Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nittal Nacht

It’s that time of year again. I’m not sure what triggers the nostalgia; maybe it’s the winter solstice, short days long nights or perhaps it’s the impending New Year that stimulates morose thoughts. It’s been many decades since I thought about Nittel Nacht or Nittal Nacht, depending on your persuasion, but all this past week I’ve been obsessed with it. Nittel Nacht, a derivative of Latin means Christmas (coincidentally, the Ramah, Harav Moshe Isserles makes reference to it in Shulackan Aruch, Yoreh Dea 148:2 referring to the custom of giving gifts eight days after Nittel Nacht, celebrating the new year). In the Ashkenazi tradition it was referred to as Nittal Nacht, meaning, “taken” in Hebrew, referring to the “one” who was taken, arrested, and crucified (although this makes more sense in connection to Easter). Others believe that it refers back to the Hebrew word “nitleh” hanged, perhaps referring as well to being crucified.

Regardless of how one understands the etymology of the word what remains for those coming out of the yeshiva world is that December 24th-25th isn’t Christmas but Nittal Nacht. Ashkenazim weren’t united on how one should mark Nittal Nacht. Many chassidic Jews were predisposed not to study at all on Nittal Nacht but to be very vigilant of Christian intent to harm Jews. Exponents of the Lithuanian Yeshivot studied with vigor. Other quarters felt that it was important to recess from noon till midnight in order to deny Jesus the merit of Torah study on his birthday. Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfort saw it as a day of mourning for all the suffering and persecutions of the Jews by the Christians, to be treated like Tisha B’Av with a prohibition of learning Torah. His student, the Chasam Sofer, suggested that it was important to begin learning again after midnight to counterbalance the devout Christians who attended midnight mass. By the nineteenth century there were indeed practical reasons to continue this custom of closing the yeshivos – pichuach nefesh.

Hypothetically, if any of this made sense I would think that this last reason suggested made the most sense. As a Jew you never knew what to expect on Nittal Nacht. Sometimes it was a pogrom, other times it was blood libel accusations. Rarely did a Jew come away from Christmas untouched. It was never the happy time of year that Andy Williams or Bing Crosby sang about in their endearing Christmas tunes. I can only imagine the anxiety of our ancestors building up as the winter set in. Apart from dealing with the cold winter, illness, lack of medicine and sometimes food, there was one additional worry. Would there be a pogrom, when would it start, from what direction would it come, and how bad would it be. Chanukah couldn’t have been that festive, knowing that just around the corner was Christmas with the inevitable suffering. Imagine spinning the draidele, trying to infuse a little joy in your children’s life wondering when the pogrom would hit and who would survive. Very sobering.

But unlike the Christmas of my ancestors, in America it is, as the song goes “a very special time of year”. Party time and good cheer. The Christmas spirit, streets and homes lit up and stores buzzing with shoppers. Those are my memories of Christmas in America. Perhaps, I should feel guilty, but I’m don’t. I’m aware of our suffering especially around the Yultide, but I didn’t suffer, nor did my parents or even grandparents. Nevertheless I feel conflicted because although my immediate descendants didn’t suffer my people suffered

As it turns out, and to the credit of my yeshiva which had a Lithuanian / brisker orientation there was a slightly reduced seder on Christmas eve to make note of Nittal Nacht, but not enough to totally disrupt the seder in the beis medrash. As I said it was to the credit of the yeshiva because unwittingly they fed into my own conflicting feelings about the day. On the one hand bad stuff happened; on the other hand bad stuff doesn’t happen any more – thank god! Disturbing however, are those institutions that observe the customs / traditions of Nittal Nacht which today strike me as slightly pathological. They are basically arguing that by their own denial of study on Christmas Eve they are dismissing another faith as irrelevant. More disturbing than that however are all those young people today who never heard of Nittal Nacht.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Haredi Kulturkampf

The postmodern world is really causing havoc in the haredi community. That you all know and appreciate: but rarely can we see a manifestation of this so obvious, so crystal clear. On December 7th 2009 posters (pashkevels) went up all over haredi Jerusalem asking for information on any yeshiva students that may be connected to the Internet for fear of a “toeva”. The posters are signed by the “Committee for Preserving Our Camps Purity”, (a division of the “modesty squad”, who last year was responsible for beating to a pulp someone who didn’t adhere to their modesty standards). Many of the leading “gedolim” in the mainstream haredi community are also against the use of the Internet because of the uncensored information coming through the information highway. Just recently the Belzer Rebbe and Rav Ovadiah Yoseph in separate announcements prohibited the use of the Internet.

What makes this uniquely intriguing is a Vaad Harabbanim advertisement currently running (December 2009) on the Internet that reads:

“World renown Rabbis, including Maran Harav Hagaon Yosef Shalom Elyashiv shlita, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita…. and Rav Ovadia Yosef, shlita…all donate their time to Vaad Harabanim assuring that Israel’s most desperate are taken care of….”

The Ad then goes on to invite those interested to call a toll free number or to visit them at or to email them at Obviously it’s ok for them to use the Internet.

What is particularly striking is the temerity of these “gedolim” on the one hand to publicly acknowledge their use of the Internet as it suits them while at the same time suppressing the use of the same technology by their adherents. But wait! The audacity doesn’t stop here! On erev Chanukah (December 11) a kol korei appeared in the newspapers backed by the gedolei hador exhorting their followers not to use even the haredi Internet sites because its content is inappropriate, being filled with “lies and abominations”. This past December 17, 2009, Hamevasser reported that there has been continued reaction to the kol korei, citing the additional kol korei of HaRav Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss warning of the perils of the Internet. As a result on December 18, 2009, a few “kosher” sites shut down with the negative impact on employees as YWN confirmed:

“This was a terrible thing that happened - I respect the rabbis and their wisdom, but there should have been some warning...On Thursday, I and 30 some co-workers at "Etrog" lost our jobs. Overnight, we have no means of income, and will join the ranks of the "poor chareidim". I am sure employees of other sites are facing the same reality.

We had a vision of providing a kosher site for anyone who happened to be online anyway - that is all over now.

I wonder what will happen to all the yeshivos, chessed organizations, and even chareidi publications that have websites. This decision is meant to protect our souls, but is seriously harming our livelihood. The Internet helped unify and unite the worldwide Jewish community - now we will once again be left to fend for ourselves, in our own locales. Cut off from the rest of the world, cut off from each other. And in my case, at the mercy of the chessed organization in my community, that will now have to help us put food on the table until I find another job.


Again, I am not criticizing the gedolei hador. I am just trying to understand what alternative they have in mind for us. Chareidi people everywhere are learning professionals that require Internet use. Will that be banned too? Where will the cut-off be?

I am glad this site (YWN) is still here, so I can share my thoughts.”

What we have here is a mini kulturkampf prompted perhaps by the weekly Shabbat demonstrations, the latest which was against Intel. They’re loosing the fight and their frustration is projected through the pashkevels, and kol koreis that are nothing more than face saving maneuvers. Beyond that, however, is the mixed message of the haredi leadership who still, in spite of the kol koreis insist on using the Internet when it serves their purpose.

Their use of the Internet suggests, however, an acknowledgement that it is really impossible, whether we like it or not to conduct business or educational programs without the use of this technology; while at the same time revealing arrogance that sorely weakens their case against use of the Internet.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Over the Top

It’s one thing to enter into a relationship with our Christian neighbors for the purpose of political support on important Jewish agenda items like the State of Israel, but it is another thing to pander to their charitable side by degrading the Jewish community. This is what appears to be happening on an infomercial-aired daily, morning and evening on cable TV sponsored by the International Federation of Christians and Jews, starring Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and non talking parts by elderly people portrayed as babushka wearing bobies and toothless zaidies.

The International Federation of Christian and Jews founded by and presided over by Rabbi Yichiel Eckstein has been a controversial organization from its inception. The organization hasn’t been that well received by the Jewish communities in America or Israel. This is certainly true for the haredi and the right wing contingency of the modern orthodox community. Going back several generations the right wing orthodox community forbade any theological discussions to take place with the Christian community. Apart from the theological issue there is also the emotional component that so much of the Jewish community is sensitive to. It isn’t easy to forget the suffering of the Jewish communities of Europe at he hand of Christians sanctioned by their clergy. Nor do we forget the unrelenting efforts at missionary work, even today, of some evangelical groups. So it is totally understandable why the right wing orthodox community has a difficult time dealing with the Christian community. That coupled with halachic decisions by torah scholars to prohibit this kind of interaction is enough to dismiss this organization even if Eckstein’s intentions were “l’shem shamayim”.

We Jews are ambivalent and have a hard time sitting down with Christians, considering that our history with them has not been sterling. Among the left wing of the orthodox community Eckstein’s organization was mildly distasteful and certainly controversial. In line with the theory that the modern orthodox community is determined to connect with the world outside it would stand to reason that they would entertain the idea of not only tolerating but embracing the work of organizations that fosters the understanding of each other as well as support an organization that is totally behind Israel. However, having seen the infomercial I’m beginning to understand the sentiments expressed in a daf yomi shiur a few years ago.

Until I saw this infomercial aired ad nausea, I too was ambivalent about the organization, but was inclined to give Eckstein a pass. Being acquainted with Rabbi Eckstein, a committed Zionist and a devoted Jew I was convinced that he wouldn’t have a hand in any organization that wasn’t completely righteous. That is, until I had the misfortune of viewing the IFCJ infomercial where he had the staring role.

