Category Archives: Pluralism

No, Rabbi Yoffie, That’s Not What I Wrote

I have apparently upset Reform rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of his movement.  In Haaretz (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.720279), he takes me to task for claiming, in an earlier op-ed in that paper, that Orthodox rabbis speak on behalf of American Jewry.

That’s not, however, what I wrote. As you can read at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990 , I simply asserted that Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current head of the Reform movement, had overreached by claiming that he represents all American Jews.  In his own piece, in fact, Rabbi Yoffie does the same thing.

Some excerpts from his essay:

“[I]n a monumental act of self-delusion, Rabbi Avi Shafran asserts… that Reform rabbis… cannot claim to speak for American Jewry on such matters. But they can… The reason for this is that 90% of American Jewry is non-Orthodox…”

 “The overwhelming majority of American Jews… are horrified by the failure of the Jewish state to grant basic religious rights to all of Israel’s Jews.”

“To be sure, the 10% of the community that identifies as Orthodox is entitled to its views. But while Rabbi Shafran refers to this group as ‘sizable,’ it is not sizable at all.”

“Rabbi Shafran points out that the average number of children for middle-aged Orthodox Jews is 4.1, more than twice the number for other American Jews. But with an Orthodox birthrate that is so high, why are Orthodox numbers so modest? One reason is that a significant number of Orthodox Jews stop practicing Judaism… the percentage of yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes who abandon their tradition could be as high as 33%.”

“My own guess is that the glum assumptions that demographers are making about intermarriage are mostly wrong, just as they are wrong about the ability of the Orthodox to keep all of their children within the fold…  And by the way, as sociologist Steven Cohen has pointed out, the membership of Reform congregations grew by more than 20% between 1990 and 2013.”

That’s a rich field to mine.  Let’s do some digging.

If the 90% of American Jews “identifying as non-Orthodox” – most of whom do not identify as Reform either – are “horrified” by Israel’s single Jewish standard for issues of personal status (or her “failure to grant basic religious rights to all its Jews,” in Yoffie-speak), then they are an astoundingly silent majority.

Not surprising, since there are almost as many American Jews who profess no religious affiliation at all as there are who say they are Reform.  Most of the former are uninterested in internal Israeli issues.  And many, if not most, of the latter may have no real connection to any Reform institution but simply use the word to describe their Jewish non-observance.  And they, too, have no particular concern about Israel’s religious standards.

No, the only ones “horrified” are Reform leaders and those among their congregants whom they have convinced to follow their lead. Those are the people Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie can claim to represent.

As to the American Orthodox community, it is not only sizable – it’s about a third of the 35% of the American Jewish segment claiming to be Reform – but, more important, it’s growing, and at a robust rate.  “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” says sociologist Steven Cohen. “The non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.”

And the most obvious indicator of any group’s future growth lies in the size of its youth population.  Roughly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24%) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17% of Reform Jews and 13% of Conservative Jews.  More significant still, no less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

If Rabbi Yoffie wishes to judge Orthodox numbers as “modest,” he can certainly do so, but they seem poised to become considerably less so.

Yes, there have been Jews who have left Orthodoxy (though, according to Pew, the percentage of them have joined Reform is zero).  But the percentage Rabbi Yoffie cites largely reflects a population of older Jews who, in most cases, may have once had an affiliation with an Orthodox shul but were never truly Orthodox (that is to say, halacha-observant) in the first place.  Orthodoxy’s current retention rate at present, by contrast, is formidable – and Orthodoxy has attracted many Jews from non-Orthodox, including Reform, backgrounds.

As to Reform, a full 28% of those raised in the movement, says Pew, “have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”

How, then, in light of all the above, to explain Steven Cohen’s finding that Reform congregational membership has grown in recent decades?  That’s not a hard question to answer.  The congregational membership growth reflects the influx of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members, and spouses who have undergone Reform conversions (which are not halachically valid).  Professor Cohen reports that the intermarriage rate among married Reform-raised Jews during 2000-13 stands at 80%.

