Sunday, April 29, 2007

Hareidi Conundrum

The more one pays close attention to the hareidi community the more one realizes how complex and intricately designed their weltenschaaung is. There are times when they anger me by their myopic vision of the world they live in, but there are other times that I am proud of their deep sensitivity and love for Am Yisrael. A good illustration of this conundrum can be found in the Jewish Week of April 27 where two articles appeared each totally unrelated to the other, but each focusing on a unique and different quality within the hareidi community which underscores my point.

The first article A Hero’s Final Journey refers to the tragic but heroic fatal and ultimate deed of Mesirat Nefesh (self sacrifice) by Prof. Liviu Librescu. By now all of us are aware of his sacrifice in order to save the young lives of his students. It mattered not whether they were Jewish, Muslim Christian, atheist, anti-Semitic or racist. His love of life and belief in its sacredness is what I assume, was the prime catalytic agent in his split second judgment call to block the door from a mad man hell bent on murder.

How much can we lean from this understated and humble scholar’s actions? His ultimate sacrifice was based upon the knowledge that we are all Gods’ children, irrespective of our beliefs and personal life style choices. Apparently, the hareidi community understood this and coupled this man’s Mesirat Nefesh with a beautiful act of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) and Kavod Lamet (respect for the deceased). The expression pouring out from the hareidi community expressed their recognition that Prof. Liviu Librescu, holocaust survivor, a citizen of Israel and the world deserved their respect in spite of the personal religious choices that the Prof. made and lived by.

The respect accorded to Prof. Librescu wasn’t manifested only by the hareidi (Chevra Kadisha) Burial Society, but by the average hareidi man on the street who went out of their way to console the widow and other mourners. As State Assemblyman commented “all the people treated her as if she was their relative. I think she was totally stunned…I have never seen my community so moved…”

In another article appearing in the same issue of the Jewish Week, but at the opposite end of the spiritually uplifting spectrum was an article entitled Rabbis Barred From Israel Memorial. In the city of Hod Hasharon, a Reform Rabbi was barred from chanting a prayer at the municipal services for Israel’s fallen soldiers, in order to avoid disruption by orthodox Jews. In Omer, near Beer Sheva, a conservative woman rabbi was barred from reading a prayer on Yonm Hazikaron (Memorial Day) whose brother fell during his service to the Jewish people, because it was seen as to “revolutionary.” A third example for this intolerance by the hareidi community was that Rabbi Michael Boyden, a reform rabbi and av shakool (father who lost a son in one of our operations) was told that he would be able to recite a prayer at the ceremonies if he was introduced as “Mr.” rather than “Rabbi” Boydin.

It is difficult to believe that that at one end of the spectrum we see the transcendent behavior, and heartfelt feelings of the hareidi community, but at the other end of the spectrum we see the myopic, insular and heartless behavior of the same community. While they aren’t identical communities, one in New York and the other in Israel, nevertheless they do share many of the same values and mores that have shaped this community for hundreds of years in Europe, and later in America and Israel.

I understand the political/religious issues surrounding those three commemorative events celebrated on Yom Hazikaron. Unfortunately, it was the wrong venue and the wrong time to make those positions felt. If any of you has been in Israel on Yom Hazikaron, you will understand that it is a terribly sad time, especially for those who lost loved ones during our campaigns and wars. To turn this sacred moment in time into political/religious showdowns is cruel and heartless. The behavior demonstrated on Yom Hazikaron overshadowed the beautiful outpouring and transcendent behavior witnessed and experienced by all of us when Prof. Librescu was laid to rest. Why couldn’t the hareidi community demonstrate the same decency and dignity on Yom Hazikaron as they did when Prof. Librescu was buried?

Interestingly enough and to their credit, Chabad distanced themselves from the hareidi community in this matter. They understood that by the actions of the hareidi community, an attempt was being made to disenfranchise and deligitimze an integral part of our people. Chabad’s approach is different. They prefer inclusion wherever possible rather than exclusion.

Perhaps it would serve the hareidi community to concentrate deeper on those beautiful words of the “Ma Tovu” Morning Prayer recited daily – “How goodly are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Defending the Faith?

