December 29, 2006

Get Out of Iraq

I was very much in favor of going into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein and his nest of sadistic, genocidal, lunatics. Not because of his pathological hatred for Israel, but simply for humanitarian reasons, because of the way he was decimating Marsh Arabs, Kurds and Shiites, not to mention Iranians. At the time I was strongly against the Coalition tactics of trying to go through the United Nations, which as you may know I consider an organization more dangerous than helpful. Because the UN did not allow regime change as a legitimate basis for invasion, the Coalition went down the disastrous Weapons of Mass Destruction route. I think Blair's urging Bush to try the UN was a mistake, a legacy of a distorted Left Wing worship of the UN as an ideal. They were never going to get agreement. Just look at how they have failed over Darfur. Besides the French and the Russians and those other petty states which had supported a regime they were milking corruptly for all they were worth were always going to block any progress in removing it from power.

After the invasion it soon became clear that the Americans were ill prepared. The looting and chaos proved that. Very few now remember that in the early days the American administration tried to foist a new flag on Iraq in the colors of blue and white. No doubt they thought this would help create a more pro-Israel climate. Nothing could have been more symptomatic of American ignorance of the history of Iraq.

Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire and, as such, pro-German during the First World War. Then it became a British protectorate and an independent state in 1932. From the beginning its ideologues were anti-Western, anti-Semitic fascists of various hues, and the government of Rashid Ali was fiercely pro-Nazi. Britain reoccupied Iraq during the WWII and effectively ruled it with a Hashemite monarchy until a military coup in 1957. The new military leaders were all a bunch of thugs. In 1968 the secular Baathist party took over, and although initially Saddam Hussein was antireligious, he soon smelt the wind in the Muslim world and converted, at least outwardly. The Baathist ideologues were Nazi sympathizers and anti-Western. Only the Kurds in the North have been more favorably inclined towards the West. How the Coalition could have thought they’d be welcomed by nearly everyone, or that any Iraqi government might be pro-Israel, is as ridiculous as supposing that Khomeini was a closet Yankee.

From the disastrous disbanding of the army, the more the American administration got involved the less it achieved, for very obvious reasons. Iraq is a nation cobbled together artificially, that really ought not to exist, any more than Yugoslavia does today. It should be divided into three separate states--Kurd, Sunni and Shia--and after a little bit of ethnic re-arranging, that is, in fact, going on any way at this moment, they should be left to get on with running their own lives. Actually the Kurds seem to be doing pretty well at this already. All the rest of the world needs to do is to ensure some reasonably fair distribution of the oil and then leave them alone to sink or swim. The Americans and their allies should then get either get out or restrict their activity to bases freely negotiated with whoever wants them. Why feel the need to maintain an artificial political entity foisted by Western Imperialists on an unwilling, fractious mob divided by its own religion? If the Western powers sensibly decided not to do this in Yugoslavia, why not in Iraq? Frankly that’s also what ought to happen throughout much of Africa where the Imperial legacy is still the cause of much innocent blood.

When the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, came to the United States, he first went to the United Nations, where he declared that Iraq supported Hezbollah against the Zionist enemy and would immediately send millions of dollars in aid. This so incensed many American Congressmen and Senators that they threatened to boycott his address in Washington. His advisors obviously had a word, as when he addressed Congress he was careful not to repeat his mistakes (or to be more accurate, to state his real mind). Who needs people like him and his cronies?

The many Palestinians brought by Saddam to Iraq and given privileged status are now being victimized. As we know, Christian Arabs from Iraq to Bethlehem are being bullied into leaving by Muslim fanatics, and now more Palestinians are being killed by Palestinians than by anyone else. Of course Iran is helping the Shia, and Syria is helping the Incursionists, just as Saudi has declared it will help the Sunni. The illusion of non-interference has been shattered. Who is being fooled any longer? The whole Muslim world is so fraught with internecine conflict and self-directed hatred that I think we are best leaving them to solve their own problems, perhaps in the ways they know best.

I am no politician, but it seems to me that the two friends of Israel and supporters of its right to defend itself, Tony Blair and George Bush, are suffering politically, to no purpose any more, from their involvement in Iraq.

