Category Archives: Pluralism

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Ism Schism

Liberal-minded American Jews rightly regard Pamela Geller, who organized the Garland, Texas cartoon-of Islam’s-founder contest earlier this month, as an irresponsible provocateur.  What’s odd is that many of those very same liberal-minded American Jews enthusiastically champion (and generously support) another irresponsible provocateur.

That would be the “Women of the Wall” – the attention-addicted feminist group bent on holding vocal women’s services at the Kosel Maaravi that offend the sensibilities of the traditional Orthodox women and men who most frequent the site and have regularly prayed there in traditional fashion for decades.

It might seem at first thought that Ms. Geller’s stunts are in a category of their own.  After all, by snubbing her nose at the Muslim world, she courts violence of the sort that extremists within that world so readily and joyfully embrace.  In fact, her Texas event attracted not only a small crowd but two angry and armed Islamists who sought to spill blood but who were, baruch Hashem, killed before they could wreak the havoc of their dreams.

But Ms. Geller isn’t misguided only because of the violent reactions she invites. She is misguided because, put simply and starkly, it’s wrong to provoke people.  There is nothing wrong with condemning Islamist terrorism or holding the banner of free speech as high as one chooses.  But to try to make one’s points by insulting the sensibilities of all Muslims is boorish.

Which brings us to the “Women of the Wall.”  They are free to make the case that their feminist vision should trump Jewish tradition.  But seeking to flaunt their conviction in the faces of others for whom it is anathema is crass.

In its mission statement, the group declares its desire “to change the status-quo” at the Kosel, and that it stands “proudly and strongly in the forefront of the movement for religious pluralism in Israel.”  Were it well-mannered, it would limit itself to lobbying Knesset members and making its case to the public in as reasoned a manner as it can. Instead, though, it chooses to push its program squarely and harshly into the faces of Jews who cherish the “status quo,” i.e. the Jewish mesorah, and oppose the “religious pluralism” that seeks to undermine it.  That’s not advocacy; it’s indecent.

Celebrated writer and translator Hillel Halkin, no traditional Jew, doesn’t generally cover his head.  Yet he has written that, “in certain places – on a rare visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for example – I’ll put on a kippah even though I resent having to do it.”  And, referencing the Women of the Wall, he shared his imagined reaction were a fellow non-kippah-wearer to invite him to “a demonstration of bare-headed Jewish men at the Wall [where] we’re going to pray and sing and keep coming back every month until our rights are recognized.”  He would, he writes, “politely tell him to get lost.”

First, though, he writes, he would challenge the inviter: “Why insist on [forcing your issue] in the one place where it’s going to offend the sensibilities of hundreds or thousands of people?… If you need to go to the Wall, just cover your head and don’t indulge in childish provocations.”

Women of the Wall’s quest, Mr. Halkin asserts, has “to do only with the narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest.”

That narcissism is even more pronounced these days, as – for better or worse – a temporary platform for “non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer” has been prepared at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Kosel plaza, facing the Kosel and no less holy than where traditional prayer has been the norm. Women of the Wall’s leader, Anat Hoffman, though, has dismissed that accommodation as a “sunbathing deck” and “second-rate.”  Her group has apparently opted to shun the alternate site, preferring instead to continue to try to upset fellow Jews in the place where they have prayed in the traditional manner since 1967.

Shavuos approaches.  The anniversary of the moment when true Jewish unity was forged, when our ancestors – including those of Mrs. Hoffman and her American Jewish supporters – stood “like a single person with a single heart” at the foot of Har Sinai.

What unified Klal Yisrael then, of course, was their declaration of naaseh v’nishma, their embrace of the Torah whether or not they could “hear” everything it requires of them.  It was a commitment, in effect, to place the Torah above all else, above all the isms of the time.

And of the future, something contemporary provocateurs and their supporters might do well to ponder.

© 2015 Hamodia

Dear Alyssa

Dear Alyssa,

Congratulations on winning the Oratory Contest of the Jewish youth movement BBYO.  The topic was: “If you could modify any of the Ten Commandments, which would you choose and what would your modification be?”

You chose the fourth, the Sabbath, since “as a Reform Jew” you “do not observe the Sabbath in a traditional way.”  Your suggested replacement, in consonance with your belief that “Judaism means something different to everyone,” is: “Be the Jew You Want to Be.

