Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Muse: B'ha-alotecha

This week’s portion presents us with an interesting window into the development of religious institutional life in the wilderness. Hitherto, Moses exercised exclusive leadership over the Israelites, tolerating little dissidence. Those who dissented were eliminated from the community either by a calamitous event or through a purge.
In this weeks portion however there is reference to two events which point to loosening of the controls-perhaps a move toward the democratization of leadership. Chapter 11:16 presents Moses with necessary challenge to convene 70 of the elders in the Tent of Meeting in order to give counsel to Moses, and share the burden of leadership and governance. In verse 27 of the same chapter we read of the incident of Eldad and Medad who independently prophesied and whom Joshua wanted silenced, by force if necessary. Moses resisted Joshua’s suggestion, rejecting rule by oligarchy and embracing the talent and leadership of these two.
It would seem that Moses learned an invaluable lesson about leadership. Control by fiat isn’t necessarily the most effective form of leadership. While one person may be an extraordinary visionary it doesn’t necessarily follow that he possesses all the answers. Moses was prepared to convene the 70 wise men in the Tent of Meeting and by doing so underscored his commitment to the process of democratization and shared leadership. This also becomes evident when he allows Eldad and Medad to continue their prophetic work. Incidentally, it is worth considering the possibility that Korach’s rebellion resulted from Moshe’s attempt at shared leadership and democratization.
It would appear that rabbinic leadership in America would be so much more effective if they followed Moshe’s example and took counsel from the well educated lay leadership. Elitist rabbinic groups such as the Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah have much to learn from the tolerance shown by Moshe Rabbenu as well as from God’s command to convene the lay leadership so that governance can be shared making it more meaningful and more effective.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Indian Giver

I feel some vindication for my hard nose stand against the haredi establishment in Israel. Apparently the haredi click has decided to alter halacha and sculpt it to suit their political needs. Had I not read the piece “You’re not Jewish Anymore” by Rivkah Lubitch in Ynet on May 18 and the subsequent articles in the Israel press I wouldn’t have believed it. Without having researched it I can probably say that this is a first.

According to the article, a rabbinical judge ruled that a woman who converted to Judaism 15 years before was no longer Jewish because he wasn’t satisfied with her level of shemirat mitzvoth. The judge not only rendered her not Jewish, but also her son and that the marriage was invalid. The judge ordered that she, her child and husband be added to the list of those not allowed to be married by an orthodox rabbi.

Interestingly, Rabbi Haim Druckman was the rabbi who headed the conversion court on Rivka Lubitch’s behalf. For those not familiar with Rabbi Haim Druckman’s background he is one of the noted and remarkable religious Zionists. He heads of one of five courts within the Conversion Authority established in 2003, and considered to have a more liberal position regarding conversion standards than the Chief Rabbinate. His liberalism, however, doesn’t mean that his standards for the candidate to be converted are lenient. He simply doesn’t insist that the other member of the candidate’s family be observant. The candidate for conversion is required to be shomer mitzvoth. The fact that the candidates spouse, parents etc. are not shomer mitzvoth has no relevance to the candidate’s conversion. This doesn’t sit very well with the Chief Rabbi Amar and to counterbalance R’ Druckman , Rabbi Amar has tried to have appointed more haredi judges associated with R’Nissim Karelitz and R’ Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

It would appear that this particular woman has been sacrificed on the altar of politics. Rabbi Druckman had been involved in several conversion pilot programs that were backed by Prof. Benjamin Ish Shalom’s Joint Conversion Institute which was a collaboration of orthodox, conservative and reform Judaism. Of the seven members of the administration, five were orthodox (not haredi), and the other two represented Reform and Conservative Judaism. It would appear that these grand rabbis were out to torpedo Rabbi Druckman regardless of the collateral damage. They are even willing to fictionalize halacha to suit their needs.

