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 na├»ve, 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.