Across Israel, Meir Panim responds to the growing needs of the country’s 1.75 million impoverished residents through various food and social service programs.
To some non-Jews, he is simply “America’s rabbi.” Rabbi Daniel Lapin — great-nephew of the widely revered mussar personality, Reb Elya Lapian — lectures across America to audiences both Jewish and Christian, produces audio CDs on such issues as marriage, the Ten Commandments, and the ill effects of vulgar speech, and disseminates a weekly e-mail called Thought Tools.
The South African-born rabbi, who received semicha from England’s Gateshead yeshiva, Israel’s Kfar Chassidim yeshiva, and Ner Yisroel’s Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, also hosts a weekly TV and radio show and has authored several books, including Buried Treasure: Secrets for Living from the Lord’s Language and Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money.
He currently heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians.
The Jewish Press recently interviewed him after he returned home from the Second Annual Torah Home Education Conference in Baltimore. He and his wife home-schooled all seven of their children.
The Jewish Press: How did you get started lecturing to mostly Christian audiences about Torah values and modern-day society?
Rabbi Lapin: When I arrived in the United States in 1973, I was intrigued by the number of places with biblical names – Salem, Hebron, Bethlehem, etc.
So I started studying the founding of America and discovered that the Bible used in colonial churches quoted Jewish sources like Rashi and Rambam in their notes about a third of the time. I also discovered the widespread intimate knowledge of Hebrew among the founders and their love of the Old Testament. Ezra Styles, who was the president of Yale University, referred to Yale as “our New England beit midrash,” which is remarkable.
Then, as the years went by, I realized that most Christians in America were deeply baffled how the people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai could be the same people aggressively promoting such matters as abortion, homosexual marriage and the widespread growth of pornography. I realized that somebody needed to help them see a difference between Jewish values and the things that many Jews do. That’s how I got started.
In your speeches and writings you promote a more religious American society and culture. What do you say to people who worry that a more religious America would pose a danger to Jews, who historically have been targets of Christian fanaticism?
I think America has provided the most tranquil, prosperous, and durable haven for Jews in the last 2,000 years because it is a [religious] Protestant country, not in spite of it.
Many Jews are not familiar with the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. They need to understand that there’s never been a Protestant pogrom in the history of the world. It’s also important to understand the difference between European Christianity and American Christianity.
In general, I also think it’s helpful for Jews to recognize that the only reliable group of friends we have in America, or in the world, right now are American Evangelicals. The main threat today is [radical Islam], and the one group standing alongside Jews and supporting the State of Israel is American Evangelicals.
Why do you focus the majority of your speaking and literary efforts on the broader American society rather than solely the Jewish community?
Everyone has their own area of contribution. If I had the ability to give an advanced shiur in a yeshiva three times a day, I’d probably do that, but this happens to be what I think I was created to do at this point in time.
More generally, though, I think we should recognize that we have a stake in America. To not care about broader society is a lot like sitting in a lifeboat while somebody’s drilling a hole in the floor of the boat a few seats down, and you say, “Well, as long as my seat’s okay, everything’s fine.” I think it requires a certain cultural and social maturity to recognize that the chalav yisrael pizza parlors and glatt kosher restaurants will go down the tubes if America fails.
What do you mean by America failing?
That it loses its economic, military-defense, and moral defense capabilities. All those three things slide down in a declining culture, and history shows that those sorts of circumstances jeopardize the survival of the Jewish community.
[America is becoming increasingly more secular and] I think Europe is an extremely good model of what happens when secularism wins. Anti-Semitism is an inevitable accompaniment of secularism, and Nazism and communism are essentially the ultimate expressions of liberalism .
I think America is better served by a religiously vibrant Christianity and that means that we have to be as ardent about fighting anti-Christianism as we expect Christians to be in fighting anti-Semitism.
You’ve written that Jews should wish Christians a “Merry Christmas” on December 25 rather than “Happy Holidays.” Why?