The infomercial is not only degrading to those Jews who are suffering in Russia but demeans the entire charitable enterprise of the Jewish People. The subliminal message of the infomercial is since the Jewish community can’t and won’t take care of our own he has to turn to Bible belt Christians in TV land and appeal to their Christian conscience. “It is the festival of lights”, so goes the text of the infomercial, “and its time that light be brought to these neglected holocaust survivors”. He couldn’t resist using the holocaust card. A cheap shot! What a slap in the face it is to all the sacred work done throughout the Jewish communities of the United States, Europe and Israel in creating the programs whereby relief is available to all who wish to take advantage of those resources. Simply outrageous!

What is equally disturbing is the fact that apparently there are still poor and suffering Jews in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. One of JDC’s missions has been and is, to provide aid with dignity, to our unfortunate kinsmen. Perhaps the JDC and other Jewish charitable organizations aren’t doing enough. Apparently the IFCJ sensing the weak link took advantage of the situation. The portrayal of the needy Jews in the infomercial was humiliating, embarrassing and shameful to say the least. The message is clear: we have to take care of our own; we have to do more; and we have to do better.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Reform Judaism – American Style

In the December 4th issue of the Forward, Jacob Neusner wrote an interesting piece on his journey from classical reform Judaism to conservative Judaism and then back to Reform Judaism. Usually I enjoy Neusner’s articles because they are well thought out, cerebral yet understated and with sophisticated humor. This piece however was somewhat different and my reaction to it was viscerally negative.

My acceptance of all formats and approaches to Jewish practice has no limits (although I reject Jewish practice as defined by denominational [Reform, Conservative & Orhtodox] affiliation). I have said many times that there are multiple portals into Jewish practice as well as an equal number of egresses out of Judaism as well. Judaism, in our tradition is a large tent where all are invited in, as Abraham demonstrated early on in his own journey of religious discovery. Our tradition confirmed this much later when the Passover Seder was formalized and with the incorporation of text that would certainly suggest the welcoming of all kinds of Jewish belief as attested to by the reading of the kol dichfin (kol dichfin yasei uyachal kol ditztrich yasei vifsach).

Neusner presents several arguments why he moved from Reform to Conservative and then back to Reform. It would appear that his preeminent argument is that Reform Judaism is uniquely American saying that “if Reform Judaism didn’t exist today, American Jews would have to invent it”. He got that wrong from a factual point of view. Conservative Judaism is a purely American experiment (failing) and Reform Judaism was an exponent of the “German Jew” attempting to emulate the Protestant German culture. He goes on to say that the proof is in the pudding: the demographic preeminence can be explained by its wide appeal and relevancy. The error in Neusner’s reasoning goes to the core of what he believes Judaism to be.

According to Neusner and many others like him Judaism is a religion. Ironically, it was the Reform movement in Germany that successfully reformulated and redefined Judaism from a comprehensive culture encompassing religious practice to a religion exclusively. It was their way of gaining acceptance and entry in to German society. Judaism was never a religion, but seen and understood as a great culture in exile with a rich history and tradition. So for him to say “I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism” sounds as though he is seeking a Jewish answer to American Protestantism.

The Jewish world according to Neusner is divided between segregationist and integrationists. I couldn’t agree more as I have written on many occasions and most recently in my last essay on November 30, 2009, A Sate of Mind. However that is no argument for Reform Judaism or any movement for that matter. Being an integrationist and an involved and committed Jew are not mutually exclusive. There are many successfully integrated Orthodox Jews as well as Conservative Jews who could certainly be seen as integrationists.

Neusner’s Jewish worldview flawed as it is, erroneously is an attempt at bolstering his movement by suggesting three planks (Why is it that programmatic suggestions seems to always come in threes, like the three legged stool that Obama often times refers to when explaining the way to rebuild the economy or a country). The third plank affirms the tradition of individualism, validating the individual conscience, which syncs well with his second plank that halacha should be a voice but not a veto (when was it anything else in Reform Judaism?) as he suggests “I was brought up to affirm what I found personally meaningful and to dismiss as irrelevant what did not fit”. This strikes me as though he sees his Judaism as nothing more than silly putty: fun to play with, but when it ossifies and no longer does what you want it to do, it is abandoned. Somehow it seems too chaotic, too convenient, too American. In that sense he is right. Reform Judaism is an American expression. It reflects the American culture, a disposable culture. When something is no longer useful or relevant dismiss it. It’s something like the sprawling American suburb, where Reform Judaism is so comfortable; with single use buildings put up overnight and dismantled when they have outlived their use. Reform Judaism-American Style.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A State of Mind

This past week the JTA featured an article by Amy Klein, in which she pointed out the phenomenon of younger orthodox Jews focusing on social action. Newsworthy is the fact the hitherto social action was in the purview of Reform Judaism, while orthodox Jews focused more on the performance and fulfillment of mitzvoth within the framework of the immediate Jewish community. So while there were institutional frameworks for “gemilot chesed”, they weren’t inclusive of the broader, global community where social action claimed predominance. Apparently, according to this noteworthy article there has been a paradigmatic shift within the modern orthodox community.

The significance of this shift is more significant than what the article would lead you to believe. According to the article it appears as though the modern orthodox community as embodied by the younger generation of x’s and y’s have a world view much less confined and myopic than their predecessors. Hitherto, the orthodox community was defined as insular while struggling with finding their place in the larger community where they could aspire to greater professional satisfaction as well as financial gratification. Much of modern orthodoxy pivoting on this, found their voice in Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik who was the manifestation of this modern orthodox phenomenon that gained prominence in the1950’s and1960’s.

Modern Orthodoxy’s fecund days are in the past. Their seeds of destruction were sown the moment their adherents began to find ways to compromise and reconcile their orthodox life style with the secular world that was offering opportunity and advancement. During the past two decades the modern orthodox community stabilized and plateaued especially as a result of the pull to the right by many of its adherents but is now picking up momentum once again. It’s sort of like a huge glacier that creeps at a very slow pace, a centimeter a year, but every once in a while because of other global confluences pick up traction and increase the pace. So while at times it doesn’t appear as if there is motion at other times due to physical events the pace picks up and the distance travelled becomes noticeable. Modern orthodoxy seems to follow this pattern. The matrix that has been somewhat fixed for the past 15-20 years seems to once again have picked up the momentum of earlier years, moving inexorably away from the influence of the orthodox camp into the sphere of influence of the liberal movements which place a premium on social action as the quintessential practice of a Jew and of the Jewish community. Students at yeshiva high schools, colleges and post college programs are drawn to programs of social justice, aiding the poor where there were natural disasters. Last year students at Yeshiva University attended Darfur rallies and missions to Nicaragua. Rabbi Sapperstein, director of the reform movement’s Social Action Center in Washington claims that this phenomenon is a result of globalization and the awareness of it among the modern orthodox.

Social action or tikkun olam is one barometer by which the drift of the Jewish community can be measured. Basically, Judaism can be portrayed under two broad headings: insular or global; inner or outer; internal or external. It’s really a question of philosophy and there is no right or wrong answer. It comes down to how you view yourself vis-à-vis the global community. The more insular one is the greater the chance that that person will remain within the orthodox community. The more one strays from the tribe in the direction of the larger, cosmopolitan community the greater the chance that that person will become alienated from the tribe and link into the cosmopolitan community, ultimately severing ties with the orthodox community.

That is the current trend of the modern orthodox community. This is a very slow moving tendency, as slow as the movement of a glacier that is almost imperceptible to the eye. That is why I was surprise to have read a posting by my dear friend Rabbi Harry Maryles, Defining Charedim and Modern Orthodox Jews, where he conveniently links haredim and modern orthodox as two sides of the same coin. His contention is that while modern orthodox may not share certain components of the haredi community, in effect they are both linked by the same fastidious observance of halacha and hasmadah. This still may be true but there are the tell tale signs that there are significant fissures in this foundation that Rabbi Maryles feels comfortable with.

There is a profound divide separating the haredi community from the modern orthodox. The chasm that I am speaking of can’t be bridged by adherence to halacha or hasmadah. The wide gap between these two communities is characterized by the huge difference in their state of mind. The state of mind of the haredi is to maintain their insular way of life while the modern orthodox is attracted to the global community. While the haredi prefers the beis medrash, the modern orthodox Jew increasingly prefers the challenge of tikun olam (whatever that means). Because this revolves around a state of mind it won’t be long before the tenuous common denominators that bridge the two communities will dissipate, leaving each one independent of the other: the haredim continuing in their insular life style while the modern orthodox will continue their slow, tedious drift until they dock with the liberal community.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Eric Hoffer’s Prescient Premonition

A dear friend of mine sent me this essay, accompanied with this short introduction of Eric Holder. Finding this so prescient, fascinating and timely as well, I wanted to share this with as many people as possible:

THIS WAS WRITTEN IN 1968 -- 41 years ago!
You probably don't remember the name Eric Hoffer. He was a longshoreman who turned into a philosopher, wrote columns for newspapers and some books.
He was a non-Jewish American social philosopher.

He was born in 1902 and died in 1983, after writing nine books and winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

His first book, The True Believer, published in 1951, was widely recognized as a classic.
Eric Hoffer was one of the most influential American philosophers and free thinkers of the 20th Century. His books are still widely read and quoted today.

