Monday, May 5, 2008

Seven Weeks to Liberation

Now that Passover 5768 is behind us and Shavuot is only weeks away I’m caught up in my annual dilemma. Is Passover a holiday celebrating freedom or liberation? If we contend that it is a freedom holiday then it is very limiting in scope; since it is related to a specific event-defined by time and space. If this is a correct reading of freedom then the Hagadah makes perfect sense when it invites us to retell the story as if we ourselves had been slaves in Egypt. While we may be free from Egyptian slavery one cannot conclude that we are a liberated people, since other events in our history may still be holding us captive.

However, if we read the Passover story as a liberating holiday then we have a different problem. Our rabbis were very clear about linking Passover to Shavuot. The two holidays represent very different concepts: one celebrates freedom while the other showcases a rejection of this freedom by choosing limitations. How have we been liberated if we are on the cusp of receiving the law which will once again shackle us to a system which hasn’t rhyme or reason? We left one autocratic system only to have it replaced by another, although divinely inspired, would be interpreted and inforced by the wily will of men. The law that we were to accept was based on a dictate; it was a “naaseh v’nishmah”. Conventional wisdom argues that since organized society requires a system of laws, let it be God’s law. This wisdom briefly stated, is right - up to a point.

Recently Gershon Gorenberg wrote a rather lengthy article revealing nothing new but nevertheless riveting in the New York Times (March 2, 2008) entitled How Do You Prove You’re a Jew. There wasn’t a whole lot that was revelatory, but for the fact that it exposed the Rabbinate for what it was: a power seeking cadre of ineffectual men anchored to an anachronistic and atavistic approach to our community. It wasn’t always like this as Gorenberg so aptly asserts:

Trust-or lack of it- is the crux. Zvi Zohar of Bar Ilan University explained to me that historically, if someone said he was a Jew, “if he lived among us, was a partner in our society and said he was one of us, we assumed he was right.” Trust was the default position. One reason was that Jews were a persecuted people; no one would claim to belong unless he really did. The leading ultra orthodox rabbi in Israel in the years before and after the state was established, Avraham Karlitz (known as the Chazon Ish, the name of his magnum opus on religious law), held the classical position. If someone arrived from another country claiming to be Jewish, he should be allowed to marry another Jew, “even if nothing is known of the family,” Karlitz wrote.”

Gorenberg points to a variety of reasons which have contributed to the radical departure from Karlitz’s position. None of them, however are truly convincing if you don’t link them all to a long history of rabbinic abuse of power over the ages. Truth be told, they never had all that much power, but the little they had they used to consolidate their power, wherever and however possible.

Hassidic courts were built on their ability to offer economic relief to its adherents. Those Hassidic courts that were granted monopolies by different governments were the ones destined to become significant dynasties because of the large number of members seeking favors, jobs etc. Let there be no mistake: followers of a rebbe was based foremost on his economic power and his ability to provide livelihoods for his people and only secondarily did he attract people because of his righteousness. Turf wars by different rebbes and their henchmen were not uncommon, especially in the interwar period between 1919 and the rise of Hiltler yemach shmo. There are documented cases of “mesirot” of rebbes to governments for disloyalty, trumped up charges, used by warring and competing courts as a legitimate tactic to oust one or to enhance the size and following of a particular Hassidic court.

If one looks at the development of halacha over the centuries one can sense also another attempt at control, although not for economic gain but to aggregate power for its own sake. An obvious example of this is the misuse of Halacha in order to create decorum within the beit kenesset. Here’s an example: One can’t be mafsik from the beginning brachot of tekiat shofar till the last kol is sounded. In effect this takes you through the entire musaf. The rabbis warn that if you are mafsik you won’t enjoy or benefit from the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. Translated this means that the rabbi had some leverage over you-if you were disposed to subject yourself to this kind of abusive power. His leverage was that he was able to site chapter and verse from Shulchan Aruch in order to extract from his parishioners obeisance to his authority. The halachah itself appears to be contrived, probably for the purpose of control.

These two example sited above merely illustrate in a very cursory manner that the “control/power gene” has been a defining feature in our system for a very long time. The question is this: Are rabbis attracted to their careers (calling) because they are control freaks and are looking for avenues by which to exercise their power and will ; or do they come to the rabbinate free of this need but are nevertheless corrupted because otherwise they would not be able to exercise power. After all, in Israel, in particular, rabbis have a problem; the postal clerk gets more respect than the local rabbi – I wonder why! It’s probably a little of both. The greater your own “control gene” the more notorious a rabbi you become.

The Chazon Ish wasn’t a control freak, nor did he need to pervert the system for his will to be felt. He was respected and given currency not only by the religious community but by the overall community as well. This was so because he arrived at conclusions not based upon self aggrandizement but what was right and good for Am Yisrael. Halacha wasn’t something to be toyed with, used and corrupted for the advancement of one cause over another. It is no wonder that by this consistent abuse of halacha all for the sake of consolidating power, the power of halacha has been diminished by those it was intended to help and guide.

Passover 5768 has come and gone, but I don’t feel liberated. As I look forward to Shavuot with celebration in my heart for the Torah which has made this world a better place to live, I can only feel shackled as I anticipate the draconian and baseless “halachic” rulings of our rabbis.