Saturday, February 27, 2010

Purim 2010: Ashtor and Mardoch

Another year and another moment when I sit in disbelief; when I can’t believe that once again my people, the intelligent ones, are going to make another b’racha l’vatalah. A b’racha before reading the Megilla as though it were the stamp of the “notorion” a notary public, authenticating the love story of Ashtor and Mardoch and their people. Actually the whole thing is charming, a plot to perpetuate a fictitious story as though it really happened. The big lie. Said often enough, by enough people, it becomes part of the national history and psyche of its people. And of course we authenticate it not by a notary’s stamp but by fasting, a seudat mitzvah and of course mishloach manot. There is so much ritual draped over the event itself that attention is focused on everything but the story. The rabbis were so neurotic about the details of when to fast, ther proper means of reading the megilla and how mishloach manot are to be delivered that attention was diverted from the story. If anyone were to really pay any critical attention to the story one would realize that it is but the imagination of a very repressed people still recovering from a terrible national blow impacting on its collective psyche to the point where it had to create fiction – an escape.

Deep down our sages realized this. They were definitely troubled by the plot, because it didn’t do justice to the Jews. We, after all needed to take the high ground, yet we stooped to the level of our tormentors. Contrast Vashti to Ashtor. Vashti told the king where to go when he wanted her to become the sexual object of his whims. Ashtor on the other hand became the sexual object of his whims and because of it she saved the Jews from a horrible fate. Our rabbis not happy with this depiction of Ashtor turned her into “karka olam” – a passive object of the king’s sexual whims. Ashtor, according to the rabbis never enjoyed the sex. She was a passive partner, allowing the king in just long enough to get the Jews out - of trouble. Great theater!!

And that is what it was supposed to be – great theater; revealing the inner most emotional turmoil of our people as a reaction to a national catastrophe. The whole thing was probably contrived as wishful thinking, understandably. However, we Jews, still recovering from one national disaster and then moving into another, lost our sense of humor and began believing the story as though it were apocryphal. And it picked up steam. Once the (Pharisees) rabbis got a shot at it they went to town. They buried it in volumes of halachot and managed to beat as much joy out of the carnival spirit that they could.

So one couldn’t celebrate Purim as a national carnival without of course fasting, fulfilling the mitzvah of a ridiculous “seudat mitzvah” and hearing the megillah, with a b’racha – and not once, but twice. On the other hand, thank god for the rabbis, because without them institutionalizing this holiday by encrusting it in halachot it might have disappeared from our calendar. Does anyone have any lingering doubts as to why we are so neurotic?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof

This past week Martin Grossman was executed for the cold-blooded murder of Peggy Park. He had gone through the entire appeal process and he even had a little extra help that none of the other non Jewish, death row inmates have in any state of the union: the lobbying of Agudah and other Jewish organizations including a last minute plea from the Chief Rabbi of Israel to the Governor. Nothing helped. He was executed on February 16 by lethal injection in payment for a brutal murder committed on December 13, 1984.

Until a few weeks ago I had never heard about Martin Grossman. I took an interest in him like I take an interest in every other murderer sitting on death row. As a matter of fact I had just finished reading an expose on another gruesome murderer, Christian Longo (who murdered his wife and children) waiting for lethal injection that appeared in Esquire’s January 2010 issue. Funny thing, I don’t recall Chabad, Aleph or Agudah taking an interest in his case.

As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine any of these Jewish organizations taking a humanitarian stand for anyone unless they were Jewish. And there is the rub! Their credibility as principled petitioners for the sanctity of human life has been squandered, unlike Professor David Protess of Northwestern University who crusades against wrongful convictions, seeking out justice for those who have been victimized by the system.

Professor Protess is a very principled man. For the past twenty years he has been dedicated to crusading against those wrongfully sentenced to death first as the research director for the Better Government association and for the past eleven years as head of the Medill Innocence Project associated with Northwestern University. His efforts were probably responsible for Governor George Ryan to suspend the executions of all those inmates sitting on death row in Illinois until their cases can be reviewed thoroughly out of concern for the possibility of a wrongful execution.

