Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Israel @ 60: A Jewish State or a State of the Jews

Israel’s 60th anniversary has brought an interesting plethora of essays and opinion pieces, regarding Israel’s future. I was particularly drawn to those articles referencing the character of the Jewish state, because like so many I am concerned with the nature and quality of its democracy. In many of those articles the two paradigmatic options are Israel as a Jewish state or Israel as a State of the Jews. Clearly the desirable option is Israel as a Jewish State rather than Israel as a State of the Jews, because as a Jewish State there is a distinct Jewish flavor to the state.

Those that assume that position make the assumption that unless it is a Jewish State and not a State of the Jews, Israel will become like every other nation, the ambivalent dream of the secular Zionists who seek complete assimilation to the point of annihilation. Those critics of the secular Zionists believe that Israel has weakened because it lost its way from its original mission. It will only find its strength again when and if it connects to its past and to its feeling of mission. This is all a code for implementing halachic Judaism wherever possible within the fabric of Israeli society.

The tragedy of Israeli society and the reason why it is spiritually truncated is because there was never a separation of church and state. As with so much else in halachic Judaism, religious “pulchan” ritual, was forced upon those wishing to respect religious values but not necessarily shackled to doctrine and dogma. This brings to mind the “tochecha” where the text reads “If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments...” (Leviticus 26:3-6). There was rarely a time that catholic Israel ever followed the law. For most of our early history we continued to worship other gods, intermarry, and disregard the words of our prophets. Our kings were no better when it came to following the law. During the second commonwealth there was a very large chasm between the rabbis and scholars and the rest of the people regarding following the strict interpretation of the law. Parenthetically, I wonder what would have been had the text read “If you follow our decrees and observe our commandments…” instead of My commandments. By having done so the people would have been co-opted into a process whereby the law and the people would have taken on a different relationship.
So when the halachists wish for an Israel that reconnects with its past I am forced to ask how far back in the past do they wish to reconnect. I suspect that these halachists would suggest reconnect to the past – all inclusive, which takes us up to and through the period of the Diaspora where so much of the halacha was developed. And here is where the problem lies.

Rabbinic Judaism as it developed in the Diaspora is problematic for Israel, principally because halacha as formulated in the Diaspora was done so with the psychological handicap of the gola, in particular of the Ashkenazi variety. Without going into details here, rabbinic Judaism in “Artzot Ashkenaz” were profoundly influenced by the Catholic Church, and felt the unfortunate necessity to imitate. As the Catholic Church was preoccupied with canon law our rabbis too, mimicked this practice and reduced halacha to a system of dos and don’ts. The rabbinic Judaism we have today is a product of two thousand years of Diaspora with a psychological handicap that has influenced how we understand halacha and its relationship to man and the land he lives on.

It would behoove Israel to set as one of its goal a separation of church and state, where its citizens aren’t captive to a system that impacts heavily on ones mind and soul. By separating the two, Jewish principles aren’t devalued. On the contrary, they will go into a free fall and those that which to attach themselves to it will be able to do so. Those who wish to define their lives with secular values while acknowledging their connection to Jewish culture and values will be able to. In either case the Jewish people come out ahead.

Judaism was never defined as a religion until the nineteenth century. We were always a people, a nation, an “am kohanim v’goy kadosh”, never just a religious system. It is the rabbis of today who do us a great disservice by reducing us to a set of rules outlined in the shulchan aruch, written and edited under the negative influence of the Diaspora. Judaism prior to the nineteenth century was understood to be a culture, a civilization with multiple lines and segments defining and coloring it, appreciating its multiple and varied textures. The religious feature was only one of its components never the sole component. It may have reached dominance in certain periods of our history, but that wasn’t preordained. It happened due to circumstances. So when we assess what is Jewish and even who is a Jew one has to view the collective, the entire context, the full picture. Imagine Judaism to be a mosaic; all the components, language, art, history, custom tradition, values, ethics, and religion together express this rich textured people and give it its meaning. In this tapestry, religion is only one of the many component parts. Every Jew then ought to have the ability to appreciate the tapestry by his/her own interpretation. To do so requires that every Jew be liberated from the shackles that rabbinic Judaism has placed upon him. To do so would require a separation of church and state.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Muse: Bamidbar 2008

“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count. From twenty years of age and up-everyone who goes out to the legion in Israel- you shall count them according to their legions, you and Aaron.” (Numbers 1:1-3)

