Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tisha B’Av 5769

Eighteen years before the destruction of the Temple Jeremiah submitted via proxy his 4 chapter prophesy telling of the coming destruction of the Kingdom (from his prison cell), to King Yehoyakim who then burned it because of its apparent seditious nature. Jeremiah rewrote it, the second time with an additional chapter (chapter 3) and came to be known as “Eicah” which we read every Tisha B’Av. I mention this because this Tisha B’Av is the first in which President Obama is the President of the United States. Last year at this time there were many who weren’t convinced that Obama was a friend of Israel. Indeed, there were many who intuited that based upon his thin record he wouldn’t be good for Israel.

It is still unclear how the peace process will unfold in the years ahead. What is however, abundantly clear is that the liberal component within the Jewish community has the ear of the president. What has me worried this year is not only the direction of the peace process but also the rapidly changing complexion of the Jewish communal infrastructure in America. It appears that the leadership of this amorphous community has defaulted to its liberal faction.

It appears that for the current administration AIPAC has nearly been replaced by J Street (in regard to its influence with President Obama) which is something quite worrisome when considering the quality and commitment of those running the organization. For the most part they are exponents of the New Israel Fund and come from the extreme left on the Jewish political spectrum. One of their spokesperson recently wrote that “they are more committed to making Judaism personally meaningful than to simply pursuing Jewish continuity”. That’s ok as a “hipster” who has little or no contextual understanding of Jewish history and its values. It becomes unacceptable and even dangerous when they make the leap from religious values to nation building; when they abandon Jewish cultural values and Zionism by embracing Obama’s values who “leads an interconnected world” and “is a symbol of a new era of racial relations”.

The New Israel Fund desires an Israel where the Palestinian narrative is equal to that of the Jewish one. As a matter of fact the New Israel Fund supports Palestinian causes that are intent on the destruction of Israel as an inherently Jewish state. The New Israel Fund recently came under fire for funding I'lam, an Arab NGO that calls for the end of Israel as a Jewish state and whose founder, Hanin Zoabi, stated that she supports Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons to be used as a counterbalance to Israel. Yet, the exponents of the New Israel Fund, now morphed into a political PAC called J Street have the ear of President Obama. Scarry.

As if this wasn’t enough of a problem recently a group of thirteen “rabbis” launched an initiative called “Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza”. They have plans on holding a mass “water only” fast on the third Thursday of every month lasting from sunrise to sunset. According to their spokesperson “they seek to end the Jewish community’s silence over what they call Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza”. As far as I know, Jewish fasts were called only when there was a serious calamity or devastating threat to the Jewish community. What is the connection between fasting and the Palestinians in Gaza? Where were these yefeh nefesh (gentle souls) when Sderot was being rocketed for eight years? Why weren’t they holding a fast during those bloody years when innocent civilian Israelis were intentionally targeted by their Palestinian brothers?

Lastly, Pope Benedict XVI issued a papal encyclical entitled “Charity in Truth” in which he declares that all people have a fundamental human right to food, clean water and a job. He continues that “the current inequality is a cultural and moral crisis for man” demanding distributive justice through a redistribution of wealth. Good for the pope. Normally I wouldn’t have given this any attention. However, JJ Goldberg, editorial director of the Forward writes an op-ed piece in which he not only praises the encyclical but comments that “reading the encyclical is a reminder that we are quickly losing a big part of our tradition” (Forward, What We Can learn From Pope Benedict, July 24, 2009). Really? What tradition is he referring to? Is he referring to Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s book “There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition”, to which reference was made earlier in the article? Apart from her hardly being an authority, Rabbinic Judaism wisely anticipated this possibility and decisively dismissed the idea of redistribution of wealth by issuing the famous “prozbol”.

What is fascinating to me is the liberal tendency to whip out and quote from the prophets whenever it suits their needs and interests. To quote from Noam Neusner “ justifying modern positions with a few sound bites from ancient text is one of the oldest tricks in the book…borrowing a few phrases from the prophets is a surefire way to connect the faithful to an issue they would not otherwise understand and give to it the poetry lacking in floor speeches on C-span”. For those like me I regard the prophets as a bit sketchy. However to those liberals who base so much of their philosophy and ideology on the prophets I would seriously encourage them to study the Book of Lamentations and give it the same weight that they do to “The Audacity of Hope”!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Deaf Ears

Catching up on old mail I ran across a piece on Kiddush Hashem which appeared in VIN under the name of Dr. Yitzchok Levine, professor emeritus at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Department of Mathematical Sciences. It was a good essay: the only problem was that it was written for and about a different era. It was as though Dr. Levine has been living in a time warp for the past thirty years. He hasn’t a clue as to who he is writing for or who his audience is.

In his article he reviews the works of Rav Hirsch, Rav Breuer and Rav Schwab all focusing attention on the awesome burden of the orthodox Jew: to behave in such a way that they bring credit to their community. To do otherwise would possibly be inviting chilul hashem. Rav Hirsch developed this idea by reflecting on the midrash that asserts that the “luchot habrit” had been etched on both sides, “through and through”. Using this as a metaphor, Rav Hirsch asserts that the orthodox Jew has to be genuine, through and through. It can’t be that a person can perform mitvot bein adam lamakom and neglect the mitzvoth bein adam l’chavero.

