Monday, November 29, 2010

Clear Thinking Jews

Probably by this time everyone has seen the viral YouTube “Yeshiva Guy Says Over a Vort” in which the haredi “right” is being taken to task by the orthodox “left” by citing the Talmud Yuma (28b) as well as taking a pot shot at Rabbi Elyashiv. This YouTube making the case for the religious “right” at the expense of clear thinking and rational people brings to mind the fantastic midrash of Yeshivat Shem V’ever. According to midrashic sources this was a yeshiva established by Noach’s son and grandson Shem and Ever. Some sources have it being established in Tzfat, others in Ber Sheva. The story alleges that all the Avot studied there, something akin to American dynastic families studying at Harvard or one of the other Ivy League Universities. Surprisingly these sources are disappointingly sketchy about what Avraham and Isaac studied there, but gratefully more detailed regarding Jacob who studied there from the age of 63 for 14 years (Accordingly he was 77 when he finally got to Lavan’s ranch, then had to work 14 more years before marrying Rachel). Imagine that. According to the Midrash he knew he was going to Lavan’s house so he needed to fortify himself with special torah that would serve as a prophylactic to Lavan’s bad influences. Hard to fathom, but that’s what our sages would have us believe. Reviewing the midrashic sources on Yeshiva Shem V’ever one has to wander what the curriculum was like. What texts did they study? How did they manage to get the copies of the texts and in what format were they made available to the “bochrim”? Were there lectures or was it autodidactic? How long was the day of study? What did they eat and were there stipends? How much was tuition and were scholarships provided to all or just the needy. How many students studied there?

This midrash came to mind when I viewed the YouTube in which the protagonist challenges the “ben torah” with some very logical questions: If Jacob knew the whole torah then he shouldn’t have been upset when Joseph was sold to the caravan, because he knew the end before it unfolded? What’s more amazing then this sophisticated YouTube is the defensive posturing from the frum community. Their response is as phantasmagoric as the story of Yeshiva Shem V’ever. In actuality they can’t really mount a coherent defense against the thesis position of the YouTube. Attempting to do so is a failed attempt at weaving a web of obfuscation. One example of this is justifying Jacob’s marriage to two sisters (by dismissing the accusations) due to their conversion prior to the marriages. Utterly silly but should one inquire as to the nature of the conversion? Was it “kosher” according to all the sages or would there have been some reservations by some on the very far right. No clear thinking Jew can support this kind of approach to Torah or to our tradition.

Then there are others who because they consider themselves more enlightened and don’t understand these midrashim literally, but allegorically, sort of a means by which appoint has to be made. So the midrash might weave an incredibly outlandish story with the intention that a lesson is to be learned from it. There are many sages who held this position but somehow became muddled when they got into the details. For example how was it possible that the Avot observed all the commandments? These rationalists would say, perhaps not all the commandments were observed by the Avot but certainly all of the ethical commandments were? Really? And how did they know what the ethical commandments were? And did they observe only d’oreisah or also d’rabanan? Other “clear headed” sages suggest that the Avot observed the commandments only when in Israel. Not withstanding the issue of borders, they introduced an incredible and revolutionary position that the commandments were only given for use in Israel. Does that apply today too?

Clearly, this YouTube hit a raw nerve. Rather than reevaluate with some serious study some of their positions, the right wing assumed the following position:
“The overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold the maximalist position and this is the general position that should be taught in Torah institutions. When one is involved in kiruv or deals with people who have been raised in secular environments, it is the opinion of this author that all three positions should be presented.”
In other words perpetuate the absurd and obfuscate the truth by citing different positions of the sages: maximalist position, minimalist positions and midlevel positions. All of course cannot and do not address the concerns of clear thinking Jews. Beyond trying to sell a muddled message and vision to the clear thinking, when under attack they do what they know best: circle the wagons with more fences and double talk.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jeremiah’s Comeback

Ein chadash tachat hashemesh – there is nothing new under the sun. A powerful statement made in Ecclesiastes and probably true. True also is that lifestyles, trends, ideas and politics run in cycles, often times with different names but conceptually similar. For example, socialism isn’t a late 19th century political innovation, but has been around for hundreds of years under different names, and with variation. Ditto for communism. Messianic trends have had its moments when it was massively popular and at other times denounced by the dominant spiritual leaders. Substantive political theoreticians and social scientists no longer popular or appreciated tend to come back for a second reading a generation or two later. Political leaders not so popular when in office sometimes gain newfound respect and appreciation once history has been able to reassess their contribution. It would appear that having been in disregard, our prophets too, are being reconsidered and possibly reevaluated as valuable assets to our culture.

