Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Bell Tolls for American Jewry: Thoughts on the Pew report

If the media and social media are any indication, the Pew report on the state of American Jewry and Judaism has sent the Jewish Community into a tailspin. The response is more than appropriate. The Jewish Community, in both the United States and abroad, will long be pondering the implications of the report's findings. [The full report is available here. Fairly full summaries are posted here and here.]
The major conclusion, masked by some of the headlines (and perhaps not), is that American Jewry (with the exception of Orthodoxy, and the more traditional wing of the Conservative and post-denominational world) is gently committing mass suicide through assimilation. Intermarriage among the non-Orthodox has topped 71% (and is close to 90+% in many places), and the proportion of children that are raised with any sense of Jewish identity is inversely related to the intermarriage rate.
However, as borne out in a fascinating discussion in last month's Mosaic Magazine, intermarriage is as much a symptom as a cause. It is a symptom of the dissolution of basic Jewish ethnic and religious allegiances, in favor of absolute loyalty to oneself as a sovereign individual. It is a symptom of the stunning trivialization of what being Jewish means. For how else can one explain the fact that 41% of American Jews think that having a sense of humor is more important to Jewish identity than Jewish observance (a mere 19%)?
On the other hand, there is something profoundly authentic in this statistic. Humor is a universal gift, and homogenized universalism (together with the beatification of the individual) is the hallmark of contemporary Western Culture. Jewish Law and Lore, History and Collective Memory appear to be the polar opposite. Judaism protects and values the individual, yet it also makes demands upon him. It demands that the individual contribute and sacrifice for his or her people, beliefs and, yes, for God. Its vision is simultaneously particularistic, narrow and parochial (on the one hand) and universalist, broad and encompassing, on the other. The two are so enmeshed as to be inseparable, much as Jewish national and religious identity have always been. American Jews have attempted to effect that separation by totally recasting and denuding Jewish Tradition, in order to align it with contemporary mores. [The process is brilliantly described by Professor Barry Rubin in his classic book: Assimilation and Its Discontents (available free for download here).]
In the end, that is precisely what assimilation is; the substitution of one set of values (usually, that of a minority), in favor of another set (usually, that of the majority). It's a perfectly natural process. It has affected every minority group throughout history; every group, that is, except the Jews (at least since the massive assimilation of the Jews of the Western Roman Empire during the first Christian centuries). Jews have refused to go that way. Our continued existence has been, as my friend and colleague, Dr. Simcha Goldin of Tel Aviv University put it, an elusive enigma. That enigma, though, has been predicated upon precisely those values that American Jews have decided (consciously or unconsciously) to abjure: belief in God, immersion in Jewish Law and Lore, dedication to the Jewish People before others, a deep and abiding sense of Jewish collective memory (that far transcends the kind of ostensible Holocaust awareness that the Pew study identifies), and a readiness to sacrifice of oneself for the whole. The Pew study shows, beyond any reasonable doubt, that no more that 15% +/- of American Jews subscribe to any of these values. The result is a foregone conclusion.
I am, at the same time, thunderstruck by the stark contrast between the Pew Study, and the most recent Guttman/IDI Study of Israeli Jewry. The findings are almost symmetrical opposites. Israeli Jews believe in God (over 80%). There is a Jewish Renaissance (in Study, Culture, and Observance) in Israel that literally boggles the imagination (even as it confounds the usual definitions of Religious and Secular). And, while individualism and individual expression are certainly not absent, the sense of national cohesion, what we call bayachad, is movingly strong. Anyone, who lived here through the Second Intifada, or the various wars and campaigns since then will readily attest to this fact. All that my American brothers and sisters have so readily jettisoned, is held sacred by the Jews of Israel. No wonder that we speak so often at cross purposes. The two communities organize themselves around different value systems.
I write this column with a significant measure of pain. I am a fourth generation Bostonian. America has been incredibly generous to my family, and to me. The education and upbringing that I received was uniquely Jewish and uniquely American. I am very much part of both countries, as are my peers here. I cannot, will not, express any type of cheap triumphalism. At the same time, every year when I visit the graves of my forbears on the Mount of Olives, Hovevei Tziyyon who trekked from Volkovisk Lithuania to Jerusalem in 1882, I am painfully reminded that of their hundreds of descendants, no more than fifteen in my children's generation can be identified as Jews.
So, I was really not surprised at the report's findings. As an historian, as a Zionist, as a committed Jew of faith I knew this was coming. As with the tolling of every bell, it came much too soon. Hopefully, the tolling will galvanize the American Jewish remnant to sacrifice (but really sacrifice) in order to save what it can.

