Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mistress of the Tribe

"As the book goes so goes the Jewish People" references our rich past and possibly illuminates what the future holds in store for us. For Judaism the term "People of the Book" (Am HaSefer) was used to refer to our commitment to the Biblical text and the wider canon of written Jewish law (including the Mishnah and the Talmud). For more than a millennium formal, higher education by host countries in Europe was closed off to us; the only available education was the study of Jewish (sacred) texts, primarily those books in the cannon but more specifically the Talmud and its commentaries. In later generations the term People of the Book stuck because of the unique bond between higher education and us. Even when prevented from matriculating into European universities (prior to the enlightenment in Western Europe and later in Eastern Europe) our tenacity for studying text went beyond the classic format of regurgitation. Innovative as we were we sought new methods in approaching Talmudic text ranging from the 14th century Pilpulistic style to the Brisker method of analyzing text, defining and redefining concepts. These razor sharp methodologies which formed the intellectual matrix for thousands of yeshiva students in Eastern Europe prepared us for the Enlightenment and the next stage, academia; the study of mathematics, sciences and the humanities. The descriptive clause, People of the Book had not only a literal ring but also revealed a startling truth: the Book, along the continuum of history became the mistress of the tribe. Ultimately, God who introduced us to the book and helped cultivate our appreciation for it was cuckolded.

Initially study of text was designed by our wise and judicious sages to serve as a substitute to the Temple cult and animal sacrifice that was no longer. Its intent was to help supplement our transition from a temple-centered nation to a book centered people. As a book centered nation the text offered us more than just the knowledge contained in its volumes. It carved out for us a sense of commonality, community, and purpose. A means by which to center our activities, build community, synagogue life and all the support systems necessary to enhance our lives. Ultimately, however, God was cuckolded because He gave us the greatest gift that man has ever had - not the Book as much as our appreciation for knowledge and the curiosity by which to pursue that gift. Even though most Jews are no longer religious they have inherited the lust for knowledge.

For 21st century members of the tribe the pristine concept of People of the Book is quickly becoming a misnomer. The book rapidly being replaced by cutting edge technology creating the Kindle, iPads and the Tablet are the new books, replacing the old mistress. True, they represent books to be read, but they also represent a sea change, a slow moving but gargantuan tsunami from the printed word to electronic micro technology and Internet usage. Up until the past decade or so the book was the means whereby classical knowledge was transmitted. This is no longer the case. Books are published digitally and read as eBooks, whether they are novels, textbooks, sacred texts or technical manuals. Books are becoming “virtual,” as one page after the other disappears into cyberspace once read. This lack of physicality is beginning to duplicate itself in community building around virtual synagogues too. This dfference is significant: it’s like making the distinction between surgery performed traditionally by a surgeon or by a robot. The surgery is being done, but the technology has created an important contrast. Do you want human hands performing the procedure or the robot directed by the physician? Some prefer the surgeon, others the robot because they assume there is less chance for human error. Some like touching the pages of the book or newspaper they ware reading. Others, especially those born after 1990 prefer eBooks.

Group or private study hitherto inaccessible to a segment of the Jewish community isolated from Jewish centers of learning are now a click away and no longer dependent on the limitations set by the local market place. One no longer has to have a "belly full of shas" and wait till the age of 40 to study Kabbalah: it can be accessed over the computer in any language one is comfortable in at any age. Today through the internet classes can be attended on line from virtual yeshivot and other master Torah teachers. But where is all of this taking us?

Over the next couple of decades virtual Judaism will become more the norm than the exception. It already is taking root in a whole host of ways. Currently there are study programs on line where one can pick and choose teachers rather than be hostage to the supply and demand of their community. Imagine someone living in Peoria with hardly another like-minded Jew to study with. Until a decade ago he would have been at a loss. For the less traditional communities there is a virtual synagogue by which one can attend services in the comfort of their home. This has limitations for the orthodox community but ultimately will force them to define the issue and revisit old ones:
What constitutes electricity? What constitutes a minyan? Can a quorum be virtual? Can a minyan be considered valid for purposes of Torah reading or saying kaddish if they are in attendance via computer hook--up. There is already anecdotal evidence pointing to the need to resolve these issues: many young Jewish people born to orthodox parents after 1990 and who define themselves as orthodox use the cell phones on Shabbat, redefining what they consider halachically permissible.