To hammer home his point he sites Rav Breuer on the observance of kashrut. Being kosher, according to Rav Breuer isn’t just about dietary restrictions and regulations but also “yosher”, walking the straight and narrow. “The so-called chassid who confines his avodah to prayer does not deserve this title, if this avodah of the heart does not call him to the avodah of life where he must practice and apply the precepts of chassidus.”

Finally Dr. Levine presses to his case Rav Schwab who 35 years ago wrote an article on fraud that scandalized the frum community. In that essay he commented on the words of the Shema “you shall love hashem” to mean that we are “to lead exemplary lives that would contribute to the universal adoration of hashem….” The opposite behavior brings on chilul hashem which provides ammunition for those who doubt the validity of torah “and encourages the desecration of torah learning, torah education, and torah influence.”

What strikes me as odd about this article is that while there may be some relevance it raises questions and doesn’t seem to address the current spate of chilulei hashem. The examples that Dr. Levine sites all have one common denominator. Ones actions don’t necessarily have to be altruistic, they have to be performed in order to avoid a chilul hashem. The orthodox Jew carries a burden. Always watchful of the gentile’s reaction to his behavior, his actions aren’t pristine, but driven by an ulterior motive. This approach has been programmed in us for centuries and has the ingredients necessary to set us up for seismic failure. While reading this article I couldn’t help but notice the following stories relating to the frum community that have been breaking in the recent past:
• Rabbis implicated in an international money laundering scheme involving a yeshiva and a synagogue.
• Solomon Dwek pending fraud case.
• The imminent transfer of a “bachur” tried and convicted on drug charges in Japan.
• A “bachur” driving without a driver’s license turned to Harav Chaim Kanievsky seeking a bracha as a result of a car accident that he caused.
• The myriad cases of pedophilia within the orthodox community, and the cover ups.
• The Spinka Rebbe scandal still being adjudicated.
• The Rubashkin case.

The most recent scandal involving rabbis and mayors in the N.J. / N.Y. area isn’t just about money laundering but something far more heinous and highly unethical: the trafficking of human organs.
How does one explain this bazaar behavior? One can say in the defense of the frum Jewish community that this really is a small number, a fraction, barely detectable on the radar screen. On the other hand, if I apply the principles of Rabbis Hirsch, Breuer and Schwab then it would appear that although the absolute numbers of sinners may be low their impact is great.

I have often argued that the root cause of the problem within the frum community is the subliminal message that they are teaching their children. This subliminal message didn’t begin with the onset of the day school movement after WWII but began centuries before that in Eastern Europe. It was in the shtetel that survival became tantamount to outsmarting the system which was run by goyim. And of course the rampant anti Semitism that plagued Europe for centuries contributed to the negative image the Jewish community had of the gentile. This bias was reinforced over the centuries by the close knit community which we chose to live in either by choice, necessity or fiat.

Many of us were able to liberate ourselves from this prevalent mindset especially as we became acculturated into mainstream America. Many however opted to maintain the old ways, the old bias’ that were no longer relevant but were comfortable nonetheless. The outsider is still the goy and there is a system that begs to be exploited.

But how do rabbis and frum Jews justify the trafficking in human organs. These are rabbis who are not only arranging for and buying kidneys; they are exploiting the poor. They are not only exploiting the poor, but they are exploiting their own brothers, Jews living in Israel. The ethical issue here is the pure and unadulterated exploitation of people reduced to poverty and willing to sell a vital organ for a few dollars. Nauseating. And while these deals are being executed these same rabbis are faithfully attending daf yomi classes, sending their wives to the mikveh and making sure that their communities have a kosher eruv.
The current mindset at play among the orthodox community isn’t only the result of the teachings of rabbis such as Breuer, Hirsch and Schwab whose pedagogy flowed from negative rather than positive reasoning (shanda far de goyim). Halacha for many within this group has become technical gobbledygook; exploited in order to belong, to fit in. Halacha isn’t practiced as a “practice” in order to elevate man, but is rather mimicked mindlessly as a means by which identification with the group is secure and solidified. Until halacha is understood as a method and mitzvoth as tools by which we elevate ourselves as ethical human beings the teachings of our masters will be falling upon deaf ears.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Art Scroll Judaism

A “watershed” article shedding light on the wisdom of our tradition appeared a few days ago in the Five Towns Jewish Times by Rabbi Yair Hoffman and which was picked up by VIN, July 6, 2009, entitled “At What Age is the Mitzvah Of Mipnei Saivah Takum”? The article deals with the mitzvah of rising (getting off your haunches) in honor of an older person or a Torah scholar. (This is the same Rabbi Hoffman who took umbrage with the way Rubashkin was treated by the press; and it is the very same who believes that even if Eliyahu Hanavi, bechvodo uvatzmo, would appear, the laws of kitniyos would remain for Ashkenazi Jews).