Acclaimed for his thoughts on mass movements and fanaticism, Hoffer was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. Hopewell Publications awards the best in independent publishing across a wide range of categories, singling out the most thought provoking titles in books and short prose, on a yearly basis in honor of Eric Hoffer.
Here is one of his columns from 1968 -- 41 years ago! Some things never change.
ISRAEL'S PECULIAR Eric Hoffer - LA Times 5/26/68
The Jews are a peculiar people: things permitted to other nations are forbidden to the Jews.
Other nations drive out thousands, even millions of people and there is no refugee problem. Russia did it, Poland and Czechoslovakia did it.
Turkey threw out a million Greeks, and Algeria a million Frenchman.
Indonesia threw out heaven knows how many Chinese and no one says a word about refugees.
But in the case of Israel, the displaced Arabs have become eternal refugees.
Everyone insists that Israel must take back every single one.
Arnold Toynbee calls the displacement of the Arabs an atrocity greater than any committed by the Nazis.
Other nations when victorious on the battlefield dictate peace terms.
But when Israel is victorious, it must sue for peace.
Everyone expects the Jews to be the only real Christians in this world.
Other nations, when they are defeated, survive and recover but should Israel be defeated it would be destroyed.
Had Nasser triumphed last June [1967], he would have wiped Israel off the map, and no one would have lifted a finger to save the Jews.
No commitment to the Jews by any government, including our own, is worth the paper it is written on.
There is a cry of outrage all over the world when people die in Vietnam or when two Blacks are executed in Rhodesia .
But, when Hitler slaughtered Jews no one demonstrated against him.
The Swedes, who were ready to break off diplomatic relations with America because of what we did in Vietnam,
Did not let out a peep when Hitler was slaughtering Jews.
They sent Hitler choice iron ore, and ball bearings, and serviced his troops in Norway.
The Jews are alone in the world.
If Israel survives, it will be solely because of Jewish efforts. And Jewish resources.
Yet at this moment, Israel is our only reliable and unconditional ally.
We can rely more on Israel than Israel can rely on us.
One has only to imagine, what would have happened last summer [1967] had the Arabs and their Russian backers won the war,
to realize how vital the survival of Israel is to America and the West in general.
I have a premonition that will not leave me; as it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us.
Should Israel perish, the Holocaust will be upon us all.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Guess Whose Coming to Dinner

Many years ago there was a sensational movie “Guess Whose Coming to Dinner” which was intended as a social commentary on the racial divide in America. The United States has come a long way since the heady days of the 60’s, when Jews locked arms with social activists and black leadership, joined at the hip protesting the political and social establishment that had denied fundamental human rights to African Americans. The Jews have come a long way too. But we all know that! Most surprising however is how far the modern orthodox Jewish community has come.

There was a time not too long ago that an orthodox Jew not only didn’t marry gentiles but also didn’t date non-Jews . Without reviewing statistics suffice it to say that it was hitherto atypical for an orthodox Jew to marry a non-Jew twenty years ago. It still isn’t typical, but it also is no longer anecdotal. Less than a decade ago, there were several members of the modern orthodox shul that I was affiliated with, who were intermarried. Notable however was that in all those cases the Jewish partner was an FFB (frum from birth), an alumnus of Jewish day schools and high schools as well as orthodox / Zionist camps.

I was fascinated as well as puzzled: how does it happen? If you’re an FFB with all the educational and support systems in place how does it come about that a Jew becomes so heavily involved with a non-Jew that the logical outcome is marriage? No system is perfect and there are exceptions to every rule, or as Forest Gump says: shit happens! It would also appear that these aren’t isolated examples either, because if it happened in my community I can only assume that it has happened in others as well. But we don’t make a big deal out of it because it’s no longer unusual. Rarely do I read a comment in the press remarking on the unique character of an orthodox Jew marrying a non Jew albeit with a conversion (excluding Noah Feldman who, although was raised in a modern orthodox home no longer identifies as an orthodox Jew).

As a matter of fact the Forward of November 6, 2009 carried the nuptial details of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew. For a moment I was saddened at the news of this intermarriage but as soon as I read that the conversion was orthodox and that the mesader kiddushin (officiating rabbi) was non other than Rabbi Lookstein I felt better, much better.

The Forward reassured its readers that we have come a long away. The Forward article took note of the fact that the New York Times was very casual about the entire affair indicating that not only has the “wasp” establishment come a long way in accepting Jews into their families, but that Orthodox Jews have come a long way as well. Not only do Jewish people marry non-Jews but it’s even become socially acceptable for a non Jew to marry a Jew! There is, as the Forward suggests a “relative nonchalance” to this kind of pairing reflecting a sea of change in the American Jewish community.

We Jews ought to feel good about ourselves now. Finally after all these years, after all of our struggles, we have risen to the level in which the gentile finds us acceptable! And not only have we found acceptance among them but we have also embraced them into the bosom of our Jewish families. As the article suggests there is a significant and pronounced shift in attitude among young Jews. “Young people today while embracing their Jewish culture reject the “us” and “them” worldview of their elders”. At first I thought, to my chagrin, that Sylvia Barack Fishman who authored the article missed the entire point because this marriage isn’t between Ivanka Trump and some assimilated Jew who has no idea what a siddur looks like. Jared Kushner is an Orthodox man educated formally and otherwise in an orthodox environment who benefitted from the best that the Jewish community has to offer. Orthodox people I reasoned don’t date non-Jews. It might happen that two people meet under unusual circumstances, unexpectedly by default and fall in love. Bu this would be totally anecdotal. So I thought.

Sylvia Barack Fishman has put under the spotlight a new phenomenon developing apparently in the modern orthodox Jewish community: normative intermingling between Jew and gentile, dating and exogamy as a logical outcome. It isn’t clear if this is becoming an emerging pattern, but the tone of the article gives me pause and concern that this may be a sign of things to come.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hipsters and Shatnez

Pollsters are challenged when it comes to predicting the direction and future of the Jewish people. As I had commented in an earlier posting, History’s Lesson (October, 2009), Look Magazine addressed the future of the America Jew in their seminal cover story The Vanishing American Jew in the1960’s. There was a genuine concern that the American Jewish community wouldn’t be viable by the 21st century. As I posted then, we are not only here, but we’re alive and well looking ahead to the coming decades with vigor. The American Jewish community is prodigious and prolific in its Jewish institutional life, formal and informal educational projects with a proliferation of day schools, yeshivot and colleges of advanced studies. Israel is fecund in its flourishing, robust, multifaceted culture and indeed has laid the foundations for a promising future well into the 21st century and beyond. So much for predictions.

What the pollsters also couldn’t predict was the emergence of a new kind of Jew, a different breed of Jew that began surfacing during the past decade but only now coming to full term; a band of Jews in search of their Jewishness seeking their own unique formulation and imprimatur. An early 19th century rabbinic authority, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Rav of Pressburg [Bratislava] also known as the Chasam Sofer) penned the expression “chadash asur min hatorah” (innovative ideas are prohibited by the Torah) in response to encroachments of the enlightenment and developing nationalism (Zionism) and the reform movement. Was he ever off the mark. At the time, on the eve of the emancipation, Judaism was perceived in very parochial and religious terms: the faith of their fathers that hadn’t made concessions to “progressive” ideas. Men like Rabbi Sofer were intent on maintaining the status quo. Surprisingly, in a sense not all that much has changed in establishment, denominational Judaism. Each of the movements are ever watchful of their turf, protective not because of ideology as much as good politics, having carved out their spheres of influence.

A generation ago establishment Judaism encompassing all the recognized movements (Orthodox Reform and Conservative) sacrificed on the altar of expediency a generation of young people in search of their cultural/spiritual roots. Generations of Jews were lost because of the apparent vapid nature of institutional Judaism; stiff rabbis in sterile sanctuaries mimicking Protestant America. Rabbis interested more about serving and placating those that paid their inflated salaries than concern over the tentative Jews, the dangling souls, Jews on the move and in search.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach understood the shortsightedness of men like Rabbi Sofer and their successors, and understood that the alternative denominations were void of depth, sincerity and spiritual authenticity. He came to fill a void, created by a huge black hole sucking up the best and the brightest. Rabbi Shlomo was on the march, a pied piper in search of Jewish souls. To staunch the hemorrhaging of Jewish young souls he introduced a new spin to Judaism, opening up new portals by which lost Jews were able to find a place at the table. He rejected ideas like “chadash asur min hatorah” and created new rhythms, a new spirit, alternative approaches, a means by which the unaffiliated, disaffected and marginalized Jews could grasp on to something that resonated with spirit and meaning.

As the Passover hagadah alludes to, every generation has the responsibility of rediscovering Judaism. For every Jew not floundering there are at least one hundred young Jews in search of their identity. The proof is in the variety of organizations that have sprung up over the past two decades like Jumpstart, Punk Torah, Mechon Hadar and magazines like Zeek and Heeb. They are definitely “chadash”. I hardly recognize their Jewish character, but for the fact that like everything Jewish, they are seething with intellectual curiosity, experimentation and the intense desire to give Jewish meaning to their lives by finding their own portals into Judaism.

I find their intellectual energy contagious and seductive, and encourage them and others to explore, test, probe and push the envelope as far as they can as long as they remain within the acceptable boundaries of a Jewish value system. The Jewish value system will mean different things to different people; Judaism is organic, fluid and malleable and that is why it has survived throughout the generations. The basic guideline however is that we define Judaism not as a religion but as a culture, as peoplehood. Our behavior has to be such that it isn’t a threat to the survival of the group. Thus to undermine the credibility of its underpinnings could bring irreversible harm to the corpus of the Jewish people. Since Judaism ought to be seen as a culture, there ought to be room for experimentation, constant probing encouraging and promoting growth and expansion in directions that enriches the community.

The reverse should to be discouraged. For example, there are those who find body art the means by which they can express their Jewishness. To negate this as a valid Jewish expression because it is forbidden in the Torah is without merit. How many mainstream Jews observe the law of shatnez? Who other than a sliver of Orthodox Jews ever heard of shatnez, let alone fulfill the commandment. Both tattoos and shatnez are forbidden, yet we don’t hear much about shatnez! Tattoos are associated with blue collar America, the déclassé, stereotyped as the art form of bums and drunken sailors or stigmatized by many of us because of the holocaust. Tattoos make a bold statement it screams out at you. To have permanently inscribed on one’s forearm the word “emunah” is not only an attention getter but also an indelible lifetime statement. Tattoos appear to be challenging and threatening to the status quo, shatnez is innocuous.

