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]