Monday, December 19, 2011

Two Tough Questions

Its been said that all an average student needs to become excellent is to be fortunate enough to experience one outstanding teacher. That relationship will provide the inspiration for a lifetime. In fact many of us have had such singular encounters that has left an indelible mark on our lives: I was lucky enough in the 60’s to have encountered a teacher in Camp Moshava (Wild Rose, Wisconsin). Avraham Nuriel z”l, a shaliach to our community (later became a professor of Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University) spent the summer in Moshave teaching us the geography and history of Israel, but special was the daily class on the teachings of Harav Cook. Those informal learning experiences sparked discussion among the campers and it’s those conversations especially that have accompanied me all these years. I’m not always aware of those discussions, but invariably something triggers those memories recounting those conversations, which bring me back to Avraham Nuriel and his understanding of Harav Cook.

The two burning issues that concerned us young Zionists in the years just prior to the 67 war were two hypotheticals: What if America and Israel would no longer be allied and their interest were at cross purpose, where would our loyalties be? What if Israel was no longer a democratic state becoming something other than democratic i.e. fascistic or theocratic, would we still chose to live there? Would we still support Israel assuming that we lived in America? At the time these were merely hypothetical, given to mental gymnastics, because no matter what we said, it really didn’t matter. Israel was a secure ally of America enjoying support from Congress, the Executive branch and Israel was the darling of the media. I never imagined then that those two rather simple questions would haunt me a half century later. Nor would I be recalling those heady intellectual conversations sitting under a tree while Avraham helped us work through what I understand now to be extremely complex issues.

There is a side of me, the youthful traces which wants me to believe that these two questions ought to be consigned forever to undisturbed memory, stored there for another time. No need for concern, certainly no need for panic. President Obama may lean toward the Palestinians but Congress has our back. Besides, even if Obama wins another 4 years, Israel can stonewall him until his term ends. The damage he can do while significant may be reversible with a more even handed president. Regarding democracy, my still youthful, optimistic shadow believes that Jews have embedded within our DNA democratic values. We are an “am kishe oref” (stiff necked people), argumentative, not given to indulge others, brutally honest, demanding of our government, with a history of cut throat journalism that is the backbone of a true democratic system.

The other side of me, the more seasoned mature side that has seen life in its beauty and ugliness is skeptical about our future as a democracy and as an ally of the United States. Less concerning for the moment is the issue of our relationship with America because; as long as Israel is a strong democracy there will be support for Israel. If however we begin a tailspin that undermines democratic values then our nexus with American Jews and ipso facto America will wane. I wince at the thought that while we are not in a tailspin yet there are undemocratic trends, which ought to flag our attention and concern. The fact that Hillary Clinton made her remark in a private setting expressing her concern for the marginalization of women within Israeli society ought to be taken seriously. There are other glaring examples many of them emanating from the religious communities whether haredi, hardal or any other flavor. It appears as though the haredi community less tolerant of secular Israel is trying to impose its way on the majority. To wit: a lecture at a community center in Haifa had haredi ushers direct women in (in spite of their reluctance) to the back of the hall, assuring that the men and women were separated. It oughtn’t be open season on Muslims or secular Jews because there is a strong haredi coalition in the Knesset. The bus incident with Tanya Rosenblit makes me wonder if she will become the new Rosa Parks of Israel.

The West, including Israel is hyper critical of the Muslim penchant for their fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran with the exponent that their women are treated like chattel. I am beginning to sense the same tendencies within the hyper-religious community who happen to be the loudest and most visible with Israeli society and who occupy seats in the Knesset thus highly influential on multiple levels. This trend will continue and will slowly erode the matrix of Israeli democracy unless the governing body in its wisdom draws a line between church and state.

Israel will do well if it learns from Greece. The Greeks too are closely aligned with its religion, Greek Orthodoxy. Because Greek orthodoxy is interwoven into the fabric of society there is no separation of Church and State. One can hardly be Greek and not be Greek Orthodox. Their way out of this conundrum are the dictates of the European Union which are enforcing certain steps to untangle the state from the Church. Israel ultimately will have to do the same thing if it wishes to safeguard its democratic values.

As hard as I find it to imagine Israel living under a non-democratic system of government I can’t fathom what it would do to American Jews. Probably the ultra religious ties with Israel would grow tighter as the ties with the liberal communities in America would grow weaker. Concomitantly, liberal lobbying for Israel would curtail, as would philanthropy: the American Jewish community turning inward, marshalling its resources to service their own needs.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Perpetuating the Myth or Recasting Chanukah

Every year as Cheshvon slides into Kislev I begin again pondering the meaning of the Chanukah story, its legacy, what we should be taking away from the story and its celebration. Insight and understanding change over the years, depending on perspective and context but what has been consistent over the years is my reluctance to accept the miracle of the oil as the prima facie reason for celebrating Chanukah. According to the story, the rebelling party under the flag of Judah the Maccabee having restored the Temple to its previous sanctity weren't successful in finding a significant supply of uncontaminated sacramental pure oil to light the Menorah for more than one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for a week; thus celebrating this miracle and the rededication of the Temple. In Judaism there are no true miracles other than events that happen in nature but out of time sequence. Jesus walking on water has about as much currency as a one-day supply of oil turning into an eight-day supply.

As a matter of fact there are no primary sources in our cannon referencing the oil story other than a brief tertiary source: a Talmudic reference with the classic argument between Hillel and Shamai as to how we light the Menorah. The only reliable primary source is the Book of Maccabees I rendered illegitimate by those who canonized our sacred texts. Naturally the Talmudic reference to the story is suspect because of the pharisaic political ax to grind with the Sadducees. It is for this reason as well that R' Yochanan Ben Zachai conveniently excluded the Book of Maccabees I from inclusion into the canon.

Simply put, the Pharisees and their exponent, rabbinic Judaism refused to credit the Sadducees with any relevance. In effect the intention of the rabbis and Sages was to write out of history the important contributions the Sadducees made towards the development of the Jewish people. The Talmudic version of Chanukah was no more than a ruse to thwart attention away from the Sadducees and to give undue credit to the Pharisees in their fight against the Greeks. The Book of the Maccabees l, however tells the true story. It is an accurate account (as accurate as possible) of the fighting and the history of the period, never, however, mentioning God or the sanctity of the battle. In a sense it is similar to the notable battles fought in Israel in the modern period. There may be those who feel comfortable ascribing our victories to god and the effort of yeshiva students learning and praying. The preponderance of Jews however would ascribe the victory to the power of the IDF, the superb training of its soldiers and its legendary acumen in field improvisation as well as maximizing the uses of equipment, and perhaps its ally, the United States.

The unvarnished story of Chanukah is a story about the military victory of the Hashmonayim against the occupying power, an empire that swallowed up Judea. The Hashmonayim were an amalgam of Sadducees, the priestly class and Pharisees who initially wouldn't take up arms on Shabbat because of the injunction against hill Shabbat. It was the Pharisees who were commingled with the Sadducees in the fight against the Greeks that decided to continue the good fight on Shabbat due to pichuach nefesh (mortal danger), the same rabbinical dispensation used today by the IDF; nationally security trumps Shabbat observance.

The Pharisees had another problem as well. There were many Jews who adopted the celebration of lights, imported and popularized by the Greeks to celebrate the winter solstice. Sounds familiar? The Pharisees the forerunners to rabbinic Judaism ingeniously incorporated the lights into the Chanukah story, thus co-opting Jews into a massive celebration and at the same time cutting the legs out from under their rivals, the Sadducees (Constantine did the same thing by incorporating the pagan Christmas tree into Christmas celebration thereby co-opting the pagans). This technique was used as well by them when they incorporated the notion of the “world to come” (olam haba). By so doing they were able to recruit more conscripts to their cause by promising them a reward greater than any other.

So where does this leave us on the eve of Chanukah when we prepare to light the candles and celebrate the miracle of the oil? And what about our children. Do we perpetuate the myth? How ought we approach this holiday? Should we approach it the same way we celebrate the miracle of the Six Day War?

Initially the aftermath of the Six Day War was accompanied by a national euphoria. More than that Jews from all over the works were able to lift their heads high for the first time ever with pride in being Jewish and part of something much bigger than them. But the euphoria slowly began to ebb and the realization set in that perhaps we need to address the repression of the Palestinians. We didn't do enough then nor have we done enough since. The Chanukah story too, was initially accompanied with great euphoria, but not enough attention was placed upon tolerance of - namely Jews who sought to live within a broader culture context, which was anathema to the Hashmonayim. These weren't tolerated and children were circumcised with or without parental permission.

This kanaut, zealotry, a thread running throughout our history must be in our DNA because today, as I right this I am witness unfortunately to intolerance once again in Israel. Making a bracha on the Chanukah is a bracha l 'vatalah (for naught) if we can accept the teachings of Safed's chief rabbi Shmuel Elyahu who believes that Jews should drive Arabs out of Akko or that of another illustrious rabbi Eliezer Melamed who want the Christians expelled from Har Beracha who said that "when we came to live in a religious community, we never imagined that one of these days we would be forced to live alongside people of a different religion, which doesn't match our faith and lifestyle." Sounds like nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Painful and disconcerting. Perhaps we should perpetuate the myth.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mistress of the Tribe

"As the book goes so goes the Jewish People" references our rich past and possibly illuminates what the future holds in store for us. For Judaism the term "People of the Book" (Am HaSefer) was used to refer to our commitment to the Biblical text and the wider canon of written Jewish law (including the Mishnah and the Talmud). For more than a millennium formal, higher education by host countries in Europe was closed off to us; the only available education was the study of Jewish (sacred) texts, primarily those books in the cannon but more specifically the Talmud and its commentaries. In later generations the term People of the Book stuck because of the unique bond between higher education and us. Even when prevented from matriculating into European universities (prior to the enlightenment in Western Europe and later in Eastern Europe) our tenacity for studying text went beyond the classic format of regurgitation. Innovative as we were we sought new methods in approaching Talmudic text ranging from the 14th century Pilpulistic style to the Brisker method of analyzing text, defining and redefining concepts. These razor sharp methodologies which formed the intellectual matrix for thousands of yeshiva students in Eastern Europe prepared us for the Enlightenment and the next stage, academia; the study of mathematics, sciences and the humanities. The descriptive clause, People of the Book had not only a literal ring but also revealed a startling truth: the Book, along the continuum of history became the mistress of the tribe. Ultimately, God who introduced us to the book and helped cultivate our appreciation for it was cuckolded.