Treating Judaism, as a large tent by which we are all invited to participate in ways that are meaningful to the individual ought to be encouraged but at the same time disallow behaviors that threatened the group. So for a small minority “at the table” to promulgate questionable programs of social justice such as Rabbis for Gaza or Richard Goldstone, (author of the scathing and flawed report indicting the IDF for war crimes) ought to be censured, in the parlance and jargon of the Jewish people. They have pushed the boundaries beyond the accepted limits, crossing the scrimmage line and endangering the integrity of the Jewish people. Allowing them to continue to “sit at the table” with impunity does more harm than those young Jewish hipsters in search of meaning. I’ll bet that when the Jewish demographers did their most recent studies they neglected to log into the equation the long-term damage those seekers of social justice will do to the viability of the Jewish people.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Azimuth of the Far Left Jewish Community

Scanning the Jewish news has become increasingly arduous and seems as though the liberal Jewish media is questioning the most basic tenets of the Jewish community here and in Israel. The most basic assumptions and principles are up for grabs or as we used to say “hefker”. Israel’s right to self-defense is no longer a given within some quarters of the Jewish community; in fact it’s right to exist at all, is no longer axiomatic within the far left Jewish community. Where once upon a time all the denominations defined themselves fundamentally by basic Jewish values, today far left Judaism seems to be reinventing and redefining Judaism as a religion of social justice while ignoring core Jewish values.

Since 1948 Israel has been the centerpiece and pride of the Jewish community. There were numerous times over the past 62 years that policies and positions of the Israeli government caused discomfort to the American Jewish community. However the collective wisdom of the Jewish community grew out of something greater than the narrow interests of the community. They were able to understand the arch of Jewish history beginning with Abraham and continuing to and beyond David Ben Gurion. They had vision. Many of our American Jewish leaders weren’t necessarily religious in the narrower definition of the term. Many weren’t familiar with Jewish ritual nor did they attach much significance to it. What they did attach importance to was something much more profound than personal religious practice and ritual – the recognition that there was something much greater than the narrow interests of the individual’s political sensitivities: the corpus of the Jewish people, Am Yisrael.

The American Jewish community is floundering and may be foundering as well. As the far left Jewish movement gets stronger and as they move further away from the normative Jewish value system they have entered the unchartered territory of hefkerut, chaos. In an attempt at self-discovery they have formulated a new Judaism, ordaining rabbis who know not the language and ethos of the Jew, but with the hope, nevertheless, that their (futile) attempt at a contemporary restyling and redefinition of what constitutes a Jews will serve as their legitimacy, a lifebuoy to a sinking a community rife with assimilation and empty of all particular Jewish values save for the universal message of social justice. But that isn’t enough. In their attempt to redefine Judaism they have seen fit to tear down the one institution that refuses to play into their fantasy by delegitimizing Israel.

Israel’s right to self-defense has been undermined by the far left liberal Jewish community that has placed social justice above everything else as its central creed, their “ani maamin “ of Judaism. Even the Rambam was censured by other great contemporary rabbis, when he tried to impose his thirteen principles of faith, claiming that there were no thought police in Judaism - that there was no place for dogma within the theological underpinnings of Judaism. And yet, comes the audacity of the far left liberal community with the hubris of trying to set, not a new agenda, but a redefinition of what constitutes Jewish belief.

The new belief system espoused by the far left movement today is social justice. Apart from the prophets the only other source they have for this is “tzedek tzedek tirdof” and of course, their bastardization of tikkun olam. This community never felt comfortable in any format of particularism of which Judaism spoke. Universalism was the preferred approach because that was closest to Christian theology demanding the least from its constituents. What the far left Jew never understood was while there was concern for the broader community, our work first began at home. Notice that the bible begins with Adam and Eve, branching out to the family, then the extended family, the tribe, the nation, and only later the world. Our first responsibility is to our families, extended families, our tribe, and our people i.e. our country, Israel.

This matrix isn’t comfortable for most far left Jews today because people such as Jay Michaelson articulated a few weeks ago in the Forward, his sensitivities that were aggravated by the need to defend Israel to his liberal circle of friends. He and others of his ilk don’t feel comfortable in this role. And of course rabbis with little Jewish content other than the buzz words “tikkun olam” and have little else to say found a new cause: the suffering Palestinians in Gaza. So they found a new cause because the old ones are simply too particular, too parochial, lacking a broader appeal. They have become so corrupt that their flagship J Street no longer defines itself as pro-Israel, but pro peace.

Their pro-peace agenda took on special prominence based upon the latest, most current research: Jews under the age of 30 wouldn’t be too distressed if Israel no longer existed. Well that’s that. Let the polls decide the future. After all we are a democracy and the UN is run on democratic principles too. Conventional wisdom of the General Assembly is that since Israel was an unfortunate mistake she ought to be deleted. Sounds ridiculous? I would have thought so once upon a time. Now I’m fearful that the azimuth of the far left Jewish community has veered so far off course that it wouldn’t surprise me if their rabbis who are fasting for Gaza would be supportive of a one state solution knowing that within one generation the State of Israel would be eliminated – democratically. Tikkun Olam.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shidduch Crisis, Shabbos Elevators and the Internet

In the last few weeks there have been a spate of articles in the Jewish press regarding the pressing issues of the haredi day ranging from the problems resulting from the paucity of men for appropriate shidduchim to b’nos yisroel; issues of shmiras shabbos - the use of the classic shabbos elevators; and the perennial nightmare of the encroaching internet into the lives of haredim and threatening their bayis neeman. What to do? After all, the future of the Jewish people depends on how the gedolim approach each of these super sensitive, fateful issues threatening the rhythm, cadence and survival of the Jewish people.

While each of these issues is seemingly different and unrelated, they all have the same common denominator: the rabbinic obsessive preoccupation with relevancy in the face of a radically changing world where they are becoming marginalized. Over the years I have addressed the phenomenon of daas torah and the thought police within the haredi community.

In the instance regarding the dearth of eligible men, 60 rabbis signed off on a silly approach whereby young men are encouraged to marry older women. Accordingly young men should relinquish their option to choose a younger bride, perhaps a prettier more talented and alluring woman as a gesture of self-sacrifice – for the good of the community; to do as the rabbis suggest. As if that would solve the problem. They are so determined to hold on to power they will grasp at straws not understanding the dynamics of the social revolution taking place within their own communities. Perhaps there was a time when they would have been able to manipulate and socially engineer the community – but no more. Those days are over.

With regard to the elevator crisis 4 prominent haredi leaders including non other than Rabbi Y.S. Elyashiv banned the use of shabbos elevators. Apparently there is a concern that body weight contributes in the descent to increased electrical usage but not to its ascent (this probably fits in homiletically to Jacob’s ladder where angels were ascending and only then descending). Imagine the problem these four rabbanim have caused to all those wealthy haredim who planned on travel to hotels or ascending and descending their apartments on Shabbat! I don’t imagine for a moment that these balabatim and their families will recluse themselves fro 24 hours every seven days!

The last remaining issue is that presented by the Belzer Rebbe who has just woken up and outlawed the Internet. Imagine that. A little late (I guess Yanukas are late bloomers). After all the trains been out of the station for the past twenty years. Where has he been? The computer and Internet are so ubiquitous that it would be rare not to find it hidden in the closet of your typical haredi family. Is the Belzer Rebbe kidding? After all it was his ancestor Rebbe Yehoshua Rokeach (the 2nd in the line) who launched the newspaper Machzike Hadas (employing maskilim as journalists) at great umbrage of many of his contemporaries such as the Gerer Rebbe (who burned the newspaper when it was sent to him) because he would be getting into bed with the maskilim.

The key to understanding the psyche of these rabbis in their desperation to hold on to power and control is their old style approach of micro managing as is so well documented in Shulchan Aruch. It worked during the middle ages and as long as there was ignorance, dependency on the community for a livelihood (more so with a Hasidic rebbe), a ghetto, and the clinging to the old ways. The enlightenment sounded the death knell for that life style; it was just a matter of time. While the liberal communities fell to modernity pell mell, the orthodox communities managed to hold on to late in the 20th century. But the unstoppable encroachments have made great strides and there is no turning back.

It must be enormously frustrating to these rabbanim who are doing whatever they can in their power to hold back the floodwaters. To their credit, they are doing as good a job as can be expected. But all they have done is slow down the on coming storm and perhaps delay the inevitable. In so far as they have been able to, the tide has not turned into a tidal wave, but rather a steady but insidious stream of modernity, slowly eroding the entrenched value system (as the steady dripping of water on a rock forms a fissure), which must ultimately give way to some morphed version that won’t be a total concession to modernity but won’t be the haredi version of Judaism that we know today.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Proud to be a Goldstone War Criminal

Once again this past Wednesday the Friends of the IDF held their annual dinner. This year, as every year, they honored the future of the Jewish people, the chayalim, also known as war criminals, who serve in the protection of Israel and ultimately the Jewish people wherever they are.

This years Friends of the IDF dinner was different than past years in that it came on the coattails of the infamous Goldstone report, blaming the IDF, its officers and soldiers who participated in “Cast Lead” of war crimes. The dinner was held at the Chicago Hyatt, where the protesters made their presence felt, mildly annoying guests coming to pay homage to our brave soldiers and coming together as a community in solidarity.

