Guest Post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on the Installation of Rabbi Lopatin

by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

The recent statement from Agudath Israel condemning the incoming president of YCT for discussing Rabbinic training with the leaders of non-Orthodox denominations reminds me of the story about the Japanese solider who fought in World War II and subsequently hid in a Guam desert for close to thirty years, unaware that the war he so valiantly fought in ended a long time ago.

The Agudah leadership is acting as if the inter-denominational wars of the previous century are still brewing. Sometimes you need the firsthand experience of those who are in the trenches to have a more clear-eyed view of the realities on the battlefield. The reality out there is that the war has ended, an implicit cease-fire has been declared. For the chareidi leadership to be relevant it needs to acknowledge this reality and abandon its “offense” posture.

As Shlomo Ha’melech declares so succinctly: לכל זמן ועת לכל חפץ.  (Kohelet 3) There is a time to declare war and a time when a visionary leader realizes that the need to wage war has ceased to exist. That time is now.

There is no longer an interdenominational war because there are no longer any warriors. All sides have abandoned the battlefield. Each denomination has carved out its niche, catering to different segments of the Jewish community.

This reality presents a huge challenge to contemporary Orthodoxy. It now needs to ask itself a crucial question: will it continue to be an insular community, focusing all its energies on their immediate followers, or does it want to play a role in the larger Jewish scene?

While there are significant differences between the groups, there is, nevertheless, something that the leadership across the denominations has in common. Each is doing their utmost to provide their adherents with a life that is serious and Jewishly engaged. Our tradition has much to offer to anybody who is looking for a life of meaning and inspiration. If we truly strive for a time when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה׳, (ישעיהו יא) we are failing in our religious duties if we do not share our tradition with the larger Jewish community.

This is not the first time that Orthodoxy is confronted with this dilemma. A similar debate ensued during the early days of the state of Israel. While individuals like Rav Elchanan Wasserman, the Satmar Rav and Rav Velvel Brisker Z”L advocated a complete separation from the state, the leadership of Agudath Israel and the Moatztet Gedolei Ha’torah felt otherwise.

While the Satmar Rav and his group held on to the battles that began in Europe during the pre-state era, Gedolim like Rav Shach, the Rebbe of Gur and others maintained that the establishment of the state confronted observant Judaism with a new reality. For them, the fact that Ultra-Orthodoxy failed in its attempt to thwart the establishment of a Zionist state, meant that they could no longer stand on the sidelines and act as outside critics. Rather, they had to shift modes, join the government and attempt to influence its direction from the inside.

Despite the strong isolationist voices, historically, the integrationist camp won. A majority of orthodox Jews in Israel now participate in the Zionist enterprise to one degree or another. We at YCT see those Gedolim as our role models. We proudly espouse a religiosity that is integrationist and inclusive.

Chazal tell us: ואהבת את ה אלהיך-שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך.  (Yoma 86A) Although we are humble enough to recognize that we have what to learn from other denominations, (איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם) we are concurrently proud of our own Orthodox tradition, believing that there is something unique which we have to offer the other denominations. We, therefore, confidently seek out opportunities to engage Jews across the spectrum in order to learn and to teach. We strongly believe that our rich orthodox tradition has something to contribute on cross-denominational questions of Rabbinic training, communal leadership and the like.  It is our religious imperative to share the tradition with all of klal yisroel.

There is a precedent to this debate, albeit in a slightly different context. In the early 19th century the Chatam Sofer’s hometown was under attack. His life was in danger. Some of the communal leaders suggested that he should leave town. Ignoring their advice, he chose to stay behind and suffer together with the rest of the community. Based on a midrashic interpretation of a halakhic debate in masechet Chulin, (46A) he explained in a subsequent drasha that the message of the Gemara is: שלא יברחו הצדיקים ויניחו את העם בצער, כי כזית ההגנה צריך להיות במקום מרה וצרה, ולא שיניחו את העם והם יברחו למקום חיותא (חידושי חתם סופר למסכת חולין) Caring for the spiritual or material well-being of the larger Jewish community sometimes requires taking risks, joining the community wherever they are despite the exposure to threatening and dangerous realities.

