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.