Rabbi Hoffman was troubled with this mitzvah (Vayikra 19:32) because Torah doesn’t quantify precisely what comprises a “saivah”, an older person. Apparently there is quite a machlokes amongst our chachamim as to what qualifies one for the title of “saivah”. He sites sources that claim it is the age of seventy, and others such as the Targum Onkelos that believes the ripe old age is sixty but relies both the AriZal and the Minchas Chinuch who believe that the ripe old age of “saivah” is sixty. Of course the sources he sites lived in another time, long ago when reaching sixty or seventy was an event. If disease didn’t kill you than life was cut short as a result of a massacre or pogrom. The rare individual making it to that age of sprouting grey hair had achieved celebrity status and thus deserved the accolade of Saiva. Today, however, people are living well into their nineties; some are still golfing in their eighties. In my health club there are several octogenarians who color their hair and could pass for a sixty year old. Ought I stand for them?

The rabbi also points to a correlation between ones hair color and to whom the mitzvah applies; the hair color the means by which we can discern the age of a person. Thus the third Lubavitcher Rebbe prohibits the trimming of the beard precisely for this reason. Of course, here the whole issue of cosmetic surgery comes into play. As mentioned above, many men today live longer, healthier lives, enhancing it with face lifts, liposuction as well as hair color. Many frum men who could be considered Torah scholars or at least Torah aficionados fall into this category, especially on the west coast, and I wonder whether it is a mitzvah to stand for them when they walk into a room?

Rabbi Yair discusses of course the problem of women. Do you rise for a woman or not. This too is convoluted and problematic. According to some scholars, you only rise for her if she is/was married to a Talmud scholar. What compromises a Talmud scholar? Is it someone who wears a black hat and attends daf yomi but has a limited understanding of text, but knows how to play the game? What about a Talmud scholar who teaches not at Bais Yaakov, but at JTS? What about the growing number of women excelling in scholarship but are single?

Lastly of course is the issue of rising for someone on a train or bus and offering him/her your seat. Here he references some poskim that don’t seem to think that giving up your seat is necessary since it cost money. Apparently these poskim believe that doing the correct thing is contingent upon it not costing.

It seems that there is a large segment of the “Torah” community that has no inkling on how to behave without having a manual, a how to book, to instruct them. This is not to demean the position that Shulchan Aruch should have in our lives but there has to be a level of common sense that can guide us. Shulchan Aruch was compiled with the intention of providing us with an outline on how to run our affairs in the home and public sphere. However its intention was also to empower the individual with the ability to draw certain conclusions that were based on common sense and good reasoning. Thus, whatever the poskim have to say, if there is a “shlub” (strong ox of a person) standing on the crowded train (and looks like he runs the N.Y. marathon), he ought not to expect one to surrender to him a seat. On the other hand, if standing before you is a young person, infirm, pregnant or sickly, that person ought to be offered a seat regardless of sex, race or religion. That person has morphed into a “saivah” temporarily or permanently and ought to be accorded the dignity prescribed in Torah.

Perhaps this is the reason that the Torah never quantified what the age of Saivah was. “Saivah” isn’t something quantifiable. It isn’t something that ought to be legislated through a Talmudic discussion or via the poskim. It is a state of being that ought to be assessed at the moment and with the use of good solid common sense. Reducing everything to the written code robs us of the ability to hone our ability to make common sense calls and relegates us to being humanoids and prisoners of Art Scroll Judaism.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Zionist Correspondence

The recent decision and determination of Mayor Barkat of Jerusalem to open parking lots on Shabbat for overflow tourist traffic has created additional tension and violence between the hareidi (ultra orthodox) and secular communities. There is growing concern that the religious community, whether hareidi (ultra orthodox) or hardali (national religious-daati leumi) is adversely effecting the fabric of Israeli society. The lack of separation of church and state may or may not be negatively impacting on society. This in turn has generated conversation about the influence religion is having within the IDF. Over the past ten days I have been in correspondence with dear friends who happen to be “Yerushalmim” (Jerusalemites), some secular, others religious each sharing their view and vision of Israel in the years ahead. Below is an edited exchange of those e mails:

Dear Y
I'm not sure just what your "case" is, but if you are referring to the fact that there is an ongoing, defacto religious takeover of the army, there was never any argument. And if you imply that this is happening because of the double edged blade of a willingness to serve by certain strains of the "religious" as opposed to a lessening thereof by secular Israelis, this too is uncontested. The "argument" resides in what this all means, what the ramifications are for Israel. While you wax triumphant, I view it as a disastrous slide towards a state of religious extremism, exclusivity and isolation; a halachic nightmare mirroring the mullah regime in Iran.

I am not against religion but it must be separated from the affairs of State to ensure a vibrant, pluralistic, democratic Jewish society. Ronski should be booted out of Zahal - not for his views but for propogating them.

I'm taking the liberty of sending this on to the addressees of your email, both to disassociate myself from your point of view and to invite discussion.


Dear M-

You've done us all a service by presenting the issue with the intention of inviting discussion. I'm sure you've read my posts ( in the past regarding the religious establishment in the U.S. and in Israel so you know my thinking. I have however drafted a new essay, soon to be posted, but attached here. I look forward to any comments.


