Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Chronicles of the Haredim

Review essay by Paul Shaviv, guest contributor

Once - almost the Rebbe? Rebbetzin Feige Teitelbaum (center) - Trainer Studio
For anyone, like me, who loves to read real history of Rebbes and leaders of the intensively Orthodox communities (aka ultra-Orthodox), this has been a vintage year!

In the last few months, three outstanding books have been published – two in Ivrit, one in English, which together constitute a veritable feast of information.  Since they total together almost 1,900 pages (1,500 + in Ivrit and just under 400 in English), this posting can only be the smallest amuse bouche to the meal….

Let me deal with the English volume first.

This is “Who will Lead Us?” by Prof. Samuel Heilman.  It is a sociological study of the succession problems and process in five post-War Hasidic dynasties, wholly or partially based in America.  Covered are Munkacs, Boyan, Bobov, Satmar and Chabad. 

Professor Heilman (Queens, CUNY) is a veteran observer of the Haredi/Hassidic world.  He has a very readable style, and describes the arcane twists and turns of the dilemmas in each ‘court’.  In theory, succession is seamless.  In practice, there are often problems.  In the movements described, some of the problems have tragic backgrounds of Holocaust survival and contenders from previous rebbes’ first and second families.  

In the case of Munkacs, there was ideological deviancy – the son-in-law of the vitriolically anti-Zionist Chaim Elozor Shapira was actually a supporter of Israel.  The Hasidim would not accept him, and he fled to Brazil.  

Later, one of his sons returned to the fold and assumed the rebistve. In Boyan, there was no heir apparent, until Nachum Dov, the grandson of the previous rebbe, whose father was a Professor, was groomed for the post from his teenage years.  In Bobov and Satmar bitter struggles took place between family members, and in both cases the Hasidim split. Interestingly, Heilman refers to the fact that Feige, the widow of R’Yoelish, the first Satmarer Rebbe, seems to have briefly acted herself as a sort of Rebbe (accepting kvitlech) after the death of her husband.

Heilman, who is a controversial figure in Chabad following his previous biography of the Seventh Rebbe, looks at the transition between the Sixth and Seventh Rebbe, and the tension between Menachem Mendel Schneerson and the Gourary family. 

In the course of a riveting book, Heilman makes many theoretical observations of ‘succession process’.  Ultimately, the Hasidim decide, by voting with their feet.  The decisions are often made on leadership appeal, charisma, family connections and personality as much as on the formal ‘rules’, insofar as they exist.  

Whatever happens, Hasidic hagiography then rushes to portray the successful contender as the one who was “always destined” for the position, and to write the other contenders out of the story.  He points out the paradox that to be a Rebbe in the 21st century, you have to secure your credibility by showing that you really represent the 18th century.  This insight gives some framework to the affect of contemporary Hasidics.

A great read!

Next, a wonderful biography of Reb Amram Blau (1900 – 1974) the founder of Neturei Karta.  This is authored by Prof. Kimmy Kaplan of Bar Ilan University, and is published by Yad Ben Zvi and Ben-Gurion University.  I read Ivrit fluently, and I have to say that this is one of the very best biographies I have ever read, of anyone, in any language.  

Professor Kaplan writes very clearly, and the book is a masterpiece of organization.   The author takes you by the hand and leads you through the life, the thought and the ideas of this fascinating individual.  It is meticulously documented, drawing significantly on the Amram Blau personal archives, whose unlikely resting place is Boston University. 

Amram Blau was a principled individual, whose unshakeable opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel attracted attention vastly in excess of his following.   He was aided by a certain flair for staging public protest.  Otherwise, he was a modest personality.  Neturei Karta was never a formal organization, and after his passing split into ungovernable, and sometimes wild, factions.   He did not have the political or organizational savvy of his brother, R’Moshe Blau (d. 1946, and who deserves a biography of his own), who was the spokesman of Agudah in the Old Yishuv for many years; but Amram was world-famous. 

