Category Archives: Pluralism

Time to Come Home

An article I wrote back in 2001 for Moment Magazine, a Jewish periodical, was not well-received at the time in some circles.

Understandably. The article’s thesis was that the Conservative movement’s claim to halachic integrity was not supported by fact, and that Conservative Jews who respect the mesorah should consider joining Orthodox communities. Conservative leaders were not pleased by the assertion or invitation, and their reaction was fueled further by the incendiary title the publication placed on the piece. I had titled it “Time to Come Home”; Moment ran it under the oversized headline “The Conservative Lie.”

The article (which, I immodestly add, won an American Jewish Press Association award). inspired several Conservative movement officials to vent, and to insist that their movement was in fact, despite my claim, committed to halachah.

But I turned out to be a navi of sorts (no badge of honor there; Chazal see nevuah after the Churban as the province of fools and children). I predicted that the Conservative leadership would one day “halachically” approve certain relationships that halachah expressly forbids in no uncertain terms. In 2006, I was vindicated when the Conservative movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” made the precise endorsement I had foreseen.

It didn’t occur to me, though, at the time, that the movement’s clergy might one day actually consider going so far as to give their hechsher to intermarriage.

But, it was recently disclosed, in late June, 17 members of the Conservative movement’s clerical group, the Rabbinical Assembly, sat down for a meeting to decide what to do about intermarriage.

Since the 1970s, the movement has banned its clergy from officiating or even attending wedding ceremonies between Jews and non-Jews.

Of late, though, resistance to that stance has been steadily building.

An erstwhile assistant dean at the Conservative movement’s flagship school, the Jewish Theological Seminary, quit her position over the intermarriage ban. The former religious leader of Philadelphia’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Seymour Rosenbloom, wrote an op-ed about officiating at the wedding ceremony of his stepdaughter and her non-Jewish husband last spring.

Roly Matalon, a member of the Rabbinic Assembly who presides over a large Manhattan synagogue, announced not long ago that the institution’s clergy would begin officiating at intermarriage ceremonies.

The previously mentioned Seymour Rosenbloom says that “It seems like we’re coming to a tipping point [on embracing intermarriage]… Everyone is talking about this right now.”

Not all his colleagues, certainly, are happy with the trend. “To bless an intermarried union” said David Wolpe, the senior clergyman at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, “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.”

“It’s not fine,” he contends, “and it can’t be made fine.”

And what about halachah? My “revelation” in 2001 that raised such hackles seems to have achieved ho-hum status.

t this point in the history of the Conservative movement,” Daniel Gordis, an American Conservative clergyman, asserted, “to start making an argument on the basis of what Jewish law mandates feels to me a bit hollow… That’s not intellectually honest. The horse has left the barn. The train has left the station.”

The Jews, though, haven’t left the movement.

Many of them, of course, are ambivalent about, if not pleased by, the Conservative slide toward celebrating intermarriages. They may be products of such marriages, parents or siblings of intermarrieds, or intermarried themselves.

According to the 2013 Pew survey of American Jews, the percentage of Conservative synagogue members who were intermarried tripled from 1990 to 2013, from 4 percent to 12 percent.

What’s more, the sheer number of American adults who belong to a Conservative synagogue has fallen during that period from 723,000 adult Jewish congregational members in 1990 to 570,000.

And yet, fully 94% of Jews affiliated with Conservative synagogues say that being Jewish is very important to them; 91% fast on Yom Kippur; 96% attend services on the Yamim Nora’im.

The Conservative world still harbors well-meaning Jews who care about their religious heritage, who are parts of Conservative congregations by accident of birth, or who migrated there from the Reform or the unaffiliated Jewish worlds, seeking to reconnect to Jewish tradition.

And there is no small number of young Jews from Conservative-affiliated homes who, through camping or Birthright trips or campus kiruv efforts, found their way to the world of shemiras Torah u’mitzvos.

It would be irresponsible of us to write off Conservative Jews as hopelessly estranged from our mutual mesorah.

Ironically, the movement’s drift toward accepting intermarriage might just push its more Jewishly aware members to conclude that it really is, now, time to come home.

© 2017 Hamodia

Why Would American Orthodox Jews Fund a Campaign That Vilifies Them – and Israel?

A piece I wrote for Haaretz can be read here.