[This column was first published on the Times of Israel on OCTOBER 2, 2013]       

Friday, June 07, 2013

Meeting the Angels: A Lesson For Public Life and Leadership

The past twenty-four hours have been extraordinarily stressful for me. The stress is not because of work, or family. I suppose it's because I care, and care passionately: about God, about the Torah and three millennia of Tradition, about the Jewish People and its qualitative survival as a worthy descendant of a 'Kingdom of priests and a Holy People,' and about the continued safety and ongoing growth here, where God desires us to be, in the Land of Israel.

The stress is because all around me I see this people, in this Land, about whom I care so deeply, pulling in radically opposite directions, aiming for extremes; extremes both of which I feel in my deepest being are destructive, and belie much of what I have been taught or come to believe that the Torah teaches. On the other hand, I identify with the fundamental probity and correctness of both sides of this divide. It is the pell mell rush to the extremes that leaves me dizzy and hurting. I walk around burdened by the awful truth once expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson: '"A foolish Consistency is the hobgoblins of little engage in the most dangerousminds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines. With consistency, a great soul simply has nothing to do." All around me, good people, thoughtful people latch on to slogans that deny life's complexity, and run with them.

I, as I'll try to show, live in the middle. I believe, as someone once noted (I don't know recall who- and neither does Dr. Google), that extremes are both logical and absurd. While living in the middle is a principled place, it forces one to engage in the most dangerous action: a two-front or three-front war. Of course, I could not do this. I could totally retreat back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but my conscience won't allow it (though there is time for research too). My soul won't allow it, and my sense of responsibility to my God, my Torah and my People won't allow it.   

Let me explain.

Yesterday, I was involved in two, very different, though strikingly similar debates. On the one hand, I was engaged in arguing the legitimacy of teaching Math and English in Haredi Schools, to allow students to break out of poverty and enter the work force. I was met, from circles that I thought were my home turf, not simply with rejection, some abuse, but more than that refusal to even engage that which I was saying. The points I advocated were hardly revolutionary, based upon a panoply of proofs from Gemora, Rishonim and Aharonim. But, it appears, the willy nilly run to the Right within the once Modern Orthodox community has gone so far, as to be nigh on irreversible. So, on this front, I was the rejected, suspected 'Liberal'.

Not long after, I heard that the Women of the Wall were determined to push their agenda and actions even further by bringing a Sefer Torah to the Kotel on Sunday. I dread the Hillul HaShem that will ensue. My thoughts on the controversy are mixed, and this is not the place to expand upon them. I will say, that (as with a lot of other issues roiling the Orthodox community in Israel, and abroad) I see a lot of screaming for rights, but not enough if any יראת שמים, or deference to tradition, to Hazal, to the integrity of the Torah. Too much judging of God, because what the Torah teaches doesn't jibe with post-Modern, anthropocentric relativism. In a word, while the concerns are legitimate, and the Torah can provide far more legitimate leeway, this side of the community has no brakes. And there are limits, serious limits beyond which we cannot go and still call ourselves God Fearing, Torah observant Jews. Greatness of vision, as the Rav זצ"ל taught, must be constantly tempered with Humility. גדלות מוחין and קטנות מוחין. If the first group runs with the latter, the former is intoxicated by the former. Neither is healthy, neither is legitimate. Only both together can work.