Although, in our opinion Agudath Israel is on the wrong side of history, their incessant criticism of us is, nevertheless, a blessing in disguise.

In his powerful eulogy of Satmar Rav, Rav Shach Z’L made the point that even though he vehemently disagreed with Satmar Rav’s theology, he still appreciated his criticism. Rav Shach explained that Satmar Rav’s constant critiques forced him to be more cautious in his own path.

We too owe the Agudah a huge thanks.  כחלק היורד במלחמה וכחלק היושב על הכלים (שמואל א:ל). While we choose to be out in the trenches, attempting to influence the entirety of klal yisroel from the inside, the approach that the Agudah chooses, standing on the outside and playing the role of critic, also has value. The critiques of Yated, Agudah and the like force us to tread carefully; insuring that our espousal of the value of ahavat torah and ahavas yisroel does not come at the expense of other values. These incessant criticisms force us to double-check our moves and make our choices carefully and deliberately.  For that we are deeply grateful.

 

RABBI YSOSCHER KATZ
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Director of the Beit Midrash Program (preparatory year) at YCT.  He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beis Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. A graduate of the HaSha’ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz has taught at the Ma’ayanot High School for Girls and SAR High School.  He was a leading teacher of a daf yomi class in Boro Park for over eight years.

25 Responses to Guest Post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on the Installation of Rabbi Lopatin

  1. This is a superb, brilliant essay. The war is over, and they don’t know it. Some of us have quietly muttered these words, but with fewer proofs, and less articulate.

  2. שבוע טוב ויישר כוח עצום!

  3. S. Levin says:

    If truth be told, the different denominations have always ‘preached to their own choirs.’ If the ‘war’ is over, as R. Katz says, it is because those doing the fighting have come to their senses, and realize that that making enemies of those with whom they disagree only creates animosity and is not a machloket l’shem shamayim.

  4. Peter Mehler says:

    While I agree with the authors thoughts, I feel compelled to point out that YU is not any better than the Agudah in accepting YCT’s place in the more liberal Orthodox world. Let’s try and move YU and then we can work on the Agudah.

  5. There are two paradigms at work here.
    On one side you have the YCT crowd along with the Reformers and Conservatives who treat Judaism like a religion and God as an all-approving, non-demanding deity who’s just happy if we do what we think is best.
    On the other side you have not just the Agudah but pretty much all of Orthodox leadership outside of your insular circle who see Judaism as a religion of responsibilities and obligations along with commensurate penalties for failing to discharge them properly.
    For the former group keeping kosher and Shabbos is nice and the Jewish thing to do but has no moral element to it.
    For the latter group failure to keep kosher and Shabbos is revolting against God’s instructions and therefore wrong. Very wrong.
    That’s why the rest of Orthodoxy seems to have a problem with Rabbi Lopatin and his circle. We still take Orthodoxy seriously as the only genuine way of fulfilling God wants of us instead of as a choice between several options. So sitting down with a “rabbi” who, l’hatchilah, rejects that position is a non-starter.
    It’s not a war, rather a dismissiveness.

    • Lisa says:

      Well put. To paraphrase the old speed limit commercials, halakha isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law. And YCT doesn’t get that.

    • Menachem Lipkin says:

      You’re like a soldier without a cause. The war is over and you’re just trying to start a new one.

      • Lisa says:

        Repeating a lie doesn’t make it any more true. Jews have kept the Torah for thousands of years. We’ve confronted sectarians before. Whether we’ve succeeded or not in the short term doesn’t matter. The principle is the same. What you call Orthodox Judaism is not for Orthodox Jews only. It is obligatory for all Jews, and all Jews have an obligation to insist on this.

    • Charlie Hall says:

      Lies such as yours are one reason there is disunity within Judaism. Rabbi Katz, Rabbi Lopatin, and the rest of the YCT faculty consider God to have ordered us to keep kosher and to keep Shabat.

