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.