Our illustrious rabbis representing Agudah, Chabad, Aleph, Young Israel and other Orthodox institutions flocked to Martin Grossman, not because he was innocent but because he was Jewish. Grossman admits to the murder and assumed full responsibility. The merits of the case were irrelevant to them. In their parochial minds the only thing that mattered was that he was Jewish and therefore entitled to some special consideration. Special because these same rabbis haven’t petitioned the Governor for anyone else who actually may be innocent, as Professor Protess would have.

What is disturbing in this entire sad chapter is that our rabbis have exhibited once again a strong affinity for the abstract rather than a deeper appreciation of text which could actually be applied to the here and now. Rather than be committed to the issues, they have concerned themselves with the superficial. They took up the defense of Martin Grossman for all the wrong reasons. He was Jewish, but he was a murderer nevertheless, an embarrassment to the Jewish community and the civilized world. On what basis does being Jewish entitle someone to special treatment? Rather than expend energy on a confessed murderer our distinguished rabbis ought to be joining ranks with crusaders like Prof. Protess and seek out justice where justice is lacking: “tzedek tzedek tirdof”.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Striking the Right Balance

Not being a very patient person by nature, I have spent an inordinate amount of time and training developing that all too illusive quality that many of my yoga practicing friends seem to practice as routinely as breathing rhythmically. Patience and respect for those with whom I disagree with when it comes to understanding, appreciating and living their Judaism has paid off. For years I have been reading Jonathan Rosenblum and most of the time disagreeing with him. Those disagreements, while rarely visceral were never the less principled and therefore troubling; and I wondered why, if I disagree so fundamentally with his approach do I read him. I could never answer that question until recently.

Not long ago he ran an article in Mishpacha Magazine (January 20, 2010) entitled “Are We Asking the Right Questions”. Without going into the point of the article, he draws upon an event recorded in the B.Talmud (Yoma 23a-b) as a proof text to an argument he was making. The argument isn’t germane to this essay – what is however, is his interpretation of that tragic story retold in the Talmud. The Mishna tells of how two young Priests were in a race up the ramp of the altar to see who would perform the Temple service. In anger, the one who lost picked up the knife and mortally wounded the victor. Since the victor wasn’t dead but mortally wounded, the father declared that the knife, the “murder weapon” wasn’t rendered ritually impure. The Baraisa notes that apparently the impurity of the Temple vessels was more important in the father’s eyes than the spilling of blood. The Gemara of course trying to make sense out of the episode inquires: was life so cheap that murder was treated lightly or was murder a serious matter but so was their treatment of the Temple vessels.

The inquiry is interesting, and somewhat revealing of the sages dealing with the issue at hand. It is obvious to me that there isn’t much of an issue that really requires analysis and it puzzles me that our sages felt the need to analyze what should have been obvious. Regardless of whether the young priest mortally wounded was dead or not is to miss the point. We are taught that the temple was to be built with tools and instruments not fabricated from the available metals, because it was out of metals that weapons were fashioned. The Temple was supposed to symbolize and stand for peace, tranquility and the worship of god. It would have been an oxymoron therefore to use tools fashioned from the metals that are used to kill to build the Temple. The logical conclusion would be therefore that even if the priest wasn’t dead, the knife ought to be rendered unfit for further use because of the harm it had already caused, not only to the young priest but because the temple had been violated and soiled by a priest unfit to carry out the holy work of avodat hashem.

I am pleased that I practiced patience all these years (even if it is against my grain) and continued to read Jonathan’s articles because here is the ideal essay by which he succinctly makes the point I have been resisting for decades. If a balance isn’t struck between halacha and the spirit of the halacha than we risk distorting the meaning and intention of the law. J. Rosenblum’s article is precisely the example par excel lance to which I refer. It is the locking on to halacha like an android, without passion and without compassion, pilpulizing ad nausea the halacha and robbing it of its intent and purpose. I realize of course that I am treading on dangerous territory and that what I suggest is unacceptable to the Orthodox establishment. It is however, more important to clarify for those passionate about their Jewish practice that in order to keep it relevant and meaningful they can’t allow the intent of the law to be blurred by the ausbergian pilpulism of frustrated rabbis who have lost site of the purpose and intent of the law. When the Spinker Rebbe was sentenced recently, the judge gave him a reduced sentence because it was the judge’s opinion that while the Spinker Rebbe broke the law he did so not out of malice but with the naiveté that application of Talmudic logic was sufficient to guide his decision making. Obviously, his distorted view of the law was a result of pilpulism. The idea that one can intellectualize the law, but keep a clear focus on the intent is misleading. By intellectualizing and pilpulizing over centuries it is likely that we will internalize it individually and communally and ultimately distort the very thing we are trying to elucidate.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hardcore Haredi Hypocracy