The midrash inquires why was the Torah was given in the desert and not in the land that was promised to them. The midrash also inquires into the purpose of the forty year journey in the desert. Was it destined to purge us of the Egyptian cultural experience? To forge a new generation of people who knew not the whip of the task masters? Or perhaps was the purpose to create a condition of “bitul hayesh”, collective abnegation, in order to rebuild the national psyche? The midrash comments that a radical metamorphosis was necessary in order to change the normative behavior as well as their prevailing ideas about god. They required a period of time where they would be free of existential considerations without which they wouldn’t be able to undergo this necessary radical change. The Tanchuma (Beshalach, 1) comments that a radical disconnect from everything they ever knew was essential in order for them to be able to process the message of Torah.

Eric Fromm, psychologist and philosopher comments that the forty years in the desert was a period of forty years of “being” without being defined by status or possessions. Usually, one is defined by one’s status or one’s possessions, because normally we are in a state of “having”. The Hebrews had to transcend that plateau of “having” to that of ‘being”. To Fromm, the desert symbolizes the freedom from “having”. The desert didn’t have support centers, cities and weren’t centers of civilization. Those moving through the desert had what they needed to survive. They were people who lived in a state of “being” not in the state of “having”.

The symbols of two of our central holidays, according to Fromm, the Succah and the Matzot validate this thesis. The Succah and the Matzot weren’t possessions but the basic means by which one could survive. Fromm buttresses his position by citing the text in Exodus 16:10 that says “each man according to his need”. Man wasn’t to aggregate but gather enough for daily sustenance. The gathering of the manna for Shabbat was treated the same way. The Hebrews were allowed only a double portion, not more. Hoarding wasn’t allowed because it represented the culture of “having” and not the ideal of “being”. Shabbat represents for us not only the idea of rest, but also is the antithesis of property ownership. That is the reason why we aren’t allowed to make transactions on Shabbat or move property from one “reshut” to another. The point according to Fromm is that man shouldn’t be defined by what he owns, but by who he is. And so it should be collectively.

Did the generation of the desert, the Dor Hamidbar, succeed in achieving this lofty goal? They demonstrated time and again their need for “having” rather than “being”, yet they were deemed worthy of entering the Promised Land.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Vegan Drumettes, Anyone?

There are numerous reasons why I value my friendship with Rabbi Harry Maryles, one of which is his commitment and love for our people, even if at times he goes too easy on those giving us a bad name. This isn’t a negative quality; on the contrary, I have nothing but utmost admiration for his ability to “dan lechaf zechus”, to give people the benefit of the doubt.

I cannot, however be as generous as my dear friend. This business about Rubashkin is but the tip of the iceberg. The orthodox community has for too long gotten away with being “closet racists”. I recall back in the 70’s certain indicators which led me to conclude that we have a problem in our community. A high school yeshiva student caught cheating on the New York regents reasoned that it was ok. His warped halachic rationale was somehow linked to the fact that the cheating was against the non Jewish establishment, thus, not really “geneiva” and therefore permissible. Another indicator that something was awry was that military service in defense of the United States was better left to the goyim. Somehow their blood wasn’t quite as red as ours. I recall a musmach who had volunteered as a chaplain in the U.S. Army was chided by his peers.

On more than one occasion as yeshiva students, we had long and heated debates as to the meaning and innuendo of five profound words: “asher bochar banu michol haamim”. Did those words mean that we were actually better than everyone else, did it mean that we had a particular relationship to God, which was necessarily exclusive or did it mean that we had a roll too play as others did, ours however, being defined through Torah. There were too many who believed “peshuto k’mashmao” that we were better than everyone else, that we were in fact the chosen, and that our relationship to God was not only unique but special; above and beyond the others. It is this kind of thinking that has penetrated to the very core of the orthodox Jewish weltanschauung.

The culture of this form of victimless racism does negatively impact, because of its trickle down effect and the Jewish supremacist attitude that it fosters. The maxim “if you tell a lie long enough you believe it” is true. For whatever reason, we Jews over the generations have viewed with disdain and distrust gentiles. Our 1200 year experience in Europe wasn’t pleasant (nor was the sojourn of our Sephardi brothers and sisters in Muslim countries), to say the least. But we are two and three generations removed from that horrific European experience and really have no excuse to carry on this benign Jewish racism.