You explained how “No one likes to be commanded to do anything, and especially not teens,” and that you therefore “practice Judaism in the way that works for” you.

“Judaism,” you wrote, “means something different to everyone. I believe that we should not let the kind of Jew we think we should be get in the way of the kind of Jew we want to be.”

What kind of Jews, though, should we want to be?

I don’t know if your family celebrates Passover.  But most affiliated Jewish families, including those belonging to Reform congregations, do mark the holiday, which, you likely know, will arrive in mere weeks.  If you have a Seder, it might have a contemporary theme, which is common in non-Orthodox circles.  You might be focusing on the economic enslavement of workers in many places today, or on human trafficking, or on the environment or on civil rights

All, of course, are worthy subjects for focus.  But Passover, or Pesach, has a history that goes back long before all those concerns.  Your great-grandparents, if not your grandparents, likely conducted a traditional Seder, as surely did their grandparents, and theirs before them, and theirs before them, all the way back to the event such a Seder commemorates: the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt.

It happened, Alyssa.  The Jewish people’s historical tradition has been meticulously transmitted from parents to children over thousands of years, and its most central events were the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai shortly thereafter

The exodus from Egypt was not, as some people think, a rejection of servitude and embrace of freedom.  It was, rather, the rejection of servitude to a mortal king and an embrace of servitude to the ultimate King.  If you read the Torah carefully, you’ll see that fact clearly.  “Send out My nation,” G-d commands, through Moses, “so that they may serve Me.”

And so, while you’re right that people, and especially teens, generally don’t like to be commanded, from the perspective of your religious heritage, being commanded by the Creator, and thus being a light unto the nations in that acceptance of His will, is the greatest privilege imaginable.

In fact, it is the essence of Jewish life.

The end of the exodus story is the revelation of G-d to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai.  There, in an unparalleled historical event, the Creator spoke directly to hundreds of thousands of people.  No one could fabricate such a claim – and no other religion or group ever has.

And at that singular happening, the Torah was entrusted to our ancestors, along with the rules for understanding it and developing the system of laws that we have come to call Halacha.

You are correct that the Reform movement decided at its inception, in nineteenth century Germany, to reject what Judaism stood for over the previous thousands of years.  But there are still Jews – very many of us – who strive to maintain the integrity of the “original” Judaism.

As a thinking, caring young person, you owe it to yourself (and to your people) to not be satisfied with the conclusion you have currently reached, but rather to continue to investigate Jewish history and Jewish texts, and to keep an open mind.  You may be surprised to discover not only the historical veracity of classical Judaism, but the richness of living a “commanded” Jewish life.

I wish you well in that most important quest.

Candles and Candor

A non-Orthodox writer recently reached out to ask if I would participate in a panel discussion about Chanukah.  The other panelists would be non-Orthodox clergy

While I cherish every opportunity to interact with Jews who live different lives from my own, I had to decline the invitation, as I have had to do on other similar occasions. I explained that my policy with regard to such kind and appreciated invitations is a sort of passive “civil-disobedience” statement of principle, “intended as an alternative to shouting from the rooftops that we don’t accept any model of ‘multiple Judaisms.’ So, instead, [I] opt to not do anything that might send a subtle or subliminal message to the contrary.”

“Sorry,” I added, “Really. But I do deeply appreciate your reaching out on this.”

The extender of the invitation, Abby Pogrebin, was a guest in the Shafran sukkah this past Chol Hamoed.  Both my wife and I were impressed with both her good will and her desire to learn more about traditional Jewish life and beliefs.  In fact, she is currently writing a series of articles for the secular Jewish paper the Forward on her experiences observing (in both the word’s senses) all the Jewish holidays and fast days over the course of a year.

Ms. Pogrebin recently produced her Chanukah-themed entry in the series and, with remarkable candor, reported that her research has led her to the understanding that Chanukah is really about the victory of Jews faithful to the Jewish religious heritage over those who were willing to jettison it.

“I know it’s too simplistic to say the Maccabees stand in for the observant, and the rest of us for the Hellenized,” she writes. “But implicit in so many rabbinic Hanukkah teachings is that we’re in danger of losing our compass, losing our difference – abandoning the text and traditions that make us Jews.”

Then she continues in a personal vein:  “And that sense of alarm makes me look harder at where I fall on the spectrum before Hanukkah begins this year.”