Most of us were raised on lofty concepts such as “kol yisrael arevim zeh lezeh”, that each Jew has a responsibility to another Jew. Hillel’s golden rule, that if one were to have to sum up all of torah’s wisdom into a few words so that torah can be learned while “standing on one foot” would be “v’ahata l’reacha kamocha”, one should love his neighbor as himself. These and other ethical dictums gleaned from the wisdom of the ages crafted us into a people. It’s peoplehood above anything else that has guaranteed our survival over the ages.

It is this same sense of ethical treatment of our brothers and sisters, inculcated in us from time immemorial, which we have extended to others outside of the tribe with the same love and dignity that we extend tour own. It is no surprise that Jews have always been in the forefront of social issues, charity and fighting for the rights of those less fortunate than us. It was this state of mind and this sense of ethics that prompted the American Jewish community to join arms with Martin Luther King and other human rights activists to demonstrate, lobby and challenge a racist system. It is these teachings and values so entrenched in the psyche of the Jewish people, so fundamental to the core of Jewish teachings that has set off red lights and deep concern over an issue that has been going on for some time, but only coming to light recently.

The fervently orthodox Bais Yaakov School in Immanuel isn’t taking any measures against parents who are refusing to send their children (daughters) to school as a result of an order of the High Court of Justice to integrate Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Imagine that this school system, originating back in 19th century Poland, in the heart of anti-Semitic Europe where a Jew had no chance of an “even break” has been running hteir schools along a racial fault line, keeping the Sephardim (mizrachi descent) separate from the pristine Ashkenazim. To ad insult to injury the Independent Education Center had instructed the principal of the school, Rivka Stern not to take measures against those parents resisting the court decision. The basis for this was that doing so would render Rivka Stern a “moser”, which is a status rendered to a Jew giving up another Jew to a non-Jewish system. Imagine, they consider the High Court of Justice a gentile court system!! It appears that something is fundamentally wrong with these so-called Jews.

The twisted logic of the parents is that it isn’t as though they were racist but rather it was really a question of levels of religious observance. The hassidic girls were at a different level than the Sephardic girls and the parents wanted to keep them separate. This is a flimsy excuse because what does personal religious practice have to do with studying the same curriculum in a classroom? According to this logic there should be universal discrimination in Israel thus ending the fiction that we are one people in spite of our differences. The parents themselves underscore their racial bias when they admit as one parent put it “that Mizrachi students don’t feel a connection to the Hassidic track…the High Court and the Education Ministry have to recognize that these are two different worlds”.

No they are not two different worlds. They are no different than whites and blacks studying in the same classroom in the states. They are no different than Ethiopians studying with Ashkenazim in the same class or serving in the same army unit. There is no difference in the color of blood between a hassidic girl or a Mizrachi or an Ethiopian or a Yemini. To say anything else is racist – but worse than that it undercuts the notion of peoplehood, am echad, one people, one country.

“Lofty ideas like “am kohanim v’goy kadosh” really have no currency in Israel if left to the machinations of these truly twisted and sick minds. There isn’t much of a future for the Jewish people if this kind of discrimination becomes normative practice in Israel. Its bad enough that Jimmy Carter and other yeffe nefesh have accused us of running an apartheid state. Leaving education in the hands of these people would enhance this hitherto undeserved reputation.