The book treats at length the rather poignant episode of his second marriage to Ruth Ben David, a French convert to Judaism.  This caused uproar, and he and his bride had to leave Jerusalem for two years.  When they returned (in 1965), he was not the same leader.  But his loyalty and obvious love for her is another facet of the steely character that this somewhat maverick individual displayed throughout this life.

Finally – ‘The Gdoilim’! , 950 pages of essays edited by Profs. Binyamin Brown and Nissim Leon, of the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan, respectively.  It is published by Machon Van Leer and the Magnes Press.

This is a massive collection of analytical essays of Rabbinic leaders and authorities of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I have not read this cover-to-cover, but dipped into it extensively.  There are short introductory essays by Shaul Stampfer and Immanuel Etkes on the phenomenon of the ‘Gadol’.  This is followed by sections dealing with rabbis of pre-modern Europe; pre-State Israel, America; and post-war Israel.- twenty-eight in all.  Each essay is uniform length of twenty to thirty pages, each by different authors.  The names of both the rabbis (and the academics who write on them) will be familiar to anyone interested in the field. 

The book is dedicated to Professor Menachem Friedman, of Bar-Ilan, who is truly the founder of the academic study of the Haredi world.  The book’s final chapter is an appreciation of his scholarship and work.

I have no doubt that this posting (if Harry is kind enough to print it!) will attract the nay-sayers and skeptics in the comments.  They will sneer at the idea of writing “about” all of these phenomena and personalities; and of course will cast doubt on the ability of “Professors” to understand what they are writing about (especially in the ‘Gdoilim’ volume).   

They will be mistaken on both counts.   As a society, we have to understand what is happening to us.   The big, conceptual pictures are important.  Real, accurate history is important.  These books, individually and collectively, are significant contributions to the field.   Good reading for the Catskills, or wherever you spend the summer!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Not a Hill Worth Dying On

Is this worth shedding our blood? (Illustration)
Justice it is not. To put it mildly. But that is exactly what Rabbi  Ari Abramowitz called saying Kaddish on Har HaBayis. He assembled a Minyan, went up to the Temple Mount, and began saying the mourner’s Kaddish for the 3 slain members of the Salomon family. Who were brutally slaughtered by teenage Palestinian from the West Bank. Who felt that such butchery was an appropriate response to installing metal detectors at that site.  He actually believes that this is what God wanted him to do. For which he believes he will be richly rewarded in the world to come.

Rabbi Abramowitz thought the same thing. He believed that he too was doing God’s will by breaking Israeli law and exacerbating the kind of tensions that moved a religious Muslim teenager to massacre 3 innocent Jews.

Rabbi Abramowitz was promptly arrested… before he even completed the Kaddish. He explained why he did that to the Jerusalem Post: 
… he was moved to go to the site after having attended the funeral of the slain family members on Sunday.  "It was devastating," he said. "It was clear to me that going there [to the Temple Mount] is the calling of all the Jewish people, that there could be no peace unless we made the issue about God." 
On the surface that seems like a rational argument. To most people the ability of religious people to pray at their holiest site should be the right of every citizen in a democracy. When that site is viewed as holy by more than one people, it should then be shared. That is common sense. Forbidding one religion from doing so while allowing the other is indeed an injustice.

So under normal circumstances I would surely support what Rabbi Abromwitz did. And any democratic government would  make sure to enforce that right.

So why does Israel forbid Jews from exercising that right?   Because there is nothing normal or rational about the Middle East. Muslim Arabs believe that they have the exclusive right to pray there granted to them by God! They see any Jew going up there as challenging that right. They are particularly sensitive to it because they see Israel as an occupying force trying to control how they practice their religion in what they believe is the 2nd holiest place in Islam. The slightest indication that Israel is doing that causes great anxiety and havoc.They could not care less that we consider Har HaBayis our holiest site.

That Israel installed metal detectors  purely for security reasons is no excuse to them. And they will protest the ‘occupier’ with everything they’ve got. And encourage all Muslims to have a day of rage for that cause! That happened last Friday and spurred one devout fanatic Muslim teenager to murder 3 Jews sitting at their Shabbos table.

