Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Big Lie

Illustration from Reuters via the Jerusalem Post 
I’m not sure whether it’s deception or just plain old fashioned stupidity.  Although it pains me to say it, I think a recent statement by heterodox rabbis that was reported in the Jerusalem Post is a combination of both.

Why does it pain me? I know that many Conservative and Reform rabbis are sincere. They are true believers in their philosophies. Although I am in profound disagreement with them, I understand that in most cases they have spent the majority of their lives believing in the tenets of their denomination. They believe in what they do. I therefore completely understand their latest protest.

However,  if the ‘letter of protest’  they read at the Israeli embassy in Washington is the best they can do  - it shows that either they have a complete misunderstanding of how Israel treats its non Orthodox population, or more likely they are purposely making misleading charges against it.

What they seek is pluralism. Let us be clear what that means. They want Reform and Conservative Judaism to be declared legitimate denominations – right along with Orthodox Judaism. I don’t support them. But that is a legitimate demand to make of a democracy.

But they are not framing it that way. In an effort to gain wide support from non Orthodox Jews they are characterizing Israel’s refusal to recognize them as a rejection of all non Orthodox Jews.

This would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Secular Jews are rejected?! Are they kidding? Secular Jews make up the vast majority of Israeli Jews (…although their percentages are shrinking in light of their low birth rate versus the much higher birthrate of Orthodox Jews.) To say Israel’s reneging on a plan to expand the egalitarian space is a ‘manifestation of a lack of respect for non-Orthodox Jewry both in Israel and in the Diaspora’ is such an obvious lie, I can hardly believe they said it.

What they are purposely ignoring is that most secular Jews in Israel don’t really care about Reform or Conservatvie Judaism. They are perfectly happy to be secular. To the extent that many of them are traditional means that they are to some extent traditional in the Orthodox sense of the word. They do not look to Conservative or Reform customs or interpretations of Halacha. They look to what their parents or grandparents did (in Europe if they are Ashkenazi; in the Middle East if they are Sephardi). None of which were Conservative. And if those ancestors were Reform they clearly did not look to their customs because Reform Judaism in Europe didn’t have any Jewish traditions. They ran away from them.

Now it may be true that secular Jews support the rights of heterodox movements to be considered legitimate. But that is surely not because they believe in the ideology of either Conservative or Reform Judaism. It is simply because they see Israel as a democracy which in this case is denying the rights of fellow Jews.

And yet the entire argument of these rabbis makes it seem like Israel is denying they rights of every secular Jew in Israel. And that by reneging on the deal they have betrayed the majority of Israel’s Jews, as well as the majority of American Jews. That is an obvious deception.  The following two excerpts make that clear: 
“These developments, offensive as they were, unfortunately do not stand in isolation but are only the most recent manifestations of a lack of respect for non-Orthodox Jewry both in Israel and in the Diaspora…” 
“This... goes to the heart of whether Israel perceives non-Orthodox Jews as legitimate.” 
These are lies, plain and simple, whether made intentionally or not.  Had they said heterodoxy instead of non Orthodox Jews, I would have agreed with them.

To say they are upset by this is an understatement:   
(I)t is painful to describe the anger, frustration, disillusionment and disappointment throughout our communities concerning the most recent developments with regard to the Kotel, conversion and the authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. 
Yes, I’m sure it is painful. But that should not include implied threats of withdrawing support. As  does the following: 
Our communities have long been the backbone of support for Israel,” it said. “In light of those facts, it is painful to describe the anger, frustration, disillusionment and disappointment throughout our communities concerning the most recent developments with regard to the Kotel, conversion and the authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.” 
…these straws have broken the camel’s back.” 
I’m not buying it. Are they going to stop supporting Israel’s defense forces?  Are they going to stop sending money to the Israeli poor? Are they going to stop supporting the important scientific and medical research being done in places like the Weitzman Institute and Hadassah Hospital, Technion and other universities there? 

Are they just going to turn their back on Israel because their denominations won’t get official recognition?

And what about their stated goals of Kiruv towards Israel’s  secular Jews? Are they going to abandon that too? Remember, no one is banning a single Conservative or Reform rabbi from coming to Israel and preaching their beliefs or opening up more of their schools.

They feel  betrayed and I don’t blame them.  A deal was made and suddenly withdrawn by the prime minister because of pressure from religious parties. Netanyahu, the consummate politician,  does not want to lose his coalition. So he gave in to them. 

For what it’s worth, he promised that this deal will be renegotiated with modifications that will be acceptable to all. I hope it is. Because the one thing I do agree with is this: “We have enough trouble with our neighbors, why do we have to fight with ourselves?”

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Illogical and the Irresponsible

Irresponsible! (Ha'aretz)
If there is any logic to the Arab/Mulsim world complaints about what Israel did on the Temple Mount, it escapes me.

To say they are complaining is to put it mildly. You would think that Israel has thrown a bomb into their mosque instead of installing metal detectors. You would think that Muslims that pray in an area they consider holy would be grateful for the added security – instead of calling for a day of rage – as did Mahmoud Abbas. I honestly don’t get it.

There have been many articles written about this by people that have been just as perplexed as I am. One of which was by David Horovitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel where he noted: 
It’s outrageous that the metal detectors are deemed unacceptable when religious sites the world over are secured in exactly the same way, for exactly the same unfortunately necessary reasons. There is high security around key Islamic sites, notably including at Mecca and Medina. 
It’s not as if the decision to put install metal detectors  on the Temple Mount happened surreptitiously in some sort of stealth decision to do so, Not that – that would have been so terrible. Upgrading security is the duty of any government as a means to protect its citizens. 