Recently the Forward (Friday, April 20) carried an essay by David Klinghoffer entitled Defend Your Faith When It Is Blasphemed. I’ve read D.K. for quite a while and rarely do I agree with him, principally because of his conservative politics. However, I tend to read him because it’s good to get the other side of things. After all, for the most part, I am surrounded by mainly liberal news media, the company I keep tends to be liberal and quite frankly it can wear you down. So reading D.K. is a good antidote to all of the liberal press and opinion I’m exposed to.

D.K. is upset because Jewish traditional (orthodox) intellectuals aren’t confronting the recent spate of books which are attacking organized religions. Specifically he’s upset that scholars and atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins mocks the Hebrew God referring to him as misogynistic, homophobic, racist etc. He’s upset that there aren’t intellectual/rabbinic leaders a la Maimonides who will take up the banner and defend the honor of the Hebrew God.

We have nothing to be ashamed of and we have nothing to defend. We have done nothing wrong, and we aren’t accused of doing anything wrong. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have their point of view and they expressed it very eloquently in their respective books. I’ve read their books and would recommend them to anyone who takes their religious practice seriously. It is important to hear, know and pay close attention to what others are thinking and saying. We can learn much from what they say. Not everything they say is true, but not everything they say is false.

Have we been accused of being genocidal? Yes. Are we? Maybe. That all depends on how one interprets the Amalek text. It also depends on how one understands the text in Samuel when it is made known to King Saul that he has lost favor with God. How are we to interpret the text, and how are we to interpret the commandment to wipe out Amalek. Why is it so upsetting to D.K. that Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins points out and exposes this seemingly genocidal feature of our text to the world. The Christian world bases their new testament on our sacred text and incidentally, our cousins revere our sacred text as well.

D.K. reminds me of Don Quixote. Rather than be proactive he has chosen the reactive approach which never is effective. The Harris and Dawkins books are best sellers and coming out with a reactive text won’t make a dent. Those who believe in Torah aren’t really affected by what intellectuals of that ilk happen to think or write. Those who share their sentiments won’t be influenced by anything written which is reactive.

Another issue I have with D.K. is his conservative propensity to be less than tolerant when it comes to those having an opinion that doesn’t fit their world view, or in this case, Jewish view. Frankly I find it refreshing to hear another opinion other than the one I personally subscribe to. It gets you thinking and keeps you on your toes. For those who don’t want to be challenged or tested, don’t read the material. For folks like me who love the challenge and the curiosity about what others think I don’t see the problem.

Nor am I personally offended by what others think of my faith and religious practice. Last year the Muslims had a “fit” when their God was cartooned by a non – Muslim. I never had a problem with that. I certainly don’t have a problem if someone cartoons an impression of the Hebrew God. What do I care? He is entitled to his opinion and thankfully he can express it. I may disagree, but that is the beauty of living in a free and open society. Maimonides and others during the middle ages were called upon to defend our faith not for intellectual gymnastics or entertainment but because our future was at stake. We could have been driven out of countries, super taxed, accused of blood libel, or worse. So there was a necessity to defend our faith.

The circumstances today are somewhat different. The traditional Jewish community has a bumper crop of books published on Jewish Thought, Jewish Philosophy, Tanach etc., many of them presenting traditional Jewish practice and belief in a sophisticated, articulate and intelligent light. There is, not to forget, the power of the World Wide Web and the blogoshere. There are even numerous radio talk shows which do an exemplary job of defending “old testament values and morals”. So anytime D.K. wishes to defend us against the likes of Dawkins and Harris he has the opportunity and venue. In fact I challenge him do so. It would be a daunting, but something I’m sure he can handle.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Muse: Acharei Mot & Kedoshim

Whenever someone is called for an Aliya Latorah there is a recitation of the brachah “Asher Bochar Banu Mikol Haamim.” For many this is simply a statement as to the special relationship the Hebrew or Israelite has in God’s universe. For some this creates a bit of discomfort. There are Jews who have difficulty when trying to define what it means to be “The Chosen”, and at the same time not appear elitist. How are we to define our being “The Chosen”, and still fulfill Judaism’s universalistic message? And how do we reconcile our being “Chosen” with the more liberal, more politically correct community?

