Tuesday, June 29, 2004

America's Post WWII Rabbis 

There is an article in the Forward on the change in affiliation of a "family seating" synagogue from the OU to the Conservative movement. "Family seating " synagogues are that interesting combination of Orthodox prayer and practice combined with mixed seating. Years ago there were many of these in major cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia as well as other smaller towns dotting America.

What made these congregations unique was their leadership. For the most part the lay leaders were of a traditional outlook – if not always shomer Shabbat. The rabbis were from YU where they and their families sacrificed by willing to leave the orthodox neighborhoods and the major Jewish population centers in order to establish a Jewish presence across America. They were willing to go to these congregations in spite of the fact that they were not truly Orthodox in the hope of having an influence on Jewish America of the '50's and '60's.

In the days before Habad made famous going out into the sticks, these rabbis were out in middle America setting up Talmud Torahs and Jewish Day Schools, instituting traditional prayer in synagogues – counseling, teaching and leading men, women and children. They worked with the community at large – not apart from it. They served as chaplains in hospitals and VA's.

At some point, YU's semicha graduates became too self righteous for this kind of work. They were "more religious" than their predecessors and so less willing to leave the religious comforts of New York and other major Jewish centers. The small towns of upstate NY were left to others. In some communities Habad moved in but their solution is separatist to the core. In some communities Conservative or Reform rabbis took over the same congregations and they were lost forever to the influences of the YU community.

This is not a peon to mixed seating congregations only to the rabbis who led them. My father was one of those rabbis and he and his colleagues have never received the credit they deserve for keeping the Jewish religion alive in Middle America. Maybe its because they didn't have the PR forces that others have, maybe because they were just a group of modest people who only wanted to serve. All I know is that there is a story to be told here and it would not surprise me to find a relation between these rabbis and the Jewish identity of their congregants. It would surprise me less to find out that the Jewish identity of their children is related to the fact that the next generation of rabbis refused to serve.

In short – Orthodoxy lost out when the new generation (my generation) of YU rabbis decided to reject all of those congregations that didn't (yet) have a mechitza in their sanctuary. Was this out of laziness, comfort or out of religious zeal? Its hard to say what the reason was, but its easy to look at the state of Jewish America over the last twenty years and see what the results are.

Teaneck and Brooklyn may be thriving, but at what price?

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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Truth and Habad  

Last week the (NY) Jewish Week had an article on the 10th anniversary of the death of R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. The glowing article claimed that the messianists were "dwindling" and that their influence was all but negligible.

This week David Berger responded by claiming that in fact this is part of a "misinformation" campaign and that most of the power centers of Habad Hasidism are in the control of the messianists. This is the case, Berger claims not only in the US and in Israel, but in much of Russia and Western Europe as well.

Who is right?

Well, here in Israel I don't really follow the internal politics of the Habad movement. In fact, if they were not so public, the issue would be amusing and of no interest other then gossip. But of course Habad is as public as the Mossad is private.

So, here are two examples of what goes on in the public domain in Israel.

1. We are just witnessing the ending of an advertising campaign on the sides of buses that called on people to "Call the Rebbe, the King Mashiach" – complete with phone number.

Each advertisement was geared toward something particular: "Do you want a blessing for income (parnasa)?": "Do you want a blessing for your children?" – etc.

And the bottom line read: "People call, miracles happen".

Is this a true belief that you can actually contact R. Schneerson from beyond the grave? Is this an attempt to manipulate nature by talking to the dead? Is there a real belief that R. Schneerson is not dead? Is this a cynical attempt to raise money and cash in on the grave phenomenon that we spoke about ?

2. The Habad Hasidim who encourage men to put on tephilin in the train and bus stations in Israel tell their customers to say the infamous "Yechi" – after saying the Shma. Is this true for every one ? I really can't say – but it is true of all that my son has witnessed.

The Sabbatean movement did not die with the apostasy or even the death of Sabbtai Tzvi. There were secret adherents for many years after the movement fell apart. Will another false messianic movement hurt Judaism and do we therefore have to fight it or is it just one of those things we need to manage to ignore until it goes away?