Ms. Pogrebin goes on to quote Jewish writer Arthur Kurzweil as maintaining that Chanukah “is about Jewish intolerance in the best sense of the word” – that is to say, intolerance of assimilation to the larger culture.

He adds an analogy: “Baseball has four bases. You can invent a game with five bases; maybe it’s even a better game. But it’s not baseball.” Judaism, he explains, “is not whatever you want it to be.”

She goes on to note that it was hard for her “not to see the echoes of Maccabee-Hellenist tension this very month,” citing her failure to enlist traditionally Orthodox participants in a panel discussion she was moderating, the one to which she invited me.  Having requested, and received, my permission to do so, she then quoted my response to her invitation.

Of course she finds reassuring voices, like that of Conservative rabbi Rachel Ain, who tells her “I wear tefillin every morning. They’re black and what all the men wear. I find it so powerful. I also wear a kippah, but it’s a beaded kippah and I have a tallit that was made for me – it’s green and purple and blue – and it’s very feminine and very halachic… Hellenizing? I say it’s innovating.”

But Ms. Pogrebin is a tenacious reporter, and cannot ignore the other, more Jewishly grounded, testimonies she received.

And it personally pains her.  In words like Mr. Kurzweil’s and mine, she hears an echo of “countless voices in the observant world who would likely dismiss my level of Judaism as perilously assimilated.” And she is, understandably, distressed by that thought.

“Hanukkah,” she realizes, “celebrates those who refused to blend in.”

“Where,” therefore, she wonders, “does that leave those of us who, to one degree or another, already have?”

To my lights, Ms. Pogrebin is too hard on herself.  She’s no Hellenist. She may be entangled with the larger culture in which she lives – so are, to one or another degree, all too many observant Jews.  But she doesn’t reject the Jewish religious tradition, as did the Hellenists of old.  In fact, she has embarked on a quest to better understand our mesorah, and seems rightly suspicious of the blandishments of those who proffer “innovations” to Jewish religious praxis.

Observance, to be sure, is central to Yiddishkeit.  But a heartfelt undertaking by someone who wasn’t raised to be Torah-observant to learn more about observance, is hardly the enterprise of a Hellenist.  It’s the hallmark, I’d say, of a Jew.

© 2014 Hamodia

Only One Path to One Jewish People

In Haaretz, Reform Rabbi Eric H, Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, conceded the main point of a recent piece I wrote for that paper – that there cannot be an American-style church-state divide in Israel.  He takes issue, though, with my claim, which he labels “outrageous,” that the haredi community seeks only to preserve the religious status quo ante established at the founding of the Jewish state.  Much has changed, he argues, demographically since then.

I did not, however, assert that demographics haven’t changed, a self-evident falsehood.   The status quo ante I cited is the legal/social agreement reached between David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community (Agudath Israel at its head) shortly before the state’s birth (along with other norms put in place shortly thereafter).

Yes, as Rabbi Yoffie points out, Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t know that the haredi community would grow to the point where it represents a sizable portion of the Israeli populace; and Israel’s first Prime Minister indeed likely hoped for a Hertzlian “Jewish culture rooted in atheism, socialism, and Biblical teachings.”  And yes, that didn’t happen.  (Whether Ben-Gurion’s spirit presently is perturbed or pleased by the current state of affairs is unknown.)  But the fact remains that all the clashes between “progressive” forces in Israel and the state’s haredi community have seen the former agitating for change, and the latter trying to maintain the balance struck at Israel’s birth.

Rabbi Yoffie is welcome to assert that changed demographics argue for a change in the status quo ante.  But he must admit that abandoning the modus vivendi of decades is what he, not the haredi community, wants to effect.

Intriguingly, Rabbi Yoffie himself explains that there has always been an assumption “that the nature of Israel’s Jewish character would evolve over time.”  Well, yes.  Israel’s populace and hence religious identity have become more haredi. What seems to bother the rabbi is that the particulars of the evolution have yielded a different result from the one he would have wished for.

Yet – and this was precisely my point – despite the great growth of the haredi community, it has not sought to in any way change the agreed-upon understandings that, for instance, full-time Torah-students be deferred from military service, that public prayers at the Western Wall be conducted according to long-standing Jewish tradition (a norm established, of course, in 1967, not 1948) and that a halacha-respecting official rabbinate determine issues of Jewish personal status.

