Monday, February 28, 2011

Shtiebel Yidden

Surfing the news during the past few weeks I kept on tripping over an unfamiliar term “Indie Minyans”. It seems as though these Indie Minyans have been popping up all over like mushrooms after a summer rain. I had no idea what an Indie Minyan was. True, I could have googled it sooner than later and I would have filled another gap in my education. Disappointedly I learned that Indie Minyans (minyanim would be grammatically correct) was no more than an independent minyan; a start up minyan that I’d been witness to (and in some cases helped start) all my life. Succumbing to reading several articles on the subject I was a bit perplexed with the thought that the subject was being treated with as much gravitas as one would treat the possible fallout from the Egyptian junta. As I understand it the Indie Minyan, may or may not be affiliated with a movement, denomination or umbrella synagogue. Each one is unique in their makeup, hashkafa (if I may use the term), ritual and tradition. Some may be egalitarian, others more traditional. The most important thing however is that it is the story of people of like mind and kindred spirits coming together to daven. They have intentionally started their indie minyan because the trappings of the classic synagogue structure that include the paid professionals aren’t really necessary or essential for their purpose.

The Indie Minyanim are an expression of a Jewish renaissance after the excesses of the past few decades that resulted in a gaping spiritual lacuna after the heady spiritual days of the 1960’s-1970’s that had given birth to the chavurot. What happened to the chavurot is the subject of another posting, but what interests me regarding the Indie Minyanim is the lack of perspective surrounding these minyanim. To be sure, most of the Indie attendees are plugged in to Jewish life, and Jewishly educated. Perhaps what was lacking was the spiritual connection that rounded out their Jewishly lived lives. They sought out and obviously created that spiritual vortex, accompanied with the warmth, friendship and kindred spirits that only an Indie Minyan can provide. I am flummoxed because there is nothing new in this. Its been going on for generations.

Many of the participants have the mistaken notion that the Indie Minyan is something novel, groundbreaking, and perhaps even reactionary. One blogger’s description of the concern of the affiliated Jewish community is that “those who participate in Indie Minyans are living off the grid of Jewish life.” It seemed that she agreed with that assessment. I can understand the concern of the establishment because in truth they are loosing some of the precious and scarce market share – the best of that market share. They are loosing the rare, knowledgeable and committed Jews, the ones that care. What remains then of the market share are the three day a year Jews, those not as committed, those perhaps not as intellectually challenged by the issues confronting the Jewish world today. Like any retail establishment assessing their competition, they are deeply troubled with diminishing revenue, the grist that fuels there overinflated overhead, whopping salaries and mega mortgages. They are looking at the questionable future sustainability of their monolith, given the success of their competition and their diminished membership rolls.

But I take exception with those bloggers who agree that they are living off of the Jewish grid. On the contrary; they are living on the grid. They are smack dab in the middle of the grid where they belong. They are the Shtiebel Yidden of the 21st century. The shtiebel yid has always been part of the Jewish spiritual experience and was never assessed as being off the grid. Where I grew up there was a plethora of Indie minyanim, shtieblech, each with their own customs and traditions. Some were hassidish others were litvish. What they all had in common were the kindred spirits that peopled these small intimate sites, gathering there three times daily.

Entering a shtiebel in 1955 was probably different than entering an Indie Minyan of 2011. However they shared the same impulse to opt out of the mammoth, overpowering, architecturally flat buildings run more like corporations than intimate spiritual space where one can feel his Jewish neshama hyper-beating, aching to express itself. Stepping into a shtiebel in 1955 was like stepping into a time warp, my grandfather’s litvishe world. Participating in an Indie Minyan is reaching out to community of like-minded seeking its nexus to history while at the same time staying connecting to the present tense.

The proliferation of Indie Minyanim gives me hope that the tension between Keva and kavanah is being addressed with resolution happening for some already. But to secure that resolution will require more than the mushrooming of ad hoc Indie Minyans. It will require the serious commitment of Jewish leadership to rethink the current way the Jewish community is structured, its funding and allocation priorities.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dying: A Postmortem