Jeremiah once an outcast, reviled and banned from the Temple for his depressingly doomsday message is being revisited and reassessed as a prophet with a valid timeless message. Jeremiah, the prophet of deep irreversible doom is slowly coming back into vogue having been ignored by the intellectual / Zionist community ever since Israel gained its independence. This is fascinating in light of the fact that so many young people today in Israel and abroad have little or no knowledge of the prophet and the historical/social setting in which Jeremiah prophesied. And it isn’t only the assimilated Jewish youth or the modern orthodox. It is the proverbial yeshiva bachur whether haredi or orthodox who rarely read or study prophets unless it is the selected Shabbat haftarah. Even then it isn’t certain that the text will be studied.

For decades Israelis shied away from highlighting Jeremiah because of his extreme positions regarding the fate of the Israelis prior to and at the time of the exile after the destruction of the first Temple. He believed that the people had gone beyond the point of “return” due to the total erosion of their moral fiber. Worse than that, he believed that the Jews needed to adjust to life in Babylonia because it was the will of God and that they weren’t returning to Israel. Since Babylonia was their new home, it made sense that they integrate themselves thoroughly. Jeremiah had no coherent vision for a return. Pretty extreme!!

Nineteenth century Zionists deeply resented Jeremiah for this harsh prophetic vision since it competed with their own vision of a people reclaiming and returning to their ancestral home. They preferred more uplifting prophets like Isaiah because of his optimistic prophecy that we will ultimately be vindicated and return to Israel. Thus, the Israeli curriculum barely references Jeremiah while giving much time and attention to Isaiah.

Perhaps the message that most attracts Israeli’s today and alienated them two thousand years ago was Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon” where he attempted to appeal to the moral conscience of the people, placing it on equal footing with religious / ritual cult practice. Then, two thousand years ago, the kingdom was content with religious obeisance minus the social consciousness, not caring if people were starving in the streets. Today however, social consciousness or tikun olam has become the fashion, the rage among those wishing to express themselves Jewishly minus the religious / ritual observance.

Today in Israel as well as in many Diaspora communities, soup kitchens and safe houses are the new constructs and de rigueur of Jewish fulfillment as expressed by our prophets and epitomized by Jeremiah. The majority of American Jews, considered liberals (or progressives) seem to think that if we create universal health coverage on the backs of the taxpayers we will fulfill in some part the so called mitzvah of tikun olam. They mistakenly believe that if there is a redistribution of the wealth of the country and individuals we will approximate the vision of Jeremiah. Unfortunately these well-meaning progressives have corrupted the intent and meaning of tikun olam. An alternative to that vision ought to be “tough love” which is probably more in line with the intention of biblical Judaism (i.e. eved ivri)

Coddling was never a value in our system. A safety net provided for those in dire need, wasn’t regarded as entitlement nor intended as a permanent solution to economic/social problems. Our rabbis taught us that it was incumbent on every father to teach not only Torah but also a trade to their sons. Axiomatic of that was Maimonides hierarchy of charity; the highest being providing the opportunity to the recipient to receive an opportunity at a trade or business to assure a livelihood rather than money or goods.

Perhaps its time that those who want to see change in the social fabric of society abandon their corrupted understanding of tikun olam which encourages neediness, and adopt the saner approach of tough love. Coddling creates more dependency. The goal should be to wean people off of the dole, primarily the healthy and the young who ought to get off their duffs and find a job (I am not suggesting that the aged, physically and mentally infirm should rot in the streets). And yes, there are plenty of jobs – all the jobs that the illegal aliens take (as dish washers, buss boys and gardeners) that our inner city youth believe is beneath them. If tikun olam as understood by the yefe nefesh was the message of Jeremiah instead of tough love, than his vision may do us more harm than good; perhaps we’d be better off keeping his message relegated to the past rather that resurrecting him.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Jew Is A Jew

Netanyahu’s gambit to advance the oath of loyalty has pundits divided into two groups: those that question the democratic veracity of such an oath and those that dredge up the question and meaning of Mi Who Yehudi (who is a Jew). This latter, thorny question should have been taken up and resolved in 1948 when the Jewish Agency leadership under Ben Gurion declared the formation and independence of the Jewish State, the Medinah Yehudit. Then, many other issues were tabled for more pressing issues, such as survival and the in gathering of refugees from the “camps”, and the aliyot from Arab countries. The question has been festering since the Brother Daniel case in the late 1950’s coming to a head in 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State. The Supreme Courts decision however didn’t resolve the issue of “who is a Jew”. More recently the issue has percolated to the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish consciousness when the issue of conversion of Russian and Ethiopians became a hot button issue. Naturally, American reform and conservative Judaism have an interest that conversions made by the respective denominations ought to be recognized. Most Israelis would prefer a loosening up of the requirements for conversion as well.