I believe their intentions were right and good. They did their, best but you cannot help someone who does not want to or cannot be helped. I thought Margaret Thatcher, whom I disliked politically, was a good friend of Israel. But Tony Blair has to be the most gutsy, supportive British Prime Minister that Israel and the Jews ever had. He has defied most of his own party, huge swathes of the electorate and the BBC. He is the only one who actually seems to see the nexus of terror. Everyone else pretends its not there. Britain has spawned a generation of Chamberlain’s children.

I say to Blair and Bush, you did your job. You went in and removed the most odious of dictators and his pathological sons. You tried your best to give the Iraqis a chance to run their own affairs as a united country. It didn’t work. It could never have worked. Get out! Now! And let them get on with whatever they choose to. Political memories are short, not long. A week in politics is a very long time. You will be thanked for bringing home the troops. And you will be free to concentrate your energies and manpower dealing with the much bigger problem of Iran.

I wrote most of this several months ago. It seems even more relevant today as Bush is considering sending even more troops in and I am beginning to wonder whether the arms traders and the arms industries aren’t the ones who are really benefiting from this prolonged agony. It’s the Fast of Tevet on Sunday that records the start of the events that finally led to the total destruction of two Jewish States. Then, on both occasions, had wiser council prevailed the disasters could have been avoided.

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December 14, 2006

Reformative Judaism

I often attack the inconsistencies and abuses of Orthodox Judaism. But I must say, sometimes our problems do seem to pale into insignificance compared to those of other denominations!

There was a time when Reform Judaism was the largest and most dynamic branch of Judaism in the United States of America. This was at a time when the movers and shakers of American Jewry were refugees or descendents of the Central European communities that had started Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century. American Reform was even more radical than the original German Reform and tried desperately to be as WASP-ish as possible. At one stage it moved the Sabbath to Sunday, and at its Pittsburgh Conference in 1885 the rabbis explicitly rejected Jewish dietary laws, saying that "all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state." They disavowed a hope or goal of returning to Zion and declared their belief in following "only [the] moral laws, and...only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization." Apparently they also arranged a pork and lobster meal on Yom Kippur to make their point.

Then masses of Eastern European Jews arrived. A few stayed loyal to their old ways. Many assimilated right away, but others wanted some way of retaining their Jewish traditions in the New World in a way less censorious or strict than the Orthodoxy they remembered at home. So was born the Conservative movement, founded by rabbis who were traditionally religious but more tolerant and open minded and wanted to make life a little easier for their congregants.

In principle they were committed to Jewish Law and tradition, but felt that some changes were necessary and they accepted a critical, scholarly approach to Judaism that saw the law as evolving, and rather than immutable, as did the Orthodox world. When Solomon Shechter became head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, it became a major institution and the Conservative movement attracted many very distinguished and learned men from Orthodox backgrounds, such as Shaul Lieberman, who were of Eastern European origin and were regarded as scholars by the most Orthodox. At one stage it looked as though Conservative Judaism would eclipse orthodoxy.

But in practice a system that allowed for flexibility soon became too elastic. Some congregations ended up virtually the same as Modern Orthodox synagogues, except for mixed seating, while others were almost the same as Reform. There was supposed to be a committee of rabbis who formed a sort of Beth Din to decide what was acceptable and what was not. But like most such committees it was pulled in all directions. Some of its members tried to remain loyal to tradition. Others thought that change should be the norm.

Some Major Conservative rabbis were virtually indistinguishable from Orthodox rabbis in their commitment to halacha. Others were indistinguishable from Reform. Each community ended up making its own decisions and appointing its own rabbi to coincide with its particular preferences. But over the past twenty years Conservative Judaism has been pulled farther and farther away from Orthodoxy, particularly over its attitude first to women rabbis, and more recently to homosexuality.

In Britain the Liberal movement is the equivalent of American Reform. Both these movements allow for patrilineal definitions of who is a Jew (if your daddy is Jewish that’s good enough), and have cut themselves off from Orthodoxy to the point where many of their members are not regarded as Jewish. The Conservative movement in the USA was the equivalent of Reform in the UK, where many of its rabbis were graduates of the JTS. But, in fact, UK Reform was closer to the liberal wing of Conservative Judaism, rather than the more traditional wing.