Can anyone share with me any halachic references that can justify the revocation of a conversion? Perhaps one can say that the convert is a “choteh”, but to render that person as not Jewish is ridiculous. Furthermore, to render their marriage as no marriage assuming there were witnesses, yichud etc is unfounded in Jewish law, unless one is so creative that he slips into fiction. At any rate, I was taught as child that once you give something to someone you can no longer take it back. Doing so would render you an Indian Giver. I realize, of course, that the expression isn’t politically correct and I can’t remember the last time I used it. Funny, this expression came to mind when thinking about poor Mrs. Rivka Lubitch and the rascals that caused her so much unnecessary pain, anguish and embarrassment. Shame on them and shame on us for tolerating such an injustice!!!!!

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Muse: Naso 2007

In Numbers 6:1-21 we read of the laws of the nazirite. A nazir (consecrated or separated) may not drink wine, grapes, wine vinegar or raisins. He mustn’t cut his hair or beard and must avoid graves, corpses, even of family members.

The status of Nazir is complicated because on the one hand he is “holy unto the Lord” but at the same time he has to bring a sin offering. Which is it - is he holy or is he a sinner? Clearly there is ambivalence regarding the status of a nazir and this wasn’t lost on our sages. Rabbi Samuel Hakappar understood the sin to be that in taking on the vow, the nazir denied himself those pleasures allowed and encouraged in our Torah. Rabbi Eliezer on the other hand argued that being a nazir wasn’t a sin unless he defiled himself. Only then was he to bring the sin offering.

Either way one wishes to view the reason for the nazir’s penalty, all agree that the nazir is an extreme life style. Even according to R’Eliezer, while being a nazir may not be a sin, nevertheless the outcomes virtually assure the need to bring a sin offering. Extremism is discouraged in our tradition and he who chooses to take an oath to live in the extreme is violating our tradition even if he is holy to god.

There are times when we feel the need to assume extreme and inflexible positions either in our domestic relationships, business or in politics. The Torah portion is underscoring the need for caution. While our motives may be holy, the outcome may place us in a position where we need to seek expiation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Muse: Megillat Rut

Megillat Rut is interesting in that it portrays the lives of our ancestors in a totally different light that how we see ourselves today. When reading the story there are several themes that jump out and suggest a need to reassess our Jewish outlook on life.

The first thing that strikes me is the role women play in the story and that nevertheless our sages incorporated the Megilla into the Cannon. True, in the Biblical text there is an inordinate amount of attention and importance given to the matriarchs, however they are counterbalanced by their husbands who dominate the Biblical narratives. In Megillat Rut, Boaz is a foil, and the narrative is dominated by women.

The conversion process in Megillat Rut also appears to be a genuine and seamless entry point into Jewish life. Rut’s declaration of faith and her willingness and eagerness to place her lot with the rest of the Hebrews is what it is really all about. Unlike the artificial, cumbersome and politically controlled system in Israel today, that of which we read in the Megilla seems warm and inviting.

It would also appear that society then as opposed to now was more open and inviting. The manner in which the Moabites are described and handled in the text doesn’t carry any negative connotations. It would appear that there was a greater interchange and social intercourse between people of different faiths.

Intermarriage although loathed and discouraged in our texts was something that did happen. I t would appear from the narrative in Megillat Rut that intermarriage which occurred within the family of Naomi wasn’t all that unusual. After all the text doesn’t refer to it in a pejorative manner, nor does it seem all that surprising from the text. It seems to be a given. (We also know that Samson who lived during the period of the Shoftim also consorted with the Philistines in Gaza. Although his family didn’t approve, it was tolerated, nor was he ostracized). This is not to say that we should welcome intermarriage, but in view of its prevalence within the Jewish community we need to find the correct responses to it, as was obviously found by our ancestors.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Ruth - A Story for Our Times

When left to our own devices life can be relatively uncomplicated. Only when interlopers are interjected does life become more complicated than necessary. When two people terminate their marriage it almost always becomes more complicated when legal counsel is involved. Lawyers, by definition exist in order to muddy up the waters. The more complicated they make things the more money they make. Another good example of this principal is the arrangements made between the Rabbanut Harashit and the local rabbinical associations in the Diaspora regarding conversion. As soon as rabbinical institutions interjected themselves into the equation the conversion process became cumbersome, complicated and in some cases humiliating.