Initially study of text was designed by our wise and judicious sages to serve as a substitute to the Temple cult and animal sacrifice that was no longer. Its intent was to help supplement our transition from a temple-centered nation to a book centered people. As a book centered nation the text offered us more than just the knowledge contained in its volumes. It carved out for us a sense of commonality, community, and purpose. A means by which to center our activities, build community, synagogue life and all the support systems necessary to enhance our lives. Ultimately, however, God was cuckolded because He gave us the greatest gift that man has ever had - not the Book as much as our appreciation for knowledge and the curiosity by which to pursue that gift. Even though most Jews are no longer religious they have inherited the lust for knowledge.

For 21st century members of the tribe the pristine concept of People of the Book is quickly becoming a misnomer. The book rapidly being replaced by cutting edge technology creating the Kindle, iPads and the Tablet are the new books, replacing the old mistress. True, they represent books to be read, but they also represent a sea change, a slow moving but gargantuan tsunami from the printed word to electronic micro technology and Internet usage. Up until the past decade or so the book was the means whereby classical knowledge was transmitted. This is no longer the case. Books are published digitally and read as eBooks, whether they are novels, textbooks, sacred texts or technical manuals. Books are becoming “virtual,” as one page after the other disappears into cyberspace once read. This lack of physicality is beginning to duplicate itself in community building around virtual synagogues too. This dfference is significant: it’s like making the distinction between surgery performed traditionally by a surgeon or by a robot. The surgery is being done, but the technology has created an important contrast. Do you want human hands performing the procedure or the robot directed by the physician? Some prefer the surgeon, others the robot because they assume there is less chance for human error. Some like touching the pages of the book or newspaper they ware reading. Others, especially those born after 1990 prefer eBooks.

Group or private study hitherto inaccessible to a segment of the Jewish community isolated from Jewish centers of learning are now a click away and no longer dependent on the limitations set by the local market place. One no longer has to have a "belly full of shas" and wait till the age of 40 to study Kabbalah: it can be accessed over the computer in any language one is comfortable in at any age. Today through the internet classes can be attended on line from virtual yeshivot and other master Torah teachers. But where is all of this taking us?

Over the next couple of decades virtual Judaism will become more the norm than the exception. It already is taking root in a whole host of ways. Currently there are study programs on line where one can pick and choose teachers rather than be hostage to the supply and demand of their community. Imagine someone living in Peoria with hardly another like-minded Jew to study with. Until a decade ago he would have been at a loss. For the less traditional communities there is a virtual synagogue by which one can attend services in the comfort of their home. This has limitations for the orthodox community but ultimately will force them to define the issue and revisit old ones:
What constitutes electricity? What constitutes a minyan? Can a quorum be virtual? Can a minyan be considered valid for purposes of Torah reading or saying kaddish if they are in attendance via computer hook--up. There is already anecdotal evidence pointing to the need to resolve these issues: many young Jewish people born to orthodox parents after 1990 and who define themselves as orthodox use the cell phones on Shabbat, redefining what they consider halachically permissible.

The need to solve this and other problems for the vanguard orthodox will become pressing as the generation of the 1990’s take over leadership of the Jewish community in the years ahead. Institutes recognizing these challenges in Israel are already providing alternative solutions for the IDF and more will proliferate as we progress. But the orthodox are a small percentage of the Jewish community. What about non-orthodox but seriously committed Jews who are marginally members of synagogues or live in areas where there are no synagogues and driving is impractical. They too will benefit through virtual synagogue affiliation. Synagogue rabbis and cantors will become less necessary as more people affiliate through virtual communities. Like those who prefer the hand of the surgeon there will always be those who want to feel the pew and experience the contact with the rabbi. It is a win-win situation and unlike other illicit relationships this redesigned, redefined tribal mistress will captivate the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Rabbinic Hacks and Clerics

The Ministry of Religious Affairs or more accurately the Chief Rabbinate is back in the cross hairs once again. The Ministry of Religious Affairs did it once again by abolishing Tzohar as an option for couples seeking to marry in Israel by an orthodox rabbi other than the standard cleric who is nothing more than a ‘pakeed” with a black hat and tinted glasses. Eventually they were reinstated, but there is a lingering concern that this incident may repeat itself. Tzohar was founded by rabbis with a religious Zionist background sensitive to the religious polarization in Israel with an aim at outreach. They offer a full panoply of social and spiritual programs including pre marital counseling as well as performing the wedding ceremony. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, not able or willing to compete with rabbis who are actually educated and trained as clergy, ministering to the needs of the community and the individual, understood that unless they eradicate the competition they would be out of business. They can't compete against professionally trained and religiously committed rabbis other than by fiat. They no longer have a raison d’ etre and are virtually illegitimate.

Reading of this episode of Tzohar brought me back 27 years when my fiancé and I presented ourselves to the Rabbanut in order to register for a marriage license. It was a nightmare and ultimately it was the attitude of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which drove me over the brink, seeking a much easier, and more pleasant experience. The rabbi with whom we met was concerned solely with our pedigree and setting a marriage date based on my fiancé's menses. The atmosphere in that office was stultifying and oppressive with the distinct impression that we were intentionally humiliated. Rather than feel spiritually uplifted with the knowledge that we were going to marry and become another proverbial link in the magnificent Jewish chain, we felt deflated. Rather than feel optimistic about a future with the potential of creating a new generation we felt as though we need to rethink the entire enterprise.

Marrying in America by a rabbi, a personal friend who performed the service out of an act of love rather than, as part of his job description was what we needed and wanted. It was a breath of fresh air. No one was raking over our proud lineage, and no one was getting that personal with my fiancé’s reproductive cycle without first having developed a relationship with her, creating a comfort zone with and for her so that any questions asked weren't the result of prying, but because it was in the name of our revered tradition, laws and customs.

Our wedding, small and intimate as it was, composed of barely more than a minyan of men, family and a few dear friends was a truly spiritual moment in our lives, as it should be. After all our marriage wasn't intended to legalize k'dat Moshe v'yisrael a union, but to solemnize the union of two souls whose merger would create joy and fulfillment hopefully bringing forth offspring. When I recollect those moments and the feeling of satisfaction that I had with the decision to shrug off conventional wisdom and at the last minute run off to America to solemnize our love I am happy but also a little sad. Twenty seven years have passed since that monumental decision producing two wonderful Jewish adults, committed to their heritage as well as their moledet, and with so much change in our world there is one constant. The corrupted Ministry of Religious Affairs whose oversight is managed by a chief rabbinate as corrupt as the politicians who occupy Knesset seats.

While politicians are concerned with aggregating power and exercising influence for unholy motives rabbis ought to be free of that temptation. The only way to do avoid this trap is to remove the odious political thorn from their area of civic responsibility. Ironically, in this upcoming season of Chanukah when we retell the Hashmonayim story we need to recall more than just a contrived miracle or victorious battle but lost war. We need to note the break, the revolt of the Pharisees with the Hashmonayim and King Alexander Janneus (103-76 BCE) who wished to aggregate political power and merge it with the priesthood and the holy responsibilities of serving God in the Temple. The Pharisees knew that power corrupts and therefore insisted on separation of "church and state". The chief rabbis of Israel, by far, less wise than our ancestors, the Hashmonayim wouldn't dream of relinquishing political influence.

The chief rabbinate is, unfortunately myopic, suffering from the tunnel vision of those Hashmonayim who sought power, even at the spiritual expense of their wards as well as their own loss of spiritual innocence. In the end they lost: in spite of the fact that we light candles for eight days celebrating a hollow victory made meaningful with the artificial infusion of a miracle story. The chief rabbinate lost the war, the day they defined their power in terms of political aggrandizement instead of spiritual independence and authenticity. Our young people are running at every opportunity from their batei knesset, avoiding the rabbinic hacks and clerics, seeking alternative marriage ceremonies at every opportunity, starting their marriages and beginning their families with little spiritual direction and assistance from what could have otherwise been a spiritually blessed beginning of holy matrimony.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hazon Ish: Visionary or Short Sighted

Being complex people living in extraordinarily complicated times I am flummoxed by the attempt at some scholars to offer simplistic answers to some very convoluted questions. How is it possible that the haredi community in America and Israel bounced back with a roar when only 60 years ago they were written off as relics of the past, relegated to the collective and perhaps nostalgic memory of the Jewish people. Benjamin Brown in his recently published book, The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer, and Leader of the Haredi Revolution, based upon his doctoral dissertation puts forth the thesis that Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, known by the moniker the Hazon Ish, single handed breathed life and vigor into the haredi "she'ereet hapleyta" (remnant survivors) having barely survived the holocaust. Brown points to several indicators that led him to this dubious conclusion. The Hazon Ish, he points out set the tenor for the Haredi revival in Israel in that they didn’t accept nor reject the Zionist movement. Unlike extreme haredi subgroups such as the Neturei Karta, they would exploit what the Zionist state had to offer and through their indifference towards the state would create their own subculture through a network of yeshivas and kollels. Brown believes that had they not assumed this middle ground they wouldn’t have grown nearly as powerful as they have. In addition he believes that Karelitz successfully strategized against Ben Gurion in 1949 winning the exemption of the then 400 yeshiva students in Israel, setting the pattern for the current day exemption of 62,500 yeshiva students. These strategies plus others formulated and executed by the Hazon Ish are what set into motion, according to Brown, the proliferation of the haredi sub culture in the post World War II Jewish community.