Truth be told, it is no longer benign. Rubashkin and their corporate culture of Jewish elitism at the expense of others have hurt and damaged irreparably the lives of people, God’s people. Those of us who buy Rubashkin products are enablers, partners in the iniquity and share in the guilt.

My dear friend Rabbi Maryles sites a Talmudic text to refute this unforgivable racism; that it needs to be excised from the heart of the Jewish people. I don’t need to quote Talmud or reference Rabbi Student’s erudite discussion on the topic. All one has to do is read the Pentateuch with Rashi and Targum Onkelos and one will quickly realize how we need to venerate and respect all those with whom we live, even the gentiles.

Over a year ago, when the Rubashkin scandal first broke I argued that being carnivorous was really a “b’dieved”, and that the laws of kashrut (including shechita) were designed to be humanitarian. The shechita has to be painless, and we forbid “tzar lbaalei chaim”. The idea being, that if we are benevolent to the animals which we consume we will be kind and loving to human beings. Apparently, Rubashkin has inverted the paradigm. Maybe we ought to view this whole unfortunate, embarrassing, felonious episode as one more reason why we should become vegans. Vegan drumette, anyone?

Monday, May 19, 2008

New Meaning to Tircha D’tzibur

Chutzpah, is a Hebrew word, yidishized and introduced into the American lexicon decades ago. Defining chutzpah has always been difficult because we Jews are more than “cheeky” and have more “hubris” than most. In some instances chutzpah can be cute and disarming at other times it can be in poor taste, inappropriate and insulting. A dictionary definition defines chutzpah as effrontery, audacity, nerve, or impudence. None of these definitions however come even close to describing the behavior last month of a charedi on a United flight from JFK to San Francisco.

Prior to “take off,” the flight attendants asked the davening yid to take a seat, in order that the flight can “take off”. The davening yid ignored the flight attendants and continued shokling. To add insult to injury his partner in crime, a traveling compatriot, defended the davening yid’s behavior by trying to explain that “once you start praying you can’t stop”. Assuming that he was right, (which he isn’t) you can still sit down. There have been many a situations where one davened in place and sitting. Standing and sitting are merely formalities, part of ritual that ought to be observed where it is possible, but if circumstances do not permit you do the best you can.

One of the tragic faults of the chareidi variety of Judaism is that they are so “hung up” on ritual, so totally obsessed that the ritual has become the kernel, and end, unto itself. What this davening yid so tragically missed was the opportunity to sit quietly in his place, unbothered and peacefully, and daven, with kavanah. Instead he stood in the back of the plane, shokling, being disturbed by the flight attendants, suffering the irritation of the other passengers, which leads me to two conclusions: He is probably an exhibitionist using davening as his modus operandi, much the same as those who wrap their tefillin on at the gate, instead of searching for a quiet corner or the airport chapel. Second, his tefillah was no more than a bracha l’vatalah. There is no way he could have had any kavanah since he was in a perpetual state of disturbance by the flight attendants.

Like most people, on occasion I have been subjected to a tirche d’tzibur on occasion, such as an awful baal tefillah, thinking himself a Kusevitsky protégé, dragging out musaf on a hot July Shabbat morning in a packed shul and no air conditioning. But imagine you are one of two hundred people sitting on a plane waiting to take off , and a chareidi exhibitionist gets up to daven, causing a disturbance and delaying a “take off” from an airport that rarely has an “on time” departure. That’s chutzpah!
Hirsch Katz (1945-2008)
In Memoriam

This past Friday afternoon May 16, 2008 Hirsch Katz, rabbi, businessman, entrepreneur, collector and very good friend died. It’s taken a while for the news to sink in, for it will be hard to imagine a world without Hirsch, who has been a constant in my life all these years.

My earliest recollections of Hirsch are at Cong. Beis Yitzchak, better known as the Drake Ave. shul; he was six and I was four years old. He knew how to daven and I didn’t. He taught me how to daven, and his instruction then was a sure sign of what Hirsch’s true character was. Although I couldn’t read Hebrew, Hirsch advised me that what was really important wasn’t what wassaid but the feeling experienced by being in shul.