The Story of Ruth illustrates how simple, straight forward and innocent conversion was in the time of the Judges. Ruth, a Moabite woman returned to Bethlehem with her mother in law, Naomi after the demise of their husbands, In spite of Naomi’s concern for Ruth’s return, Ruth vowed that she would share in the fortunes of her mother in law. Without a lot of effort and political machination, Ruth, as a result of her seamless and conversion is considered to be the prototype of the righteous convert. Naomi tried to discourage her by conveying the message regarding the stringencies of Jewish Law. When Naomi tells her that Jewish daughters do not frequent theatres she replied “where you go I will go”; when informed that Jewish daughters only dwell in houses with mezuzot she responded “where you lodge I will lodge.” And her declaration that “thy God shall be my God” meant that she was in total identification with the Jewish people.

The two principles guiding her conversion was Ruth’s total identification with the Jewish Laws and social mores and customs of the Hebrews. The second principal, that of total identity with the fate of the Jewish people was no less significant. Fast forward to Israel of the 21st century and the picture is remarkably, but not surprisingly different. The conversion process is cumbersome and unfortunately but due to the politics of the Rabbanut Harashit is corrupt. Standards in Israel for conversion are not uniform and can even be orchestrated if one is politically connected. I even remember two situations with totally different outcomes. An American basketball player playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, wishing to marry an Israeli Jew surprisingly arranged for a conversion “lickity split.” In my battalion, there was a soldier of Russian decent, born in Israel to a Christian mother, raised in all the holidays and traditions of the Jewish people, identified totally with his people and died l’maan hamoledet but wasn’t allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

One only has to look to the tragedy of the conversion process of Ethiopian Jewry to understand the problems associated with the Chief Rabbinate. The Ethiopian Religious leadership was promised that upon Aliya they would be able to continue to live according to their custom and practice. After their arrival, the Rabbinate insisted that without conversion they could not marry. It didn’t matter that for thousands of years they followed the Jewish custom, practice and law as was given to them. It didn’t matter that for thousands of years they identified totally with the People of Israel. It didn’t matter that for thousands of years they looked to Zion and prayed for their return to Zion. In the end the Rabbinate had their way and the conversions took place regardless of the humiliation and degradation of a very proud and dignified community that survived against al odds for thousands of years in Galut.

If we go back to our sources in Hichot Ishut there is a principle: In a country where the majority of inhabitants are Jewish a person is considered Jewish As long as it wasn’t proven otherwise. Maimonides comments that who ever comes and says that he was a gentile, but converted is believed because the mouth that admitted he is gentile is the same mouth that said he converted . According to Maimonides this applies in Israel. His position is buttressed by T.B. Pesachim that when a person claims to be Jewish we don’t check for verification. The Smag comments that strangers oftentimes visited his town, were not checked as to their status, but ate and drank with them, accepting their shechita as acceptable. The guiding concept here is we try as best we can to make the process of conversion as painless, seamless and as dignified as possible.

Traditionally our sages in their wisdom sought the common ground and not that which divides and polarizes us. Rather than create barriers and make it exceedingly difficult for the conversion process to go forward, our rabbis and sages in T.B. Megilla declared that if one reject idol worship he is considered Jewish. The need to simplify the process was so understood that even Rabbi Yehudah declared in T.B. Yevamot that in Israel a convert does not have to prove he was converted by the Beit Din.

It is understandable how it was that Ruth’s conversion was so painless and blessed. If that were only true today for all those seeking conversion by the Chief rabbinate. I am reminded of the famous medrash “shelo neemar kan pitchu shaarim vyavou kohanim leviim vyisraelim, ela vyavou goy tzadik shomer imunim. (Sifra Acharei Mot). But as I said earlier and if I may quote myself “When left to our own devices life can be relatively uncomplicated. Only when interlopers are interjected does life become more complicated than necessary.”

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Religious Intolerance

Ever since the Taliban became a threatening presence in the life of democratic and peace loving people I’ve had this dreaded fear that one day, intolerance would reign supreme in Israel. I’m not so sure that this is a far fetched threat or as others has told me, bordering on the paranoid. It isn’t all that far farfetched because Israel happens not to have a separation of church and state. The day could come when politically the religious parties could hold the majority of seats and usurp power reigning religious intolerance on the majority of secular Jews in Israel.