The need to solve this and other problems for the vanguard orthodox will become pressing as the generation of the 1990’s take over leadership of the Jewish community in the years ahead. Institutes recognizing these challenges in Israel are already providing alternative solutions for the IDF and more will proliferate as we progress. But the orthodox are a small percentage of the Jewish community. What about non-orthodox but seriously committed Jews who are marginally members of synagogues or live in areas where there are no synagogues and driving is impractical. They too will benefit through virtual synagogue affiliation. Synagogue rabbis and cantors will become less necessary as more people affiliate through virtual communities. Like those who prefer the hand of the surgeon there will always be those who want to feel the pew and experience the contact with the rabbi. It is a win-win situation and unlike other illicit relationships this redesigned, redefined tribal mistress will captivate the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Rabbinic Hacks and Clerics

The Ministry of Religious Affairs or more accurately the Chief Rabbinate is back in the cross hairs once again. The Ministry of Religious Affairs did it once again by abolishing Tzohar as an option for couples seeking to marry in Israel by an orthodox rabbi other than the standard cleric who is nothing more than a ‘pakeed” with a black hat and tinted glasses. Eventually they were reinstated, but there is a lingering concern that this incident may repeat itself. Tzohar was founded by rabbis with a religious Zionist background sensitive to the religious polarization in Israel with an aim at outreach. They offer a full panoply of social and spiritual programs including pre marital counseling as well as performing the wedding ceremony. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, not able or willing to compete with rabbis who are actually educated and trained as clergy, ministering to the needs of the community and the individual, understood that unless they eradicate the competition they would be out of business. They can't compete against professionally trained and religiously committed rabbis other than by fiat. They no longer have a raison d’ etre and are virtually illegitimate.

Reading of this episode of Tzohar brought me back 27 years when my fiancé and I presented ourselves to the Rabbanut in order to register for a marriage license. It was a nightmare and ultimately it was the attitude of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which drove me over the brink, seeking a much easier, and more pleasant experience. The rabbi with whom we met was concerned solely with our pedigree and setting a marriage date based on my fiancé's menses. The atmosphere in that office was stultifying and oppressive with the distinct impression that we were intentionally humiliated. Rather than feel spiritually uplifted with the knowledge that we were going to marry and become another proverbial link in the magnificent Jewish chain, we felt deflated. Rather than feel optimistic about a future with the potential of creating a new generation we felt as though we need to rethink the entire enterprise.

Marrying in America by a rabbi, a personal friend who performed the service out of an act of love rather than, as part of his job description was what we needed and wanted. It was a breath of fresh air. No one was raking over our proud lineage, and no one was getting that personal with my fiancé’s reproductive cycle without first having developed a relationship with her, creating a comfort zone with and for her so that any questions asked weren't the result of prying, but because it was in the name of our revered tradition, laws and customs.

Our wedding, small and intimate as it was, composed of barely more than a minyan of men, family and a few dear friends was a truly spiritual moment in our lives, as it should be. After all our marriage wasn't intended to legalize k'dat Moshe v'yisrael a union, but to solemnize the union of two souls whose merger would create joy and fulfillment hopefully bringing forth offspring. When I recollect those moments and the feeling of satisfaction that I had with the decision to shrug off conventional wisdom and at the last minute run off to America to solemnize our love I am happy but also a little sad. Twenty seven years have passed since that monumental decision producing two wonderful Jewish adults, committed to their heritage as well as their moledet, and with so much change in our world there is one constant. The corrupted Ministry of Religious Affairs whose oversight is managed by a chief rabbinate as corrupt as the politicians who occupy Knesset seats.

While politicians are concerned with aggregating power and exercising influence for unholy motives rabbis ought to be free of that temptation. The only way to do avoid this trap is to remove the odious political thorn from their area of civic responsibility. Ironically, in this upcoming season of Chanukah when we retell the Hashmonayim story we need to recall more than just a contrived miracle or victorious battle but lost war. We need to note the break, the revolt of the Pharisees with the Hashmonayim and King Alexander Janneus (103-76 BCE) who wished to aggregate political power and merge it with the priesthood and the holy responsibilities of serving God in the Temple. The Pharisees knew that power corrupts and therefore insisted on separation of "church and state". The chief rabbis of Israel, by far, less wise than our ancestors, the Hashmonayim wouldn't dream of relinquishing political influence.

The chief rabbinate is, unfortunately myopic, suffering from the tunnel vision of those Hashmonayim who sought power, even at the spiritual expense of their wards as well as their own loss of spiritual innocence. In the end they lost: in spite of the fact that we light candles for eight days celebrating a hollow victory made meaningful with the artificial infusion of a miracle story. The chief rabbinate lost the war, the day they defined their power in terms of political aggrandizement instead of spiritual independence and authenticity. Our young people are running at every opportunity from their batei knesset, avoiding the rabbinic hacks and clerics, seeking alternative marriage ceremonies at every opportunity, starting their marriages and beginning their families with little spiritual direction and assistance from what could have otherwise been a spiritually blessed beginning of holy matrimony.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hazon Ish: Visionary or Short Sighted