Hirsch was a very unique and special person. He didn’t fit the mold of the typical yeshiva student, and although he demonstrated charifus in learning and was a budding masmid he had other passions and devoted much of his time in developing those interests as well. Restoration of antique automobiles was one of those passions which accompanied him throughout his life. Those of us who recall our student years in the beis medrash remember Hirsch’s incredible sense of humor and his uncanny talent of impersonating dominant political figures, with a brilliant and poignant twist of political satire. I believe that had he not been a ben torah he might have made a career in entertainment.

After receiving semicha from his rebbe, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, Hirsch relocated to New York where he was destined to make his mark. While I remained in Chicago pursuing graduate studies, Hirsch broke into the commercial real estate market with gusto and bravura. With his honesty, hard work, tenacity and intelligence he became a wealthy man in a few short years. But he was a very spiritual person, struggling to fuse the two worlds he lived in. We spent many nights in cafes trying to work through those issues; the process becoming more important than the results.

His concerns were shared by me and each of us pursued different methods of resolving our issues. My approach led me to live a significant part of my life in Israel, while Hirsch preferred the frenetic, electrifying commercial hub, New York City, where he continued to make his mark in the commercial market, but at the same time pursue his passion in restoring and collecting antique automobiles.

While we lived in two different worlds, different communities, experiencing life differently our lives periodically intersected. Those moments weren’t frivolous but always pregnant with heady conversation punctuated by the desire to find true and lasting meaning to life. His ended much too soon. He had much to give and much more to experience. Those of us who knew him well will sorely miss him and the vacuum created by Hirsch’s demise will never be filled. Tehi Nishmato Tzerura Betzror Hachayim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Muse: B'chukotai 2008

“If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time, and the land will give its produce and the tree of the field will give its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your bread to satiety and you will dwell securely in the land. I will provide peace in the land, and you will lie down with none to frighten you; I will cause wild beasts to withdraw from the land, and a sword will not cross your land.” (Leviticus 26:3-6)

This week’s portion (as well as Ki Tavo) is also referred to as the “tochecha,” because of the strong language of rebuke and ominous warning. if the Hebrews do not obey God’s laws. Oddly enough as I was reviewing the parsha I couldn’t help but reflect on our history and try to recall when it was, that we actually followed God’s laws and observed his commandments. From our very beginning, even after having received the Law, we were not obedient. Throughout the period of the judges and during the kingships we were idolatrous and intermarried with the other cultures surrounding Israel. Later during the second commonwealth there was little recognition of the law among many of our kings, not to mention the corruption of the Temple priests.

Pondering the unique nature and quality of this parsha we ought to ask ourselves what would have happened if the text hadn’t read “If you follow My decrees”, but rather “If you follow our decrees and observe our commandments…” Since the Law was given for the benefit of our society it would have made sense to relate to us as His partners, as we are, according to the midrash, regarding tikkun olam. In other words had we been co-opted into the process of designing and understanding the law rather than being forced to accepting it by fiat, our behavior and consequently our history might have been different. We might have better understood and appreciated the wisdom behind the law and thus the need to adhere without the threat of a Damocles’ sword hanging over our collective head.

There is also a need here to define what is meant by “decrees” and “commandments”. Is the text referring here only to the biblical law or does it also include the oral tradition as well as later rabbinic law? Rabbinic Judaism would argue that it includes all the body of law from the written to the oral and rabbinic interpretation. And perhaps there is some wisdom in this because by taking such a position we are not passive but become active participants in the interpretation of the Law.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The 5% Solution

For several years now there have been signs posted in front of synagogues basically suggesting that greater consideration needs to be given to our ‘day schools’. According to the powers behind the push, no Jewish child should be denied a Jewish education. While I am a strong proponent of Jewish education I also happen to believe that our day schools are a monumental waste of money.

The Jewish education referred to here is the classic day school programs for primary and secondary education and not post high school advanced seminary or yeshiva training. On the primary level, other than learning how to daven, not much else gets through other than some vague notions of B’reishis with rashi and maybe a few scattered halachot. Most pupils finishing the eighth grade never make it past the first or second books of the pentateuchOn the secondary level the same holds true. Depending on the school, how charedi or how Zionistic it may be will determine their emphasis. Regardless, the knowledge imparted doesn’t justify the tuition. In either case, when you combine two systems; Jewish studies and secular studies, they are both going to fail. It becomes a “loose loose” situation. Secular studies can’t adequately be addressed in the time allotted nor can justice be done to the Jewish studies.