Dear S
All of what you say is true. Equally, and more frighteningly true, is that a far greater extremism is occurring on the secular side of the equation whereby a critical, and growing, percentage of secular young Israeli know little and care even less. The demise and bankruptcy of the kibbutz movement has eliminated cultural Judaism in Israel leaving a terrible void and turning today's generation into cultural orphans through no fault of their own. Unfortunately no one is doing anything meaningful about this. Left unchecked Israel becomes totally defenseless very quickly. Like it or not the religious Zionists are keeping the finger in the dyke. To throw barbs at Rabbi Ronski when all he is doing is shoring up the handful that still believe in their country, whether one likes their style or not, is suicidal unless it is accompanied by a parallel effort to inject meaning into the lives of those whose golden calf is Shenkin Street.


Dear S

I read your article, "In Search of Relevance." This led me to read several more articles in your blog, something I haven't done in quite some time. I don't agree with everything you write, particularly your feeling that Israel is moral enough so that organizations like B'tselem are redundant, but your approach is so right-headed and your writing so flowing and full of informative references that it is a real pleasure to read.

With "Gordian Knot," you hit the nail right on the head. Zeal is the great blinder shielding some from the wisdom of your words. M

Dear Y

While it is true that secular Israel is in a state of moral flux after the demise of the old beacons, this does not mean that secular Israelis don't care about their country and that they are merely flotsam, non-entities with no existential mass or meaning. The overwhelming majority of Israelis are secular and patriotic, with a strong connection to Israel and "Yisraeliut" and still serving in combat army units in regular service and through years of miluim.

Universal principles of mutual respect and pluralism have always been less focused as rallying points in times of change compared to more totalitarian doctrines of zealotry. Your statements that, "Left unchecked Israel becomes totally defenseless very quickly" and "...the religious zionists (your small "z") are keeping the finger in the dyke" resonate uncomfortably in my ear and recall bygone historical gambits to legitimize bids to supersede democracy.


Dear Y

Don't look to the Sefardim and b'nei hamoshavim to be religious Zionism's ideological bedfellows; though generally masorti in religious orientation, this sector, which comprises roughly 60-65% of Israel's population, is well known to be anti dogma, embracing, rather, a more balanced, live-and-let-live outlook on life.

Look at the last election results, where Tel Aviv voted Left, as opposed to the national vote to the Right. This Left/Liberal Tel Aviv vote had virtually no effect on the politics and ways and morays of the country as a whole. You can't have it both ways - artificially removing the Sefardim and b'nei hamoshavim from the equation means you are basing your whole, all-encompassing premise on a statistically and operationally insignificant minority.

Dear M

I said the Sefardim and b'nei hamoshavim comprise between 60 and 65% of the population. In addition to them is everyone else that doesn't fit your "Shenkin Golden Calf Worshipper" profile - look to the last election returns to get their numbers. Hardly a figure to base a whole premise/sweeping generalization on.

As for the, "...40% of the population which controls 70% of the economy and 100% of the media" slur, this has no relevancy to, "The demise and bankruptcy of the kibbutz movement has eliminated cultural Judaism in Israel leaving a terrible void and turning today's generation into cultural orphans..." claim and is co-opted almost 100% intact from familiar and dubious models.

Dear M

Hardly. While the kibbutzim were still perceived as the pinnacle of secular Jewish culture, Tel Aviv took its cues from that form of Judaism albeit in an understandably watered down way. The role of the people at the pinnacle of any culture, religious or otherwise, is to serve as an ideal from which there is a trickle down effect that serves as far broader population base. During all this time the media was more colorful as there were kibbutz newspapers and labor newspapers in addition to the private media. In important ways these served as checks and balances to one another while offering the population as a whole access to a greater variety of opinions. All of these papers were, incidentally, located in Tel Aviv. The demise of the kibbutz movement was very sudden, much like the fall of Communism in Russia. When such epic change happens so suddenly it wreaks havoc on the mindset of the population. In this sense Israel is no different from Russia wherein both lost their secular gods virtually overnight and what came it its place was the crudest paganism, degeneracy, alcoholism. mafias, murder, and rampant consumerism. Likewise Russia saw a resurgence in religion, with the Orthodox Church enjoying a powerful resurgence. Again for the same reasons. You must understand that the half century cultural reign of Israeli labor and its iconic kibbutzim was a religion of sorts, and worked mightily control the minds of the people, including the inculcation of a hatred of religion. So long as they were able to control people's behavior the system worked. But once the system crashed and burned it left an orphaned population. If you think the past anti-religious coercion was any less offensive than what your perceive as religious coercion, well that myopia is your privilege

Dear Y

I think you've gotten hung up on an ideological cliff which is difficult to back down from, yet treacherous to continue forward. What is quite apparent from your position is that rather than find common ground and common language by which civil discourse can proceed fruitfully you have chosen to advance an extreme position disregarding the secular side by painting them all as degenerates?

"in this sense Israel is no different from Russia wherein both lost their secular gods virtually overnight and what came it its place was the crudest paganism, degeneracy, alcoholism. mafias, murder, and rampant consumerism".