      • That’s harsh Charlie. No one’s accusing Rabbis Katz, Lopatin or any of the others of not keeping kosher or Shabbos. In fact I’m sure they all do so quite appropriately.
        As for beliefs, please Charlie. Rabbi Farber is more than happy to commit in writing publicly that he does not believe in Jewish history as detailed in the Torah. That’s not a small thing but a repudiation of part of the core of Judaism.
        This is an argument over Orthodox exceptionalism. (Would everyone stop using the word ‘war’? We don’t know what a real war is like and we don’t want to know) According to Orthodoxy outside YCT there is such as thing as Orthodox exceptionalism. Conservatism and Reform are wrong. They are not valid expressions of Judaism. Their “rabbis” are not rabbonim. Period. They may be nice people, ethical and generous, but so’s the naturopath down the street from me but she’s still not a real doctor.
        For YCT there is no such thing as Orthodox exceptionalism. We’re just another “stream” in Judaism and therefore all the other streams are just as legitimate.
        That is, in fact, a HUGE difference between the two sides, one that pushes YCT away from Orthodoxy.

  6. Eli Willner says:

    One of the primary reasons Agudah and its Rabbinic leadership oppose public “conversations-between-equals” interactions with counterparts in the non-Orthodox movements is that this bestows legitimacy on the other movements. Those who don’t know better may be misled to believe that there are several equally valid streams within Judaism and that one may pick the stream most convenient for them.

    Conservatism and Reform may be dwindling, per the Pew report, but they are still out there and this rationale is as valid today as it ever was.

    The “war” is for the neshomos of the tinnokos shenishbu within klal yisroel and Rabbi Katz is sadly misguided if he thinks this war has ended.

    Rabbi Katz claims to be “out in the trenches attempting to influence the entirety of klal yisroel from the inside” but he doesn’t explain how conferring legitimacy on those who oppose the values of authentic Judaism will have a positive effect on klal yisroel. Indeed, he can’t explain it because it flies in the face of reason.

    If Rabbi Katz is interested in kiruv let him check out any of the many fine organizations that make kiruv their business and are *really* in the trenches – including several in the Modern Orthodox community (as well as several under the auspices of Agudah and similar organizations, whom Rabbi Katz snidely accuses of standing on the sidelines). These organizations succeed at what they do by reaching out directly to non-observant Jews, not by hobnobbing as equals with non-Orthodox “Rabbis”.

    Rabbi Katz’s comparison to the issue of cooperating with a non-religious state of Israel is bewildering. The state is, or at least purports to be, a representative system of government and from a pragmatic standpoint if a particular sector wants to assure that their voices are heard and their interests represented they have to participate. Extrapolating from that heter a license to join with non-Orthodox clergy for any reason requires a leap of logic that, I’m afraid, is beyond my puny mind.

    While it is true that Rav Shach and the Gerrer Rebbe and others advocated participating, within tight parameters, in the Israeli government, they and their chareidi colleagues, to a man, explicitly and adamantly opposed dialogue with Conservative and Reform of the kind espoused by Rabbis Lopatin and Katz and to imply that their position vis a vis cooperation with the state of Israel would somehow carry over to that kind of dialogue seems intellectually dishonest in the extreme.

    • Menachem Lipkin says:

      This is patently false. While you, and people of your mindset, like I said above, are soldiers without a cause trying to rekindle a new war, regular folks are just learning to accept each other’s differences and move on. Actually, what’s going in Israel today is very apt as there are growing numbers of Jews, lead by people like Ruth Calderon, who want to connect to Judaism in non-traditional ways. YCT’s “innovation” is already old hat here.

  7. Moshe Shoshan says:

    Reb Ysoscher,
    I think that there are two issues here. One is the question about engagement with non-Orhtodox movements, for which you have made your case to which I am quite sympathetic.

