Monday, December 20, 2010

Asher Bochar Banu Mi’kol Ha’amim

American Jewish religious affiliation trends toward the liberal movements (reform and conservative) and politically as social progressives. This makes perfect sense because their religious institutions buttress their social progressive positions. They feel comfortable in their milieu; their synagogues are in the forefront of social action, they support the Democratic Party and naturally, critical of Israel’s approach to the peace process as well as lambasting Israel’s relationship with the Muslim community in Israel. The liberal community’s neat religious/social/political package works well for them; they feel comfortable as one of the clear articulate voices calling for social justice.

Living in the Diaspora carries with it the disturbing psychological burden of maintaining an enlightened image of Judaism, as well as a profile of Judaism that is loyal to America and American values. A Madoff makes us feel uncomfortable; a Pollard makes us cringe and a Rubashkin makes us squirm. What will the gentiles think of us now? Will they see us as greedy, with questionable loyalty and exploitative of minorities? How uncomfortable is all that? But wait, what about the forty-seven rabbis signing a statement on December 7, 2010, quoting halacha (which has no borders) that it is forbidden to rent or sell property to a non Jew (Muslim) in Israel? Ouch! Rabbis aren’t supposed to be racist or intolerant and discriminatory. It makes the liberal American Jew squirm thinking that perhaps American Orthodox rabbis buy into the same halachic standard, conjuring up images of whites not renting to blacks not that long ago.

Apparently, these enlightened American Jews aren’t necessarily aware of the blessing their children chant on their Bar/ Bat Mitzva’s and forever after when called to the Torah: “Ashe Bochar banu Mikol Ha’amim”, that we are the chosen from all the other nations. You can’t get more racist than that. But their rabbis anticipating the discomfort in chanting this unique blessing gave new meaning, new understanding to these words. We aren’t “chosen” (heaven forbid), rather we are “different” was the new spin. American liberal Jews live in a bubble, a fictitious cocoon, a make believe world, a color by number world designed by their rabbis in order to give their communities a good, warm, fuzzy feeling about being Jewish.

The Jewish experience in Israel, like mostly everything else there, isn’t sugar coated. They don’t obsess over packaging, just the message: no spin. For the preponderant orthodox Jewish community in Israel “Ashe Bachar Banu …” means exactly what it says and what it intended to say: Israel is special, we are chosen. Unlike America where every child is a winner and every one is special in Israel there are winners and losers. We are as chosen today as Isaac was chosen over Ishmael and as Jacob was chosen over Esau several thousand years ago. We do not subscribe to Replacement Theology as much as the Church would like us to, nor do the rabbis in Israel spin “Asher Bachar Banu…” as the American liberal rabbis do.

In spite of this there is something very wrong, very malevolent with the statement made by these forty-seven rabbis in citing halacha as the reason for not selling or renting to non Jews in Israel. Israel is, after all a democratic state and not governed by theology or halachic rulings. These rabbis, like so many Israelis are being influenced by the fear that the majority of Jews in Israel will be eroded in time based upon the growing birth rate among Muslims as well as the looming threat of the “right of return” of Muslims as part of a peace deal. Hearing this argument however brings to mind the halachic question of whether one may disconnect a person in a vegetative state from a life support system. The rabbis ruled that if the person is not on yet on life support, there is no obligation to put him on it, if the diagnosis is dire without hope. However once he is on life support he can’t be disconnected because then his life is actively being terminated. The analogy here is that people living in Israel, regardless of race, religion or color ought to have equal rights before the law. They all live in Israel, and a democracy ought to be free of discrimination based upon color, religion, sex or beliefs. that ought to apply to all those living within the borders of Israel. On the other hand, as a responsible government Israel is mandated and obligated to control immigration so as to insure that there is a clear majority of Jews living within its borders: thus the refusal by Israel to accede to the “right of return” for Muslims, not yet admitted into the country. However, those living in Israel must be accorded all the rights as every other citizen, including the right to live wherever they so desire.

There was a time when I reasoned that Muslims are still backward, holding on to their prejudice and intolerance because they haven’t gone through the crucible of a renaissance as we did with the rest of Europe 400 years ago. In addition we have a rich oral tradition accompanying our written law that has promoted the “Socratic method” throughout our history: hence our creativity. Disturbing however, is that our own rabbis in Israel our lagging far, far behind. And even though they have been raised on the oral tradition where creative thinking was encouraged they have not taken advantage of this tradition. As a result they are mired in the same medieval slime that our Muslim cousins are stuck in. The statement of the forty-seven rabbis is another indicator that relying upon halacha as a viable option to govern ( as so many in the religious establishment would like), would be as bad as shariya law is in Muslim countries.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Keys to Gan Eden

This past week the Village Voice (December 8, 2010) published a disturbing article “How Can a Religious Person Justify Being a Slumlord”, by Elizabeth Dwoskin. She interviewed people in Jewish leadership positions in an attempt to understand the apparent oxymoron: how can one profess to be religious and yet operate slum properties. These were interviews in futility because those in the ”know” either didn’t “know” or they weren’t totally forthcoming. What I found more upsetting was the entire subject of inquiry. Why would the Village Voice find this any more of a fascination than the cutthroat pricing of the 7-11’s run by Indians? For that matter why not run an article on Muslim owned grocery stores in black neighborhoods charging usurious prices. If the Village Voice was concerned with the nature of Jewish religious practice vis a vis its affinity to shady business the thrust of the article should have been: why is it that Ultra Orthodox Jews tend to drift into shady business dealings?

There have been much worse violations of the law by the ultra orthodox community than operating slum properties. Truth be told and while not defending these slum operating, so-called “religious Jews” I can imagine that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Tenants in New York can do no wrong in the eyes of the law and if they do, it is virtually impossible to evict them from an apartment. Paying rent is almost unheard of in many of these apartment buildings. Judges aren’t wont to evict them, especially if children are involved, the elderly or winter. Yet, the municipal government expects the owner to keep the building in prime condition well heated in the winter even when rents haven’t been paid in months and where windows are left open in the winter. Tenants know how to work the system. If something is remiss they hotline the appropriate agency even though they are sorely delinquent in paying rent and the owner is cited with a building code violation. So the Village Voice article really isn’t balanced nor is its basic premise correct if based upon the inner workings of inner city slum properties. So the real question remains as stated earlier: why is it that Ultra Orthodox Jews tend to drift into shady business dealings?

There are physicians from the ultra orthodox community who while practicing their craft have the compulsive need to defraud the Medicare system. There are those like Rubashkin who rather than run a legal, profitable business break the laws for purposes of enrichment. And of course there are many ultra orthodox Jews who are in the Nursing Care business who have been under investigation for Medicare/Medicaid fraud. There are ultra orthodox Jews who have violated the trust off their own communities by disguising non kosher meats as kosher knowing full well that the products they were selling were non kosher. There are roshei yeshivot who have scammed the government out of money by inflating student census.

What all the above have in common is a fundamental disregard of the law (civil) by the ultra orthodox community whenever and wherever possible. Violation of trust doesn’t seem to be a moral issue within the community and the question is why. Many of the ultra orthodox Jews are not necessarily religious by commonly held societal definitions. The average Jew would be considered religious if he practiced mitzvoth ben adam lamakom (between man and god; ritual) and mitzvot bein adam lechavero (between man and man; civil). A Jew who dons a black hat and wears a beard is automatically assumed to be this kind of Jew, minimally. That of course is wrong. Just because someone wears a kapote or wraps a gartel around his waste at prayers doesn’t make him religious, nor does a woman wearing a sheitel make her religious as the Heidi-Mendy appearance in People’s Court will attest. What it states is that they are meticulous and sometimes compulsive about ritual.

Appearances are very important in this community because it is the community that provides emotional, social and financial support of its members from the cradle to the grave. Being in good standing with the community will determine whom you marry and whom your children marry. They can be the least scrupulous outside their community because at the core they really aren’t religious, but they must give the appearance if they want to reap the benefits of their community.

Community and belonging is the lifeline to this segment of the Jewish community. Being rejected is like being ejected from the Garden of Eden. Belonging is everything. The toddler is raised on the myths, folklore and history of the Jewish people as well as that of the micro community one’s ancestry came from. Everything else is outside their interest, purview and experience. Their schools and yeshivot reinforce those sentiments, as does the rigid life at home, resulting in the phenomenon of being alienated from the world outside the ghetto. To this community, the “other” is an outsider. That is why the Bet Din of Crown Heights ordered its Lubavitch followers not to talk to outsiders about crime: “no one shall bring to any media…information…that would lead to an investigation…by a law enforcement agency….” To the ultra orthodox, they are not only the outsiders, but the ultra orthodox are the chosen to the exclusion of everyone else. To many of this community the gentile was created to serve them and to help them fulfill god’s law, even if it as the expense of the gentile! In this sense they aren’t operating with the same value system that everyone else is.

Perhaps this was the rational for Heidi and Mendy, described as frum people trying to rob a poor dry cleaner appearing in People’s Court for allegedly ruining her $3000.00 sheitel. To them being religious is to punctiliously follow ritual. Ritual is sort of like a formula. There doesn’t have to be rhyme or reason; you just have to do what is commanded to do by force of divine history and ancestry. In their perverse idea of religion you don’t have to be honest, you have to follow the magic formula. One can even cheat the gentile system since they (gentile) were created to serve the Jews. Performance of the formula is your guarantee for reaping rewards. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, president of Uri L’ Tzedek (and who was quoted in the Village Voice article cited above) commented on the “Sheitl” scandal by commenting that it was a chilul hashem because the story was broadcast on national television. His reaction leads one to speculate that if it hadn’t been broadcast on national television it may have been swept under the carpet. However to Rabbi Yanklowitz’s credit he does question the values taught in yeshivot whereby mitzvot ben adam lamakom (between man and god; ritual) are emphasized and fails to internalize the mitzvoth ben adam lechavero (between man and man; civil): “Our kehilla has a serious problem…we can all be better about how we treat non-Jews in business…But even further we must watch every move we make. If we are given an extra coin at the register, as frum Jews we must return it. In business we must act honestly in all cases….If we don’t clean up our act, our kehilla is going to continue to be a source of …embarrassment… and chillul hashem.” His statement leaves one to conjecture if the motivation for treating people honestly is for altruistic or ulterior motives.