God forbid that Yeats (The Second Coming) should prevail :

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is downed;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.

Actually, Rav Soloveitchik taught that Yeats' apocalyptic terror should not sidetrack a person. On the contrary, inner conviction- even between extremes- is the way to go. His point was made in an observation that he once made to Rabbi Norman Lamm, which Rabbi Lamm related to me.

A prominent rabbi came under attack, from Left and Right, for a series of positions that he had adopted. Beleaguered, he asked Rabbi Lamm to arrange for him to meet with Rav Soloveitchik to seek his advice. After hearing him out, the Rab told him the following (my paraphrase):  

At the end of Parshat Va-Yetze, the Torah tell us (Gen. 32, 2):  וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱ-לֹהִים, And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of G-d met him. 

'Jacob,' the Rav remarked went לדרכו, on his own way, in the service of God- the principled way that was uniquely his own. He didn't look to his left. He didn't look to his right. Because he walked in his own way: ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לקים. He was met by angels of God. 

אמן, כן יהי רצון

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Kosher Siren

With Pesach behind us, we again enter the period of national mourning and remembrance limned by Yom HaShoah and Yom ha-Zikkaron. Amidst the somber and painful recollections of both the darkest period in our history, and our grief over the price we have paid to be a free people in our ancestral homeland, there is one discordant note that is always played: the refusal of some to stand silent when the air raid sirens sound. Their justification is that the practice is prohibited by the Torah, as it constitutes 'walking in the ways of the gentiles' (Lev. 18, 3). Now, the Torah does prohibit the imitation of non-Jewish practices (especially those that are religious in origin and/or intent), but the type of actions that are proscribed are clearly laid down in the Talmud and subsequent halakhic literature. 

According to the dominant view (codified in Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah sec. 178 par. 1), two types of behavior are forbidden: a) cultic or religious customs b) immodest or licentious modes of behavior. Actions which are rational, reasonable and proper are totally permitted, even if they are obviously adopted from surrounding cultures. A second view, more restrictive view, was endorsed by the Vilna Gaon (ibid). He maintained that even actions that are reasonable are forbidden, unless they are 'written in the Torah.' This enigmatic phrase, which is mentioned in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 54b), could mean one of two things. Either the practice in question is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, or that it can be shown to be indigenous to Judaism. In either case, it could be argued that the idea of standing silent in memory of a disaster is, indeed, mentioned in the Torah. The Torah portion we read yesterday, describes the deaths of Aaron's elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, who offered a 'strange fire' before God. 'Then Moses said to Aaron: 'This is it what God has said: Through those that are near Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron was silent' (Lev. 10, 3). Apparently, standing mute in the face of overwhelming grief is written in the Torah. 

 In truth, however, there is no need for careful legal analysis. What all of these consideration have in common is that the practice in question must be derived from (or actively practiced) in non-Jewish society. [And, according to most, the practice must be adopted in order to assimilate into the broader culture, and not as a uniquely Jewish action.] There is no other country on earth, certainly none in Israel's cultural context, that mandates a siren for a nation-wide moment of silence. This simple fact is always highlighted by the foreign press when it reports on Yom Ha-Shoah and Yom ha-Zikkaron. So, the question, really, never gets off of the ground. 

 Israel is a democracy. People are free to act as they wish. They are free to memorialize the Shoah as they wish. However, I wish they those who refuse to stand silent as the siren wails would stop cloaking their choices in the mantle of Judaism. One less use of the Torah as a political football with dignify and sanctify the memory of our six million dead, our fallen heroes and our beloved ones murdered by over a century of Arab terror. 

 [This post was first published on the Times of Israel on April 7, 2013]

Friday, February 22, 2013

Mr Prime Minister, listen to the people!