Those things, according to Rabbi Yoffie, constitute a religious “coercive… religious monopoly.”  Unlike England, he explains, where “legal recognition” is assured not only for the Church of England but for “other religious faiths,” in Israel, Reform and Conservative conversions and marriages are not recognized by the state Rabbinate.

What Rabbi Yoffie overlooks is that, as Ben-Gurion himself said in 1947, a multitude of “Judaisms” in a state that aspires to be a Jewish one is a recipe for disaster.  Were there several standards for, say, conversion, then what would emerge in short order would be several “Jewish peoples” in the land.

Israel, too, of course, offers “legal recognition” to “other religious faiths.”  Presumably, though, the Reform movement isn’t interested in registering as a new religion.  If, however, there is to be only one Jewish people in Israel, there needs to be only one Jewish standard there.  And, to be meaningful, it must be the “highest common denominator” whose decisions can be (if begrudgingly to some) accepted by all Jews

Ben-Gurion realized that fact, and it is recognized today, too, not only by Israel’s haredi and national religious communities but by the large number of “traditional” Jewish Israelis, who, while not strictly observant, understand and accept that halacha defines Judaism.

“Follow the path of Herzl,” admonishes Rabbi Yoffie.  What alone can preserve the unity of the Jewish people in Israel, though, is the path of Moses.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Sefer Torah Abuse

We rend our garments if a sefer Torah is, chalilah, desecrated.  If one should fall to the ground, it is customary for those present to undertake to fast that day.  I don’t know what the proper reaction is to seeing a sefer Torah employed as a prop in the service of a social cause, but a recent such exploitation made my heart hurt.

The exploiters, for their part, were jubilant.  Members of the feminist group “Women of the Wall,” they had obtained a sefer Torah small enough to smuggle into the Kosel Maaravi plaza, where they proceeded to hold a “bat-mitzvah” ceremony, complete with a woman reading from the Torah and the 12-year-old reciting birchas haTorah.

“Today we made history for women @ Kotel,” the group announced on social media.  “We must recreate this victory each month with great opposition.”

The latter phrase may have been incoherent, but the sentiment was clear.  By flouting the Jewish mesorah (and current Kosel regulations) and by evading the Israeli police, the intrepid women had, at least in their own minds, scored points for their team.

For more than three decades, the Kotel has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side.  What has allowed for that minor miracle has been the maintenance of a standard at the holy site that all Jews can abide.

Last year, to maintain that uniqueness, Women of the Wall was assigned an area in front of part of the Kosel, Robinson’s Arch (or Ezras Yisrael), for their “non-traditional” services.  But the feminist group’s leader, Anat Hoffman, blithely dismissed that equally holy area as a “sunbathing deck.”  With its recent incursion into the main Kosel plaza, the group has made it clear that it has no interest in avoiding offense, but rather, on the contrary, is committed to being “in the face” of the vast majority of regular visitors to the Kosel for tefillah, whom it views as the enemy.

Part of the recent verbal victory dance was performed by Women of the Wall’s Executive Director, Lesley Sachs, who seized upon the fact that the small scroll, which she said was 200 years old, had likely been written to avoid its seizure by enemies of Jews.  “This time,” she explained, it was used to avoid “Jews imposing restrictions on Jews.”  That would be the Rav of the Kosel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, and those who, like him, wish for the standards of Jewish tradition to mediate public services at the Kosel.

It wasn’t only the sefer Torah that was conscripted for the cause.  So was the bat-mitzvah girl.

The daughter of an immigrant from Russia, she was one of four whose images appeared in recent bus ads in Yerushalayim that were part of Women of the Wall’s campaign to hold such ceremonies at the Kosel.  The Hebrew text of one, featuring a young girl in a tallis and holding a Torah, read: “Mom, I too want a bat mitzvah at the Kotel.”

After the celebration, the honoree shared that, amid the merriment, she had become “very emotional” at the Torah-reading, and “just had a lot of fun.”  As, from all appearances, did her minders.

Predictably, the mainstream media were full of praise for the successful subterfuge, and the cause in which it was committed.  Among the effervescent expressions was a piece by Lexi Erdheim, a rabbinic student at a Reform institution and a “Women of the Wall Intern.”