Brown's analysis is interesting but because it is tailored to conform to his thesis, many questions either go unanswered or aren’t addressed, leaving the impression that his approach leaves much to be desired resulting in providing a simplistic answer to a complicated issue. Not enough emphasis was placed on some of the stellar rebbes emerging at the time, not to mention the political clout of Agudas Israel. He ignores the development of the American haredi community, as well as the incredible intellectual power and leadership of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Instead, he presents the Hazon Ish as being responsible for the revolution of the haredi community, Referring to the resuscitation of the Haredi community in the same triumphal tenor that haredim have always presented their cause; even when they were being decimated throughout the centuries by the hands of antisemites their message was one of triumphalism. To enhance that message the truth was subordinated to the cause. To wit, the 4th Belzer Rebbe encouraged his followers to remain in Nazi Europe. Not to do so the Belzer rebbe maintained would be traitorous to their ancestors. Not to do so and emigrate to America would be to capitulate to a godless country. Not to do so and go to Israel would be to surrender to the Zionist vision. The Belzer Rebbe, however forsook his community of believers and escaped to Israel, beardless. Asking a Belzer hassid today about the story would find him apoplectic because this wouldn’t fit in with their triumphal perception of their chosen place in god’s eyes.

Part of the phenomenon of triumphalism is the notion that “its us against the non believers” and because god is on their side they will ultimately prevail. Because god is on their side they will be victorious as David was in his battle to defeat Goliath. This was the attitude of the Hazon Ish, according to reports, on the eve of his meeting with Ben Gurion. In truth The meeting between Ben Gurion and the Hazon Ish was a fateful one, not because the Hazion Ish was able to outmaneuver the savvy politician and statesman, but because of Ben Gurion’s sentimental approach to Rabbi Karelitz, his misreading of history, and Karelitz’s lack of understanding and appreciation for history. Karelitz considered it a victory to have won the exemption of 400 students. Ben Gurion considered it a bone with no great consequence assuming that the army was better off without the headache of yeshiva bochrim, thinking that they would ultimately integrate into the general society. Undoubtedly he would never have agreed to a blanket exemption had he known the number would balloon. Karelitz hadn’t a clue nor the vision that one day the 400 would grow exponentially into 62500. Had it not been for the political acumen of Agudas Israel, Karelitz’s putative victory wouldn’t have amounted to anything.

Interesting and revealing however is the attitude of Karelitz and his acolytes around the planning of that meeting which was flavored with triumphalism: Moshe Sheinfeld, in an editorial in Digleinu (Aguda Israel newspaper) cast the meeting as one between the “heart of Israel” and the “ruling fist.” Ben Gurion is mentioned in the same sentence as Vespasian casting the upcoming meeting between the “holy side” and the “other side” (sitra achra). Sheinfeld went on to say that the Hazon Ish removed his glasses at the meeting so that he wouldn’t have to look “in the villain’s face.” Ben Gurion, on the other hand, summed up the meeting in his diary by referring to the Hazon Ish as a humble Jew, referencing his wise and "beautiful eyes." Quite a difference in attitude and approach.

The reality is that the Hazon Ish was far less effective than his acolytes would ever admit. The revival of the haredi community in Israel and America had nothing to do with the Hazon Ish. It was a matter of biological reproduction by those whom survived, clinging to their ways, without learning from their past experience: namely that one can’t depend on god but only upon ones own energy and determination. The haredi community whether in Israel or America certainly has proliferated and they inhabit large, dense, confining neighborhoods spending their time in yeshivas eschewing the very notion of productive lives. Rather than learning from their ancestors about living humble lives with a sense of love of all god’s creations they have unfortunately taken up spitting on Greek Orthodox priests, acting out violently towards Jews who don’t share their life style and who may have accidentally crossed over into their holy space, and have a sense of entitlement fueled by a triumphalist flawed theology.

Perhaps this was the legacy of the Hazon ish: to spread intolerance of anyone not sharing in their lifestyle. After all, if what Sheinfeld wrote was true, than the Hazon Ish really wasn’t a visionary but another zealot who took advantage of Ben Gurion’s good will. If Sheinfeld is to be believed, Karelitz removed his glasses at the meeting with Ben Gurion in order not to “look into the villain’s face” referring to the Zionists as camels without a load (a metaphor for secular Jews without Torah), suggesting they were second class citizens. Did this attitude set the pattern for the future or was Karelitz simply reflecting the intolerance that he may have learned from his elders? Either way, it is nothing to be proud of.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chazeer Fissel Kosher

On the day after the release of Gilad Shali, the New York Times ran an editorial (Gilad Shalit’s release, October 18, 2011) excoriating Bibi Netanyahu for being able to close a deal with Hamas, “which shoot rockets at Israel”, but unwilling to negotiate seriously with the Palestinian Authority, which “Israel relies on to help keep the peace in the West Bank. Reading this editorial brought me back to my days as a yeshiva student and in particular to a brilliant and demanding rebbe who on rare occasion went off on a tangent, discussing current events. At the time there was much discussion on the future of the reform and conservative movements vis a vis intermarriage and assimilation. My rebbe made a startling statement. He claimed that he preferred dialogue with Reform rabbis rather than engage with Conservative rabbis. I was flummoxed. After all, the Conservative movement had a much closer affinity to Orthodox Judaism than the Reform movement since they subscribed to the halachic process, denouncing among other things the performance of mixed marriages by their rabbis. When I asked my rebbe, “mah pesher hainyan”? what do you mean and how can you possibly justify this position he responded with a pithy, terse, three word answer: “chazeer fissel kosher”!

“Chazeer fissel kosher” is a clever yiddish expression, which chides the pig for trying to pass itself off as kosher when in fact it is as treif as it gets. For an animal to be rendered kosher it first has to meet the fundamental criterion of having split hooves and chew its cud. The pig having cleft hooves and obvious to the eye tries to present itself as kosher, since chewing its cud isn’t a noticeable and an obvious characteristic. But the wiliness of the pig doesn’t go unnoticed and is reminded that it would be kosher had it chewed its cud. To my rebbe, the Conservative movement (rightly or wrongly) was like the proverbial pig. The movement tried to pass itself off as committed to the halchic process but in fact misrepresented itself by concealing the fact that they weren’t totally committed to it in the same fashion that was of the Orthodox. As the pig didn’t chew its cud neither did the Conservative movement conform to halachic Judaism. The Reform movement on the other hand, called a spade a spade. Their modus opperendi was to be clear as to where they stood in respect to halacha. They weren’t looking for acceptance among the halachic community. They rejected halachic Judaism and would perform intermarriages without the necessity of seeking loopholes or fictitious conversions, as the Conservative rabbis were wont to do.

My rebbe’s answer, simplistic as it seemed was actually profound and taught me a lesson on how to view the world. Had our rabbis learned this lesson well perhaps they would have had different take on the personality differences between Isaac and Essau. Essau was what he was. There was no mistaking him for anything but a hunter. He was taken advantage of by Jacob who presented himself to Essau in a kind and gentle light, not revealing his true intent. While Essau knew no guile, Jacob was a master of deception, knowing how and when to exploit a situation to his benefit. Thus when it was time to present himself to his blind father for the blessings it was without compunction that he disguised himself in animal skins to take on the physical characteristics of his brother. Who was Jacob? It is difficult to really know the man Jacob and what he represented at that particular moment in history.

Bibi, (unlike the New York Times editorial board) apparently learned long ago the very same lesson that my rebbe taught me. Hamas is our sworn enemy and they don’t try to sugar coat their ultimate aim to obliterate us. The Palestinian Authority on the other hand isn’t willing to reveal its intent although we know too well what their real intentions are. Bibi understands this and in his own vernacular probably refers to the PA as the chazeer fissel kosher. Too bad the New York Times hasn’t learned this lesson.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ethics of the Jewish Left

There are two guiding axioms regarding American Jews that can be said with relative certainty: Jews tend to list to the liberal left and have certainly been a force within the political left since the days of FDR and American Jews, regardless of Israel’s political proclivity to socialism have always been supportive. While American Jews did have their misgivings about the Kibbutz and socialized medicine, they treated those phenomena as a curios, non threatening concepts, political ideas that could be studied from a distance and visited on occasion. The support for the political left in America was a genteel flirtation with left wing concepts. Political ideas such as socialism weren’t, for the most part, within that purview of Jewish left wing American politics nor would it be tolerated. Entitlement programs yes, economic safety nets yes, socializing the country including health care, no. It was ok in Israel; after all, Israel was far away, and American Jews weren’t going to settle there any time before the Messiah beckoned them. So it appears there was an inconsistency, a double standard between what was ok for the Jews in Israel and what was acceptable for the Jews in America. The American Jewish left supported Labor government and their programs which launched and supported a social democratic society, preferring socialized medicine but this same standard of care was unacceptable for American Jews. They believed that the American capitalistic system was the best and its medical/health system was the finest in the world. In the eyes of the American Jews it was ok for Israelis to compromise their health system for the benefit of the masses, but not ok for Americans to follow suit.

Over the past decade this picture has changed considerably offering on the one hand a more consistent approach by the American Jewish community to standards appropriate for Israel as well as for Americans giving a new understanding to that aphorism “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”. On the other hand this has opened up a series of existential concerns that are more relevant to American Jews than Israelis. Ironically this developing existential threat to the American Jewish community has balanced the scales by which both communities face existential threats: Israel from without and American Jews from within.

