Reply to Rabbi Avi Shafran – Different Truths and Applications

I thank my very dear friend, Rabbi Avi Shafran, for his response to my recent article, in which I reacted to Rabbi Shafran’s open letter.

Before proceeding, I must state that whatever disagreements Rabbi Shafran and I have are not in any way personal; we share a mutual sense of great warmth and respect for each other, and the current matter is purely a machlokes l’shem shamayim, which is how disagreements should always be.

In order for readers to avoid the need to flip between screens, I produce the bulk of Rabbi Shafran’s response as follows:

Rabbi Gordimer seems to agree with all of our letter’s points. But he contends that his agreement with it is only “in theory” and asserts that “in application, things are different.”

I’m honestly puzzled by what he means. The following points are either true or not, and Rabbi Gordimer seems to agree with us that they’re the former.

1) We should not lionize deeply flawed people. Both because of the corrosive effect it has on us and because of the pernicious message it sends our young. Society’s hashpa’ah directly or otherwise, on those entrusted to us is more important than ever these challenging days.

2) We should support candidates for public office whose positions we find worthy — even if the candidate is an unsavory character. People should vote for whoever they feel is the best choice for Klal Yisrael and the country, even if it means holding one’s nose, so to speak, when casting a ballot.

3) Many politicians of various stripes, particularly on the national scene, speak and act in ways that are — whether to lesser or greater degrees — morally corrosive or otherwise offensive to Torah-faithful Jews.

4) Such politicians are nothing new, although things have gotten much worse with time.

5) The Torah is the only source for a faithful Jew’s actions and beliefs. As a result, embracing any party or political philosophy wholesale is not justified.

6) Supporting a party or candidate because of a position on one issue should not prevent us from opposing them on other issues.

7) We should work with, and certainly not shun or antagonize, any elected officials, regardless of their party, political philosophies or personal behavior, especially when an official is in a position to make decisions that will affect our lives.

Hence my puzzlement. Does Rabbi Gordimer, no less than we, accept the above as true, both in theory and “in application”? And if not, in what way?

Firstly, let me please address Rabbi Shafran’s queries of “Does Rabbi Gordimer, no less than we, accept the above as true, both in theory and ‘in application’? And if not, in what way?”

Rabbi Shafran here writes that:

2) We should support candidates for public office whose positions we find worthy — even if the candidate is an unsavory character. People should vote for whoever they feel is the best choice for Klal Yisrael and the country, even if it means holding one’s nose, so to speak, when casting a ballot.

However, the original open letter to which I was responding omitted this most critical point, and in fact seemed to many readers (from all parts of the spectrum) to contradict it. This point was the main thrust of my response to the open letter, and had the point actually been made in the open letter, rather than something perhaps different being implied, I would not have written as I did. The open letter asserted the import of candidates’ moral character and ethical example and the necessity of not appearing to embrace the caustic and noxious values of unsavory politicians. Nothing at all was stated about the affirmative need to at times vote for and even work amicably with such individuals for pragmatic purposes, albeit while holding our noses, so to say. Hence my response.

Rabbi Shafran further writes the following and notes that he and I agree to it:

7) We should work with, and certainly not shun or antagonize, any elected officials, regardless of their party, political philosophies or personal behavior, especially when an official is in a position to make decisions that will affect our lives.

I concur that elected officials’ parties, political philosophies and personal behavior should not be a bar to working with these officials for purposes that can affect our communities, but I hesitate to state that we cannot also at times be partisan for the sake of our community and important goals. I wrote:

We must also bear in mind that there are millions of Jews supporting each political party, candidate and cause, and until Moshiach, it will foreseeably remain this way. No one politician, movement or party is going to observe Orthodox Jews supporting the opposition and decide that “the Jews have now withdrawn their support from us”. The ramifications of Orthodox Jews appearing to be partisan are pretty negligible in the present landscape and the broader scheme of things.

Lastly, despite claims otherwise, which I accept as sincere, the open letter was clearly interpreted by virtually all readers as an attack on our current president and a plea for fellow Orthodox Jews to reconsider or at least tone down their endorsement of him. The open letter, for example, contained the following, which are typical, repeated criticisms of the president by his detractors and are unmistakably construed as referring specifically to him, in quite a negative light:

Many politicians and media figures revel in dividing rather than uniting the citizens of our country. Others legitimize conspiracy theories… Shameless dissembling and personal indecency acted out in public before the entire country… Serious moral issues — truth, loyalty, contrition, vengeance, tolerance — are at the heart of much of today’s political discourse… deeply flawed people who are now the de facto arbiters of what is morally acceptable… But we must reject the efforts of those who, for self-serving electoral gain, seek to turn Jews against any party or faction…

Let’s see: Joe Biden has not been publicly accused of engaging in the above conduct, nor have any other major current candidates or paramount political figures. On the other hand, the president’s detractors and the media have incessantly driven home the above points as mantras and truisms regarding him. While some of us might identify many of the above very negative traits as common to “The Squad” and other divisive radicals, I don’t think that Rabbi Shafran and the open letter’s other signatories were exactly trying to alert fellow Orthodox Jews to the dangers of enthusiastically or unqualifiedly supporting these extreme outliers. It was clear to readers that the open letter was targeting the current president and how Orthodox Jews should view him. Maybe Rabbi Shafran did not intend such, but that was the obvious meaning to the public.

