Monday, March 28, 2011

Who Remembers the Ford Pinto

I never met Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto nor have I ever attended his shiurim. I am however aware of his reputation and depending on whom you ask will determine whether he is the incarnate of Rasputin or the Baal Shem Tov. I am aware of the anecdotal lore of how the powerful and wealthy, real estate moguls, captains of industry and the sports elite seek his advice and counsel before making their final business/investment decision as though he had a crystal ball. I believe King Saul committed a similar kind of sin when he sought out a seer in the hope of communicating with Samuel. I have never bought into the idea of seeking out b’rachot because theologically, from a Lithuanian, non-Sephardic, non-Hassidic, non-kabbalistic, but Maimonidian perspective I was taught to depend on intellect rather than arbitrary b’rachot. Study and keen intellect was the antidote to the talisman, amulets and shaman of the traditional mystics and mekubalim and baalei shem tov. Seekers of b’rachot is akin to those who would consult their horoscopes prepared by trained, well-known astrologers. Believing in the likes of baalei shem tov and those like Rabbi Pinto is akin to believing in homeopathic medicine versus traditional science based medicine. Homeopathy doesn’t really do any good and may even be harmful if misused. In a word, Pinto may not be as benign as he appears to be.

The Wall Street Journal as did the Forward carried an interesting article (Forward, March 25 2011, “Revered as Business Guru, Rabbi Faces Questions About His Organization’s Finances”) which raises question about the good rabbis enterprise. Why am I not surprised? After all, our Jewish past is checkered with charismatic rabbis who had a talent for exploiting the foibles of the community. Just to name a few there was Jacob Frank and Shabtai Tzvi who by dint of their charisma and the need for people to believe in something uplifting managed to scam a sizeable number of the communities that they reached. More recently, Mordechai Gafni, although on a smaller scale managed to scam thousands of Jews and Jewish leadership as well, through his charisma and warped ego; had he not gone unchecked he would probably have morphed into a rebbe dispensing b’rachot.

I am not suggesting that Rabbi Pinto is a con man, chalila v’chas nor is my intention to impugn the ‘mekubalim” who have a revered and honored place within our tradition. These are saintly men who while not necessarily charismatic, or seek out the adulation of the masses and their wealth, have a profound spiritual centeredness that is influential amongst a small but important segment of the Jewish community, Sephardim included. Because of their profound spiritual grounding they have traditionally spurned the “gashmius” as negative energy as opposed to their positive energy, “ruchnious”. Unfortunately many who seek out these mekubalim are in search of simple answers rather than taking the difficult approach of “hasmadah”, requiring hard work and significant investment in time, and because they have chosen a shortcut financed by money, they are ultimately the worse for it. Nothing beats the long hard journey of learning, development and self-awareness, not even the b’racha of a mekubal.

There are others of course, looking for an angle and a way to capitalize on this niche market have given a bad name to the mekubalim. Rabbi Yirael Abuhatzeira whose photograph hangs in my study was a saintly man revered by the Moroccan community in Israel and abroad and fondly known as the Baba Sali. In the tradition of those who came before him, he never sought notoriety, wealth or comfort. His son, Baruch, an ex con, on the other hand saw some good possibilities and when his father died assumed the mantle as Baba Baruch. So much for the saintly scholars pouring over archaic esoteric texts for the sole purpose of enriching those in need of his special insights rather than vice versa.

Behold, another Tzadik appears on the scene, Rabbi Pinto (related to the Baba Baruch / Abuhatzeira family on his mother’s side), who may or may not be a serious mekubal. Red flags however, do pop up when perusing his profile. Pinto is known as an advisor to real estate moguls, yet Pinto’s personal business interests and investments are shrouded in questionable dealings and foreclosures. In addition, while Mekubalim trend towards modest lifestyles due to their spiritual centeredness, this man’s flamboyant lifestyle raises many more questions. As in all religious institutions his too is a non-profit, never mind the fact that his Manhattan townhouse valued at 6.5 million dollars is facing foreclosure. Although the institution is not for profit it doesn’t carry the elementary, but legally required workers compensation insurance. His CFO speaks no English and has no idea how many employees they employ. None of this meshes with his reputation as a business “iluy” or the “hard sell” strategies for fund raising they use. For example, the rabbi will send via messenger an expensive religious article i.e. silver candlesticks (originally a gift to the rabbi who passes it on as a gift) to a new potential follower (donor) explaining that the rabbi has blessed the candlesticks. A day or two later there is a visit by one of his staff asking for a donation of a specific amount i.e. 10,000.00 dollars. When Pinto travels to and from Israel he flies first class. The list goes on and there really is no precedent for this kind of cavalier behavior by past reputable mekubalim leaving one to question his veracity.

When I consider the richly textured legacy of our past spiritual leaders whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Misnaged or Hassidic the seam of “ruchnious” runs so deep and so wide, penetrating the soul of our people that there is virtually no space left for the “gashmius” that Pinto seems to crave. It wouldn’t be that disturbing other than the fact that he is so public about it and flamboyant that it is worth noting. Unfortunately and regrettably when I think of Rabbi Pinto one of the first thing that come to mind is the Ford Pinto of the 1970’s, which appeared like a bat out of hell; in its first year selling over 100,000 cars – a real winner. The intention of the Ford Motor Co. was to design a car to compete with the popular Volkswagen and the Toyota. Toyota and Volkswagen are still here, selling well. Who remembers the Ford Pinto?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tunnel Vision

In an atmosphere and time when there is little civility between competing ideas, and ideologies I attended a remarkable conference honoring Professor Eliezer Berkovits who committed his life to bridging the gaping abyss that divide Jews on a myriad of theological issues. Ahead of his time he introduced new approaches to the pressing issues of conversion and agunah with the intent of closing the gap and creating understanding and unity. He engaged all the streams of Judaism with the respect dignity and civility that they deserved. Each of the presenters at the conference illuminated a different facet of his life, writings and teachings, creating an uplifting transcendent experience that gives me hope that there exists other like minded souls working to achieve similar goals, engaging and persuading with equanimity, civility and respect.