Ms. Erdheim wrote that she “could only imagine” the “overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment” felt by  those who had been fighting for years to obtain “women’s right to free prayer at the Kotel,” and who were finally able to “witness a young girl chant from a sefer torah.”

But she injected a note of reservation, too, since, “despite this momentous occasion, the battle is not over.”  Still and all, she wrote, she was, “reminded of a quote from Pirkei Avot: ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it’.”

Another mishnah in Pirkei Avos, though, is more fitting for the occasion of a sefer Torah employed as a PR prop.  It was cited well before Ms. Erdheim’s piece appeared, by Leah Aharoni, a co-founder of the mesorah-respecting group “Women For the Wall”:  “Rabbi Tzaddok would say… ‘Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig’.”

© 2014 Hamodia

Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent e-mail from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist.  In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like shmitah and aliyah liregel , which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like the sin-caused golus and scattering of Klal Yisrael around the world; like Moshe’s speech deficit and deep humility, the polar opposites of the qualities of all of history’s successful non-Divinely-ordained leaders.

And, of course, above all those uniquenesses, the dearth in the annals of human history of any other claim that the Creator communicated directly with an entire people, a claim that, by its nature, cannot be successfully asserted and perpetuated… unless it actually happened.

Those striking singularities should be particularly pondered by Jay P. Lefkowitz, who, back in the April issue of Commentary, extolled the idea of Jewish observance-without-belief in the Torah’s truth, and now, in that periodical’s September issue, tries to defend himself against a number of letters the magazine published (full disclosure: one was written by me) explaining that Judaism is predicated on awareness of the Creator.

Mr. Lefkowitz, who attends a synagogue weekly and, in his own words, “pick[s] and choose[s] from the menu of Jewish rituals,” but “without fear of divine retribution,” claims that the sort of “social conformism” he practices plays a “large role” even in traditional Orthodox communities.

It must be honestly, if sadly, admitted that there are indeed seemingly religious Jews who “do Jewish” but don’t seem to “think Jewish.” That some even in our own observant community, bizarrely, even defend observance that lacks G-d-consciousness, and are complacent about tefillah without kavanah.  How large a role mindless Jewish praxis plays in the Orthodox community, of course, isn’t anything any of us can really know.

But whatever its prevalence, it is lamentable, not some ideal to enshrine, as Mr. Lefkowitz seems to do, as a new “movement” – much less an “Orthodox” one.  It is a spiritual malady, something to be overcome.  Judaism is not a culture; it is a belief system.

That religious observance is Jewishly vital, of course, is a truism.  And so is the fact that all of us live imperfectly on a continuum of Hashem-consciousness.  Few if any of us have actually realized Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed blessing to his talmidim:  “May the fear of Heaven be to you as the fear of human beings.”  When his puzzled students protested, the tanna explained: “Think! When a person commits a sin, he says ‘I hope no one is watching me!’” (Berachos, 28b).

The problem with Mr. Lefkowitz’s stance isn’t his forthrightness about his philosophical qualms.  It’s that he seems comfortable with, even proud of, them.  And that, rather than seek to alleviate his doubts with some deep and discomfiting thought about why Jews believe and have always believed in the truth of our mesorah, he chooses instead to legitimize the decommissioning of emunah, labeling his G-dless approach some sort of new “Orthodox Judaism.”  It is neither Orthodox nor Judaism.

He correctly notes that no responsible rabbi would ever counsel a fellow Jew who confides that “I don’t really believe in G-d or that G-d gave the Torah, so I am not sure whether I should continue to fast on Yom Kippur or observe Kashrut or Shabbat” to “throw away observance unless it is faith-driven.”  But a responsible rabbi would counsel the supplicant to undertake observance with a conscious intention to better understand his actions as the Creator’s will. Doing Jewish can lead to thinking Jewish.  But one must want it to.

As for us believers, we might take Mr. Lefkowitz’s words as a push to strengthen our own Hashem-consciousness.  Even if perfection in that ideal remains out of our reach, we are not absolved from aspiring to it, from aiming, each of us, at a higher state of recognition that Hashem Hu ho’Elokim.

That quest, in fact, is arguably the very life-goal of a Jew.  It is certainly something timely to ponder now, well into Elul.  May our focus on it be a zechus for ourselves – and for all our fellow Jews.

© 2014 Hamodia

Republication or posting of the above only with permission from Hamodia

Driving Lesson

The article below appeared earlier this week (with a more incendiary title) in Haaretz.