The portion of Kedoshim instructs us on how we are to conduct ourselves as individuals and as a people. Kedoshim means holy, but it also means separate and apart. Being “The Chosen” may mean that we are commanded to stand apart, and to be the clarion call for an ethical and moral code by which we are to live our lives. While other cultures and societies live and pattern themselves according to a moral and ethical standard, we are to raise the bar, set the standard, and serve as the standard bearers for living an ethical and moral life. By so doing we enrich the world and at the same time fulfill our mission of Tikkun Olam. Why is it uncomfortable to realize that in this sense we are “The Chosen”?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mea Culpa

Last year when I began blogging I had to decide whether to do so under my name or under a pseudonym as so many others do. Because I believe in accountability and assuming responsibility for my actions, I decided that the only honest approach was to use my name and full disclosure as to who I am and what I stand for. This I did for better or worse. Many of my positions aren’t necessarily popular among certain persuasions within the community but without an exchange of ideas how can we understand each other and how can we grow into a stronger more confident and loving community?

Recently I posted an essay that infuriated people who visit my site. My dear friend, (who at this stage of my life I can say life long friend), Rabbi Harry Maryles, expressed his discontent with the nature, content and tone of the essay. Because of my deep respect for him I reread the essay several times, and in all candor and in deference to his judgment and others, agree in part.

With regard to the content and message, I stand by it. There is no point in belaboring the point, but the substantive message is something I believe to be valid. With regard to the tone, and choice of verbiage I can only say I was wrong, too severe and didn’t exercise the good judgment by which I was raised and educated. Unfortunately, when poor wording and tone overpower the intent, the message is lost. Had I been aware of the brutal tone, and the anguish it caused I would have reworked it so as to get the idea across without insulting anyone or any organization.

As a result of the harsh tone of the essay my commitment to Ahavat Yisrael was put into question. My record speaks for itself. For the many of you who don’t know me I have an obsession with Am Yisrael and Ahavat Yisrael. I took an oath at the Kotel many years ago to stand in defense of Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. That pledge has never left my consciousness from that moment. Although I was discharged from Zahal a long time ago, I was never discharged from the oath I took. Not once, and not twice I put my life on the line when in defense of my brothers and sisters in the shtachim. I never questioned their religious affiliation, or their political association. I saw them as my people who I dearly love. I may disagree with their religious practice, philosophy and politics, but I would never have stood by and let someone say a derogatory word or threaten them. A threat to them is a direct threat to me. A derogatory word at them was a derogatory word at me. Al Ta-amod Al Dam Re-acha was as applicable then as it is today.

I am aware that I have indeed insulted some people and I am sorry for that. All I can say is I shall, in the future, exercise better judgment when approaching a theme I wish to address.

With or Without a Bracha

Passover is behind us but the freedom we celebrate as earmarked by Pesach isn’t quite over-not until Shavuot when the process is complete and we mark our lives with the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Between these two seminal events are a series of occurrences which serve as benchmarks, sign posts which guide us along so we can appropriately accept Torah. It is a very special time of year because it is marked with so many significant events, in effect creating for us a unique and special state of mind.

Our Rabbis teach us that the three days before Shavuot are called the Shloshet Yimei Hagbalah. These were the days of preparation in anticipation of receiving God’s law, the Torah at Sinai. But beyond the Shloshet Yimei Hagbala there has developed in our history a series of other benchmarks which without giving them their due is very difficult to approach Shavuot with a full heart. Commemorating Yom Hashoa, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut are three very painfully difficult events that all happen within a few short weeks of each other, each emotionally exhausting. Ostensibly, each has its own unique purpose and reason, but if we read Jewish History existentially one realizes that the three events merge into the other, blurring the unique distinctions of each of them. Psychologically this period becomes a block of time, its own unique dimension that we as Jews collectively enter and pass through. Binding them together is the Sefirat Haomer. In effect the Sefirat Haomer becomes the framework, the boundaries of this dimension.

Sefirat Haomer is an important ritual, a time marker by which we measure movement from Passover to Shavuot. We are commanded by the Torah to count the 49 days leading up to Shavuot on the fiftieth day. We celebrate the counting of the Omer for other reasons as well. In the desert after the exodus our ancestors prepared themselves for the Sinaitic revelation during those 49 days. But there are other reasons why we mark these 49 days so stringently. These are the days when Rabbi Akiva lost his 24000 students to disease. We also mark the suffering and heavy loss of life during the crusades.

Sefirat Haomer then, clearly isn’t meant to be a perfunctory ritual that one recites nightly with or without a Bracha, depending on the consistency of one’s performance. It really is a time when the need to sit back and take stock of our collective Jewish history is compelling, to consider where we’ve been, where we are going and how we are going to get there.