The twenty first century has dawned with a subtle but focused shift in how Americans view the world. Americans see things less through the prism of countries and nationalities, viewing our challenges on a much more massive scale: a global scale. Our economics have become global and so has our understanding and approach to politics. Americans no longer see themselves as “exceptional” Americans but as members of a “One World” community. The butterfly effect once the provenance of meteorological and mathematical theories can now be applied to global politics and sociology: what affects someone in a small African village will ultimately affect many people in across the globe. Jews have fallen in step with this reasoning as well. The more left of center one is, the more apt one is to fall into lock step with this approach. On the surface one would think that this global vision is relatively benign: the more we view our challenges as global the more effective and comprehensive the solutions will be. But in reality it is an inverse ratio. The more one sees the world as “One World”, one community, a global community, the less one sees his own people as special, unique and worthy of special treatment. This is what is happening in the United States. Exceptionalism used to be the guiding light of the American dream. It was understood by its citizens that America being blessed was a very unique place to be a part of. It was a privilege to be a citizen and defend the country when called upon. The liberal left has slowly but surely chipped away at America’s view of itself as exceptional, deriding it at every opportunity, preferring to place America on equal footing with every other country, apologizing for its past sins of excellence.

The American Jewish left, in sync with the rest of the American left has crafted for itself a new Judaism, a Judaism that can fit the times, a Judaism bowdlerized of the uncomfortable words of “asher bochar banu” (choseness), replacing it with “tikkun olam” (social justice). In so doing they have corrupted the idea and concept of those words to mean global social justice rather than internal soul searching and self-correction as it was intended by the kabbalists. By denuding Judaism of its sense of “choseness” left wing Jews have pared down the unique qualities of Judaism putting it on the same footing of the latest progressive theories of social workers, community activists, union organizers and the like.

This is a Judaism that is hardly recognizable, reinvented to suit the whim of a new global generation. This past week a woman chided me in not having any grounding in fundamental Jewish knowledge claiming that it was incredible how I didn’t know that one of the primary tenets of Judaism is social justice! To be sure Judaism has always had a place for tikkun olam but it has always been fraught with intellectual tension. Like everything else in classical Judaism, nothing is simple.This tension was best highlighted by Hillel who stated a profound truth: “If I am only for myself, who am I?” and “If I am not for myself, who will be for me”? In laying down this truth, Hillel was recognizing both the universalistic drive we ought to have as human beings but at the same time acknowledge the particularistic nature of our people, if we wished to endure as a people. American Jews need to be cognizant of this polar tension that exists within the ethical matrix of the Jewish people. We can’t afford the luxury of adopting the message of the left which promulgates a universalistic message without compromising the integrity of the Jewish people. By co-opting into that message the American Jewish community risks the danger of trivializing its own identity for the greater good of the global community. The logic of the continuum makes perfect sense. If the concern is for the universal man, than the personal needs of the particular become overshadowed, blended in, ultimately loosing its unique identity and unrecognizable from the rest.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kaniuk’s Ongoing Conundrum

Yoram Kaniuk won this past month in the TA District Court when they recognized his right to be registered in the Misrad Hapenim (Ministry of Interior) “without religion”. For Yoram Kaniuk this was a pyrrhic victory since he wanted to exchange his religious identification to a new one “Israeli,” thus listing as “Israeli” his identity. Instead he is listed as “without religion”. The courts are correct. Kaniuk’s error in this whole imbroglio is that he has fallen into the same trap as so many others including many liberal and secular Jews and of course, Palestinians, who refuse to identify Israel as a Jewish state. They, as Kaniuk, assume that Judaism, or being Jewish is a religion. It isn’t and it never was.

Unlike Christianity and Islam being Jewish isn’t about faith and beliefs but about a shared narrative and a collective destiny. Judaism has no dogmas or articles of faith that are critical to salvation. Jews can be agnostic, atheist, deist or pantheists and still rendered part of the Jewish corpus. Being part of the Jewish People means that you are part of a historical narrative, a culture that you may or may not believe in god that continues to play a role in your life. Its like asking: can Frenchman be French without being Catholic. Of course, but he also understands that France was built with Catholic tradition. We are taught that a Jew, even if guilty of apostasy remains a Jew. This is what we mean by Jewish Peoplehood.

Jewish culture isn’t based upon one’s relationship with god but upon his relationship with his people. If we do pray, we pray in the plural, since we first and foremost identify as a people and not as an individual of faith. There is a joke of Jake coming to the synagogue and is spending all his time talking to Marvin. The rabbi approaches him later and politely asks him to stop the conversation. Jake replies: Its possible that you come to synagogue to talk to god. I come to talk to Marvin.

All this spells out Jewish Peoplehood. Others such as Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism believes that Judaism is, in and of itself a civilization, with the requisite component parts of a civilization: language, art, history, land, rituals, literature and religion being one component of the composite picture. Thus an individual can tinker with the elements. That individual may not subscribe to the religious element, but he remains a Jew. In the story of Ruth she declaims “your people are my people, before she says your god is my god. The message there is clear. Nor do we always choose to be Jewish. We are born into it although one can join through a religious process, which bears a contradiction.

Another contradiction: although we aren’t a religion but a “people”, (an “am”) or a nation (“am kohanim v’goy kadosh”), our primary and core source for who we are, is dependent on the religious /ritual aspect of Judaism – the Bible. Here Kaniuk has a problem: If he claims Israel as his nationality he can only do so by dint of his religious roots: The promise, according to the Bible that god made to our forefathers. Otherwise the Palestinians are right and legitimately do not have to recognize Israel as a Jewish State. Without the Bible and the promise god made to our forefathers what claim have we to the land? We might as well be in Uganda. Kaniuk’s conundrum is ongoing and defies resolution.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Days of Awe

Once again we are in the midst of the Days of Awe accompanied by my annual emotional turmoil. Even the name “Days of Awe,” a rough translation of
“Yamim Noraim” puts me into a perplexed state, a condition of suspended spiritual animation where like a pendulum, I swing between the extreme of good and bad karma. I understand the stated intent of these Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: we fragile, mortals stand before the awesome, omniscient, omnipotent Hakadosh Baruch Who, with great humility implore him for another year of life, happiness, good fortune and blessings for the universe; where we humbly admit that we are but clay in His hands and powerless. As part of the process we submit ourselves before the Melech HaOlam and beseech His forgiveness. In theory it is a wonderful process purging us of our hubris, but knowing that it is as ephemeral as last years New Years resolutions. What I don’t understand is why that process is so time consuming, repetitive, monotonous and at times tedious to the point of being painful, especially when the cantor seems to drag it out and the rabbi’s sermon never ends? Why is it that the service is layered with piyutim (poems) that no longer resonate and repetitive prayers that go on and on “ad infinitum” all saying the same basic thing? How many ways can you say god is great? Why the need to repeat it hundreds of times during these Days of Awe? Surely we are sophisticated enough to understand that repetition won’t convince “Hamakom” that He ought to give us another opportunity, nor are we convinced that our imploring formulae works.

There was a time when spending a full day in the synagogue was a way of life, absent of anything more important to do and that repetitive prayer was “de rigueur”. But that was before the modern mind was corrupted by the speed of technology. It was before the age of computer technology where Google would provide pithy explanations and interpretations in nano seconds, replacing the need for cumbersome time consuming research. It was a time when people actually revered their rabbi, holding him in great esteem and deferring to his judgment and rulings, probably because he was the most educated and the most informed in the community. It was a time when hearing a cantor was the only entertainment available in the shtetl and probably wouldn’t have another opportunity for this kind of performance till the following year. In short, the way we approach these Days of Awe fly in the face of who we have become and what we have morphed into.

I am not the first one to have reached this conclusion. Ever since I was a kid, I remember adults coming to shul loaded with books, journals, and magazines, analgesics to numb the boredom of a drawn out davening, a poorly conceived and delivered sermon, or to blunt a very winded chazores hashatz that would take literally hours. That was a time when people were still respectful of tradition and normative behavior within the synagogue and community. It was a time before there was an official medical diagnoses accepted by insurance companies known as Attention Deficit Behavior.

Attention Deficit Disorder, known as “ADD”, is an interesting medical condition. It didn’t exist when I was a kid. ADD became popular in the 1970’s as the new excuse for a lot of hitherto unexplained behaviors. Interesting though is that the condition isn’t necessarily consistent. A youngster suffering from it may present ADD symptoms in the classroom but not on the ball field. A youngster may show ADD symptoms at bar/bat mitzvah lessons but not in music classes. I suspect that there are many adults unknowingly suffering from ADD confined to synagogue services, which may be the reason why they can’t sit through services running for 6-8 hours of abstract concepts, especially when they haven’t the foggiest idea about what it is that they are mumbling. Unless it is an unusual orthodox synagogue attended by scholars, it is safe to say that they don’t know what it is they are reading, other than having a vague notion that God is wonderful and all-powerful. It gets worse. Even if they have some notion about what the piyut is about they haven’t the time to focus on it before the cantor belts out the concluding ending verse and moves on to the next in rapid fire.

Another issue with the Days of Awe is the long hours between meals. If you follow the prescribed ritual, breakfast is verboten and eating is generally forbidden until at least after kedusha for the Shacharit service (where one could then sneak a light snack). That’s a long time. When the stomach begins to growl most people, even those not suffering from this form of ADD find it difficult to focus on anything but satisfying their hunger. Granted, our grandparents were different. They were disciplined and immediate gratification wasn’t part of their psyche. But for many of us, denial comes with a price tag. Couple that with so many of us suffering from ADD of the synagogue and you have a new appreciation for the Days of Awe.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hillel and Shammai Revisited

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel were the two premier schools of thought in the century that encompassed the destruction of the second Temple. These schools stemmed from two great thinkers, one strident, the other more insightful, emerged out of the chaos created in the dissolution of the Sanhedrin by Herod. While their relationship was collegial both contributing to the halachic discourse and enrichment of the community their progenitors as expected, had a more difficult time adjusting to a world where there was no Temple. These two schools of thought different as they were from each other in practice and philosophy had the community’s interest at heart. But beyond that each of them based their halachic positions on a principled understanding of text as well as a passionate love for their people. I mention this to set the record straight for those who may have read Shmaryahu Rosenberg’s op-ed in the Forward (“A Rabbinic Tea Party Precedent”, September 23, 2011) in which the School of Shammai was portrayed as a collection of delinquents and hooligans.