The fact of the matter is that in a sense there already is the foundations of religious intolerance, what we term in Hebrew as k’fia daatit. On example of that would be marriage. The founding fathers of Israel, incorrectly assumed that for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people all matters relating to marriage and divorce ought to be in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. By so doing, intermarriage and mamzerut issues resulting from an unholy union would be minimized. Truth be told, most Israelis resent having this arrangement and would prefer the option of choosing how and by whom they were marrying.

Earlier I pointed out that our founding fathers incorrectly assumed that blending religion and state would maintain the unity of our people. They were incorrect for a variety of reasons: A woman who marries a man through a civil ceremony and procreates, her offspring are not considered mamzeirim. Furthermore, if she wishes to marry a second time to a religious Jew via the offices of the Rabbinate this too is not a problem, because in the eyes of halacha she had not previously been married and thus she could marry halachically. So in effect there really is no legitimate reason to hold the country hostage for the sake of the Rabbinate’s need to control the lives of its citizens.

Religious intolerance is unfortunately deeply rooted in the halachic tradition and as such it isn’t unrealistic to believe that one day circumstances could lend themselves to a situation where a theocratic system of government reigns as a result of a confluence of political circumstances. A quick survey of Biblical text and rabbinic literature will illustrate the point. In Deuteronomy 13:14-16 is a good indication of the level intolerance set up in our faith system:

That some scoundrels from among you have gone and subverted the inhabitants of their town saying ‘come let us worship other gods’ you shall investigate…and interrogate thoroughly. If it is true…put the inhabitants of that town to the sword…Doom it and all that is in it to destruction.

There is of course a host of interpretations as well as interpretive guidelines regarding the application of such a difficult commandment, and it is questionable if it ever happened. The point however is that psychologically the text has displayed little room for tolerance and any sense of pluralism. A reading of Joshua will provide additional biblical examples of intolerance once we entered Canaan. Centuries later, the Macabees displayed little tolerance for those Jews who chose to Hellenize.

In the Talmud, T.B. 106a there is a principle that a person can be forced until he submits. This is within the context of religious observance. The underlying idea is that the sages believed that every Jew deep down, within his heart of hearts wishes to fulfill the commandments. Forcing him is only justified if it is believed that the sinner can be genuinely convinced and that his real and true desire is to obey the law. In all fairness there were dissenters to this opinion and believed that forcing someone into observance wasn’t acceptable. R’ Meir Simcha Cohen in his seminal opus Or Sameach comments the forcing (kfia) is used as a means of convincing one that as a result of which, a person will, out of the fullness of his heart perform the mitzvoth of his own free will.

Again we see that in the Talmud, T.B. Ktuvot 91a, Chulin 132a that If one is told to build a Sucah (tabernacle or booth) and he refuses, or to take up a lulov (palms) and refuses, or to put on tzitzit (religious fringes) and refuses he can be whipped “ad shetaitzei Nafsho”. This is referred to as Macot Mardut as opposed to the punishment of Malkot (lashings). In Macot Mardut the amount of lashes is not circumscribed, but is continued “ad shtaitzei Nafsho”, as opposed to Malkot which has a prescribed number of lashes.

While corporal punishment for not obeying halacha is no longer acceptable other means by which to accomplish the goal of shemirat mitzvoth by the general public has been applied. Legislation, or political blackmail, which is lawful and has the feeling of a democratic process, has been the normative methodology of forcing Israelis to heed the law. (Incidentally, the Chief Rabbinate under the questionable guidance of Rabbi Amar, is trying his autocratic method on the RCA with limited success yet.) This has been accomplished and in practice since 1948 when it comes to marriage and divorce in Israel. However, no matter what the argument is to justify the Chief rabbinate’s involvement, there is a sense of religious intolerance practiced in Israel today. The leap from that to total, full blown intolerance isn’t that great, given the sources mentioned and the ethos of the rabbinate.

