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?