Until recently Reform and Conservative movements were the larger, more dynamic and more confident wings of Judaism in the USA. But in recent years they have been losing ground to a resurgent Orthodoxy, usually ultra-Orthodoxy, and they have lost a great deal of their confidence and old ideology as numbers dwindle to assimilation and marrying out. It is now this segment of Jewry, rather than the Orthodox, that is terribly concerned about survival and the future. So they have tried all manner of devices to reverse the trend--more tradition, less tradition, discourage mixed marriages, encourage them, proselytize, reach out to non-Jews, free trips to Israel, and so other simple solutions.

There’s a cute joke that at an Orthodox wedding the mother of the bride is pregnant, at a Conservative wedding the bride is pregnant, and at a Reform wedding the rabbi is pregnant! Except that now at a Conservative wedding the rabbi could well be a pregnant lesbian. I don’t have a problem with this, if that’s what people are happy with--I just do not see how much it can claim to be the same religion that I am talking about. They might be the same people, the same ethnic group, but not the same religion any more than an ethical, Bible loving, Seventh Day Adventist who rejects the Trinity is.

Last week the Conservative movement had to decide on whether to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. The way it dealt with the issue is a perfect example of the problems of cutting loose from a structured tradition, and the sort of chaotic indecision that will ensure that the movement drifts further away from its origins.

There is rabbinical committee which decides on all halachic issues for the Conservative movement. Rabbi Eliot Dorff of California presented a paper saying that homosexuals should be ordained, but that anal sex between men was still forbidden. Rabbi Joel Roth, representing the traditional wing, opposed ordination of gays and lesbians, saying it contradicts Biblical (and Rabbinic) law. And Rabbi Leonard Levi called for a therapeutic approach in dealing with the causes of homosexuality. All papers were presented and--can you believe it--they were all adopted. In other words, they decided that all three positions are kosher in the Conservative movement. It reminds me of the Judge who said, "You're right," to the prosecution and, "You’re right," to the defense and, "You’re right," to the guy in the dock.

In practice, of course, this means that individual congregations will choose rabbis of sex and sexual inclination according to their own preferences. That’s how it has been in Conservative Judaism for a long time, anyway. All this does is to reinforce the lack of consistency or standard in a movement that really doesn't seem to have one.

Conservative rabbis were trying to make the best out of it with such silly remarks as, "This is typical of the rabbinic approach to have different points of view." Come on! Sure there are different points of view and very, very rarely totally contradictory ones, but debates are settled. In Talmudic times if there was a legal debate, they either accepted a superior authority or took a vote. There was a conclusion. It was never, "You’re right, you’re right, and you're right" (except perhaps in matters of custom).

Another justification is, "This is what or movement is all about, being inclusive of different points of view." In one way that’s rather admirable and tolerant. Sadly there’s another side to this coin—confusion, contradiction, and weak leadership. No wonder so many secular Israelis can make sense of Orthodoxy, even if they hate the rabbis who apply it, but simply laugh at the shilly-shallying confusion of self-contradiction, not on marginal issues of dress codes and hats, but on essential morality.

How can totally contradictory halachic versions and varieties possibly be all right? When the Supreme Court hands down a decision it may, indeed, record minority opinions, but at least it decides. What could better illustrate the bankruptcy of a religious movement than its desire to please everybody? And, of course, it never works. The traditionalist rabbis have already resigned, and the gays are upset that the rabbis have not declared that the Torah and God approve of anal sex.

I don’t agree with Conservative Judaism, and certainly not with Liberal Reform Judaism. But neither do I believe that rigid Orthodoxy is the only answer to Jewish identity. So I applaud attempts to try to keep Jews within the fold. But where these attempts are drifting further and further into anarchy and self-contradiction they cannot possibly succeed or be good for any kind of Jewish unity. I’m glad there are places for all Jews to go to feel comfortable and validated, but if anything goes, then one can legitimately wonder where it will end.

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December 10, 2006

When is kosher kosher?

It is often said that a person is what he eats. Then I guess a person’s attitude to matters of food must say a lot about his religion.

It is one of the great features of Judaism as a religion that it creates a framework for daily living that involves thinking and acting rather than just affirming vague ethical ideas in theory. The presence of God is in mundane daily actions as much as in grand gestures and noble phrases.