My fear is that religious intolerance can actuate and should be seen as unacceptable for democratic loving people. Intolerance damages the autonomy that each of us treasure as well as our self esteem. Even if we accept intolerance passively, ultimately it corrodes our national sense self esteem. Only a dictator can make someone behave against his conscience, and as I pointed out, if the Chief Rabbinate had their druthers we would be living under some form of theocratic oligarchy. The question is what kind of government would want it citizens to live in a way that was contrary to their conscience? A self confident country, an enlightened country, one that honors its citizens, whoever and whatever they are, is a country that honors the conscience of his people, and their ability to make intelligent and enlightened choices. Israel to conduct itself in any other way would be a mockery of its Zionist ideology and heritage. So why do I fear the eruption of a benign “talibanesque” religious oligarchy in Israel?

Monday, May 14, 2007

A Muse: Bamidbar 2007

Sefer Bamidbar begins with God communicating with Moses in the Sinai wilderness. Interestingly, Moses first encounter with God was in the wilderness when God first appeared before Moses in the burning bush. It appears as though man’s biblical encounter with God is typically in the wilderness.

Ironically too, the spiritual growth of the Hebrews is manifest and developed in the desert, a wilderness of harsh climate, little nutrition and a place where man can find despair or God. It is also the story of our questionable commitment to a monotheistic faith, at times committed to the message of Moses but at other times in search of an alternative which will places the Hebrews in a comfort zone.

The ambivalence experienced in the desert can be understood metaphorically as our own quest for truth and clarity. Until each of us experiences his own personal revelation he is in the desert in search. Each of us is alone and in search, and by carefully listening to our conscience, to the “small voice” within each of us will we arrive at clarity.

This clarity unfortunately and in most cases is illusive as it was with the Hebrews in the wilderness. Even after the revelations and miraculous wonders, it didn’t take much until the Hebrews reverted to the comfort zone demanding less spiritual investment.

Bamidbar challenges us to understand the condition of man. Man at his most sensitive moments is in the dessert, emotionally fragile and secluded, disconnected with everything but his own feelings and conscience, in search of truth. The tension of needing to be in the desert but at the same time wanting to arrive at the promised land is the ever present polar tension and the condition of man in search.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Synaplex Syndrome

There is a growing concern among the Jewish professionals that the “millenials”, those Jews in their twenties and thirties aren’t affiliating with the Jewish community and there is a growing fear that assimilation is on the rise. So, what’s new? This has been happening for as long as I can remember!

There were the same concerns growing up in the sixties and seventies. The concern however wasn’t coming from the Orthodox community and for several reasons: The Orthodox community invested their money in day schools and yeshivot, while the liberal communities were committed to the public school system with supplemental after school religious education. The orthodox were role models for their kids. There was a consistency between the Jewish practice at home and that taught in the day school and yeshivot. Children had the feeling that they were living their lives without mixed messages. In contrast, the liberal movements consistently demonstrated a gap between t Jewish practices at home verses what they were taught in the religious school, synagogue or camp programs.

The liberal movements haven’t learnt much over the past forty years. While they have studied their past mistakes, for some unfathomable reason they can’t get it right. They seem to have locked themselves into a cycle and can’t manage to orbit out. To their credit they have built day schools and invested in the development of overnight camps modeled after the orthodox camps. In a way it feels like buying “knock off” Christian Dior sunglasses. The “knock offs” don’t have the same weight, glitz or finish. When you look at a pair of “knock offs” you can intuit that they’re phony. The liberal schools pattern themselves after the Orthodox but somehow it doesn’t ring genuine, and you can intuit it. Many of their teachers are drawn from the Orthodox community. One can well imagine the gap between what the student learns in school and what is practiced at home.

An example of this problem is inherent in their overnight camp programs. Ironically one of the camp systems in particular does not offer an option of one month, but all campers are required to attend for the entire two month program. The reason as explained to me is that they require the two months, the maximum, so as to inculcate in these kids the maximum and give them what they don’t receive all year at home. That is probably one of the principal reasons why there are so many young adults who feel disaffected and disenfranchised from the Jewish community.