So I place within this existential framework, this unique dimension of Sefirat Haomer, accessible only to feeling and thinking Jews our more current experiences of Shoa L’Tekumah, from destruction to renewal of our people and ask annually whether there is a connection between the Shoa and the Tekumah. The argument goes both ways and as so many other issues of Jewish existence we will have to defer the answer to future times, the meanwhile shelving it as a Teku.

What we ought to be pondering as well while navigating through this dimension is how we have been affected by the State of Israel’s existence and how much we have to be thankful for on this Yom Haatzmaut. Most of us can’t imagine our lives without Israel. Rather than focus on the negatives, let us but for a moment recall the contributions Israel has made over the past 59 years. Israel certainly continues to fulfill its divine mission of being an Or Lagoyim, a beacon to the nations of the world. When considering the contributions over the past 59 years in medicine, science, technology and environmental research and studies one must take pause and ask if this is possible. When taking into account Israel’s contribution to the study of religious/sacred texts in yeshivot or academic institutions, ethical research and its applications, the humanities and literature it is difficult to fathom. Beyond that Israel has given us the intangible hope for a better Jewish future for our children and future generations. It has made us proud and determined to succeed and Israel has taught us that self sacrifice for the greater good of our people is right and noble.

I have a very close friend who has accompanied me through life since puberty. Every year he asks me the same question: did I manage to complete the cycle of Sefirat Haomer with a Bracha? And every year I answer him with a question as a good Jew would: Did you say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut with a Bracha?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hakol Kol Yaakov V’Hayidayim…

Agudas Israel is indeed a very strange organization. Whenever you throw politics into the religious equation, lies, deceit and corruption inevitably follow. Corruption doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around sex of financial impropriety. It can also be associated with “geneivat dat”, deception.

Deception apparently runs deep in Agudas Israel. Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of Public affairs of Agudas Israel was instrumental in having a text book published by Scholastic Inc. recalled and republished. The original version of the book suggested that orthodox Jews deny the Jewishness of conservative and reform Jews. Shafran wrote that

“no orthodox Jew of any stripe considers anyone born of a Jewish mother of halachically converted, regardless of her affiliation or beliefs to be anything other than Jewish.”

Hakol Kol Yaakov, V’haidayim Yidei Esau- what incredible deception. A Conservative conversion, while totally halachic, isn’t regarded by Agudah as acceptable or recognized. Those converted by any of the movements other than those of the Orthodox aren’t considered Jewish. An Orthodox Rabbi would not perform the marriage between a Jew by birth and one converted through the conservative movement. The State of Israel won’t recognize the conversion either. Agudah won’t allow a Conservative rabbi to sit on the beis din as a participating member for the witnessing of the conversion. Thus the original statement made by Scholastic Inc. was correct. Hakol Kol Yaakov, their deception knows no limits when they wish to appear before the progressive world in an ingratiating manner promoting themselves as tolerant and embracing. Hayadayim Yidei Esau – we know how deceptive you are.

Agudah, for a long time has been trying to position itself within the political power structure in order to gain more influence and benefits on behalf of its members. In Israel they have been on a different track since there it is a political party and have been instrumental in manipulating the system for its own benefit. In the United States they serve more as lobby, greasing the machine and sucking up to the power brokers. It is sort of creepy to think of them hanging out with congressman and senators, telling them whatever they want to hear , smiling, handshaking, but knowing all the while that in truth they are tolerated for as long as they can be of service to Agudah. Hakol Kol Yaakov, V’hayidayim Yidei Esau.

Agudah, like every other lobbying group couldn’t give a hoot about anything other than what concerns them directly. The National Rifle Association couldn’t really give a darn about all the violence due to a lack of good gun control. Agudah doesn’t care about our environment or global warming as long as they get a few bucks for their programs.

Recently Agudah issued a press release in support of the war in Iraq. How nice, how patriotic. Not only do Agudah members in Israel not serve in the IDF in any proportionate numbers, but how many of them serve in the U.S. Forces? Not only don’t they serve, they aren’t encouraged to serve their nation in defense against terrorism. Let the goyim spill their own blood and we’ll encourage them to do so!