The issue of conversion in Israel unfortunately is held hostage by the medievalists; rabbis who are committed to a halachic system, which for all practical purposes ceased developing in the medieval period. Interestingly, Maimonides who saw beyond the limited scope of the medievalists believed that a declaration of faith in the presence of a Beit Din, coupled with a general understanding their responsibility as Jews was enough for conversion. For Maimonides, the conversion of Ruth was certainly the test case and precedent for the declaration of faith being a sufficient qualifier fro conversion. The medievalists running and ruining Judaism in Israel have sought to bury conversion within a cocoon of halachic and meaningless mumbo jumbo that literally ties and confines any candidates into a knots so cumbersome that it is virtually impossible to convert.

Over the years Israel has witnessed tragic and heartbreaking stories of soldiers who have given their lives for the state only to be buried outside the confines of the Jewish cemeteries. For whom did they give their lives if not for the medina yehudit? Was not their supreme and ultimate sacrifice not as committed as Ruth’s? And what of all those converts who genuinely live Jewish lives but are informed by the rabbinate that their children cannot marry other Jews because their conversions were never true conversions, since they were performed by rabbis not on the select list of rabbis. So when the Netanyahu government wishes to assert the loyalty oath does not the state first have to define who is a Jew before applying this litmus test? Otherwise, what value has an oath where the very words have little or no meaning?

The fiasco of defining who we are hit home recently with a ruling by the interior ministry that denied Monique Martinek, a Swiss citizen, the status of an olah. Two years ago, Monique found out that her paternal grandmother, a Jew was killed by the Nazis. Prior to receiving this information she had no idea of her Jewish origins. Monique was able to document that her grandmother as well as her great grandmother were Jewish. However the courts ruled that halachically she didn’t qualify, because there was reference to the fact that the grandmother practiced Catholicism. Many Jews in order to survive the war assumed a Christian identity, that didn’t make them converts. Certainly, the Nazis understood that; they killed her because she was Jewish. She was Jewish enough to be murdered but not quite Jewish enough to pass on her legacy to her progeny! The medievalists, by ossifying Judaism by the layering of stringent halacha over the our peoplehood have practically eradicated the beauty and message that our ancestors intended too pass down to us. I would encourage Bibi that before he creates a tempest by insisting on this oath, they first define what and who is a Jew.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Gay Marriage

Ever since Shimshon Raphaeal Hirsch, orthodox Judaism has tried to reconcile itself with the intellectual / secular universe running parallel to halachic Judaism. Hirsch, in the mid 19th century founded Torah Im Dersch Eretz (also referred to as neo-orthodox), believed that Jewish values will best be advanced when partnered with worldly involvement. Where Hirsch built his system in 19th century Germany, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, extended the Hirsch model to the American shores in the mid 20th century. Known as modern orthodoxy (instead of neo-orthodoxy), its axes was Torah Umadah, an exponent of Torah Im Derech Eretz of Hirsch. Even though Soloveitchik’s system had successes in the mid 20th century it began to fray at the edges by the last two decades of the 20th century and crumbling by the beginning of the 21st century. In retrospect one can see that this was destined to happen because inherent in his system is a deeply flawed theory that assumes that the halachic man can intersect with the man of reason while not compromising his religious integrity. Haredi Judaism, a resounding rejection of modern orthodoxy, exposing the flaws inherent in modern orthodoxy, has seen massive and unprecedented growth while modern orthodoxy has shrunk to a fraction of what its size was only thirty years ago.

Ironically, Shmuley Boteach, a former haredi and now closer to a modern orthodox profile has demonstrated the problem with modern orthodoxy when tackling the problem of the status of gays in the orhtodox Jewish community.

Boteach is quite clever in his approach and exploits the same tactics as other modern orthodox Jews seeking acceptance of gays, in his article No Holds Barred: The Jewish View of Homosexuality (Jerusalem Post, October 19, 2010). Steve Greenberg does it in his book Wrestling With God and Men but it doesn't pass the litmus test within the orthodox community. In fact, there are many within the orthodox community that takes exception with Greenberg being referred to as an orthodox rabbi or even orthodox. Boteach compares homosexuality to other abominations referred to in the bible such as eating non kosher foods or bringing a blemished sacrifice on the Temple altar is an abomination. He also references Proverbs that uses the term abomination when referring to envy, lying and gossip. Homosexuality within the biblical context however can’t be equated to envy, lying or eating non kosher food.

He then goes on to argue the differences between moral and religious sin:

“A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates divine will”.

Homosexuality, according to the "orthodox ethos" is not akin to lighting fire on Shabbat or eating bread on Passover, as Boteach would have you believe but a cardinal sin. This is verified by the near universal agreement amongst the orthodox rabbinate, poskim, and rabbinic organizations.

Truth be told, Boteach shares the ethos of the sages as reflected in halachic texts and glosses, otherwise why would he be against marriage between two gays seeking to establish a Jewish home. To dismiss it because he doesn't wish to redefine marriage is a poor excuse. If he was so committed to his position he could surely find the ways and means to redefine marriage so as to be inclusive of the gay community.

Boteach, true to form isn't interested in controversy to the point of alienating his audience because that would run contrary to his never ending quest of seeking the love of the masses.