The sixties and seventies were no different. What saved many of the disaffected from Jewish oblivion were some of the causes that crossed over all denominational lines. The Save Soviet Jewry movement and the Israel’s popularity after the six day war served as magnets to Jews who hitherto hadn’t been associated formally with the Jewish community. Others were attracted to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who appealed to that very generation of disaffected and was able to communicate with them in a language they understood.

Unfortunately, it appears that much of the concern these days amongst the Jewish leadership isn’t so much about the issues, but more about concern with the future financial support of our institutions in light of so many disaffected. Less is their concern for genuine core Jewish values, and more is their concern for the drop in synagogue membership which translates into less money collected for federation and other Jewish organizations. After all, buildings, infrastructure and Jewish bureaucrats that has been built over the past fifty years requires increased membership and revenue in order to fuel the machine.

The problem has never been with young adults. The problem has always been with the adult leadership, who haven’t a clear notion as to where they want to lead the community. The lack of altruism is alarming. One of their latest ploys is the “synaplex” approach to increase synagogue membership.

The “synaplex syndrome” is really symptomatic of a systemic problem running through the leadership of the Jewish community. Realizing that there is a problem with interesting young adults in synagogue life they sought to solve the problem by employing marketing strategies. Their hope was that enhancing synagogue membership would be a crucial step in increasing involvement (giving money) in Jewish organizational life. The Jewish community has invested millions in analyzing the “market” as if it were the Gap Stores competing with Banana Republic in increasing its market share. These issues won’t be solved by marketing strategies.

Young adults like anyone else respect honesty and integrity. When the Jewish community moves off of marketing strategies and commits itself, body and soul to Jewish values, then will there be a chance of influencing the disaffected. Until then we’ll continue to invest our money and energy in misguided enterprises such as “synaplexes” which haven’t a snowballs chance in hell of succeeding.

Monday, May 7, 2007

A Muse: B'har & B'chukotai

Parshat B’Har opens with the laws of the sabbatical (7th year) and jubilee (50th) years. For many, the laws seem to be removed from their personal experience because it refers to a time and place no longer relevant. Indeed the text tells us that on the sabbatical and jubilee years the land is supposed to remain fallow.

The text is interesting because of a certain consistency which follows throughout the Biblical text regarding our relationship to the land. In the creation story we are taught that we are but the custodians of the earth, and as such we need to protect it care for it and honor it. Later in Leviticus (25:2) and again in B’Har we are reminded of the need to honor the land. While in the creation story the need to honor and protect the land is universal, in B’Har it is referring to the land of Israel. In either case whether we live in Israel or any where else on God’s earth we are commanded to honor and protect it.

Some of the traditional commentaries like the Sefas Emes understand the commandment to symbolize our need to detach ourselves from materialism and to dedicate and cultivate ourselves to the spiritual side of life. However there are other commentaries like the Ashlich that believe the philosophy behind the commandment is the recognition that it is God who owns the land. Oftentimes, we forget this and abuse the land. By fulfilling this commandment we recognize that ultimately the land belongs to God. Hertz underscores our need to recognize that we are custodians of the land and as such we have the awesome responsible for maintaining it and perhaps improving what we received as custodians, but certainly not to diminish that which was entrusted to us by God.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Springtime for Liberation

While Passover is the holiday and celebration of freedom it also welcomes in the spring season. Springtime is a favorite for most, because it contrasts to the grey, long, cold winter season. Springtime is bursting with color and life, the great thaw, after the seemingly colorless long freeze, with life in hibernation. Springtime is a season that holds out promise for regeneration, hope and there is a prevailing sense of liberation. This past Passover was indeed a watershed festival because it was the first time ever that I ever sensed the winds of change and progress within the orthodox rabbinic establishment. It was an exhilarating feeling, filled with the hope that maybe at last we will be able to liberate ourselves from the dreary pre-holocaust Ashkenazi stranglehold on Jewish custom and tradition.