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Friday, June 25, 2004

Religion vs. "Dat" 

In spite of the fact that residents of Israel have a (non)constitutional right to be within a bus ride of a pork salesman there are still many things that make this a uniquely Jewish country.

On a talk show the other night, Israel's winning-est basketball coach Pinny Gershon who led Macabbi Tel-Aviv to two European titles in four years stated unequivocally that although offered to be the coach of numerous European teams he won't even negotiate because he would have to "leave his mother"…… A soldier who is near and dear to me was, along with his unit, given five minutes to call their mommies and daddies to tell them that they won't be home for Shabbat. ….. During the tense matriculation or "bagrut" exams given in my son's high-school one teacher gave out a bag of candy and another gave each of her students a giant sized lollypop.

I was informed by my favorite soldier today that there is no Hebrew word for "religion" - that the word "dat", usually used to mean religion really means "law". We wrote the other day about Judaism IN culture and have written often about looking to the non-halachic parts of our tradition to help guide us in our lives. I would think it worth our while if the Israeli Rabbinate and the Supreme Court would look beyond their own narrow "dat" to the broader religion that is found in more crevices than they imagine.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Monday, June 21, 2004

Religious Zionism and Alan Brill's Modern Orthodoxy 

In the latest Edah Journal, there is an essay by Alan Brill, a teacher at Yeshiva University, on Torah U'Madda - the underlying idea of what is known as Modern Orthodoxy. Although I seem to agree with his underlying premise that we need to place Torah U'madda within our current cultural milieu there are certain parts of the essay that I had trouble with.

I don't want to go into a deep analysis of his claims or critique his conclusions; rather I would like to comment on one of the assumptions of his essay.

Instead of limiting the discussion to the culture of "suburban America", he would have been better off expanding that to include those of us live elsewhere. His claim that a modern-Orthodox ideology needs to be based on the broad cultural lives of America in general and suburban America in particular is an interesting one, however, by centering modern-Orthodoxy in one place, he puts those of us who do not live in that sub-culture in a sort of modern-Orthodox Diaspora.

It is Brill's Ameri-centrism that is the main fault in his essay and it is one I would like to deal with here.

Although it is clear to most people who spend time in Israel that there is a difference between the outlook of the religious-Zionists in Israel and the modern-Orthodox in America, it is just as clear that we are more brothers than distant cousins. Both Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik are revered in Israel and in America and the acceptance of the religious significance to the State of Israel is part and parcel of both of our lives. The emphases might be different and we in Israel might be less materialistic and more willing to sacrifice for the Jewish people, while those in America are as a group much more tolerant of the Jewish people and more cosmopolitan.

Any attempt to formulate an ideological framework for modern-Orthodoxy without mention of Israel and Zionism can be partial at best. I say this for two reasons: First, Zionism, to this day, forms a central part of any non-haredi Halakhic Judaism: Second, from a cultural perspective in this age of quick travel – both of people and of information – the culture to which modern-Orthodoxy belongs is broader than suburban America.

A good part of the religious education of the leaders of American orthodoxy comes from Israel. Be it study in Yeshivot in Israel or in the influences of publishing houses like Mossad HaRav Kook or the Steinsalz Talmud project and the writings of Israeli academics, the religious life of American orthodoxy would at best be lacking at worst be empty without the influence of their religious-Zionist brothers and their prescience in the Land of Israel. So too, although the influences from America to Israel in the realm of religion is certainly less than from Israel to America, the influences are still there.

From a broader cultural perspective, the concern for the safety of Israel is (I hope) a daily worry of most modern-Orthodox Jews and hence an intricate part of the culture they are a part of. As aliya and long-term visits increase, personal relationships between the two brother-communities increase, contributing to a strengthening of the ties between the two communities. So too, the growing concern that the religious-Zionist community in Israel shows to (mostly) European anti-Semitism has become a part of our daily lives.