So why shouldn’t Israel stick to their guns and fight for the legitimate right of Jews to pray up there? Because they know the consequences of trying to do that.  While it is surely the right and even the duty of any country to assure equal access to all to their holy places - it is not always the sanest policy to follow. 

Sometimes ideology must give way to practicality. Especially when lives are at stake. There are times to fight for an ideology even when there is a risk to human life. And there are times not to. One must weigh what you are fighting for against the consequences.

Israel has done that with the Temple Mount. That is one hill that Israel clearly does not want to die on. Rightly so. Going there is merely a religious enterprise that is not mandated in our day at all! It is permitted by religious Zionist Poskim - forbidden by Charedi Poskim. The Israeli government realizes that this right is not worth the shedding of innocent blood that insisting on it will contribute to.

But bloodshed does not apparently get in the way of those who insist that this right IS worth dying for. All they just see a right being denied by an irrational people and their government capitulating to it.

So when there is bloodshed they do not blame any of it on a history of trying to assert this kind of right. They say, ‘They will kill us anyway!’ ‘So why not fight for even this right?!’  ‘What about the law?!’ ‘It is an unjust law and should not be obeyed!’  

They actually believe that God is on their side and take no responsibility for any deadly reactions fanatic Musilms might have because of what they do.

How selfish of people like Rabbi Abramowtiz to put their own religious feelings above the safety of their own people. (Of course they will strongly deny that they have any part at all in any kind of deadly result their actions generate among fanatic Muslims.)

There was absolutely no reason to say Kaddish on the Temple Mount. None whatsoever! Rabbi Abramowitz had no personal obligation to say Kaddish for the slaughtered members of the Salomon family.  That he may have been moved to do so is understandable. But he could have said it anywhere he wanted. It was only done there to ‘show the Arabs who’s boss! It was only done to show them our sovereignty over Har Habayis. 

Does Rabbi Abramowitz actually believe that by doing things like this, the Jewish people in Israel are better off? Does he think the Arabs will just get used to Jews praying there and calm down after awhile? Does he believe that since one can’t reason with these people the only thing they understand is force?

True - the Palestinians can’t be trusted as things stand now. That’s why I would urge Israel not give up a single inch of land for any kind of peace deal. Gaza has surely taught us a very sober lesson about what happens when Israel gives up land. Until such time Palestinians can prove their peaceful intentions by wiping out Islamic fundamentalism (which Hamas adheres to) there can be no 2 state solution.

But that does not mean we have to exacerbate the tensions in places like Har HaBayis. (Which is why Israel is removing those metal detectors.) That people like Rabbi Abramowitz don’t realize this only prolongs Jewish suffering.

As I’ve said many times, I believe the Charedi Poskim are right on this issue. They forbid going up there at all. Israel would be wise to make that their official policy. It will not prevent all terrorist attacks in Israel. But it will surely would have prevented what happened last Friday. And even if it saves the life of one Jew, it is worth it. 


Monday, July 24, 2017

A Public Apology to Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

YCT Talmud Chair R' Ysoscher Katz
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post strongly criticizing Rabbi Ysoscher Katz for an article he wrote in the Times of Israel. It was written in the aftermath of some very prominent Jews in Lakewood being arrested for defrauding government welfare programs.  Although he did not say it is permitted, he tried to explain why some Orthodox communities felt it is Halachicly justified. In my zeal to counteract that notion I said the following: 
…when someone distorts the truth and then exacerbates the problem with false claims blaming what those individuals did on their Halachic process, it becomes a Chilul HaShem all by itself. 
I want to make a public apology to Rabbi Katz for implying that he lied. This is what I have been accused of. While that wasn’t quite what I meant I now see that when you says someone ‘distorts’ and makes ‘false claims’ - that is the same as saying they lied. That was hurtful and untrue. It surely was not my intention to inflict any kind of emotional pain on Rabbi Katz. It appears that I have.

I truly believe that Rabbi Katz is an honorable man of impeccable character and in no way do I think he lied. I just believe that he was badly mistaken for the reasons explained in my post.