Rosenberg’s op-ed did a great injustice to the School of Shammai. He has interpreted the actions of that school through the lens of contemporary American politics, comparing the School of Shammai to the Tea Party movement associated with the Republican Party. If nothing else, the School of Shammai was committed to halachic solutions to real problems effecting real people who witnessed the annihilation of their spiritual center. Politics was not on the agenda, nor were they reacting to a groundswell of opinion or a popular movement. They were principled in their decisions, so much so that the Talmud suggests that until the bat kol (heavenly voice) is heard their point of view is as valid as the School of Hillel. Great scholars were supportive of the School of Shammai as evident by the support of the acclaimed sage Rabbi Tarfon. The Talmud Bavli (Shabbat 25b) in discussing who is considered a rich man sites Rabbi Tarfon of the School of Shammai who declaimed without chagrin that a rich man is ”one who has a hundred vineyards and a hundred fields and a hundred servants to work them”. This was quite different than the School of Hillel who believed a rich person was one who was satisfied with his lot, however small. The school of Shammai had no ulterior political or tax motives for saying this, but a sincere literal and lucid understanding of what it meant to be wealthy. The School of Hillel, being more politically correct perhaps of course, saw wealth as a metaphorically. Needless to say the School of Hillel never defined “rich”, rather defined what it means to be fulfilled or content.

Both approaches were acceptable to the sages and it is for this reason that they said not once that “elu v’elu divrei elohim chaim” (both this and that are the words of the living god), meaning that neither Hillel or Shammai have a monopoly on halachic interpretation. The use of “elu v’elu” referring to both schools would rule out the notion that the School of Shammai were extremists as Rosenberg would have us believe. Ultimately the School of Hillel superseded the School of Shammai perhaps because the bat kol finally came out in Yavne after 70CE in favor of Hillel. Perhaps however there was another reason. The School of Shmmai was noted as understanding text literally while Hillel saw text only through the prism of interpretation, reasonableness and creativity. Thus when the Torah informs us to read the prayer “shema” when “you lie down and when you rise up” the School of Shammai understood it literally. They believed it should be read in a prone position at night, while the School of Hillel understood it to mean that before you go to sleep read the shema and when you wake in the morning. One doesn’t have to be in a prone position to read the “shema” according to the School of Hillel but Rabbi Tarfon agreed with Shammai’s rendering of the text and would lie down before reading the “shema”.

The difference then between the two Schools was the following: The school of Shammai understood the text literally without the need for interpretation. The School of Hillel, more creative and imaginative, wished to probe deeper into what the text really meant and what its adherents were supposed to get out of the text. None of this meant that the School of Shammai was abusive or applied physical force to have their way. Rosenberg’s portrayal of the School of Shammai as intolerant and prone to hooliganism as evidenced by one famous instant that he sites is ridiculous. Of the 350 controversies between the two schools only once was there recorded behavior unbecoming of Talmudic scholars which they were.

The two schools emerged as an answer to the vacuum left when under Herod the Sanhedrin was disbanded as stated previously. In addition and no less important, the battles between the Sadducees and the Pharisees were coming to a close with the destruction of the Temple. The use of the word Pharisee was discouraged and ultimately dropped from usage because of its connotation; the rabbis wishing to end the in fighting known as “sinat chinom” (hateful for no reason) as well as any other forms of derisive behavior. The School of Shammai was part of this effort and to suggest otherwise is misreading Jewish history. Rosenberg’s reading of Shammai is flawed when he says “what Shammai didn’t understand is that the process of democracy itself has a value far beyond the laws decided through it, and circumventing it leads to extremism and disaster”. Perhaps Shammai didn’t grasp the value of a democratic system “a la” Western Democracy. Of course not. They were living in the Middle East two thousand years ago in the shadow of a destroyed Temple with hardly any infrastructure left and unprecedented carnage their lives in shambles without a clear grasp of what was to become of them. Their interest wasn’t democratic process; their concern was the very survival of the Jewish people.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


There is a rather interesting halacha on the books which refers to “tircha d’tzibur” (inconvenience caused to the general public). Its narrow application would refer to synagogue service where additional non-obligatory devotional prayers are eliminated in order to avoid undue hardship for the community. Although this halacha is fairly limited in its scope it ought to be broadened to encompass situations where as a result of the minorities insistence on marginal halachic adherence to “humras” (unreasonably strict interpretation and application of a Jewish law) and where the general public will suffer, the halacha should be trumped by the concerns of the public. Let us not forget that when these and other halachot were codified Jews weren’t living with the general public, but among themselves, either in forced ghettos or in self contained communities. Those responsible for the development of halacha in this new age, where there is an independent State of Israel and where in the Diaspora most Jews live and work among the general non Jewish population, hasn’t the focus, the keen understanding and awareness, and will to adjust halachic mores and values to fit in to this new paradigm.

Precisely because the Jewish community has developed into a new and unparalleled model where a sea change has engulfed the way we live and think it ought to be obvious to the leading lights of the rabbinical academies that in spite of what 19th century French philosopher and political thinker, Alex De Tocqueville feared the tyranny of the majority the opposite has happened: the tyranny of the minority known as Minoritarianism.

One of my pet peeves with ultra Orthodox Judaism is its rigid adherence to unreasonably strict halachic standards regardless of the consequences to others. Typically ultra orthodox Jews who haven’t cloistered themselves away and feel enlightened enough to mix with the general public still manage to alienate themselves from the public, due to their insistence on following their rigid understanding of halacha regardless of the handicap this will cause to the general public. A classic example of this is the recent brouhaha in the IDF where a fine officer is being asked to resign because of the manner in which he enforced the IDF’s sense of honor and respectful behavior. The incident involves a haredi soldier (cadet) “being forced” to attend a performance where a woman performer was singing, allegedly contrary to Jewish law. The soldier abruptly walked out of the performance because of the halacha proscribing him from listening to a woman singing (kol isha) resulting in his dismissal from the officer’s training course by the commanding officer. The soldier is appealing and asking for the dismissal of the commanding officer claiming that "the reason I joined the army and this particular regiment was my desire to serve in the IDF and contribute to the people of Israel, while maintaining Jewish Law without any compromises”.

The operative word in this quote is “compromises”. In truth, compromise is certainly permitted under Jewish Law. As a matter of fact the sages believed that there are only three things that one has to die for: adultery, murder and idolatry. Everything else can be negotiated or compromised. Everything is subject to interpretation, negotiation and compromise. Our sages were not rigid as so many of the discussions and arguments between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai will attest to. Hearing a women’s voice isn’t a cardinal law within the hierarchy of the “taryag” (613) mitzvoth and is barely on the radar screen, but picked up by the ultra orthodox as a humra.

The problem is that haredi Jews are living in a bubble where they think that they don’t have to compromise. They believe that they ought to force the majority to their will. In a way it isn’t that much different than the Muslim communities mission to have every soul bend to the will of Allah. In our case there is a haredi desire (mission) for everyone to bend to their interpretation of halacha.

Certainly this particular situation demonstrates that compromise should have been encouraged by the rabbis in order to ensure the discipline necessary within the IDF isn’t compromised. No one was asking this haredi soldier to eat prohibited foods or to desecrate the Shabbat. In question is a problematic and dubious prohibition, which many orthodox Jews don’t subscribe to or abide by. The irony in this is that where de Tocqueville was worried about the tyranny of the majority we have the reverse where a small minority is terrorizing the majority.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ghetto in a Ghetto

The security wall soon to be completed around Jerusalem conjures up Ghetto and having come back from Israel recently I have had this ghetto obsession. I realize, of course, that Israel isn’t a ghetto in the conventional sense of the European ghettos that our ancestors lived. We aren’t herded into a confined area, nor are gates locked and a curfew maintained nightly. We are an independent country, enforcing our own laws and enter as well as exit the country when we please. As an independent nation we are masters of our own collective destiny. When necessary, to protect our citizens and our independence we raise hell with our Muslim neighbors. Nevertheless, I keep on wondering whether Israel has become another ghetto, but this time larger, self sufficient and more potent than our previous experiences as ghetto dwellers, thus giving the word ghetto a new meaning. I can’t help but think that if it were true it would be one of the cruel ironies of Jewish history. After all, the whole point of the Zionist enterprise was to free us from the ghetto mentality, to build the new Jew in a new land. Yet, when coming back from my past visit I couldn’t shake this intuitive feeling that I just experienced what my ancestors must have felt in the European ghettos.

In the European ghettos we were locked in at night, subjected to horrific indignities and intolerable discrimination at the hand of the government and good Christian neighbors. Sometimes, and not infrequently, Christian neighbors ganged up on us, a “free for all” by the “pogromchiks” when they decided to have some fun with us on our own turf. They would storm our villages, pillage, rape and murder, and then recede for a while until the next time. But you all know that. What you may not realize however is that a similar pattern has unfolded in the moledet. We aren’t at liberty to pass passport control at any of the exit points to travel to the immediate neighborhood without special entry visas to the Palestinian territories. We can’t travel at will to neighboring countries which border Israel, underscoring our minority status in a very hostile environment as we were once before in Europe. Add to that the constant barrage of rockets from Gaza and we have pogroms operated through remote control. When we go in to clear out the “pogromchiks” we are condemned by the world with a resounding: “shut up Jew, stop complaining, be happy you’re allowed to breath.”

