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.