In spite of the Goldstone report and to the disappointment of those quislings and “Irvings” who lined the entrance to the hotel, this year’s attendance was the largest ever held for the annual dinner. Over one thousand guests were in attendance overshadowing the paltry and pathetic handful of turncoat Irvings, “off the chart” liberals and self-hating Jews.

There are those who would opine that my presentation of the circumstances surrounding the dinner and my rhetoric depicts me as an intolerant bigot. Indeed, I ought to be branded as such since in this instance my comportment does not reflect the best tradition of our democratic system and pluralistic society that not only tolerates but encourages a variety of points of view. In principal this approach is probably not only correct, but ought to be encouraged. However, under the circumstances and considering the issue, I don’t think that anything but a position of solidarity should be tolerated within the ranks of the Jewish community. As such, if these chayalim are war criminals, then so am I - and proud.

There had been a consistent and persistent attempt by many members of the United Nations to delegitimize Israel. There have been enough attempts by certain protestant religious communities to marginalize Israel. There are enough union’s attempts within the European Union to delegitimize Israel at every opportunity.

Israel has been isolated by its enemies not because of any lofty principals but because they are clearly anti-Semitic. You’d have to be totally uninformed or just ignorant not to understand this – or be a self-hating Jew. The Goldstone report is yet one more attempt; clearly unbalanced, flawed from the outset with a bias favoring the Palestinians, and a blatant agenda not in Israel’s interest.

It still isn’t clear to me what the exact motives of Goldstone were but his Jewish self-hating complex gave me pause in reflecting on the Neturei Karta. As you may recall a representation of that misanthropic sect were guests of Ahmadinajad last year. As a consequence of their display of “sinat yisrael” they were excoriated and put in cherem (ostracized) by consensus of the Jewish community. It would seem consistent to do likewise with David Goldstone and those who by their actions identify with him. In actuality, Goldstone and his misanthropes have done much more harm to the Jewish people than the misguided Neturei Karta, yet he is the darling of the liberal Jewish community which leads me to ask why the Neturei Karta aren’t the poster children of the far left appeasers and pacifiers.

Those Jewish leaders that are actively supporting Goldstone ought to be spotlighted by the Jewish community and if not put in cherem, denounced; rendering them impotent; minimizing their influence on the more vulnerable and naïve, misdirected third/fourth tiered Jewish leadership. To wit, there are now rabbis in search of meaning, and as such have latched on to these purveyors of misguided moral rectitude conducting fast days (I wonder if their public fast is 24 hours or only a “tzom kal” from sun-up to sundown. I can only assume that they drink water as do those who fast on Ramadan) for the soi-disant victims of Zionist aggression.

I still haven’t figured out on what religious-halachic basis these would-be rabbis have declared this public fast. After all we just don’t fast arbitrarily (even those pious Jews who took upon themselves b”hab fasting was done with strong reservations); there has to be a basis for it in rabbinic/halachic literature. I’m fairly certain that they didn’t research this issue nor did they consult with any recognized rabbinic authority. Do you think that these so-called rabbis fasted for our brothers and sisters in S’derot who were brutalized for eight years by the unrelenting bombardment from our peace loving neighbors in Gaza?

Monday, October 19, 2009

History’s Lesson

It’s true what they say about us Jews. We’re neurotic. We revel in victimhood. We enjoy regaling in our history of suffering at the hands of the anti-Semites. Oftentimes we refer to it as martyrology s so well documented in our prayer books, services and holiday observances. Whether one believes it is providential really isn’t relevant. What is important is that we are here and we ought to be thrilled that in such a short time since the last great Jewish debacle we are alive and well. In spite of the economic downturn the state of the Jewish people is vibrant, throbbing with life. The only serious concern that we have today is Israel’s security and the latest threat that nuclear Iran poses to a secure Israel. But because we are a neurotic people we have to manufacture new existential threats to the Jewish people; we have to have something to worry about.

We’re worried about the future of the Jewish people in light of the high rate of assimilation in the United States. Indeed the rate of assimilation in America has grown to staggering proportions. Every few years those “entrusted” with our welfare and future get nervous about the latest statistics about the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation. But for some reason I’m not worried or all that concerned. If history has ever taught me a lesson its don’t prognosticate. Based upon the shear numbers of apostasy (forced and otherwise), assimilation and intermarriage throughout our history we should have long ago disappeared. After World War II no one would have bet that the orthodox and ultraorthodox would have enjoyed such a renaissance in America and Israel. In the 1960’s there were prognostications that based upon low birth rates, assimilation and intermarriage American Jewry would cease to be relevant by the end of the twentieth century. We are already a decade into the twenty first century and we are still here.

The skeptics will argue that the ones that are really alive and well are the orthodox; and the only ones that will really survive this great plague of assimilation will be the ultra-orthodox. The model for this latest prognostication is based on the traditional garnering of statistical information. Steven Cohen, one of the leading demographers/sociologists has been documenting trends in the Jewish community for decades, none of them sanguine. According to Cohen and other prophets of doom, the only ones who will be standing within three or four generations will be the haredi community who seem to multiply prodigiously (according to a recent Steven Cohen statistic among Jews in their 50’s, for every 100 orthodox adults there are 192 orthodox children; but for the non orthodox for every 100 adults there are 55 children).

I don’t agree with these conclusions for a number of reasons. No one can predict the future. There are simply too many variables. As I mentioned earlier, sighting the statistics of the 1960’s we were supposed to have been extinct by now. Certainly that was the consensus of many when Look Magazine came out with a cover story “The Vanishing American Jew”. We’re stronger now than ever before. What Look Magazine and forecasters couldn’t take into consideration were a number of unknown factors: The lightening six-day war in 1967 that gave Jews worldwide a new lease on life. Jews became prouder, bolder, and more assertive. We gained entry into the halls of power like never before and we moved into positions of influence in practically every sphere. With that came stronger assimilation trends and higher rates of intermarriage, but to counter balance that came the mushrooming of Jewish day schools representing the different denominations.

The Judaism of the 21st century is different than that of the mid 20thcentury, in nuance as well as content. When I look back over he past half century the Judaism of my father is hardly understood by this generation. The gay and lesbian community has been mainstreamed in the liberal movements and will be in the orthodox community in the not too distant future. While women rabbis are ordained in the liberal moments exclusively they too will become part of the orthodox landscape in the near future. They already have partial recognition regarding scholarship, serve as mashgichot and are in leadership positions. They are rabbis in everything but title; this too will come. The point is that Judaism is organic, constantly morphing, meeting the challenges and those seeking it out. The contemporary religioscape is nothing like our forefathers would have imagined whether you are orthodox or unaffiliated. It never was intended to be because of the very nature of our unique culture that is based on the oral tradition.

What isn’t dynamic is the haredi community who seem to be stuck in the 18th-19th centuries. Because of their conservative value system they only appear to be more genuine than the Jewish expressions of the 21st century. Their rigid adherence to custom, tradition and halacha doesn’t however give them a monopoly on the Jewish future. That orthodox halacha doesn’t recognize the conversion practices of the liberal community, and thus dismiss thousands of conversions is inconsequential to those liberal communities.

The demographers apply orthodox standards when prognosticating. True, assimilation is up and so is intermarriage. On an orthodox scale, the orthodox numbers are up and they seem to be the ones to carry the torch. On the other hand the liberal community, applying their own standards of who and what is a Jew appears to be, for the foreseeable future members of the tribe who are not only not disappearing but are proactive. There may have once been a unilateral normative standard by which the issue of personal status was determined. That has given way as the liberal communities have developed independently from the orthodox and have established their own guidelines, becoming a parallel set of normative standards.

Another part of the equation that hasn’t been considered by these demographers and prophets of doom is the unknown. At any given moment the playing field can change. In 1964 when Look magazine came out with “The Vanishing Jew”, they obviously didn’t conceive of the Jewish community in 2009. So while today it may appear to some that the future of those who believe non-orthodox community is questionable I would prefer to sit back and let history unfold. Studying history is tricky. But a serious student of Jewish history is always humbled by it; rarely using it for extrapolation and prognostication.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Datlashim – An Expanding Universe

When I was a graduate student at Hebrew University in the 1980’s I spent most of my waking hours in the National Library (Sifriya Leumit) on the Givat Ram campus. It was a fascinating place to spend time because I never knew whom I would see at the library on any given day. Sometimes it was Nechama Leibovitz other times it was Yakov Katz or Joseph Babad one of my favorite people. What I never saw at the Sifriya Leumit in those days was a Haredi: the Sifriya Leumit was one of the national symbols of the “ziyonim” and apikorsim. So when I entered the library on one sunny day I took notice of a haredi studying a text with the concentration and posturing as though he was in the beis medrash pouring over a blatt gemorah. It fascinated me and after a few hours when he took a break in the lobby where the Ardon Windows are prominently housed I approached him and asked him what he was doing in the library. That was the beginning of a friendship based upon mutual respect and understanding of the struggle that this brave young man was undergoing.

Shlomo was a seeker. He was one of seven children, born to a haredi Yerushalmi family, who was a haredi in appearance but not in spirit. Until my encounter with him I had never considered the possibility that there were haredim who didn’t wish to live that life style, but because of social and economic circumstances had little choice and so by default remained within that community. Shlomo who was of strong courage with the disciplined introspection of a kotzker hasid wasn’t prepared to remain within his community by default. By the time I met Shlomo he had already prepared himself emotionally for the heavy price he would have to pay by becoming a seeker. He had made the quantum leap from Sanhedria to the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University, basking in the warmth of the intellectual energy generated there while trying to make sense out of his life.