But the fact is that Israel did it because 2 of its police officers guarding the mosque were attacked, shot, and killed by Muslim terrorists using guns hidden in the mosque. Ironically, the two police officers that were murdered were Druze Arabs! Israel rightly felt that this needed to be addressed by upgrading security. Arabs killed Arabs, Jews try to do something about it, and Arabs are enraged by it.

(How in the world can those who support BDS and claim the moral high ground, ignore the outrage of this situation? Could it be because those same people are ‘anti Zionist’ (meaning they hate Jews)? Is Roger Waters an antisemite? He may deny it and claim this is all about justice for the Palestinians. But if that were so, I would expect him not to be blinded by such an obvious truth – and say something about it.)

Why are Muslims so upset about this? I believe that this is just about not having full control of Har Habyis. Every day they are reminded that Israel rules over them and they don’t like it. Even though they do have just about full control of it… to the point of not even allowing Jews to pray there, they still resent Israel’s presence in any capacity there. Placing metal detectors is just another indication of Israel’s control. They also realize that Jews have a religious claim to that area too, Even though they discount that – and Israel has done its best to ignore it, they get plenty of reminders about our claim.

When religious people feel that one of their holy places is not fully in their control it upsets them. Any action done by people they see as occupiers is going to result in this kind of reaction.

Which brings me to a group of Jews who just have to show them ‘who’s boss’. The more extreme among them believe we should just blow up the Al-Aqsa mosque on Har HaBayis so that we can begin to re-build the Beis Hamikdash. While those people are few and truly on the fringe, they are a very noisy fringe that makes sure that the Arabs hear them. 

And then there are those who insist they must go up their so that they can pray even though it is against Israeli law. And the fact that many Poskim say that they shouldn’t go up  – even to the places that are technically permitted by Halacha. These people want to assert their authority over Har Habayis and make sure the Arabs know it.

It happened again – right in the middle of all this. From Ha’aretz
The Temple Mount was temporarily closed to Jewish visitors on Wednesday at the order of Jerusalem District Commander Yoram Halevy after Jews broke visitation rules at the holy site, police said. 
The Jewish visitors were expelled from the compound for bringing sacred books to the Mount and trying to pray there. After one of the individuals was cautioned, another took out a holy book, and the group was expelled. 
If there is going to be a day of rage, which was called for by PA president Abbas, then these people were irresponsibly pouring gasoline on the flame – making sure that the rioters will be as outraged - and as prone to violence as possible.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Yes! Har Habayis is ours, given to us by God. It is the place where the Beis HaMkidash stood and will stand in the future. There is not a scintilla of doubt about that. But neither should there be any doubt about the irresponsibility of those zealots who are willing to make that point on the backs of all the innocent Jews that will be hurt by their exacerbation of the tension.

I’m glad that that authorities have decided to close off Har Habyis to Jews today as a result of this. In my view, it ought to be permanent.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Orthodoxy Needs a Legitimate Left Wing

Image from The Atlantic
A short while back, a friend of mine who is a passionate supporter of the egalitarian space at the Kotel admitted to me that when he visited the Kotel he chose to experience the Orthodox controlled section saying that it was more inspiring to him then it might have been at the egalitarian space.

This did not lessen his strong support for that space. But it does tell me that Orthodoxy has a lot to offer even those of us that are on the left of Judaism.

Which is why reaching out to fellow Jews of all (or even no) denomination is so important. I would go even further and say that it is critical that we increase such outreach. There has never been a more important time to do that in recent history than right now.

There is no longer any doubt about the rapid decline of Conservative Judaism. To put it the way Emma Green did in The Atlantic
Of all the American Jewish denominations, Conservative Judaism appears to be shrinking the fastest: As of 2013, only 11 percent of Jews under 30 identified as Conservative, compared to 24 percent of Jews over 65, according to Pew. 
This is old news. What is not so old is what they are trying to do about it. And how Orthodoxy should react.

The Conservative movement was founded in response to a melting pot America where the challenges of assimilation were overwhelming. One might say that they saw themselves as an outreach movement (known in Orthodox circles as Kiruv). Their goals were noble, but their methods were wrong on at least two levels. 

First, they ignored the importance of Halacha even while claiming fealty to it. Conservative Rabbi Daniel Gordis noted that this claim stopped being valid when the movement started allowing Jews to drive on Shabbos in the 50s . He calls such claims intellectually dishonest .

The second problem is that it is counterproductive to what you are trying to promote. Judaism is about our obligations to God which are spelled out in the Torah and interpreted by our sages and rabbis throughout the generations. It is not about abrogating those laws which you no longer think are relevant. It would be like telling a baseball player he can join your team and allow him to violate the rules of the game. Except that our rules were established by Someone a bit more important that Abner Doubleday.

The Conservative Movement is grappling with exactly an issue like this. Intermarriage has long been taboo even according to them. And there are still  strong arguments being made against it. Which sound almost like the Orthodox arguments against it: 
“To bless an intermarried union is … to in some way betray the very thing that I’ve given my life to, which is to try to maintain the Jewish tradition,” said David Wolpe, the senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “It may be beautiful, it may be loving, it may be worth celebrating on a human level. But on a Jewish level, it’s not fine, and it can’t be made fine.”  
But as Rabbi Gordis notes, that train (i.e. that Halachic argument) has ‘left the station’. Intermarriage is now the hottest topic on the Conservative table. In a misguided attempt to revitalize their movement many of their more liberal rabbis are either performing them already or are advocating doing so to save the movement. 

I guess they haven’t learned from their past mistakes. You can’t take the Judaism out of your movement and expect people to stay Jewish. There has to be core standards. If you keep moving the needle, you don’t really have any.

Nonetheless there is a need to reach out to the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. How do you reach out to a group of people who - because of our culture - consider it racist to forbid intermarriage? I have no good answer for that. But I do know there are many fine Orthodox outreach organizations that are able to appeal to these very same Jews.  (Just to name a few, Chabad, NCSY, and the Chicago Torah Network.) 

