Joseph C. Kaplan

‘America: Malchut Shel Chesed’ – A Rejoinder

One of the wonderful things about writing a column is that it gives an opinionated guy like me the opportunity to voice those opinions not only to the poor soul who is unlucky enough to be buttonholed by me at a shul kiddush but also to many in the broader community as well. (Of course, they, unlike my kiddush companion, have the ability to simply turn the page or click the delete button.)

But what am I to do if my opinion is spurred by listening to a presentation given by a long-time dear friend, teacher, and mentor whose knowledge, experience, wisdom, and judgement I am fully familiar with and, indeed, have sought and relied on many times — and as I’m listening I think, “No, that’s not right”? Do I simply drop the disagreement and move to another one of the many issues that concern our community? Or do I address it head on, hoping that my friend will understand that I write in disagreement specifically because I take him and his views so seriously and respect and admire them so deeply?

The answer is the latter — if not, there would be no column — because I also take seriously what the speaker said during this class, a comment I’ve heard him make many times: “I tell my students all the time that my role is not to tell them what to think but to try to help them understand how to think.” The corollary of that, I believe, is that if you end up thinking differently, then, as I was taught as a teenager by another valued mentor, Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Rackman, as long as I’ve listened respectfully and thought carefully, it’s altogether proper to speak up in civil disagreement, even with beloved friends and teachers.

Now to the details. The opening class in this semester’s Jewish history lectures at the Beit Midrash of Teaneck was delivered by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought at Yeshiva University, senior scholar at YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, and a major Modern Orthodox leader and scholar. (Note: As I’ve done before in this space, I’ve taken the liberty of referring to him in the remainder of this column as “JJ,” the name I use when speaking with him, rather than by his honorifics, as I would do in a more formal setting or piece of writing. It’s a reflection of our friendship, which, as I noted above, is critical to this column, and in no way detracts from the deep respect I have for his scholarship and professional standing. Moreover, since I will be referring in this column to his father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, I’ll be able minimize any confusion between them by referring to JJ by that name and to his father as R. Schacter.)

The title of the lecture was “America: ‘Malchut Shel Chesed’?” which JJ translated as “a country . . . [whose] very essence, its core, is benevolence.” He noted that many contemporary Jewish religious leaders, thinkers, and scholars have used this terminology not only in referring to America but also as part of their understanding of the relationship between American Jews and their homeland.

He discussed four rabbinical figures: his father, whose lifelong career as a congregational rabbi and major Jewish communal leader began when he, as a US army chaplain in World War II, was assigned to the unit that liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, as described in his front-page New York Times obituary, and with whom I was privileged to have a personal relationship; Rav Menashe Klein, liberated from Buchenwald by R. Schacter, who was a powerful, sharp charedi leader and a prolific writer of halachic tomes, including 18 volumes of responsa; Rav Moshe Feinstein, known lovingly as Rav Moshe, who was widely regarded as the leading Jewish law authority and decisor (posek) of the 20th century; and the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, talmudist and Talmud teacher par excellence, towering leader of Modern Orthodoxy and at Yeshiva University for almost 40 years, and one of the 20th century’s most important Orthodox Jewish thinkers and philosophers.

I’ll summarize this element of the lecture only briefly, though it took up most of the time and was its core intellectual idea, because that’s not where my disagreement lies.

That part of the lecture was, like almost all of JJ’s presentations, deeply investigated, informative, instructive, and incisive. We left knowing more than we did when we entered, while understanding serious issues with greater clarity and depth.

JJ noted that each of these men had a slightly different take on how America being a benevolent country impacts Jews’ relationship to their homeland. For his father, the immense gratitude Jews should feel for all the benefits America has given us raises our relationship with it to an actual life-and-death level. As he explained to his parents in a 1941 letter written after he enlisted as an army chaplain against their wishes, he decided to “join the armed forces of our blessed land, the land of freedom, the only land in the entire world that’s given equality to the Jewish People [because] … I want to defend all of these wonderful opportunities and wonderful merits to us, being Americans.” He later noted that “we have the merit of being able to dwell in this blessed land under the protection of the flag of this special country.” And he ended this section with a powerful rhetorical question. “Are we not obligated, as pious Jews, to give up our lives for our blessed country that gave protection to all of the Jews who were so distraught and persecuted?” [Translations from R. Schacter’s beautiful Hebrew are by Joseph.]

