Monday, May 7, 2012

Sixty Four Years Later

Sixty-four years after the establishment of the State of Israel its intellectuals are still debating the central issues of Zionism and peoplehood. Sixty-four years after the establishment of the third commonwealth we are still questioning the viability of Israel. Sixty four years into a dynamic, economically robust and politically stable democracy Israel is still being treated as though she were in need of serious psychotherapy in the form of a national therapy session represented by its leading intellectuals.

“Keyboard Warriors Fighting Over Israel’s Future” (Haaretz, April 27, 2012) by Tom Segev is a fascinating article which highlights the efforts of one of Israel’s military heroes to galvanize leading Israeli thinkers to discuss fundamental and core issues defining Israel ad its raison d’etre. E mail discussion groups is the new forum in which nationally recognized thinkers like A.B.Yehoshua chime in with Prof. Hamutal Bar Yosef on the existential crises of the Jewish people.

This may be the first time that such an august forum has coalesced around the electronic media and information highway, but it isn’t the first time that these pregnant existential issues have been debated by Israeli scholars. After the Six Day War and the subsequent solidification of the occupation there was significant discussion and debate as to what the nature of the occupation ought to be and how it will impact on the national ethos.

The merits of the arguments expressed by intellectuals of different political and social persuasions isn’t as relevant as the comments made by those who were upset by the need for intellectuals to once again self flagellate, calling into question the validity of Israel as an independent Jewish state. There are those decidedly upset over the intellectuals who are calling into question the moral right of Israel to exist at the expense of the Palestinian. There are those who are calling into question the entire notion of Jewish peoplehood insisting on reducing the Jews to a religion like any other therefore relinquishing their right to a land.

For someone insecure a national discussion on these and other existential questions can be disquieting, to say the least. Psychotherapy can be intimidating and threatening as well. But for therapy on a personal level to be productive, it must be probing and at times deeply intense and uncomfortable. No less important than being a high functioning person is to be a person content and comfortable in one’s own skin. That can only be achieved through hard work. So too must a national discussion on its moral and spiritual health be probing and at times painful. It is a testament to the sensitivity of these leading lights and their love of country that it sought a forum by which this type of introspective, productive discussion could take place.

In many ways it reminds me of our ancient prophets who served as the gadflies of society that was in desperate need of social justice and corrective measures. It was those prophets who said the tough things, yet there was resistance from the people to want to listen and hear the truth. Today’s intellectuals haven’t the intent to foist upon anyone their vision, but to put their vision up as a fulcrum whereby those moral and ethical issues dividing society can be resolved.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Making of a Rabbi

It was particularly disturbing to read about efforts of the State Prosecutor’s Office to indict the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron over his alleged involvement in falsely obtaining government funds because of the many noble principles he stood for. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, educated in the elite yeshivot was the chief rabbi of Haifa before becoming chief rabbi of Israel. In that role he championed the cause of peace and was willing to relinquish parts of east Jerusalem in order to further the cause of a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. He was a proponent of interfaith meetings with Christian and Muslim leadership sitting on the boards of the World Religious Leaders for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He wanted to end the orthodox monopoly over weddings claiming that the current status quo was a source of hatred between the orthodox rabbinate and the liberal movements. Some referred to the speech in which he made known his feelings as a bombshell. Recently he along with modern orthodox rabbis like Norman Lamm and Aaron Lichtenstein condemned the calls of other rabbis for IDF soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements in the Gaza disengagement. So how is it that a man with such a notable background finds himself at the center of a criminal investigation?

I have suggested before that one of the short falls of Jewish higher education at orthodox rabbinical seminaries is the paucity of courses and structured programs that teach ethics, namely Jewish ethics in the business place as well as in the public sector. Ethics, or moral philosophy is a system of defining and promoting right from wrong behavior. Especially in Israel, where there isn’t separation of church and state, and where the involvement of the rabbinate in the public sphere is ubiquitous, cries out for intensive education in the area of ethical behavior.

Ethical behavior can’t be learned from the study of Torah and Talmud without including the systematic approach that can be learned from the masters of ethics and philosophy. It reminds me of that amazing period of the Middle Ages, when Maimonides and later Shimon Duron, and others such as Hasdai Crescas and Joseph Albo were able to successfully design a hierarchal belief system that incorporated ethics as well. They were able to do so because of their unique understanding of the classical Greek philosophers who initially developed the breakthrough approach of how to understand the universe that we occupy.