But that still leaves a lot of Jews that cannot accept the standards of mainstream Orthodoxy. And yet have a desire to have a more spiritually fulfilling life. They are people with liberal values, some of which seem to contradict the traditional values of Orthodoxy. Such as egalitarianism.

This is why we need a left wing in Orthdoxy. One that used to be able to appeal to those values while remaining loyal to Halacha and tradition – even while pushing some of the traditional boundaries. For example. Rabbi Avi Weiss had some innovative ideas about how to accommodate egalitarian views by creating a Shul environment that had an egalitarian spirit without compromising Halacha. Although it broke with the traditional design of an Orthodox Shul, it did not cross lines that put it outside of Orthodoxy. He was able to reach out to that kind of Jew. Even though I would be very uncomfortable davening in a Shul like that, I strongly supported it since there are a lot of modern Jews that it did appeal to.

Which is why I am so disappointed by what has happened to the left. Rabbi Weiss, has crossed so many lines that he is no longer accepted or even tolerated by mainstream Orthodoxy. I am not going to go into in detail here. I have done that more times than I can count. I am just expressing my dismay over what has happened to the left by the creation of an Open Orthodoxy (OO) that has gone too far. 

It would otherwise be ideal for many modern day unaffiliated Jews seeking genuine spirituality without sacrificing their modern ideals. If only OO would have stayed within acceptable bounds, I would be their biggest supporter. The rabbis of the Conservative movement want to reach out by changing the rules. That would not be acceptable to an intellectually honest person seeking spirituality any more than a good baseball player would be attracted to the game of baseball that changes the rules to accommodate his particular preferences. Because that would make baseball seem inauthentic. And it would be.

This is why I had hope that my friend, YCT president Rabbi Asher Lopatin would have stayed within acceptable bounds of tradition. He is as sincere as they come and it shows. If anyone is a magnet for the unaffiliated, it is him.  He proved that when he was in Chicago. He took a dying shul and made it more successful than at any time in its history… appealling to the modern educated Jew without seriously crossing any lines.

This is also why an intelligent and knowledgeable man like YCT Talmud Chair, Rabbi Y’soscher Katz could be so valuable to this cause. He has basically admitted that Open Orthodoxy is a form of Kiruv aimed at the modern educated, Jew that has been acculturated to spirit of the times. The same kind of people that the Conservative Movement wants to reach out to.

I strongly support their goals. But as is the case with the Conservative movement, I do not support their methods.

We need a left wing more than ever now. The Conservative movement is failing – and grasping at the wrong straws to stay relevant – and even stay alive. Performing intermarriages is clearly not the way to retain Jews. History has shown that to keep going in the direction of lessening the standards will not retain Judaism for these Jews. It will instead grease their path out of it.

It is therefore up to Orthodoxy to do it in ways that do not compromise Halacha and do not cross the important lines of tradition. That is how the left wing of Orthodoxy used to be. Open Orthodoxy could have been that left wing. If only they hadn’t gone too far. And it seems like they may go even further down a path well trodden by the Conservative movement using the same rationale they did. Which got them where they are today. And which may signal where Open Orthodoxy will end up.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Anti Zionism is Anti Semitism

French President Macron and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
There are those that will argue that being anti Zionist does not mean one is antisemitic. On the surface this seems like a fair statement. But is it? Not according to the newly elected French President, Emmanuel Macron. And I generally agree with him.

But what about that? Why isn’t it possible to be opposed to State of Israel and yet have no issue with the Jewish people? I think that’s because Israel is defined as a Jewish State. And even though the State does not necessarily represent all of my Jewish ideals – which are Torah based – nor does it represent all of the Jewish people - Israel is nevertheless seen that way by much of the world. If I am not mistaken, Israel now has more Jews living within its borders than does the United States or any other country. It’s hard not to see being anti Israel as not being antisemitic.

This does not of course mean that one can’t be critical of the Israeli government. Clearly there are many Jews critical of the government, including – and perhaps especially –some of its own citizens. But when one says something like Zionism is racism – as did the UN years ago, it can only be seen as a thinly disguised form of antisemitism. (While the word ‘semite’ technically includes Arabs, current usage of the word ‘antisemite’ refers to being prejudiced against the Jewish people.)

It’s nice to know that the new French President understands the distinction between being critical of some of Israel’s policies and being anti-Zionist.  Especially – as the World Jewish Daily notes, France has been pretty pro Palestinian in recent years: 
At a Paris event marking the Holocaust with Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu, Macron pledged, "We will never surrender to the messages of hate; we will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism." 
This new approach is heartening in light of the wave of recent antisemitism in France. It has become so bad that immigration from France to Israel is unprecedented. Prime Minister Netanyahu has done his best to publicly encourage it, telling Jews to leave France because of it - and make Aliyah (immigrate) to Israel!

A lot of people thought it took quite a lot of Chutzpah for a sitting Israeli prime minister to insult an ally by urging French Jews to leave France en masse and come to Israel.

I suppose it did. But what followed is a passionate plea from then French Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying words to the effect that France without Jews – is no France at all. I guess that the French leadership finally saw the threat of a massive exit of so many Jews from their country was very real and that antisemitism was what was causing it. And they did not like it. The last time they saw that happening was when they contributed to it during the Holocaust! Not a piece of history French political leaders are proud of. At least most of them.

The only question is, will it last? Or will antisemitism continue to be a major problem there? We shall see. But in the meantime, I’m glad President Macron uttered those words.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Recognizing Truth - No Matter the Source

A Reform egalitarian prayer service at Robinson’s Arch
Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein is one Orthodox rabbi that I believe has caused more damage to Orthodox Judaism than just about any other Orthodox rabbi. His name is practically synonymous with the ban on Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books issued by his mentor, Rav Elyashiv. 