On this morning after...I see a lot of reason for hope. I pray to God that our newly elected representatives will have the foresight, courage and selflessness to seize the opportunity and make it a reality.
Three weeks later, it appears that the newly elected Knesset members upon whom I (along with so many others) pinned so much hope, are holding fast to their principles. The two harbingers of change, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, who together represent more than 25 percent of the Knesset, have joined forces to make sure that the new agendas (along with justice for veteran soldiers and young couples) are advanced. The new MK's are busy laying the groundwork for the 'something new,' for the 'future' they pledged to foster. One promising sign of the times was Dr. Ruth Calderon's unprecedented Talmud lesson in her maiden speech in the Knesset. Another indication of things moving in the right direction are the signs that the new parties will support the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav for Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi.
The bad news is that the Prime Minister and his minions are not listening to the message the Israeli people have sent. Netanyahu is busy playing by the old 'principles and values don't count, ministerial positions do' game. He would rather court his nemeses Tzippi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, than deal with Naftali Bennet. He would rather sell the country's soul and buy off Yahadut ha-Torah (and, one may assume Shas) than finally resolve the issues of conversion and Haredi national service; issues that are ripping the country apart and causing needless hatred of Torah at a time when 85 percent of the Jewish population (or more) is desperately thirsting for a qualitatively Jewish Israel. (Never mind the fact that by playing by the old rules, he's only hurting himself and Likud. Even the cynics in the media have remarked that they've never seen political parties stick to their principles in the way that Bayit Yehudi and Yesh Atid are doing.
I have no idea why he is conducting himself this way, when the soul of the nation is at stake. I only know that personally, I am deeply disappointed. I am a longtime member of Likud, with deep ties of affection and affinity for its founders. One thing that Revisionist Zionism taught was that Jews must have a deep, abiding and formative sense of Jewish History. Principle must not be blithely sacrificed for political convenience, or personal pique. If anyone knew and taught that lesson, it was the late Professor Ben Zion Netanyahu, the Prime minister's father. I had the privilege of knowing Professor Netanyahu. While he was far from being an observant Jew, as an historian with a panoramic view of our people's history, he would have been the first to agree that the strategic strength of the Jewish State is first and foremost in its Jewish awareness and knowledge. Yet, his son abjectly refuses to create a government which will contain those parties who are dedicated to precisely that goal. In stead, he is scrounging around to cobble together a government that includes Post-Zionist, non-Zionist and anti-Zionists.
Mr. Prime Minister, the people have spoken. They want a qualitatively Jewish State. They want a state in which Torah is studied and respected, and where the representatives of the Torah respect the people. They want everyone to bear their fair share in carrying the State of Israel forward into the twenty-first century and beyond.
Mr. Prime Minister, Listen to the People, and form the government they demand!!!
[This first appeared in the Times of Israel on 2/19/2013] 