For you it becomes black and white; good verses evil, secular verses religious, and to make your point you resort to hyperbole.

To compare the USSR to the kibbutz movement is unfair and some might argue mean spirited. Russia was a despotic empire with so much blood of the innocent on its hands. The kibbutz movements on the other hand put Israel on the map and contributed so much to the welfare of its people as well as contribute much to humanity. And let's not forget that although they were the breadbasket of the country they are also Jews. You may not approve of their practice, but Jews they nevertheless are, and deserving of respect no less than a hareidi in Bnei Berak.

What is most troublesome, however, is that you have placed "halachic" Judaism on a pedestal; making it the beacon by which our path has been illuminated. That may be true for a few, but for most, that option has been rejected. In fact no enlightened democracy can predicate their existence on religious standards and values, for those are very personal choices. To insist otherwise would be a vote for a theocratic state not unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia.

I doubt very much that even you would want that. Just think how limited you would be. Your ability to travel, your creativity, and your pursuit of personal pleasures would be circumscribed by some halachic mullah, excuse me, rabbi.

The Israel which you desire, the one draped in Torah and halacha is a vision that is galuti. While halacha has some charm it can't be the grounding upon which a country is built. Halacha as we have it is primarily the product of galut. It's raisson d' etre was to preserve the Jew in the diaspora -intended to be the substitute mortar for as long as there was an absence of the Land. Religion and its practice is but one facet of Judaism. Don't reduce Judaism to religion. That, the reform movement did in the 19th century as a means to find endearment and acceptance among its protestant neighbors. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch fell right into the same trap. But prior to then, Judaism wasn't considered a religion. We are a people, a nation, a civilization with a culture. Religious practice is but one piece of the tapestry. To place primary emphasis on the religious component would be a distortion of the brilliantly balanced tapestry.

Israel, from its inception has tried to maintain that balance by offering a place at the "table" for the religious component. They did so in the spirit of brotherhood. Perhaps there were the naysayers, but even they extended respect and camaraderie to clerics who in their heart of hearts, rejected their theology. But they were extended the respect that every Jew is entitled to.

Unfortunately, the religious community, collectively, is guilty of judging their non religious brothers with a sanctimonious demeanor that has not endeared them in the public square. There is also their sense of entitlement, as though because they were "religious" special treatment ought to be accorded to them. A state by which halacha reigns supreme would spell disaster. As I said earlier, your out on a limb and it may be tough to back up, but it’s a hell of a lot more dangerous to venture forward, my friend. Be careful for what you wish for!


Dear S

Evidently you have not been reading my emails carefully. I rue the demise of the kibbutz movement and had always liked the fact that there existed an alternative Judaism which was deeply and creatively anchored in Jewish history and biblical sources and which was able to inspire less idealistic urban types to some sort of connection to Israel and its roots. Sadly this movement was also connected to some of the most ruthless, hateful, prejudiced ideological thinking that systematically discriminated against all who did not hue to their leftist line. Hence, rather than leading by example alone they hedged their bets by also leading through outright exploitation and discrimination. And then the chickens came home to roost. And what is left is sickening. Perhaps you should read the Hebrew papers more regularly and see for yourself the endless parade of articles of incest, rape, murder, gangsterism, alcoholism, road rage that are the daily fare in the Jewish state. If you think this has nothing to do with how the secular left mishandled its affairs then think what you will. My point of departure is not a Pollyannaish view of halacha, not by a very long shot. But I do see that the diminishing piece of real estate called idealism and 'ichpatiut' is increasingly populated by a certain element. Hence if there is any hope for the future we should at least acknowledge where it resides.

Dear Y

I have been reading your e mails but I sense that, in spite of what you are professing, a delight that the hareidi community has the answers to he ills of Israeli society. I do read the Hebrew papers, and I am acutely aware of the rise in crime etc. I am not willing however to ascribe responsibility to the social vacuum created as a result of the decline of the influence of the kibbutz movement.

While the Kibbutz movement played a significant role in the development of Israeli culture and society it certainly wasn't the cornerstone of Israeli mores. There are significant external factors that have come into play over the past twenty something years i.e. the massive Russian immigration which also introduced to Israel a new, more dangerous form of organized crime. Drugs and human trade are also contributing factors to the precipitous rise in crime. Poverty too, breeds crime regardless of whether or not the kibbutz movement is thriving or declining.

Placing the blame on the” collapse" of the kibbutz movement is too easy. Incidentally, there has been a disturbing rise in domestic violence within the hareidi community. Is that too the fault of the "collapse" of the kibbutz movement?

Actually, when you think about it there has been a precipitous rise in crime among the mitnahalim too, unless you don't think that there vandalism is just benign civil disobedience. The point is that it is too complex an issue to ascribe so much weight to the kibbutz movement and at the same time pin your hopes on the hareidi community who are a marker of the past and not a vision for the future.

Dear S

I have no idea where you ever got the notion I am a supporter of the hareidi community. I consider them the parasites and vermin of Israel, especially the yeshivish part. My support is limited exclusively to the dati leumi people who are holding the front lines of Israel both geographically and militarily because they still know enough to believe in something.