Shlomo began visiting me at my home and it was there that he was introduced to the world of music and television. It was on those evenings that we had long conversations into the early hours of the morning about religion and spirituality. As it turned out, Shlomo was a deeply spiritual man but had little interest in religious practice. It was the detailed attention to the minutiae of religious practice demanded by his haredi community without reaping the spiritual benefit that caused him stress and frustration. Shlomo was able to articulate that while spirituality was important to him, religious practice didn’t enhance his life or contribute to his spiritual quest. Ultimately he broke with his community, studied for the bagrut and later attended university. It was a very difficult journey, for he suffered social alienation and harsh economic deprivation.

Over the years I have met many such people, men and women who no longer found relevance and personal meaning in religious practice but were conflicted nevertheless with the consequences of breaking away from their communities. For many it meant ostracism from their nuclear and extended families, economic dislocation, and ironically, tepid acceptance from the very communities that they wished to become part of. These early “chozrim b’sheelah” were in a sense pioneers for a very unique situation that they found themselves in through no fault of their own. The old idiom “you can’t force a round peg in a square hole” is true and applicable to this community of people; men and women who no longer find their place within the haredi community, but fear leaving because of the dire consequences.

Over the years and because the numbers of the disenchanted have grown there is a new phenomenon: seekers who have formed a loose support system and refer to themselves as “datlashim”. The interesting thing about these seekers is that they aren’t necessarily interested in cashiering in their history and tradition as much as they are concerned about finding the means by which to express their Judaism in meaningful ways. For many it is the continued practice of halachic Judaism but in a way that is spiritually meaningful, without the rigidity demanded of them hitherto. Others seek a more secular approach in defining their Judaism by exchanging the traditional beit midrash for a secularly formatted beit midrash. In many cases the datlashim aren’t capable of embracing the secular community because they find them too superficial. Secular Jews are less apt to examine with a fine toothcomb their spiritual soul print and operate on a basis of convenience that is too facile for a haredi.

What is emerging is a community of datlashim: Jews who haven’t yet been able to define what and who they are. For the most part they are sitting on the fence: hovering between two worlds. They are undecided and procrastinating whether to remain orthodox or to transition into the secular world. Some are trying to formulate an approach that merges the two worlds: the secular and the religious. For others there is the inclination to move into the secular world but they are being held back from a total break because of their emotional connection to a rich textured and complex tradition. Clearly there is much pain in the process of transitioning. But the beauty of it all is that these are thinking, feeling, sensitive and deeply spiritual people seeking a way to express their Judaism in the 21st century.

Ironically, while baalei teshuva and datlashim are on opposite ends of the spectrum they share a common denominator: God’s commandment to Abraham’s: to leave his fathers house and to go forth to a land that he will be shown. While each of these groups interprets the commandment differently each of them understands that the quest for spiritual fulfillment is integral to the Jewish psyche and comes at a very high price.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Morality of Victim-hood

The results of the Goldstone report on human rights violations in the Gaza conflict came as no surprise; as a matter of fact I alluded to it in my posting of August 31, M.O.T. a month before the results were made known. It was a “no brainer” because it was a foregone conclusion. There is a double standard and Israel is always held to the higher standard.

Oftentimes we blame the community of nations for this obvious bias against Israel, but there are times when I think that we are responsible for perpetuating the double standard. In 1948 with the establishment of the state and the IDF, the principle of “purity of arms” was formulated and instituted setting the moral bar very high. “Purity of arms” was intended to frame the IDF and the country it serves within a framework of moral standards above the prevailing norms. We were to be an “or lagoyim”, a “light unto the nations”, an “am cohanim v’goy kadosh”, a “nation of priests and a holy nation”. It can be argued that there was no real basis for this in rabbinic literature. The notion of a “holy nation” was never defined in Torah text but left up to interpretation by our sages who were influenced by their environment. The idea of “Jewish ethical standards” has its origins in the Torah, but is manifestly unclear and full of contradictions.

There are times when we are counseled and commanded in Torah to take care of the poor; on the other hand Torah supported the idea of servitude, albeit benign. Torah was also not too forgiving of dissenters and those who rebelled against Moshe in the desert. And for those who persisted in maintaining religious practices out of step with Torah’s brand of monotheism their end was bitter. Our patriarchs were conflicted with moral decisions (Jacob’s behavior towards Esau is but on e example); indeed their children (Jacob’s son and their role in the revenge of the rape of Dinah and Jacob’s response, as well as the sale of Joseph) at times displayed a complete disregard fro morality. How are we to understand the commandment to “exterminate Amalek” or the religious wars of Joshua? There are multiple examples of conflicting moral positions in Torah that have us tied up in knots. Our rabbis have devoted their creative intellectual powers in reconciling these seeming anomalies. It wasn’t until the period of the prophets that a quasi-coherent ethical approach began to crystallize.

The prophets, in spite of their charisma, articulation and moral clarity, were rejected by the people and of course by the prevailing political leadership. On the rare occasion that the political leadership was predisposed to the spiritual leadership of the prophets they were, nevertheless morally bankrupt. King David is one obvious example. The sages through the ages struggled to put David in a positive light. But no matter how much they tried the stain of his morally bankrupt lifestyle and leadership characteristics out weighed any arguments the rabbis could offer. If there ever was a king who displayed any moral clarity it was Saul but was rewarded by loosing the kingship to a shrewd, calculated and cunning pretender.

It was Diaspora Judaism that tried to airbrush our history from its warts and blemishes; trying to rationalize the seeming contradictions of our narrative by creating a moral value system that never, ever existed. Our rabbis invented a system that was impossible to live by. As long as we were in Diaspora without our own home, the Judaism they invented was harmless. We were powerless and to some degree we enjoyed our victimhood because it confirmed and affirmed the fiction we created.

The birth of the state of Israel put a kink in the storyline because modern Israel picked up where we left off two thousand years before. Although there was a clear Diaspora narrative that impacted heavily on the new Israel, the effort was made to close the gap by bracketing (if not attempting to disregard) the Diaspora experience between the end of the second commonwealth and the modern state. By doing this the new reality called in to question the fiction that our sages and rabbis wove for two thousand years. Israel was in a real quandary. Does modern Israel have to live up to a fictional characterization of who we are or can they pick up from where they left off, running the affairs of state and their army as every other nation in the region. In other words, Israel was confronted with the choice of perpetuating a myth or living honestly.

It isn’t easy casting off a two thousand year myth about the moral superiority of Israel. Other nations bought into it as well. So when Israel attempted to normalize itself in its conduct of war and diplomacy it was confronted with an image that was hard if not impossible to dispel. That is the condition of Israel today. A modern country linking to its pre-Diaspora past by attempting to finesse a means by which it recasts itself from the Diaspora image of the meek unassuming role of doing God’s work here on earth, even at the price of victimhood to an image of a nation rejecting victimhood even at the expense of casting others into the role of victim.

So people like Goldstone can continue to perpetuate the image of the Jew as the victim. They feel more comfortable living with that image because it affirms the Diaspora narrative and the image of victimhood; they simply aren’t comfortable enough in their Jewish skin to risk confrontation. The new Israel, modern Israel, on the other hand has little reservation about revising history: a reversal of roles from being the victim to becoming the victimizer.

Monday, August 31, 2009


Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lezeh (loosely translated: Jews are responsible for one another) are powerful words conveying an awesome ethic which has been part of our national psyche and vocabulary for a very long time. It has been the gold standard by which the members of the tribe comported ourselves. This rule has had a tribal like quality to it and unless you are a member of a tribe it is hard to grasp. Other ethnic groups who maintain a strong network and filial association can empathize with the sense of responsibility and belonging that we feel. The dictum kol yisrael areveim zeh lezeh defies the traditional definition of responsibility, because it also assumes belonging and group identification, transcending blood ties and demanding loyalty and fealty to the group. The idea of the “kehilla” is founded on this idea. In fact the underpinnings of the very idea of “Jewish community and infrastructure”, including the overpowering need to extend tzedakah wherever it is needed, is built upon the simple yet complex idea that we are bound to each other.

This paradigm that has helped define us as a global community for millennia undoubtedly (obviously) applies to Israel as well. Israel has enjoyed the financial, emotional and political support of the American Jewish community since the inception of modern Israel because of the abiding principal that kol yisrael arevim ze lezeh. Even though we were separated by geography, culture, language, law and citizenship there was always the bond of brothers, an unspoken pledge amongst us, which transcended space and defied logic. American Jews may have disagreed with some of Israel’s policies, and Israelis may have ridiculed their spoiled and naïve American brothers, but we settled our differences behind closed doors in a space reserved for members of the tribe. While there may have been dissension within our community we presented ourselves to the public as a unified front having settled any previous differences that threatened the harmony of the tribe.

All of this has begun to erode and while it is difficult to pinpoint its genesis (I shall leave this to the sociologist) one can certainly point to a series of recent benchmarks that underscore this lamentable reality. J Street is one, but a more insidious manifestation was the support that Barak Obama garnered from some quarters of the Jewish community. There is nothing inherently wrong with voting liberal. There is nothing wrong with voting conservative. What is troublesome is voting for a candidate that has leanings not favorable to a significant segment of the corpus of the Jewish people.

While this in itself may be disconcerting what is reprehensible is that individuals in leadership positions have chosen to join those that that have applied the infamous double standard to Israel’s conduct of war. The U.N. War Crimes Commission for Gaza is headed up by non other than Richard Goldstone, a Jew determined to nail Israel to the cross and is a persona non grata in Israel. Another maverick Jew is Ronnie Kasrils, a small time South African Jewish politician trying to make a name for himself by leading a campaign against Israeli soldiers carrying dual citizenship. He is trying to pressure his government into prosecuting those soldiers, members of the IDF holding South African citizenship, for war crimes.