I will be the first to agree that there are differences between religious-Zionism and modern-Orthodoxy, but in their essential elements, they are the same. Be it Torah u'Madda or Torah Va'Avoda both accept the concept of a synthesis and in theory at least, understand that neither is a compromise with the masorah.

Brill is too concerned with putting modern-Orthdoxy within the cultural framework of America (and consumer America at that) that he forgets that that community not only goes beyond its shores but that a key, if not THE key portion of it is in the Mideast and not in North America.

The army is a perfect example. The army may not be part of the cultural life of suburban America (although with the ongoing war on terror we will see how long that lasts) but it is an integral part of the cultural life of the religious-Zionist/modern-Orthodox of Israel. And with a growing number of American boys learning in hesder Yeshivot, the army is often more than just a brown Tzahal hat to be brought back to friends and relatives. Any attempt to place Torah U'Madda without mention of the religious, ethical and physical challenges of the army is doomed to fail.

We have not (yet) touched upon the substance of this important essay, but if you look at his call for a sort of Jewish "madda" in the broadest sense of the word, American modern-Orthodox Jewry could do worse than to look the east. Alan Brill would do well to look beyond Teaneck, NJ and the upper West Side of Manhattan to find a "location" for a renewed look at Torah U'Maddah.

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Friday, June 18, 2004

Three on the "Situation" (HaMatzav) 

Although the "security situation" is not our thing here, Ha'aretz has something for everyone today. Read the interview with Yasser Arafat (full interview in Hebrew) and perfectly timed op-eds by Defense correspondent Ze'ev Schiff and former Minister Benny Begin.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Pig is King 

Although I wanted to avoid commenting on this, here it goes.

The pork controversy is back with us. Yesterday, or two days ago its hard keeping track, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the power of local governments to regulate where pork is sold. Essentially, the court ordered the townships and cities to zone pork in or out in various neighborhoods depending on the population.

Now, the Israeli Supreme Court has a long standing habit of not only reviewing the law, but on mandating specific policy measures to fit their conception of right and justice - whether the law says so or not. So this has been no surprise. The "pork problem" stems from the apparent love of the other white meat by immigrants from Russia and environs. Let us forget the educational failure of our religious establishment (or maybe our Culinary Conniseurs) on convincing the new citizens that just as (most) Jewish citizens serve in the army and pay taxes, they also refrain from eating pork and driving on Yom Kippur (in the latter area there is as yet no problem).

Over the last few years the Mizra chain of porkers and others have spread to centers of the Russian speaking and you can even get Cholent with pork at the aforementioned Mizra store in Kfar Saba. But this did not satisfy the politicians who need votes almost as much as they need money. And in our proportional representation system of government you just need 1.5% of the people to hold your viewpoint to get to the Knesset. So, we have lawsuits and court decisions that attempt magnify the de-Judaization of the country for no practical reason. (See Michael Freund on this.)

I say no practical reason, because there is almost no place in this country where pork is more than a short bus ride away.

But we can't end the story there. I heard on the radio news this morning that one Knesset member is now insisting that the Knesset cafeteria include pork products on its menu since most MK's are not religious.

It has become harder and harder to defend the deregulation of religion in this country when the leading proponents are so filled with hatred of their past, present and future.

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Monday, June 14, 2004

Graves of the Great 

On the eastern edge of Kfar Saba there is an old building that has a sign outside of it that says "Kever Binyamin ben Ya'akov" – the grave of Benjamin the son of Jacob – of tribe fame. Over the last few years it has been fixed up and for awhile their was a mincha and ma'ariv minyan there. At night, you would see many cars parked outside and presumably, just as many recitators of the Psalms.