That ban has done incalculable harm to fellow Orthodox Jews - driving a wedge between many modern Orthodox Jews and Charedim. As have so many other things he has had a hand in. I am therefore loathe to agree with anything this man says about any subject. And yet I find myself mostly in agreement with him on a subject on which he was recently interviewed. 

By the same token I find myself in disagreement with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, someone that I consider a hero. While I still do consider him a hero on so many levels, he has made some comments in recent years on a variety of issues that trouble me. The latest of which is his apparent support of heterodox movements: 
"First and foremost, [Diaspora Jewry can teach us] the idea of pluralism…I see the Reform and Conservative as my partners and as part of Israel... 
I really do not understand how this student of Rav Soloveitchik (the Rav) who in the past did not make a move without consulting his teacher and mentor, could say something that is in diametric opposition to his views. 

It is rather well known that the Rav did not permit any of his students to participate with heterodox rabbis except in matters of communal welfare. In theological matters, he forbade any participation because he considered them an illegitimate representation of Judaism. On this point the Rav was no different than Rav Aharon Kotler. And yet in calling them partners Rabbi Riskin seems to be rejecting his mentor’s clear directive.  That said I do not disagree with him about this: 
"There is a reciprocal relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, which is very important, even vital for us,"  
Yes, there is. And it is important to maintain it. The only question is what the cost might be. The relationship cannot come at the cost of sacrificing our ideals. We can’t say that something is Kosher if it isn’t. Even if it would cost us good will. 

First the claim that their conversions should be recognized while at the same time welcoming intermarried couples – and even performing intermarriages is an outrageous demand that any rational person that recognizes the basic tenets of Judaism - would reject. And then there is the Kotel issue.

Until this controversy arose, there were no issues with respect to welcoming every Jew into Israel with open arms. That hasn’t changed. It doesn’t matter to which denomination a Jew belongs Nor how observant they  are. If a Jew comes to the Kotel there is no litmus test about observance or belief. Or even if they are Jewish. Ever since the return of the Kotel into Jewish hands thousands of Jews from all denominations have come to the Kotel; respected the rules; and in many cases found it to be inspiring experience even without it being egalitarian. 

What is happening now is that their leaders are insisting that their egalitarian standards be respected and recognized. Most of Reform and Conservative Jews did not have this issue on their radar at all -   until their rabbis made it one. And as noted here a few days ago, most secular Israelis could not care less about praying at the Kotel – even in an egalitarian setting. Which (as mentioned in the past) they already have in the little used portion of the Kotel called  Robinson’s Arch. It therefore seems obvious to me that the Kotel is little more than a tool being used for purposes of recognition. And Rabbi Riskin seems to be supporting that. Perhaps he was responding to this: 
“We love the State of Israel and will continue to do. But we will not sit idly by while the State of Israel delegitimizes us and frankly says to the Jews of North America and the Jewish of the world, ‘You do not matter,’” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the North American Reform movement, said June 26 at the Knesset. 
No, Rabbi Jacobs. The State of Israel does not say that at all. Nor do even the Charedi parties. It is not the Jews of North America or you they reject. It is the false ideology of Reform Judaism.

I cannot understand how a man like Rabbi Riskin can compromise the ideals he has worked for all of his life, ideals his mentor strived for – all for the sake of support from Diaspora Jewry. We need the support. But the price he is willing to pay is too high.

Which brings me to Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein. It galls me to say it, but in large part I agree with him:
“The reason why Judaism is the only religion that survived throughout thousands of years and all the massacres and all the attempts to destroy it is that the ours is the only religion that has always been the same, the way it was given to us on Mount Sinai,” Eisenstein said in an interview. “Who gave you, the Conservative and the Reform, the authority to make up a new religion?” 
Eisenstein said ultra-Orthodox opposition to the Western Wall deal was fundamentally about staving off state recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism. The Western Wall agreement also called for an interdenominational Jewish committee to oversee the non-Orthodox section, which ultra-Orthodox critics felt gave non-Orthodox movements an unprecedented say in Israel’s religious affairs. 
Adding to this is Shas Kenesset member Rabbi Ayeh Deri. And although he too is not one of my favorite people, here he speaks the truth: 
“We have nothing against Jews in any place they may be. They are all our brothers,” he said. “Our fight is against the approach, this ideology which is attempting to bring a new Judaism here, is trying to destroy everything that we built here over the years.”  
So there you have it. This is little more than a fight over legitimization of violations of Halacha that are increasingly being accepted by heterodoxy. And no Orthodox rabbi could ever agree to that.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Demise of Jewish Denominations

Temple Shalom in Chicago
Truer words have not been said: “I’m A Reform Rabbi, And I’m Not Going Anywhere.” So said Rabbi Howard Goldsmith. Well, that’s almost right. I would just apply it to his movement, not him.  Reform Judaism is not going anywhere. It is becoming less Jewish with each passing day. If it’s going anywhere it is going toward extinction. At least as anything legitimately called Jewish… as their definition of who is and isn’t Jewish has departed from all traditional definitions. I do not say this with any sort of glee. I just see it as a fact.

That they do not require any ritual Mitzvah observance has contributed more to the secularization of Jews in America than any other single thing.  ‘Unaffiliated’ is how most American Jews answer when asked which denomination they belong to. That can be traced in major part back to the tenets of Reform’s founding fathers. It is also the reason the Reform Movement has expanded its ‘tent’ of membership to Judaism. Which makes it even less Jewish than it was before.