In western faith religions, the whole point of being religious is to be closer to God, to have a relationship with Him. This of course is predicated on respecting His creations. Dishonoring man is to dishonor God. To do so would indicate a disconnect between the so-called religious person and his behavior. There is no dissonance in the ultra orthodox community because their understanding of religion is different. Important to them are the rituals; it mechanics and formulae which are the keys to getting back into Gan Eden.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mashiv Haruach U’Moreed Hageshem

Prayer is one of the most ubiquitous practices we find in society but it is also the most misunderstood and malpracticed. Over the past several months I have followed the attempts of religious practitioners in Israel pray for the much-needed rain in Israel. The drought has been plaguing Israel for the last eight months and this past week, tragic and deadly fires raged in the Carmel, no doubt more damaging and ferocious because of the eight month drought. Religious practitioners have become so frustrated with the lack of results from the conventional prayers of “mashiv haruach u’moreed hageshem” that they have resorted to creative tactics such as interdenominational services with ministers and imams organized by Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa. When that didn’t yield results Rabbis Menashe Malka and Reuven Deri went up on a hot air balloon to deliver prayers, as though God was hard of hearing and approaching the upper atmosphere might get His attention. It also assumed an objectified god, a god of Job proportions scheming alone or with ministering angels “up there” somewhere. When that didn’t work, world Bnei Akiva emissaries in 30 countries inserted into the liturgy a special prayer for rain by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

What all these and other attempts have in common is the misconceived notion that God is out there somewhere waiting to be beseeched in order to dole out favors at will. All you have to do is hit on the right formula at the right moment and presto, walla, your prayers will be answered. It is based on the assumption that god in the tradition of Job is the “grand puppeteer” manipulating humans at will for some cosmic satisfaction and it is up to us to beseech God into granting us a reprieve. This approach to God assumes that He isn’t omniscient, otherwise why would we have to ask Him for favors. Surely He knows that there is a drought. It also assumes that God plays favorites. After all there is a decades long drought in Africa and there are on going chronic droughts in parts of Asia as well. Why wouldn’t he help his children there, if the assumption were that if “one asks one gets”. This approach to God, this kind of prayer and its practitioners remind me of the classic medicine man of the North American Indian tribes, who performed a rain dance with special incantations and ritual as intercessors to the spirits in order that it rain.

Jewish prayer is different than that, it ought to be different than that. In its original form, prayer is not asking God for anything; it is not a request. It is as Eliezer Berkovitz wrote, “a cry, an elementary outburst of woe; a spontaneous call in need. It is a call of helplessness to God. So man brings his sorrow before God, knowing perhaps that although God isn’t changing his circumstances he needs the reassurance of His love and that He is near”. This is the essence of prayer. Interpreting the words of David “I pour out my complaint to Him, I declare before Him my trouble” the midrash comments “thus the men of faith declare their troubles before God”. To pour out one’s trouble before God means simply to tell God about one’s troubles; to make God the confidant of one’s sorrow. Man is able to do this because God is felt as being close to him and is the natural and most intimate confidant of man’s soul. Assuming this to be correct, prayer, Berkowitz maintains presents us with a conundrum: asking God for something is in reality self seeking. So whether we ask for wealth or health we are asking for ourselves. “This approach of “give - give” isn’t prayer and hasn’t the quality of prayer unless it comes out of intimacy with God”. If prayer is to have meaning and purpose it ought to be to redirect people, to have them focus not on what God can do for us, but what can we do for each other. The purpose of prayer is to strengthen man, to elevate him and cause him to be elevated, whereby man can transcend his current predicament and in the process resolve the issue.

Droughts have been one of the plagues of mankind since time immemorial. It is among the earliest documented climatic events, present in the Gilgamesh story and tied to the biblical story of Joseph's arrival in and the later Exodus from Ancient Egypt. Hunter-gatherer migrations in 9,500 BC Chile have been linked to the phenomenon, as has the exodus of early man out of Africa, and into the rest of the world around 135,000 years ago. Praying to God as the rainmakers of the North American tribes is really no different than a rabbi praying in an air balloon. What makes the rabbi think that his prayers will be more effective than the rainmaker? They can be if he uses prayer, not for beseeching, but for strengthening his resolve for solving the problem, not by fighting nature but understanding nature and working with nature. Israel is no more exempt from natural catastrophes than any other nation. Flooding, tsunamis, hurricanes are all the bane of humanity as is drought. They all wreak terrible damage to people and property, but standing there and praying won’t change anything.

Jews have been chanting “mashiv haruach u’moreed hageshem” for a very long time. Has it solved the problem? Drought is an incessant problem, not only for Israel, but also for countries throughout the world. So beseeching God for yet another favor doesn’t seem to work. I believe it was Einstein who commented that if you have made the same mistake a hundred times why would you think that by doing it one more time it would work? That’s not to say that one shouldn’t pray. It does mean however that prayer for it to be meaningful will have to be transformative to he who prays.

Transformative means that man understands drought in different terms than he did prior to transformation. In a post transformative mentality he understands that he has to conform his culture and its needs to his climate; what may work for other countries may not work for Israel. It may mean that while private houses with a garden is beautiful in climates that have little shortage of water, it may mean that in Israel private houses ought to be discouraged, as well as gardens and car washes. It may mean that hotels develop better, less wasteful ways to serve their guests. It may mean that technology devote more assets to developing a waterless society; i.e. waterless washing machines. There is no end to the possibilities to what a society can do when it is in a transformative mode, and here prayer can help.

Unfortunately, Israel today is in a gordian knot mercilessly applied by the Chief Rabbinate who themselves are drowning in the minutiae of rabbinic ritual and medieval custom having little meaning or relevance to the people whom they serve. In this environment it seems difficult to imagine a transformative culture that would make Israel soar to new heights.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Clear Thinking Jews

Probably by this time everyone has seen the viral YouTube “Yeshiva Guy Says Over a Vort” in which the haredi “right” is being taken to task by the orthodox “left” by citing the Talmud Yuma (28b) as well as taking a pot shot at Rabbi Elyashiv. This YouTube making the case for the religious “right” at the expense of clear thinking and rational people brings to mind the fantastic midrash of Yeshivat Shem V’ever. According to midrashic sources this was a yeshiva established by Noach’s son and grandson Shem and Ever. Some sources have it being established in Tzfat, others in Ber Sheva. The story alleges that all the Avot studied there, something akin to American dynastic families studying at Harvard or one of the other Ivy League Universities. Surprisingly these sources are disappointingly sketchy about what Avraham and Isaac studied there, but gratefully more detailed regarding Jacob who studied there from the age of 63 for 14 years (Accordingly he was 77 when he finally got to Lavan’s ranch, then had to work 14 more years before marrying Rachel). Imagine that. According to the Midrash he knew he was going to Lavan’s house so he needed to fortify himself with special torah that would serve as a prophylactic to Lavan’s bad influences. Hard to fathom, but that’s what our sages would have us believe. Reviewing the midrashic sources on Yeshiva Shem V’ever one has to wander what the curriculum was like. What texts did they study? How did they manage to get the copies of the texts and in what format were they made available to the “bochrim”? Were there lectures or was it autodidactic? How long was the day of study? What did they eat and were there stipends? How much was tuition and were scholarships provided to all or just the needy. How many students studied there?

This midrash came to mind when I viewed the YouTube in which the protagonist challenges the “ben torah” with some very logical questions: If Jacob knew the whole torah then he shouldn’t have been upset when Joseph was sold to the caravan, because he knew the end before it unfolded? What’s more amazing then this sophisticated YouTube is the defensive posturing from the frum community. Their response is as phantasmagoric as the story of Yeshiva Shem V’ever. In actuality they can’t really mount a coherent defense against the thesis position of the YouTube. Attempting to do so is a failed attempt at weaving a web of obfuscation. One example of this is justifying Jacob’s marriage to two sisters (by dismissing the accusations) due to their conversion prior to the marriages. Utterly silly but should one inquire as to the nature of the conversion? Was it “kosher” according to all the sages or would there have been some reservations by some on the very far right. No clear thinking Jew can support this kind of approach to Torah or to our tradition.

Then there are others who because they consider themselves more enlightened and don’t understand these midrashim literally, but allegorically, sort of a means by which appoint has to be made. So the midrash might weave an incredibly outlandish story with the intention that a lesson is to be learned from it. There are many sages who held this position but somehow became muddled when they got into the details. For example how was it possible that the Avot observed all the commandments? These rationalists would say, perhaps not all the commandments were observed by the Avot but certainly all of the ethical commandments were? Really? And how did they know what the ethical commandments were? And did they observe only d’oreisah or also d’rabanan? Other “clear headed” sages suggest that the Avot observed the commandments only when in Israel. Not withstanding the issue of borders, they introduced an incredible and revolutionary position that the commandments were only given for use in Israel. Does that apply today too?

Clearly, this YouTube hit a raw nerve. Rather than reevaluate with some serious study some of their positions, the right wing assumed the following position:
“The overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold the maximalist position and this is the general position that should be taught in Torah institutions. When one is involved in kiruv or deals with people who have been raised in secular environments, it is the opinion of this author that all three positions should be presented.”
In other words perpetuate the absurd and obfuscate the truth by citing different positions of the sages: maximalist position, minimalist positions and midlevel positions. All of course cannot and do not address the concerns of clear thinking Jews. Beyond trying to sell a muddled message and vision to the clear thinking, when under attack they do what they know best: circle the wagons with more fences and double talk.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jeremiah’s Comeback

Ein chadash tachat hashemesh – there is nothing new under the sun. A powerful statement made in Ecclesiastes and probably true. True also is that lifestyles, trends, ideas and politics run in cycles, often times with different names but conceptually similar. For example, socialism isn’t a late 19th century political innovation, but has been around for hundreds of years under different names, and with variation. Ditto for communism. Messianic trends have had its moments when it was massively popular and at other times denounced by the dominant spiritual leaders. Substantive political theoreticians and social scientists no longer popular or appreciated tend to come back for a second reading a generation or two later. Political leaders not so popular when in office sometimes gain newfound respect and appreciation once history has been able to reassess their contribution. It would appear that having been in disregard, our prophets too, are being reconsidered and possibly reevaluated as valuable assets to our culture.