Truth be told, Agudah could care less about the welfare of America or the war in Iraq. For them it is only a tool to achieve their own goals, alignment with the conservative America and differentiating themselves from Reform Judaism:

“We feel compelled to express our views at his time because the Union For Reform Judaism, purporting to have arrived at its position through an application of halachic norms? And Jewish values? Has publicly proclaimed its opposition to the presidents policy…but the position…nor reflects authentic Jewish values…”

This isn’t the first time Agudah has used the term “authentic Jewish values” nor will it be the last time. What are authentic Jewish values? Why does Agudah assume that their spin is more authentic than the other movements? Who gave Agudah the right to define authentic values? By what right have they usurped the right to speak for all of us. What about the values espoused by other Orthodox groups or for that matter Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Renewal movements? And who designated Agudah as the last word regarding authentic Jewish Values?

It would appear that before Agudah presumes the presumptive right to speak on behalf of authentic Judaism they need to learn that the concept of Hakol Kol Yaakov V’hayidayim Yedei Esau has no place within authentic Judaism.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

An Ethical Conundrum

Jonathan Rosenlum in a recent essay, Israel’s Bright Spot found something positive to say about Israeli society instead of his usual lament. Initially the article seemed to make sense and I was pleased that finally something positive was being said about Israeli secular society. But upon rereading the essay I found that it had the usual condescending attitude towards the non religious community while at the same time finding strange bedfellows with the believing God fearing Christian right.

It seems that to people such as Jonathan R. only religious people have a monopoly on a true transcendent value system with concern for the future, and somehow connects that to Israeli culture and the pintele yid. What about the humanists who have a highly sensitized value system? While their moral system doesn’t come in cookie cutter absolutes, they struggle with seeking solutions for complex ethical questions that require more than standard black and white answers. How would Rosenblum categorize Hashofet Chaim Cohen, z”l, a humanist, the personification of a transcendent human being while at the same time an atheist? What about Albert Einstein, a deeply principled scientist, with values far transcending” the pleasure seeking animals whose life has no purpose” that Rosenblum attributes to those of no faith. Einstein, wasn’t a believer in the God of Orthodox Judaism, but subscribed to Baruch Spinoza’s understanding of God. Would he write off Spinoza too as a man who was pleasure seeking, whose life has no purpose outside itself and ends with death?

He sings praise to the Israeli researchers who discover and design incredible life saving medical advances and scientific discovery that enhance our lives.. How can these achievements be made if all these scientists are concerned with is the here and now, satisfying our physical need for pleasure. These men of science and letters are men of conscience, men struggling with interpreting the meaning of life and its value no less than and perhaps more so than a religious Jew who carries with him a host of biases and prejudices against anyone not subscribing to their belief system. It is these prejudices harbored by the religious communities who have in the past been responsible for so much hate and violence, even on a local level, where fighting for successorship leadership is fraught with violence and malice towards one another.

To further his argument, J. Rosenblum enlists the support of Pope Benedict XVI when he says “that Europe is losing faith in its own future and seems to be going down a road which could lead it to take its leave from history.” This is the same Pope who protested against Israel waging war against Hizbollah last year. This is the same Pope whose emissary refused to attend the opening ceremonial event at Yad V’shem on Yom Hashoa because Pope Pious XII wasn’t portrayed in a positive light regarding the destruction of the six million Jews.

What transcendent values is Jonathan R. referring to? Jewish blood has soaked the soil of eastern and western Europe for over a thousand years all in the name of religion, all in the name of Jesus Christ. The crusades alone give testimony to a world out of control all in the name of God. We Jews are also not too innocent when it comes to mass killing or indiscriminate killing. Just read our sacred texts and you will get quite a dose of our transcendent value system all in the name of God and religion. If one looks at history one would be hard pressed to find atheists who were responsible for most of the blood shed and wars. In fact most of the wars were the result of religious conflict either in the name of Jesus, Allah or the Jewish God.

J. Rosenblum is too quick in writing off the non orthodox Jewish community, and seems as though it were wishful thinking on his part as if to vindicate his own religious convictions. He dare claim that secular Israeli Jews have not yet concluded “that there is nothing worth fighting for in the world”. You’re damned right, J. Rosenblum. They are fighting an existential battle, but they are fighting it while at the same time maintaining a transcendent moral system, unlike many religious Jews who would prefer to kill or drive out of the land every Muslim as though they carried the stigma of Amalek. Incidentally, if it is true that Israelis, unlike their American counterpart believe in something worth fighting for, why aren’t your haredi brothers joining the battle?