If you would like a PDF copy of it, just e-mail me at [email protected] with “Haaretz piece” in the subject line.

Demographics Denial

The italics in the following seven paragraphs’ phrases are mine.

Haaretz column headline, in the wake of the Israeli cabinet’s decision to not upend the status quo at the Kosel: “Netanyanu to American Jews: Drop Dead.” An article headline in the same paper: “Israel Preps Diplomats for Backlash From U.S. Jewish Community Over Kotel Crisis.”

A Guardian headline: “Jewish diaspora angry as Netanyahu scraps Western Wall mixed prayer plan.”

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky: “We’re fighting all efforts to weaken the Israel-Diaspora relations.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett: “The representatives of U.S. Jewry feel they were slapped in the face.”

And, speaking of slaps, Former Jewish Agency head and ambassador to the U.S. Salai Meridor: “[The Kosel decision is] a slap in the face to world Jewry.”

American Jewish Committee chief executive David Harris: [The decision is] “a setback for the essential ties that bind Israel and American Jews.”

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America: “We urge all [executives] to communicate with their local Israel consul-general and share with them the community’s disappointment… [and how] disastrous conversion legislation would be for global Jewry.”

My list is much longer, but space is limited. If you haven’t divined the italics’ intention, they are meant to call attention to the implication that phrases like “American Jews” or “Diaspora Jewry” are synonymous with members of the Reform and Conservative movements.

It’s an implication that, at least for the uninformed and simpleminded, makes some sense. After all, Orthodox Jews in the largest Diaspora community, our own, comprise only about 10% of the Jewish population.

But government officials and Jewish thinkers might be expected to be both informed and intelligent. And, thus, to know that 1) most American Jews have no interest in the Kosel (according to the 2013 Pew report on American Jewry, a mere 43% of even Reform members say being Jewish is very important to them – and that doesn’t include the 30% of American Jews who are unaffiliated with any movement); and that, 2) the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, those who actually live their Judaism (not to mention, support Israel) are… the Orthodox.

Reform lays claim to being the largest Jewish religious movement in North America. Its official magazine, “Reform Judaism,” claimed a quarterly circulation of “nearly 300,000 households, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions.” But very few (maybe only me, who inherited a subscription from Rabbi Sherer, z”l) actually ever read it, and the periodical folded in 2014.

And its final issue’s cover story, tellingly, celebrated Jews who sport tattoos, an issur d’Oraisa.

Which leads to the unpleasant but undeniable truth that the non-Orthodox Jewish movements have, by effectively abandoning Jewish observance, diminished much of American Jewry’s connection to its religious heritage.

Even more tragically, by “rewriting” the halachic concept of conversion, they have effectively created a multiplicity of “Jewish Peoples” in the Diaspora. Once upon a time, an American baal teshuvah’s halachic status as a Jew could be all but assumed. Today, unfortunately, that is no longer the case. The majority of many a Reform temple’s members are simply not Jewish.

And what segment of the American Jewish community produces large circulation, well-read newspapers (like this one, the only Jewish daily in the country) and magazines? One guess.

According to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, in fact, within two generations, the Orthodox fraction of the American Jewish population has more than quintupled. More than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger, moreover, are Orthodox. Public policy experts Eric Cohen and Aylana Meisel estimate that, by 2050, the American Jewish community will be majority Orthodox.

With the growth, baruch Hashem, of the American Orthodox community has come increased communal and political standing as well. My colleague Rabbi Abba Cohen, who has headed Agudath Israel of America’s Washington Office for decades, notes that the Orthodox community has clearly moved “beyond mere ‘access’ to” public officials, “which it has had for some time,” to a point, today, where “Orthodox advocates not only find open doors but are sought out and invited into the process.”

When realities like those are delivered, however, the messengers are verbally assaulted, accused of “triumphalism.”

But it’s not “triumphalism,” it’s triumph. Not of any population but rather of Yiddishkeit, of the Jewish convictions and practices that defined the lives of all Jews’ forebears until, historically speaking, fairly recently.

It’s really time that media, politicians and the pundits faced that fact, and began to qualify their use of “American Jews” and “Diaspora Jewry” accordingly.