Because Christians see “Happy Holidays” as the dominance of the secular culture forcing them to treat the word Christmas as if it’s an obscenity. What does it hurt us to be friendly and supportive on that? Is there some halacha that allowing the word Christmas to pass your lips means you have to go to the mikveh?
I don’t see why Jews have to rear up like startled horses at the sight of any Christian symbolism. You have to understand that Christians don’t know the difference between various Jewish groups any more than Jews know the difference between various Christian groups. They see Chabad erecting menorahs in public places and then they see lawsuits filed by, what they believe to be, the Jewish ACLU every time a Nativity scene is put up in a public place. You can understand that that would lead to resentment.
You’re also on record praising Pope Pius XII as a righteous Christian, even though many Jews vilify him for his alleged indifference to saving Jews during the Holocaust. Why?
Because I know some of the background of the vilification campaign. I know who Ralph Hochhuth was and how his  play, “The Deputy,” dramatically changed public perception in a direction that was completely improper.
I also know that in spite of the fact that there were substantial and strong and viable Jewish communities in the United States during the time of the Mormon massacres in the middle of the 19th century, no Jew or synagogue is on record as having stepped forward to try and save Mormons from enraged lynch mobs. As such we’ve got to be a little careful before we castigate people for not having saved Jews. I’m not sure our record’s so wonderful on this.
Why did you write Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money? Isn’t it strange for a rabbi to write about this topic?
The whole point of that book is to analyze, from a Torah perspective, God’s attitude to money. Did money just get invented by vicious, greedy, corrupt human beings while God’s attention was distracted elsewhere, or was money intended as part of God’s plan for humanity? I argue in the book that it was very much part of His plan.
It certainly is not an accident that throughout the Talmud wealth is seen as an enormous blessing, even to the extent of a definitive statement [in the Talmud] that God’s prophetic powers don’t rest on anyone who doesn’t have wealth. I would associate the idea of “poverty equals virtue” as being Christian, not Jewish.
Why is wealth good in your view?
Because within a transparent and virtuous market place, the only way to create wealth is to supply the goods and services that other human beings want. There’s an incredible network of cooperating human beings who, as Adam Smith said, [provide for each other's needs by looking out for their own best interest].
So, in other words, the CEO of Ford may want to make millions of dollars for himself, but in doing so, he’s also providing a living for tens of thousands of employees while also providing cars for millions of people.
Yes. I’m not sure that if he were running a non-profit, for instance, or serving in government, that he’d be doing more good for more people than he’s doing right now.
Switching topics, why did you and your wife home-school your children?
Because we regard them as our most precious investment. We felt nobody else would be as concerned with them as we were, and we relished the opportunity to imprint our values on them.
What kind of Jews attended the Torah Home Education Conference in Baltimore last month, and what was their motivation in home-schooling their children?
It was the most fascinating and delightful gathering of Judaism. I saw people dressed in full chassidic regalia and people who were Modern Orthodox.
As to their motivations, it’s difficult to say for sure, but I think economics played a major part because day school tuition is out of control. In addition, many parents who spoke to me at the conference indicated that they weren’t happy with the hashkafos their children were getting in school. They didn’t feel their children were getting a comprehensive worldview in which Torah values were integrated with life in general, and in which respect for all people, including non-Jews, was instilled.
Some people worry that home-schooled children will grow up to be socially inept adults. What is your reaction?
First of all, home-schooled children meet regularly, often several times a week, with other home-schooled children in various groups.
Second, there’s a myth that somehow there’s an advantage in allowing your children to socialize only with people of the same age group and academic level. Home-schooled children get on very well with older people and with all kinds of groups.
Is home-schooling a growing phenomenon in the Orthodox community?
Definitely. The conference was more than twice as big as it was the previous year.
I should say, though, that I’m not on a home-schooling crusade. It was wonderful for our family, and I think many more people could do it than realize they could. But it’s not right for everybody.
About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and holds a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies.
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