A Muse: Tazria & Metzora

The power of the word is no more apparent than in Leviticus 14:38. In effect the priest plays a central role in that society. The priest has the power to declare and render someone unfit to be outside of the “camp”. Determining who is in and who is out has positive upside but also possibly negative downside.

Let us consider a priest who is pure and holy, one whose concern is only the spiritual and physical welfare of his people. By his word will people be moved to action, and hopefully, while there may be some discomfort for the individual, society as a whole will benefit. On the other hand let us assume that the priest is corrupt and his interests aren’t necessarily identifiable with the best interests of the community he represents. It is then possible that he could bring harm not only to the individual, but to those whom he represents. The Bible doesn’t really present us with a system of checks and balances. During the second Temple period we are made aware of much corruption among the priestly class. How many suffered as a result of that corruption?

Fast forward to 2007: Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton have the power of the word. Their word as “priests” of society are what helped determine the outcome of Imus and the prejudicial treatment of the Duke University defendants. Unfortunately both of them are corrupt and their interests aren’t representative of the interests of America (just reference their role in the Yankele Rosenblatt murder and the Harlem store arson resulting in seven dead). Yet we have enabled them to put some innocent people outside the camp.
The power of the word is no more apparent than in Leviticus 14:38. In effect the priest plays a central role in that society. The priest has the power to declare and render someone unfit to be outside of the “camp”. Determining who is in and who is out has positive upside but also possibly negative downside.

Let us consider a priest who is pure and holy, one whose concern is only the spiritual and physical welfare of his people. By his word will people be moved to action, and hopefully, while there may be some discomfort for the individual, society as a whole will benefit. On the other hand let us assume that the priest is corrupt and his interests aren’t necessarily identifiable with the best interests of the community he represents. It is then possible that he could bring harm not only to the individual, but to those whom he represents. The Bible doesn’t really present us with a system of checks and balances. During the second Temple period we are made aware of much corruption among the priestly class. How many suffered as a result of that corruption?

Fast forward to 2007: Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton have the power of the word. Their word as “priests” of society are what helped determine the outcome of Imus and the prejudicial treatment of the Duke University defendants. Unfortunately both of them are corrupt and their interests aren’t representative of the interests of America (just reference their role in the Yankele Rosenblatt murder and the Harlem store arson resulting in seven dead). Yet we have enabled them to put some innocent people outside the camp.

A Muse: Shimini 2007

Interestingly enough the incident of Nadav and Avihu are relevant today. As you may recall, Nadav and Avihu, were the sons of Aron. They were priests entrusted to serve in the Mishkan. The Bible relates to us that they were killed by an act of God for disobeying the instructions of the ritual worship service. The text tells us that they offered an Aish Zarah, a strange or different fire offering that wasn’t part of the prescribed ritual. As a result they were summarily killed.

Apparently there are certain religious norms that we are commanded to follow, and beyond that we shouldn’t wonder. A line in the sand has been drawn and as Jews we are expected to seek out God through those acceptable channels. Going beyond that constitutes an Aish Zarah. But how do we determine whether or not we have crossed the normative line?

The mishichistim, a sub cult of the Chabad Lubavitch may or may not have crossed the line, and are offering an Aish Zarah.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Revolving Door Judaism

Twentieth century American Judaism has created the inevitable and perhaps desirable revolving door Judaism. People coming in and people going out-Jews entering at certain entry points and others leaving at different points of egress. That is what living in a democracy is all about - choices and the freedom to choose. Not only is the twenty first century Jew a Jew by choice, but he can also decide what type of observance and intensity he wishes.

The phenomenon of chozrim be’sheela (lapsed religious Jew) is not anything new. It’s been going on since the “emancipation”, and perhaps personified by such great thinkers as Moses Mendelssohn and Solomon Maimon. Judging from the Jewish news media and blogoshere one would think that it’s a new phenomenon, revolutionizing the Jewish world and wreaking havoc on the orthodox religious establishment. For years now the reverse movement of the baale teshuva (newly religious) has been scrutinized with little negative press, and rarely criticized by the secular media. Israeli stars like Uri Zohar, dropped out of secular Israeli society only to re-emerge as a haredi (ultra orthodox) rabbi accorded the respect even by the secularists as a man who chose to embrace his religion as a choice. The same logic ought to be used for those opting for a point of egress from religious life.