Which brings us back to the original issue that compelled me to expose the falsehood of Rabbi Jacobs’ claim that he speaks for American Jewry (a claim adopted by Rabbi Yoffie as well): opposition to Israel’s longstanding commitment to traditional Jewish standards.

The thought of importing the standards of a movement that has proven disastrous to Jewish observance and continuity in the United States to the Jewish State is what should horrify any Jew concerned with the Jewish future.  The “multi-winged” model of American Jewry is an abject failure.  What is succeeding in Jewish America is what lies in the past of every Jew: the Jewish religious tradition that inspired the uncompromising dedication of the ancestors of us all. That is not “triumphalism.”  It is the very real triumph of our mutual religious heritage.

Projecting the Jewish future was never my goal. I cited the facts I did, and cite the ones above, only to show that Orthodoxy in America is formidable and growing.  And it is.  Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie are entirely welcome to speak for their constituents, Jewish and otherwise.  What they have no right to do, however, is deem themselves the representatives of “American Jewry,” or to try to leverage that fiction to pressure Israel.  That was that I contended in my article, and it is unarguable.

How Dare Reform Rabbis Speak On Behalf of Diaspora Jewry?

He may not have meant it as a threat, but Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, certainly sounded like he was delivering an ultimatum when he warned that if an area at the Kotel Ma’aravi is not set aside for non-Orthodox services, “it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.”

Struck my ears like a Jewish version of a protection racket pitch.  “Hey, nice relationship you got there.  Be a real shame if anything bad happened to it…”

Those are the opening paragraphs of a piece I wrote that was recently published by Haaretz.  For the entire article, please visit

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990

The American Jewish Buffet

“Secular Orthodox.”

That’s how Avinoam Bar-Yosef, president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, recently characterized many Israelis.  What he meant was that, while an Israeli may not be observant of halachah, or even affirm belief in Torah miSinai, he is likely to still recognize that there is only one mesorah, one Judaism, the one that has carried Klal Yisrael from that mountain to Eretz Yisrael, through galus Bavel and countless galuyos since, and that carries it still to this day.

If only American Jews were so perceptive.  Many criticisms can be cogently aimed at the movements to which so many American Jews claim fealty (or, at least, to whose congregations they send dues).  Were there only an Orthodox option, that of Torah-faithful belief and practice, there would likely be a greater degree of Jewish observance throughout the broader Jewish community; intermarriage would probably be more rare than it sadly is; Jewish unity would certainly be more evident, and more real.

But the most damaging legacy of the heterodox movements (and I write here of those movements qua movements – their theologies, not their members, most of whom don’t understand the basics of Yahadus) is their propagation of the notion that there are different “Judaisms,” that Jews stand before some spiritual smorgasbord from which they are free to choose whatever doctrinal hors d’oeuvres they find appetizing.

I had a neighbor in the out-of-town community where I once lived, a middle-aged man who had observed some mitzvos as a youth, but who had long since lapsed and become a member of a non-Orthodox congregation.

One Shabbos, on my way to shul, I heard a disembodied “Good Shabbos” come from beneath my neighbor’s parked car.  His head then appeared from under the vehicle, followed by his hands, one of them holding a wrench.  I returned the greeting along with a forced smile, and then, with some sheepishness, my neighbor added: “I gotta say, my Shabbos is sure different now that I’m a Conservative Jew!”

In my neighbor’s mind, he had undergone a metamorphosis; he’d become a “different kind of Jew” – a perfectly observant, rabbinically-endorsed, card-carrying “Conservative Jew.”  Changing the meaning of a Jewish life had become the equivalent of what he was doing, changing his oil.

Contrast my erstwhile neighbor’s attitude (that of most American Jews, unfortunately) with the insight of Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi (1898-1988), a groundbreaking physicist. He told a biographer that “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…”

He was, and knew he was, a Jew.  Far to one side of the observance spectrum, to be sure.  But observance is a continuum on which we all live, with perfection far from most of us.  Professor Rabi was perceptive and honest enough to recognize his failure instead of choosing to just invent a new entity, a “Judaism” where he could consider himself a success.

