Monday, May 30, 2011

AIPAC and its Aftermath

It was the first AIPAC conference that I ever attended and it was probably one of the most talked about ones in the press, and in capitals around the world, leaving me speechless, not because I had nothing to say, I just didn’t know how to articulate the state of flux I was left in. The conference limned President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but before either of them appeared at the conference they were engulfed in controversy stemming from the Obama State Department speech on the Arab Spring as well as Netanyahu’s rebuttal the following Friday morning. The presentations of Obama and Netanyahu each represented contrasting views of Jewish history, Zionism and the Jewish psyche as well as highlighted the polar differences within the Jewish community. The issues surrounding the approach to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians as expressed by these two tectonic leaders crystallized two different worldviews.

I was stunned at the emotional whirlwind I found myself in during the two and a half day policy conference and its powerful undertow in its aftermath. There were times that I understood and appreciated what Obama was trying to present, believing in his sincerity and genuine will to be the peacemaker who brought the struggle between two people to a reasonable conclusion requiring great sacrifice on both sides culminating in a two state solution. The current status quo is unsustainable and Israel is becoming more and more isolated. At other times I was a convinced that Bibi’s approach, that which required Israel to hang tough even at the displeasure of the president was the wiser path: it was the path that a determined people who suffered indignation, rejection and persecution at the hand of its neighbors and enemies for too long would no longer suffer again by being placed in such a tenuous and precarious position. Never mind that the status quo was unsustainable, our righteousness would prevail. Perhaps we would suffer from isolation but that too was temporary: the world we live in is so fluid, changing from minute to minute. Perhaps world opinion would shift once again in favor of Israel due to other yet unknown world circumstances. Who would have predicted one year ago the nature of the Arab spring of 2011; and we aren’t even sure of its outcome and how that will impact on the Middle East? Thus crucial life and death decisions affecting the state ought to be decided upon by principles not expediency.

On each side of these two contrasting world visions the Jewish community has chosen sides. In a fairly simplistic way one could say that those more conservative, less trusting and more obsessive with Israel’s security were those that support Benjamin Netanyahu’s position. Those who tend to be left of center, concerned with Israel’s security but willing to try hard compromise because of their need to be champions of social justice and global human rights lined up behind Obama. Anyone desperate for peace at any cost, wishing to satisfy their urgent obsession for social justice couldn’t resist the Obama approach. On the other hand those that are less trusting of other governments and promises are more concerned with Israel’s survival, stand firmly behind Netanyahu not discount human rights, but believing that Israel’ security is foremost and trumps human rights.

While AIPAC’s role isn’t to take sides but to lobby for Israel’s security, one couldn’t help but take sides at a conference where the issues were so clear-cut. For those people with a clear vision of how the future should look the issues are fairly straightforward. It is those caught in between who have the most difficult finding a pathway that would bridge these two competing views. The issues for this group are the following: The status quo isn’t sustainable simply because of the demographic time bomb resulting from the high growth rate among Arabs versus Jews who are experiencing low birthrate. The status quo isn’t sustainable because they can’t justify Israel as occupiers, ruling the lives of millions of people in the absence of a democratic process applied to them. The status quo isn’t sustainable because the painful prospect of seeing Israel isolated more every day is detrimental to her existence; a manifestation of this isolation will be the vote in the UN this September, which will encourage those seeking BDS.

At the conference it was clear to me that Benjamin Netanyahu received enormous warm support as opposed to Obama whose reception was tepid. Add to that the support that Congress afforded to Netanyahu was a repudiation of the Obama approach. On the other hand, when I turned to the Israeli press I was smitten once again with the doubt of the wisdom of Bibi’s approach. The arguments coming out of the Israeli press was compelling to say the least, limned by the fact that these opinions were being proffered by those who had the most to loose – Israelis living in the land. One of the most compelling arguments put forward was that it didn’t really matter who was right and who was wrong. Nor did it matter if our security was a little better or a little worse. What mattered was that if we were to maintain our edge as a country rooted in what was right, ethical and moral, it was up to us to find the creative means by which to offer the Palestinians a pathway to peace that would sustain both countries. It was our responsibility, not the Arabs; it was us that had to take the higher ground. Not because we would be accepted by our neighbors, or liked more by the Europeans but because it was the right thing to do.