Back in the day, before contoured bucket seats became de rigueur in cars, the front seat of family vehicles – especially larger ones – was once a couch-like affair that could, and often did, comfortably seat three adults across.  The scene: Mr. and Mrs. Weisskopf, citizens of a certain age, are driving somewhere.  The missus is upset, and her husband asks what’s wrong.

“Do you remember,” she says, wistfully but with unmistakable resentment, “how we used to sit so near one another on our drives?  Look at us!  We’re at totally opposite ends of the seat!”

The man is puzzled, as well he might be.  “But dear,” he replies, looking across at her, his hands firm on the steering wheel, “I’m driving!”

The chestnut comes to mind upon reading some of the reactions of Reform leaders to the election of Ruby Rivlin to Israel’s presidency.

“He may be open-minded on a variety of issues,” Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who now heads the “religious pluralism” organization Hiddush, pronounced about the president-elect, “but his mind was made up” about Judaism’s definition.  He is “the same old anti-liberal, close-minded traditionalist Israeli.”

Former Reform leader Eric Yoffie voiced a similar judgment in the days before Mr. Rivlin’s election, direly warning that he expects “candidates for president to act in an appropriate and respectful manner to all elements of the Jewish world.”

And the current head of the Reform movement, Rick Jacobs, penned an open letter to Mr. Rivlin in which he reminded the Israeli president-elect of the “stunning insensitivity” he had displayed toward the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” and expressed his hope that “you’re ready to update your harsh and rather unenlightened views of our dynamic, serious and inspiring expression of Judaism.”

Mr. Rivlin’s sin, of course, was being honest, and perhaps a bit blunt for American tastes.  Although famously secular himself, he dared, back in 1989, after visiting two Reform temples, to share his evaluation of the liberal Jewish movement, calling it “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”

Then in 2006, he opined that he “has no doubt… that the status of Judaism according to Halacha is what has kept us going for 3,800 years” and that “besides it there is nothing.”

The latest voice to join the chorus of criticism of Mr. Rivlin’s unguarded judgment was that of Charles A. Kroloff, rabbi emeritus of one of the temples that Mr. Rivlin visited in 1989.  He recently expressed his “hope” that Mr. Rivlin has come, over the years, to understand “that if we are to be strong we must respect our fellow Jews, and if we are to survive, we Jews must be a united people.”

Rabbi Kroloff is correct, of course, although his sentiment has nothing to do with the question of what theologies can properly lay claim to being legitimate heirs to the Jewish religious tradition and which ones cannot.

That religious tradition hewed for millennia, and still does today, to certain foundational beliefs: in a Creator, in the historicity of the Jewish forefathers, the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai; and in the eternal nature of the law transmitted there to the people, our ancestors, who were divinely chosen to be an example to all humanity.

The year before Mr. Rivlin visited Rabbi Kroloff’s temple saw the death of a Nobel laureate, the celebrated physicist I. I. Rabi.  Born in Galicia and raised in the United States, he lacked the bluntness of an Israeli.  But when asked about his faith, Mr. Rabi expressed much the same sentiment as Mr. Rivlin did mere months later.

“…If you ask for my religion,” he said, “I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one.  If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to.   That’s the one I failed.  It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”

The same is true for every Jew, no matter what prefix he or she has been persuaded to place before “Jew” in his or her self-description.  Jews are Jews.  And, whatever some Jews may imagine, Judaism is Judaism.

Like Mrs. Weisskopf, the leaders of the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” may feel insulted at the stubborn persistence of the original Jewish religious tradition, and peeved by its great distance from them.  But it was they, not it, that created the distance.

And objective observers readily perceive what those leaders cannot bring themselves to confront, that there is today, as always, only one Judaism, the original one.

© 2014 Haaretz

Musing: Skin in the Game

My new issue of Reform Judaism magazine just arrived.  Its cover story is “Jews and Tattoos.”  And it asserts that “Jewish tradition is surprisingly nuanced on the practice” of tattooing

That contention, and the arguments in the article to support it, well demonstrate the Reform movement’s attitude toward Torah (“Only one law,” after all, it explains, “in the Book of Leviticus, prohibits a tattoo.”  As if more than one law prohibits murder.)