There was a time that members of the tribe all shared common goals and even if there were fundamental disagreement rarely was there an instant when we turned against our own. All that has changed in a very short time. People like Kasrils and Goldstone have joined the auspicious gang of sophisticated Spanish bounty hunters on the hunt for Israeli “war criminals”, not wanting to dull their skills honed during the Inquisition. Add to that the new breed of self hating Jews, like Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod and we have a picture that doesn’t bode well for our future. (They represent a new breed of Jews, acting, ostensibly for the good of the Jewish people, but in reality they are no different that so many other well intentioned “court Jews” throughout our history). A week ago Robert Novak died. I couldn’t help but wonder who was worse Kasrils or Novak?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Skydiving Over Jerusalem

Last year at about this time the financial markets were tough but it was just after Rosh Hashanah that the ceiling came down. Add to that a stagnant economy, record high unemployment, and a real estate market that’s writhing in pain and you have the perfect storm – almost. What more can go wrong? A pandemic, the swine flu has been plaguing us this past year and threatens to come back with a vengeance this fall. But I’m not really that concerned, because the best and greatest minds will be put to the test as they were when dealing with the global financial crises.

Over the past year financial wizards, international financiers and industrialists converged with statesmen and politicians from around the world in an attempt to staunch the financial hemorrhaging, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the great depression of 1929. It would appear that their efforts have born fruit. While we may not be in a full recovery, it seems that we have turned back from the abyss. What I found disappointing in the press and media coverage hitherto of the handling of the financial crises the conspicuous absence of the role our revered rabbis are playing in the recovery.

As a matter of fact, the media really hasn’t done justice to our rabbis in the handling of the health and financial crises. Our rabbis have been working feverishly around the clock in tandem with the World Health Organization in trying to find a solution to the swine flu. Apparently, the long awaited vaccine which promises to save many lives didn’t meet the high standards of our rabbis. Our rabbis, determined to protect humanity from this scourge has a new approach: to offer blessings while flying over Israel offering sounding the shofar and praying for the health and welfare of Jews Arabs and Christians. It would seem that to maximize the effect they ought to skydive – doing so would put them in even closer contact with god!

On the financial front, Yitzchak Cohen of Shas is promoting a new concept – kosher investment. The idea involves having rabbis in different communities who rule on halachic questions approve of investment avenues for the hareidi community. One such rabbi is Moshe Yosef, son of Ovadia (from the same family who brought us clarification as to the appropriate bracha for bamba). According to Cohen “we want to approve investment avenues based on values, for example, halachic principles”. That is a scary thought. After all, Israel is worse off today because there was never a clear separation of church and state. One would think that learning from previous errors there would be a clear delineation between the financial markets and the religious establishment.

The religious establishment isn’t known for its pristine ethical standards. Just look at the recent scandal in Deal, New Jersey, or the hechsher affixed to the products of Rubashkin. Ethics don’t only impact on financial transactions; they also are taken into account regarding medical decisions, business as well as civil comportment. While there has been some outstanding rabbinical leadership living and setting the standards for ethical behavior like R’ Arye Levin who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Unfortunately too many of our rabbis in key keadership positions haven’t exhibited the metal necessary to serve as ethicak role models.The 4th Belzer rebbe who while instructing his flock to remain in Nazi Europe fled, saving his own skin while his hassidim were decimated.

Their ethics are so skewered that they aren’t capable of setting standards by which to hold their rabbis accountable. Their ethics are tainted because of their relationship with the broader political landscape. Once politics enters the picture anything associated with it becomes tainted. Our rabbis in Israel are tainted, since there is no separation between church and state; their ethics have been compromised and some of their halachic decisions are questionable; and therefore I can only assume that their hechsherim regarding investments will be tainted as well. I suppose that compared to some of them, Bernie Madoff looks like a tzadik - or maybe even the gadol hador, when it comes to solid financial investment.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Just Do It !

Why is it that Orthodox (keruv) rabbis and in particular those in Chabad have this obsessive compulsive need to evangelize their version of Judaism on their co-religionists. They seem to have this obsessive need to put orthodoxy in a positive light. It’s become their raison d’être! Today, more than ever, with the scandalous behavior of the Deal NJ gang of rabbanim, Rubashkin’s version of glatt and other nefarious Orthodox Jews being arrested for felonious behavior, orthodox “kruv” rabbis are cringing, ducking from the public view; hoping that this too will blow over. One of their stalwart spokesmen, Shmuley Boteach believes that the recent scandals rocking the orthodox Jewish community and giving it a black eye can be reversed.

In one of his musings, Shmuley believes that by demonstrating how truly sublime orthodox Jews live their lives the tarnished image of the orthodox Jewish community can be repaired:
We the orthodox have it in our power to restore the true light and love of Judaism by demonstrating the power of our faith to shape outstanding ethics and inspire righteous action….But now is the time for that truth to shine, to demonstrate that resting on the Sabbath and studying Torah makes people less greedy, more noble and more spiritual.
It should but it obviously doesn’t. I don’t know what it is, but there is an evil wound blowing through much of the Jewish community that inspires greed. There is an inability to “fargin” their successful neighbors. If a member of the community is successful, rather than feel genuinely happy for his fortune, there is this insidious invective just under the surface, marring his good fortune.

Beyond this however, is something more troubling in Shmuley’s statement. He is guilty of using platitudes without clearly defining what it is he is really saying. He assumes that he and others of his ilk have a monopoly on the “true light” of Judaism. Perhaps the Satmar’s demonstrating every Shabbat (against mayor Barkat’s policy of opening garages on Shabbat) possesses the true light. They certainly believe it. So who is to say what the true light is. At best, Shmuley’s statement rings hollow, at worst it smacks of religious imperialism and triumphalism – neither of which are the right ingredients for one espousing religious and ethical beliefs.

Saying that the best way to destroy the myth (of the less observant) that the orthodox are judgmental is “to invite them to our homes where they will see our daughters are raised to comport themselves with dignity…..” Does he mean to imply by that that those who aren’t “religious” do not comport themselves with the same level of dignity as the daughters of orthodox families? Again, without realizing it he and others in the kiruv business are guilty of being sanctimonious.

Most non religious Jews aren’t obsessed with the image of the religious Jews. They could care less. Ironically, they can, under certain circumstances feel threatened by them: when there is an influx of religious into non religious neighborhoods. The small, burgeoning religious community after a while begins making demands on the neighborhood, changing the nature and quality of the community. Before long an eruv is in place; a house is converted into a shtiebel; and balabatim are walking in the middle of the street on Shabbat, as though it belonged to them. Jews, good Jews, who previously enjoyed their community are looked down upon, judged and made to feel inferior.

So rather than talk about how benevolent and munificent the orthodox community is I would suggest practice “being” Jewish. Rather than sing the praises of Orthodox Judaism, practice with modesty and let others sing praises. As Nike aptly put it for one of their sound bites “just do it”.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Parable*

The writer of this brilliant piece is Janet S.Tiger. It was posted to a blog on the internet ... 18 June 2009.

The Jews settled the moon in 2053, just about five years after the end of the Islamic Wars of the 40's, where the Middle East, and Israel, of course, had been obliterated by nuclear weapons. The two million Jews remaining throughout the rest of the world - less than 100,000 total in all the Islamic countries - banded together and purchased the dark side of the moon, which no other companies or people wished to colonize.

Great transports were arranged via the 62,000 mile space elevator and the Space Shuttle and every Jew on Earth - including anyone who claimed any Jewish heritage whatsoever - left to go to a place where no one could blame them for anything.

The Earth rejoiced - happily rid of all Jews . There were huge parties throughout all of Sweden and the rest of Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and North America. (Now known as the Northern Alliance of Islamic States after the United States was taken over peacefully in the elections of 2040 by a predominantly Muslim Congress and President, who immediately passed amendments making Islam the main religion of the United States and the world.)

After the last Jew entered the elevator (a David Goldstein, 62, formerly of New York), the Earth was officially declared Judenrein by Hans Ibn Hitler, a great, great-grandson of Hitler who had been raised in Brazil and hidden by Nazis until this precious moment.

It was not an easy move for the Jews but, in some ways, it was no different from all their moves of previous eras. Some former Israelis (still alive because they were out of Israel when the bombs dropped) claimed that the moon was easier to deal with because there were no Extremist Muslims. Of course, this precipitated a huge argument with some Jews, who felt not having the Radical Muslims nearby was not enough challenge.

Other Jews argued that taming a wilderness with no atmosphere, plant or animal life and freezing temperatures was enough challenge. And yet other Jews argued that arguing was counterproductive. It came as no surprise to anyone that for the two million Jews, there were eventually one million synagogues (with the other million Jews not joining).

It was also no surprise that within just three years, the Jews had created a controlled environment that allowed for fantastic plant and animal growth and production. The transports, which had been called the Arks, had also carried two of each animal and plant (rem ember, Noah), and through the ingenuity of the Jews and cloning, there were now many new species which sped up production of food (cows with six udders, chickens with four legs and so forth). The population had rapidly increased and, due to the amazing collection of scientific and medical minds, most diseases and even aging had been reduced to nil.

There was even a ministry of communication with Earth, consisting of the remains of Hollywood producers and moviemakers, who sent back to Earth portraits of life on the moon. Of course, it had been decided when the Jews first got to the moon - based on six-thousand-year history of people being jealous of Jewish accomplishment - that all news coverage of the moon's population would be 'movie-ized' to show only horrible things. The film industry, led by Jordan Spielberg, went to great lengths to fabricate news clips to show Jews barely surviving in the harsh lunar habitat. Artists and engineers laboured to cover over vast environmental successes with illusionary domes showing massive areas of wasteland - just in case anyone from Earth ever sent a spaceship with cameras to see what was going on.