While I am still in profound disagreement  with what he said, I am one hundred percent convinced that he believes in what he is doing. My disagreement is ideological. In no way do I think even for a moment, that Rabbi Katz did anything intentionally wrong.

I still strongly disagree with what he wrote in that Times of Israel article. I still feel it caused unnecessary harm to our reputation as honest and ethical people. I also remain firm in my disagreement with many of his other positions. I do not retract any of them. But that should not be taken as casting aspersions on his character. To the extent that I contributed to that perception, I apologize and hope that he accepts it.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Savage Murderers and What to Do About Them

ZAKA at the site of a Halamish terror attack
It’s impossibly hard! Impossibly hard to see pictures in the aftermath of the terrorist slaughter of a 70-year-old grandfather and his son and daughter.  I cannot imagine the violent slaughter  that took place resulting in these kinds of pictures. There is no excuse for the kind of violence that took place here. None whatsoever!

These victims of unimaginable terror were sitting in their homes at a Shalom Zachor – the traditional Friday night celebration welcoming a newborn onto this earth prior to his circumcision later that week. This peaceful loving and joyous event that all Orthodox Jews celebrate turned into the kind of terror that is difficult to even imagine let alone experience.

The victims: Yosef, Chaya, and Elad Salomon  (Aish)
Why did this happen? There is no way of knowing for sure. But terrorist attacks like this usually have a precursor event. This time I have to lay the blame right at the doorstep of Mahmoud Abbas who called for a day of rage in response to the installation of metal detectors on the Temple Mount (Har HaBayis).

How in Heaven’s name increasing security at a site holy to both Judaism and Islam calls for a day of rage escapes me. But the Arabs surely felt it did. They say it is humiliating to Palestinians who come there to pray there - to go through a security check.

I understand why they might feel that way based on my own personal experience at O’Hare. Earlier this year I was randomly pulled from my TSA pre-check line and was treated practically like a terrorist until they realized I wasn’t. But I was actually quite pleased with what happened because it assured me that the TSA was doing their job – protecting passengers.

Any normal person would - I think - react the way I did. You put up with some occasional and random inconvenience – even a bit of humiliation - in exchange for security.

Not the Palestinians. Had they just complained about it - that would be one thing. It is understandable to complain about something like that. But to call for a day of rage in reaction to it is irrational and irresponsible. Especially knowing the history of such events - which often result in the kind terrorist slaughter that happened last Friday night.

The installations of metal detectors did not happen precipitously. It was in reaction to a terrorist attack right on the Temple Mount where 2 Israeli police officers were killed. Ironically they were not even Jewish. They were Druze Arabs that were there to enforce the peace. They were shot and killed. Had metal detectors been there, it wouldn’t have happened.

A lot of people are saying that Israel ought to stick to their guns and leave the metal detectors in place. I have to admit that this thought certainly crossed my mind. Israel should not allow itself to be intimidated. Protecting its citizens should be their number one priority. The question then becomes what is the best way to do that? What can Israel do right now to best protect its citizens with respect to the Temple Mount?

As I’ve said many times. Har HaBayis is not really in our hands. It is in the hands of Muslim clerics. As long as there is a Mosque up there that Muslims consider the 2nd holiest site in Islam, that will continue to be the case.

I say this with a heavy – but realistic heart. Especially now that we are about to embark on a 9 day period of mourning for the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples on this very site. This is the place we Jews constantly pray to be returned to us so that the 3rd Temple can be built. And although it was captured by Israel in 1967 to the great joy and pride of the vast majority of Jews at the time (including me) -  General Mota Gur’s declaration that Har HaBayis B’Yadenu (the Temple Mount is in our hands) was not a realistic declaration. It is not in our hands. Technically, sure. It is in our (Israel’s) jurisdiction. But as a practical matter, it is still in Muslim hands. That is the reality.

There are many reasons for Jews not to go up there. One is the general prohibition for Jews that are ritually impure (which is the presumption of all Jews in our day) to alight on the Temple mount. They (we) cannot be made pure enough without the ashes of Para Aduma (the Red Heifer).  While there are areas that one may technically alight up there, many Poskim are opposed to it. There is no Halachic benefit to going up there. It might be psychologically or spiritually uplifting. But that is about it.