Nowhere is our preoccupation with detail, conformity, and religious gamesmanship more evident than in matters of what is kosher. It used to be a simple matter. Certain animals, birds, and fish were, and others were not. Ritual slaughter had to be done correctly and blood removed, according to tradition. Meat and milk had to be kept separate, and one always had to watch out for suspect ingredients. There were also some social limitations on too much fraternization with pagans.

The only serous medieval variations were between the Sefardim and the Ashkenazim about what animal meat was acceptable to be eaten. The Ashkenazim, who mainly inhabited damp areas where animals fed in water meadows and swamps, often had to deal with damp-affected animal lungs which were stuck together in places, a sort of tuberculosis which would make the animal unfit to eat. But if these sticky places, these lesions, could be easily rubbed apart, the Ashkenazim allowed them on the grounds that they were not seriously affected. Sefardi rabbis said that any lesion was a health hazard and refused to accept what they saw as a fiddle.

Somewhere in the last century the tern "glatt" (Yiddish for "smooth" or "straightforward") was applied to meat where no question arose (similar to what was known in the Sefardi world as Beit Yosef kosher, after the compiler of the Shulchan Aruch, Yosef Karo).

Another important fault line was that Sefardim ate kitniyot (rice, legumes, and pulses) on Pesach, whereas Ashkenazi rabbis, ever restrictive, thought they were problematic, so banned it all. Then the pious Ashkenazim added "gebroks" to the list of no-no's. (Gebroks is matzah mixed with water, for instance to make matza balls or matza brie.) So nowadays even the least religious hotel insists that for Pesach it is glatt kosher and no gebroks and its lettuces are all vetted by the F.B.I., M.I.T., and the fraud squad before a rabbi even gets a look in!!

In the modern preoccupation with religious one-upmanship, and as people grew wealthier and could afford two sinks (for meat and dairy), then two cookers, then two fridges, and finally three kitchens (not to mention a luxury cruise), the current trend of kashrut getting stricter and tougher and more expensive came into vogue. Naturally, this was all helped by increasing kosher businesses that required supervisors and rabbis and experts, all of whom had to be paid. A massive industry in providing for unemployed rabbis came into being that made a lot of rabbis rich, and also incidentally funded religious life. As always, Jewish Law was purloined to reinforce commercial gain, just as the rabbis in Israel two thousand years ago declared non-Jewish earth contaminated so as to protect the local Jewish ceramic industry.

Sadly, the kosher industry is too open to abuse. It is possible to circumvent the strictest of supervision in the dead of night. Indeed, recently in Monsey, New York, the strictest store with the most pious of owners was found to have been recycling non-kosher meat as glatt kosher for years. My late father gained notoriety in the 1940's when he barged down the door of a kosher butcher in Glasgow to reveal that he, too, was bringing treifa (non-kosher) meat in to resell as kosher. Fiddling is almost endemic. I remember in yeshiva helping out in the supervision department of the Eidah Charedis, the strictest of supervisory boards at the time, and I can tell you monkey business was rife. Recently, the Israeli Government watchdog (and that’s virtually a contradiction in terms) has accused rabbinical supervisors of being too easily manipulated by aggressive proprietors who pay their salaries, and the whole system is suspect.

There are now endless supervisory bodies and signs and symbols and terms to indicate higher and better and safer and holier degrees of supervision, and frankly one really cannot know what standard to adopt with safety and consistency. Even so-called super Chassidish slaughter has been shown on film in one notorious case to be far from holy. Twenty years ago a close friend of mine who became a shochet and kashrut supervisor in the USA wrote to tell me how corrupt the Chassidish slaughtering was and that he was going to expose it. Weeks later he was found dead in a hotel in Chicago. I sent the letter to the Chicago police but nothing happened.

It seems to me there are only two consistent options. If one really wants to be certain, one will never eat cooked food outside of one's home or supervision. This way one is not reliant on poor supervisors, corrupt rabbis, dishonest proprietors or well-meaning but ignorant or incompetent hostesses. There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with someone who opts for this. It’s a matter of lifestyle choices.