© 2017 Hamodia

Agudath Israel Statement on Recent Jewish Federation Stances

Leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America and local federations have spoken out loudly about their disappointment in the Israeli government’s decision to suspend the Kotel resolution and about a contentious conversion bill that was recently put on hold.

A self-described Jewish state, of course, must maintain some Jewish standard, both with regard to its holy places and its definitions of personal status.  The only reasonable standard in all such matters is that of the mutual Jewish past, the Jewish religious tradition, or halacha.

There are those, unfortunately, who agitate for different standards in Israel.  That is their prerogative as individuals.  But the historic role of Jewish federations has been to provide support and solace for disadvantaged or endangered Jews and to mobilize the community to come to Israel’s aid when it is threatened.  Taking sides in religious controversies anywhere, and certainly in Israel, egregiously breaches the boundaries of that role.

It also entirely ignores the American Orthodox community, which harbors quite different sentiments.

The most conservative estimates are that 10% of American Jewry is Orthodox.  The Orthodox community, moreover, is poised to become a much more prominent sector of American Jewry.  More than a quarter of all American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox.  And even at present, the great majority of Jewishly engaged American Jews, those whose lives are infused with Judaism (and, not to mention, who are among the most strongly involved with Israel) are the Orthodox.

Any American Jew can, again, hold and promote a personal position on any issue, including the current ones in Israel.  But federations are communal entities, not private ones.  By proclaiming positions on religious controversies and ignoring the convictions of American Orthodox Jewry, federation leaders do grave damage to the very Jewish unity they profess as a goal.

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The Kotel: A Public Space, not A Public Square

The Israeli Cabinet’s recent decision to not upend the public prayer status quo at the Kotel Maaravi, or Western Wall, was met with howls of outrage from a broad cross-section of non-Orthodox leaders and representatives.

The decision, however, viewed objectively and reasonably (rare perspectives these days, unfortunately, about most everything), was prudent and proper.

When it was liberated by Israel in 1967, the Kotel became a place of peace and Jewish devotion. Anyone who wished to worship there, traditional and nontraditional, Jew and non-Jew alike, did so. Since the great majority of those who flocked to the site over the years were, as remains the case, Orthodox Jews, a mechitza, or separation-structure, between men and women was erected; and the standards for public, vocal prayer were in accordance with Jewish religious tradition over millennia.  (The Holy Temple that stood on the Temple Mount in ancient times – the source of the Kotel’s holiness – had a mechitza as well, as the Talmud recounts. And women did not serve there as cantors, as halacha considers it a breach of modesty for men to hear women singing.)

Those standards were, even if they may not have been the personal ones of all visitors to the Kotel, respected by them for decades, and the Kotel plaza remained a place of amity – a Jewish societal oasis of sorts, probably the only place on earth where Jews of different religious beliefs prayed side-by-side.

That peace was shattered, and the holy place turned into a place of strife, by a self-described feminist group, led by firebrand Reform activist Anat Hoffman.  She has made no secret of her desire to force a change to the status quo, and to import the American model of a “multi-winged Judaism” to Israel.

As a step toward that end, she organized monthly protests in the guise of prayer services.  The response from some haredi hooligans was predictable – anger and attempts to quash the services, where women were chanting – and the feminist group seized upon that ugly reaction by having it captured by the camera crews it made sure to have in tow.  The vast majority of Orthodox Jews at the site did not act on the anguish they felt.  But feel it they did.

Anyone, of course, including Ms. Hoffman and her supporters, is entitled to his or her own views.  But there are limits, at least among civil people, to what one may do to promote one’s views.  And seeking to be “in the face” of people interested only in the introspection that is Jewish prayer crosses that line.

Those determined to “liberalize” Jewish practice are free to do what they wish in their own synagogues, and to promote their visions as much as they wish in the media and the public square.  But the Kotel, while it is a public place, is not a public square.  It is not a place for political or social or religious crusades to be waged.

Ms. Hoffman and her supporters have made clear, moreover, that the current Kotel controversy is only a part of a larger plan to bring American-style “religious pluralism” to Israel.  That goal might sound wonderful to many American Jews, but what it would in fact do is, by creating multiple standards for marriage, divorce and conversion, create a multiplicity of “Jewish peoples” in the Jewish state.  That would not be wonderful at all.