These arguments reminded me of the message of the prophets of old which has been echoing in my mind as the strong undertow in the aftermath of the conference continued to flummox me. How can one argue with such a message? It seemed therefore that Obama’s approach was one that took the higher moral ground, the one espoused by our prophets versus the one articulated by Netanyahu: a message evoking cynicism and mistrust. But with all the good intentions of the prophets, the first commonwealth came to an ignominious end, as did the second commonwealth. Does history have anything to contribute to the issues? How are we to understand history and what are we to learn from it?

I haven’t the answers to these questions unfortunately, however I do have an observation regarding the left’s quick rush to social justice and global human rights at the expense of Israel: It would appear that we Jews have a genetic predisposition that has been the seeds of our destruction at times, and at other times have actually helped us prevail when the odds were against us. Our sense of social justice in some quarters tends to trump our own survival. Thus there are rabbis in the liberal community that fast for the downtrodden Gazans being crushed under the Israeli boot and support BDS. On the other hand there were times that our sense of social justice was precisely the cause that gave us hope and inspiration, to transcend and to be transformed. The trick today is to determine which is it for us?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Kaniuk’s Conundrum

He doesn’t have the same name recognition to American Jews as Amos Oz, Etgar Keret, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman or Aharon Applebaum, but Yoram Kaniuk is considered one of the most gifted writers in Israel and recognized internationally. His books have been translated into twenty languages and he is the recipient of prestigious awards such as Prix de Droits de l’Homme, Bialik Prize, as well as the celebrated Prix Mediterranee Etranger. It is for these reasons that I was deeply pained and perplexed to have read in Haaretz on May 15, 2011 that he requested from the Ministry of Interior to change his religious status from “Jewish” to “Without Religion”. This isn’t the first time he has requested this from the Ministry of the Interior. In a previous request (which was refused by the ministry) he commented that he didn’t want to be associated with a “Jewish Iran”, or what is today understood as the “religion of Israel”. My initial reaction was to write him off as a “self hating Jew”. How can an intensely serious Jew (no matter that he isn’t ritually observant), I asked myself, recant his Jewish identity? It seems so perfidious! But upon stepping back and reconsidering Kaniuk’s maneuver I began to understand his profound frustration with living in a democratic state but having to cope with decisions and outcomes of a despotic rabbinic superstructure that acts and behaves as though the enlightenment and emancipation never happened.

Kaniuk’s gambit reflects the sentiments of many Israelis. He maintains, as so many others believe that the rabbinate in Israel hijacked the religion from the “amei haaretz”, from the people. His own grandchild is registered with the Ministry of Interior as “Without Religion” since the child is, in fact, not Jewish due to Kaniuk’s wife not being Jewish (and therefore technically, the offspring aren’t either, halachically). And perhaps this is the conundrum for Kaniuk as it is with so many others: His children who are Israeli citizens and served in the military and fought in defense of their country are relegated to a second-class status halachically. They are a subclass of people who although are versed in Jewish history, culture and Tanach and willing to die for their people can’t marry them or be interred in a Jewish cemetery. Kafkaesque! There is something fundamentally wrong with the way its citizens are treated and for that matter the manner in which Israel functions on a religious level.

Yet, Kaniuk is thoroughly Jewish, inside and out. He thinks like a Jew and feels like a Jew. In one of his articles commenting on Nakba Day he limned that although we won the war of Independence the “enemy was not a geometrical unknown, but rather a people that still exist…the Nakba fighters fought heroically, but we fought better…” Being sympathetic to the Palestinians even though Kaniuk fought in the war of Independence and was severely wounded is supremely Jewish. After all, we are taught not to gloat over the demise of our enemies. Kaniuk bemoaned the fact that he hopes that while he is still alive Israel will be turned into a Jewish state not one populated by zealots, but rather by the kind of Jews we once were: “a state where we respect those who fought against us and were defeated.” Kaniuk seems to be rejecting the Judaism that is reinforced in the Haggadah when we chant “shfoch chamotecha”. That is the Judaism polluted and diminished by the exile and our unfortunate European sojourn. It isn’t the Judaism of Kaniuk who envisions an Israel in the spirit of the prophets. In another article he derides the mistreatment of foreign migrants by the rabbinic establishment referencing the Story of Ruth as the model by which foreigners ought to be treated. Although he overstated his case, his unabashed derision of the rabbinate’s prejudice towards non-Jews is ironically and clearly a Jewish position. He dreams of the day when enlightened clerics will apply Jeremiah’s message in place of those who are mired in the culture of medieval Europe.