Not too long ago another conference was held in Israel regarding the pressing, dire issue of conversions; attempting to develop consensus among the various religious ideologies within the orthodox stream. Poignant and compelling was the lecture presented by Aryeh Edri, professor of law at Tel Aviv University who is among other things a scholar of halacha and its development. What impressed me beyond his erudition of the laws of conversion and the responsa through the ages was his approach, which in many ways paralleled Professor Eliezer Berkovits.

Both men sought a mechanism by which the conversion candidate would enter into a process that was embracing and nurturing, resulting in a modality that would enhance ahavat yisrael and contribute to achdut ha’am. As it is, the rabbinate responsible for conversions has subverted these lofty goals, causing irreversible damage to the fabric of our society and culture. One example is the recent incident of a chayal, killed in the line of duty, defending his country that was appropriately buried in the local cemetery with military honors. When the rabbanut discovered that his conversion wasn’t valid as per their standards the chayal was disinterred and buried in a gentile cemetery, traumatizing the family, causing unnecessary pain, emotional stress and scarring. It was an act unfitting for a civilized person, unbecoming of a Jew, much less a rav. It was barbaric and uncouth revealing an undercurrent of contempt and disdain for anyone not in tandem with their way. It was the determination of a rabbinate long ossified, buried up to their eyeballs in arcane, pilpulized and corrupted halachic minutiae resulting in a class of rabbis numb to humanity and the people whom they serve. For anyone who takes these developments seriously it seems as though these putative spiritual leaders are living in a dark noxious cave, of which one of the by products is tunnel vision; as though they never experienced the crucible of the renaissance.

Aryeh Edri’s lecture was the burst of fresh air needed to expunge the toxicity of the cave dwellers. His well-crafted presentation cited relevant responsa, each, a point of light and combined illuminating a pathway out of the morass. Using the Rambam as a springboard he referenced his position regarding kabbalat mitzvoth as secondary in the conversion process. Important isn’t the kabbalat mitzvoth as much as the renunciation and rejection of the candidate’s current religious beliefs and practice. Edri pulls from Harav Shlomo Dichovsky who referenced the Ritva maintaining that kabbalat mitzvoth are of secondary importance. Interesting and informative was the intuitive approach of early nineteenth century Rav Kluger (1785-1869) who suggested that the critical elements of conversion was the tevila and the mila stipulating that kabbalat mitzvoth ought to be the result of a positive conversion, not a condition.

Another interesting consideration that rabbis concern themselves with is the motivation behind the conversion. Conventional wisdom held that the motive had to be pure; converting for the convenience of marriage was unacceptable. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodensky (1863-1940) didn’t concur with this position and approached the issue with amazing sensitivity. Confronted with the situation of a woman seeking conversion while married civily to a secular Jew revealed the boldness of his p’sak. He maintained that kabbalat mitzvoth weren’t to be understood as literally fulfilling the mitzvoth but rather to be understood as agreeing in principle to those mitzvoth without necessarily keeping them. With that assumption in mind he assessed the conversion candidate as a “choteh l’teavon”, a person who understands that the mitzvoth are essential, but due to habit and weak character aren’t able to fulfill them. Harav Kook, according to Edri concurred with this approach stating that there are no thought police in Judaism; someone declaring that they accept the idea of kabbalat mitzvoth is sufficient without demonstrating their fulfillment of the mitzvoth. Harav Unterman (1886-1976), a past chief rabbi agreed with Grodensky and Kook stating that the candidates intent of honoring the kabbalat mizvot is sufficient for the process of conversion to go through to completion.

The list of poskim over the generations confronted with these weighty problems is numerous. What is new is the manner in which the conversion process is being handled today. Many poskim of previous generations sought solutions that would maintain the integrity of halacha but at the same time enhance shalom bayit and achdut. Today there seems to be posturing among competing factions to see who can be more machmir and thus more divisive. What is difficult to accept is this parochial position which has become the norm in light of the fact that there is enough halachic case precedent for the current rabbinate to seek solutions that are halachically sound but reflect the best in us as a people: love of humanity and love of Israel.

It was achdut that guided Eliezer Berkovits, seeking to build consensus rather than to engage in derisive confrontation. To be certain, there are legitimate poskim who disagree with these conciliatory approaches to conversion. In previous generations when poskim displayed sensitivity to these issues of conversion, it was on the sociological background of a society that experienced limited exposure to intermarriage. Our generation’s problems have become more complex because of the staggering rate of intermarriage, the exploding rate of assimilation and the fact that we have an independent state with the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were disenfranchised from normative Judaism for generations. We can’t afford the luxury of being confrontational and divisive especially in view of the fact that Israel isn’t the shtetl, and in consideration of the personal tragedies experienced daily as a result of an uncaring, corrupt rabbinate whose piskei halacha are enveloped in corrupt politics. Every generation has its challenges; we have ours today and it becomes our collective responsibility to navigate these troubled waters as best we can.