However, I would regret the inevitable social limitation. And I particularly disapprove of creating enmity between members of one's own family or one's in-laws on matters of nuance and degree rather than essentials. I am uncomfortable with a religious attitude that is divisive where it isn't really necessary. I am not offended if someone refuses to eat in my house if I know he consistently will not eat in others as a matter of principle. On the other hand, when I was a congregational rabbi, for the sake of establishing contacts with my congregants, I was always happy to eat fruit and salads on cold plates (yes, check for bugs) wherever I was invited. It's much easier if you’re not a raving carnivore.

The other position, which is halachically totally correct, is to say that one will always rely on an avowedly halachic rabbinic supervision unless one has accurate information to the contrary (and not the sort of commercially motivated mudslinging one comes across in most communities nowadays).

Halachically, you may regard others as trustworthy unless proved otherwise, rather than suspect it until reassured. And if something then does go wrong you are faultless. It is the case that the law is absolutely clear that one only needs to bother about bugs the eye can see, but we have now entered an era of obligatory microscopic inspection. Indeed, if one is certain of the ingredients, in many cases one doesn’t even need supervision, although you would never know it, particularly at Passover time (supervised water--I ask you!).

Not everything in life has to be logical. I agree. But neither is it a mitzvah to be illogical, nor is it praiseworthy to go over the top. As the Talmud says, "Are you not satisfied with what He has forbidden that you must be stricter than the Almighty?"

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December 04, 2006

Great Leaders?

Very few Jews, let alone others, have heard of him. A few weeks ago Dayan Eliezer Waldenberg, the author of the magisterial compilation of legal opinions, Tzitz Eliezer, died at the age of 89. He was, in my opinion the greatest living authority on Jewish Law with particular reference to science and medicine. He was my halachic mentor. But more than this, he was a very modest man who did not allow himself to be used by politicians or indeed to get involved in politics. He was not manipulated by hangers-on filtering both questions and answers. He was self-effacing and spiritual. He met the criteria that I would apply to a Gadol, the term used to describe the great religious authorities of each generation, but he never allowed people to use it of him. His departure is a great loss.

We live in an era in which Judaism is being re-cast in an almost unrecognizable straightjacket. One of the pieces of this new paradigm is the use of the term "Gadol" ("Great") of certain rabbis. Most Jews and non-Jews only hear of Chief Rabbis or other appointees. Rarely do they hear of the true leader, the Gadol. The ultra-Orthodox world declares that one can only rely on the Gadol, for a true and authentic view and opinion on Torah. In theory it is absolutely right that only someone of great knowledge, wisdom, and spirituality, divested of personal ambition, political aspirations, and mundane physical concerns can try to fathom the depths of Torah as the vehicle of Divine communication with humanity. But until very recently no great rabbi ever was called or arrogated to himself the title "Gadol". And never over the past two thousand years has the law been the exclusive domain of one or just a few men alone,

Great Jewish spiritual leaders are still human beings and, since the days of the prophets, they have never been invested with superhuman infallibility. Yet at the latest Agudah Convention in the USA one keynote speaker is reported to have said that only the Gedolim of today can possibly understand the opinions and teaching of earlier rabbis, and that they alone have the greatness to mediate and explain them.

My cynicism about the way "Gedolim" as a generic term has been purloined and remodelled began many years ago when I became aware of the Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah, Council of Torah Sages, established by the non-Zionist Orthodox Israeli political party, Agudah, as its supreme religious authority, roping in many of the well-known Lithuanian and Chasidic rabbis. The council was, in fact, the plaything of the Augdah politicians, notably Rabbi Menachem Porush, who used them and led them a merry dance. My great Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Chaim Shmulevitz Z’’L, derided the charade and indeed often publicly excoriated Agudah politics, while sadly accepting their handouts to keep Mir alive in its struggling years during the 1950's and 60’s. Later on Rav Shach ZL, the head of Ponevez Yeshivah, set up alternative parties, encouraging Shas to challenge Agudah, and then Degel HaTorah, when they got too big for their boots. (I mention this as an example of the quagmire of religion and politics that is Israel, and that even great scholars can get caught up in.)