There are those who say that going up there demonstrates our sovereignty over Har Habayis. In my view that is delusional. Muslim feelings about their rights are not diminished one iota by such things. What does happen is that it incites them toward violence. Any move by Israel in that direction does that – as was demonstrated  once again by the savage murders Friday night in a day of rage declared by Abbas. 

And yet they insist that stopping Jews from going up to the Temple Mount capitulates to terrorism . Perhaps they believe we should even increase our presence there. But I could not disagree more.

In my view Israel ought to deal with the reality that the Temple Mount is not in our hands. This does not mean giving up jurisdiction. But it does mean keeping Jews safe by preventing them from going up there. There is no Halachic reason to go up there now in our time. Especially since it incites the Arabs.

That is not capitulating. This is common sense and is in line with what many Poskim advise anyway. If Arabs don’t want Israeli protection there, that is fine with me.  Now if it were a Halachic requirement to go up there, I would say Israel had a duty to protect us there. But since it is not, we ought to back off entirely until the messianic era.

And then there are those who do their level best to incite the Arabs every time something like this happens. Like what some settlers decided to do in response to that massacre last Friday night. They thought it was a good idea to create a new outpost on the West Bank in to honor the victims. That’s like finding out that smoking causes cancer and dealing with it by smoking even more.

They have the right to feel that way. But not at the expense of inciting more bloodshed.
Of course implementing this idea will not solve the Israeli Palestinian conflict. There will still be terrorism on occasion. The root causes will still be there. Which is over a century of indoctrination of their people to hate us. Many generations of it! The real solution to the problem is to change that paradigm. 

Until that happens, nothing will change. But that doesn’t mean we can’t deal with a specific situation that arises and reduce the possibility of increased violence because of it.

Israel has an obligation to do just that. Eliminating the metal detectors ought to be accompanied by following the Poskim that forbid Jews from going up there altogether. Making it the law of the land until the advent of Moshiach.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Trump, Russia, and Syria

Putin and Trump at a recent meeting in Europe
It seems that Trump is going to reverse the U.S. policy of supporting the so called Free Syrian Army. The Washington Post Reports: 
President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad. 
This was the strategy of the Obama Administration whose goals were to both destroy ISIS and oust Assad. While oustig Assad was is a worthy goal, I never had any confidence in it.

First, those rebels were a very small group with little chance of succeeding in a fight against both ISIS and Assad. 

Second Perhaps more importantly – looking at Iraq – it was clearly a mistake to  oust Saddam Hussein and replace it with a democratic government. That hornet’s nest should have been left alone, despite the fact that Hussein was an enemy of Israel, a butcher and mass murderer of his own people. 

While it’s hard to justify leaving someone like that in power, there is little doubt that ISIS would never have had any success in trying to overthrow him and take over. They took over relatively easily once he was overthrown by America military might and replaced with Iraq’s version of a democracy. 

When the ‘Arab Spring’ eventually migrated to Syria, all hell broke loose. Assad was not going to give up power so easily. And that has caused a civil was lasting over 6 years so far – with no end in sight. That created an opportunity for ISIS to move in and take over. Which they did in some very key cities like Raqqa. They are still there.

Assad is not very different from Hussein. He too is an enemy of Israel, a butcher, and mass murderer of his own people. There is no honor in supporting him. And yet, I feel nostalgia for the time when there was relative peace and prosperity in that country under his rule. There were no refugees fleeing the country then. Unless they were critical of the Assad regime, most Syrians were able to lead their lives in peace, prosperity, and relative freedom. This does not justify supporting him. But it may argue against trying to topple him as a secondary goal in conjunction with toppling ISIS. 

This seems to be the thinking of Russia’s Putin. He has openly supported Assad as the legitimate government of Syria. As such he opposed the rebel army from the start. Russia was there to fight them as much as they were to fight ISIS. Which was of course at odds with American policy under Obama. This understandably increased friction between Russia and the US.