    The other is the question of the statement made by choosing such an interdenominational event to mark such a critical juncture in YCT’s brief history. The message which a lot of people are hearing I think, justified or not, is that YCT sees itself fundamentally a branch of american liberal Judaism rather than as a member of the Torah world. can one be both? perhaps. but those of us who were hoping that R. Lopatin’s taking of the helm would signal a move to emphasize more what YCT has in common with Orthodoxy than what divides it from its colleagues to the right, where disappointed.
    I understand that this is difficult in an environment in which most of the Orthodox world has already written of YCT as beyond the pale, but as you have noted in earlier posts, there is a significant population across the American Orthodox world that is looking for religious and halakhic leadership that has more nuanced attitude towards the modern world than that shown by the leadership of the Centrist and Right wing Yeshiva world. YCT needs to communicate to this population not only its openness, but also that YCT offers leadership that will draw the boundaries necessary to insure that this openness does not constitute a lack of “firmness in the right” with regard to the core beliefs and commitments of Orthodoxy. My pointis not to question YCT’s commitments rather to argue that it needs to communicate them more clearly. With regard to interdenominational dialogue. Clearly there is a trade off between conflicting values. I think it would be helpful for the wider community to see instances where YCT feels such as engagement is beyond the pale in the way in which, the mainstream Israeli charedi world never hesitates to do with regard to their engagement with the State.

  8. Ysoscher Katz says:

    Dear Eli and (yedidi) Moshe,

    Thank you both for your thoughtful feedback.

    I will try to briefly respond to your comments, על ראשון ראשון:

    First, “conferring legitimacy”, Eli, is exactly what I was referring to. While that might have been a concern early on in the inter-denominational wars, today that is no longer an issue. Each denomination has achieved whatever legitimacy it has in the eyes of its adherents; meeting amongst the different groups does not in any way change that equation.

    Additionally, the dividing lines have been clearly demarcated. Most everybody knows that the denominations vehemently disagree on many fundamental issues. There is no need to worry that interactions amongst the groups would perhaps obscure these clearly expressed dividing lines.

    Consequently, learning Torah from them and with them no longer has the same detrimental effect it had early on when the different groups where still at the identity-forming stage

    Secondly, Interacting with non-orthodox movements can have two purposes, 1) Kiruv 2) Sharing dvar Ha’shem with other Jews. Orthodox kiruv is an attempt to make as many people as possible embrace our beliefs and practices. That works for a small percentage of the non-orthodox community. There certainly are those who would adopt an orthodox lifestyle if only they were shown how to do it. (It is not so clear though how successful that whole project is. The recent Pew study has raised some serious questions about the kiruv movement’s success rate.) The majority of them, however, are most likely never going to adopt an observant lifestyle.

    We are not a kiruv institution; there are others who employ professionals to do that kind of work. Instead, we are trying to engage the rest of those communities, those who do not consider Orthodoxy an option. The impetus for that pursuit is a strong belief that they too are entitled to partake in a Torah that could provide them with meaning and inspiration. Our actions therefore are not informed by kiruv parameters. Instead, what guides us is the degree to which such interactions could help people connect more deeply with the yiddishkeit of their choosing.

    Finally, as for “emphasizing what YCT has in common with the rest of the orthodox world,” here’s a brief description of some of the things that happened at Sunday’s installation:

    1) R. Lopatin urged communities across the denominations to increase their limmud Torah, and to look for opportunities to make Torah more a part of people’s lives and daily discourse.

    2) Based on a quote from the Sfat Emet he also encouraged YCT graduates to increase the God-speak in their communities, to help people infuse their lives with kedusha and spirituality.

    3) Along those lines, R. Linzer spoke at length about how God’s call of lekh lekha goes out to all people at all times; how we have to be prepared to hear it, hear the way that God and the world are calling us to go beyond our selves and communities, go beyond the black-and-white detail oriented Noah-type of command, and to be קורא בשם ה, bringing Godliness, Torah and morality to the larger world.

    4) R. Landis, from Pardes, extoled the value of chumrah in psak, arguing that a true posek does not always shy away from chumrah. While we need to strive for kulah when it is justified, it behooves us, he argued, to also be able to impose chumrot, if that is what that particular situation requires.

    5) Hatikavh was sung by a pastor from Chicago. He explained his presence at the event as a sign of gratitude to R. Lopatin. He shared with the audience that several years ago his community, the African-American community on the South-Side of Chicago, was falling apart, gripped by an outburst of crime and violence. Out of nowhere, R. Asher reached out to him to offer his assistance. R. Lopatin’s efforts to help heal the community had a huge and long-lasting impact. He asked the audience not to sing along with him. He wanted to sing it solo as a way of showing appreciation for what the Jewish community did for the members of his parish. He sang it flawlessly. The kiddush Ha’Shem was indescribable. There was not a dry eye in the room.