Then other outstanding rabbis like Rav Eliashiv emerged. (One is not allowed to record that he served for many years in the State Rabbinate, because in his new metamorphosis as Big Gun of the Ultras this is considered malicious gossip). But, sadly, the new leaders allowed themselves to be misquoted and used to humiliate and defame men like Rabbi Slifkin, the Zoo Rabbi, for quoting rabbinic sources that were taboo to fundamentalists, though totally authentic. In these ways the noble and essential concept of the Gadol has been dragged down through misappropriation and manipulation.

In recent weeks the great Lithuanian (Yeshivish) centre of Lakewood, in the USA, has been the source of a statement from "Gedolim" calling for all children living in homes where the internet is available to be expelled from their schools for fear of contamination. We are by now all aware of the dangers of television and the internet. On the one hand, they both provide unimagined access to news, opinions, information, texts and resources. On the other, they both open up to all and sundry the crudest, most despicable lewdness and corruption imaginable.

Yet it has always been my belief that censorship doesn’t work. I know of many children in London, Antwerp, Bnei Brak, and Monsey who are denied these tools of entertainment and information at home, then when they escape or find themselves in situations where they can access these forbidden fruits often go overboard like a starving child put in front of a banquet. But what worries me is not the desire to ban, in the vain hope it will help. What worries me is the cruel exclusion of children simply because of the presence of an inanimate object, with no consideration of whether it is being used responsibly or not. If this is symptomatic of the decisions of Gedolim, I am mightily concerned.

It was the great Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, born 1762 in Frankfurt, and died 1839 in Pressburg) who established modern ultra-Orthodoxy in reaction to the Enlightenment with the notorious misuse of a phrase that "anything new is forbidden." (Its original form referred exclusively to new produce before the tithes were taken.) This has now been adopted as the motto of ultra-Orthodoxy. But this point of view was not at all normative. Here is a quote from the Mishna Eduyot 1.6:

Rabbi Judah said, "Why are opinions of individual rabbis recorded even when they are overruled by majority of others? So that if in the future someone says, ‘I have studied and I come to a different opinion and it is based on this individual,’ he will have his authority to rely on."
Clearly, in those days they did think that later rabbis could conceivably come to different conclusions. They did not think that if at one moment in time an opinion gained currency that this was the end of the matter. Yet now we are told that not only can we never, ever overrule, but we cannot even understand the past!

There is one final aspect of this situation that I find most disturbing. Silence. At the same Agudah conference it was said that the Gedolim are dealing with issues of drug abuse, marital violence, delinquency, and other problems increasingly affecting the cloistered world of the ghetto that finds it cannot hermetically seal itself off from the outside world. But this is all going on behind closed doors, quietly and discretely, and we must accept this and not question, and have faith. Instead of welcoming difference and contrary contributions, the current mood of religious mediocrities is to try to suppress all this, very often using great men as mouthpieces, and very often presenting to them loaded questions to elicit required answers.

This is typical of all forms of autocracy. Obey and do not challenge. But this is not the Talmudic way, nor the authentic Jewish way in any sense. The whole point of the Talmudic method is to challenge openly and to lay one’s arguments on the line. This is the very method whereby Jewish law has evolved over the years. To stop it is to betray our tradition, to betray the rabbis of the Talmud.

However, this is changing. More and more Charedi people are expressing their dissatisfaction with leadership. Not openly, of course, because they still want to belong. But increasingly bloggers are revealing abuses within the ultra-Orthodox world--and what hopeful, healthy and optimistic thing this is. These are straws of in the wind of change. Of course, a good deal of time was spent at the Agudah conference excoriating bloggers--this is clearly the new Devil’s pastime! But why the fear of open discussion if there is nothing to hide?

No one person, no leader alone, can turn things around. Most contrary voices are simply dismissed with scorn. But every revolution begins at grassroots level and then slowly permeates either to change attitudes or to overthrow those who seek to suppress them. It is now clear to everyone that the real growth area in Judaism is amongst the Committed Orthodox. It is equally clear that this trend could be counterproductive if there is no adaptation.

Those of us who criticize the Orthodox world do not want to see it overthrown, for we are a part of it. But we do want to see it open up to ideas and debate. The important thing is that our views are there to be discussed and spread. Eventually they will rise to the surface.

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