Jeremiah once an outcast, reviled and banned from the Temple for his depressingly doomsday message is being revisited and reassessed as a prophet with a valid timeless message. Jeremiah, the prophet of deep irreversible doom is slowly coming back into vogue having been ignored by the intellectual / Zionist community ever since Israel gained its independence. This is fascinating in light of the fact that so many young people today in Israel and abroad have little or no knowledge of the prophet and the historical/social setting in which Jeremiah prophesied. And it isn’t only the assimilated Jewish youth or the modern orthodox. It is the proverbial yeshiva bachur whether haredi or orthodox who rarely read or study prophets unless it is the selected Shabbat haftarah. Even then it isn’t certain that the text will be studied.

For decades Israelis shied away from highlighting Jeremiah because of his extreme positions regarding the fate of the Israelis prior to and at the time of the exile after the destruction of the first Temple. He believed that the people had gone beyond the point of “return” due to the total erosion of their moral fiber. Worse than that, he believed that the Jews needed to adjust to life in Babylonia because it was the will of God and that they weren’t returning to Israel. Since Babylonia was their new home, it made sense that they integrate themselves thoroughly. Jeremiah had no coherent vision for a return. Pretty extreme!!

Nineteenth century Zionists deeply resented Jeremiah for this harsh prophetic vision since it competed with their own vision of a people reclaiming and returning to their ancestral home. They preferred more uplifting prophets like Isaiah because of his optimistic prophecy that we will ultimately be vindicated and return to Israel. Thus, the Israeli curriculum barely references Jeremiah while giving much time and attention to Isaiah.

Perhaps the message that most attracts Israeli’s today and alienated them two thousand years ago was Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon” where he attempted to appeal to the moral conscience of the people, placing it on equal footing with religious / ritual cult practice. Then, two thousand years ago, the kingdom was content with religious obeisance minus the social consciousness, not caring if people were starving in the streets. Today however, social consciousness or tikun olam has become the fashion, the rage among those wishing to express themselves Jewishly minus the religious / ritual observance.

Today in Israel as well as in many Diaspora communities, soup kitchens and safe houses are the new constructs and de rigueur of Jewish fulfillment as expressed by our prophets and epitomized by Jeremiah. The majority of American Jews, considered liberals (or progressives) seem to think that if we create universal health coverage on the backs of the taxpayers we will fulfill in some part the so called mitzvah of tikun olam. They mistakenly believe that if there is a redistribution of the wealth of the country and individuals we will approximate the vision of Jeremiah. Unfortunately these well-meaning progressives have corrupted the intent and meaning of tikun olam. An alternative to that vision ought to be “tough love” which is probably more in line with the intention of biblical Judaism (i.e. eved ivri)

Coddling was never a value in our system. A safety net provided for those in dire need, wasn’t regarded as entitlement nor intended as a permanent solution to economic/social problems. Our rabbis taught us that it was incumbent on every father to teach not only Torah but also a trade to their sons. Axiomatic of that was Maimonides hierarchy of charity; the highest being providing the opportunity to the recipient to receive an opportunity at a trade or business to assure a livelihood rather than money or goods.

Perhaps its time that those who want to see change in the social fabric of society abandon their corrupted understanding of tikun olam which encourages neediness, and adopt the saner approach of tough love. Coddling creates more dependency. The goal should be to wean people off of the dole, primarily the healthy and the young who ought to get off their duffs and find a job (I am not suggesting that the aged, physically and mentally infirm should rot in the streets). And yes, there are plenty of jobs – all the jobs that the illegal aliens take (as dish washers, buss boys and gardeners) that our inner city youth believe is beneath them. If tikun olam as understood by the yefe nefesh was the message of Jeremiah instead of tough love, than his vision may do us more harm than good; perhaps we’d be better off keeping his message relegated to the past rather that resurrecting him.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Jew Is A Jew

Netanyahu’s gambit to advance the oath of loyalty has pundits divided into two groups: those that question the democratic veracity of such an oath and those that dredge up the question and meaning of Mi Who Yehudi (who is a Jew). This latter, thorny question should have been taken up and resolved in 1948 when the Jewish Agency leadership under Ben Gurion declared the formation and independence of the Jewish State, the Medinah Yehudit. Then, many other issues were tabled for more pressing issues, such as survival and the in gathering of refugees from the “camps”, and the aliyot from Arab countries. The question has been festering since the Brother Daniel case in the late 1950’s coming to a head in 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State. The Supreme Courts decision however didn’t resolve the issue of “who is a Jew”. More recently the issue has percolated to the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish consciousness when the issue of conversion of Russian and Ethiopians became a hot button issue. Naturally, American reform and conservative Judaism have an interest that conversions made by the respective denominations ought to be recognized. Most Israelis would prefer a loosening up of the requirements for conversion as well.

The issue of conversion in Israel unfortunately is held hostage by the medievalists; rabbis who are committed to a halachic system, which for all practical purposes ceased developing in the medieval period. Interestingly, Maimonides who saw beyond the limited scope of the medievalists believed that a declaration of faith in the presence of a Beit Din, coupled with a general understanding their responsibility as Jews was enough for conversion. For Maimonides, the conversion of Ruth was certainly the test case and precedent for the declaration of faith being a sufficient qualifier fro conversion. The medievalists running and ruining Judaism in Israel have sought to bury conversion within a cocoon of halachic and meaningless mumbo jumbo that literally ties and confines any candidates into a knots so cumbersome that it is virtually impossible to convert.

Over the years Israel has witnessed tragic and heartbreaking stories of soldiers who have given their lives for the state only to be buried outside the confines of the Jewish cemeteries. For whom did they give their lives if not for the medina yehudit? Was not their supreme and ultimate sacrifice not as committed as Ruth’s? And what of all those converts who genuinely live Jewish lives but are informed by the rabbinate that their children cannot marry other Jews because their conversions were never true conversions, since they were performed by rabbis not on the select list of rabbis. So when the Netanyahu government wishes to assert the loyalty oath does not the state first have to define who is a Jew before applying this litmus test? Otherwise, what value has an oath where the very words have little or no meaning?

The fiasco of defining who we are hit home recently with a ruling by the interior ministry that denied Monique Martinek, a Swiss citizen, the status of an olah. Two years ago, Monique found out that her paternal grandmother, a Jew was killed by the Nazis. Prior to receiving this information she had no idea of her Jewish origins. Monique was able to document that her grandmother as well as her great grandmother were Jewish. However the courts ruled that halachically she didn’t qualify, because there was reference to the fact that the grandmother practiced Catholicism. Many Jews in order to survive the war assumed a Christian identity, that didn’t make them converts. Certainly, the Nazis understood that; they killed her because she was Jewish. She was Jewish enough to be murdered but not quite Jewish enough to pass on her legacy to her progeny! The medievalists, by ossifying Judaism by the layering of stringent halacha over the our peoplehood have practically eradicated the beauty and message that our ancestors intended too pass down to us. I would encourage Bibi that before he creates a tempest by insisting on this oath, they first define what and who is a Jew.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gay Marriage

Ever since Shimshon Raphaeal Hirsch, orthodox Judaism has tried to reconcile itself with the intellectual / secular universe running parallel to halachic Judaism. Hirsch, in the mid 19th century founded Torah Im Dersch Eretz (also referred to as neo-orthodox), believed that Jewish values will best be advanced when partnered with worldly involvement. Where Hirsch built his system in 19th century Germany, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, extended the Hirsch model to the American shores in the mid 20th century. Known as modern orthodoxy (instead of neo-orthodoxy), its axes was Torah Umadah, an exponent of Torah Im Derech Eretz of Hirsch. Even though Soloveitchik’s system had successes in the mid 20th century it began to fray at the edges by the last two decades of the 20th century and crumbling by the beginning of the 21st century. In retrospect one can see that this was destined to happen because inherent in his system is a deeply flawed theory that assumes that the halachic man can intersect with the man of reason while not compromising his religious integrity. Haredi Judaism, a resounding rejection of modern orthodoxy, exposing the flaws inherent in modern orthodoxy, has seen massive and unprecedented growth while modern orthodoxy has shrunk to a fraction of what its size was only thirty years ago.

Ironically, Shmuley Boteach, a former haredi and now closer to a modern orthodox profile has demonstrated the problem with modern orthodoxy when tackling the problem of the status of gays in the orhtodox Jewish community.

Boteach is quite clever in his approach and exploits the same tactics as other modern orthodox Jews seeking acceptance of gays, in his article No Holds Barred: The Jewish View of Homosexuality (Jerusalem Post, October 19, 2010). Steve Greenberg does it in his book Wrestling With God and Men but it doesn't pass the litmus test within the orthodox community. In fact, there are many within the orthodox community that takes exception with Greenberg being referred to as an orthodox rabbi or even orthodox. Boteach compares homosexuality to other abominations referred to in the bible such as eating non kosher foods or bringing a blemished sacrifice on the Temple altar is an abomination. He also references Proverbs that uses the term abomination when referring to envy, lying and gossip. Homosexuality within the biblical context however can’t be equated to envy, lying or eating non kosher food.

He then goes on to argue the differences between moral and religious sin:

“A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates divine will”.

Homosexuality, according to the "orthodox ethos" is not akin to lighting fire on Shabbat or eating bread on Passover, as Boteach would have you believe but a cardinal sin. This is verified by the near universal agreement amongst the orthodox rabbinate, poskim, and rabbinic organizations.

Truth be told, Boteach shares the ethos of the sages as reflected in halachic texts and glosses, otherwise why would he be against marriage between two gays seeking to establish a Jewish home. To dismiss it because he doesn't wish to redefine marriage is a poor excuse. If he was so committed to his position he could surely find the ways and means to redefine marriage so as to be inclusive of the gay community.

Boteach, true to form isn't interested in controversy to the point of alienating his audience because that would run contrary to his never ending quest of seeking the love of the masses.

Monday, October 25, 2010

They Spoke Hebrew!!

It’s Israel’s Fault!

Historically anti-Semites have blamed the Jews for everything from deicide to the bubonic plague; from failed battles and lost wars to economic calamities. Over the past few decades we have experienced the morphing of classical anti-Semitism into anti Zionism, where Israel is blamed for the unrest in hot spots around the world. And as if this wasn’t enough, we now have a new phenomenon where Jews are now blaming Israel for the Diaspora’s exploding rate of intermarriage and assimilation. JJ Goldberg penned an opinion piece in the Forward (October 22, 2010) “Being Jewish Is Falling Out of Fashion”. The article was so incredulous that I had to read it a second time and then ask another person for their take on the article, just to confirm what I suspected.