Being complex people living in extraordinarily complicated times I am flummoxed by the attempt at some scholars to offer simplistic answers to some very convoluted questions. How is it possible that the haredi community in America and Israel bounced back with a roar when only 60 years ago they were written off as relics of the past, relegated to the collective and perhaps nostalgic memory of the Jewish people. Benjamin Brown in his recently published book, The Hazon Ish: Halakhist, Believer, and Leader of the Haredi Revolution, based upon his doctoral dissertation puts forth the thesis that Rabbi Avraham Karelitz, known by the moniker the Hazon Ish, single handed breathed life and vigor into the haredi "she'ereet hapleyta" (remnant survivors) having barely survived the holocaust. Brown points to several indicators that led him to this dubious conclusion. The Hazon Ish, he points out set the tenor for the Haredi revival in Israel in that they didn’t accept nor reject the Zionist movement. Unlike extreme haredi subgroups such as the Neturei Karta, they would exploit what the Zionist state had to offer and through their indifference towards the state would create their own subculture through a network of yeshivas and kollels. Brown believes that had they not assumed this middle ground they wouldn’t have grown nearly as powerful as they have. In addition he believes that Karelitz successfully strategized against Ben Gurion in 1949 winning the exemption of the then 400 yeshiva students in Israel, setting the pattern for the current day exemption of 62,500 yeshiva students. These strategies plus others formulated and executed by the Hazon Ish are what set into motion, according to Brown, the proliferation of the haredi sub culture in the post World War II Jewish community.

Brown's analysis is interesting but because it is tailored to conform to his thesis, many questions either go unanswered or aren’t addressed, leaving the impression that his approach leaves much to be desired resulting in providing a simplistic answer to a complicated issue. Not enough emphasis was placed on some of the stellar rebbes emerging at the time, not to mention the political clout of Agudas Israel. He ignores the development of the American haredi community, as well as the incredible intellectual power and leadership of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Instead, he presents the Hazon Ish as being responsible for the revolution of the haredi community, Referring to the resuscitation of the Haredi community in the same triumphal tenor that haredim have always presented their cause; even when they were being decimated throughout the centuries by the hands of antisemites their message was one of triumphalism. To enhance that message the truth was subordinated to the cause. To wit, the 4th Belzer Rebbe encouraged his followers to remain in Nazi Europe. Not to do so the Belzer rebbe maintained would be traitorous to their ancestors. Not to do so and emigrate to America would be to capitulate to a godless country. Not to do so and go to Israel would be to surrender to the Zionist vision. The Belzer Rebbe, however forsook his community of believers and escaped to Israel, beardless. Asking a Belzer hassid today about the story would find him apoplectic because this wouldn’t fit in with their triumphal perception of their chosen place in god’s eyes.

Part of the phenomenon of triumphalism is the notion that “its us against the non believers” and because god is on their side they will ultimately prevail. Because god is on their side they will be victorious as David was in his battle to defeat Goliath. This was the attitude of the Hazon Ish, according to reports, on the eve of his meeting with Ben Gurion. In truth The meeting between Ben Gurion and the Hazon Ish was a fateful one, not because the Hazion Ish was able to outmaneuver the savvy politician and statesman, but because of Ben Gurion’s sentimental approach to Rabbi Karelitz, his misreading of history, and Karelitz’s lack of understanding and appreciation for history. Karelitz considered it a victory to have won the exemption of 400 students. Ben Gurion considered it a bone with no great consequence assuming that the army was better off without the headache of yeshiva bochrim, thinking that they would ultimately integrate into the general society. Undoubtedly he would never have agreed to a blanket exemption had he known the number would balloon. Karelitz hadn’t a clue nor the vision that one day the 400 would grow exponentially into 62500. Had it not been for the political acumen of Agudas Israel, Karelitz’s putative victory wouldn’t have amounted to anything.

Interesting and revealing however is the attitude of Karelitz and his acolytes around the planning of that meeting which was flavored with triumphalism: Moshe Sheinfeld, in an editorial in Digleinu (Aguda Israel newspaper) cast the meeting as one between the “heart of Israel” and the “ruling fist.” Ben Gurion is mentioned in the same sentence as Vespasian casting the upcoming meeting between the “holy side” and the “other side” (sitra achra). Sheinfeld went on to say that the Hazon Ish removed his glasses at the meeting so that he wouldn’t have to look “in the villain’s face.” Ben Gurion, on the other hand, summed up the meeting in his diary by referring to the Hazon Ish as a humble Jew, referencing his wise and "beautiful eyes." Quite a difference in attitude and approach.

