Monday, January 18, 2010

Revisiting Secular Judaism

Secular Judaism isn’t anything new. Its been around since the early twentieth century, waned and then gained momentum again after the Six Day war, dipped again but is now on the rise once again. Secular Judaism was once a potent force in mid nineteenth century Eastern Europe. The Jewish enlightenment or the haskalah was a fabulous movement of fecund, effervescent intellectuals seeking to find Jewish expression outside of the confines of halachic Judaism. They understood that Judaism was more than a conglomerate of laws – of do’s and don’t’s, but a rich textured culture including language, arts, ethics, history, sacred text and literature and poetry. It was the haskalah that eventually gave birth and intellectual expression to Zionism, the civil religion of the Jewish people.

Along the way, and in particular in America the growth and development of denominational Judaism gained hegemony giving new definition to the Jewish community. Peoplehood gave way to religion. We were no longer seen as a people but as another religious community in America. But what happens if you don’t subscribe to religious practice? What happens if you don’t believe in God? Do you cease to be Jewish? The answer is clearly no. Believing in god is a faith commitment. Judaism isn’t structured on faith but centered on behavior as manifested through the performance of mitzvoth. Thus, secular Judaism has once again reinvented itself and come back stronger than ever with a message to the Jewish community that you don’t have to believe in god to be a good Jew. Perhaps secular Judaism will never rise to the prominence of the three major denominations (although it is probably competing with Reconstructionist Judaism, the 4th leg), but they have a refreshing integrity that we can all learn from.

The American Jewish community as per its development seems most comfortable as another faith system along side other Christian denominations. Just like the American Protestant pays lip service to its creed, so to, do our liberal minded Jews enjoy attending services on the High Holidays, proclaiming belief and faith in God (whatever that means) and then filing it away until the next time. Their rabbis, of course reflect the sentiments of their followers. It’s hard to put my finger on the true faith of the typical liberally trained American rabbi.

Do they believe in God? Who knows! Reconstructionist rabbis, as their organizational name suggests have reconstructed Judaism and redefined the God of the Hebrews. For them it isn’t a personal god as much as it is something akin to nature. Once you pull back all of the layered gobbledygook they are very similar to Humanistic Judaism which places a premium on ethics and the centrality of man rather than god. Reform and Conservative rabbis love evoking God in their sermons, but have a difficult time not sounding like their Christian counterparts. Did god give the Israelites the Ten Commandments or the Torah or was it just divinely inspired. A truly orthodox rabbi will without hesitation tell you that it was clearly Hashem who gave the “law” to the Israelites; it was Moses who merely transcribed that what Hashem directly dictated to him, and it was the voice of Hashem that was heard at Sinai. There is no hesitation in this answer, as incredulous as it may sound to many of us. I love hearing my friends echo and affirm this theological truth because they say it with deep faith.

I have never met a Reform or Conservative rabbi who bought into this theology. I do however, remember a reform rabbi while eating a non kosher pastrami sandwich at a neighborhood kosher style deli, tell me that that the sinaitic experience was an epiphany

So then what do they believe? I don’t know. Moreover, I don’t think that they know, although they will never admit to this. There was a time when their predecessors, the first generation graduates of Central or Eastern European yeshivot, founders of their movements, had a clear and unequivocal answer. What I am convinced of is that most of them do not subscribe to a personal God defined as “hashgacha pratit”, where God intervenes in history and in the lives of people in a direct way. In a sense then there is an innate dishonesty in these movements.

As I see it there are only two honest choices: either you subscribe to orthodox Judaism and buy into the notion that the Torah is divinely given (not inspired) and you live as an halachic Jew, or you subscribe to Secular Judaism that opts away from God centered Judaism to man centered.