If we strip away the typical physical trappings of a day school student i.e. kippah, tzitzit, and other religious habits, and quiz them on their level of Jewish knowledge, you would be appalled at the dearth of information. As an example, a few years back I asked a flock of students entering the beit knesset late during a hafaskah of kriyat hatorah (which happened to be the Shabbat when we read the aseret hadibrot), what is the fifth commandment, I didn’t get a correct answer. Over the years I have asked many students general information such as who was Moshe Sharett, where does the name Yad V’shem originate from, in what century did Yehudah Halevi live, what did Rashi do for a living beside write phenomenal commentaries, and when were the first and second temple destroyed? Believe it or not the responses were shocking. There are many students who at the high school level haven’t a clue as to the difference between Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi. That probably is a good indicator as to their general scope of knowledge for that period. Most students haven’t a clue as to what century was the seder tefillah regularized and by whom. But they know how to daven! They don’t know what they are davening, but they know the right moves! I can’t blame the students because they are overloaded with a very demanding class schedule and to quote the Talmud (at the risk of not being understood) “tofast merubah lo tofastah”. As a side bar I met an Israeli, a shaliach, an av shakool, a couple of days ago, sent here to address high school students on Israel Independence Day to discuss Zionism, Israel and the future of the Jewish people. He was given recommendations as to which schools he could address the students in Hebrew and which ones he would have to speak English. I reviewed the list and was shocked when I noticed on the list a particular Jewish high school, (operating for the past 60 years, claiming to be among the best of the high schools), where he was recommended to address the students in English. Students after having studied in day schools for years couldn’t understand a lecture in Hebrew whereas in a public high school where Hebrew was taught as a foreign language he was encouraged to deliver his lecture in Hebrew. Shocking!

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that for the most part the teachers in both the Jewish and secular departments are part time with minimal if any benefits. Many in fact who could work full time (work in both departments) are denied this in order to avoid the cost of paying benefits. Some are teachers in desperate need of a job, and who aren’t necessarily qualified or certified. Thus, the learning experience, feeble as it is, is further diminished by third rate teachers.

This is not to say that I don’t believe in Jewish education. On the contrary I am a proponent of Jewish education-but not through the existing corrupted form that our day schools have taken. My children, although products of primary day school education went to public high school for their secondary education, never, however seizing to study the Jewish text. Throughout their four years of high school they had Jewish home schooling either by their parents or by additional instructors, depending on the subject. Summers were spent in Israel or Hebrew speaking camps. I believe that there education was far superior to what they could have received in a day school setting. To wit, my daughters will often time comment on the paucity of Jewish knowledge displayed by their friends who attended Jewish day schools from kindergarten through high school.

I have argued for some time that the best education is when you assume personal responsibility. That doesn’t mean being on the board of your school-it means yanking your children out and beginning Jewish home schooling, where you have full and direct input into what your children learn. If you don’t have the nerve to go it alone I suggest you find kindred spirits and do it together with two or three families. You and your children will derive not only much more knowledge, but also satisfaction. For those of you who fear exposing your kids to gentile culture, drugs etc. don’t be concerned. You must learn to trust who and what you are. If you are genuinely committed parents, with solid Jewish values, your children through osmosis will have been infused with those timeless Jewish values. Issues such as chilul Shabbat, dating, drugs and sex will fall by the way side. And if you aren’t sincere your children will pick up on it in a heart beat and no amount of Jewish education will help. You can’t expect to delegate to schools the task of infusing your children with Jewish values-that can only come from the home. If you don’t share in that message no amount of expensive Jewish day school education will help - not even the 5% solution will help.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Musing: B'har 2008

“For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard; and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. The aftergrowth of your harvest you shall not reap and the grapes you had set aside for yourself you shall not pick; it shall be a year of rest for the land. The Sabbath produce of the land shall be yours to eat, for you for your slaves and for your maidservant; and for your laborer and for your resident who dwell with you”. (Leviticus 25:3-7)

Many read into this mitzvah of shmitah a fundamental social norm; the land owner commanded to concern himself with the weak and the poor and as such reinforce our understanding of tikun olam. Many of our leading commentaries however understood this mitzvah as more of a religious concern and less of a social issue.

Once in seven years man is to cease working, stop being self reliant, and put himself at the mercy of God. In such a way does man demonstrate his complete faith and trust in God. In observing shmitah man demonstrates his abiding faith in God as the ultimate provider. God, accordingly, will make sure that in the sixth year there will be a bumper crop that will help get man through his seventh year and eighth years.