Those disciplines, so assiduously studied and researched by those sages of the middle ages has been lost on the orthodox rabbinical students of the modern age. They don’t devote any appreciated time, if any, to the writings of Crescas, Albo or systematically study classical texts such as The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides, where ethics take center stage. No! Ethics aren’t systematically studied but mastery of Talmud is considered the touchstone of Jewish knowledge. Interestingly, the editing and redacting of the Babylonian Talmud in the 5th-6th centuries was intended for use as a tool in order to negotiate the nuanced life as Jew in the Diaspora. Other texts weren’t readily available as there was no printing press, and scrolls were just coming into disuse as the idea of folio parchment was becoming popular. The dark ages also engendered a level of ignorance to which the Jews weren’t exempt. But between that time and the enlightenment a rich voluminous library of Jewish thought and philosophy developed which contributed much to the comportment and conduct befitting Jews and their leaders. Sadly, those studies never gained the currency to which the Talmud reached.

The price for maintaining Talmud study as the quintessential text to be studied at the expense of all others during the intellectual growth years of a yeshiva student has contributed to the lacunae of critical knowledge needed for a rabbi to guide his community through any ethical quagmire, which may appear. It’s not enough to rely upon one’s own instinctual moral or ethical compass. It may not even be enough to rely solely on classic rabbinic literature such as Shulachan Aruch and Choshen Mishpat as the navigational tools for working through ethical issues. A rabbi has to be equipped with clear understanding of ethics, backed by years of formal study and not by instinct. A fluent literacy in applied ethics, moral theory and phenomenology are but a few areas that a rabbi ought to be comfortable with. By studying these various approaches his personal sense of ethics become sensitized and heightened becoming proactive and not reactive. To assume the role of rabbi and to lead a community without this strong background in formal study of ethics is tantamount to navigating as ship without sophisticated navigational tools. This is what may have been the cause of Rabbi Bakshi-Doron’s current problems. He would do well to promote as part of the core curriculum of yeshiva students serious course study in ethics treated as seriously as the study of Talmud. Without doing such, they may be doomed to falter, and more importantly fail themselves and their communities.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Come, Let Us Outsmart Them

Had anyone other than a Jew penned what I am about to write he might be referred to as an anti-Semite. There may even be people out there, referring to this essay as anti-Semitic. For a long time, I have been living with fear that the day will come when Israel will cease to be the country that I and so many millions of others know, admire and love. I have feared for a long time that the Zionist songs of the chalutzim (founding pioneers), reflecting an ethos and vision that I was weaned on would be forgotten by a new holy but indifferent generation, recalled perhaps by only a few on Yom Ha’atzmaut. I fear that eventually Israel and her citizens will morph back and regress into the “old shtetl Jew,” in spite of all those heroes that came before and dreamt of forging a new Jew, a strong, powerful and proud Israeli. I fear that all the brilliance of the “genius hayehudi” that has made universal strides in the sciences, technology, medicine, history, literature and culture contributing to the global wealth of knowledge unparalleled in human history, captivating the imagination, envy of so many, would unravel, leaving the “genius hayehudi” to degenerate and wallow in the morass of yeshiva pilpulism originally cultivated for and by Diaspora Jews with little hope for a better future. I fear that the strides Israel has made in advancing minority and women’s rights will be set back generations because of the occluded political atmosphere which has all but destroyed the matrix upon which the Zionist founding fathers dreamt. I fear that the Israeli urban centers, those galactic intellectual loci teeming and seething with intellectual rigor will retrograde back into the dessert sands upon which it was originally built together with the artificially induced fertile and fecund lands that have become the eighth wonder of the agricultural world conceptualized, designed and engineered by Israeli scientists and farmers.

All these nightmares are coming to fruition in my own lifetime, before our very eyes here and in Israel giving new meaning to the words uttered by the Egyptian leadership when they commented in Exodus 1: 8-10:

“A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Joseph. He said to his people ‘behold the people, the Children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we. Come let us outsmart it lest it become numerous and it may be that war will occur, it too, may join our enemies and wage war against us and go up from the land.’”

The traditional understanding of the text takes on new meaning when we substitute the Children of Israel for haredim. I feel today the way the ancient Egyptians felt when reviewing their security concerns. Fear that in numbers the Children of Israel would alter the way in which the Egyptians lived. Fear of numbers was at the heart of their concern that they are of a different culture and would ultimately seek to impose their values on the Egyptians. The Egyptian response was probably the expected response. It was one of self--preservation. Ultimately, the Children of Israel left Egypt and the Egyptians were able to get back to their lives without fearing a takeover by strangers. In our time it is the haredim that are proliferating exponentially creating demographic facts on the ground that will in a few short years redefine the nature and culture of the State of Israel. Democratic values will be replaced by halacha where things like tzinius and shemirat mitzvot will be the standard, expected normative behavior of every good citizen. Israeli democracy according to Benny Katzover (veteran settler leader) should be dismantled and in its place a halachic state should be established. Katzover, the past head of the NGO (non—government organization) Committee of Samaria Settlers believes that Israeli democracy is in constant conflict with its Jewish identity, thus it needs to be dismantled.