For this reason, I felt a strong need to push back with a dose of hakaras ha-tov – gratitude – and a summary portrayal of what the president has done for our community, both in a parochial and broad manner. Again, I most readily concede to the president’s many serious flaws and deficiencies, but the other side of the coin, which no objective person can deny, was totally absent from the open letter.

This is my answer to the queries of my very dear friend, Rabbi Shafran.


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40 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    I think the original Open Letter was not just a newly framed “motherhood” statement reemphasizing our Jewish guiding principles. It contained a mixed message:

    Was the idea
    1. That our need to endorse a candidate for policy reasons shouldn’t cause us to identify with his flaws? Or…
    2. That one candidate (Trump) is so flawed as to make supporting him problematic in general no matter what?

    There’s a history behind pronouncements by Rabbi Shafran, namely, that he never strongly challenged President Obama for grievous failures of both policy and character, but went overboard to judge him l’chaf zechus. Let him extend that same courtesy to President Trump.

  2. Gavriel M says:

    I’m quite significantly to the Right of Gordimer and I see no moral or halachic necessity for Trump voters to endlessly apologize for his lack of manners as some sort of price for voting for him. However, Rabbi Gordimer is missing the point.

    People like Avi Shafran can smell power and they know that America is engaging in one of its periodic shifts leftwards. In all probability, Trump will lose the election, but even if he wins it doesn’t matter because the source of leftist power resides in the media, universities and HR departments and is immune to control by elected officials (because of muh free market and muh freeze peach so beloved of gormless conservatives). Major reprisals against people who are seen as opposing this Leftward shift are already in progress and they are going to get worse. People who believe in immigration restrictions of any kind by 2030 are gong to be treated like segregationists in 1970. The media will be on hand, as they were in the 1960s, to depict Power’s targets as the aggressors. The conservative grifter class will do what it always does: lobby for corporate tax cuts and military spending while allowing the Left to enforce its agenda. It’s not a smart move for orthodox Jews to be publicly associated with the losing team, especially when the chief characteristic of the winning team is self-righteous, sadistic vindictiveness and the losing team are hopeless suckers.

    • Bob Miller says:

      So, do we take a stand or curl up in a corner?

    • lacosta says:

      in this case , the winning team will find both our religious agenda and our Homeland to be an immoral anathema , and will no doubt do all in their power to a] make halachic life as difficult as possible and b] do all in their power to end Mosaic hegemony in the form of a zionist entity…

      • Gavriel M says:

        In 2016-18, Republicans had the House, the Senate, the Presidency and the Supreme Court. What did they do to stop the advance of Leftism? What did they even TRY to do? What has any Republican actually done that had any point to it since McCarthy?

      • Reb Yid says:


        Two words:

        Brett Kavanaugh.

      • Reb Yid says:

        Sorry–meant Gavriel

      • Bob Miller says:

        Gavriel seems to have forgotten Reagan and Gingrich altogether. Nixon, too.

      • Gavriel M says:

        @Bob Miller

        Reagan had two achievements: ending the Cold War and destroying organised labour as a politically powerful player. As to the first, the significance of this is exaggerated. Reagan didn’t go back in time and stop Stalin killing 30,000,000 people (with the support of FDR) and. by the 1980s, the Soviet Union was more boring than dangerous. Indeed, its general dysfunction had brought the Leftist spiral to a halt. The Soviet Union didn’t give hormone “treatment” to kids, or have gay marriage, or encourage bantu mobs to loot its major cities. Regarding the second, crushing the unions obviously led to lower prices and better service for American consumers, but it also removed the major obstacle to outsourcing and immigration, thus in the medium term gutting the American middle class. For the price, Reagan, gave amnesty to ten million Democrat voters. Reagan understood economics in an abstract sense, but he had no grasp of the economic basis of power. The Californian “Woke Capitalism” model, which is now being taken nationwide, was what Reagan bequeathed to the world.

        Gingrich, by contrast, really did achieve some things. The combination of anti-crime policies and welfare reform substantially ameliorated the squalor and chaos of American cities, but who were the chief beneficiaries? Liberals. And what do liberals want now? To destroy you, and, if that’s what it takes, themselves in the process.