Rabbi Gil Student recently hosted a symposium on his blog Hirhurim on the “Ethics of Brain Death and Organ Donation”. I am grateful for his effort because it brought renewed focus on a very sensitive area that few of us are familiar with. The intricacies of Jewish Law, which come into play, are varied and nuanced; presenting the issues are important since ultimately we are all affected. Apparently he invited eight scholars to contribute to the discourse and after reading them it became apparent that while it was interesting, unfortunately it didn’t present any earth shattering new information in the field. Most of the participants referenced the known recognized halachic stars and poskim of the 20th-21st century, i.e. Rabbis S.Z.Auerbach, E.Waldenberg, A.Soloveitchik, Y. Elyashiv, J.D.Bleich and others. Some of the contributors were more articulate than others, none of them really zeroed in deftly on the ethical questions involved. There were two however that triggered some red flags when they slid into the area of “give-get”, but that I’ll get into later. Another concern was clarifying the real purpose and intention of the symposium. After all this has been a dead issue since at least 1986 when The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel on Transplants ruled and again in March 2008 when a law was passed in the Knesset regarding the matter. Another disappointment in these scholars was their avoidance of ethical considerations, while relying upon halacha as though it existed in a vacuum.

My assumption is that the recent deliberations and report of the RCA Vaad Halacha, (committee on Jewish Law) on whether BSD (brain stem death) is an halachically acceptable standard regarding organ donation was what preempted the symposium. Troublesome isn’t the content of the report, but the fact that there was any need to issue a report. After all, the RCA isn’t a hareidi rabbinic organization, and has usually been in tandem with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I would assume that if the decision of the Chief Rabbinate going back to 1986 was to accept BSD as an halachic criteria for death than the issue ought to be laid to rest for at least that community of centrist and modern Orthodox rabbis. Oddly however was the fact that some of the respondents in the symposium were of the right wing, including Agudah apparatchiks who would never agree with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – on anything.

The other issue I have is with the few who risked wading into the area of medical ethics and the ethical decision-making process. Frankly I was shocked at the temerity and lack of sensitivity of two of the scholars who exploited the proverbial halachic loopholes in order to benefit from the transplants while at the same time ruling that BSD can be ruled on not only as murder but double murder. Rabbi Avi Shafran, Dir. Of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America reasoned the following: “Can a potential recipients religious beliefs…constitute valid grounds for penalizing him…? Legally speaking, denying someone a transplant simply because joining an organ donation system would force him to dishonor his religious beliefs would…amount to curtailing his constitutional rights….”

Shafran’s ethical standard on the subject leaves something to be desired. In a society where organs are in short supply and limited, and people are asked to participate on a “give-get” basis, it would stand to reason that those who do participate ought to benefit before those who refuse to participate. No one is being coerced, and no ones religious freedoms are being trampled upon. However, the decisions we make do have consequences. Choosing to live apart, for whatever the reason, whether it is personal convictions or religious belief doesn’t entitle one to reap the same benefits as those who choose to participate and contribute. If one decides not to participate in “give-get” he ought to be prepared to forego a possible transplant, isn’t that what standing on principles really mean: to talk the talk and walk the walk. The ethics of “give-get” become even more convincing when we also consider the normative halachic practice in Israel where BSD is an accepted clinical criterion of declaring someone dead. In spite of the responsible and sagacious advise of the Chief Rabbinate, if one decides to choose to listen to his local rabbi and opt for the heartbeat criteria instead of BSD, the consequence ought to be clear.

Heartening was the revelation that there were some excellent contributors to the symposium where their input helped clarify some of the issues. Disheartening was the fact that there are still those out there that can’t accept direction, leadership and cues from the established and recognized weighty rabbinical courts in Israel that reflect the consensus of the mainstream rabbinate and the backing of the Knesset and majority of Jews. The missed opportunity of fulfilling Isaiah’s words of Ki Mitzion Tezeh Torah (Isaiah 2:3); their application in real time, here and now is disappointing. Disheartening, of course are those participants who while they are seen as poskim haven’t honed and refined one of the tools that make the difference between a good posek and a great posek: the ability to arrive at halachic decisions not only by mastering text, but by integrating their cognitive / analytical halachic skills with a sensitivity to the ethical teachings unique to living and dying Jewishly.

