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.