True it is a stretch to compare the situation of the Children of Israel in Egypt to that of the haredim in Israel. The Children of Israel were foreigners, outsiders in a host country. The haredim in Israel are citizens of Israel and are Jewish. However, it could be said that even though they are Jewish and citizens of Israel, they are still outsiders, rejecting the prevailing culture, and whose loyalty is not to Israel but to the god of Jewish history.

If the State of Israel does nothing, the haredi community will burst at the seams leaving a minority of traditional / secular Israelis who will have no place with Israeli society, or what’s left of it. According to current statistical extrapolations, by 2049 the haredi community will make up 40% of the population. That will be enough to vote in a haredi majority in the Knesset and to vote out democracy replacing it with a halachic system of governance. To put one’s head in the sand reasoning that by then the haredi community will have moderated and integrated themselves into Israeli society and cultural values is ridiculous. If the haredi value system and state of mind survived and even persevered through the enlightenment and haskala why would anyone assume that the benign and benevolent Israeli culture will be able to do what has never been done before?

Perhaps the Egyptians 5000 years ago knew something we have yet to learn and perhaps the only answer is to learn from history. In a speech this past week at the Herzliya Conference the Governor of Israel’s Central Bank, Stanley Fischer expressed deep concern for the proliferation of haredim and their drain on society. His message regarding this troublesome community was to stop having so many babies and start working. Rather than proposing to “outsmart them” conquering them with fear and force he suggested a wiser course “come let us put them to work” with the conviction that a path to productive lives will be mutually beneficial.

Monday, January 23, 2012


The summer of 1956 was a watershed summer in that I was presented with the first of my nisionot (nisionos for yeshivisha pronunciation) in how deep my commitment to Jewish observance ran. Not that I want to compare myself to Abraham’s 10 nisionos, which he passed with flying colors, nevertheless and unlike father Abraham I was truly challenged with this first one because of the sheer will power demanded of me. It was expected of me by generations of Jews who came before me who martyred their lives “leshem shamayim” (for the sake of heaven), to withstand the temptation to eat a Twinkie knowing that it was my god given right and that of every American kid to snack on them. Some other products at the time, which hadn’t had hechsherim, you could get away with, because everyone knew that the products were kosher, like Hershey’s Chocolate. Even the name sounded Jewish. Twinkies, on the other hand sounded American, looked treif and in fact was glatt treif. There was no away around this, no rationalization, no excuse. It was universally accepted that they were treif. There was no dissension on this, not even from the most modern of the rabbanim in Albany Park. Animal fat listed in the ingredients, which undoubtedly made them irresistible hardly came from a kosher slaughtered bovine creation.

I was only nine years old and like any other cosmopolitan kid living in Albany Park I had been to the local soda stores, news stands and groceries where Twinkies were readily available. They were always positioned next to the other iconic Hostess product: Hostess Cupcakes. But it was always the Twinkies that winked at me as I stood a foot away staring at the packaging, wondering what that first bite would taste like. To tell the truth, the Hostess Cupcakes never tempted me. They always looked plastic, too perfect, too smooth, evenly lined up with their paper lining, never, ever spilling over, like the sumptuous cupcakes that were home baked -- uneven, textured and too voluminous for the paper lining. Every time I saw a Twinkie, my mouth started watering, wondering why it had to be treif. As difficult as it was to turn away from the food stand where they were so prominently displayed, it wasn’t impossible. Avraham Avenu would have been proud – although I often wandered which of his ten tests would have been comparable. Perhaps it would have been number 5 according to Rashi or number 3 according to the Rambam. Either way I felt my commitment was up there.