It is a tribute to the Israeli no-nonsense mentality that so many of the country’s less- or non-observant Jews haven’t bought into the American Jewish buffet model, and recognize what Professor Rabi did. Israelis tend to think and talk dugri – straightforwardly, even bluntly.  Hence, Mr. Bar-Yosef’s seemingly, but not really, oxymoronic phrase, “secular Orthodox.”

What evoked that characterization, as it happens, was his interview by the New York Times about the recent Israeli government decision to expand an area to the south of the current Kosel Maaravi plaza, for feminist and non-Orthodox services.  The Israeli was trying to explain why the American Jewish model of Jewish identity has not taken root in his country.  American Jews, he continued, have “a desire to bring into the tent everyone who feels Jewish,” whereas Israeli Jews, even secular ones, “live in a [Jewish] state and want a unified system.”

That “unified system” – halachah –  is, unfortunately, under attack by some American Jews, not only with regard to conduct at the Kosel but in even more important areas, like marriage and geirus.  We have to hope, against all the evidence, that our less observant brothers and sisters recognize the danger – to themselves above all – of promoting a “multi-winged” model of “Judaisms,” instead of recognizing the most trenchant truth: that ke’ish echad was possible only because our ancestors were neged hahar.

© 2016 Hamodia

Agudath Israel Reaction to the “Kotel Compromise”

Designating an area at the Kotel Maaravi for feminist and mixed-gender prayer not only profanes the holy site, it creates yet a further lamentable rift between Jews.

For more than three decades, the Western Wall 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 at that holy place of a standard – that of time-honored Jewish religious tradition – that all Jews, even those who might prefer other standards or none at all, can abide.

If the current plan is in fact realized, that will be no more.

Instead, there will be two options: some Jews at the Wall will pray at a space whose atmosphere respects and reflects traditional Jewish prayer, and others at a space that doesn’t.

Denominational Déjà Vu

This article appeared in the New York Jewish Week

Back in February, 2001, an article I wrote for Moment Magazine caused quite a stir.  Its thesis – that, since the Conservative movement’s claim to halachic integrity was not supported by fact, Conservative Jews who respect Jewish religious law should consider joining Orthodox communities – was understandably disturbing to some. Much of the uproar, however, was likely caused by the incendiary title that publication insisted on slapping on the piece.  I had titled it “Time to Come Home”; Moment ran it under a large, bold headline reading “The Conservative Lie.”

The article ended up causing some healthy discussion (and, I immodestly add, won an American Jewish Press Association award).  It also inspired several Conservative movement officials to call me nasty names.  None, though, offered any cogent rebuttal to what I had demonstrated, namely that the process of determining Conservative “halacha” differed in an essential way from the halachic process of the millennia.

Halacha has always been decided through the objective examination of Biblical verses, mediated through the Talmud and legal codes, with a single goal: to discern the Torah’s intention. By contrast, I observed, the Conservative process generally involved first identifying a desired result, and then massaging the sources to “yield” that outcome.

An example I noted was the issue of same-sex intimate relationships.  Although halachic literature, based on verses in the Torah, considers such relations unarguably wrong, contemporary Western society, even at the time, had come to embrace the idea of “alternate lifestyles.”

I predicted that, in the realm of sexual expression, the Conservative movement would soon enough “halachically” approve what halacha forbids in no uncertain terms.  In 2006, I was vindicated when the Conservative movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” endorsed a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same sex and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives. Since then, of course, as homosexual activity has come to be celebrated in the larger world, the Conservative legal system has trotted close behind.

It didn’t take any powers of prophecy to discern what I did, only those of observation and perception.  And I perceive precisely the same Conservative approach to halacha in what bills itself today as “Open Orthodoxy.”