Clearly Yoram Kaniuk, a principled and committed non-religious Jew is authentically Jewish in his critique of current day Israeli society deeply influenced and manipulated by an ignorant rabbinate. But forfeiting his Jewish identity (on a registry in the Ministry of Interior) is an overreaction with little or no positive outcome. Reneging on his Jewish identity won’t change who he is or how people view him. A Jew by any other name is a Jew. The narrative of our history is inextricably linked with our religious praxis and accompanying idiosyncrasies. To deny them or to deny one’s Jewishness would alter the integrity of our narrative. Kaniuk realizes this but wishes to make an issue out of the fact that Israel has no definition or sense of nationality without religion as its defining quality. And here Kaniuk stumbles into his conundrum: Judaism isn’t a religion, it is a state of being; it is peoplehood.

Perhaps by diminishing the role of religious ritual, trappings and their offshoots, and by removing religious clerics from the state apparatus Israel would go a long way in sculpting a state where Jeremiah’s message would ring out and at the same time maintaining the integrity of our narrative.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Perfect Storm

Anyone reading my postings is aware of my qualified antipathy toward the liberal Jewish denominational movements. On the one hand they have become hollow husks, empty of traditional Jewish value systems, lacking the contextual reference points along the continuum of Jewish history, diluted by the high rate of intermarriage and led by self serving arrogant rabbis lacking standards. Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the Jewish Week wrote an interesting editorial “Where Have All the Rabbis Gone” (Jewish Week, April 27, 2011) in which he points to the growing ranks of unemployed rabbis endemic now in the liberal movements. His description of this state of affairs is impeccable and his analysis poignant, attributing however, much of the shortage of rabbinical positions to the problematic economy that has plagued America for the past five years. Some even say that the convergence of economic factors created the perfect storm, which severely crippled the financial infrastructure of the Jewish community.

While I agree with Mr. Rosenblatt’s that the economic maelstrom, which has no end in sight, continues to play a role in the dearth of liberal rabbinical assignments available that isn’t, by far, the fundamental reason for their growing malaise. To wit, the orthodox community, affected by the same economic downturn is bursting at the seams, with a growing demand for more rabbis. The liberal movements have been in decline for decades, perhaps not in the numbers game but substantively-and that was bound to catch up with them, sooner or later.

Buried deep within the liberal movements were the seeds of their own destruction. The rate of intermarriage is soaring and has past the Rubicon of sustainability. Many temples have more gentiles in attendance than Jews. The Conservative movement has now added a new class within their movement, the K’rov Yisrael (about which I have written in previous posts), gentiles opting not to convert but wish to be active partners in the Jewish community and participate fully in services. There are some rabbis in a quandary as to how to pitch their sermons on the high holidays expecting a high number of gentiles at services and fear being politically incorrect. Heaven forbid that the rabbi might say something offensive resulting in loss of membership. Membership is key, because it generates the income that funds their bloated salaries and high overhead.

The large temples built over the past five decades with their staggering overhead requiring synagogue administrators, a senior rabbi, two and three assistant rabbis, a cantor and music director each receiving attractive compensation packages has effectively stifled the original purpose of the community – spirituality. These temples, as they were conceived never had in them long term sustainability. Intermarriage has been rampant since the 1970’s. New sources of income were needed to replace those that opted out of membership. The need to capture the potential source of income from the intermarried couples fueled the out reach programs. This too has reached its apex and we are witnessing the slow and insidious implosion of liberal Judaism.