        A good way of thinking about American democracy is as a violent, deranged schizophrenic. “Conservatism” is all about getting the patient to take his meds. But the patient doesn’t like his meds, and when he’s feeling good he stops taking them. Each time he succumbs, you have to let him hit rock bottom again before you can coax him back to treatment. But, he’s killed before, and you know he’s going to kill again. You know what the right thing, the merciful thing, to do is. But there’s Ben Shapiro telling you that you’re a very naughty boy for having these dark thoughts and the patient will be cured if only you buy his latest book.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Gavriel, this book by Vladimir Bukovsky, has the most honest analysis of US (and other Western) foreign relations with the USSR during the Cold War. He invented a unit of measure (the baker, after James Baker) to measure cluelessness.

    • Ira T. Berkowitz says:

      “People like Avi Shafran can smell power.” I protest. This is simply character assassination. A remark like this assumes the worst of someone you may rightly disagree with. And you do it while hiding behind anonymity. The Chofetz Chaim condemned some “pashkevillach” for doing just that.

      • Bob Miller says:

        He’s politically liberal on certain issues. Out of personal conviction, he’s far less tolerant of Trump than of Obama. He walks a fine line in his output, couching his positions in terms of fairness and other principles, as opposed to his own leanings.

  3. dr. bill says:

    IMHO, there is good reason to value the traditional approach where the gedolai ha’dor (the lay leaders in talmudic terms) not the rabbis would decide such issues for the kehillah. Compounding the avlah, we see the insidious attempt to obfuscate differences to maintain a unity of opinion which is characteristic of papal infallibility.

    rabbis can certainly add value to discussions outside the arbah amot of halakha, but their views can also reduce one’s level of emunat hakhamim when that conversation is not sufficiently insightful. ve’ha’maivin yavin.

    • Bob Miller says:

      It’s human nature to want everyone to agree with us, whether we’re leaders or not. To expect it to actually happen is another matter.

    • dr. bill says:

      As I have said previously, it may be human nature to desire that people agree with us but it also is the anathema to success. My rise to CTO of a $30B enterprise was primarily due to my ability to express opposing views at least as well as their proponents. Overlooking differences causes unpredictable difficulties down the road. That makes your “however” much more effective.

      • Bob Miller says:

        FDR-as-manager liked to have subordinates fighting each other over policies.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Perhaps you were trained very well in understanding every step of the Shakla vtarla so well you can see both sides in that manner

      • dr. bill says:

        Bob, it is critical that your direct reports are not clones of the boss but represent the multiple different perspectives that need to be considered. I allowed myself one clone as a direct report, who served a critical role; if she disagreed, I knew I had to rethink my position.

        Steven, thank you. Between the Rav ztl and a Ph.D. in logic, understanding the shaklah ve’taryeh became easier.

      • dr. bill says:

        i was surprised listening to my SIL’s daf Yomi, which though on daf 155, started on 154b. he explained how Rava first explained and after he explained then questioned Rami bar Hama’s opinion. to question you must first thoroughly be able to explain what you might disagree with. Baruch see’kivanti.

  4. D K says:

    “… whatever disagreements Rabbi Shafran and I have are not in any way personal… and the current matter is purely a machlokes l’shem shamayim…”

    This is definitely NOT what is going on in US politics and something we can only see in Torah Jews! Mi KiAmcha Yisroel!

  5. Mordechai Cohen says:

    I agree with Rabbi Gordimer that the original Rabbi Shafran letter certainly appeared to be an attack on President Trump and his supportors. And i agree with all of Rabbi Gordimer’s subsequent comments.
    Thank you Rabbi Gordimer for printing comments/macha’a that i also felt had to be made.

    • Lawrence M Reisman says:

      It is a reasonable interpretation. What makes it unique is that the first four signers, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, Jeff Jacoby, and Eytan Kobre, hold conservative Republican positions on nearly every issue, and those positions are more in tune with President Trump and his supporters than any other candidate for public office.

      • Bob Miller says:

        That’s why the statement had to look innocuous and high-minded enough to sign.

      • Reb Yid says:

        There is zero inconsistency between holding conservative Republican positions and being absolutely appalled by our current President for a whole host of reasons.

      • lacosta says:

        for at least the last couple years , Kobre has been very anti-Trump.

  6. Lawrence M Reisman says:

    A reasonable interpretation. However, four of the seven signers, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg , Jeff Jacoby, and Eytan Kobre, are all known for their conservative, pro-Republican viewpoints, and have more in common with President Trump and his supporters than with his opponents.

    • Schmerel says:

      As someone who reads( but rarely agrees with) Eytan Kobre’s weekly text message in the Mishpacha magazine I don’t see how he can possibly be considered conservative, and pro-Republican. His political articles are almost always anti Republican.