The only problem is that there was no tradition or any other reason to believe that this was actually the grave of Rachel's second son. (There are both Jewish and Moslim traditions that identify Ma'arat Hamachpelah and Kever Yosef - whether you accept them or not is secondary to the fact that they have been accepted as true for well over 1,000 years and have a Biblical proof-text for their general location). Recently (today), while driving up from Kfar Saba to Kochav Yair alongside the newly opened toll road Route 6, I noticed a spray painted sign that said "Kever Shimon ben Ya'akov Ha'tzadik" – the grave of Simon the son of Jacob, the Tzadik. (We will momentarily leave the question of whether it is proper to call Shimon a "Tzadik" or not.)

What is truly amazing about all of these relatively recent "discoveries" of graves of famous Jews is the fact that for the most part none of the said Jews actually lived in this area. Even if we assume that the bodies of Shimon and Binyamin were taken to Israel (as the Torah tells us about the body of Joseph) logic would indicate that they would have been buried in the same area that their tribal descendents settled – neither of whom, alas, picked Kfar Saba.

So, what is going on here? We see here apparently, a continuation of the custom of R. Isaac Luria (AR"I) who traveled in the hills around Tzfat and "identified" the alleged graves of some of the great Tanaim and Amoraim. Accepting the AR"I's analyses would have us assume two things: First that most of these great rabbis were taken and buried far from their homes during a time when that kind of travel was not easy for the living, let alone for the dead: Second – that these great rabbis agreed to be buried outside of a Jewish cemetery.

I don't know if the current obsession with the location of graves is an attempt to tie us to the Land of Israel even more than we are already tied to it – a kind of defensive act by a people who have lost their self-confidence – or an attempt to copy the work of the great mystics of old (or possibly an attempt to increase tourism in said areas), but an obsession it has become.

Which gets us back to the identification of Jacob's second son Shimon, the murderer who was cursed by his father, as a Tzadik. This is clearly an attempt to move yet further from the Tanach and take part in a hagiographic orgy, where no (religious or Biblical) Jew of note could ever have done anything wrong. Where the Tanach is the story of God's relationship to human beings, Jewish history, as taught by much of the religious establishment is the story of God's relationship with other perfect beings.

Grave worship, hagiography, idolatry. The new holy trinity.

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Thursday, June 10, 2004

Women who Learn and Serve 

An interesting article in Ha'aretz by Yair Sheleg on Hesder-like programs for women, where they can combine advanced learning of Torah with service in the army.

Slowly, but surely.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2004

More on Religion as a Moral Force 

There have been some interesting comments regarding my last post. I would first like to clarify what I wrote – or what I thought I wrote and then would like to address some of the issues the "commenters" brought up.

First, the post was not a diatribe against halacha, nor was it a rant against the rabbinic tradition. Ami, who writes the Am Ha'aretz blog has many posts there debunking the oral tradition. His arguments are well thought out and worth reading but are in the end (in my view) misguided. Ami argues for a return to the original values of the Tanach. Now with regard to the US Constitution I would probably be a "strict constructionist" if I were a Supreme Court Justice – but with the Torah I am not.

What is relevant is how our tradition has interpreted the events recorded in the Tanach, not necessarily how the authors originally intended them to be understood. I fully accept the primacy of Halakhah in our daily personal lives, but feel that the rest of the rabbinic tradition – the midrashic one – has been ignored in our Yeshivot for too long. Kabblah has gained import with the rise of hasidut and the modern new age -but what of a rational system of midrashic interpretation? What would our moral and ethical thought look like had we used the same energy and force into interpreting midrash in the way we interpret Halakhah? A Brisker method for midrash anyone?

So yes - we must return to the Tanach as our common language (something we have spoken of before) but not at the expense of our rich oral tradition.

Second (to Aeli) – by the "secularization of religion" – I really should have written the "materialization" of religion. But to me they are alike. We seem to have taken our religion and via the Halakhah turned it into a mathematical science. We have done this with other non-rational aspects of our lives to – our romantic ones for example. I can't help but laugh (and then cry) at the checklists that apparently are circulating around the orthodox community when it comes to picking a mate.

So, rather than having Halakhah be a natural part of our lives – part of the flow of things – each day we confront ourselves with new problems and doubts. We don't look to solve these problems by "living" (Torat Chaim) but by asking rabbis questions that demand - math like - one solution. I would go into this in more depth but Haym Soloveitchik has written about the problem better than I could dream of writing about it.