How ironic it is that a Reform Rabbi is so  taken by the Jewish State. One of the founding tenets of Reform Judaism is the rejection of the return to Zion (Israel). Something we Jews have prayed for since the second temple era. And something Orthodox Jews still pray for daily. Reform Judaism erased any mention of it from their liturgy - and called their synagogues ‘temples’ to show that we don’t need the temple  in Jerusalem any more.  Reform temples in America have taken its place. Israel was considered an irrelevant detail of Jewish history with little value to Jews of our day.

That Rabbi Goldsmith now loves Israel is a good thing. Times change. People change.  And the Reform Movement changed. I’m actually pleased that he has fallen in love with the country. Although I’m not in enamored with the socialist image of the Israel’s founding fathers upon which he bases his love - loving Israel in any context is progress.

Before anyone jumps all over me for my apparent intolerance and lack of understanding, that is not what is going on in my mind. I actually feel sorry for this man. He is clearly an idealistic individual with altruistic intentions. It’s not his fault that he believes that Judaism does not require any Mitzvah observance. I will even give him the benefit of the doubt that he keeps many of the Mitzvos. That has been the trend in recent years. The Reform leadership has changed direction.

 In its heyday, Mitzvah observance was practically forbidden. When I was a child, I recall my father telling me that the rabbi of the Collingwood Avenue Temple in Toledo required Jews to remove their head covering when entering the sanctuary. Reform leaders now realize that shunning all observance has left Reform Judaism - Jewish in name only and bereft of any real Jewish  meaning. It has resulted in their membership wondering what it is about their denomination that makes it different from any other altruistic group pursuing social justice.

So they have done a 180 and now support doing as many Mitzvos as possible. That is a plus. But without a mandated commitment, Reform Judaism leaves in place the ability to move easily from Reform Judaism to being unaffiliated and intermarriage.

There are those who might say that Orthodoxy does not have the exclusive right to define who is and isn’t a Jew or what Judaism actually means. They are entitled to their opinion. But the fact is that Judaism has survived throughout history precisely because it was defined basically the way Orthodoxy is defines it now.

While there  may be some legitimacy to claims that the way Orthodox rabbis rule today has in certain instances departed with how rabbis have ruled historically - there is not a scintilla of doubt about the fact that it has been Halacha and tradition that has kept us Jewish historically. Can anyone imagine what Judaism would look like today if Reform Judaism would have taken hold instead of rabbinic Judaism? You don’t have to imagine it. I’ll tell you. It would not exist at all in any - even remotely recognizable way.

Rabbi Goldsmith had the misfortune of not having been raised in an environment that sees the importance of required Halachic observance. That’s why his sermons dealt so much with supporting Israel. Israel has indeed been the main subject of heterodox sermons when they weren’t about social justice issues.

Although I’m sure he does not want my sympathy and might reject everything I say – considering it insulting, I nevertheless I actually feel bad for him (even as I understand why he would be upset). He is sincere and feels unjustly rejected by Israel. I can’t really blame him for feeling that way.

But the fact is that he is not rejected at all. Only his movement is. He is as welcome to Israel as any Jew. He is also as welcome to pray at the Kotel as as any other Jew is. That he wants to do it together with women is just a product of his indoctrination. Israel - including its Charedim - welcomes all Jews. The only thing the Charedim and most other Orthodox Jews reject is the legitimacy of his denomination.

As noted here recently be a secular columnist in Ha’aretz, most Jews could not care less about the Kotel – other than as a tourist attraction. There is no groundswell of secular Israelis clamoring to pray at the Kotel in any incarnation: Reform,  Conservative, or Orthodox. This is all political. A tactic being used by heterodox rabbis to gain some sort of recognition for their denominations.

I believe that all denominations  are all headed for demise. Including Orthodoxy. At some point in the future only observant Jews will be able to be counted upon to perpetuate our people. We will all just be Jews. Not members of a specific denimination. Just as has been the case historically. The rest will unfortunately be lost to assimilation sooner or later. This is not a good outcome at all. But it is a real one.  The sooner Rabbi Goldsmith realizes that, the sooner he may come to realize the importance of ceding control to Orthodox rabbis is the only way toward the future. I think that deep down he might even know that.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Seeing the Other Side

Image from Bishvilaych
One  of the most troubling things I have noticed over the years is the inability of people with one set of ideals to hear what people with another set of ideals are saying. It would be a far better world if we just listen to each other and try to understand where those with opposing views are coming from. There doesn’t have to be agreement. We all have our ideals and we fight for what we believe. I am certainly one of those.

But what I try to do is hear what people that disagree with me are saying and respect their views. Sometimes I can even change my views if the opposing view makes more sense to me that the one I originally had. Perhaps that’s why I often find myself straddling  a middle course on so many issues

In the course of conversation that takes place by people that comment on my posts, I rarely see that kind of understanding. Or even civility in some cases. Instead I see stridency on both sides of an issue, sometimes crossing the lines of polite discussion into venomous personal attacks.

I believe that this is one reason we do not have Achdus in Judaism - not even in Orthodoxy. As I’ve said numerous times, agreement is not the goal of Achdus.  The goal is to respect other points of view even when there is disagreement.

I bring this up in light of a discussion on Sruli Besser’s  Facebook page. It involved a discussion about how the Charedi world treats their women. Shoshana Keats Jaskoll made the following comment in a Times of Israel article dealing with breast cancer: 
In Judaism, those who make policy for the entire community are men. Men, by virtue of being men, don’t experience Judaism as women do. This is natural.
What is not natural, however, is not listening when women describe their experience and ask for change. Communal and rabbinic leaders simply do not consult with women. They don’t allow for serious input from them, and they don’t hear from them about the consequences of communal policy and priorities. Thus, women’s needs come after a long line of other considerations and as a result, policy doesn’t take them into consideration. 
Shoshanna then goes into detail about a whole host of issues where women are negatively affected because of that – including areas of womens health. This generated responses from the many on the right essentially accusing her of Charedi bashing. 