What is particularly disturbing in the latest round of discussion over the issue of chozrim b’sheela is the tone by which the issue has been addressed. The tone of the discussion is very much rooted in the communities they represent. Baalei teshuva are generally favorably accepted into their newly adopted communities. They are able to do so because the adoptive communities feel vindicated and justified for their life style. They also have a sense of empowerment: a secular Jew has rejected his secular life style in favor of a religious one. In the language of the Bible and daily prayers they see the application of the victory of the righteous over the secular humanists. A religious Jew leaving his community is treated as a pariah, an outcast to be chided.

When a secular Jew chooses to join a religious community the reaction is not nearly as severe as the reaction of the religious community in experiencing the loss of one of theirs to the secular community. When a member of a haredi family opts out of religious observance he is regarded virtually as an apostate, and shunned. Not so when a secular Jew chooses to become religious. There may be some awkward moments, but he certainly is not shunned. Whereas the religious community welcomes the baal teshuva into its ranks as a sign of victory of right over wrong, light over dark, the secular see the baal teshuva as someone in search of meaning making a choice that will hopefully answer his spiritual needs.

The distinction being made may be subtle, but not negligible. Haredim view the world in the familiar contrast of back and white, good and evil, right and wrong, frum and non frum, Jew and gentile. Relativism is not part of their language and they cannot discern between subtle differences and circumstances that might mitigate a decision made counter to the prevailing mores and norms of their community. (Perhaps that is why they favor the color black, because it has few if any variant color shades to it). The secular Jew, the humanist, sees the world in which he lives as a complex set of choices and opportunities. Making one choice over another does not necessarily imply a negation over the other options. There is an implied respect for all legitimate lifestyles, keeping judgment in check without the need to negate or deligitimize one choice in favor of another.

Interestingly enough, the Jerusalem Post article of March 8, “God Forbid” and a posting in Cross Currents of March 12, “The wonders of Leaving Observance” reflects this difference between the two communities. Whereas the Jerusalem Post article reported on the work of the organization Hillel and its volunteer staff in aiding chozrim b’sheela in a non judgmental and benign manner, the essay appearing in Cross Currents was pernicious, acerbic and judgmental.

Yaakov Menkin who authored the essay in Cross Currents sets the tone in his article by referring to the Jerusalem Post as a “puff piece”. This is the classic and predictable tactic of the haredim. Attack, attack, attack, because we’re under attack! Attack and delegitimize the enemy. Menkin, to make his point has to invent and misinform his readership by explaining that humanists believe that “observance is inherently abusive” because it is the unanimous opinion of psychologists that reconciliation is best in anything but an abusive relationship. He concludes therefore that humanists consider observance inherently abusive. Menkin’s tactic is an old but transparent technique of setting up a paper tiger and then tearing it down. How disengenious!

More disturbing than his perverse understanding of humanism is his systematic character assassination of Yaron Yadan, whom he sees as a tragic and “pathetic individual who abandoned his wife and children”. Rather than address the issues pertaining to chozrim b’sheela he focuses on personal attack. To make sure he makes his point he continues insinuating that such tragic figures are not in short supply. So, Menkin inadvertently admits to the fact that there are plenty of haredim who have dropped out. In his mind, however they are all tragic and pathetic people.

I’m not at the least surprised that Menkin did not take note of the issues prompting the phenomenon of chozrim b’sheela. I’m not surprised that he only related to Hillel, an Israeli organization, but failed to address the fact that in New York the organization “Footsteps” is alive and well doing a brisk business of integrating lapsed haredim into society. Menkin, like so many other haredim are in denial that the number of defectors in their community is growing as more and more of this community look for choices. Just a cursory surfing of the net will attest to the growing multitude of blogs initiated by the disaffected haredim in the U.S. and Israel.

It seems that Menkin gets a perverse pleasure in knowing that a chozer b’sheela returned to the fold when he points out that the founder of the Irgun L’chozrim B’sheela became a chozer b’teshuva. All this does is buttress my position that we are fast becoming a revolving door Judaism, with many entry and exits points. Who knows, maybe Menkin’s model baal teshuva will become a chozer b’sheela again!