Finally – to "H" – who wrote that "religion is never a moral force". What can I say? If you are correct then what can be a moral force? The fact that religion has been used as a counter-moral force (look at Islamism today) does not negate the fact that it can, has and should be a moral force in the world today. What other system of thought do we have that can produce for man a "way to live"? Philosohpy tried, but Heiddeger made sure to put an end to that. Science via utilitarian philosophy tried – but in the end, it too realizes that it is incapable. Psuedo-religious movements like the modern new-age or the mystical variants of Judaism and Christianity only leave us with spurts of piousness surrounded by long periods of strange behavior.

Which leaves us with religion in general and Judaism in particular. Can Judaism be a moral force in the Jewish state? That was our original question and there unfortunately, it remains.

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Monday, June 07, 2004

Religion as a Moral Force 

In the recent issue of Commentary, Wilfred McClay wrote a review essay called "The Church of Civil Rights" based on the book "A Stone of Hope" by David Chappell. The main theme behind the essay and the book is the role of religion in the civil rights movement. According to Chappell, religion was THE overriding factor not only in the success of the civil rights cause, but in the failure of the white opposition to desegregation.

The claim is that what both sides had in common is the ultimate belief in the "truth and legitimizing force of Christianity". According to the article/book, as opposed to the period after the Civil War, the white Churches in the south, although they did not often support the civil rights movement, could not find it in themselves to oppose it either.

It is the religiously based force of the movement which interests us here. For if Christianity could provide the moral force for a great and successful movement like the civil rights movement of the '50's and '60's then shouldn't Judaism be able to do the same in the Jewish state? In Israel, though, it is difficult to find any cause (with the exception of the settlement issue) where religion has played a major role in the national debate. This is, I think, a result of what it appears to me is the secularization of religion in Israel.

What could this possibly mean? How can a religion be secularized? Well, one way is to look for an example at the mainline Protestant Churches in America where their religion has turned to politically correct politics. But even in that situation, it is possible to argue that there is an "ideological" as opposed to a "materialistic" component of that new mainline Protestant faith.

With Judaism in Israel, the argument is almost always material. The concern of many of our religious leaders (haredi and religious-Zionist alike) is so dedicated to the minutiae of the Halakhic observance of their often closed communities that religion is only used as an argument in the public square when it concerns the "mitzvah performance" of those communities.

This is a materialistic use of religion because it eliminates the Jewish tradition from so many of the pressing social problems of the country. That is not to say that the ability to be an observant Jew in Israel ought not to be a prime concern of the rabbis. Rather, by concentrating on the material aspect of Jewish life that is halakhic performance they are ignoring the rich moral and ethical tradition that our non-halakhic literature and history has produced.

You see this in the way that hospitals treat "applications" for abortion, or in the way that some of our scientists treat their research. You see this in the methods of child care and hence in the behavior of so many of our children. Judaism in Israel has little to say on these issues because the only question it is willing to answer is the strict halakhic one. Therefore, we have eliminated the moral aspect of the discussion of too many of the important issues of the day. The above issues like abortion or child care are treated materially by the decision makers in the country. And as long as the checklist that Halakhah has become is followed, then the rabbis are mum.

What is to be done? Its difficult to give an answer to this question – but its safe to say that the religious leadership ought to look around them and see what their exclusive concentration on Halakhah has wrought.

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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Ongoing Violence 

Of all the discussions of anti-Semitism here and elsewhere, nothing shows the true face of European anti-Semitism than the denial of member status of the Magen David Adom to the International Committee for the Red Cross. The Jerusalem Post is reporting that "Magen David Adom's entry and full membership in the International Committee of the Red Cross is currently frozen because of the ongoing violence in the region".