Dear Y
I am glad you clarified that point, however even the "hardali" have a serious problem with dealing in reality especially when you revise some of the teachings, statements and positions of one of their spiritual leaders and mentors Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, who is in a war against what he calls the neo-reformists of the religious Zionists like B'nei Akiva. He's at war with them because of their desire for co-ed programming.

Interestingly enough as a teenager growing up in B'nei Akiva in Chicago all the programming was co-ed. The gap year at B'nei Akiva kibbutzim (Lavi, Tir Atzvi) were all co-ed. Over the years there was a pull to the right which actually created a distortion of their program. Now that they want to restore it back to its original values, Rabbi Shapira labels them "neo-reformists".

Congregation Shira Hadasha is out of bounds for Shapira too. Shapira himself believes that this phenomenom has an anti-rabbinic ideology to it.

JJ, the Hardal (Daati Leumi) are precisely the people who you think are the backbone of Zionism now and last hope for Israel's survival. They too, however are fast approaching the demarcation line between themselves and the hareidi community. After all, if Shapira can make B'nei Akiva and Shira Hadasha out of bounds and call for a new culture with "a passion of loving hashem, fearing hashem and following hashem... then what distinguishes them from the Eda? Very little, if anything, except fro the style of kippah. Big deal!!!!

Dear S

One does not have to be a fan of every development or nuance among the dati leumis. However I can comfortably say that I am far less concerned with the increased humras of the dati leumi crowd than I am with the far more extreme disenfranchisement of secular Israeli from any vestigial connection to anything Jewish. One thing is certain, even the most extreme haredi of today will have grandchildren who will remain Jewish enough to rebel and become more moderately Jewish. By contrast the secular of Israelis of today, particularly those who leave Israel, will almost inevitably have grandchildren who are irretrievable to the Jewish nation. I think it would behoove you to be more concerned with this than you are with the phenomenon of separate dancing at Bnei Akiva weddings.

Dear Y

This has nothing to do with separate dancing. Shapira is moving further right and dragging with him a wonderful movement. The way they are drifting the "hardal" community will morph into hareidim and the country won't have a snowballs hell in chance to survive the onslaught of the Palestinians.

The former Sephardic chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has called on religious IDF soldiers to walk out of military events and ceremonies if there is "kol Isha". This was the former chief rabbi of the State who quoted the Talmud that its better to go to jail than to hear the voice of a woman sing. The chief education officer, Brig. Gen. Shermeister is concerned over the incident where soldiers walked out of an event where kol isha was heard, claiming that it affected discipline as well as grpoup cohesion.
The drift is indeed worrisome. With this kind of pattern developing Israel will be at a great disadvantage. The IDF will be weakened and demoralized because they will place their trust entirely in "hashem" as our brothers did during WWII . It took a special kind of Jew to build a country. The direction of Shapira and the likes of him don't offer promise for a future but an undignified end to an otherwise admirable experiment. Don't assume because one is chiloni one will intermarry, assimilate and devalue Israel. Why is it that the frumer one gets the more pessimistic one becomes about the future?

Dear S

What you fail to realize is that today’s IDF is largely made of religious soldiers and boys from society’s periphery. The children of those whom you idolize for creating the state are shirking, avoiding, claiming homosexuality or mental illness, or using heir parents connections to get them desk jobs or into galei tzahal. This is a far more worrisome phenomenon than not wishing to hear a woman sing hatikva. You are truly out of touch with the military demographics not to mention the absolute illiteracy of Israel's secular white youth. You are worrying about the color of the curtains when the house is on fire.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Gordian Knot

There was a time that Israel was not only a “light unto the nations”, but the only place in the Middle East where not only democracy reigned supreme but where an enlightened society shed its light on all those in its path. The beauty of Judaism had been that together with much of Europe they had gone through the middle ages as uninitiated but emerged as a people enlightened, willing and able to participate and contribute to the universal good and advancement of humankind. The same can’t be said of most of the Muslim countries in the Middle East where they are still wading knee deep in the mire of the dark ages.

For most of Israel’s 60 years of independence there was this constant push in the forward position, an avant-garde nation putting forth remarkable ideas in the arts and humanities as well as contributing significantly to the technological advancement of society. However there is a fundamental flaw in the political structure of Israel that has inhibited it from becoming a greater nation than it already is. As a matter of fact, because of this flaw we have at times taken a step backward. Separation of church and state should have been etched into the very nature of the political system and this would have eliminated many of the problems we are experiencing today. Israel has suffered in years past as evident by the Gordion knot of the rabbinate over the very social fabric of Israeli society, pushing away rather than embracing the citizens that it was entrusted to serve. The scandalous behavior of the rabbinate regarding the most recent episode of conversions; the practical evisceration of Rabbi Druckman and the disenfranchisement of hundreds of converts is a stain on our national conscience. Of course there are many who believe in the wisdom of the rabbinate that is self righteous, sanctimonious and are clueless regarding the long term damage this will have on our society.