Monday, February 04, 2013

We have a great opportunity here

This morning, the fabled 'morning after,' the media is awash in speculation as to the implications of yesterday's elections. Most observers are focusing on the meteoric rise of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid Party, the less than impressive showing of Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party, possible coalitions that PM Netanyahu can cobble together, or the return of the traditional Right-Left divide that characterized Israeli politics. It's going to be an interesting next few weeks (at least more interesting than the campaign itself).
I think that most observers are missing a crucial point. In the absence of any immediate change in our conflict with the Muslim World, the country has apparently decided to look inward and address the issues that impact directly upon its national and religious identity, its economic viability and its social cohesion. At the top of that list is Israel's Jewish identity, which was a serious sub-text of the campaign and found expression in the make-up of the various lists of candidates. Aside from Jewish Home (which significantly includes a non-Orthodox candidate, Ayelet Shaked), the major lists highlighted moderate, Religious Zionist candidates who are devoted to deepening Israel's Jewish identity. Three of these, all of whom I know personally and two well, were elected on Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid list: Rabbi Shai Piron, Dr. Aliza Lavie and Rabbi Dov Lipman. These, together with like-minded religious and non-religious MK's have an opportunity to make a long-lasting contribution to the stabilization of Israeli society, and toward resolving some chronic problems.
I'll just mention a few:
The Chief Rabbinate: As a few on-line publications (such as Tablet Magazine) have noted, yesterday's elections will directly impact upon the upcoming elections for the chief rabbinate. The new Knesset constellation has the ability to ensure the election of a Religious Zionist Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi (preferably, R. David Stav), who can start undoing two decades of abuse and alienation from Judaism while the rabbinate was a political football, used, abused and despised by those who control it.
Conversion: As I have argued before, the resolution of the conversion question is not only desirable, it is critical for Israel's survival. I deeply believe that we have an opportunity to set down the halakhic parameters for credibly and normatively resolving the Jewish status of thousands or Israeli citizens. This will not be easy, as it will cause tensions both with the Haredi World and the non-Orthodox community in the Diaspora. It can, however, be done and it should be done.
Deepening Jewish Education and Awareness: As I've said on numerous occasions: Israeli Jewry is undergoing a far-reaching and deeply felt Jewish Renaissance. Israeli Jews thirst for Jewish knowledge and self-expression. The new Knesset will include some stellar individuals whose lives have been devoted precisely to that end. In particular, one should note the election of two women, in particular, Dr. Ruth Calderon (founder of Elul and Alma College) and Dr. Aliza Lavie (author of the best sellers, Minhag Nashim – Women's Customs – and T'filat Nashim – Women's Prayer).
There will be more to say on all of these issues as time goes on. On this morning after, though, I see a lot of reason for hope. I pray to God that our newly elected representatives will have the foresight, courage and selflessness to seize the opportunity and make it a reality.
[This column first appeared in the Times of Israel on January 23, 2013]