He crafted the article in such a way that his main thesis was buried towards the end of the 13-paragraph essay. His zinger was located in the tenth laconic paragraph making it seem benign, but was actually a poison arrow aimed at the heart of the Jewish people, in the best tradition of our anti Semites; contending that the up and coming generations of Jews are being turned off by Judaism because of the aggressive nature of Israel:

“Kids in high school and college today don’t inhabit a world where being Jewish is high fashion. In their world, Jewish brings to mind Israeli helicopter gunships….The Jewish state has simply lost the argument among the trendsetters: Boycotts or not, one state or two, Israel plays the heavy in the drama”.

As a consequence, students prefer to shy away from any issues regarding Israel, because anyone who is a vocal supporter of Israel tends to be extremist. Being Jewish, according to JJ Goldberg’s take on the up and coming generation of Jews, requires them to navigate the “moral maze to stay sane”, is difficult and intimidating. He suggests that in twenty to thirty years their children may be spawning a whole new crop of Christopher Hitchenses.

What I find appalling in his specious argument is that Israel is the one point of light that has s parked the imagination of generations of Jews who grew up in America during the past fifty years. I would hazard to speculate that had there not been an Israel there wouldn’t have been much of a Jewish community. Let me qualify that. There would have been perhaps the regeneration of the haredi / hassidic communities; but they aren’t the future of the Jewish people, merely an extension of what was before the war – the past.

It is Israel that has given dignity and identity to millions of Jews living in the Diaspora. It is Israel that provided the historic framework by which post holocaust Jews were able to make sense out of history. While the American synagogue was reduced to spiritual sterility due to their bankrupt theology it was Israel gap year programs on kibbutzim, universities and yeshivot that provided what our Jewish and rabbinic leadership failed to provide. It was the shlichim from Israel who became the teachers of Hebrew language and counselors for our summer camp programs that provided content to an otherwise vapid Judaism.

Only a corrupted mind can assign blame to Israel for the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation in America. If there is blame to assign it ought to be hung where it belongs: on the lackluster, spiritually bereft Jewish leadership in our local communities and synagogues. Israel doesn’t have to taper its domestic or foreign policies around the sensitivities of Americans. Israel has to do what they believe is in their best interests. If the Forward editorial board has an issue with Israel’s foreign policy than they ought to change their address from the comforts of New York to the hot seat of Jerusalem. Living in Israel might give them some credibility.

This may sound trite, but I do believe that those who live in the Diaspora haven’t the legitimate justification of criticizing Israel’s policies when it comes to their future and security. Certainly Americans, with a very poor track record of 50% intermarriage, and that, after pouring in hundreds of millions over the past several decades to stem the hemorrhaging, have no right to proffer advice or criticism. We’re going down the tubes here, and Goldberg is placing the blame on Israel! Ingenious!

I always loved that line in “The Godfather” where the godfather declares that he likes keeping his friends close but his enemies closer. In that spirit I shall continue reading the reading the Forward as I continue culling Yated Neeman for news, because I need to know what my enemies are thinking.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Case for Shaping Civil Society with Jewish Law?

About a month ago I read an article in the Forward (September 24, 2010), “A Case for Shaping Civil Society with Jewish Law” by Jill Jacobs which infuriated me, so I put it out of site with the intention of picking it up again, rereading it with a calmer disposition. It didn’t help. Close to a month later I’m still upset by the lack of Jewish context exhibited by what appears to be a self-serving rabbi as well as her lack of having a smattering of understanding of Israeli social/political structure.

The rabbi tries to make the case that there ought to be room in Israeli society for the application of benevolent Jewish law to somehow shed light and shape society: “When people ask me whether I think that halacha, should govern civil law in the State of Israel, my response is ‘no, but given the current religious power structures in Israel, I shudder to think of the damage that might be done by haredi authorities”. You shudder to think of the damage that haredi rabbis would inflict? They have done so already. Where have you been for the past thirty years? The orthodox rabbinate has inflicted terrible damage, pain and hurt on women defined as agunot, as children classified as mamzerim, on issues of conversion, on ht shabby treatment of the gay community and on and on. And you come up with a marginal case citing the “Wisconsin Plan”.

The fact of the matter is that religion should be kept out of the public sector of government. Religion never had a long-term positive effect on society. Our behavior, when we had political and military power in biblical and post biblical history was no better, no worse than any other regional power. In fact the internecine fighting between the tribes and later the poor relationship between Judea and Israel wasn’t exemplary for anyone trying to make a case for turning to religion for guidance on running a benevolent society.

Religion was never benevolent, nor can it ever be. The fact that we were on the receiving end of religious persecutions for nearly 2000 years created among some quarters a romantic view of what religion could do for people if one only read the prophets. But the prophets isn’t the religion of the Jews, it is only a piece of it, a very small piece. The overwhelming influence is the halachic structure, which is stuck, in the medieval period, struggling for some daylight.

Rabbis from any quarter of Judaism are all guilty of the same mistake: assuming that religion is the arbiter of what defines being Jewish. Jews in Israel do not require rabbis, whatever their denomination or religious affiliation, to participate in the public sector. By interjecting religion into the public sphere a dangerous assumption is made. That people with a certain religious persuasion knows what is best for society. How can this be? In an enlightened culture, people ought to be free from the guilt upon which religion thrives. Religion assumes there is a god. As a rabbi you’re legitimacy stems from that assumption. How do you impose your value system on others who don’t share your worldview? The place of a rabbi ought to be in the synagogue who can preach and teach to those who have elected to enter.

Historically, religion has been toxic to anyone who didn’t buy into their system. Israel made an egregious error in 1948 when religious affiliation with the government was allowed. However, Israel wasn’t founded as a religious state but as culturally Jewish state. Thus, ideally, religion is an option – for those choosing it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beit Hillel vs. Beit Shamai: A Partisan Paradigm

Mid term elections are right around the corner and the rhetoric is heating up and accompanied by negative campaigning to the extreme. As I follow the development of the Tea Party Movement and keep track of the daily polling I can’t help but be reminded of the great debates two thousand years ago, prior to and after the destruction of the Temple. The debates then, as now revolved around social issues critical to the nature and fabric of society. The mid term elections are a referendum on the changes that Obama and the democrats have brought to the country hitherto. Will there be more taxation and larger government with an emphasis on a European style of socialism, or will the republicans persevere hitting the reset button, redirecting the country back to its roots whose foundational values is anchored in capitalism.

As our election process is somewhat civil so too were the struggles between the Hillelites and the Shammaites. There were times however that these two tectonic plates weren’t as civil as Pirkei Avot would have us believe. Around the time of the revolt against Rome (66-70AD) there was a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer, a scholar par excellence and exponent of the school of Shammai and Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah, distinguished rabbi and teacher from the Hillelite ideology. Rabbi Joshua taught that righteous non-Jews as Jews have a share in the world to come (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2). Rabbi Eliezer however, ruled that gentiles, no matter how righteous have not a place in the world to come. On the basis of this heated and irreconcilable disagreement the students of the School of Shammai physically attacked students from the School of Hillel (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4). Tempers ran high because all of this was on the backdrop of the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the gentiles. Imagine that a ruling was made whereby gentiles would have a place in the world to come, this after experiencing the destruction of the Temple. The intention of the Shammaites was to prevent a majority of Hillelites from attending the critical decisive session where this issue would be ruled on. By preventing the ascendance of a Hillilite majority the Shammaites were able to push through eighteen regulations some of which designed to further separate Jews from gentiles. Hillelites saw this day “as bad as the day the Golden Calf was forged” (Jerusalem Talmud 1:4).

Coincidental to these events, and on the backdrop of these tumultuous times one of the most interesting stories of the Talmud is credited to have taken place. Briefly the story relates that a heavenly voice, the bat kol, recognized that while the differing positions between the two schools of Hillel and Shmai both have merit, the ruling, according to the bat kol is with Hillel. The bat kol reasoned that the School of Hillel was kinder and more humble presenting a more reasoned approach (Eruvin 13b). The school of Hillel, before giving their rulings would study and consider the ruling of Shammai too. The beauty of Hillel was that they recognized that there isn’t one immutable truth because as the bat kol said “elu v’elu, divrei elokim chaim”. What gave validation and legitimacy to the Hillelites was their willingness to study the teaching of the other side and wherever possible to discover the “partial truths” of the opponent. Shamaites were arrogant, and unwilling to study the teachings of Hillelites maintaining that they had nothing new to offer and nothing to learn from them.

I am reminded of this interesting, albeit esoteric chapter of our history because of the tone and rhetoric beginning to infiltrate the campaigning across the country. People from both sides of the political spectrum seem to be tone deaf and incapable of listening and learning from the other side. Beit Hillel not only thrived but also ultimately morphed into normative / rabbinic Judaism, precisely because they were attuned to and respected differing opinions and ideas. Both political parties would benefit by giving heed to that bat kol heard two thousand years ago.


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Monday, October 4, 2010

Denominational Judaism - Exposed

Denominational Judaism has once again proven itself to be out of touch with American Judaism as well as underscore its corrupt nature by virtue of its need to focus first on the bottom line. The Jewish Week, a New York publication ran an article “JCC, Synagogues in Holy War in Boca”, September 1, 2010 that described the turf wars between the JCC’s in several communities and the respective synagogues. Apparently there are JCC’s out there more concerned with meeting the needs of their membership than they are placating the financial considerations of the local synagogues. For generations, synagogues have been more interested in selling tickets and membership packages than they are in meeting the spiritual needs of Jews. The JCC’s, on the other hand, have become sensitized to this growing number of unaffiliated Jews and have done the right thing by offering services as part of their larger basket of Jewish programming.

I remember growing up hearing about the local Conservative congregation stationing ushers at the doors of the synagogue, not letting anyone enter the sanctuary without presenting entrance tickets. It seemed then as now, more of an off, off, off Broadway production show, than services marking the holiest days of the Jewish year. Many of the unaffiliated aren’t interested in a “show”, nor are they interested in paying exorbitant prices for the privilege of hearing a rabbi pontificate on current politics, international or national with hubris of actually believing that they know more than the congregants. But the clergy (rabbis & cantors) have egos and their hyper-inflated salaries massage those egos to the point that when they are on the pulpit they assume the aura of Moses coming down from Horeb with the law. This is a once in a year opportunity for them. The rest of the year they are playing to an empty house (unless there is a bar/bat mitzvah), so they want to maximize their exposure when this once in a year opportunity presents itself. The larger the audience the more the clergy can justify their salary packages.