The problem is exacerbated by the sentiments of a large and growing number of their membership led by their rabbis who have marginalized Israel, offering her up on the altar of international law and human rights. Rabbi Richard Jacobs was nominated recently to replace Rabbi Eric Yaffe in the top spot in the Reform Movement and this has further accentuated the problem, making it more acute than ever before. Jacobs sits on the rabbinic cabinet of J Street, which is no friend of Israel To add insult to injury he is a proponent supporting in part the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) initiative against Israel.

He isn’t alone in his aspirations to weaken and compromise Israel’s security. Other rabbis in the liberal movements are doing their best to give aid and succor to the Palestinians at the expense of Israelis. There are rabbis who now fast monthly on behalf of the human crises in Gaza, and pummel Israel at every opportunity from the pulpit and in the press. Their rabbinical students will not buy religious articles that are made or produced in Israel. Some of their students (according to face book entries) when on a year study in Israel prefer to spend their free time with Palestinians rather than with Israelis. What a promising picture of the future leadership of the liberal movements!

It would appear that the liberal movements are headed south, but haven’t hit rock bottom yet. It is not a result of the weakened and bland economy, creating in the words of one rabbi, “the perfect storm” that has caused this deep malaise in the liberal movements. Rather the perfect storm has been the confluence of the soaring rate of intermarriage, unsustainable synagogue infrastructures and the embrace of international human rights at the expense of Israel that has wrought havoc on them.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Caught, in the Headlights

I was appalled by the mad dash of rabbis to explain away the inexcusable behavior of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tzeitung when they altered the White House situation room (raid on Bin laden’s lair) photo removing Hillary Clinton from the picture. In their apology for violating the rules, which forbade the altering of the picture, Der Tzeitung said the following:

The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel…. The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc.

The fact of the matter is that their excuse/apology errors in several ways. For one thing, Der Tzeitung doesn’t represent or speak for the Jewish people. No allegation was made that “religious Jews denigrate or do not respect women”. The majority of the Jewish people do not denigrate women nor do they discriminate against them. This is evidenced by the fact that women in the broader Jewish community take their place as equals among men in the professions, business and communal / synagogue life. Der Tzeitung, and those whom they represent however, systematically discriminate against women as evidenced by the fact that they consistently cut women out from every facet of civil life except for housework, and bringing in the rent money, while their men sit in kolel. This time, however, they were caught, like a deer in the headlights.

Discrimination against women in the haredi (including Hassidic) community does exist and is systemic. They do discriminate and do denigrate women. Women have traditionally been treated as second-class citizens. While I can understand the use of a mechitza during tefillah there is no reason on earth why they should be ushered to the sidelines at public events, ceremonies and simchot, not to mention the fact that they cannot hold positions of public leadership within the community. I don’t recall seeing or hearing about haredi women in the free professions, i.e. medicine, law, engineering etc. Their dress is appalling, colorless and shapeless, nearly resembling Muslim women in their traditional burka. It would indeed be convenient to excuse it all by referring to modesty, as they do. But they would be hard pressed to find primary sources that would support the treatment of women as chattel.

The haredi community has every right to discriminate within their community assuming that this is consensual and doesn’t compromise civil law. Thus, one can understand them supporting the use of private bus companies that separate between men and women, boys and girls. One can understand the design of separate school systems along gender lines. One can even tolerate the conspicuous absence of women leadership in communal affairs. While these prejudices are based upon an erroneous understanding of Jewish law it is excusable, since they are consenting adults and are entitled to spin religion to their liking. No one is forced into their community; people have a right to join or to disavow them; to move in or move out. They do not however, speak for or represent the Jewish people. If anything they are an anomaly, an anachronistic leftover from the nineteenth century Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What I fail to understand are the rabbis trying to make excuses for a factious group of Jews who do not require anyone’s defense. There are no legitimate excuses and any given ring hollow. For example, Rabbi Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis explained that Hillary was removed along with Audrey Tomason because they were in close proximity to men. So what! They aren’t Jewish and laws of modesty aren’t incumbent them! Assemblyman Dov Hikind explained that the editorial policy of the paper is not to print photos with women. Therefore removing Hillary wasn’t disrespectful to her. He’s right – it’s disrespectful to all women and is discriminatory. I defy any rabbi to point to any primary sources that would indicate even remotely that women should be excised from public life as they are in the haredi community.

