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.