Another such instance is that of the IDF Chief Rabbi, Avichai Ronski who recently commented that women, (regardless of their religious or lack of religious belief) are inappropriate conscripts and shouldn’t be serving in the IDF (as reported in Haaretz 7/2/09). As part of his statement he noted that there were no rabbinic rulings authorizing women to serve. Not surprisingly, Ronski has a myopic understanding of Jewish Law. There doesn’t have to be a rabbinic ruling allowing for something that isn’t proscribed in the first place! If Torah only references men going to war that’s because society then was dominated by men. Many rabbinic rulings, custom and mores in Judaism are based on a male dominated society. The traditional marriage ceremony is a male dominated transaction whereby the male “takes” the female. Her agreement is passive; the groom is the active party in the transaction. The traditional prayer service too, is male dominated as is certain of our rituals such as the mohel, shochet and communal leaders.
But we are an enlightened society. All around the world Jewish women have taken their rightful place within society whether in politics, sciences, arts, technology or the humanities. They have even become religious leaders in the orthodox communities (as well as mashgichot)-outside of Israel where enlightenment rules. Even in Israel there are women serving as communal leaders and in the Knesset, so too there is a place for women in the IDF, Rabbi Ronski not withstanding.

The larger issue however is the slow but insidious slide of Israeli culture backwards into the morass of the middle ages mimicking our Muslim neighbors. There was a time not too long ago Israeli’s penned the expression “khomeinism”, gaining wide usage, intended to mean a system of government lacking tolerance and wielding power from a theocratic power base. One can only assume that the term is still part of the Israeli lexicon, but is being used less frequently and by fewer people. Those same people that would subscribe to Ronski’s point of view and support other pernicious remarks made by clerics with the intention of suppressing women have no doubt purged the term “khomeinism” from their vocabulary.

The saving grace of Israeli society however, is that it is predominantly secular or moderately observant of Jewish tradition, and while deferential at times to the rabbinic establishment it is a fiercely free thinking and independent society, resentful of clerical interference in matters effecting their lives. They subscribe to the proposition that for an enlightened society to flourish it must be free of the tyrannical, suffocating Gordian knot of the “religious right” who wish to usurp power for no other reason than to rule in the name of God.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

In Search of Relevance

It’s kind of painful and embarrassing to write about the marginalization of what could have been a powerful institution in Israel – the rabbinate. It really doesn’t matter which rabbinate we are talking about – the Rabbanut Harashit; the Eida; Satmar or Naturei Karta - they are all doomed to oblivion in the minds and hearts of most Israelis because of their pettiness and inability to see the larger picture. The issues facing Israel and the Jewish world today are greater and more treacherous than any time in the past fifty years. There are palpable existential threats to the corpus of the Jewish people whether in Israel, Europe or the United States. Threats by Iran, rapid assimilation in the Unites States and an unfriendly U.S. administration are but the most obvious of problems that are plaguing the Jewish people. Notwithstanding these compelling and pressing issues the rabbinate in Israel is paralyzed, inept at understanding the shifting ground upon which it stands.

I have as yet to read in any newspaper or professional journal anything weighty or of a noteworthy nature that the rabbinate is doing to address the burning issues of our time. Actually, that’s not true. There are three issues which have come to light in the past few weeks that they have attempted to address: What is the correct blessing over Bamba?; The correct 21st century equivalent to 200 zuz of the virgin’s ketuba; and the outrage over police violence in protesting the opening of a Jerusalem parking lot on Shabbat.

The dispute over what blessing to make over Bamba is what Purim spiels are made of. It’s so ridiculous that it is foolish referencing this farcical issue facing the Jewish people which unfortunately will have some implications to the future of ritually observant Jews. What is at stake is who will be the heir to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual light and mentor of Shas. The fight is between his two sons, David Yosef and Yitzchak Yosef. Each has his supporters, with Ovadia allegedly favoring Yitzchak Yosef. It all will come down to which p’sak is correct – Yitzchak Yosef’s or David Yosef’s opinion on which b’racha is made over bamba. One said that “borei pre haadama” is the appropriate one, and the other said that the correct b’racha ought to be “shehakol”. The truth is that neither is right. The correct answer is that bamba ought to be banned along with all other junk food. Any b’racha ought to be considered a “b’racha levatalaa”. As cigarettes are bad for you, as alcohol is poison to the system so too is eating processed junk food detrimental to one’s health.

There also seems to be a troubling and disturbing development in determining the value of 200 zuz for a virgin, established several thousand years ago. Our wise rabbis in wanting to keep current have tried to reach a consensus. Apparently they believe that by so doing they will give relevance to an otherwise important, but nevertheless ceremonial document. It would appear that the rabbis are in competition with the secular court system. They are determined to become arbiters in the financial settlements in a marriage that is dissolving and in so doing “out” the secular court system. They will fail because no woman in her right mind would agree to a settlement arrived at by the capricious decisions of a groom and his rabbi. Imagine that with all the seriously pressing issues bombarding the rabbinic establishment and their corrupt courts, this is what Rabbi Daichovsky, rabbinic judge of the High Rabbinic Court has sought to spend his time on.