To my horror the real test didn’t come till I went to the Eugene Field day camp the summer of 1956 with my secular Jewish neighbor Jerry, who lived a few doors down. We used to bike around the neighborhood, but this would be our first excursion across Lawrence Ave down Ridgeway in the direction of Foster where the field house was located. Lunchtime on that first day at camp was the nisayon of my life, which I would rank up there with Avraham’s number 10 according to both Rashi and Rambam. On a park bench, my friend scarfed down his salami sandwich with a carton of milk, which seemed infinitely more appealing than my tuna fish sandwich. The shock came however when Jerry pulled out from his brown bag a package of Twinkies. I looked down at my dessert, which was a measly couple of home made chocolate chip cookies wrapped in left over creased aluminum foil that looked like it had been recycled for the past month. Then I looked over to Jerry’s Twinkies and my mouth began to water. He offered me one of his Twinkies and for a moment that seemed like an eternity I was tempted to reach out as Adam reached out and bit into the forbidden fruit. It was a painful moment, but in my youthful naïveté I understood that if I wouldn’t be able to withstand this major test I’d never be able to withstand any future temptation.

The summer of 1956 was indeed a watershed, an apt introduction into the world where choices are presented and decisions made. I never ate a Twinkie, but the irony of it all is that I was disturbed by the news last week that Hostess Company has filed for bankruptcy and the future of the Twinkies product is uncertain. My entire conscious life has been hitherto accompanied by certain guideposts that have provided me with comfort zones as I move through life. These iconic images and products that have accompanied me through my journey are slowly disappearing which incidentally casts a shadow on my own mortality. From the time I was nine years old till today I could enter any super market anywhere in America and eyeball a package of Twinkies. It makes me feel good, comfortable and safe even though I never ate one. Its something like the Israeli meat product “loof” (equivalent to American spam), a staple of the army field rations that has been around since before the establishment of the State, giving it an iconic status. That, too, has disappeared to my great consternation. Perhaps it could be said what Israelis feel about the loss of loof I feel about the imminent disappearance of Twinkies from the American culinary landscape. America without Twinkies is like Israel without loof. It just can’t be!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Get It Right

Kana-us, the corrupted Hebrew word for kana-ut or zealotry has taken Israel and the Jewish community worldwide by a storm creating unprecedented blowback. The proverbial straw that broke the camels back causing a robust and muscular backlash was the incident in Beit Shemesh the last week of December 2011 where an eleven year old modern orthodox girl was spat upon and derided with opprobrious behavior and language due to her lack of acceptable deportment as per the standards of a deviant haredi community, traumatizing her to the point where she became apoplectic. This misogynistic attitude is nothing new in the haredi community. Hitherto it has been camouflaged with a lot of double speak seeking ways by which they can eat their cake and leave it whole. Praying for centuries the morning prayer “...shelo asani isha,” a sure recipe for subliminal brainwashing, tucking women away behind an almost impervious wall for services, dictating the nature of their clothing, and their head covering is the potent ingredients for applied kanaus. The majority of haredim who were offended by the actions of the zealots over the past few weeks were surprisingly offended to see the fruit of their labor. It isn’t clear that their rejection of kana-us was principled or that they wished to distance themselves from a politically unpopular position. Once they saw and felt the swift, sharp backlash they may have realized that their time hadn’t yet arrived. Perhaps these putative moderate haredim will have to wait another generation when their demographic numbers have swollen to the point of critical mass in Israeli politics and public opinion to effectuate putting women in their rightful places (in the back of the bus and designated sidewalks).

Kanaus is firmly entrenched in the psyche of the haredi community and the question, which begs to be asked, is when did kana-us become a mainstay in the haredi mindset? In a recent article written by a haredi journalist troubled with the recent outbreak of kana-us J. Rosenblum references Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz that “only one filled with Aaron’s quality of pursuing peace and overwhelming love of every Jew can fill the role of kanai. Anyone who does not act out of that closeness to Hashem or lacks the quality of being a rodef shalom is a murderer pure and simple.” The difficulty with this is that kana-us becomes laudable if it is applied and executed by a person with the right qualifications. That’s why, according to this warped reasoning Pinchas was able to run a javelin through the genital area of Zimri and Kozbi; considered a hero by some and used as a standard for kana-us. The xenophobia demonstrated in biblical text as well as the misogyny are two key ingredients which molded some within the haredi community into some of the worst human beings within the collective Jewish community.

Another ingredient that goes into the making of kanaus is the concept of daas torah. Several years ago I wrote an essay on the damage daas torah has inadvertently wrought on the haredi community:
“The concept of Daas Torah is firmly rooted in the recognition that Hashem ‘looked into the torah and created the universe’ (Breishis Rabbah 1:1). The torah provides history’s agenda, past, present and future, and encompass the world’s every secret. Those who have merited to acquire Torah thus possess the best credentials for effectively addressing the world’s problems, and those who doubt the Torah leader’s ability to ‘understand politics’ thereby redefine the meaning of Judaism.”