That neologism encompasses three institutions: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat – educational entities that ordain men and women, respectively – and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a rabbinic group.

If the “open” in “Open Orthodoxy” means to imply that what has long been called Orthodox Judaism is somehow “closed” to other Jews, that proposition would greatly surprise any non-Orthodox Jew who has ever walked into an Orthodox shul.  What it more likely means to suggest is that, theologically, what has until now been called Orthodoxy is somehow “close-minded.”

That stance, though, reveals that the other word in the phrase, “Orthodox,” is deeply misleading. Which is why the Council of Torah Sages, an elite group of widely-respected yeshiva-dean elders, has declared that the new movement has no claim on the title “Orthodox.”

Whether the halachic topic being addressed is same-sex relationships, interfaith interactions, kashrut, marriage, divorce or conversion, the desideratum of “Open Orthodoxy” is unmistakably to bring Jewish religious praxis “into line” with contemporary mores.  That may not be not explicit in the wording of “Open Orthodox” statements or responsa – any more than it was fourteen years ago in those of the Conservative movement.  But in both cases it is manifest.

In halacha as it has developed over millennia, there are decisions that render permissions and others that yield forbiddances.  Tellingly, the Conservative movement’s “halachic” positions are almost exclusively permissive.  Ditto for those of “Open Orthodoxy.”  In fact, the two movements are, their different chosen names notwithstanding, simply indistinguishable.

Let me stress that I am speaking of a concept here, not people; of theological systems, not the intentions of students who have been attracted to “Open Orthodox” institutions, some of whom are clearly idealists who wish to serve the Jewish people.  The problem isn’t those students or their idealism, but rather the proposition they are taught, that halacha is ripe for “updating.”  Halacha does indeed take societal developments into account; sometimes they make a difference, sometimes they do not.  But the Zeitgeist does not determine the halacha.  The accepted elders, the most experienced Torah scholars, of each generation, do.  That is itself a premise of the halachic system.

The new movement’s name is a misnomer, a dangerously misleading one.  Just as “kosher-style” food isn’t kosher, neither is “Open Orthodoxy” Orthodox.  It is neo-Conservatism.  Which is why the greatest, most widely recognized, Torah scholars today – and not only those of the haredi world – have rejected its Jewish authenticity.

I take no pleasure in revealing the truth about “Open Orthodoxy.”  But truth-in-labeling is not only a civil mandate but a halachic one.

Fourteen years ago, I implored halacha-respecting non-Orthodox Jews to come home to the Judaism of the ages.  Today, I experience – apologies to the late Yogi Berra – “déjà vu all over again.” My plea persists.

Spaghetti and Jewish Unity

Last week afforded me an opportunity to sit with a group of Jews spanning the gamut of American Jewry – resolute secularists, members of non-Orthodox congregations and Orthodox Jews – to discuss Jewish unity and how it can be strengthened.

Most American Jews, rightly or not, don’t think they are capable of living observant Jewish lives.  With the passage of time, the Holocaust has lost the binding power it once had for many Jews; and Israel, unfortunately, has become a source of contention rather than unity for many American Jews, particularly younger ones.  It’s unfortunate, but unfortunately true.

Someone in the group raised the fact that the coming Shabbos – the Shabbos past, as you read this – was to serve as a Jewish unifier, through the “Shabbos Project,” the brainchild of South Africa’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein that has brought together thousands of Jews in observance and celebration of Shabbos over the past two years. More than 550 cities in 70 countries were set to participate in this year’s event.

What other means, though, could bring Jews together?  Many aspects of Torah-centered life involve things that, sadly, do not resonate with – or, worse, sadly, even offend – some American Jews, infected as they are with misguided notions like “egalitarianism.”  And even Shabbos, in the end, observed properly, involves trials that might challenge many a Jew who was not raised observant – a fact to which anyone who has been stuck in an erev Shabbos traffic jam near shkiah can readily attest.