In an ironic reversal of roles, Democrats vilifying Russia more than Republicans are these days. So the President siding with Russia is characterized as almost treasonous. (Funny how they used to want to 'reset' the relationship with them under Obama. Now they are painting Russia (the USSR at the time) the way Reagan did during the cold war as ‘the evil empire’!) Republicans on the other hand seem rather subdued about the whole matter. Along comes Trump and stops rebel support. Seeming to now side with Putin.  

There is not a question in my mind that Democrats will spin every move Trump makes into an impeachable offense and will spin everything Trump says into something nefarious or even treasonous. 

All one has to do is look at Democrat and camera hog, Adam Schiff to see that. To him, Trump is guilty until proven innocent (although he pretends it’s the reverse). To Democrats it is obvious that Trump colluded with ‘the evil empire’ to sway the election his way. They are constantly saying that all the evidence point to that, even as they admit that nothing is proven yet. 

As someone who voted against Trump and sill thinks he is an embarrassment to the country and wishes he would resign, I still try to be objective about this. In my view, nothing happened along those lines. Trump and company did nothing impeachable. I do believe that there were Russian hackers that tried to influence the election, and that Putin approved of it. But I do not believe he necessarily ordered it. He found out it was being done and thought it was great. 

I also believe that all those meeting with Russian officials by Trump’s people were not a planned attempt to collude with them in order to illegally defeat his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Surely they can’t be blamed for trying to get dirt on his opponent from any source they could. ‘Politics’ is dirty! That’s how the game of politics is played these days. So if a Russian official comes along and offers you some dirt, why would you ignore it? Would Clinton have turned down dirt on Trump if it was offered by anyone - no matter the source?! (Not that she needed any help. Trump did a good job of providing her with dirt all by himself. But it didn't help her and is beside the point anyway).

(Democrats keep insisting (or at least hoping) that evidence will be discovered that will result in impeachment and then removal from office.  Evidence that Trump and company were trying to throw the election.  But I don’t think it is going to happen. I believe that the investigation led by former FBI director Robert Mueller is going to find exactly nothing that is even near impeachable.) 

Now Democrats have yet another piece of evidence that Trump is colluding with the Russians. By cutting off US aid to the pro democrat rebels in Syria they accuse the President of colluding with the Russians again by signing off on Putin’s support of Assad. If you are blinded by Trump hatred, that is exactly how you will see things. Especially after that undisclosed second meeting between Trump and Putin that was not originally reported.

But as I indicated, I don’t think stopping US aid to a group that has no chance of winning a war against ISIS or Assad is such a bad move. If the priority is ISIS, there is no gain by diverting funds and attention to deposing Assad.

The truth is that Syria is such a mess, it’s hard to know what the right course of action is. It is so complicated that no matter where you turn,  there are positives and negatives for the US and Israel. 

Let us look at priorities.  ISIS is number 1. They have to be destroyed. Although they will still be able to create havoc in the world by inspiring naive young people to join them in their fight against evil (or whatever they're selling  to gain followers to their cause). Iran is Israel's biggest threat, and yet they are on the same side against ISIS. Assad is a butcher, but he too is on the side of fighting ISIS.

As noted the rebels army is not much of an army. They may be democrats (small d) but they are small in number. Not sure they could win even with our support. And even if they did, they will surely be overwhelmed by the Jihadists that are  sure to follow which is what happened in Iraq. Meanwhile they are on the same side as ISIS with respect to overthrowing Assad.

As noted, Assad is a dictator and butcher. But if he is put back in power, Syria could return to some semblance of tranquility. Which is what they had before the current revolution. Remember, there were no refugees from Syria before that. Even Israel was relatively safe from attack by them based on decades of experience under Bashar and his father, Hafez.

I don't like the idea of rewarding a butcher like Assad by giving him back his country. But from where I stand, it is the least of all evils.


Truth is that I am far from an expert on any of these issues. I’m just thinking out loud.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Big Lie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Illogical and the Irresponsible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Orthodoxy Needs a Legitimate Left Wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Anti Zionism is Anti Semitism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Recognizing Truth - No Matter the Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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