    These are just some of the examples of what transpired on Sunday, a language and ambiance that is standard at every orthodox institution.

    Oh, yeah, there was also a panel with Rabbis from other denominations that focused for a little more than half an hour on what unites all of klal yisroel-the desire to infuse our communities with meaning, spiritually and religious striving.

    Now, the media, of course, does not report any of this because, as is always the case, they thrive on conflict and divisiveness.

    Ironically, the pane’s diversity fits nicely with YCT’s larger Orthodox agenda. Right now the chillul Ha’shem caused by the divisiveness in the Orthodox community is inexcusable. The world looks on in shock at how much acrimony exist in our midst: Chassidim bicker amongst themselves; Chassidim and Litvaks barely talk to each other; (see for example the internet asifa) while amongst themselves they do not get along, the chasidim and litvaks share an antipathy towards Lubavitch Chassidim; in turn, all three of them disdain Yeshivah University and Modern Orthodoxy.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the rest of the Jewish community takes notice of this division and is turned off by it. We at Chovevei are trying to minimize some of that division. Proactively seeking out opportunities to engage other Jews בדרכי שלום hopefully mitigates some of this chillul Ha’Shem. Quite frankly, Agudah’s energies would be put to much better use if they tried to minimize this outrages chillul Ha’Shem, instead, by incessantly criticizing us, they are exacerbating it.

    It is my sincere hope that this negative tide will end soon, for the good of our own community and also for the benefit of klal Yisroel at large.

  9. I would add, from the other side of the argument, that it is largerly the fault of the Agudah that this argument is even happening in the first place. Over the past 60 years (at least, probably last several centuries in fact) Orthodoxy has become defined by ritual behaviours and a core of specific beliefs. Ethics and morals have nothing to do with this basic Orthodoxy. In fact, they’re often viewed either with suspicious as “goyish values” or seen as optional upgrades for specific tzadikim only.
    That’s what this argument is about. YCT does not behave in what most of non-YCT Orthodoxy defines as Jewish behaviour. They may not subscribe to many of the specific beliefs. That, and only that, is what’s driving them out of Orthodoxy because ultimately for most of us Orthodoxy is all about the hat you wear, the amount of Yeshivish you speak and how Mehadrin your Cholov Yisrael is, not how much you give to charity, how respectful you are to your colleagues or how much you try to be a mensch in public so people will think positive things about Jews.

  10. With all due respect to the good people at YCT, as long as you continue to produce graduates who deny the divine origin of the Torah, promote Biblical Criticism, support gay marriage and other anti-halakhic causes, and embrace egalitarianism, you won’t be accepted by mainstream Orthodox or Sephardic Rabbis. This is especially the case because the graduates proclaiming these ideas continue to occupy distinguished and influential positions in your movement and have not been censured or removed from their posts as a result of their heterodox stances. This silence is tantamount to an endorsement of their views on the part of the YCT leadership, period.

  11. anon says:

    More disingenuous, self-serving nonsense from YCT, which seems to be the only type of commentary they are capable of. YCT should at least be honest and admit that they are not an Orthodox institution.

  12. Moshe Shoshan says:

    You cant blame the media. YCT has to be proactive about the message it wants to send and do things in a way that the message gets across even through the inevitible distortion of the media. In this case I dont fault the media. The dialogue was the main event. Actions speak louder than words and people will judge you, with some legitimacy by the company you keep. Doing something that is guaranteed to raise the ire of the rest of the Orthodox world, makes YCT at best look oblivious to its image there and at worst as if they are thumbing their nose as it. As such, people in the wider Orthodox community dont necessarily see healing of conflict so much as process which has the potential to permanently split the community. YOu cant simply blame the other side any more than you can the media. Not because they are not at fault but because at one point like Begin on the Altelena, you have to be willing to say “rak lo milchemet achim” and refuse to return fire.