The other issue which has grabbed the religious headlines is the riots in Jerusalem over Barkat’s decision to make parking available on Shabbat for those seeking to visit Jerusalem on Shabbat. The “hareidi street” is fulminating over the desecration of the Shabbat and the fact that the municipality is contributing to it. What should be clear is the fact that the parking which is being made available is free of charge. So there is no commercial transaction being made. The fact of the matter is that there is little or no parking in Jerusalem and anyone who has been there knows how awful it is to walk the streets because every available centimeter is utilized for parking. One can’t even cross a street at the crossroad because cars are parked there. The police no longer ticket these cars because the system can’t even process the enormous amount of violations. It makes sense to provide these people with parking accommodations which will relieve the city of a serious problem. Our rabbis however, rather than being part of a solution have once again chosen to become part of the problem. Exacerbating the problem is the complaint the hareidi community has leveled against the police by accusing them of brutality. They haven’t the slightest idea of what brutality is. If they aren’t treated with “kid gloves” they automatically advance to leveling the charge of police brutality. It is a two way street. If one chooses the path of civil disobedience by using force, be prepared to have force leveled against you. It’s common sense.

The following is an excerpt of a letter by a Satmar woman living near Kikar Shabbat in Jerusalem commenting on the riots over the past few weeks, who obviously has a better grasp of the issues than the rabbinic leadership leading and encouraging the civil disobedience and violence:

“On the kikar a block away, the bochrim were very proud that they blew the electricity of all the families living in what I believe was a two to three block radius. After a few minutes of triumphant screaming, they began singing to the tune of Carlebach, 'Ani avdecha ben amasecha...'

The irony was so painful, I cried loudly, on the porch. My husband, satmar geshtimt, chassid of the Eidah, didn't try to stop me.

I could go on. There were horrible sights and sounds that night, finally petering out at 2:30.

The reason I am posting, my questions are:

1)What were these bochrim thinking??

2)Where was the tzelem elokim when I heard words and sounds that should not come out of any human being's vocal chords, especially not that of yeshivaleit? Where was the basic compassion / thought for the neighbors? Where was any sort of restraint when barricades, which are extremely important by our narrow sidewalks for safety, were wrenched out with a lot of effort? How did they have the heart to watch a small old man carrying his garbage three blocks away because that was the first place the bin was still there?

3)R' Avraham Yehoshua of Brisk said this week when one of his bochrim were arrested, "vos tut a bochur bei a mechoa?" - what is a bochur doing by a protest? (He was talking about a real mechoa, organized by the gedolim, and he is no Zionist.) What indeed? Even if he is 'just' watching, why risk arrest, make a great chillul hashem, be mechazek those that are being mazik, if he doesn't have to ? If he cares about shabbos, how about being mekabel shabbos early, as we have began doing, for Yerusahalayim? None of the rabbonim said bochrim should go, and in general, all men should not go unless told to do so by their morah d'asra. There is too much of your own humanity at risk.

4)Where are you parents? Let me ask that again. Where are you parents? Do you realize the implication of no supervision in your son's yeshiva? A choshuve bochur next door, the one who tried to stop the garbage bin from being rolled out, told my husband this morning, "Who's in charge that I make it to shachris on time? I slept late because of what happened here, who's worrying that I daven?" Do you realize your sons could be mazik tens of people and no one will do anything? Do you realize that if your sons drink or smoke or watch inappropriate videos, or meet with the other gender, (we have bochrim over for shabbos seudos and there are a lot of bochrim diros in our neighborhood - believe me, I've seen too much...) no one is stopping them? This is a much broader issue than just what happened last night. Do you know what your sons are doing? I know he is the best boy in the universe, but who's to say he doesn't have unfiltered Internet in his dirah? Who is to say he didn't get caught up with a crowd and that he didn't scream like a maniac in middle of a city, in middle of the night? Who is to say that he didn't join a group of likewise English speakers, to do the holy act of pulling out barricades from the sidewalk? Who is to say that he makes it on time for shachris? Who is accountable for him? He himself? - "Al taamin b'atzmecha" these bochrim need higher supervision.

We decided we're going to do something. My husband is coming home late for lunch because he is meeting with the mashgiach of Mir and Chevron. I am calling the Gaved of the Eidah, with the blessings of my Rebbe, and going to post what I saw wherever I can.

I didn't take pictures last night, because I was so disgusted. It's like an embarrassing episode that you'd rather erase from your mind. Now I regret it, I would have shown the pictures to the mashgichim of these yeshivos, shown them what their bochrim were doing. If five bochrim were kicked out of yeshiva, I bet all of these shenanigans would stop immediately.

Please don't respond with stories about shabbos and pride marches and the gedolim of previous generations. This has got nothing to do with it.”

So our rabbis whether they are part of the religious establishment or on the fringe have done an admirable job in bringing spiritual transcendence to the Jewish people by dragging them through the mud. Denominational Judaism has its issues but the state of organized Jewish religion in Israel is so tragically corrupted by a band of relics and jokers that they have succeeded in marginalizing its message, making religious affiliation irrelevant and reducing it to the absurd.