Monday, May 9, 2011

In Pursuit of Happiness

Why is it that ultra orthodox Jews (vis a vis the rest of the human race) assume a sanctimonious posture, extolling the virtues of Orthodox Judaism as if they and their belief system are at the center of the universe? Other times I wonder if their obsession to promote their lifestyle is a response to their own deep-seated sense of self-doubt. Judging from what I read and hear one would think that to be an orthodox Jews is the be all and end all and the answer to man’s quest for complete fulfillment and happiness. Jonathan Rosenblum who writes for the ultra orthodox Mishpacha Magazine seems to believe that tired mantra. In extolling the virtues of living the “torah true life” Rosenblum has a compulsion to attack any life style that doesn’t jive with his. His argument is flawed because he chooses to contrast the “torah true life” with the hedonistic happiness pursued by epicurians: comparing the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure with those in pursuit of kavod. Naturally, Rosenblum doesn’t take note of the fact that so many frum Jews actively pursue kavod; that kavod is part and parcel of the religious culture including synagogue life within the “frum” community.

On a typical Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur eve (Kol Nidre) the typical “frum” synagogue will sell honors (keebudim) ranging from opening the ark to aliyot, haftarot and everything in between but the kitchen sink. Just about everything is up for sale, not in the name of charity but in the name of kavod. Had charity been the focus, then they could, like so many non-ultra Orthodox synagogues conduct silent bidding or fund raising drives prior to the holiday. As it is, entering a “frum” shul on Kol Nidre eve is like entering the market place, with the hubbub and din surrounding the bidding for the honors. I only mention this to remind Mr. Rosenblum to keep a balanced perspective and not be so dismissive of other lifestyles in spite of the polls that he cites. Polls as we know are dubious to say the least and subject to any interpretation that we wish to ascribe. According to the polls U.S. Jews should have been extinct by 1960, at the latest by 1980. According to the polls Israel ought to have been eradicated by now. So much for the polls.

However, if you wish to insist on polls I’d like to refer Rosenblum and his readership to Ynet (April 24, 2011) “Israel Ranks 7th in Happiness Index”, where the Gallup shows that 63% of Israelis are satisfied with their lives and beat out the United States and Britain. I doubt if the 63% cited are “frum”. The happiness list was headed by Denmark, Sweden, Canada and Australia. None of these have huge “frum” communities that would have skewed the polls, yet all these “goyim” seem to be genuinely happy, absent of living “torah true lives”, nor is it reasonable to believe that they define their happiness on the scale of hedonistic pleasures!

The two points that Jonathan Rosenblum ought to understand is the following: Religion may work for some, but isn’t the answer for everyone. It may be a source of happiness and fulfillment for some people but a source of unhappiness for many others. The millions of people worldwide who have suffered in the name of Jesus or Allah would agree with me. Unfortunately, I would have to add that there is a growing number of Jews who agree that “torah true Judaism” is a source of unhappiness since it attempts to control their lives – whom they marry and where they are buried. There is a growing number of quasi Jews whose conversions are questioned by the ‘torah true” establishment and they too would join the community of people who believe religion to be oppressive. I suspect that had Judaism’s right wing religious establishment had the political upper hand and wielded unfettered power the suffering at their hands would be no different to that of the Islamist who seek the establishment of a global caliphate or the Church that sought to enforce god’s will.