This is why Chabad, the JCC’s and other independent programs have made significant inroads in the Jewish community. No longer does one have to be members of synagogue in order to feel Jewish or to “belong”; one can attend services at Chabad for a minimal charge; attend services at the JCC or services provided by an independent organization. Chabad were the pathfinders in this approach many years ago, when they sensed that there were many unaffiliated Jews who opted out rather than attend services which were costly and lacking, to boot. Initially I was resentful about Chabad’s outreach programs. They smacked of missionary work, which I found distasteful. But they understood something that I hadn’t as of yet grasped. There were Jews out there who were interested to some degree or other in exploring their Jewishness, but not to the point of making a large financial commitment to their local synagogue where the lion’s share of membership dues went to infrastructure and the rabbi’s salary instead of into programming. Chabad came along and said, that we are more interested in your neshama than we are in your pocket book.

Chabad, the JCC’s and the “independents” are the big winner. The local synagogues and federations can’t blame Chabad for their approach because that is their express purpose – to be an outreach to the unaffiliated and disenfranchised; to spread Judaism to the four corners of the earth, including American suburbs. Furthermore Chabad doesn’t receive funding from the federation or any other agency. The local Chabad’s subsist on what they can raise by their own wit. JCC’s on the other hand are recipients of funds and operate within a political matrix, which include synagogues and other local federations as well as other agencies. Its bad politics to rock the boat – yet they are, and my hat is off to them. The process began many years ago when many of the JCC’s hired rabbis to serve as “scholars in residence” with the understanding that they wouldn’t be leading services in competition with the local synagogues. After all, the JCC’s wouldn’t want to be accused of undermining the membership drives of synagogues and thus impact on their bottom line. It didn’t take long for JCC’s to understand that they were remiss by not catering to that growing number of Jews who identified culturally as Jews but refused to pay inflated membership fees where they received little value for their money.

Small, independent groups and boutique synagogues are mushrooming around the country; a statement that the denominational synagogues just aren’t meeting their spiritual needs. And it’s obvious that they have made significant inroads; otherwise, why are rabbinic organizations hostile to these startups? Perhaps this will serve as a wake up call to these sterile synagogues and their leaders that unless they change the way they do business they will continue to loose membership to “start ups”, Chabad and JCC’s.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Kol Nidre: A Postmortem

Confession: As a proud Ashkenazi and litvak to boot I take great pride in my heritage. However, over the years I have developed an appreciation for Sephardim for many reasons: They tend to have a healthier approach to religious practice with a keen sense of balance between ritual observance and modern living. For example, it isn’t unusual to see Sephardi young adults attending Shabbat services with their fathers, returning to their parent’s home for Kiddush and chamin, but extricating themselves in appropriate fashion so as to catch the soccer game. Sephardi rabbis who haven’t been brainwashed and programmed by Ashkenazi yeshivot are also much more tolerant and understanding of the secular community. In addition to the sublime of which I speak there is also the down and dirty reason for admiring Sephardim. They have a better genetic disposition: fantastic teeth, great hair, and much better physiques (men and women alike). It was for these reasons that we decided this year to attend Kol Nidre services at a local and well-established Sephardi congregation. And I couldn’t wait.

It was a lapse in judgment I told myself, as the service began. We arrived at the designated time, and fully prepared for a few preliminaries before beginning Kol Nidre. As the service progressed I realized that something was dreadfully wrong. It seemed as though it was Tisha B’Av. They chanted very, very, very slowly a four-page piyut lasting for a full forty-five minutes to a tune sounding like a funeral dirge with a Middle Eastern nasal affect, monotone with no variation in pitch or tune. It sounded like a broken record that never ended. By the time Kol Nidre was intoned (it was way past the traditional time of chanting Kol Nidre which is before sundown), it was night and I was exhausted. There was also mayhem regarding the removal of the Torah scrolls from the ark. All eight of their Torah’s were removed by men, tripping over themselves, who then stood around the Bima, as though they were getting ready for Hakafot of Simchat Torah. Traditionally, in Ashkenazi synagogues two scrolls are held at the Bima, on the left and right of the cantor. At this shul, while the eight scrolls were at the Bima in the center of the shul, the cantor was up at the Ark, praying into an empty, dark space. I wasn’t sure where to focus: on the Bima where the eight scrolls were assembled, or on the cantor at the Ark. It all seemed so incongruous.

To add insult to injury, prior to the chanting of the Kol Nidre, which was an identical tune to the dirge chanted previously, there was a public auction of all the honors (i.e. opening the Ark, removal of the scrolls etc), which took thirty minutes but was absolutely inappropriate for such a holy day. How can anyone get into the proper mindset of Yom Kippur when moments prior to the chanting of one of the most historically significant, remarkable prayers in our liturgy, Kol Nidre, the shul took on the disturbing atmosphere of a market place? I assumed that the purpose of the four-page piyut chanted earlier was purposeful, in that it’s intention was to set the right mood and mindfulness for Kol Nidre and all that followed. After all, Yom Kippur comes but once a year; it’s our one shot at approaching our history, and our lives with the humility that most of us lack all year long. And then the auction begins: it was like being drenched by a bucket of ice water in the midst of a fantastic dream? A total shock to the system.

There it was. After the auction, a procession of Torah scrolls wrapped in tawdry metal painted in cheesy gold and silver trim, reminding me of holiday popcorn packaged in kitschy tins that vendors ply to their customers around Christmas and New Years. There he was in all his glory, the chazzan, in an open collared shirt, no kitel, chanting Kol Nidre to a dark, empty cavernous Ark, prompting me to wonder if the attendees of the Yeshiva Shel Maalah were experiencing the same ennui of mortals such as myself in the Yeshiva Shel Matah?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ragen’s Rant

Naomi Ragen’s rantings, while extreme, is usually tolerable because there is typically some veracity to what she is screaming about. However this past week her rant over Time Magazine’s article about why Israel doesn’t want peace was way over the top and intellectually dishonest. I know because I too read the article. As a matter of fact I stopped reading Time Magazine thirty years ago when it became too critical of Israel’s policies, signaling their pro-Palestinian slant on the news. However, as I was rushing through the airport Time caught my eye and read it while waiting for my flight. When I began reading it I had an attitude, like Naomi Ragen. By the time I was half way through the wind was out of my sails; or to use an airport metaphor, the wind beneath my wings began to dissipate.

“Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” (Time Magazine, September 13, 2010) by Karl Vick is a fairly accurate description of Israeli society in real time. His central thesis is that Israel for many years pursued peace but as a result of multiple disappointments has become disillusioned with the prospects of peace. Instead Israelis have a set of priorities typical of those in other Western cultures where quality of life, healthcare, education, economics and lifestyle trump the illusive peace. Peace for Israelis, according to Vick is very low on the list of priorities. This is all very true. So why is it that Naomi Ragen is so vituperative? Why can’t she get past her “galut mentality” which demands a knee jerk reaction every time someone says something that doesn’t place Israel in the shinning light of Isaiah’s vision?

Isaiah’s vision, was just that a vision. Most visions are rarely reflective of reality; in most cases prophetic visions were totally disconnected from reality. We happen to live in the here and now; most people, which includes Israeli are therefore concerned with the mundane things in life: economic growth, achieving the good life, leisure time, good healthcare and excellent education, not necessarily in that order. So what is Naomi Regan’s problem?

I admire Israel’s tenacity in seeking a national lifestyle where normalcy is the measure by which one ought to live. Why should Israelis obsess over peace, which has hitherto been illusive? They have learned to adjust their lifestyle to one where a state of war exists, the same way one with a crippling disease has learned to manage their pain and disability. One with a disability who obsesses over their misfortune is worse off by far from one with a disability who is focused on adjusting and enjoying life as much as humanly possible. Israel has learned to manage their disability, a perpetual state of war. Unlike in the past, they have seized obsessing over their misfortune, and lowered their expectations regarding this particular misfortune; setting their sights on things they can achieve, that is, things within their power. They have no control over the warped minds of the enemy, but they do have control over their economy, research and development, healthcare and education.

Karl Vick highlighted these points in his article. I have no issues with that. As far as I’m concerned, and based upon Vick’s assessment it would appear that the ball is in the Palestinian court. It’s up to them to prove to Israel that they are totally serious and committed to peace. As the Talmud says “hamotzee mechavero alev harayeh”!!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Berlin and Jerusalem: Two Capitals

Visiting Berlin affected me more than I had ever imagined. Most visits to foreign countries are enjoyable but rarely have they left a lasting effect on me. Since returning from Berlin I haven’t been able to free myself of its pull. Beyond that my Berlin visit has put me in the uncomfortable position of comparing it to Jerusalem: one capital to another. There are those who would considered it irreverent and perhaps borderline sacrilegious. How can one compare the once profaned Berlin to the eternal holy city of Jerusalem? Worse than that: how can one, such as myself, who lived in and loved Jerusalem compare it to a symbol of the mass annihilation of European Jewry. It isn’t easy and as much as I resist, I am compelled to consider Jerusalem on the backdrop of Berlin, precisely because Berlin is today a seamless and united city, while Jerusalem is still struggling with existential issues. (Obviously, it wasn’t enough for Menachem Begin to declare that united Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. It might have been the ideal, but as reality has unfolded and revealed itself it is easier said than done).

Realizing of course that there is a fundamental flaw in trying to compare Berlin to Jerusalem for the same reason that it has been impossible for Jerusalem to realize a seamless unification: at the heart of the struggle are two people defined by polar religious beliefs. These beliefs are exclusionary and disallow for the space necessary for two peoples to live together. On the other hand, Berlin never had this problem. Their split was artificially constructed based upon geopolitics on the eve of the conclusion of World War Two by dividing of the spoils of war between the East and the West.

Having said that the question remains: are there any valid comparisons that can be made between the two? Both are capitals of great nations that were arbitrarily divided as a result of war. Both are currently unified. Both cities possess dazzling architectural and historical landmarks, and both are the seats of government. In both cities the populations tend to have an above average sophistication with an intellectual / cultural advantage over their countrymen. Because each is the seat of government lawyers, clerks and bureaucrats are over represented, while industrialists and entrepreneurs are underrepresented.