This comment presumably self-explanatory wouldn’t have been so stunningly audacious, had it been said by a naïve yeshiva bachur or a disillusioned kollelnick. Unfortunately, this was written years ago by the late Rabbi Sherer of Agudas Israel as part of an article entitled Torah in the Proper Place, which I stumbled over while researching the theme of authority and dissent in Jewish tradition.

Daas Torah, a term of fairly recent origin, is understood to mean that through intense Torah study and the rigorous practice of the mitzvoth, one will have a greater understanding of God’s will. Daas Torah can be a compelling ethos for people in search of guidance, when they voluntarily seek it out. However, when dissenting opinions aren’t tolerated as in Rabbi Sherer’s vision and description of Judaism and the stature of the gedolim, than we have the makings of a cult, controlling people through peer pressure and charismatic leadership. Sherer says in the same article that “it is the responsibility to remind ourselves and others of the fact that our gedolim are the foremost experts not only in matters of Jewish law, but in social and political issues as well.”

So the question then becomes, which gadol is the one who sets the gold standard. Why ought it not be a gadol who believes literally that “shelo asani isha” means precisely what it says without parsing words? Why can’t it be the gadol who believes that misogyny is the express intention of our sacred text as understood by that gadol without the need for further elaboration? As odious as it may feel or sound daas torah is determined by a gadol who has a following and is recognized as one steeped in Torah, regardless of whether one agrees with him. Why should these zealots give any credence to the daas torah of more moderate and perhaps less intellectually honest gedolim? Certainly the moderate gedolim have been compromised as Jonathan Rosenblum writes in Mishpacha Magazine, December 21, 2011:
“A few years ago, I asked a gadol whether he had addressed certain socio-economic problems …on contemporary issues. He told me that he could not do so because if he did the kanaim would say he was not really a gadol. In other words, he could not address pressing issues because if he did he would become so discredited that no one would listen to him anyway.”

It would appear that this gadol was more concerned about being undermined and preserving his own status than shouting out the truth from the rooftop of his kloiz. Unfortunately the kanaim have it up on the moderates because they have no need to spin or parse words. They call it as they understand, and this, for them is daas torah.

Kana-us will continue to plague the Jewish people and pose a threat to the fabric of democracy in Israel unless the moderate haredi community stops spinning when kana-us is a good thing, and rejects it in toto. It is never good. Kana-us leads to blood shed. Pinchas, in his kana-us murdered two people and was responsible for a blood bath that made St. Valentine’s massacre child’s play. Furthermore, the mainstream haredi community must stop any social/religious practice that smacks of misogyny (and re-examine the appropriateness of "shelo asani isha as did R’ Abraham Farissol, a 15th century Italian rabbi who wrote a siddur replacing shelo asani isha with “she-asatani isha ve-lo ish) or xenophobia (spitting on Greek Orthodox priests). For the moderate haredi community to prevail they will have to get it right.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Zealots Gone Wild

Growing up as part of a minority has its advantages – sometimes. There is a certain convenience in being able to point the finger at “them;” blaming them for everything that’s wrong--after all they are the majority and majority rules. Being educated in a parochial Jewish day school reinforces those feelings and more: that we are “the chosen;” that we aren’t capable of perpetrating the evils that Christians have done to us and to others. We were raised to believe that it is “them versus us,” we naturally being the good guys and could do no wrong. Even the Jewish history texts that we studied carried that theme as the thread running through our history; the common denominator uniting Jews throughout the world, Ashkenazi and Sepharadi against them. Heinrich Graetz the preferred orthodox historian of choice in those years reinforced the idea that we Jews suffered prodigiously by the gentile hand, which was true; but never suggested the proposition that perhaps we too could be responsible for the suffering of “others” if only we had the opportunity, motive and power, if only we would one day become the majority.

There were enough classical texts that should have clued me in to the possibility that we Jews could be as dangerous, venomous and vindictive as the Christians. Apparently and coincidental of this Chanukah season we seem to have a tendency for zealotry, causing the suffering of others for the greater glory of God. The earliest examples of that is the carnage perpetrated by Dina’s brothers Simeon and Levi following her rape by a Canaanite prince. Another incident was that of Pineas murdering Zimri and Cozbi during our 40 year sojourn in the desert trying to develop a spirituality that would draw us closer to God. We experienced our first Jihad when Joshua conquered the “Promised Land,” which God showed him and commanded him to liberate from the infidels. Centuries later when King Saul didn’t liquidate the Amalakites as commanded Samuel denied him the continued kingship.