I suggested the study of Torah, which, after all, is the very genesis of Jewish unity, that which was bequeathed us all at the foot of Sinai, when we stood “as one person, with one heart.”  And the proposition that Torah-study remains a potent unifier of Jews is well borne out by the experience of programs like Partners in Torah and TorahMates.  (The brachah we make each morning, it’s worth noting, is “Nosein haTorah” – pointedly in the present, not the past, tense.  The Torah is still being given to Klal Yisrael.)  The idea was well received.

Afterward, though, I thought of another mitzvah that should present no problem to any Jew, and that can serve as a unifying observance.

The two d’Oraysa brachosbirkas haTorah and birkas hamazon – and the many other brachos we make regularly on foods or mitzvos, or as birchos hoda’ah – comprise a paramount element of Yiddishkeit.  They focus our attention on the Source of our blessings, and can serve as a potent unifying force for all Jews.

By undertaking to recite brachos, an otherwise distant Jew can be reminded that he or she is connected to the rest of Klal Yisrael multiple times a day, every morning, every time a flower is sniffed, thunder is heard or one is sitting down to a plate of spaghetti.

What a powerful campaign a broad-based “Brachos Project” could be.  No non-Orthodox Jew could have a problem with it – brachos, after all, are egalitarian.  There are many excellent guides to brachos in English, and reciting them entails no expense or inconvenience.

Truth be told, such a project could also do us some good, too.  As we are reminded by the baalei mussar, reverence can all too easily devolve into rote, and that is particularly true when it comes to brachos.  Many of us find ourselves reciting them by habit, without pronouncing their words distinctly, much less focusing on their meaning. Anyone who’s watched a baal teshuvah recite a brachah has been graced with a good example to follow.

Rav Chaim Vital testifies that the Arizal called birchos hanehenin “the essential way for a human being to attain the spirit of holiness… removing the [unholy] shells and [sublimating] his physicality,” adding that the Arizal “admonished me greatly about this…” (Etz Hachaim, Shaar Ruach Hakodesh).

The mystical perspective alluded to by those words is that the human being straddles the realms of the physical and the spiritual. Food mediates between the two, nourishing the bodies that house our souls.  So it should not be surprising that the act of consuming food would provide opportunity for bringing the holy into the mundane, for removing the “shells” and rarifying physicality.

What better empowerment of Jewish unity could there be than a rededication of Jews from all types of communities and walks of life to sharing in an observance that reflects the quintessential Jewish ideal of acknowledging Hashem’s blessings?  And, at the same time, strengthening our own dedication to brachos?

Who knows what other shells might thereby be removed?

© 2015 Hamodia

Supreme Court Vs. Supreme Being

Typical of the “mainstream” Jewish organizational responses to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was the American Jewish Committee’s tweet on the day of the ruling that “For 109 years AJC has stood for liberty and human rights. Today is a happy day for that proud tradition,” followed by the hashtag “#LoveWins.”

No less than 13 Jewish groups joined in an amicus brief filed in the case, arguing for the right to same-sex marriage.  (Only one group, Agudath Israel of America, filed a brief on the opposing side.)

And typical of the attitude of the groups that collectively call themselves the “Open Orthodox” movement was the reaction of the assistant rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.  He posted on his Facebook page: “’It is not good for a person to be alone.’ Genesis 2:8. Mazel tov America.”  (It’s actually 2:18; and the fellow might wish to check out 2:24, where the solution to man’s lonely situation is described in no uncertain terms as a woman.)

The “Open Orthodoxy” movement’s misrepresentations of Torah in its rush to mindlessly embrace  all that the surrounding culture finds pleasing is a worthy topic in its own right.  I only mention the movement’s mangling of the Jewish religious tradition here because of how, by laying claim to “Orthodox” credentials, it intensified an already lamentable desecration of Hashem’s name.

The “Open Orthodox” movement, more accurately labeled “Neo-Conservatism,” insists that all people are created in God’s image; hence the recent ruling deserves celebration.