So much for the comparisons. Now for the differences: I can’t help escape the reality that Berlin happens to be a more beautiful city esthetically. It didn’t have to be this way. Berlin was devastated and in ruins after World war II compounded by decades of communist neglect. Jerusalem too was war torn and in shambles after the War of Independence and once again after the Six Day War. Jerusalem had the potential to be the most beautiful city in the world and was even referred to lovingly and poetically as the city of gold. But if one were to visit Jerusalem today one would find a city that is faded dreary and in desperate need of a facelift. This applies to west Jerusalem as well as to east Jerusalem. In west Jerusalem there are still pocket neighborhoods where the architecturally unique homes are well maintained with manicured gardens: those are in the isolated secular or modern orthodox, American textured neighborhoods. But the preponderance of west Jerusalem is haredi / ultra orthodox and the neglect in their neighborhoods is rampant. No pride of ownership. It sort of reminds me of the blue-collar neighborhood that I grew up in. You could always tell the frum homes from the gentile ones. The frum ones stood out due to their lackluster appearance, brown lawns, chipped paint on window and door frames and in general all the signs of neglect, while the modest gentile homes were well kept and manicured with much curb appeal. It’s pretty much the same thing when one tours the drab and depressing streets of haredi / ultra orthodox neighborhoods in west Jerusalem.

But the difference between east and west Jerusalem is much starker and palpable from architectural design to civil infrastructure of roads and sewerage; to the resentful eyes of the vanquished, still ever present. Berlin’s reunification was facilitated because of the will of west Berliners to divert the preponderance of taxes to develop the east at the expense of neglecting the continued development of the west. Had west Jerusalem had the same policy of diverting more money into east Jerusalem infrastructure one would have to wonder if that would have changed things on the ground and created the atmosphere for a truly united Jerusalem? If west Jerusalem had developed aggressive, strident programs in tolerance, embracing all its citizens as equals, as the west Berliners had, one has to wonder what impact if any, it would have made on the future of Jerusalem that is at the core of negotiating a peace with the Palestinians. As it is, the unification of Jerusalem is political fiction; waiting for an opportunity when perhaps wiser men can create an amicable peace where a shared Jerusalem might be the capital of two nations.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ki Mitzion Tetzei Torah

Years ago I stopped iterating the familiar, chanted prayer “ki mitzion tetzei torah”, having considered the weightiness of these words, in light of the current, uninspiring and derisive “torah” coming forth from Zion, the seat of the chief rabbinate. To the people of Israel, Am Yisrael, torah means different things to different people: Torat Kohanim, Torat Hamelech, Torat Korbanot, Torat Hateva, and Torat Imeinu, are but a few of the permutations of torah and its teachings. What most people, however would agree upon is that torah was never intended to be divisive, derisive, exclusive and encouraging prejudicial treatment of a minority seeking equality and inclusion under Torat Am Yisrael. Certainly, Isaiah’s intent when he uttered these words was that a strong moral and ethical message must go forth from Zion; not one laden with the politics of hate.

Over the decades and from the inception of statehood, Torat Am Yisrael has contributed enormously to the welfare of its citizens, placing them at the center of any social and welfare considerations. In many ways Isaiah would be proud of Israel’s accomplishments in the arts, sciences and humanities because of the manner in which these accomplishments have uplifted the human condition and spirit. However Torat Hashem that has been charged to the rabbinic leadership of Am Yisrael leaves much to be desired and if anything has sunk rather than uplifted the human spirit that Isaiah spoke of.

Recently the chief rabbi of Israel, Yonah Metzger (Ashkenazi) criticized the police for questioning Rabbis Yaakov Yosef and Dov Lior regarding their endorsement of the controversial book The Torah of the King. The book deals with the putative halachic position of killing non-Jews during wartime and the author of this inflammatory volume, Rabbi Yitzchak Shapiro is under police investigation for the incendiary content contained in this alleged metaphysically uplifting contribution to Jewish spirituality. Rabbi Metzger defended Shapiro claiming that the same standards, which apply to professors, protected by freedom of expression, ought to be applied to rabbis as well. Apparently, rabbi Metzger’s logic has been corrupted by the pilpulism shared by his acolytes, which graphically demonstrates the widening gap between the academic community and the medieval world he sojourns.

Academia is based not on the regurgitation of text and commentaries punctuated by inane interpretation, but on fundamental original research and thinking by which new ideas are germinated, tested and evaluated for their merit by scholars trained in critical thinking. Not every idea and theory has merit, but it is through consistent methodology, critical thinking and bold experimentation that have generated progress in the way we treat the human being and the world we live in. Haredi and ultra orthodox rabbis on the other hand, locked into medieval theological and halachic positions, have not the room or training to maneuver; intellectually smothered and rendered comatose very early in their development. It is for this reason that Rabbi Nosson Slifkin’s (haredi rabbi) theories and teachings about evolution were beaten back, his books banned, abused emotionally and verbally, as well as being victimized by character assassination in 2005. Original thought within the haredi/ultra orthodox community isn’t tolerated and so mired in anachronism that they can’t manage to move the furniture around in the room, much less replace it.
Rabbi Metzger knows as well as everyone else that the Shapiro book The Torah and the King is incitement to kill non-Jews in time of war. In the Haredi/ultra orthodox world there is a perpetual war raging against Amalek as currently personified by the Muslims. It was this type of incitement that got Yitzchak Rabin assassinated. By that standard, any academic that would incite to kill would be under a similar investigation.

There is no double standard, as Rabbi Shapiro would have us believe. What we do have is a colossal failure of the haredi/ultra orthodox community to study, analyze and critique text in a manner that would reflect intellectual honesty elevating all of us. Rather than ban Rabbi Slifkin’s books on evolution, (incorporating his teachings into the haredi/ultra orthodox curriculum which would have catapulted forward the haredi world into the modern age), they should be banning Rabbi Shapiro’s book, a throwback to the medieval period. By not doing so they have opted to remain suspended in the Middle Ages - the dark ages.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Feeling Guilty About Not Feeling Guilty: Reflections on Visiting Berlin

One year ago a friend of mine called to let me know she was going to Berlin. My knee jerk reaction to her was ”couldn’t you find another place to visit”? That was a pavlovian reaction; my guilty conscience talking, not me. As a matter of fact I’ve been struggling with my putative guilty conscience regarding all things German since I was in my early twenties. Until the moment I bought a Karmann Ghia, (a two seater Volkswagen), I never considered the issue of whether or not to buy German products. It was a non-starter because I had never wanted or needed a foreign made product, at least none that I was aware of. But I wanted that car. Being in my twenties, with a mind of my own, a few bucks and the compulsion to live out my fantasies was all I needed to obsess over that green convertible Karmann Ghia, German or not! After all, the holocaust was history, I reasoned and the nefarious nazi murderers of Jews, thank god hadn’t directly impacted my family. Prior to buying the Karmann Ghia I had mentioned it to several friends and their reactions were universally the same: couldn’t you buy another car? Almost the same reaction I had when my friend told me she was going to visit Berlin forty years later. Interesting!

In examining my feelings then I noted no guilt in owning the car. Driving the Karmann Ghia was fun, especially with the top down, but something had been niggling away at me. Stepping into the car guiltlessly always aware of its German provenance I was concerned over my lack of guilt. Why wasn’t I feeling guilty about driving a German car? I should feel guilty –after all, six million of my people were murdered; whether they were my family wasn’t relevant. They were my people. Had I been in Germany or Eastern Europe immediately prior to or during World War II I would have surely been murdered. On the other hand I took note of the German reparations and the apparent ease by which Jews applied for and accepted the money. I also took note of the fact that Israel’s entire fleet of Egged buses were produced and manufactured by Mercedes and that most of the taxi fleet in around the country were Mercedes. It all boiled down to an awareness that I was feeling guilty about not feeing guilty. This was the kind of stuff turning over in my head until on one starry night my Karmann Ghia irreparably broke down and I settled for a Chevy.

Those feelings lay dormant for forty years until we decided to visit Berlin this past August. Interestingly I arranged my visit to Berlin with a visit to Israel first, notably Jerusalem, where I would conclave for 4 days with a very dear friend. Somehow flying to Berlin from Tel Aviv made more sense to me than flying from Chicago since doing so contextualize Berlin. Israel had become my security blanket noting that twice before, on trips to Austria, I arranged flying from Tel Aviv and not from some innocuous point of origination. To enter German or Austrian territory from any other point than Israel seemed sacrilegious. In other words, travelling to Germany or Austria via Israel somehow was ok, as though there was a hechsher. After all, if Israel has relations with Germany and Austria who am I too scoff at these countries?

I never liked Austria or the Austrians. I had been there on two separate occasions discovering that they weren’t a very friendly nation, nor did they care for foreigners, much less Jews. This observation was derived not on the basis of a quick, run through trip, but founded upon two lengthy stays, once in Vienna and the other time in Salzburg and its environs. Even the German I heard on the street was harsh sounding and evoked troubling images of the not too distant past. I felt good about these negative feelings because by having them I was sharing in the same feelings that so many of my people shared. I didn’t have to worry about not feeling guilty. Indeed it was comforting to be able to have an intense dislike for Austrians for no other reason than they had been instrumental in killing my people. Having had these negative feelings in Austria I was bracing for similar feelings in Berlin.

It was a shock to my system when after arriving in Berlin I didn’t experience any of the same feelings that I had in Austria. Berliners were open, friendly and embracing of foreigners and especially Jews and Israelis. During the time I was there I had nothing but positive experiences and good karma. German no longer seemed the harsh language of Nazis barking death orders to their compliant co-conspirators but an inviting, soft sounding language reminiscent of English. Ironically, this didn’t bode well for my complex Jewish psyche. I found myself once again seated in my Karmann Ghia with the top down, cruising Lake Shore Drive. Can life get any better? Yet niggling away at my psyche was the still small voice whispering about the bad things had happened to my people just a short while ago, robbing me of my ability to really enjoy myself. Here I was, sitting in a beergarten, drinking Berliner weisse beer desperately struggling with that small voice buried deep inside, always struggling to pop up and rob me of a good time. I was determined to keep it suppressed and enjoy the moment, knowing anyway that if I don’t feel guilty about celebrating life in Berlin, I will feel guilty about not feeling guilty.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Medieval Judaism - Uncorked

Witnessing the spectacle of what has become known, as the “Emmanuel prisoners” was an opportunity to experience up close what it must have been like to be a Jew in medieval Europe. I’ve read about it, I’ve fasted and mourned the unspeakable atrocities committed against our people while paradoxically celebrating the ensuing mesirat nefesh and kidush hashem. In fact an entire culture, literature and liturgy justifiably grew out of folk tales of mesirat nefesh. Many of our piyutim introduced into the liturgy were written on the background of mesirat nefesh. But the collective psychological impact resulting from relentless persecution has taken its toll on our nation. Concepts like kiddush hashem and mesirat nefesh over the course of time took on new meaning and were redefined by our rabbis. Indeed the siege mentality, resulting partly from this redefinition was at times a legitimate defense mechanism but unfortunately contributed also to the distortion of the national psyche. An example of this is the recent 11-day imprisonment of the 35 for refusing a Supreme Court order to send their daughters to a non-hassidic elementary school.