The reality is that the Hazon Ish was far less effective than his acolytes would ever admit. The revival of the haredi community in Israel and America had nothing to do with the Hazon Ish. It was a matter of biological reproduction by those whom survived, clinging to their ways, without learning from their past experience: namely that one can’t depend on god but only upon ones own energy and determination. The haredi community whether in Israel or America certainly has proliferated and they inhabit large, dense, confining neighborhoods spending their time in yeshivas eschewing the very notion of productive lives. Rather than learning from their ancestors about living humble lives with a sense of love of all god’s creations they have unfortunately taken up spitting on Greek Orthodox priests, acting out violently towards Jews who don’t share their life style and who may have accidentally crossed over into their holy space, and have a sense of entitlement fueled by a triumphalist flawed theology.

Perhaps this was the legacy of the Hazon ish: to spread intolerance of anyone not sharing in their lifestyle. After all, if what Sheinfeld wrote was true, than the Hazon Ish really wasn’t a visionary but another zealot who took advantage of Ben Gurion’s good will. If Sheinfeld is to be believed, Karelitz removed his glasses at the meeting with Ben Gurion in order not to “look into the villain’s face” referring to the Zionists as camels without a load (a metaphor for secular Jews without Torah), suggesting they were second class citizens. Did this attitude set the pattern for the future or was Karelitz simply reflecting the intolerance that he may have learned from his elders? Either way, it is nothing to be proud of.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Chazeer Fissel Kosher

On the day after the release of Gilad Shali, the New York Times ran an editorial (Gilad Shalit’s release, October 18, 2011) excoriating Bibi Netanyahu for being able to close a deal with Hamas, “which shoot rockets at Israel”, but unwilling to negotiate seriously with the Palestinian Authority, which “Israel relies on to help keep the peace in the West Bank. Reading this editorial brought me back to my days as a yeshiva student and in particular to a brilliant and demanding rebbe who on rare occasion went off on a tangent, discussing current events. At the time there was much discussion on the future of the reform and conservative movements vis a vis intermarriage and assimilation. My rebbe made a startling statement. He claimed that he preferred dialogue with Reform rabbis rather than engage with Conservative rabbis. I was flummoxed. After all, the Conservative movement had a much closer affinity to Orthodox Judaism than the Reform movement since they subscribed to the halachic process, denouncing among other things the performance of mixed marriages by their rabbis. When I asked my rebbe, “mah pesher hainyan”? what do you mean and how can you possibly justify this position he responded with a pithy, terse, three word answer: “chazeer fissel kosher”!

“Chazeer fissel kosher” is a clever yiddish expression, which chides the pig for trying to pass itself off as kosher when in fact it is as treif as it gets. For an animal to be rendered kosher it first has to meet the fundamental criterion of having split hooves and chew its cud. The pig having cleft hooves and obvious to the eye tries to present itself as kosher, since chewing its cud isn’t a noticeable and an obvious characteristic. But the wiliness of the pig doesn’t go unnoticed and is reminded that it would be kosher had it chewed its cud. To my rebbe, the Conservative movement (rightly or wrongly) was like the proverbial pig. The movement tried to pass itself off as committed to the halchic process but in fact misrepresented itself by concealing the fact that they weren’t totally committed to it in the same fashion that was of the Orthodox. As the pig didn’t chew its cud neither did the Conservative movement conform to halachic Judaism. The Reform movement on the other hand, called a spade a spade. Their modus opperendi was to be clear as to where they stood in respect to halacha. They weren’t looking for acceptance among the halachic community. They rejected halachic Judaism and would perform intermarriages without the necessity of seeking loopholes or fictitious conversions, as the Conservative rabbis were wont to do.

My rebbe’s answer, simplistic as it seemed was actually profound and taught me a lesson on how to view the world. Had our rabbis learned this lesson well perhaps they would have had different take on the personality differences between Isaac and Essau. Essau was what he was. There was no mistaking him for anything but a hunter. He was taken advantage of by Jacob who presented himself to Essau in a kind and gentle light, not revealing his true intent. While Essau knew no guile, Jacob was a master of deception, knowing how and when to exploit a situation to his benefit. Thus when it was time to present himself to his blind father for the blessings it was without compunction that he disguised himself in animal skins to take on the physical characteristics of his brother. Who was Jacob? It is difficult to really know the man Jacob and what he represented at that particular moment in history.

Bibi, (unlike the New York Times editorial board) apparently learned long ago the very same lesson that my rebbe taught me. Hamas is our sworn enemy and they don’t try to sugar coat their ultimate aim to obliterate us. The Palestinian Authority on the other hand isn’t willing to reveal its intent although we know too well what their real intentions are. Bibi understands this and in his own vernacular probably refers to the PA as the chazeer fissel kosher. Too bad the New York Times hasn’t learned this lesson.