One can agree or disagree. But the response from both sides showed zero attempt to try to understand or see the merit of the other side. Almost everyone just promoted their own point of view without granting even the slightest bit of legitimacy to what the other side was saying.

But there was one response that didn’t do that. It came from Alex Fleksher. She is not Charedi, but has expressed views that are often consistent with the Charedi point of view. (As she did on her Cross Currents post on the movie, Wonder Woman.)

I posted an article about the reaction of these two women stating that despite their similar backgrounds their views about the movie could not be more different! Shoshanna and Alex debated their views commenting on both my blog and on Cross Currents. But then she came to a realization. I will let her speak for herself (from Sruli’s Facebook page): 
I decided to really try to look at it from her perspective. And I realized that her views on shmiras einayim (the topic of my article) and possibly tsnius in general are different than mine because of the environment that she currently lives in. She is witnessing all sorts of extremes in RBS and I'm happy go-lucky in my midwest town in the U.S where no one is saying boo to me in my jean skirt.
So I shared that with her. And she really appreciated it and from then we have had some very nice shared dialogue where we've learned more about each other and are focusing on what we agree on. It was actually quite liberating removing those labels, trying to understand the other, and start finding ways we could have a positive discourse. I truly believe Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll has some valid takeaways from her article… 
This is what I am talking about! This is the kind of Achdus I am seeking. We need to understand what the other side is saying and respect it; learn from it; and even change our views if it make sense to us. But changing our views is not the goal of Achdus. Just appreciating where others are coming from.

If you are Charedi, then it would be helpful to look at the Hashkafos of Modern Orthodox and try and understand them. And if you are Modern Orthodox it would be just as helpful to try and understand Charedi Hashkafos. There is just too much blindness about the value of any other views other than your own.

I tend to see value in both sides of an issue - even as I see problems in both. I know that the great Centrist  leader,  Rav Aharon Lichtenstein respected great Charedi leaders like Rav Yitzchok Hutner and Rav Sholmo Zalman Auerbach. I believe the reverse is true as well. Even though they disagreed Hashkafically.

I only wish there were more leaders like them today. Unfortunately I think the trend is away from that as the world of Orthodoxy becomes more polarized than ever. That is clearly reflected in the discussion that took place on Sruli’s Facebook page as it is almost daily between people commenting on my posts.

My hat is off to both Alex Fleksher and Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll  (who said ‘you’re such a mensch’ after reading Alex’s  lengthy comment from which I excerpted above). If we could all do that, Achdus may actually be possible some day.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Damage Caused by Silence

Breaking new ground? Picture of a woman in Mishpacha Magazine
‘Of course it’s Mutar.’  ‘Just don’t quote me.’ This is unfortunately the leadership style of some (if not all) of the Charedi rabbinc leaders in our day. I can’t even count the number of times I have heard one or more of the members of the Agudah Moetzes say something like this on one issue or another. 

Where, oh where are the Rav Ahron Soloveichiks of our day?! He was fearless in his Avodas HaShem (serving God). If he believed in something he spoke his mind – caring not a whit what others might think. And he wasn’t alone. There were many others like him. (Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and Rav Yitzchok Hutner come to mind.) That doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  And it just happened again on an issue that is seriously harming Judaism: the erasure of women from the public sphere.

Adina Miles just published a post on Instagram (republished in the Forward) that tells of her quest to reverse the trend of not publishing any pictures of women. As she notes: 
With the internet in everyone’s pockets, we are raising a generation today that is faced with more influence from the outside world than ever before. If girls can’t see visible role models within the mainstream publications, they will turn to other more dangerous places.  
And yet the trend to erase women has been catching on with increasing frequency these days. The Charedi ‘glossies’ do not do not publish any pictures of women at all. The one time one of them (Mishpacha) tried by using a very distorted picture of Hillary Clinton on their cover, they got hammered by a rival Charedi publication (Hamodia). Although they stood by their decision to publish it, they have since then not done anything remotely close to it. Until now. Sort of.

Mishpacha finally did publish a picture of a woman in last week’s edition.  It is one of a woman dressed in a Burka and is part of an illustration in the first chapter of a story serialized by Ruti Kepler. 

Progress? Hardly! A quick read of this first chapter makes it seem like she is trying to ‘normalize’ abnormal modesty standards. Or at least trying to soften the image toward some sort of acceptability of it. I guess we will have to wait and see how the story ends. 

Man? Woman? Gorilla? Who knows what is under that literal tent! But that’s OK. Because it’s all in the service of ‘modesty’. And despite a few Charedi rabbis speaking out disapprovingly after being interviewed about it a few years ago, there has been little else done since to discourage it. In fact it seems like the number of Burka wearing women are actually increasing along with magazines like Mishpacha normalizing it.

And as Adina Miles notes, the role models young children now have for how a woman should look  are the immodest images they carry in their pockets. Or in popular mainstream magazines whose only picture of a woman is one wearing a Burka

Is this the kind of Chinuch our children should be getting? This is OK with the rabbinic leaders of the right?! At least to the extent that they don’t want to be identified saying anything negative about it? It would seem so.

One of the things that people with the slightest bit of common sense (both men and women) have been pointing out is that by focusing on the reasons for modest clothing they are actually sexualizing them. Even when they are very young – long before they even hit puberty.