The second point is its time for Rosenblum and his ilk to respect other cultures and lifestyles. I don’t mean that in a perfunctory way but to genuinely recognize that every culture has its intrinsic and unique qualities. Each of us can learn from others and in so doing we gain wisdom insight knowledge and fulfillment. We Jews do not have a monopoly on happiness, fulfillment or wisdom. Reaching a modicum of happiness or fulfillment isn’t predicated on god, religious rites and ritual. It’s about the individual being able to find his voice and give expression to his creative skills endowed by nature. It’s about the individual pursuing his own dreams. Fulfillment is a long process with no prescribed uniform formulary but is dependent upon the individual to seek out his own personal fulfillment based upon his own unique soul print.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Professor Zev Naveh, z”l

In marking my father in law’s shloshim (30 days since his burial) I would like to share the following remarks:

Twenty-six years ago we came into each others life. We looked at each other at the fist introduction on erev Pesach – each assessing the other. At the time I had no idea what impression, if any I made on Zev, Saba Zev but the impression he made on me was remarkable. If his daughter, Semadar was a whirlwind who blew me away with her charm and persona, Zev, Saba Zev was a tsunami, a man larger than life, a man of gravitas, an aura of dignity enveloping him as his shroud does today.

Over the years as I became more perceptive of his fine qualities as a husband and father he influenced my own understanding of manhood and fatherhood. He was unabashed and at the same time unassuming. Comfortable in his own skin, proud of who he was and what he was made him an outstanding husband, father and paradigmatic model for me. Passion was his middle name, and infused it in everything he did-making him a wonderful husband who loved Ziona deeply and profoundly. His passion was infectious, transmitting to his children a zest for living, curiosity and the compulsion to explore the world we inhabit. His passion for travel was so apocryphal that he would have traversed life with both feet off the ground, save for Ziona who managed to keep him grounded. His love of knowledge was infectious, curiosity never abandoned him and both Semadar and David are the better for it and the fortunate beneficiaries of such an unusual man. These and other gifts are part of his legacy his grandchildren, Keren, Inbal, Nili & Tami are benefitting from and will continue in the years ahead as they establish their own households.

He was a student of science and a master of the humanities. He didn’t just love the humanities, he lived it by loving people and his preoccupation with their welfare. In living it, he became larger than life. While some people fill a room with their sheer volume or ego, Zev, Saba Zev, filled space with his compassion and love for people. He made everyone who came in contact with him comfortable and at the end of the encounter, they were both enriched, uplifted.

He was a 19th century enlightened intellectual, an intellectual for all times, all seasons. He was this towering intellectual, spanning the centuries that prompted me to embrace him not only as Zev, but Saba Zev. For decades I flirted with calling him Abba. I felt so, so close to him and loved him like a son loves a father. But I couldn’t bring myself to utter the word Abba and every time I tried I stumbled. How can a son have two fathers? So I began calling him Saba Zev – I never knew my grandfathers.

He wasn’t just Saba Zev to me – he was “Saba Yisrael” (Yisrael Saba). For those of you familiar with rabbinic literature, the sages referred to the generations of sages preceding them as “Saba Yisrael” (Yisrael Saba). “Saba Yisrael” (Yisrael Saba), the rock of ages, unmovable, grounded in values, with principles running so deep and wide that they cut through the sediment and detritus that befuddles and confuses the essential truths and core values that ought to be crystal clear and that which govern our lives. This was Zev, Saba Zev, a man of values, pristine, principled, informed and willing to put forth his vision even when unpopular for those seeking a better, more just world. To borrow from the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel, “he was a most unusual man”.

I am honored and one of the most fortunate to have basked in his presence, taking shade under his expansive branches of love, compassion and wisdom. At some point, Zev must have intuited that his labor here, with us, was coming to a close. His cup was full; it was overflowing. He had a charmed and blessed life: He had loved Ziona deeply, had brought forth, loved and nurtured two amazing people, David and my soul mate, Semadar; was the grandfather of wonderful and devoted granddaughters, Keren, Inbal, Nili and Tami. He committed his wisdom to the books he authored as well as completing his autobiography. And while he reared generations of student they will never be able to fill his shadow. Mi Chamocha, Saba Zev? Who can pick up where you left off? There are no more Nifilim, giants in the land. You were the last of a very special breed of unique men sent here to guide us. You will always be Saba Zev to me but you have subtly, sublimely and most assuredly transitioned into Yisrael Saba, assuming your place of honor and with the greatest of dignity, alongside the sages of Israel who have come before you. May you be a source of continued blessing to all of us.