Regarding the Kotel, as it happens, in 2004, the Israeli government set aside an area along the Wall to the south for “nontraditional” prayer.  But the activists, with their “pluralism” goal firmly in mind, insist on having their vocal “egalitarian” services more prominently alongside the regular, overwhelmingly Orthodox, visitors to the Kotel, who, they know, are deeply pained by attempts to utilize the Kotel to effect social or religious change.

Rather than balkanize the Kotel so that feminist groups today – and, in the future, to be sure, other groups with their own social agendas – can promote their causes, and “pluralism” proponents can advance theirs, the Kotel should be preserved as a place of Jewish unity, as it has been for half a century.  And that means maintaining the Jewish religious standards at the root of all Jews’ histories for public prayer there.

Some can howl with outrage at that suggestion.  But, if they are caring Jews, they can choose instead to regard it as reasonable, and thereby help restore peace among all Jews at the Kotel Maaravi.

Agudath Israel Reaction to Kotel Plan Freeze

Agudath Israel of America released the following statement today:

The Israeli Cabinet’s decision to not upend the status quo of normative, traditional Jewish religious worship at the Kotel Maaravi, or Western Wall, is a prudent and proper one.

The Kotel was a place of peace and Jewish devotion for decades after its liberation in 1967.  That peace was shattered, and the holy place turned into a place of protest in the guise of prayer, by Women of the Wall and its allies overseas.  That has been a tragedy.

Every man and woman can, as always, pray privately and with genuine emotion at the site.  But maintaining a standard for vocal public prayer is only sensible and proper.  That standard, since 1967, has been halacha, codified Jewish religious law.  Those determined to “liberalize” Jewish practice are free to do what they wish in their own synagogues.  To cause anguish and anger to the thousands of traditional Jews who regularly pray at the Kotel, however, is not what any Jew should ever wish to do.

Rather than balkanize the Kotel so that feminist groups today – and, in the future, other groups with their own social agendas – can promote their causes, the Kotel should be preserved as a place of Jewish unity.  As it has been for half a century.

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Mortal Etiquette vs. Immortal Truth

As you may have noticed, the first day of Shavuos falls on the fourth day of the week this year. Were any Tziddukim around today, they’d be unhappy. They held that Shavuos must always fall on a Sunday.

There are, however, no Tziddukim left. They, of course, were one of the camps of Jews during the Bayis Sheini period that rejected the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Torah Shebichsav – explaining, for example that “An eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, and that “totafos” refers to what we call tefillin (one of which is worn, moreover, not as the unelucidated passuk seems to state “between your eyes,” but rather above the hairline.)

The Perushim determinedly preserved the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and it is to them that we owe our own knowledge of the mesorah.

The Tziddukim’s insistence on a Sunday Shavuos, though, holds pertinence for the contemporary Jewish world.

Because the Tziddukim invoked support for their position from the Torah Shebichsav, accepting at face value the word “haShabbos” in the phrase “the day after the Shabbos” (when Sefiras Haomer was to commence). The mesorah teaches us that “Shabbos” in that passuk refers to the first day of Pesach.

But there was also an underlying human rationale to the Tziddukim’s stance. The Gemara explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety. It would be so pleasing, so proper, they reasoned, at the end of the Omer-counting, to have two days in a row – Shabbos and a Sunday Shavuos – of festivity and prayer.

“Propriety,” in fact, was something of a Tziddukian theme. The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Kadashim. The mesorah prescribes that the ketores, the incense offered there, be set alight only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand.

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

(Daf Yomi adherents recently learned [115b] about a Tzidduki attempt to indirectly, and improperly, favor a daughter in an inheritance law.)

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of the central message of Shavuos itself, when we celebrate Mattan Torah. Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous and unifying declaration there: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!”

In other words, “We will accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding. Even if it is not our own will. Even if it discomfits us. Even if we feel we have a better idea.”

It’s impossible not to see the relevance of “Naaseh v’nishma” to our current “you do you” world, to contemporary society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” to developments like a self-described “Orthodox” movement that hijacks the terminology of halachah to subvert it, in an effort to bring it “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Yiddishkeit has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter can surely emerge from a kedushah-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

Shavuos is generally treated lightly, if at all, by most American Jews. But its central theme speaks pointedly to them. Mattan Torah’s Naaseh v’nishma reminds us all about the true engine of the Jewish faith and Jewish unity – namely, the realization that Judaism, with apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2017 Hamodia

Kotel Krusade

An op-ed of mine about the recent disruption at the Kotel engineered by non-Orthodox Jewish clergy and an Israeli feminist group appeared in Haaretz.