Self described lapsed Beis Yaakov student, Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin tells her story in the Forward
One day last week, Elianna came home from her day camp run by the local modern Orthodox community, and informed me that her (female) counselors had told her that she needed to wear a t-shirt over her bathing suit when she is being transported to the swimming pool.
As someone who generally believes in the value of modesty as a form of appropriate decency and etiquette (we are in the South, after all), wearing a swim cover up when out in public appeared like a perfectly reasonable request to me.
What she said next sent a shock wave through my feminist- Gender Studies professor -progressive Jewish brain; “When I asked them why, the counselor said I had to cover up in case any of the men saw me.” As a little girl who still undresses without care in front of her younger male cousins, Elianna has no concept as to what “in case any men saw me” means.
In that very moment, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate, imported for the summer to our open-minded community in Richmond, Virginia from Brooklyn, New York, took my innocent and naive little girl and inappropriately oversexualized her into a possible temptation for the “uncontrollable” heteronormative male sex drive. 
Young girls being taught that hey are temptresses when they are barely out of diapers.  Boys are getting that message too.. And there is not a single leading rabbinic authority that I am aware of that has publicly stated that this is not the Jewish way… not the Torah way. The irony is that in so many cases they believe that they are teaching young people the opposite. They believe they are mimizing the focus on sex when they are in fact they increasing it.

As Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin points out, the 18-year-old counselor that mentioned this is not at fault. This is how she has been indoctrinated.  

That there is an over focus on modesty in the way women should dress is an understatement. It is breaking new ground and altering centuries old tradition.

As Adina Miles notes there has always been universal agreement by Poskim that a woman’s face is Tzanua by its very nature. No matter how strict any group is about issues of modesty in dress, women’s faces were never an issue even to the Eida HaCharedis or Satmar. But  now the face of a woman is never being published in mainstream Charedi magazines. And Burka ladies that cover up head to toe with a Burka are apparently being normalized. All in the name of eliminating the focus on sexuality. While in fact doing the opposite!

Is there no one among the rabbinic leaders of the right that will stand up and once and for all say in public loud and clear, ‘Enough’?! Do they not see the damage their reticence to speak publicly is doing?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Secular Jews and the Kotel

Typical scene of mostly Orthodox Jews at the Kotel on Chol HaMoed 
How much does the average non observant Jew really care about getting an egalitarian space at the Kotel?  One has to wonder whether the common secular Jew cares at all about praying at the Kotel. What does it look like at  Robinson’s Arch? How many people have visited that part of the Kotel for religious purposes?

The answer to these questions can, I think, be found in 2 separate articles written by 2 different people in two different publications.

The first was in Arutz Sheva which featured a video of what seems to be a Dati Leumi (modern Orthodox ) fellow that earlier today, on the fast of the 17th of Taamuz, walks through the beautiful plaza at Robinson’s Arch. No one was there. Not a soul. Not a Reform Jew. Not a Conservative Jew. Not even one of their rabbis.  

The fast of the 17th of Tamuz commemorates the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman armies. It was the beginning of the end of the second temple era which was finalized when the Romans burned the 2nd temple to the ground on the 9th of Av. Which will be commemorated 3 weeks from now. 

The Kotel which is the outer retaining wall of the courtyard surrounding the Temple was the only thing left standing. If one goes to the traditional Kotel one will find many people praying on both the men’s and the women’s side of the Mechitza. Robinson’s Arch - zero. Why is that?

The answer to that question can perhaps be found in an oped featured in Ha’aretz. I do not normally excerpt almost an entire article as I am about to do here. But any attempt to paraphrase Ha’aretz contributor, Irit Linur a secular Jew in Israel - will not do justice to her words. So I will let her speak for herself:

Like many secular Jews, I am not particularly interested in the Kotel…

(Upon a ‘surprise visit’ to the both the Kotel and Robinson’s Arch she noticed that there…) was (a) difference in the number of visitors to the two plazas. There were thousands of people in the Western Wall plaza on a regular weekday. There was just a cat in the mixed section. In light of the outcry that arose around the nixing of the Kotel agreement one would have expected to see thousands of Women of the Wall, imbued with religious spirit, alongside bar mitzva ceremonies in which grandma need not stand on a chair to get a peek at the men’s section. However, the mixed section was practically abandoned.

A few meters away, the Western Wall is teeming with Jewish life, despite the long – and gender-segregated – security inspection line. It is full of life because for hundreds of years its natural guardians – the Orthodox – preserved its holiness. They engage in it, with texts that are hundreds or thousands of years old, and a rabbinic hierarchy, and tradition and strict rules that if they change at all, change s-l-o-w-l-y. And they are engaged in the daily observance of commandments and prohibitions that not everyone can rationally explain, and some of them are unacceptable. 

And even those that are acceptable can be deceiving: Orthodox Jews’ strict observance of Shabbat does not stem from an adherence to socialism or primordial support for workers of the world but rather a godly commandment. Orthodox Jews avoid schnitzel with butter even though they know chickens do not produce milk. And the Kotel is most definitely holy because anyone who keeps chicken and milk separate is exactly the type to find holiness in stones.

The obsession with holiness is sometimes annoying, perhaps even arrogant, so particularly witty secular Jews can mockingly call God “an imaginary friend” or compare him to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But when faith in an imaginary friend begets the Bible, a people and a 2,000-year-old culture as well as a moral system that ignited Western culture, you can drop the smugness with which people brag about their atheist purity. And let’s admit the truth: Not keeping commandments is much easier than keeping them.

Some will say that even without commandments secular Jews are no less Jewish than religious ones, so they should be equal partners is determining the character of the Kotel. It is correct in principle, but there is meaning to keeping your religious traditions, or at least recognizing them, before pretending to make religious rulings.

I, for example, am a typical product of state secular education. I was surprised to discover in my first year of university that the Rambam was a world-famous philosopher and not just another baba from the graves of righteous Jews. Thus, I still don’t feel ready to write a prayer equal to the Aleinu, or to prove that God is totally cool with driving on Shabbat and with a female rabbi. You have to wait 500 or 600, or even 2,000 years for that.