The article, seemingly seriously, offers “positive examples of tattooing” in the Bible.  Things like Hashem’s placing a “mark” on Kayin (Beraishis 4:15) and His command (Yeshayahu 44:5) that “one shall call himself by the name of Yaakov; and another shall write with his hand to Hashem” (presumably understanding “with his hand” as “on his hand,” and by cutting the skin and applying ink).

It is sad, just so sad.

From The Mouths Of Secularists

“…To this very day, if you ask for my religion, I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one.  If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to.   That’s the one I failed.  It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”

Those are the words of the famous physicist and Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi (1898-1988), quoted in the book “Rabi, Scientist and Citizen.”  He was born into an observant family in Galicia, and was still a baby when his parents immigrated to the United States.

Although he eventually lost his connection to Jewish observance, he confided toward the end of his life that “Sometimes I feel I shouldn’t have dropped it so completely”; and, as his earlier words above testify, he rejected the idea that Judaism could ever be anything other than what it always has been, or that he – or any Jew – could ever be anything other than an Orthodox Jew – whether or not he chose to live like one.

A similar sentiment was voiced several years ago by then-Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, the man elected last week to be Israel’s 10th president.

In a 2006 Knesset speech, Mr. Rivlin, who has been described as secular, said that he “has no doubt… that the status of Judaism according to Halacha is what has kept us going for 3,800 years” and that “besides it there is nothing.”  During that same address, he explained that if non-halachic conversion standards were to be adopted by Israel, the state would be abandoning a “religious definition” of Jewishness for a mere “civic” one with no inherent meaning.

And back in 1989, after visiting two Reform temples, he was blunter still, calling the liberal Jewish movement “a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism.”

Mr. Rivlin was assailed by adherents of non-Orthodox Jewish movements on both those occasions, and his present ascendancy to the Israeli presidency has understandably caused them renewed heartburn.

“He may be open-minded on a variety of issues,” Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who now heads the “religious pluralism” organization Hiddush, sniffed about the president-elect, “but his mind was made up” about Judaism’s definition.  He is “the same old anti-liberal, close-minded traditionalist Israeli.”

Former Reform leader Eric Yoffie echoed that judgment before Mr. Rivlin’s election, pointedly warning that he expects “candidates for president to act in an appropriate and respectful manner to all elements of the Jewish world.”

And the current head of the Reform movement, Rick Jacobs, recently penned an open letter in Haaretz to Mr. Rivlin, in which he reminded the Israeli president-elect of the “stunning insensitivity” he had displayed toward the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” (a risible description if ever there were one) and expressed his hope that “you’re ready to update your harsh and rather unenlightened views of our dynamic, serious and inspiring expression of Judaism” (ditto).

Whether Mr. Rivlin, who by all accounts is a pleasant fellow, will see a need to assuage the umbrage-takers remains to be seen.  He may succumb to the pressures, although one hopes that he will not sacrifice principle for pacification.

The fact that the new president’s old statements have been dredged up and placed in the spotlight, however, is a healthy development.  For it informs the “dominant religiosity of North American Jewry” – in other words, the vast population of the Jewishly ignorant – that disinterested, objective observers readily perceive that there is only one Judaism, the original one.

The conniptions over Mr. Rivlin’s comments also call attention to the fact that, while various Jewish groups were “evolving” new theologies and practices, and abandoning the mesorah, the community of Jews who remained faithful to the Jewish religious tradition didn’t peter out, as so many had expected (and so many had hoped), but rather thrived, and continues to thrive, b”H, mightily.

By contrast, American Jewry outside the Orthodox world is in deep demographic crisis.  The intermarriage and assimilation that concerned us greatly decades ago have only intensified and accelerated.  Long gone are the days when a person presenting himself as a Jew can be presumed to be halachically Jewish.

And yet, there are still countless actual Jews out there, Jews who lack the benefit of an observant upbringing or a Jewish education, and are under the delusion that Judaism is a smorgasbord of offerings.  They are, moreover, relentlessly bombarded with articles in the “mainstream” “Jewish” media that, in effect, warn them not to dare sample the Orthodox tray, that it will make them sick.

What can we do to help those cherished if distant fellow Jews?  Ultimately, be who we are supposed to be.  Many who have gotten their impressions of Orthodox Jews from actually seeing true Orthodox life and behavior (rather than from the media malshinim) have in fact returned to their spiritual roots.