As a side bar to a lecture Professor Eliezer Berkovits gave while still his student, he lamented and lambasted the rabbinic establishment in Israel in particular the Chief Rabbinate, for lacking spiritual leadership and intellectual integrity. Professor Berkovits’ concern was that with the establishment of the new state, Jewish religious practice and ritual could no longer be business as usual. Medinat Yisrael, a politically independent Jewish state needed to address the pressing halachic/ethical issues which hitherto hadn’t been addressed appropriately in light of the newly founded independent Jewish state such as Agunah, medical transplants, autopsies and conversion issues.

The rabbinic establishment shied away from these issues not in small part because of the gestalt of the haredi community who seemed to have a firm stranglehold on the religious establishment and set the tone and agenda regarding religious practice. Their position was that pre-holocaust, eastern European Jewish values and culture must be preserved.

The Jewish demographics in Israel today doesn’t reflect those sentiments espoused in the 1950’s-1960’s. Then, most immigrants were of Ashkenazi descent with a smaller, less educated and leaderless fractured Sephardic community which tended to be deferential to the dominating Ashkenazi culture. Today Israel is a country with a smaller Ashkenazi community and a polyglot of heterogeneous Sephardic Jews as well as other ethnic groups who define themselves by their traditions and countries of origins. There are Indian Jews of Cochine or Bene Israel descent, Ethiopians, Yemenite and Jews from Arab lands who don’t necessarily define themselves within the broader definition of Sephardic. Clearly then we are not uniform or homogenous, nor do we have one singular cultural/halachic narrative. To insist therefore on maintaining our halachic system based upon pre-holocaust eastern European Jewish tradition lacks relevance and does not speak to the Jews of the 21st century in Israel or the Diaspora.

That is why it is so refreshing to read of the efforts of Rabbi David Ben Hayim, head of the Shilo Institute. He together with four other rabbis had the temerity and vision to issue a halachic opinion that would permit Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot (legumes). According to Ben Hayim, the custom of the land of Israel (where eating kitniyot is permissible on Passover) should take precedence over any other custom so as to unify the different communities.

What really is at stake here, is not whether Ashkenzim will be eating rice and humus on Passover but whether or not we will be successful in redefining who we are as Jews in light of the fact that we are an independent nation living on its own land. To cling to the customs of the Diaspora might be quaint and charming, but it ought not to be the light by which we define ourselves. Ben Hayim’s attempt at creating this cultural/halachic redefinition is a first step in sculpting the Jewish people into a cohesive community by the use of religious language where are tradition merges with relevance.

It would seem that Ashkenazi Jews might be given the alternative choices. Those who wish to honor the tradition of pre-holocaust eastern European Jewry should certainly do so. But those who wish to look forward to the bright and promising future in building a coherent community with a common language of tradition and culture ought to be able to do so without feelings of guilt or recrimination

Passover is a wonderful holiday for another reason. It is part of a season which culminates in the holiday of Shavuot when we celebrate the giving of the Law. The beauty of the Passover of the exodus generation, the “dor hamidbar” was that the Hebrews accepted the Torah unconditionally without the bias of history – they were truly liberated, a new generation who grew out of the wilderness. We too, ought to approach this season in the same spirit, without the bias of history, liberated and open to embrace God’s Law.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Muse: Emor

Chapter 24 verses 10-16 referring to the sin of blaspheming God follows the commandments of the Temple service regarding the lighting of the Menorah and the placement of the Show Breads on the Table. This in turn follows the calendar of festivals. There is a seeming disconnect between these commandments.

There was a concern that our collective spiritual health as a people while guided by a calendar with benchmark holy days wasn’t sufficient to guarantee our daily ethical behavior. While our spiritual peaks are marked by the intermittent holy days, the flames of the Menorah were to guide and remind us daily regarding our spiritual disposition. The Show Breads were to serve as daily reminders regarding the ethics that govern our concern for acquiring wealth.

But what about our relationship with those transcendent values the very underpinnings that make us a holy nation? How were we to preserve and guarantee their continuity? The narrative regarding the blasphemer was to serve as a bridge between these Temple laws of spiritual transcendence and the ethics of social behavior. Blaspheming those underpinnings and the foundations of our holiness as a nation would lead to an eventual breakdown of the moral and ethical system by which we thrive and without which society can’t function.