Many years ago as a student, I lived in a neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem that was decidedly a Sephardi enclave. When I wanted to enlist their cooperation in a project that would have enhanced our neighborhood they spray-painted on my wall the word “ashke-nazi”. When I asked them why they have so much hatred in their hearts they responded: “atem dofaktem otanu paam, achshav anu nidfak otchem”. Roughly translated it means “there was a time in the beginning of statehood when the Ashkenazi establishment screwed the Sephardic immigrants. Now its our turn to return the favor”. That was twenty-five years ago. Where are you today Hillel, when we need you!!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Man At His Best

The axiom “that women’s mass entry into men’s professions will dilute the prestige of that profession” holds true in the haredi world and in the Reform movement. I first became acquainted with this axiom many years ago when I happen to notice that there was an inordinate amount of Russian women physicians in Israel and an enormous percentage of male Russian engineers. Consulting with an old Russian friend and classmate he enlightened me on the dynamics of the equality of sexes in communist Russia. Medicine had been a prestigious profession until women became dominant and once that happened there was a decline in its prestige, resulting in the mass exodus of men from the medical profession. Russian men seeking a profession with a reduced presence of women lending it more prestige, was engineering; thus, the inordinate amount of Russian male engineers exiting the former Soviet Union. I am not a misogynist, nor do I believe that I in any way relegate women to a secondary tier in comparison to men. However, as an observer of Jewish life in the 21st century it would appear that the paradigm of the old Soviet Union is not only still applicable but is the common denominator (and perhaps the link) between the haredi/fervently orthodox community and Reform Judaism.

Apparently there is a ratio of men to women that renders the institution or profession prestigious on a sliding scale of men to women. That would be one of the reasons why teaching on the primary or secondary level is considered one of the lesser prestigious professions; precisely because women dominate it. So it came as no surprise when a few years ago I began reading about the feminization of the Reform movement. The day they decided to open their seminary to women for ordination they signed their death warrant. Within a generation the Reform movement became dominated by women rabbis not only in synagogues but also within the hierarchy of the organizational chart. Fewer men become ordained rabbis resulting in less male rabbis leading congregations with the consequence of less male attendance at synagogues. Attending services in a reform temple is like going to a Hadassah meeting. All women. What man in his right mind would want to attend services where not only the attendees, but also the so-called klei kodesh are all women? So there is a push back, a mild and from what I understand a fairly impotent revolt whereby men within the reform movement are seeking all male services where there can be some spiritual moments as well as male bonding.

The same phenomenon is beginning to affect the haredi / fervently orthodox communities. I have maintained this for a long time and wrote about it not infrequently that the male image in traditional Judaism is defined by his central role in the synagogue / beis medrash, (as well as in performing particular functions such as mohel and shochet) the hub of the traditional community. Diminishing the male role and his influence would effectively render him neutered. So it comes as no surprise that there is so much fuss about women at the wall or the push for separate sex bus service in certain haredi neighborhoods.

The real issue for these 19th century throwbacks isn’t whether women can or cannot don a talis at the wall, or travel with men on the same bus without a mechitza imagined or otherwise (see p’sak of R’Moshe Feinstein). The real issue for these men is the fight for the very heart and soul of how they understand their role within the community. Just as there are sayagim around torah and mitzvot, the “guardians of the faith” have set up there own sayagim as tradition would dictate. For them to renege, to capitulate on seemingly irrelevant issues that do not directly impact on them would suggest that a sayag has been deconstructed, and the threat to their hegemony within the world they understand, live and die by is under attack. Frankly, I sympathize with them and understand where they are coming from, especially when I observe the dwindling relevance of Reform Judaism to the male community and the ensuing backlash.

This mindset is precisely what Har Nof resident and rabble-rouser Zahava Fisher had in mind when she commented on Israel radio Reshet Bet. When asked why the male haredi community established the mehadrin bus line where men and women are separate she replied: “in order to elevate the status of men at the expense of women”. She punctuates this by asserting that on a haredi wedding or Bar Mitzvah invitation the women’s name never appears but is an appendage of her husband; the intent being to “make her disappear”.

It would appear that because haredi men are being harassed and viewed as relics of another age, survivors in a rapidly changing world, they are digging in, intent on demonstrating what the haredi man at his best is capable of and does best: man the barricades; reminding me of Sitting Bull’s final struggle against the onslaught of western man and his culture.