The eons that we were in the proverbial desert, exile, we were powerless and to be sure victimized. That didn’t mean that we didn’t have the potential to bring harm and suffering to others; we may have had the motive but not the opportunity; Purim, the exception to the rule, is the annual joyful, almost ecstatic retelling in detail of our first pogrom with the ‘other” being on the receiving end. And while we celebrate the Chanukah story let us not forget that the Maccabees were zealots and in the commission of their vision they slaughtered Jews that were comfortable with and adapted well to Hellenistic culture. One wonders whether zealotry is in our DNA.

Where we didn’t have the opportunity to bring harm to “others” we unfortunately exploited opportunities where we intentionally turned on our own and brought immeasurable and irreversible harm to them. While not wishing to drudge up the sordid details of our remarkable history a few examples will suffice. Hassidic courts over the centuries in Europe sought means by which they could exercise greater power. Power in a hassidic court was measured in numbers of followers as leverage, a means to influence governments. The larger the court: the greater the power. Most hassidim weren’t attracted to a court because of the rebbe’s spirituality but because he had the potential of providing work for them. A powerful court was a court that could win royal charters, such as selling liquor, making candles, operating inns, etc. Lords were inclined to grant these royal charters to hassidic leaders who demonstrated control over large communities of Jews. When hassidic courts were threatened by others rebbes encroaching on their territory, turf warfare wasn’t uncommon and sometimes it was brutal. An example was the turf war between the Belzer and Satmar hassidim during the interwar period when due to the outcome of the war the boarders were rearranged. Followers of court became problematic as the new borders redefined the influence a rebbe could have. If half his community now lived under communism and unable to cross over to his rebbe a 5th column was created in the other rebbe’s “backyard. This precipitated warfare among the competing hassidic groups which invariably led to violence, acrimony and jail sentences for members of a court found guilty of trumped up charges made by, suborned and perjured by the competing hassidim. As a footnote, the Belzer Rebbe, Aharon Rokeach, so obsessed with the possibility of loosing power if his hassidim left Europe in flight from the Nazis implored them to stay put, not to leave for the godless America or Palestine, while he escaped later on.

The Misnagdim, too had their wars as well. Many of theirs was fought in an attempt to contain the spread of hassidut, which was believed to have contributed heavily to the deterioration of the Kehilla and the breakdown of the family unit. The Vilna Gaon went so far as to put them into Herem. One of the more toxic examples of zealotry gone wild was that between Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz and Rabbi Jacob Emden. Neither of them were small time rabbis; each was notable in their own right. Eybeshutz was a child prodigy in Talmud who settled in Prague was the head of a well-known yeshiva and was considered second only to their dayan, avid Oppenheim. Because of his quick rise to fame in Prague many of the rabbis there accused him of being a Sabbatean. Because of these vicious rumors he only was appointed a dayan, but not the chief rabbi of Prague. In 1750 he was elected rabbi of the “three communities”, Altona, Hamburg & Wandsbek. He was considered a genius but had the rare quality as well of being charismatic. At about this time Rabbi Jacob Emden, known as the “Yavetz” was a leading German rabbi who made his career on fighting the Sabbateans. He published 31 books and Moses Mendelssohn had an intellectual affinity to Emden. He held no official post, lived in Altona and made his livelihood by publishing books. Emden accused Eybeschutz of being a secret Sabbatean basing his accusation on the interpretation of amulets that Eybeschutz crafted. At the time that he was appointed chief rabbi of the “three communities” the controversy reached its peak. Emden, a zealot accused Eybeschutz not only of being a Sabbatean but also having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter. Most condemned Emden and even after the council labeled him a slanderer he continued his philippics against Eybeschutz. Refusing to leave Altona as ordered to do by the council relying on the king’s charter. Ultimately he left for Amsterdam where he continued his fight at the court of Frederick V of Denmark which found in Emden’s favor, and fining the council. Emden moves back to Alton where the fight continued for another 5 years, in the process destroying reputations and livelihoods.

These are mere examples of zealotry when we weren’t in positions of power, when we were for the most part minorities in host countries or a minority in our own. Imagine what our track record would look like had we been in power for the past two thousand years. Well we are now, and zealotry, judging from current events (Price Tag, haredi intimidation of women, etc.) is alive and well. Ironically, these zealots are once again a minority in a democratic Israel. Dare to imagine if they were the majority?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Two Tough Questions

Its been said that all an average student needs to become excellent is to be fortunate enough to experience one outstanding teacher. That relationship will provide the inspiration for a lifetime. In fact many of us have had such singular encounters that has left an indelible mark on our lives: I was lucky enough in the 60’s to have encountered a teacher in Camp Moshava (Wild Rose, Wisconsin). Avraham Nuriel z”l, a shaliach to our community (later became a professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University) spent the summer in Moshave teaching us the geography and history of Israel, but special was the daily class on the teachings of Harav Cook. Those informal learning experiences sparked discussion among the campers and it’s those conversations especially that have accompanied me all these years. I’m not always aware of those discussions, but invariably something triggers those memories recounting those conversations, which bring me back to Avraham Nuriel and his understanding of Harav Cook.