That’s the macro ghetto, the nation of Israel living daily in the shadow of an angry and cruel neighborhood and an antisemitic United Nations. But then I wonder about the micro ghetto, you know, the ghetto within the ghetto. The ultra orthodox communities haven’t yet reconciled itself to joining the larger community and seek to separate itself socially, physically and culturally from the greater corpus of the Jewish people. It seems that the greatest of the culprits is non other than in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the new tram that will be starting operations shortly has been shrouded in controversy from its very inception. There were those that claimed that it wouldn’t meet the transportation needs of a significant Jerusalem population and therefore the budget wasn’t justified. Others maintained that it would destroy the businesses in the city center since it would shift population away from the commercial center that has been ensconced there for a hundred years. These arguments had merit and were worth consideration. Now however, a new and totally unnecessary controversy has arisen around the tram. Will the tram provide the necessary separation between men and women, and will there be provisions for public prayer? So when the municipality made arrangements that the last car would be designated as the haredi car where only men would be seated the question arose if it was appropriate for them to have the second car, which meant that they would be seated behind women! Pathetic and insulting to a country that prides itself in being counted among the enlightened West.

And if this wasn’t enough, Jerusalem haredim are seeking to establish a new market place because the classic and historical one, the Shuk Mahane Yehudah sponsored the Balabasta Festival, which according to the rigid Puritanical standards of the haredim wasn’t halachically appropriate, not measuring up to the standards of the “Badatz” sniff test. The new and improved market will have separate shopping hours for men and women. Frankly it sounds quite colorless, and a significant deviation from Jewish religious standards – even haredi standards.

In my youth I lived in Jerusalem having attended university there and was well integrated in this universal city. Then, it was a cosmopolitan city, an intellectual magnet for students, artists and professionals. It wasn’t a ghetto. It attracted the best and the brightest from all over America and Europe. Since those halcyon days, Jerusalem has been slipping backward with no end in sight, preferring the backwater flavor of a shtetl, a ghetto, where there is little room for intellectual curiosity and growth beyond which is offered in a yeshiva. A ghetto within a ghetto.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mesirah Madness

On the backdrop of the Levi Aron case (abducted and murdered Leiby Kletzky, July 12, 2011) the messy business of Mesirah has surfaced again, this time pointing to the sharp philosophical and principled differences between Agudas Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America. According to Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky of Agudas Israel, a rav (rabbi) has to be consulted prior to informing the police of a suspect in abuse, otherwise it might be considered a case of mesirah. Only a rav can adequately assess whether there is validity to the claim, according to Kamenetsky. The RCA, on the other hand, in a statement released by them confirms that if there is a suspected pedophile in the community they are obligated to be report it to the secular authorities immediately without consulting with a rabbi. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA believes that if one has to err, it should be in favor of the potential victim. The two opposing views reveal the philosophical and substantive differences between the two parties.

Before getting to these differences, it would be beneficial to review the halachic sources and definition of a moser. Mesirah in Jewish law consists of informing or turning over another Jew to the non-Jewish authorities. The informer is referred to as a moser, something like a whistleblower. There is a severe prohibition against mesirah. Even if the moser is a religiously observant Jew, meticulously observing halachic practice, by being a moser he demonstrates his rejection of klal yisrael and is treated as an akum (oved chochavim, an idolater, Yoreh Deah 281:3 / Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah 3:11). However, like everything else in Jewish law, the laws of mesirah aren’t clear-cut. If a non-Jewish government official suspects that the Jewish community is withholding a suspect or vital information about a suspect this is considered a chilul hashem. In addition, if there was a criminal hiding within the Jewish community, rather than have the entire community seen as complicit by covering for him, the community is allowed to inform the authorities (Choshen Mishpat 388:2). Mesirah was treated more severely during stress periods such as during the Spanish Inquisition and in medieval Europe where survival depended on avoiding contact with government, regardless of how benign . Even if one were guilty of a crime, but because the government was anti-Semitic the fear was that the criminal would be treated harsher than what he actually deserved either by receiving a longer, harsher punishment, or abused by other inmates, turning him in would be considered mesirah. Today, however, where justice is delivered free of anti-Semitism, the rules governing mesirah have certainly changed and if there is someone within the Jewish community that is harmful or has become a public nuisance he can be turned over to the authorities at least according to the Choshen Mishpat 388:45.

This being the case the question is by what standard has Agudas Yisrael claimed that before turning a suspect over to the authorities one first has to consult with a rav. What possible insights or wisdom could a rabbi possibly have in making a determination than anyone else? I have often argued that one of the motivators of the orthodox rabbinic establishment, impotent as it is, is trying wherever possible to find a wedge by which they could increase their power. For the most part, much of their power has been eviscerated (through the empowerment of federations, social service agencies, communal leaders as well as an educated lay community) and the little power and influence remaining is being manipulated, even at the expense of possible victims. Their rational is that it protects the innocent under a troubled system that claims one is innocent until proven guilty but in fact is judged by the court of public opinion before the facts are in. Furthermore they claim that there is too much reliance on circumstantial evidence and too much plea-bargaining that provide incentives for false testimony.

While all this may or may not be true, the picture is broader and larger than their community. We no longer live in homogenous communities and people, including pedophiles are mobile and move from place to place, community to community and country to country (Abraham Monderovitz, is an example of a wondering Jew, fleeing from New York to his hometown Chicago and ultimately to Israel). We can no longer afford to foster a parochial vision of community but must see the wider implications of this irresponsible behavior. Agudas Israel operates with this myopic and parochial mindset while buttressing the power of their rabbinate that seem to have the unique and intuitive ability to reach a better determination than the layperson suspecting the abuse. What makes the rav any more competent to assess the claim than the claimant? He isn’t. Agudas Israel however is more concerned with maintaining the power of the rav within the community than they are concerned about protecting their followers from danger and harm. It appears that the RCA is more concerned with protecting the wider public from the possible harm of a suspected individual while Agudas Israel, less interested in the public, is more concerned with protecting the individual from the damage he might suffer from the legal system.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Three Weeks: A Muse

On July 19, 2011 I flew El Al to Israel. It was a remarkable flight not only because it was less than half full but also memorable because of the musings it generated during the flight. For many this date is significant because it happened to coincide with the 17th of Tamuz, a fast day marking the beginning of the “three weeks”, culminating with the 9th of Av, a day that has gone done in infamy in Jewish history. The 9th of Av (better known as Tisha B’Av) marks the final destruction of the two Temples as well as numerous calamities that the sages claim happened on the 9th of Av, including expulsion of the Jewish community from Spain in 1492. Because of these historic calamities and the initializing of the Diaspora on this date, it would have been poetic justice had I left Israel on the Tisha B’Av.

In reality, Tisha B’Av is an anachronism in the Hebrew calendar. The other holidays on the Hebrew calendar are religious in nature reaching back to our scared texts, based upon ritual practice as practiced during and around the Temple service. Chanukah and Purim, which are post biblical, are celebratory in nature and have become part of the calendar because of the religious nature assigned to them by the rabbis and sages. With the exception of the Fast of Gedaliah, the17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av aren’t positive religious experiences but rather are national calamities that point to the negative national, social and religious impact on the people. These two fasts then, bracketing the “three weeks” were and are national in character and thus making the rabbis as uncomfortable about them as they were about celebrating Chanukah as a national holiday rather than as a religious event. In line with this reasoning the rabbis texturized this three-week period with overlays of religious practice and detailed halachic proscriptions.

The conundrum in observance of these two fast days is that by marking these days essentially we are celebrating powerlessness. The destruction of the two Temples was the ultimate and supreme expressions of what powerlessness can bring. The destruction of the two Temples and our two thousand year sojourn in the Diaspora was the result, the rabbis argue of “sinat chinom”, unjustified and unqualified hatred, the balkanization of the Hebrew nation in to factious groups with the inability to stand united (The first Temple was destroyed according to the sages because of the flagrant violation of three principle sins: adultery, murder and idolatry). In fact however, the destruction of both Temples were as a result of the Commonwealth’s loss of political power. In both cases the Temples were corrupted long before they were destroyed; their priests were unfit and in fact no longer met the needs of the people they were ostensibly there to serve. Thus to mourn the destruction of the Temples is to mourn the destruction of a corrupt political/religious system which was powerless and existed only at the mercy of other regional powers. By marking these two days as seminal markers of our peoples destiny by fasting and self flagellation, we are in fact praying for the restoration of a Temple service that was not only corrupt but didn’t meet the national/religious/social needs of its citizens. The sages knew this, thus allowing for the Pharisees too wrestle power away from the Sadducees, the keepers of the Temple and the ritual associated with it.

These were some of my thoughts while flying to Israel on the17th of Tamuz, the seat of Jewish power and the arbiter of our fate as a people. Unlike the two previous Commonwealths this State actually has the power to decide its future regarding its foreign policy as well as determine what kind of a state it wishes to be. It has the democratic tools, governmental and non-governmental institutions available to make intelligent decisions regarding the welfare of its citizens. It is a country that gives full expression and meaning to the idea of “peoplehood” by virtue of its independence in its homeland.