To be sure, none of Jewish tradition’s strong disapproval of homosexual activity means that people with homosexual tendencies are inherently evil or that even avowed homosexuals in any way forfeit their humanity, their Jewishness or their claim to others’ care and compassion.  And, particularly in these relativistic, nonjudgmental times, the Jewish response to those who are challenged with same-sex desires should be ten measures of concern for every measure of condemnation.

But that has nothing to do with the redefinition of marriage.  The Neo-Conservatives seem blissfully unbothered by the Talmudic statement that asserts that one of larger human society’s redeeming qualities has been its refusal to “write marriage documents for males [living together in homosexual relationships]” – a refusal now withdrawn in the United States.

Although the Obergefell decision was widely celebrated as a new, shiny and wondrous thing, it was hardly an unexpected development.  States were legalizing same-sex marriages already.  The truth is that when the American entertainment industry made the decision to depict same-sex couples as normative, the war to maintain American society’s traditional view of marriage was, for all purposes, already lost.  As went Hollywood, so went the led-by-the-nose American public, with five Supreme Court justices trotting along not far behind.

As a result, the demonization of those who hew to the timeless ideal of marriage being the joining of a man and woman will surely intensify.  “Bring on the opprobrium and break out the disparagement. These people deserve it,” writes Jeffrey L. Falick, the “Secular Humanistic Rabbi of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Michigan.”

“Shaming them,” he continues, “helps to pave the path to progress.”

And so it is likely that those of us who feel no ill will whatsoever toward anyone for his or her sexual tendencies or behavior but who are branded bigots will experience negative consequences as a result of our religious convictions.  Not only in the way we are viewed by people of ill will like the humanistic Jeffrey L, Falick, but by government.  Is it alarmist to wonder if federal or state aid to religious schools might be made dependent on those schools hewing to the moral judgments of the Zeitgeist?  Is it unthinkable that the tax-exempt status of religious institutions might be assailed by some, drunk on the recent victory of their cause?

In my mind, though, those concerns, real though they are, pale beside one that has not received much attention.

It is conventional wisdom that human beings are bifurcated when it comes to sexuality.  There are heterosexuals and homosexuals.  That is a fable.

The existence of claimants to bisexuality should in itself explode the myth. And if that isn’t sufficient, then the example of people who have claimed at one point in their lives to be homosexual but at others heterosexual should do the job.  Among such people are public figures, like (for those who are culturally current) the late musician Lou Reed or the actress Anne Heche, along with countless unknown men and women.

Why is this important?  Because it means that sexuality isn’t an either/or proposition.  People, at least some people, can, through environment, change of circumstance or will, morph their sexualities.  And objective mental health professionals who have counseled people with unwanted same-sex attraction report success in many, although not all, cases.

What all of this leads me to believe is that there is a wide variety of “sexualities.”  There are people (most, I imagine) who do not experience same-sex attraction at all. And others who feel attracted exclusively to members of their own sex.  Then there are people with any of an array of balances between the two poles, and a degree of sexual “fluidity” among the population in that middle of the spectrum.

Which means that we can expect a rise with time in the number of young people coming of age and identifying as homosexual or bisexual.

Because, whereas once upon a time such boys and girls would have been guided by society’s general demeanor to develop normally (which adjective I use to mean heterosexually), they will now be inundated by the social environment and subtly pressured to consider developing differently.  And yes, there is a measure of consideration, of free will, that is operative here.

What’s more, it is now widely accepted that the human brain is not, as was assumed, a physiologically static organ; it is subject to changes born of experiences and environment – a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

Which means that the widespread acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual unions threatens the Orthodox Jewish world in an indirect but very real way.  Those of us who do not consider it a viable option to isolate ourselves and our families from the larger society will need to confront this unprecedented challenge.

Although I suspect that it may be wise to consider sensitively discussing such issues with younger children than we might wish to have such discussions with, I don’t offer any solutions for meeting that challenge, only a cry that we do all we can to meet it, head-on and soon.

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