The two burning issues that concerned us young Zionists in the years just prior to the 67 war were two hypotheticals: What if America and Israel would no longer be allied and their interest were at cross purpose, where would our loyalties be? What if Israel was no longer a democratic state becoming something other than democratic i.e. fascistic or theocratic, would we still chose to live there? Would we still support Israel assuming that we lived in America? At the time these were merely hypothetical, given to mental gymnastics, because no matter what we said, it really didn’t matter. Israel was a secure ally of America enjoying support from Congress, the Executive branch and Israel was the darling of the media. I never imagined then that those two rather simple questions would haunt me a half century later. Nor would I be recalling those heady intellectual conversations sitting under a tree while Avraham helped us work through what I understand now to be extremely complex issues.

There is a side of me, the youthful traces which wants me to believe that these two questions ought to be consigned forever to undisturbed memory, stored there for another time. No need for concern, certainly no need for panic. President Obama may lean toward the Palestinians but Congress has our back. Besides, even if Obama wins another 4 years, Israel can stonewall him until his term ends. The damage he can do while significant may be reversible with a more even handed president. Regarding democracy, my still youthful, optimistic shadow believes that Jews have embedded within our DNA democratic values. We are an “am kishe oref” (stiff necked people), argumentative, not given to indulge others, brutally honest, demanding of our government, with a history of cut throat journalism that is the backbone of a true democratic system.

The other side of me, the more seasoned mature side that has seen life in its beauty and ugliness is skeptical about our future as a democracy and as an ally of the United States. Less concerning for the moment is the issue of our relationship with America because; as long as Israel is a strong democracy there will be support for Israel. If however we begin a tailspin that undermines democratic values then our nexus with American Jews and ipso facto America will wane. I wince at the thought that while we are not in a tailspin yet there are undemocratic trends, which ought to flag our attention and concern. The fact that Hillary Clinton made her remark in a private setting expressing her concern for the marginalization of women within Israeli society ought to be taken seriously. There are other glaring examples many of them emanating from the religious communities whether haredi, hardal or any other flavor. It appears as though the haredi community less tolerant of secular Israel is trying to impose its way on the majority. To wit: a lecture at a community center in Haifa had haredi ushers direct women in (in spite of their reluctance) to the back of the hall, assuring that the men and women were separated. It oughtn’t be open season on Muslims or secular Jews because there is a strong haredi coalition in the Knesset. The bus incident with Tanya Rosenblit makes me wonder if she will become the new Rosa Parks of Israel.

The West, including Israel is hyper critical of the Muslim penchant for their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran with the exponent that their women are treated like chattel. I am beginning to sense the same tendencies within the hyper-religious community who happen to be the loudest and most visible with Israeli society and who occupy seats in the Knesset thus highly influential on multiple levels. This trend will continue and will slowly erode the matrix of Israeli democracy unless the governing body in its wisdom draws a line between church and state.

Israel will do well if it learns from Greece. The Greeks too are closely aligned with its religion, Greek Orthodoxy. Because Greek orthodoxy is interwoven into the fabric of society there is no separation of Church and State. One can hardly be Greek and not be Greek Orthodox. Their way out of this conundrum are the dictates of the European Union which are enforcing certain steps to untangle the state from the Church. Israel ultimately will have to do the same thing if it wishes to safeguard its democratic values.

As hard as I find it to imagine Israel living under a non-democratic system of government I can’t fathom what it would do to American Jews. Probably the ultra religious ties with Israel would grow tighter as the ties with the liberal communities in America would grow weaker. Concomitantly, liberal lobbying for Israel would curtail, as would philanthropy: the American Jewish community turning inward, marshalling its resources to service their own needs.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Perpetuating the Myth or Recasting Chanukah

Every year as Cheshvon slides into Kislev I begin again pondering the meaning of the Chanukah story, its legacy, what we should be taking away from the story and its celebration. Insight and understanding change over the years, depending on perspective and context but what has been consistent over the years is my reluctance to accept the miracle of the oil as the prima facie reason for celebrating Chanukah. According to the story, the rebelling party under the flag of Judah the Maccabee having restored the Temple to its previous sanctity weren't successful in finding a significant supply of uncontaminated sacramental pure oil to light the Menorah for more than one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for a week; thus celebrating this miracle and the rededication of the Temple. In Judaism there are no true miracles other than events that happen in nature but out of time sequence. Jesus walking on water has about as much currency as a one-day supply of oil turning into an eight-day supply.