R. Klein viewed our relationship differently; he saw it as a matter of rights. He praised America for its adherence to the doctrine of separation of church and state (though he might not have phrased it in that exact language), and was proud that we, as Americans, are able to live as Jews and have the right to assert our religious prerogatives even when they run counter to U.S. law. Rav Moshe saw it in terms of hakarat hatov (gratitude), with admonitions not to poke the bear, keep a low profile, and act properly and morally with respect to the country and its citizens. And the Rav saw it in terms of obligation; the fact that we are citizens of the United States means that we are obligated to contribute to our country and defend and support it.

But JJ bracketed this analysis by applying these ideas to our 2024 lives in a way that I found disturbing. He began by noting “a challenge” he found himself in and that he “suspect[ed] you find yourself in as well.” After very briefly giving us a thumbnail picture of his life, he told us: “I felt blessed that I was living in America…. I didn’t really experience significant discrimination. I felt I was blessed to be living in the United States.” And he noted, even before he read the excerpts from his father’s letter to us, that “my father was an incredible patriot and spoke very highly about the privilege of living in the United States.”

And then, at least to me, the punch in the gut. “I don’t feel that way anymore. I actually do not feel that way anymore.”

As he began to explain the various views of Rabbis Schacter, Klein, Feinstein, and Soloveitchik, he laid out his goal in this lecture: to use their differing ideas to help us “understand the nature of our relationship in 2024 to the United States of America. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

His closing bracket began on that same note. “Never in a trillion years, ever, could I have remotely imagined that I would see what we’re seeing now. This runs counter, contrary, to the entire image that I imbibed for decades in the United States. And it was not just my own experience. My father taught me this. He spoke powerfully as an American patriot…. He went to fight (1) for America and (2) for Jews.”

And so he concluded. “We’re living in very tough times…. How this is going to end I don’t know. So we have to try to figure out a thoughtful way to reflect upon the nature of our relationship with this country in which many of us were born and from which all of us have benefitted so much.”

I agree that current times in America are tough for Jews in many ways — certainly tougher than the last several decades. And while I also agree that we need to reflect thoughtfully on this situation, I disagree with JJ that we shouldn’t feel today like his father felt in 1941 and throughout his life; I disagree that our reflection should be directed toward the nature of our relationship to America. Rather it should be directed toward the question of how to improve the specific problem areas where things have become tougher.

And the major prooftext for my view is, perhaps ironically, R. Schacter’s letter.

Let me explain. Written in 1941, that beautiful, patriotic letter extolled the America in which R. Schacter lived. And I submit that by almost every, if not every, metric, the Jewish condition in 2024 America is better that it was in 1941. Let’s look at some.

I’ll start with government numbers. In 1941 there were no Jewish senators; today there are nine, with one, Chuck Schumer, serving as majority leader and thus one of the most important lawmakers in our country. In 1941, there were eight Jewish members of Congress; in 2024, there are 25.

More important, though, is our community’s access to decision makers. Much has been written recently about the 1943 march to the White House by more than 400 Orthodox rabbis, who went to plead with President Roosevelt to rescue European Jews from the Nazis. The result? Roosevelt snubbed them, to the extent of declining even to allow them to hand him a petition.

How things have changed. Just five days after the horrific Hamas attack this past October, President Biden met with leaders from the American Jewish community at the White House to pledge his full and continued support for the government and people of Israel, a policy that he then implemented. And in December, administration officials held a lengthy meeting with a few dozen Jewish leaders to discuss a recent rise in antisemitism in the wake of that attack. Today we’re a strong and prized voting bloc, our views on parochial and national issues are solicited and seriously considered, we submit amicus briefs that are quoted by the Supreme Court, our needs are valued, and our leaders respected.