And if we insist on secularism as a value, it’s hard for me to understand the accompanying insistence on sitting on the tribunal, free of religion’s bonds, and shouting out directives to a Jew who fasted not only on Yom Kippur but also on… nu, remind me … oh, right, Gedalya…

We are arguing with these people about Judaism, and what is the right Judaism, and how Judaism should be, while we are armed with ignorance that we acquired through state secular education, a very partial study of the Bible…

You don’t have to be religious to recognize the religious contribution to turning the Kotel into much more than an archaeological site. Religious Jews made the Kotel holy long before we extended Israeli sovereignty over it, including periods in which praying there was dangerous.

Excuse me, but I don’t believe a sudden outburst of holy lust has overcome us. It looks to me like the disappointment of those who fully believed you could have a Jewish state without Judaism, and perhaps an overreaction by those whose enlightened sensitivities are repulsed by any level of religious feeling.

The fight over the Kotel isn’t really about Reform Jews. They are a marginal group in Israel. They may be a – not especially effective – barrier against mass assimilation. However, Israel is the only place in the world in which you can be a Jew and, without fearing for the Judaism of your grandchildren, cast off the burden of commandments and still feel as Jewish as Moses. None of this could exist without religious Jews. As a secular person, I believe that if we run the Kotel according to secular standards, it will look less like a holy site and more like a parking lot. Fortunately, the Orthodox will keep praying there even then.

H/T Jerry Gottheil & RYS

Monday, July 10, 2017

Moving Backwards

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, David Lau
As if the Israeli Chief Rabbinate needed yet another blow to its credibility, yesterday the Jerusalem Post published what it said was a list of 160 Diaspora rabbis blacklisted by them. Meaning that their testimony with respect to the marital or Jewish status of any Jew will be rejected. The list even included some Chabad and other Orthodox rabbis.

Fortunately, the reaction from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi was immediate: 
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, however, strongly denounced the blacklist, stating that he had no knowledge of it until Sunday, and that it was the work of the clerk in charge of the Marriage and Conversion Department, who created it without proper authorization.
In a letter to Chief Rabbinate director-general Moshe Dagan, Lau said he was “astonished to discover this list,” that it was “unthinkable” a clerk would create such a document of his own accord, and demanded that the clerk be reprimanded. 
I don’t know how much damage control he accomplished. But I’m glad he had this reaction. I don’t, however, think he has gone far enough. A reprimand?! That ‘clerk’ should be fired post haste! Nor do I even agree that a list like this should even exist. Which is another troubling aspect of Rabbi Lau’s statement. He implied that such a list may be appropriate but that the clerk who compiled it did so without authorization.

This is not to say that the Chief Rabbinate cannot have standards. Of course they should. Judaism is not a free for all where anyone can say they are Jewish even if they were not born of a Jewish mother, had no conversion at all and just decided one day to claim it, or converted improperly. What is and isn’t a proper conversion is the Chief Rabbinate’s right to decide.

This is why I supported the creation of standards and the agreement with the RCA whereby the Chief Rabbinate accepts any conversion done that follows their newly established conversion (GPS) protocols. As I've said many times, stetting up clear standards was necessary in order to counter the many sham conversions done even by some Orthodox rabbis in the past. That is now far less likely to happen now. 

Whether these new standards can be tweaked to make them more compassionate and fairer – or how to view legitimate conversions of the past is beyond the scope of this post. Although I do believe there needs to be some revisions – the point is that the conversion process needed tightening up. That was done.

Lists like this serve no good purpose. They only end up antagonizing – not only the black-listed rabbis, but their constituencies as well. And it feeds the perception by their many critics that the Chief Rabbinate has only one purpose: the pursuit of power at any cost. Even a cost of destroying lives. 

Which would be the result of such a blacklist. Because it would mean that a lot of legitimate conversions that have been done in the past would come under question. People who firmly believed they were Jewish via an Orthodox conversion would wonder if they really are. As would their friends and neighbors. 

Marriage prospects for their children would be severely crippled. Even many generations later the children and grandchildren of a woman who had a legitimate conversion under a black-listed rabbi will wonder if they will be accepted as Jews. No matter how religious they are. Even they are sitting in Kollel! 

It could ruin marriages if a Kohen was involved (If for example a Kohen finds out his wife’s mother did not covert properly, his wife is not Jewish and conversion won’t help. A Kohen may not marry a convert.  If he does – they must divorce. I can’t imagine the grief that would cause to him, his wife and his children.)

It’s bad enough that these kinds of problems come up anyway even under the best of circumstances. But a list like this could easily exacerbate the problem and increase it exponentially over generations.

As of now, the Chief Rabbinate is probably at its lowest point of popularity. Which is probably an understatement. It seems that nobody respects it anymore. Some people are calling for it to be abolished. Although I can’t say that I really blame them, I am not one of those. 

As I have stated in the past - a Jewish state needs a rabbinate to define and guide its Jewishness. Only the most knowledgeable rabbis should be involved in that process. Its ways should be the pleasant way of the Torah. Not the heavy-handed judgmental ways in which they behave now. That is the only way they will ever regain the respect of so many people who have lost respect for them.

The current rabbinate has a long way to go to fulfill its important role that way. Only it seems to be moving backwards. My hope is that this event will make them re-think how they operate – and become more user-friendly and compassionate. The time has come to stop being reactionary. The time has come to stop alienating people. 

The Chief Rabbinate must change its ways and rid itself of anyone in its infrastructure –  like this clerk – whose has shown no human compassion for fellow Jews and whose tactics have done nothing but further alienate their Chief Rabbinate’s critics. Only then will they have even the slightest chance of regaining the respect that a body like a Chief Rabbinate should have.