Monday, February 14, 2011

K’rov Yisrael: A New Hybrid

In 1984 Rueven Bulka, a well respected orthodox rabbi wrote “The Coming Cataclysm” in response to the game changer of the Reform Movement recognizing as Jews those offspring from patrilineal descent. Bulka predicted a growing chasm between those who followed matrilineal descent (as halacha dictates) and those that accepted patrilineal descent. The Jewish community would be forever fractured with a fissure so deep and so wide that it would be all but impossible to bridge. That cataclysm of which Bulka spoke never came to fruition: we are still one people (participating in the same organizational institutions that navigate Jewish communal life and advocating for Israel) with periodic adjustments made for accommodation. Most cities with a federation have a board of rabbis whereby the Orthodox rabbis participate alongside the Reform Conservative and Reconstructionist for the common good and welfare of the Jewish community, patrilineal Jews not excluded (some of these rabbis may not even be halacically Jewish). From their point of view the Reform Movement’s decision was smart and justifiable. Concerned with increasing intermarriage and dwindling synagogue membership and participation they sought ways of inclusion. The patrilineal option seemed the way to go. That, together with proactive programs and an agenda of inclusion and out reach to the intermarried might staunch the bleed.

Apparently the hemorrhaging in the liberal community hasn’t been cauterized, even with the seemingly extreme maneuver of instituting patrilineal descent; on the contrary, it’s intensified. While not accepting patrilineal descent the Conservative Movement has hit on a somewhat unique and creative response to dwindling membership: the creation of a hybrid Jew known as a K’rov Yisrael. The K’rov Yisrael is somewhat of an avatar: a shadow figure. He has the perks of being married to a Jew without any of the responsibilities incumbent on a Jew. He’s got the best of both worlds: a shadow like figure he can phase in and out depending on the circumstances. Like a chameleon there are times when he will pass as Jewish and other times morphs back into the gentile. The K’rov is a gentile married to a Jew, having opted not to convert yet desiring to take advantage of and participate n the full life of the Jewish community. He has no halachic status: he is a gentile with no claims of Jewish descent either from the mother or father. He isn’t a crypto Jew, claiming Jewish-Spanish descent. He is a gentile married to a Jew, who when desires, can attend services and receive the honors associated, such as aliya latorah and other honorifics.

My initial reaction was to negate this initiative, considering it a worse “fix” than Reform’s patrilineal descent approach. Patrilineal descent initially seemed a greater threat to the integrity of the Jewish community because it tended to shade the legitimate halachic identity of Jews. Belonging to a reform Jewish community and intensely living the Jewish life with a Jewish father but gentile mother would blur the identity: he could “pass.” The K’rov, on the other hand makes no claim of being Jewish. However, his association, presence and participation gives the distinct impression that the person is Jewish. Apart from that, creating the category of K’rov sends a clear message that one doesn’t have to convert. Why go through the effort (and difficulties, including emotional distress) of conversion if one could opt for the status of K’rov? On the other hand, intermarriage with or without conversion is an accepted fact of Jewish life and no initiative will staunch the hemorrhaging of the community, and no matter what initiative the liberal community takes the issue will not go away nor will it be solved.

How we as a people welcome the intermarried will ultimately be a testimonial as to what kind of people we are. Pondering these issues, seeking some guidance I am reminded of three famous test cases that distills the essence of the issue: religion versus peoplehood. Brother Daniel, Benjamin Shalit and Shoshan Miller. While these three case refer to the Israeli Judicial system they nevertheless hone in on the issue that confronts what being a Jew means today: religion or peoplehood. In the 1960’s Benjamin Shalit, an Israeli married a non-Jewish Scottish woman. The children were recognized as Israeli, however Shalit wanted their identity cards to say “Jewish” for nationality but left blank for religion. The Ministry of Interior denied the request, however the Supreme Court ruled in Shalit’s favor: the children of a gentile mother and Jewish father were rendered Jewish. The court made a distinction between peoplehood and religion (the Law of Return unfortunately was subsequently amended to avoid this situation in the future).

If we separate our personal passions from the issue it might seem reasonable to allow this new hybrid Jew an opportunity to thrive. While the avatar doesn’t seek conversion the K’rov nevertheless demonstrates full association and identification with the Jewish community as Ruth the Moabite did. It won’t staunch the bleed but it might facilitate the integration of well-intentioned people into the Jewish community.

Signing on, as most of us have to a reasonably enlightened political/social philosophy and liberal life style has within it, unfortunately, the seeds of destruction. American Jews tend to be liberal in their weltanschauung. To be liberal is to be accepting. To be liberal is to be educated and open to new and fresh ideas. To be liberal is to allow others to learn more about who we are and what we are. Ultimately this leads to full integration, assimilation and intermarriage, not only of the liberal community but also the orthodox community. It is an unavoidable by product of being an educated Jewish American.