Or look at discrimination. I don’t know if signs reading “no Jews or dogs allowed” were real or apocryphal in 1941. But I do know that discrimination against Jews was rampant then in hotels, resorts, and country clubs; in housing, where restrictive covenants were both ubiquitous and legally enforceable; and in employment, where there were “Jewish law firms” for law review editors whom white-shoe elite firms wouldn’t even interview, and airlines blatantly told Jewish war heroes that “we don’t hire Jews.”

Indeed, I remember my father (who was slightly older than R. Schacter) telling me that while he really wanted to be an engineer rather than the CPA he ended up becoming, he was advised that very few engineering firms hired Jews and none hired shomer Shabbat ones. Today, because of protections provided by federal, state, and local laws, Supreme Court decisions, and societal changes, such discrimination is negligible.

Separation of church and state is no different. In 1941, Jewish students in public schools had to endure beginning each day with Christian prayer, and school Christmas pageants were the norm, while Jewish schools received nary a dollar of governmental financial assistance. Today, the jurisprudence and practical results are exactly the opposite.

And my final example (though there are many more) are universities, whose difficulties have been front page news both in the general as well as the Jewish press. I don’t deny, nor do I wish to minimize, the very real and serious problems that exist on university campuses concerning antisemitism, or to ignore the many Jewish students who feel increasingly uncomfortable and unsafe. These are problems that certainly need to be meaningfully addressed and eliminated.

But once again, let’s look at 1941 and compare its Jewish university life to today’s. Many Ivy League and other top universities had quotas then — some de facto and others de jure — limiting the number of Jewish students admitted and faculty hired. Student clubs were often closed to the school’s Jewish students, there were tests on Shabbat, a genteel antisemitism pervaded many classrooms and administrative suites, graduations were held on Shavuot, there were no daily minyanim, kosher food, or Torah classes on campus, few Jewish studies programs were listed in catalogues, and only 24 Hillel chapters (with four in New York City) existed. Even with our real problems, every single one of these critically important areas of university life conditions have improved significantly.

So why the feeling that we no longer should consider America a malchut shel chesed? It may be related to the overall significant improvement to American Jewish life since 1941, culminating in what might be deemed the golden age for Jews in America — the last third of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, which encompassed much of JJ’s and my adult lives. Thus, as we have sadly descended from that pinnacle and our times have become, as JJ correctly observed, tougher and more challenging, we experience that negative change more strongly. However, while there is legitimate cause for concern, we’re still considerably better off now than we were in the early 1940s when R. Schacter wrote his letter calling America “our blessed land [and] special country.”

As I mentioned, I was privileged to know R. Schacter personally; I knew firsthand how wise and well-informed he was. He surely knew the true condition of the American Jewish community in 1941 — not only the merits he wrote about in his letter but also the problems I’ve outlined above. And yet, with all that, he still referred to America as a malchut shel chesed, he still literally put his life on the line to volunteer to fight for his benevolent country, he still was a patriot, and he still passed down those lessons and his vision of America to his children.

And he did one more thing; he devoted his life to Jewish congregational and communal work, diligently working to fix the ills that burdened his people. As I’ve written before (“Luck be a Lady Tonight”), when JJ, as a young boy, once asked his mother, whom I was blessed to also know, where his father was, she answered, with a phrase now inscribed on R. Schacter’s tombstone, “ihr iz gegangen helfin yidden” — he went to help Jews. That’s what we need to do — help Jews, which will help us return to that golden age we once experienced — and not reflect on and change the nature of our relationship to America.

I try hard not to put words in people’s mouths or ascribe to them positions they never advocated. So I readily admit I don’t know what R. Schacter would say today about how our situation in America impacts our relationship with our country; I don’t know whether he would agree with JJ or with me. But the lesson I derive from his beautiful letter, as well as from the beautiful words I’ve heard JJ speak about him so often, is that our answer to his son’s challenge should be that we have to try to figure out a thoughtful way to fix what is broken, correct what is wrong, improve what has deteriorated, restore what has been lost. And to do all this while retaining our deep, loving, grateful relationship to our country based on our constitutional rights, sense of hakarat hatov/gratitude, and obligations as citizens.

It won’t be easy. I have no simple solutions. But it wasn’t easy in 1941 either. Let’s follow what I see as R. Schacter’s lead and continue as patriots of our benevolent, blessed, special country – our malchut shel chesed.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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