There are those of the opinion that living in the Diaspora and observing Jewish ritual, including observing the halachic minutiae of the Three Weeks in some way brings them in line with the trajectory of Jewish history. It’s the opposite: By celebrating these two fasts and everything bracketed in between is a rejection of the modern State of Israel, and at best believing the State can be greatly improved upon by prayer and fasting for the reestablishment of the Temple service. It would appear that these people haven’t learned the lessons of history, thus placing themselves on the wrong side of history.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Circumcision Circumscribed

The San Francisco initiative to ban circumcision has been lauded by many within the liberal Jewish community as forward thinking and has gained enough legitimacy that it has been promoted in the Forward (July 10, 2011). Ironically these foreskin advocates are reminiscent of the Neanderthals who needed that protective sheath in order to maintain the integrity of their glans when roaming through the wilds, foraging and hunting in their state of nakedness. It seems we’ve come a long way, or have we? Perhaps we have and we long for the days when men were real men. Making believe we are hunters again by driving a SUV just doesn’t cut it—neither does cutting foreskin. The San Francisco initiative also brings to mind the Hellenized Jews of the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE of which the Macabees fought against and prevailed. At least one could argue, that the Hellenized Jews had a feeble excuse in that their initiative to mimic the Greeks (by avoiding Periah—removal of prepuce) predated normative Judaism. Judaism was in a flux, and although the mitzvah of milah (circumcision) was crystal clear, normative Judaism as it came down to us through the pharisaic/rabbinic tradition was only in its infancy.

There are Jews in America who have done whatever possible to undermine normative Judaism from declaring the legitimacy of patrilineal descent in defining the religious pedigree of offspring to lobbying for the deligitimization of circumcision that has been the sine qua non of the male rite of passage into the tribal fold; an inviolable fundamental right and rite of the Jewish community. If an individual seeks not to circumcise that ought to be his individual right; the male child still considered a member of the tribe. But the tribe has its rites and rights of self-definition and determination. It is because we have exercised these rites for thousands of years in spite of adverse conditions, we have forged a mighty character that has served us well.

Jews have survived and thrived with our unique customs and laws. Oddly enough, it’s those Jews that have clung to their traditions are the ones who ultimately thrived and survived. The ones that sought to undergo Hellenization are the ones who disappeared. Assimilation is nothing new to us. We have experienced break off groups over the centuries that, because of their interpretation (or lack there of) have ultimately become cults, splintering off from the corpus of the Jewish people. We are small, tough, nimble and we are rather selective of who we admit, and because of that we have prevailed. For many of us traditional Jews, the idea of eating meat while downing a glass of milk is absolutely nauseating. The idea of having sex with a foreskin intact is equally nauseating (so I’ve been told). As in all societies there are taboos and in ours, male foreskin happens to be one of those taboos. If you don’t like it, you may choose not to follow. But do not try to ruin it for the preponderant community of Jews (regardless of denomination) that subscribe to normative Judaism and the taboos that it engenders.

This dastardly, narcissistic and self-serving attempt to rationalize the banning of circumcision by siting Mishnaic/Talmudic sources that the sages themselves weren’t certain as to what truly constitutes circumcision; milah (circumcision) with or without periah (removing the prepuce) is disingenuous. It reminds me of the old Yiddish expression “chazir fissel kosher,” the pig presents himself as kosher because he has split hoofs! The bottom line is, just as the pig doesn’t chew its cud and therefore not kosher, milah without periah isn’t milah. The interpretive guidelines of the sages are precisely what makes and defines normative Judaism. To negate that is to negate the basic, core fundamental structure of normative Judaism. It is those interpretive guidelines that have formed the Jewish laws and customs to which we subscribe to collectively, as a people, even though individuals may opt to not observe them. Thus, a kosher household isn’t one that follows the dietary laws of the Pentateuch, for that kind of household would be deemed non kosher by normative Judaism. A household that follows the dietary laws as defined by the sages and rabbis over thousands of years has become the gold standard, with perhaps variation as a result of technology and cultural modifications.

Similarly the Biblical injunction “An Eye for an Eye” if followed literally would mean that we would behave barbarously toward our adversaries rather than solving disputes by rule of law, as our tradition requires. That rule of law is embedded in the wisdom of the sages who ultimately fashioned for future generations normative Judaism. Without their wisdom we would understand justice as poking out eyes (probably how the uncircumcised Neanderthal settled disputes), sitting in the dark on Shabbat, witch hunting and “killing non-believers in your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:12-16). Periah too falls into the very same line of reasoning. If you accept the wisdom of the sages in interpreting our laws then how can you cut out the law of periah that defines authentic and proper milah?

On second thought, these enlightened Jews may have it right. As some Hellenized Jews opted for a painful procedure of covering the glans, mimicking a foreskin and/or avoiding circumcision altogether then maybe we could do the same. Perhaps America’s talented plastic surgeons can do a reverse “circumcision plasti.” It isn’t so unreasonable. If plastic surgeons have developed the famed and sought after “vaginal plasti,” why not a “glans plasti” making us men again, real men who can hunt and fish just like our Neanderthal ancestors who preferred poking out an eye rather than resorting to the sophistication of a justice system.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Torah or Technology

An obsessive preoccupation among many modern orthodox rabbis and educators is dealing with the slackening of Sabbath observance among many of its member’s progeny. Not surprisingly many young modern orthodox people today are using electricity on Shabbat, perhaps not in the traditional sense of turning lights on and off, or operating electrical equipment but text messaging. For many of these young people, staying connected in this manner is a life style choice that they choose not to disconnect from, even on the Shabbat. Many of them not wishing to see themselves as desecrating the Shabbat refer to their observance of “half Shabbat” rather than “whole Shabbat,” mitigating the ostensible sin (I am aware of half hallel and half kaddish, but half Shabbat is something new). Some community psychologists aware of this phenomenon treat it at an addiction thereby relieving the young people of their responsibility, as well as minimizing the failure of the educational/religious institutions. The fact that this has become an issue within the modern orthodox community is indicative of the continued erosion of their viability.

For years modern orthodoxy has been unfortunately but unavoidably on the denouement. Its apex was from 1960 through the early 1980’s, with a downward trajectory from the mid 1980’s onward. This was inevitable because within modern orthodoxy were the seeds of its own destruction sown unwittingly by its founder, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik. By suggesting that one can be fully engaged in society as a halachically observant Jew and at the same time embrace secular education is a prescription for conflict and failure. The two value systems are mutually exclusive and cannot with any integrity dovetail.

If the purpose for attending college is solely to gain a profession with never the intention to engage in the peripheral arts and humanities available than the conflict is at a minimal. But then again, if that is all the person is coming away with is a profession, than how is that person different than a tailor, plumber or butcher of the pre war Eastern European shtetel. He’s in effect a tradesman, because his skills are limited, lacking the critical intellectual skills necessary for understanding the wider world. On the other hand, if one enters university with the intent of acquiring a profession but in addition wishing in earnest to be exposed to the full panoply of western culture than he is subjecting his modern orthodox value system to challenges that may not be able to withstand the probing questions arising from critical analysis.

A student fully engaged in western ideas and values is proscribed from fully embracing the demands of torah values. These two value systems are tectonic plates butting up against each other with only one able to gain primacy. They clash because each one represents different, incompatible and irreconcilable value systems. Orthodox Judaism rests fully on faith in a creator, the divinity of the Torah as well as the oral tradition. Western value systems rest on philosophic and scientific inquiry where every assumption can and will be tested and examined from every possible angle. It is a value system, which traded faith for science and philosophy; it is the combination of scientific and philosophical inquiry, which has given us this prosperous society, bestowing upon western man, increased dignity, healthier living, and quality of life.
This then is the legacy of western civilization, which modern Orthodox Judaism is hopelessly struggling to engage. For the custodians of modern orthodoxy to preoccupy themselves with youth texting on Shabbat is missing the point entirely. Texting on Shabbat is merely a symptom of a much greater problem these young people are struggling with: the awareness that they have arrived at the threshold of understanding the clash between two societies, two irreconcilable world views, two tectonic value systems pitted against each other.

The true issue isn’t texting or whether they are observing half or whole Shabbat as much has the underlying realization that these young people are products of the 21st century, a generation of children raised totally on and by technology, who not only value it but embrace it. Texting is no more of an addiction than reading used to be an addiction. It isn’t fair to expect from our young people to remain in a state of suspended animation, dangling out there, paralyzed with the inability to choose between the old and the new, Torah or technology. To be sure many will be packed of to yeshivot in Israel for their gap year: some will return home super religious, others will struggle with their faith. What isn’t clear is the percentages. What is clear is that Modern Orthodoxy is on the steady continuum of decline.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Flatlining Tikun Olam

Guilt seems to be a character trait embedded in the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews (whether or not this is the case in the Sephardic community is debatable). Personal experience and keen observation over the past several decades has led me to believe that deeply engrained guilt coupled with other social/political circumstances has created a Jewish democratic scrimmage line dividing it from other emigrant communities who have realized the American dream and moved on to the republican party. Jews however are stuck in the liberal/Democratic tradition justified by a distorted notion of tikun olam. They can’t break free of this gordian knot and in spite of some of the recent but complex theories put forth by Norman Podhoretz (Why Are Jews Liberals) the answer is quite simple. Jews are driven by guilt. Jews feel guilty if there is any hunger in the world, disease, natural catastrophes, economic dislocation, war etc. The converse doesn’t apply however. When Jews are in a “tight spot” as we were too many times in the past and even today, there aren’t too many liberals coming to our aid or defense. It must be, the reasoning goes, that we brought it on ourselves or that we are guilty of violating the human rights of others. There have even been theologians who have explained away the holocaust as the will of God wishing to punish his chosen for not being obedient to His law.

Jews have a Christ complex. We are constantly sacrificing ourselves for the redemption of mankind. What we do and how we behave is for the good of the world. And we have our Talmudic and prophetic sources. “Whoever saves one person its as though he saved an entire world”, declaims Ethics of Our Fathers, or Isaiah or Jeremiah castigating the Jews for not living more ethical, moral lives. Our liberal rabbis love quoting from prophets because it tends to fit neatly into their liberal worldview of social justice buttressed by their hijacking of tikun olam, which never had anything to do with social justice. We Jews feel guilty that African-Americans are still on the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Surprisingly black leadership doesn’t feel nearly as guilty as Jews do. Jews have had nothing to do with the plight of the black man nor were we ever responsible for him being sold as a slave 400 years ago. Yet we have taken ownership for this and a myriad of other social issues weaving them into our narrative of Judaism and the words of our prophets. The idea of tikun olam has been subverted and hijacked by the liberal rabbinate through the manipulation of guilt as a means by which to exercise its control and authority over its community.