    • ysoscher says:

      Reb Moshe,
      You are proving my point. You are claiming to know what was the “main event” without having been there. I was there. The panel was NOT the main event! It was a five hour celebration, attended by several hundred people who came to honor a mature and reinvigorated YCT. The main theme, articulated in different ways by all the speakers, was a passionate call by the Yeshivah’s leadership to continue to spread Torah, Kedusha and Yirat Shamaim amongst all of klal yisroel. The panel was really a small part of it.
      I wasn’t blaming the media. You are right, we need to take ownership of how we are perceived and how our message comes across. I was only using the media to explain your and other people’s misconception about what really transpired on Sunday. You assume that the panel was the highlight of Sunday’s proceedings because that is the only thing the Agudah thought is worth noticing.
      Also, Isn’t it a little ironic that you are critiquing US for not heeding Begin’s request? Isn’t that exactly what we are doing: reaching out to people across the Jewish spectrum, attempting to minimize the “milchemet achim” as much as possible? The Agudah is the one that needs to be admonished for ignoring that overarching value, not us.

      • Avraham says:

        I am a bit puzzled by this response to Moshe’s critique. In all the publicity that YCT ran for this event the only part highlighted was the panel. (Please check the ads that appeared in the newspapers.) It was only after reading your post that I was aware of other sections of the installation. If seems like that was exactly what you chose to push so one can disagree with the Agudah’s position but you can’t criticize them for noticing what you highlighted.

  13. Shlomo says:

    As I note the dispute between Charlie Hall and Garnel above, there seems to be a lack of clarity as to whether R’ Farber believes that G-d commanded us to keep the Shabbat, consistent with the way that command is understood by Chazal, or whether we do so as a matter of tradition.

    Perhaps R’ Farber could write something where he explains how we can be certain that G-D commanded us when that command was not a direct transmission (according to R’ Farber), but a spiritual flow that filtered through imperfect and multiple authors, who, over a period of many years, used their own imperfect words and possibly flawed understanding.

    How could one call that a Divine Command?

    Perhaps R’ Yssocher could address this as well.

  14. shaul shapira says:

    R Katz-
    You remind of a certain former president who declared “mission accomplished” and then had a few thousand of his troops die.

    “A similar debate ensued during the early days of the state of Israel. While individuals like Rav Elchanan Wasserman, the Satmar Rav and Rav Velvel Brisker Z”L advocated a complete separation from the state, the leadership of Agudath Israel and the Moatztet Gedolei Ha’torah felt otherwise.”

    Cute, bot no dice. You don’t see a difference beteen voting in an election that will determine who governs you whether you like it or not, and inviting heterodox leaders to be a part of your program.

    “Chazal tell us: ואהבת את ה אלהיך-שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך. (Yoma 86A) Although we are humble enough to recognize that we have what to learn from other denominations, (איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם) we are concurrently proud of our own Orthodox tradition, believing that there is something unique which we have to offer the other denominations. We, therefore, confidently seek out opportunities to engage Jews across the spectrum in order to learn and to teach. We strongly believe that our rich orthodox tradition has something to contribute on cross-denominational questions of Rabbinic training, communal leadership and the like. It is our religious imperative to share the tradition with all of klal yisroel.”

    That’s why you invite Ellenson and Sorsch to your ceremony?! Do you honestly think they’re going to back and tell their followers “Wow Rabbi Linzer said we have to keep mitzvos. Never mind that G-d never gave us the Torah, R Landis said you have have to be machmir sometimes” ???

    “Chassidim bicker amongst themselves; Chassidim and Litvaks barely talk to each other; (see for example the internet asifa) while amongst themselves they do not get along, the chasidim and litvaks share an antipathy towards Lubavitch Chassidim; in turn, all three of them disdain Yeshivah University and Modern Orthodoxy”

    I agree with this up to a point. You come from Satmar and likely witnessed the split. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. But you can’t impute from there that the rest of Orthodoxy (or even Satmar) spends all day bickering. Some of the groups you mentioned consider the other groups mistaken, others consider some of them illegitimate etc. But that’s on a communal level. Chances are that if e.g. a Chassidishe guy has an uncle with a PHD from YU, he’s going to be pretty cordial towards him. Same goes with Reform or Conservative actually.

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