 

It can be read at:

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.750731?=&ts=_1478444374594

Torah Vs. Egalitarianism

The “Kosel Controversy” – whether “nontraditional” prayer services should be accommodated at the Kosel Maaravi – blazes on, fanned by the winds of politics, courts and “activists.”

Respect for the Jewish mesorah at the site has characterized tefillah there since Yerushalayim’s liberation from Jordan in 1967.   What underlies the desire of some to diminish that respect?  I think it’s something that emerged from a conversation I recently had with a nine-year-old.

I had scheduled a lunch appointment with a Jewish journalist, and he e-mailed me the day before to ask me if his daughter, who was off from school the next day, could join us.  Of course she could.

“Sarah” seemed a precocious and intelligent young person, and listened intently as her father and I conversed.  At the end of the conversation, her father asked her if she had anything herself to ask me.  She did, and wasn’t shy.  “Why,” she inquired, “are you Orthodox?”

Not a question I’m often asked. I explained how I had been raised Orthodox but had also, after much reading, study and thinking, come to realize that Mattan Torah, as the singular claim in history to mass Divine revelation, is undeniable.  And that the beliefs, laws and practices of the Jewish mesorah are incumbent on Jews.

Sarah considered my words for a moment and then responded, “Well, I love Judaism, but I believe in equal rights for women.  So I don’t think I could be Orthodox.”

I admitted to Sarah that the Torah indeed assigns different roles and responsibilities to men and to women.  But, I added, life demands that each of us establish a hierarchy of values – and only one thing can be at the very top of any list.

Orthodox Jews’ first-place value, I explained, is the Jewish mesorah, as it has been carefully preserved and developed through the rules of the halachic system over the centuries.  As she gets older, I told my young interviewer, she will have to decide what to honor with first place status in her own life – Judaism, egalitarianism or any other ideal she may opt to value above all else. She should realize, though, that, as in any hierarchy, only one thing can be in first place.

That thought returned to me when I read of yet another in the series of media-directed protests-in-the-guise-of-prayer-services of the activist group agitating for the “right” to behave at the Kosel in a way that dishonors halachah and hurts those who regularly daven there. The activists takes pains to wave the flag of “religious freedom,” and there may well be individuals among them who are impelled, if misguidedly, by religious feelings.  But it doesn’t take a Ph.D in sociology to discern that the movement as a movement is motivated, above every other concern, by the desire to “empower” women – to erase gender distinctions.

There is, of course, much in the Torah that seeks to protect, and even “empower,” women – like  Chazal’s statement requiring men to honor their wives more than themselves (Yevamos, 62b), the kesuvah, women’s special mitzvos.  But the Torah also precludes women from certain roles (as it does most men from the roles of some – like Kohanim).  The Torah is not “egalitarian.”

“Egalitarianism,” however, and “religious pluralism” are the first priorities of the Kosel activists.  If Torah has a ranking at all on their roster, it’s, at best, in third place.

Those advocates for changing the status quo at the Kosel have clearly ordered their ideals; they should be honest enough to admit the fact.  To declare, in other words, without apology or dissembling, their conviction that the contemporary notion of egalitarianism trumps all else, and merits their quest to turn the remaining courtyard wall of the Makom Mikdash into a balkanized site of strife and disunity.  Then, at least, the issue will be clear: Judaism vs. Egalitarianism.

What is our role here?  There may come a time when Jews committed above all else to Torah will be directed by Gedolim to demonstrate that conviction in one or another way.

For now, though, perhaps we can help undermine the “egalitarianism first” push with a spiritual demonstration of our own dedication to the ultimate Jewish ideal.

Few if any of us are crass enough to embrace contemporary notions as more important than Torah.  But there are numerous blandishments – like material success, government influence or social status – that can subtly insinuate themselves into our lives’ “first place” without our even realizing it. Resisting such things with all our strength will not only make us better Jews, but might even cause reverberations at the Kosel plaza.

© 2016 Hamodia