      I’ve also read plenty from Rabbi Emanuel Feldman and Rabbi Hillel Goldberg. I don’t see them as people with a clearly discernible political positions at all.

  7. nt says:

    My main objection to the letter is that it insulted my intelligence. It did not say anything I was not already aware of . At the same time, the writers seem to be living in the past. The post-Obama Democrats are intent on using all levers of power at their disposal to crush any opposition.

    They have used the IRS, the DOJ, and the FBI to go after Republicans, pro-life, and religious groups. People forget how after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, progressives excitedly talked about removing public funding from any organization that supported traditional family values. In other words, the Democratic party of today is an existential threat to religious freedom. Even former moderates and allies have gone over to the radical Left. Democratic senators have made clear that any practicing Christian may not be able to be impartial and should face a higher level of scrutiny before being appointed to a judiciary post, etc.

    In addition, actual street level violence is not condemned by the Democrats. Jerry Nadler called it a “myth.” In Senate hearings yesterday, no Democrats criticized the terrorist group Antifa.

    With all that, I think it is understandable if people root for the Republicans and President Trump to do well. The idea that there are two parties who balance each other out and make valid points is a Disney cartoon fantasy. The Democrats have been shouting from the rooftops that they intend to crush all opposition by any means possible.

    Joe Biden used his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee to attempt to destroy Clarence Thomas. A man named Andrew Breitbart watched and started down a path to attempting to expose Democrats for who they are. Donald Trump continues that tradition of not degrading politics, but making it more honest. He forced people to admit that Hillary was not a champion for women but a rape enabler. Democrats speak of the high road and standards while not-so-subtly encouraging followers to destroy reputations and livelihoods.

    The success of the American experiment and the freedom of Jews to live according to the Torah depend on conservatives and moderates countering the totalitarian ideology that has captured the Democratic party. Excuse me if I celebrate a little.

    • Dovid says:

      “My main objection to the letter is that it insulted my intelligence. It did not say anything I was not already aware of . At the same time, the writers seem to be living in the past.”

      So what you are saying is that you are living in the past?

      • nt says:

        I’m saying a)the old principles are old news that everyone knows. b) The letter writers don’t seem to recognize how far the Democratic party has deteriorated.

        It started when their former VP candidate Joe Lieberman lost in the primaries, and continues to snowball ever faster. They have less and less respect for diversity of opinion and the democratic process and declare that they will steamroll any who stand in their way. They have made it more and more clear that they see religious people as nuisances to be tolerated and crushed when convenient.

      • Bob Miller says:

        An earlier sign was in 2000, when Sen. Lieberman was made to sign onto Democratic campaign positions no Jew should endorse.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Thank you for an excellent summary of whT soles the Democratic Party of 2020

    • Bob Miller says:

      NT, hold the champagne until our side wins. That includes winning over other Jews now oblivious of Torah.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    A thought experiment: Imagine how these signatories would react if brutalized in public as House Democrats tried to do to AG Barr.
    This was an object lesson in Democratic political argumentation, in which one shouts loud and long enough to prevent a response. I hope this and other events like it, in and out of government, will someday register with our frum champions of bipartisanship.

  9. H Gold says:

    At least three of the signatories to this letter are well versed enough in Orthodox etiquette to know that placing a public policy letter of that sort is the purview of Rabbis who are much more estimable than they are.

    Cosigning with a psychologist and three journalists in a public policy letter such as theirs is, is an insult to the prestige of those Rabbis who are trading on their title as Rabbi.

    The hubris in the Open Letter bothers me much more than the content itself, which is basically a repetition of their columns over the past few years, which have consistently failed to gain traction in the wider Orthodox community.

    • Bob Miller says:

      We can ask if its true purpose was to keep us from idolizing Trump or to keep us from voting for him. The bobbing and weaving that followed the eruption of comments (Thanks, Rabbi Gordimer, for allowing them!) didn’t answer that.

      • tzippi says:

        There’s no nuance anymore, is there. It’s either gushing obsequiously or campaigning against him.
        The gushers don’t get why some people who reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016 aren’t finding it any easier this time around, despite the good he has done (yes, I believe he has done good) and the serious threat from the left (yes, I believe there is a serious threat from the left).

        And those who campaign against him might not concede that he has done good, nor that the state of the Democratic party as it is now is deeply disconcerting.

        That leaves those of us in the middle scratching our heads and still wondering what so incredibly awful about that original letter?

      • Bob Miller says:

        Those in the middle have no middle decision before them at election time, other than abstaining. Pick the best side and dive in.

    • Mr. Jay says:

      Even if their opinions have failed to gain traction in the wider Orthodox community, they may still be right. In any case, the open letter didn’t call on Jews to vote Democratic. No doubt some inferred that, but without something more explicit, we shouldn’t assume it.

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