose. That is not the ideal way to bring Mashiach, and it certainly is the longer path, but it may be the only one left to us.
The self-contradictions of evil and the human toll of those contradictions is all around us. Universities founded upon the presumption that truth is most likely to emerge from a free market place of ideas have become the primary promoters of the idea that there is no Truth, only competing narratives. Yet, in blatant contradiction to that relativistic premise, those who advance particular narratives claim the right to suppress opposing views to the same degree as the Catholic Church of old, which, whatever its many failings, certainly believed in Truth. It is no longer far-fetched to imagine students and professors defending the burning of heretics and dissenters at the stake.
The acquiescence of all the major Western powers in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the most dangerous nation on earth – one for whom the use of those weapons may even be a theological imperative – is another example of how post-religious societies cultivate their own destruction. At the most basic level, the abstention from reproduction by native European peoples ensures the disappearance of entire languages and cultures. A look at Europe today suggests that the projected disappearance, however, will be accompanied by spasms of sustained violence.
FROM THAT PERSPECTIVE, one important function of a Torah columnist is to emphasize our sense of alienation from the surrounding society and to highlight our necessary wariness of the guiding ideals, as promoted by the mainstream media and leading universities, of those who know not G-d.
As a mundane example of that sense of alienation, let's take the hullabaloo that erupted from an old interview with Vice-President Mike Pence, in which he mentioned two rules he follows to protect the sanctity of his marriage. The first of those rules is never to eat alone with a woman other than his wife; and the second is never to imbibe alcohol at any social event where his wife is not present.
Pence's rules, angry feminists claimed, would stand in the way of the advancement of women in the workplace by giving an advantage to men, who can eat alone with their male bosses. Former senator Jim Talent, who served together with Pence in Congress, points out that the number of solo dinners of a serving congressman or woman with only one member of his or her staff is typically close to a null set. When congressmen who are working late dine with their staff, it is most likely to be over takeout around a conference table, with a large number of staffers present.
Second, the feminists charged, it is clear that Pence views women only as objects of desire and as potential sources of temptation.
All this will no doubt strike most Torah Jews as absurd. We may or may not adopt precisely the rules enunciated by the vice-president, but the impulse behind them is well understood. And the criticism of Pence strikes us as one more example of the general disdain and lack of empathy of elite culture for religious people, whether evangelical Christians, like Pence, or Orthodox Jews.
Vice-President Pence's rules were not only a protection for him, but a means of conveying to his wife a message: "Our marriage is the most important relationship in my life, the one upon which my happiness is based more than any other, and I would never do anything to endanger it." It matters not that the chance of anything improper happening as a consequence of not observing those rules is slight, even infinitesimal, the potential downside is so great that no risk, however small, is worth it. (At the same time, I would note that Chazal had a far more realistic view of the attraction of men and women for one another – ein apotropos l'arayos -- than those who view gender as only a social construct to be shaped by our wills and not our natures.)
Trust is the glue that holds all relationships together – none more so than marriage. Once lost or diminished, it is well-nigh impossible to recover. Diminished trust need have nothing to do with an illicit relationship. Wives and husbands should be one another's best friends, certainly one another's only good friends from the opposite sex. Anything that a man cannot say, or does not wish to say, to his wife, should not be said to another woman.
Sometimes, there are things that one is well-advised not to share with a spouse out of fear of diminishing the spouse's respect – e.g., issues with which one is struggling, difficulties at work with one's boss. But if they cannot be shared with one's spouse, neither should they be shared with someone else of the same gender as one's spouse. That's why men have good male friends and women close female friends. But emotional intimacy with someone of the opposite sex is only for one's spouse. Upon that promise is trust built.
Mike Pence's rules lreflect a deeper view of marriage, not only all the joy it offers to a person, but also of the investment needed to reap those joys, than that of his critics..