But a first step is the promotion of a truism, one that was voiced by a nuclear physicist and an Israeli president.

 © Hamodia 2014 

Dangerous and Defective Products

It isn’t every year that news reports about Agudath Israel of America’s annual dinner make the pages of media like the Forward or The New York Times.  This, however, was one such year.

The reason for the attention was the heartfelt and stirring speech delivered by the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a, the Rosh Agudas Yisroel, at the gathering.  And the fact that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio chose not to contest the Rebbe’s words.

Rav Perlow spoke to the issue of organized deviations from the Jewish mesorah, a topic that is timely because of the insistence of the latest such movement on calling itself “Open Orthodoxy,” rather than summoning the courage to find an independent adjective for itself, as did the Conservative and Reform movements of the past.

Over the past century or two, the term “Orthodox” in the Jewish world has been synonymous with full affirmation of the mesorah – including most prominently the historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim; the fact that the Torah, both Written and Oral, was bequeathed to our ancestors at Har Sinai; and that Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov actually existed – concepts that prominent products or leaders of the “Open Orthodoxy” movement are on record as rejecting.

Yet, the “Orthodoxy” in the group’s name has misled various Orthodox congregations across the country to assume that there must be truth in that advertising, and to engage the services of graduates of the “Open” movement as rabbis.  And so, the Rebbe apparently and understandably felt it was important to, in effect, proclaim a strong and principled “caveat emptor,” so that any potential buyers of this particular bill of goods will beware of the fact that the product is dangerously defective.

And so he invoked the sad examples of the other heterodox movements, which, while they seemed once upon a time to offer the promise of Jewish fulfillment and a Jewish future to some undiscriminating Jews, have, the Rebbe lamented, “fallen into an abyss of intermarriage and assimilation” and are on the way to being “relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history.”

A rather unremarkable if unfortunate truism, that.  But, at least to the two newspapers, it seemed to be news (“Orthodox Rabbi Stuns Agudath Gala With ‘Heresy’ Attack on Open Orthodoxy,” gasped the Forward headline) – at least combined with the fact that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio spoke after Rav Perlow’s remarks and chose to not address them.  It couldn’t have been much of a dilemma for him, as an elected official (not to mention one presumably not expert in Jewish theology), to decide whether or not to mix into a religious issue.

The New York Times columnist who wrote about the rabbi and the mayor is Michael Powell.  If his name elicits a sour taste, it’s because it was he who, only last month, wrote an egregiously unfair column about the East Ramapo School District’s “Orthodox-dominated board” that “ensured that the community’s geometric expansion would be accompanied by copious tax dollars for textbooks and school buses.”  Those books and buses, of course, are mandated by law for all New York city schoolchildren – even Orthodox ones.  He has written a number of other columns that touch upon – and not in a positive way – charedi communities, including a long cynical magazine piece about Satmar back in 2006.

What further upset Mr. Powell was Mr. de Blasio’s praise for the Agudah as a movement, and for its executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, with whom he has worked for years and who he said “is someone I deeply respect and listen carefully to.”  Bad enough, the writer seemed to be thinking, that the mayor didn’t stand up for the cause of kefira, but did he really have to express admiration for an Agudath Israel leader?

Mr. Powell clearly has an “Orthodox problem.”

That’s unfortunate.  Still, a columnist has the right to be biased, unfair and even offensive.  What even a columnist may not do, though, is offer his readers errors of fact.

Rav Perlow did not, as Mr. Powell reports, offer a “shower of condemnation for Reform and Conservative Jews.” The Rebbe simply reaffirmed Orthodox Judaism’s insistence that heterodox theologies – ideas and beliefs, not people – are incompatible with the Judaism of the ages. Anyone who knows the Rebbe, or any of the manhigei hador, knows that they have only love and concern for all Jews, no matter how misled they may be by their religious leaders.

The reporters missed the real story.  That a clarion call had been sounded to all Jews – charedi and otherwise – who recognize that the Torah is true and that our mesorah is real, to address the deceptive attempts to convince Jews that ersatz “Judaisms” and even “Orthodoxies” are something other than capitulations to the Zeitgeist.

The mayor may have understood that.  Or just, wisely, recognized that he had no expertise to engage the issue of the meaning of Judaism.

Would that Mr. Powell had followed his example.

© 2014 Hamodia