Understand conversion – Israel's survival is at stake

It was announced Wednesday that the Elections Board has strongly recommended the removal of Shas' insidious video that viciously questions the entire government (and army) conversion authorities, characterizing them as cheap fictions. Shas, happily, has agreed to comply with Justice Elyakim Rubenstein's suggestion. In addition, removing the video also removes a striking irony. The message conveyed by this cheap piece of propaganda is diametrically opposed to the published opinions of none other than Rav Ovadia Yosef, the putative supreme authority of Shas. Rav Ovadia, In stark contrast to other Haredi authorities, was very supportive of Rav Haim Druckman, when he headed the National Conversion authority. (The fact that Shas MK's didn't know that says alot about their Jewish Literacy and/or the true standing of Rav Ovadia in Shas, but I digress).
The ad has engendered a fair number of responsestwo of the better ones appeared right here at the Times of Israel. That is a good thing, because this election is as much (if not more) about the Jewish character of the Jewish State, than it is about Social Justice and our future relations with the Palestinians.
The Conversion question stands at the center of a much broader debate, comprehending many different, if related topics. Discussion of the question of 'Who is a Jew?', for obvious reasons, tends to quickly become very personal, and very nasty. This is certainly understandable. It is also unhelpful. If we are to address the question, we need to restrain our passions and speak with our heads, as much as with our hearts. We also need to be better informed voters and citizens.
So, even if it was just a slogan for a now defunct, much lamented clothing chain, I agree with Sy Syms that 'An educated consumer is our best customer.' Toward that end, I would like to offer a series of brief points to focus the discussion. I believe that they reflect objective facts (though, I am sure that others will differ). At the very least, my hope is to bring the discussion to a more constructive level.
1. As opposed to Christianity and Islam, Judaism has traditionally defined itself as a religious commitment that under girds a nation's identity. The two elements are so intertwined as to be, practically, inseparable. That is why one's basic standing as a Jew is unaffected by one's level of observance, and why conversion has an unabashedly religious character.
2.  Historically, as the late Professor Jacob Katz used to observe, levels of personal (non)observance often lead to heated arguments and a lot of bad blood. They do not, however, tear the Jewish People asunder. Only differences over the religious question of 'Who is a Jew' can achieve that. That's why there was no schism between Pharisees and Sadducees, between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, between Maskilim and Orthodox, or between Secular Zionists and Haredim. That is precisely what, in the end, drove Jewish Christians, Karaites, and Sabbatians out of the fold.
3. In Israel, especially, it is a matter of both physical and national survival that our tribal unity not be destroyed. Put differently, one's Jewish bonafides (and national solidarity) are defined by one's birth and the validity of one's conversion. They are expressed by our ability to marry one another. (At least, that's what the Talmud and Maimonides said.)
4. Western culture and thought preach the absolute, total autonomy of the individual. Judaism traditionally maintains that the individual has free will and free choice. However, Jewish People-hood makes demands on the individual that s/he may well not like. At rock bottom, then, Jewish Nationhood and Religion are not 'politically correct.'  (As in, 'Who are you to tell me whether I am a Jew, or not?').
5. There are positions, because of their liberalism, that non-Traditional Jews can adopt, which Traditional Jews cannot. Traditional Judaism, with all due respect and affection, can't compromise on the assertions that: 1) no conversion can be halakhically valid unless performed by an Orthodox rabbinical court 2) a convert, like every Jew, is theoretically bound to observe the Torah's commandments. That is why presumptive 'acceptance of the commandments' (Qabbalat ha-Mitzvot) is a factor in the conversion process.
6. Since the Emancipation, when being Jewish no longer presumed being religiously observant, the debate has raged among Halakhic authorities as to what minimal degree of observance should be demanded of the potential convert. Nevertheless, a commitment to Jewish observance is necessary, as with all systems of naturalization.
This is not the forum to vet that debate. However, the Talmud and all subsequent authorities make it patently clear that if a conversion is effected by a qualified rabbinical court, based upon accepted precedent as to the extent of a convert's a priori observance, then that conversion stands and cannot be reversed (except, perhaps, in cases of outrageous fraud). Furthermore, anyone who has ever studied rabbinic responsa knows that rabbinic collegiality demands that, especially in matters of personal status, one court's rulings are respected by another's.
7. Israel's rabbinic establishment has violated two thousand years of Jewish Legal practice in its arrogant (and often, ignorant) behavior regarding rabbinic court actions, generally, and conversions, in particular. (For example, one rabbinic court judge was heard to observe that no one outside of Israel knows how to study Talmud, so no one there is reliable.)
Consider the infamous disqualification of thousands of conversions undertaken under the aegis of the Prime Minister's Office Conversion Commission. Overwhelmingly, in determining the minimal requirements expected of the converts, these courts relied on an explicit ruling by the preeminent halakhic authority, R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Resp. Ahiezer III, 23). Before World War 2, R. Grodzinski's rulings were accepted as final throughout Eastern Europe, especially in Lithuania (with the possible exception of Hungary). Even those who might have disagreed with him, would never have dared to dismiss a court action based on his decision. Yet that is, effectively, what the Rabbinic Courts did in overturning the conversion authority actions. They not only 'oppressed the stranger,' they casually dismissed the greatest Lithuanian Haredi authority of Pre-War Europe and made a mockery of two thousand years of Orthodox rabbinic collegiality.
I started by saying that the conversion issue lies at the interface of the colliding questions regarding our Jewish identity in the Land of Israel. The recently published Guttman Study confirmed an impression that I've had for many years. There is an ongoing, very laudable process through which Israeli Jews are becoming more Jewishly educated, involved and expressive. I firmly believe that this process is critical to our self-preservation in the Land of Israel. After all, sharing the same Jewish Collective Memory,the same self-image as the latest stage in four millennia of history, the same ethnic and religious solidarity that has sustained us through our long exile- what good will fancy weapons do, without the will to use them?
[This column appeared in the Times of Israel on January 10, 2013]