The imprisonment and subsequent release of Krimalovski and the pack of 35 has been treated by the haredi community as deliverance; the guiding hand of god intervening once again in history ostensibly justifying their cause. As reported in the Jerusalem Post (July 9 2010), Krimalovski is quoted as saying “the most revered rabbis were coming up to me sobbing, saying how they wished they could take my place in prison, how they envied me the privilege of performing such a great sanctification of God’s word…”

The “Emmanuel prisoners” will be one more link in the long chain of kiddush hashem, representing a classic case of mesirat nefesh. The issue isn’t whether there was any racism on the part of the Ashkenazi haredi toward their Sephardi counterpart. That’s beyond doubt. It is so crystal clear that I defy anyone to seriously challenge that position. After all, racism is part of the culture of haredi Judaism. If enlightened Jews poured out of the ghettoes when the opportunity presented, the haredim preferred a self-imposed ghetto in order to justify their contempt. They are a closed contemptuous community, scorn being a characteristic of their collective nature: scorn for anyone not subscribing to their values, scorn for anyone not being a member of their community, scorn for anyone not having been born into their world, with a reluctance to accept outsiders much less converts. They have an intense dislike, bordering on a phobia for “goyim” viewing them as nothing more than a necessary nuisance to do the dirty work while they do god’s work. If this appears to be a generalization so be it; otherwise how can one explain the massive support of the haredi community in Israel and abroad? What’s fascinating is the prevailing “siege mentality” that has survived even 62 years after we were blessed with a state.

The State of Israel of course is the grist for the siege mentality. Haredim don’t like states or respect their laws unless it benefits their interests. That is why historically they preferred the ghetto. They were barricaded in, minimizing the possibility of a toeva, and contamination from infecting their lifestyle. For them, Israel is just another state. It is a state with laws that are aimed against them (unless of course they can extract money through political shenanigans), and in order to survive they will have to be moser nefesh. So reading about and following the proceedings against Krimalovski and the pack of haredi racists being cheered by their sycophantic acolytes upon their prison release reminded me of all the other “maisalach” tales of haredim being saved or redeemed from prison due to the benevolence of a prince or a miracle.

In light of the Krimalovski Episode my skeptical intuition has been further sensitized. As we pass tunnel through the nine days culminating with Tisha B’av followed shortly by chodesh Elul and its accompanying rich and nuanced liturgy texturing, our tefilot certainly during the Yamim Noraim will take on new meaning. I wonder whether the Krimalovski episode will in a generation or two receive a place of honor in haredi lore and perhaps find honorable mention in the mahzor.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sour Grapes

In this week’s Forward (July 9, 2010) Jay Michaelson makes an insupportable statement in his article Peoplehood Vs Israel, fallacious at its core and is the quintessential oxymoron. “In principle, the values of peoplehood and Israel are on a natural collision course”, he claims and then spends the rest of the article venting about the lack of inclusion of various interest groups around the Jewish table. This isn’t the first article published in the Forward in which Michaelson sacrifices Israel on the altar of narcissism and Jewish liberalism when his personal comfort level was threatened by a system that wasn’t particularly embracing of his values. Michaelson’s understandable frustration with not having the LGBT community well represented around the Jewish table in no way undermines their place within the community or threatens their place under the peoplehood tent. For him to say Peoplehood Vs Israel is sour grapes, to say the least.

Putting aside all the recent DNA research into Jewish peoplehood there is a litmus test that has been applied throughout the centuries before there ever was genetic research. Israel has always been the glue that kept the Jewish people together as a unified “am”, nation. Our prayers would have rung hollow without the centrality of the Temple and Jerusalem at the center. Our rabbinic literature, midrashic texts, medieval and modern literature would be bare and barely an echo without the centrality of Israel to our existence as a people.

Peoplehood is difficult to define but there are certain qualifiers at the heart of it that without inclusion would undermine the principle and definition of who we are. Peoplehood assumes that we are all bound together by certain common values that either we possess or aspire to. Land, language, culture, values, music, art and literature are but a few of those characteristics. They aren’t necessarily quantifiable nor is there a yardstick as to how much of any of these traits or qualities one needs to subscribe to in order to be a member of the tribe. For the most part, most Jews share some of these traits to one degree or another, either in theory or in practice. For example, the love of Israel isn’t quantifiable. In generations past there were those who merely gave lip service to the idea of the rebirth and reclamation of Israel. Others were passionate, but mostly all Jews recognized the centrality that Israel played in our culture.

Just as Michaelson is unhappy with the lack of voice appropriated to the LGBT community, many others and I are unhappy with the disproportionate voice given to the haredi community in Israel as well as the disproportionate amount of resources allocated to them. I do not however claim that as a result of the political architecture of Israel, which makes me uncomfortable, I am removing Israel from the Jewish equation. It smacks of the spoiled schoolyard kid who not liking to loose, picks up his marbles and goes home! Thus, one may disagree vehemently with a particular position of Israel’s politics, but one must also draw the line when Israel’s security is at the point of being compromised and Jewish life lost. To cavalierly submit that Israel’s position aren’t comfortable and therefore Israel needs to be conveniently (albeit uncomfortably) removed from the Jewish equation is vapid and narcissitic.

The American Council for Judaism formed in 1942, by reform rabbis was established for the express purpose of sanitizing Judaism by removing Israel from the equation. It can’t be done. Judaism isn’t a religion. We are a people, an “Am” (nation), as our bible says: “Asher bocah banu mechol ha’amim” we were chosen from all the other amim. And even if one doesn’t accept the Bible as divine, is irrelevant. The Bible, divine or otherwise, through historical imperative is one of our national literary treasures that has defined to a great degree who we are as a people. The ACJ wasn’t comfortable with having to deal with issues such as dual allegiance, as apparently Michaelson isn’t comfortable with either, perhaps for different reasons. But he is trying to put forth the same thing that was tried in the past and failed. It can’t be done, because we as a people refuse to let anyone, redefine who we are. For thousands of years gentiles and anti-Semites have tried to redefine us and failed; I doubt that those of Michaelson’s ilk will have the slightest success in debunking Israel by trying to manufacture a schism between Israel and her people. Instead of writing off Israel, Michaelson should persist in the righteous cause of lobbying on behalf of the LGBT community, because one day they will receive their rightful recognition and place under the big tent.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Body Without a Soul

There is a strange and cold wind blowing through the American Jewish community. I first took note of it during the presidential primaries when so many of our illustrious liberal Jews fell in love with Obama. Having at the time confronted several acquaintances who pledged their everlasting love and support to Obama I questioned them regarding Obama’s vague and sketchy position on Israel as well as his long-term association with that notoriously anti-Semitic putative reverend Wright. The answer I heard was disturbing: American interests trumped Israel. I should have understood that the winds of change were about to descend on the Jewish landscape in a way that would change forever Israel’s relationship with America as well as with Jews living in the Diaspora.

Recently I read a disturbing article in the New York Times, “American Jews Who Reject Zionism Says Events Aid Cause ” by Samuel G. Freedman, and was so infuriated that I decided to wait till the calm returned. I’m still waiting. That article confirmed my suspicions that indeed the winds of change are at our doorstep with a growing movement within the liberal Jewish community supported by their rabbis to eviscerate Israel from Judaism, the core, the heart of our peoplehood. Allan C. Brownfeld, a longtime member of the American Council for Judaism and editor of its magazine maintain that Jews are American by nationality and Jews by religion. In support of this anachronistic and fallacious statement he and others of his ilk have distorted Jewish history in order to buttress this position.

What is the American Council of Judaism? It is an organization of apologetic Jews founded in 1942 by a group of Reform rabbis preferring to adhere to the principles of the Pittsburg platform, rejecting the idea that Jews are a nationality (peoplehood) but merely a religious group. They opposed the Reform movements position that endorsed the support of a Jewish army in Palestine. This is the same organization that supported the efforts of William Fulbright to have the lobbyists for Israel in the United States register as foreign agents. Support for the organization came mainly from Jews of German decent, socialists and others uncomfortable with Judaism such as Hannah Arendt, Eric Fromm and Hans Kohn.

I was raised on the motto that the Jewish People without Israel is like a body without a soul. Everything in our history points to that regardless of those revisionist historians and theologians who seek to distort the truth in order to promote their political agenda. Some of our prayers dating back twenty five hundred years references Zion as the heart and soul of the Jewish people. Our Temples and significant sections of our Bible is testament to the centrality of Israel to Jewish life. And when we were sent into exile the significant portion of our collective soul was left in Zion and it wasn’t till 1948 that our soul was once again made whole.

There were some orthodox leaders who rejected Zionism. There may have been those who rejected secular Zionism but they didn’t reject the concept as evident by the fact that Agudas Israel as well as other right wing orthodox groups fought for certificates in order to enter Palestine. Some Hassidic courts rejected Zionism because of the control exercised by the secular leadership. But many courts such as Gur as well as Slonim were advocates of Zionism prior to World War II. One only has to study Jewish history to glean these facts.

The traditional Jewish community never ever rejected Israel as the heart and soul the Jewish people. The traditional Jewish community never, ever treated Judaism as a religion. We always identified ourselves as a people, with a land, language, religion and culture. It was only the reform Jews of Germany who, ashamed of what they were sought to be like their Christian neighbors and re-identified Judaism as a religion. They refashioned their synagogues to resemble churches and introduced the vernacular and sermons into the service to comport to the style of their Christian neighbors. They were intent on assimilating themselves into Germany and hadn’t wanted the albatross of dual allegiance around their necks. They were willing to trade away their peoplehood in exchange fro being accepted as Germans. They miscalculated.