As a matter of fact there are no primary sources in our cannon referencing the oil story other than a brief tertiary source: a Talmudic reference with the classic argument between Hillel and Shamai as to how we light the Menorah. The only reliable primary source is the Book of Maccabees I rendered illegitimate by those who canonized our sacred texts. Naturally the Talmudic reference to the story is suspect because of the pharisaic political ax to grind with the Sadducees. It is for this reason as well that R' Yochanan Ben Zachai conveniently excluded the Book of Maccabees I from inclusion into the canon.

Simply put, the Pharisees and their exponent, rabbinic Judaism refused to credit the Sadducees with any relevance. In effect the intention of the rabbis and Sages was to write out of history the important contributions the Sadducees made towards the development of the Jewish people. The Talmudic version of Chanukah was no more than a ruse to thwart attention away from the Sadducees and to give undue credit to the Pharisees in their fight against the Greeks. The Book of the Maccabees l, however tells the true story. It is an accurate account (as accurate as possible) of the fighting and the history of the period, never, however, mentioning God or the sanctity of the battle. In a sense it is similar to the notable battles fought in Israel in the modern period. There may be those who feel comfortable ascribing our victories to god and the effort of yeshiva students learning and praying. The preponderance of Jews however would ascribe the victory to the power of the IDF, the superb training of its soldiers and its legendary acumen in field improvisation as well as maximizing the uses of equipment, and perhaps its ally, the United States.

The unvarnished story of Chanukah is a story about the military victory of the Hashmonayim against the occupying power, an empire that swallowed up Judea. The Hashmonayim were an amalgam of Sadducees, the priestly class and Pharisees who initially wouldn't take up arms on Shabbat because of the injunction against hill Shabbat. It was the Pharisees who were commingled with the Sadducees in the fight against the Greeks that decided to continue the good fight on Shabbat due to pichuach nefesh (mortal danger), the same rabbinical dispensation used today by the IDF; nationally security trumps Shabbat observance.

The Pharisees had another problem as well. There were many Jews who adopted the celebration of lights, imported and popularized by the Greeks to celebrate the winter solstice. Sounds familiar? The Pharisees the forerunners to rabbinic Judaism ingeniously incorporated the lights into the Chanukah story, thus co-opting Jews into a massive celebration and at the same time cutting the legs out from under their rivals, the Sadducees (Constantine did the same thing by incorporating the pagan Christmas tree into Christmas celebration thereby co-opting the pagans). This technique was used as well by them when they incorporated the notion of the “world to come” (olam haba). By so doing they were able to recruit more conscripts to their cause by promising them a reward greater than any other.

So where does this leave us on the eve of Chanukah when we prepare to light the candles and celebrate the miracle of the oil? And what about our children. Do we perpetuate the myth? How ought we approach this holiday? Should we approach it the same way we celebrate the miracle of the Six Day War?

Initially the aftermath of the Six Day War was accompanied by a national euphoria. More than that Jews from all over the works were able to lift their heads high for the first time ever with pride in being Jewish and part of something much bigger than them. But the euphoria slowly began to ebb and the realization set in that perhaps we need to address the repression of the Palestinians. We didn't do enough then nor have we done enough since. The Chanukah story too, was initially accompanied with great euphoria, but not enough attention was placed upon tolerance of - namely Jews who sought to live within a broader culture context, which was anathema to the Hashmonayim. These weren't tolerated and children were circumcised with or without parental permission.

This kanaut, zealotry, a thread running throughout our history must be in our DNA because today, as I right this I am witness unfortunately to intolerance once again in Israel. Making a bracha on the Chanukah is a bracha l 'vatalah (for naught) if we can accept the teachings of Safed's chief rabbi Shmuel Elyahu who believes that Jews should drive Arabs out of Akko or that of another illustrious rabbi Eliezer Melamed who want the Christians expelled from Har Beracha who said that "when we came to live in a religious community, we never imagined that one of these days we would be forced to live alongside people of a different religion, which doesn't match our faith and lifestyle." Sounds like nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Painful and disconcerting. Perhaps we should perpetuate the myth.