What Secular Jews and Orhtodox Jews have in common is that they take the study of text seriously and there is a consistency between what goes on at home and how they live their lives. While Orthodox Jews treat the texts as sacred with divinity attributed to them secularists treat the text as sacred because they are the national treasure of the Jewish people. The difficulty I have with the new breed of Secular Jews is that they have traded their tribal identity for a global one. Thus, for them Israel is no longer a critical component of the equation as it was with their ancestors the maskilim who gave birth to secular Judaism. I suspect that as some maskilim who became communists and turned to Moscow rather than Jerusalem ultimately learned – a Jew can never turn his back on his people.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Culture Warriors

Ever since the issue of Women at the Wall presented itself for the upteenth time on December 4, 2009 I started connecting the dots between that and other issues that gnaw at the religious sensitivities of the haredi community whether in Israel or abroad. A series of issues have presented themselves that all share in common one thing: the haredi revulsion and rejection of western values, preferring to live in the dark ages as their Muslim cousins have chosen. Issues like the parking lot open on Shabbat in Jerusalem, Intel conducting business on Shabbat, gays living openly and proudly in Israeli society, the spitting on Greek and Armenian Orthodox priests in Jerusalem by haredi pedestrians, women shoved violently into the back of the bus on certain lines and non-recognition of any conversion other than the corrupted brand of the haredi rabbinic leadership.

The issue for me is no longer who is right and who is wrong. The issue isn’t why there isn’t more tolerance, the issue is why have the haredi community reduced themselves to the level of their Muslim neighbors who are still living in the dark ages.

Interestingly, Muslim and haredi men tend towards misogyny and treating their women like inferiors. It’s at moments like this that I am deeply ashamed of certain segments of my people. “Blessed are you the Lord for not having made me a woman”, chanted every morning by orthodox men. Not very flattering you may wonder? But wait. This was anticipated by our enlightened brothers and has been explained away in very placating words by Aish, Chabad and other tuchas licking groups seeking to ingratiate themselves to the non-religious with the hope of a fast conversion. BS. They are misogynists - and it isn’t surprising. Consider repeating the same prayer day in and day out over centuries. The message certainly does seep in through the natural process of osmosis. Couple that with other proscribed behavior of women by the community such as separate seating at social events, limiting the voice and political power of women within the kehilla, curtail women’s ability to serve in ritual capacities such as mohel, shochet and mashgiach (a few eked in through the back door recently) and you have the subliminal message reaching fruition in the minds of men that women are inferior. It isn’t surprising then that haredim have no compunctions about kicking them to the back of the bus. Americans did that to blacks under the Jim Crow laws.

These are some of the reasons why I find the women of the wall conflagration so interesting. Personally I find it very distasteful to see a woman in a tallit. It does nothing for them (or to me) and rarely does it ever compliment their clothing or enhance their figure. Having said that I respect their right to wear a tallit on the streets of Israel, the streets of Yerushalayim and at the kotel. For some reason the haredi community has a flawed notion that their brand of Judaism is the authentic one, the real thing, and everything else is ersatz. Not true. I’ve said it many times before – we are all authentic Jews. Any Jew identifying with the fate of the Jewish people is authentic regardless of level of shemirat mitzvoth; whether you wear a gartel or go bear headed (nezach yisrael lo yishaker). The wall belongs to the Jewish people. It is a national monument, holy and ought to be accessible to all Jews to pray in any way that they find appropriate. The argument put forth by the haredi community that it is offensive to see women in a tallit and that it offends “public sensitivities” is specious. Have the haredi community ever considered the fact that their appearance is offensive to much of the public in the streets of Israel and the United States? Should they be prohibited from walking the streets of Tel Aviv or visiting the museums and other cultural centers? Have they forgotten the Nuremberg laws of 1935?

Six months ago I had Shabbat dinner at he home of traditional Jews who happened to have befriended the local Armenian priest who happened to be invited to his first Shabbat meal. During the course of the meal he related that he studied in Jerusalem. I asked him how he liked it, but to my chagrin had few kind words to say. He made a point of telling me that he had been spit at on numerous occasions by haredi Jews. I didn’t believe him and challenged him politely at the Shabbat table. My wife reminded me that we were guests and that I was quickly approaching the line of good and bad manners. Until I read about the spitting at the Greek Orthodox in the Jerusalem Post several weeks ago I never would have imagined that my people were capable of this. Boy was I ever wrong. Once we were on the receiving end. Have we forgotten so quickly? Have we learned nothing since the 1935 Nuremberg laws? Apparently not …because our fervently religious spiritual brothers, claiming to be following in the steps of Avraham Avenu see fit to spit in the face of other human beings walking the streets of Yerushalayim. L’on heganu?