They miscalculated then and they are miscalculating again. Some people never learn from history and they are destined to repeat it. Interestingly, those same Reform Jews ashamed of who they were, are at it again today. So intent are they to thoroughly assimilate into American culture they are willing once again to trade away their inheritance.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Troubled Waters

These are troubling times for our tribe regardless of whether one is living in America or Israel (Jews living in Western Europe are further down the road and I don’t see a bright future for them either). Since Obama was elected President a cloud seems to be hovering over us, making me feel queasy. It’s not the kind of cloud that accompanied us in the dessert and over troubled waters, but a threatening cloud, one that doesn’t appear to be providing the kind of cover enjoyed by our ancestors. I don’t think I’m over reacting; I believe that I’m trying to decipher the writing on the wall.

What I find particularly worrisome however, are the trends within the putative Jewish community and the manner in which they have reacted to the goings on over the past several months. Their refusal to recognize the disturbing signs is deeply concerning. Commentary magazine has devoted an entire issue to this new phenomenon of Jewish support for a democratic president intent on causing Israel irreparable harm. Based upon the current polls over 50% of those Jews who voted for Obama in 2008 would vote for him again. Shocking, in view of Obama’s performance vis a vis Israel since entering office. Obama is apparently getting away with it which I find disheartening, to say the least. This past week I had a conversation with one of Obama sycophants who would vote for him again, a “committed Jew” and pro-Israel who is in his twenties and probably representative of Jewish liberals of his generation. His tenuous attachment to Israel is in the spirit of Obama: it has to make political and strategic sense. Challenging him he asserted that my position was antiquated and irrelevant to his generation. To this new generation of Jews who voted for Obama, the holocaust has no bearing, nor does our historic connections to the land of Israel have any true relationship to realpolitic on the ground, here and now in the twenty first century. He wasn’t perturbed in the least by Obama’s cavalier treatment of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Snubbing Netanyahu on his Washington visit Obama demeaned Israel and the broader Jewish community. An attitude seems to be gaining traction in Washington that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is no longer special. Israel is no different than any other ally and may even be considered a liability as evidenced by remarks made by General Petraeus last month. This attitude is becoming more manifest as was played out most recently over the ridiculous brouhaha resulting from Israel’s exercising her right to enforce a blockade against the rule of Hamas in Gaza and ending with Helen Thomas’ outrageous, hurtful and mean spirited remark that the Jews should move back to Poland and Germany.

Helen Thomas is no fool, nor is she senile. She may have assumed that Obama’s nuanced shift away from Israel gave her the license to stridently make her position clear. She obviously misread public opinion, forcicng her to end her career ignominiously. However, I’m beginning to think that perhaps we Jews have become too comfortable in America, too complacent and too secure. Judging from the blogosphere comments surrounding Thomas’ fall from grace there are a hell of a lot of people that agree with Helen Thomas. Perhaps her crude and coarse comment and reactions ought to serve as a wake up call to all the yefe nefesh in America.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Zionist’s Guide To The World Cup

My nephew Doug Klein(through marriage to Debra),an avid sportsman (and wrestler) asked me to post the following Guide to the World Cup:

A Zionist’s Guide To The World Cup

A famous non-Zionist, Leon Trotsky, once said: “You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.” Likewise, you may have no interest in international soccer (or “football” as those snooty foreigners call it), but you should. Not necessarily for the soccer, but for the politics.

Suffice it to say that the most important event for the majority of the world’s population for the calendar year 2010 will be next month’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The whole world will be watching, and every participating nation’s collective self-esteem will be at stake. As such, the eternal question arises: “Is it good for the Jews?” Quite simply stated, we want our friends to do well on the world’s biggest stage, and we want are enemies to suffer embarrassing and ignominious defeat by others wearing short pants and cleats.

(One note about methodology: democracies tend to be better for the Jews than authoritarian regimes.)

To that end, here is your convenient guide for whom to root for and for whom to root against.

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France.

South Africa: The great struggle for freedom and against apartheid notwithstanding, the Republic of South Africa has been no friend of Israel in recent years. Moreover, it has been one of the strongest non-Arab supporters of the Palestinian cause. Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, a strident anti-Zionist, is a national hero. The vote is no.

Mexico: On the whole, Mexico is a bit pareve on Israel issues, shading slightly in favor of the Arabs. On the other hand, Mexico boasts a vibrant Jewish community. The Mexicans are the arch-rivals of the USA, though, so probably best to take a pass on them.

Uruguay: Well, it’s never been much of a democracy and, like its neighbors, has played host to any number of escaped Nazi war criminals, so Uruguay is a no.

France: Traditionally, this would be a no-brainer. From the Dreyfus Affair to Francois Mitterand, France has been one giant bummer for the modern Jewish experience. The election of Nicholas Sarkozy, though, is a little bit of a game-changer. In this World Cup, better the French than the Brits (see below). Root for France to win the group.

Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece

Argentina: Even more ex-(and not-so-ex-)Nazis than Uruguay. Throw in the government’s apparent involvement in obstructing the investigation in the 1990s bombings of the AMIA headquarters and the Israeli embassy, and it becomes nearly impossible to ever root for Argentina in good conscience.

Nigeria: Typical for a Third World country, Nigeria generally takes the Arabs’ side in international forums. Add in the fact that the country is usually run by some form of authoritarian government. Take a pass on Nigeria.

South Korea: Aside from Jewish servicemen serving in Korea, there has not been much connection between Korea and the Jewish Question; therefore, Korea is the obvious choice for Group B.

Greece: The Jewish community of Salonika was almost totally wiped out by the Nazis during the Shoah. To this day, Greece has done little to come to terms with the near total destruction of its pre-war Jewish community. No. (Let’s not forget, either, that the Greek squad ended Israel’s best chance to qualify for the World Cup since 1970.)

Group C: Algeria, England, Slovenia, United States

Algeria: This is a no-brainer.

England: Also a no-brainer. The home of polite anti-Semitism and Vanessa Redgrave. Never mind that they speak English and David Beckham is into kabbalah.

Slovenia: Although Slovenia lacks the anti-Semitic reputation of its Balkan neighbor Croatia, this is probably because Slovenia historically possessed less Jews to hate. No.

United States of America: A.K.A. Sweet Land of Liberty. Of thee I sing. Let’s just hope that Landon Donovan can find a way to score two goals per game. Oh, yeah, and somebody to play left back. But I digress….

Group D: Australia, Germany, Ghana, Serbia

Australia: Home to one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, the English tradition of disdain for all things Jewish was not entirely transported here with its convict-settlers. Besides, Mel Gibson is not really Australian. The Socceroos get the old okey-dokey.

Germany: While Germany has done more than any other European country to come to terms with its recent past, it is still Germany. I know it is not fair to visit the sins of the grandfathers onto their descendants, but seeing proud Germans singing their national anthem (which has the same tune as “Deutschland Uber Alles”) just doesn’t feel right. Oh well. Tough #$&%.

Ghana: Though there has been a history of positive diplomatic relations between Israel and this west African state, it remains a Third World country with an anti-Israel voting record at the UN. Nothing to see here, sports fans.

Serbia: One of the few countries in the world more unpopular than Israel. The Serbs deserve much credit for putting up such fine resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. In doing so, many Serbian Jews managed to survive. Still, Serbia is a proud Slavic country, and that never seems to be good for the Jews.

Group E: Cameroon, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands

Cameroon: (See Ghana, above.)

Denmark: Famous for saving most of their Jews during the Nazi occupation, Denmark is the only country in Scandinavia that allows shechitah. Also, the whole controversy about the cartoons of Muhammad originated here, so it can’t be all bad. No doubt, Denmark is home to a lot of snooty Nordic anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, but one could do much worse than root for them to win.

Japan: Bataan Death March…Sugihara. Sugihara…Bataan Death March. Japan is problematical, but from a Zionist perspective, ultimately okay.

The Netherlands: Yes, they have a huge problem of a growing indigenous Muslim population, but they know they have a problem. Root for them while you still can. Besides, it’s hard not to have a soft spot for the plucky Dutch after their Queen rode her bicycle during the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.

Group F: Italy, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia

Italy: Okay, so they were on the wrong side of World War II, the Italian Jewish community made out better than most communities in Allied countries, such as those in Poland, France, and Greece. Moreover, their President likes Israel almost as much as he likes attractive young women. Viva Italia!

New Zealand: On the one hand, the Kiwis have a snowball’s chance in Johannesburg of winning a match. On the other hand, the obsessively anti-Israel Helen Clarke and her Labor Party were voted out of office and replaced with the pro-Israel Conservatives. Okay to cheer for; just don’t expect them to win.

Paraguay: Nearly as many Nazi war criminals there as in Argentina. Absolutely no.

Slovakia: What? The more anti-Semitic half of the former Czechoslovakia? You must be joking.

Group G: Brazil, Ivory Coast, North Korea, Portugal

First, a note on Group G. Every World Cup has--in the pleasant, soothing terms of international soccer—a “Grupa Del Muerte”—a “Group of Death” so called where all four teams are good and anyone of them is capable of advancing. If one is talking solely about soccer, Group G is not the Group of Death, as Brazil should have a field day. It is a different story for us Zionists.

Brazil: Haven for ex-Nazis. Current President curries favor with the Iranians. Better they should lose.

Ivory Coast: Yet another member of the Third World bloc in the UN which routinely votes to condemn Israel. Also has a democracy deficit. The only reason to cheer for the Ivory Coast is that the other members of this group are such cholerias.

North Korea: A Stalinist dictatorship that sells nuclear weapons technology and Scuds to Syria, Iran, and other lovely places. I think not.

Portugal: Most people remember that 1492 was the year the Jews were finally expelled from Spain. 1493 was the year they were expelled from Portugal. May they merit an early exit from the World Cup.

Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile

Spain: Anti-Semitic then, anti-Israel now. There is nothing new under the Spanish sun.

Switzerland: The Swiss did everything they could to profit from the Nazis both during and after their tenure in Germany. Now, they are attempting to do the same thing with our friends in Iran. No.

Honduras: No real history of anti-Semitism here and a history of cordial relations with the Zionist entity. They are the pick of the litter in Group H.

Chile: Although it has the strongest democracy and the best economy of any country in South America, it is still hard to cheer very much for countries from that region. Still, if you must, you may do so without much enthusiasm.

In the final cheshbon, let’s pull for a USA-Australia final. Enjoy!