But no-one ever did, and the years passed rapidly; one decade, then another. bar mitzvahs, weddings, brises, all celebrated under the artificial world that the Jews had created - not only had it not been that bad, but by the end of the century, some Jewish authors were calling the moon colony - Eden 2'.

Of course other Jews disagreed. In fact, much time was spent on disagreeing. There were even contests for arguing but, in general, there was peace. Anyone who threatened the peace was forced to officiate at a contest with people arguing about why that person was wrong. The contests would go on for days (sometimes weeks), until the troublemaker begged for forgiveness. (Many penalties on the moon were similar to this, and were extremely effective.)

Back on Earth, life disintegrated without the Jews. There was a return to Middle Ages thought - only the current religion du jour was valid - all others were kept legislated into poverty until a war erupted and the positions changed for a few years.

Another amazing anomaly appeared when there were no longer any Jews on Earth - anti-Semitism actually increased to monumental proportions! Famous orators explained this simply by saying: 'I don't have to have a gun to be afraid of having my brains blown out.' Additionally, without the presence of the Jew, the world developed incredible evil that had no release. (Previous evil had always focused on the Jews. One Rabbi on the moon actually said G-d spoke to him, and said that He, G-d, was about to destroy the Earth because everyone o n the Earth was evil. The Rabbi begged Him to reconsider, and bargained that if there were 1,000 good people left on Earth, G-d should spare the planet.
G-d then told the Rabbi, 'Hey, I went through this before with Abraham and Noah, and I already know the answer because I'm G-d.'

People laughed at the Rabbi, but then, one day, while all the lunar citizens were going about their business, an enormous series of explosions was seen on the Earth. Everyone on the moon stared at the distant fireballs that seemed to engulf the blue planet that was once their home.

Although there had been great anger at being forced to leave the Earth, the true spirit of Judaism was always present on the moon, and no one had wished ill on to their former home. As in the tradition of the Seder (when the wine is spilled because the Egyptians perished, and we do not rejoice fully when even an enemy has died) when the Jews saw what was happening, they began to weep and pray, and watch what was to be the final news broadcast from Earth. The horror of the apocalypse was videotaped by cameras until all electricity was ionised by the new electron bombs. Entire countries were wiped away in the blink of an ion exploding. And then came the final transmission from the nation that had started the entire mess - it was a desperate headline screamed by a hundred dying newscasters. Their rant continued until it was just blackness. What were they saying? As the Jews watched, some gasped, others cried, and a few even laughed. For the last words of the disappearing civilization was a condemnation. 'The Jews have caused all our problems - they left us here to face the mess they made. If the Jews hadn't taken all the best scientists and engineers, we could have defeated our enemies. Our enemies are the Jews! Kill all the Jews.'

It took a little while, but the electronics experts pieced together what had happened on Earth during its last days. Anti-Semitism, which had grown stronger and stronger since the Jews had left, had reached its pinnacle, and all the countries of the world had decided to launch a massive attack on the moon. The attack had been coordinated by the United Nations and, although all the missiles had been launched properly, there was some sort of glitch in the targeting system, resulting in all the weapons colliding in the upper atmosphere and showering the Earth with a deadly rain of nuclear fire, electronic destruction, and a generally bad day. The mistake triggered the military response of all the nations (who all had nuclear weapons by then - plus a few other horrid toys), and the result was truly an Armageddon.

The Jews on the moon went into a period of deep mourning. The Orthodox rent their clothing and there were mass counseling sessions. And then, about one week after the BIG DAY, as it was now called, a presence was detected heading towards the moon. Had one of the missiles escaped? Were the Jews doomed after all? The leaders checked with the defense experts - no this was not a missile, it was an old-style spacecraft, like the ones used in the early seventies. As it approached, the laser defense was trained on the craft. Debates raged as to whether the craft should be destroyed or allowed to get close enough to communicate with.

A message from the ship came just in time. It said, 'We are the last representatives from Earth - two from each country and we come in peace.' Some Jews rejoiced that there were survivors, others demanded isolation or death of the approaching group.

The Rabbi who had had the vision of earth's destruction told the leaders that G-d wanted them to have a chance, so they were allowed to circle the moon. When told they could have a section of land to themselves to farm and repopulate, the Earthlings were upset. They told the Jews that they should be allowed to live with the Jews and have all the same privileges - because, after all, in Judaism, the stranger is given the same rights and privileges as the citizen.

Upon hearing this, the leaders went to the Rabbi with the visions, and he offered to guide the visitors to their new home. The leaders allowed him to g ive the instructions for landing. Of course, not trusting the Rabbi, the commander of the ship didn't listen to his advice, and instead crashed into a lunar crater.

And so we have the final days of the history of the planet Earth, which have been generously shared with us by the Jewish colony of the 453rd Solar System of the M Galaxy. Although the Earth is currently uninhabitable, the head engineer of the Jewish colony on Mars tells us that Venus will be fully colonized by the year 2120, and with continuous replanting, Earth will once again be ready for Jews returning from other planets in the year 2136.

An interesting side note - inside the wreckage of the rocket with the survivors from Earth was a specially-marked package that had survived which included the following words: 'Once there was a great planet named Earth. And there were many peoples on this planet, and they all existed peacefully with each other, except for the Jews. Wherever there were Jews, there was trouble. Jews brought dirt and death and hatred and strife. They were finally banished from our planet, only to take with them many great inventors and scientists and doctors, leaving Earth with nothing. We have decided to destroy the remnants of the Jews, and since the first attempt failed, we are the last chance for Earth. Whoever shall find this will know the truth - It was all the Jews' fault.'

This panel has been saved and is on display at the Earth Memorial Museum at Rivka Crater, NW, for all travelers who wish to see the remains of a civilization that did not understand the words - 'He who blesses the Jews, is himself blessed. He who curses the Jews, is himself cursed.'


*For other work and holocaust-related material please refer to her

Monday, August 10, 2009

Shabbes Goy

A group of rabbis in Bat Yam including the city’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi Shaul Yosef Weingerten recently convened in order to discuss the increasing demand for employing the shabbat goy better known as the “shabbes goy”. A shabbes goy is a non Jewish person who performs those tasks that are halachically forbidden for Jews to perform on Shabbat or yom tov. Examples of the kinds of work the shabbes goy is called upon to do is turning on or off electricity, cooking, cleaning, indeed any kind of work that is prohibited according to the 39 categories (avot) and their derivations (toledot). One of the means by which some of these prohibitions may be circumvented is through the shabbes goy. The laws regarding the shabbes goy are complicated and complex and weren’t treated lightly until the 19th century. By the mid 20th century with the accessibility of Jewish education and the deterioration in the respect for the orthodox communal rabbi and the ascendance of the yeshiva scholars (roshei yeshiva), laws regarding the governance of the shabbes goy were dramatically relaxed.

Our sages throughout the ages from the talmudic/geonic period up through the 19th century were concerned with the possible abuse of the laws regulating the shabbes goy from an ethical perspective as much as a halachic one. The purpose of this posting is not to examine the halachic aspects of the shabbes goy in the 21st century but to explore the ethical / moral ramifications which arise when use of the shabbes goy is abused.

Rules concerning the shabbes goy depended on whether the use was for the community or the individual. Regardless of the use of the shabbes goy, Jews have always understood that we were responsible for our actions and that observing the commandments assumed certain responsibilities, privileges as well as sacrifices. It was for this reason partly that Jews avoiding the use of the shabbes goy didn’t work in agriculture during the early geonic period. Farming and agriculture required working 7 days a week; cows had to be milk every day otherwise there was issues of “tzar lbaalei chaiyim” as well as economic loss. On the other hand it was easier for a community to employ a shabbes goy because the community as a whole was held to a standard, unlike the individual who might abuse the system. The use of the shabbes goy by the individual was of greater concern to our rabbis because implied was the fact that by using a goy we were relinquishing individual responsibility for our actions benefiting from the use of someone else’s work that was prohibited to us. The ethical fallout was that at some point the halachic system would trump ethics or even define ethical standards. If the law was designed to accommodate the individual as well as the collective, in their own land or in the Diaspora, then avoiding that responsibility by seeking out the loopholes of a shabbes goy would be to undermine the intention of the original design. Subscribing to a religious system assumes that at times there will be inconveniences. Seeking the loopholes in the system is to ultimately avoid responsibility and the benefit of that design, however flawed. On the contrary, by creating a shabbes goy we ultimately impinge and corrupt the intention of the design.

To fulfill a mitzvah by use of a proxy goy is to diminish its meaning and purpose as well as to impede the Jew from practicing his mitzvot. To relinquish obligations is no different than avoiding conscription by paying someone else to serve in one’s place. To relinquish obligations is no different than paying someone else to serve out ones prison sentence. According to the logic of using the shabbes goy what would be wrong if Bernie Madoff decided to hire someone else to do his time! This has been done before in Europe and the feudal system ultimately collapsed giving way to other enlightened political systems. The use of the shabbes goy effectively diminishes the ethical underpinnings of halacha and it is happening today. By using the shabbes goy, the gentile has become objectified, an easy target, someone to be taken advantage of.

The use of the shabbes goy not only objectifies him but also enhances our ability to discriminate. We may not be able to do the work on Shabbat, but at some point work in general becomes unseemly; let the goy do the work. This has become a mentality quite ubiquitous in some quarters of the orthodox Jewish community. That coupled with the fact that they subscribe to a literal understanding of “asher bacar banu mecol hahmim” becomes a formula for the perfect storm. The likes of the Spinka rebbe or the Deal NJ gang of five or the Rubashkin fiasco is no longer a surprise when put into this perspective. Remarkably and ironically the shabbes goy has truly done its work – objectifying itself with a boomerang effect!