Isn't it fascinating how "ongoing violence" is a bar to the entry of MDA into what is supposed to be a "humanitarian" organization? Notice, how there is no claim that MDA contributes to the "ongoing violence" or that it in any way profits from that violence, only that, as ICRC Director for International Law, Francios Bugnion said: "There must be a positive atmosphere for a consensus on this issue, and it is difficult to build a new consensus on this issue at the present time".

Truly fascinating.

Was the "ongoing violence" the reason for the delay in 1949, or 1959, or 1969 or 1979 ….. or in 1992? Is the "ongoing violence" the reason why the international community so detests the Magen David so that its very presence insults their dignity? We can sit here and blame the Arabs and the Moslems and the Palestinians for all this anti-Semitism, but we will be forgetting that four years after the holocaust it was the European governments (led by the Swiss? The French? The Germans?) who first denied entry of the MDA to the ICRC.

Ongoing violence indeed.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Adventures of the Out of Step Family 

It has been a long while since I have written. The busy-ness started good but slowly deteriorated. I don't usually like to bore you with my personal life (not too often, anyway) but this was one of those weeks.

It started on Thursday where the Out of Step Soldier Son marched in step for the ceremony marking the end of his combat medics course. (I have actual pictures of Israeli soldiers marching – and in a straight line!! – for those who are interested.) This was a four month course learning the ins and outs of battlefield medicine. He came home often, which was nice. He also came home with his arms all black and blue as they practice giving each other infusions. They also learn about catheters, but luckily didn't have to practice those.

He is officially certified, with an official medics pin and I am proud to say that he was chosen as "chayal mitztayen" – or number one in his course. With the number one ranking he received a promotion from Turai (private) to Rav-Turai (Corporal). But, it seems that it is the custom of the combat soldiers of the IDF that they don't wear any stripes until they reach Samal (Sergeant). So, since he did not want to be confused with a "job-nik" (non-combat soldier) he quickly removed those two stripes.

Well, as things continued, we all made it home all right from the ceremony but Friday morning, the almost 16 year old out of step son complained about stomach pains. A few teaspoons of Maalox and Tums later the Out of Step wife took him to the doctor's office who sent him to be examined by a surgeon for possible appendicitis.

Meanwhile, the first place Kfar Saba Twins were playing a little league baseball game Tel-Aviv where the redhead starting pitcher and son of the co-coach (yours truly) hit a single off his index finger. After toughing it out to first base he called time and came screaming to the sideline where said finger doubled in size.

We got some ice and he was comforted by his twin sister as we drove to the same doctor that examined his older brother. An x-ray determined no fracture, which relieved the coaching staff (its past the trading deadline already). The KS Twins went on the win the game and clinch first place in the Sharon region with an 7-1 record – although they missed Red's pitching and nifty shortstop glove.

Back at Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba son number two was admitted as we all rushed there to see him. Surgery occurred on Friday night – all was fine and successful. The grapevine did its job and by Shabbat afternoon, all of his friends, the "Chevra" were over. 25 kids crowded into the already crowded room which he shared with other sickies. A young boy from Kfar Saba, a girl and a boy from Tira. One from Taibe.

This turned into an interesting sociological study.

Tira is a small mostly Christian Arab town north of Kfar Saba. Taibe is a tough, crime ridden city northeast of KS. The parents and children all got along, but I am sure that each was wondering: "What do they really think of us?".

I don't know to say what they were thinking of us, but I do know that we were all more than civil to each other. We each took an interest in the other's children. We each offered each other coffee. I don't want to get sentimental here, but its important to understand that living in many parts of Israel puts Jews in daily contact with their Arab neighbors and for the most part I think that simple business-like relationships are developed. Friendships? My guess is that this rarely happens but both Jews and Arabs are clicky and clannish peoples, so it should not be expected to happen.

Oh yes, to put the cherry on the icing, on Saturday night the car broke down. What started with a burnt out clutch has now developed into a rear break job and water pump replacement – and who knows what else they will find.

The number two son is home, the soldier goes back to his base on Thursday, the redhead might only miss one start and should be ready at shortstop vs. Kibbutz Gezer this Friday.

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