In theory this religious commitment and trust was admirable. However, when the aliyot to Israel began at the end of the 19th century it became unreasonable to believe that the nascent and fragile agricultural industry would be sustainable and at the same time observe this commandment. In the shmitah of 1889, those religious settlers turned to the rabbis for a solution and they were provided with a remedy that in effect was “fiction”. They were allowed to sell their lands to non Jews and to work the lands in every way except for four prohibitions of the torah. The heter referred too as “heter mechirah” was approved later by Harav Kook since he believed that the experiment of yeshuv Erertz Yisrael cannot fail. His reasoning was that to abandon the laws of shemitah wasn’t possible, nor was it possible to put at risk the production and the success of the yeshuv. Hence the compromise fiction of “heter mechirah” was justified. The Haredi community never accepted the heter so when Harav Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953), better known as the “Chazonn Ish” arrived in Israel they turned to him for a solution.

The Chazon Ish believed that the “heter mechirah” was in deed fiction and ought not to be given currency. He also objected to the heter because the sale of land to non Jews was also forbidden by halachah. He ruled however that if the loss was economically devastating to the yeshuv than it was necessary to disregard rabbinic laws of shemitah. For the Chazon Ish, a trumped up fictitious heter wasn’t necessary-just the knowledge that doom and devastation would be the result was enough for him to put on hold rabbinic laws.

However the question still remains: If our rabbis believed that shmitah was designed not for social mores but for religious purpose, to test our faith in God how is it that the Chazon Ish provided a heter? The Chazon Ish made a distinction between personal faith and halachic practice. If picuach nefesh became a real and present threat to the collective than the halacha would trump the metaphysical dimension of personal faith.

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.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Muse: Emor 2008

“You shall observe my commandments and perform them; I am the Lord. You shall not desecrate My Holy Name, rather I should be sanctified among the children of Israel; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.”(Leviticus 22:31-32)

These two verses which seem rather straight forward are not only complex but provide us with a moral standard of behavior when confronted with situational ethics. The concepts of kiddush hashem and chillul hashem can be traced to these verses. Although the idea of kiddush hashem and its converse are broad I would like to touch upon the concept of yehoreg v’al yaavor, in particular because of the season which we are in, that of Yom Hashoa U’gevurah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, where there were many documented instances of kiddush hashem within the narrower definition of yehoreg v’al yaavor. This season also brings to mind the need to clarify, whenever possible standards of behavior when faced with situational ethics.

In a situation where someone is threatened with death unless he kills someone else the principal we live by is clear. He isn’t allowed to kill someone else in order to save his own life; by obeying this principal he becomes a kiddush hashem. The principal is based upon the statement of Rava in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 74-a, when asked about the ethical behavior incumbent upon a person if faced with that kind of situation. His answer, more of a rhetorical question was, “is his blood more red than the intended victim’s blood? This approach, also adopted by the Rambam has no direct biblical reference but is a humanistic/moral approach an attempt at anticipating situational ethics which begs for moral guidance.

The principal of Rava becomes clouded when we complicate the paradigm by changing the composition of victims. If several people were told that if they don’t kill a certain individual they will all be killed would Rava’s principal apply? Harav Kook deals with this question and maintains that preference should not be determined based on numbers, and that Rava’s principal will still apply. The logic is the following: When we use quantifiers, prognosticators, statistical predictors or numbers as a determinant than we have to ascribe value to that system. What value can we possibly apply; and if we apply a value perhaps the wrong value system is being used. For example, perhaps one highly educated individual is worth more than ten uneducated persons based upon his contribution to society, should we therefore sacrifice the ten for the one? What about the life of one chayal verses that of five talmudei yeshiva? And who is to determine which value ought to be applied? According to Harav Kook when dealing with issues relating to life and death we cannot make a decision based upon statistical predictors or quantifiers or prognosticators.

Harav Kook does however believe that in very specific situations numbers do count, and trump the individual. For example in situations of triage or if one wishes to volunteer for a suicide mission in order to save others the individual can sacrifice himself for the good of the group. There is one other example, that of Clal Yisrael. Here Harav Kook maintains that one can sacrifice his life on behalf of Clal Yisrael because the Clal isn’t a group of individuals united into one group, but rather is one unique and indivisible unit.