For a long time I too bought into the agenda of the greater liberal democratic Jewish community that had social justice as its priority until I realized that our tradition rests on three legs: torah, neveim (prophets) and ketubim (wisdom books). The liberal rabbinate and their constituents seemed to have mined the torah and the neveim for the message and charge of social justice. However, absent were the teachings of the third leg – ketubim. That noticeable absence has been responsible for the distortion of Jewish teachings, creating only a partial portrait of Jewish values. In my study of the wisdom books one thing became abundantly clear: the message of the prophets wasn’t shared by the sofrim (writers of wisdom books) who were more interested and concerned with the development of the individual than the community. Now I began to understand why the liberal rabbinate so conveniently ignored the teachings of these wisdom books: Prophetic teaching were concerned with the larger community while the message of the ketubim was directed at the individual. The spiritual/intellectual development of the individual trumped the development of the community. The message of the ketubim didn’t fit into their neat little world of communal power and the exercise of authority. The guilt factor is totally absent from the ketubim, seen no longer as a tool of control.

Ecclesiastes is one example of a wisdom book which if anything dispels the notion of social justice or as many would call it tikun olam. While Hebrew prophets were concerned with social iniquity the sofrim were accepting of life as it was even with the absence of social justice. They were aware of evil but not motivated to modify those conditions. While the prophets saw redemption in the world to come, the sofrim were formulating their own ideas of individual fulfillment and gratification in the here and now. The sofrim for the most part members of the landed gentry were content with the status quo and although might have been aware of social injustice wished to maintain the status quo. Unlike the prophets who denounced corrupt monarchs such as Nathan and Elijah attacking the crimes of royalty, we have conservative positions from the sofrim such as this quote from Proverbs “My son, fear the Lord and the King. And do not become involved with those who seek change”(24:21). How’s that for tikun olam. Or “for the kings word is all-powerful and who can say to him what are you doing”(8:2).

The Ketubim are no less important and just as weighty as the prophets and Torah, After all they were canonized at the Council of Yamnia in the first century CE. The ketubim were no doubted canonized for later generations to study and learn from, as were the prophets. It would mean then that notions of guilt and its exploitation as a means of control aren’t necessary for those who subscribe to the teaching of the sofrim. It would behoove the liberal rabbinate and their followers to contextualize prophets and begin taking to heart the teachings of the sofrim. Perhaps they will be able to redeem themselves from a lifetime of guilt.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Desperately in Need of Tikun

In reading JJ Goldberg article “As Bibi Slouches Toward September” this past week (Forward, June 3, 2011) I was struck at the visceral hate oozing out of his words; daggers aimed at the heart of Israel and its political establishment. Goldberg, like many American Jewish liberals can’t tolerate the fact that there are leaders in Israel with a clear vision for Israel’s future, unwilling to compromise with the core values that are essential for survival. It so happens that it is those leaders who hold a majority through coalition building and therefore speak for the majority of Israelis. One would think that a liberal like Goldberg would respect the political will of the people. Nor could Goldberg accept with magnanimity Benjamin Netanyahu acceptance and warm welcome by Congress not as a politician but as statesman addressing them as an equal offering his vision for peace and Israel’s future.

Instead Goldberg writes that “Bibi slouches toward September”, the negative imagery of a tired man, bent dragging himself to the inevitable defeat that September will bring at the United Nations. According to Goldberg, Bibi won the battle, but he lost the war because of his arrogance. Because of his unyielding position based on what he considers principles and core values essential for a future where Israel can flourish, Goldberg has portrayed Bibi as a megalomaniac. Goldberg can hardly wait for September to arrive. He’s chomping at the bit, salivating like a ravenous dog, restrained only by a choker from a slab of red meat, straining to pounce on it:
Now when the roof falls in on Israel in September, he can be the tough guy who told them to bring it on…And make no mistake, the roof will fall in. The Palestinians will overwhelmingly win recognition as an independent state in the United Nations General Assembly…”

The venomous language of Goldberg when he says, “he can be the tough guy who told them to bring it on” is intended to remind us of George Bush so reviled by the left and cleverly applied here. Goldberg writes of the terrible times facing Israel: economic sanctions, boycotting, divestment and where it will be difficult for Israel to get fuel or spare parts for their military juggernaut. He writes as though he were a prophet of old, sagacious, but with the unfortunate distinction that he writes with glee rather than sorrow in his heart.

If that doesn’t work the Palestinians, according to Goldberg will take their case to the World Court, the international Criminal Court, the European Credit Markets and universities, while tens of thousands of Palestinians march on the borders was Israeli troops machine gun them down in cold blood.

These are the scenarios of JJ Goldberg, editor of the Forward. What a lovely liberal, but unfortunately a miscreant, a Jew desperately in need of “tikun”, whose allegiance isn’t to his people but to the Socialist International. Goldberg, the galus Jew is worried that Israel’s position might cause tension within the State Department and the CIA spilling over into the media and causing people to ask why is America involved in the Israel/Palestinian conflict? He’s afraid of the discomfort it might cause him and his liberal friends. Tsk.Tsk.Tsk. It appears as though Goldberg is more concerned with Goldberg than he is with Israel!

Criticism over Israel’s policies is legitimate and in taking a position inconsistent with Israel’s policies is in the spirit of democratic values and the exchange of ideas. But Goldberg’s tone and nuance crossed the line from helpful and instructive to malevolent and self-indulging. Over the years I could never understand why Goldberg obsessed over Israel’s position vis a vis peace. Then it dawned on me after reading this article: global human rights trumps Israel’s right to exist. Nothing would make Goldberg happier than to see Israel’s security edge sacrificed on the altar of global human rights.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Looks Like A Duck

For those not satisfied with their lives, for those still feeling unfulfilled, and for those yet in search of happiness I am here to tell you that there is a second chance, an opportunity for redemption. You don’t have to repent, you don’t have to fast, meditate or self flagellate, and most of all you don’t have to become haredi. All you need to do is connect to and you can live out all of your fantasies. I read about a few years ago and went on-line to explore the possibilities. On you can take on a whole new fantasy persona. If you never like being a bald, nearsighted, effeminate, physically underdeveloped male Jew, you now have the opportunity to assume a new image and identity, transforming yourself into a tall, muscular adventurous stud. Similarly if you are an over weight, out of shape, faded middle age Jewish mother you can now have the chance of assuming a Barbie look alike, available to party with unending possibilities of trysts. The question is: does living a virtual life equal to living a real life? Does robbing a bank as an avatar on translate into being a felon, arrested and prosecuted? Does having multiple affairs on for a married man constitute adultery to be adjudicated by the legal system? In England, the courts ruled that a man living a virtual life and having a virtual affair in constituted adultery and grounds for divorce, even though it was only a virtual affair by a avatar in relationship with another avatar.

The courts in England understood the concept behind adultery and interpreted it to mean that the intent was consistent with actual adultery. In Jewish law there is a concept in “dinei ishut” of machshava lo k’maaseh”, that the conjured thought doesn’t constitute the act itself. Thus if a married man fantasizes making love to a woman other than his wife he wouldn’t be guilty of adultery. But what if he didn’t imagine it, but played it out on-line in an intricately woven fantasy world in which he was an avatar seeking out an affair. Would Machshava Lo K’maaseh” be applicable? Perhaps the courts in England may have helped the halachists along by nudging them in a different direction. Plotting out a relationship with another avatar may be adulterous since the intent was real (albeit fantasy), no longer living only in the imagination but in another dimension – a virtual dimension.

All of this brings me to the subject of this musing and that is the virtual (kosher) bacon products that are on our food shelves and rendered kosher by the mainstream koshering agencies that filter out the things we ought not eat. J&D Food Company has a line of products, which are bacon flavored but are vegetarian. They are considered kosher by the OU as well as other agencies such as Kof-K. On the surface it would seem to be kosher, but then I am reminded of the ruling in the London courts regarding the adultery committed by a virtual liaison in There actually wasn’t any physical contact between the two consenting adults but the intent was to consummate the relationship, and lacking physical presence they settled for virtual sex. Desiring to taste and eat the bacon isn’t halachically permissible but then there is the next best thing – virtual bacon. That is, something that appears to be bacon: it looks like bacon and tastes like bacon.

The bible prohibits consuming the flesh and bi products from that curious animal that doesn’t chew its cud but does have split hooves. However, the halachists maintain that the Bible doesn’t say we can’t mimic the taste of the swine (in fact doesn’t midrash tell us that the Israelites were able to ascribe to the manna any flavor they so imagined). That then is the loophole of the halachists. However if we look beyond the written law to the spirit of the law, as did the courts in London, another picture emerges. While we do not have conclusive reasons for the dietary laws and forbidden animals, we do know that to a large degree these laws were enacted to differentiate us from the extant culture. The intent was to develop a different culture, a new and unique one, to be a light unto others, to be apart from (am kohanim v’goy kadosh), different than the other cultures. (This too is partially the reason why we aren’t supposed to imbibe wine (stam yeinam) that isn’t kosher. The intent was to prevent us from closely mixing socially with the gentiles. To be separate, apart and different was the intention). By creating virtual bacon that looks, tastes and smell like the real thing aren’t we defeating the purpose and intent of the law. After all if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s a duck. Thanks to our halachists we can now sprinkle bacon on our salads, season our food with it and serve steak with mock buttered potatoes. Does life get any better?