December 29, 2011

Beit Shemesh Syndrome

At last there is outrage, even within their own circles, at the extreme ultra-Orthodox fanatics who think they can bully to achieve their aims. This kind of crude, religious anti-social behavior has been tolerated for too long. Let us hope now the line has been drawn.
Some background. Fifty years ago in Israel there were only two ultra-Orthodox enclaves, Bnei Brak and Meah Shearim. Busloads of tourists and truckloads of kibbutzniks used to come down into Meah Shearim to ogle at the weird inhabitants dressed like denizens of a medieval world. Israel has always been a land of contrasts, extreme secularism and extreme religiosity. And they have often clashed.
Slowly, imperceptibly, the ultra-Orthodox community has spread as numbers have grown and space was at a premium. Completely new exclusively Charedi settlements grew beyond the Green Line, such as Immanuel where they established their own rules from the start. Sometimes in mixed neighborhoods like Har Nof, non-conformists were slowly squeezed out. There were complaints of harassment. No one seemed to bother with the inexorable spread of these communities. People who didn’t like it or felt unwelcome simply moved on. But now the threat is spreading. It’s turning into a Hollywood horror movie.
The foul behavior of the bullies in Beit Shemesh has brought the issue into the open. Why just now? Hasn’t the Charedi community always had its bullies and loonies throwing stones, spitting, and screaming obscenities? The sad fact is that wherever you look in Israel, bullying works. Israel is like that. You push me. I push you. Whether in politics, sport, or religion, Jew or Arab. And, sadly, as the Charedi world has expanded and spread well beyond Israel, it has taken its bullies with it. Indeed, last year in the village of New Square, in New York State, a Charedi man was set on fire for going to the wrong synagogue! And when the locals were asked their opinion, they shrugged and said on TV, “He disobeyed the Rebbe.”
Beit Shemesh and Ashdod are two “new towns” that were originally open to everyone, regardless of religious degree. As the religious areas expanded, they fought to create their own ultra-Orthodox ethos. The more aggressive, less civilized, were allowed a reign of terror until they achieved their ends. Now the internet enables us to see the Youtube clips showing Neanderthals who claim they are the true and best Jews, the personification of Torah, throwing feces and terrorizing Orthodox young girls on the way to school, simply because the girls are not as covered up from tip to toe as they want. I suppose we should be grateful they are not throwing knives and bombs.

The problem is serious when any community uses violence against others--other religious communities even--to achieve its ends. It’s equally disgusting, when extreme settlers encourage delinquent “Hilltop Kids” to attack vulnerable Arab targets (and Israeli army outposts). Genuinely religious Jews are bound to wonder what they could possibly have in common with those hirsute primitives. What worries me most, as an Orthodox Jew, is that up to now I had not heard the so-called “great Rabbis or Rebbes” publicly condemning these betrayers of their values. And worse, some extreme Rebbes even encouraged them. Now at last the publicity, thank goodness for a free press, has caused a reaction.
It is alas a sign of the times. In Britain, France, the USA, or the Middle East, religious communities expand, funded by political interests who want their votes. They colonize inner cities, or build their own secluded townships, and insist on their peculiar and specific rules of dress and behavior. Whether it is Hackney, the suburbs of Paris, Cairo, or Riyadh, the Morality Police patrol and enforce their standards—hijabs, long sleeves and skirts, or black hats and frock coats. Interesting that almost everywhere else it is the women who have to cover up not the men; at least, cold comfort, in Charedi Judaism the men have to be equally uncomfortable.
It has always been thus. Communities--aristocrats, priests, merchants, and peasants--have clung to the security of their own communities, rules, conventions, and standards. Whether it was Versailles or the Frankfort Ghetto, if you didn’t conform you were out. In those days you either had to find another community to conform to or you were literally an outcast. The same applied to the Middle East, the Far East, and indeed the Americas. You always had undesirables moving into your neighborhood, driving down the price of houses, which brought more of them in, which in turn caused another migration out to newer, more mono-social areas where the like-minded, the like bank-accounted, the like-genetically-modified, or the like in religious practice could feel comfortable together.
There is nowhere in the world today where this struggle between conflicting ideologies and social standards is not taking place. The only differences are that nowadays most of us have far more choices as to where we can live and so we can move.
Modern liberal democracies have created this very situation of pressure groups by creating political systems in which religions can exercise power through the ballot box or coalition bargaining. Above all, abused welfare systems indulge and enable irresponsibility, indolence, and intransigence. Or in the case of other societies, so neglect the needs of the poor that it is left to extreme religious organizations to fill the void. “Rent a crowd” always draws on the unemployed or those who have nothing better to do.
You cannot force people to live with those they do not wish to. I do not agree that multicultural societies have failed because of multiculturalism, but because of overindulgence and political correctness, and a lack of will in imposing civil values. You can’t have freedom and then tell some citizens they can’t be fanatics. But we can show the fanatics how unacceptable their demands are.
The only thing that gets competing groups to modify their antipathy towards each other is when they actually have to work together or interact in the city chambers or the workplace. Welfare without obligations discourages interaction. State support should be dependent on helping to build the state, build tolerant communities, not on trying to destroy them.
Thank goodness for free societies. But just as we need to combat political extremism, be it fascism or Marxism, for the sake of freedom, so we must prevent minorities from imposing their will on others. The only way to do that is so stand up to them, cut off funding, and push back until they learn to treat others with respect.

December 22, 2011

Chanukah Then and Now

The story of Chanukah we hear year in and year out is about the triumph of the gallant few Maccabee rebels against the might of the Syrian Greek Empire. There’s a political narrative and a religious narrative that seems as vivid, as relevant, and as disturbing now as it was then.

The political narrative includes several elements. A small determined group of ideologically motivated activists can overcome superior forces and unfavorable odds. People fighting to protect their land are more dedicated than professional soldiers sent in to do a job. Afghanistan comes to mind. Yet the fact was that the Maccabee success was as much due to divisions, distractions, and rivalries within the Syrian camp that prevented a sustained and all-out assault as it was due to Maccabee military success. Indeed, Judah Maccabee himself fell in battle when the Syrians finally sent in a serious army. In the Middle East, to Israel’s great benefit, rivalries and sectarian conflict amongst its antagonists have consistently prevented them from uniting against her.

When the Maccabees did consolidate power, they turned into a nasty cruel dynasty. Power corrupted. Judah had sent his army to rescue Jews besieged in Greek cities where there was always commercial and social rivalry and whoever got the upper hand ended up massacring the other side. But then John Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus went further and forced conversion on a raft of tribes and peoples. The effect on the Jews themselves was debilitating in many ways and the archetypal product of such a policy was the grotesque King Herod.

Political alliances were crucial. When the Syrians invaded in force, Judah made a treaty with Rome that came too late to save him, but was the basis of Roman sovereignty. And Roman authority was fine until parts of the Jewish population rebelled against it and descended into internecine conflict and criminality. Then the full force of Roman military power more or less destroyed the Jewish settlement in Judea. Treaties were good only when both parties took them seriously and respected each other.

The official Jewish community lived predominantly in Judea, as the state and area was actually called two thousand years ago. The Roman province of Palaestinia referred to parts of Lebanon and Syria and was only extended to cover Judea after the Emperor Hadrian (76-138) determined to wipe Jews off the map of the Middle East in retaliation for the Bar Kochba revolution.

So much for the politics. But it is the religious narrative that intrigues me more. The community in Judea was led officially by the High Priests. Ezra had tried very hard to impress on the priesthood its religious responsibilities. But as with any aristocracy, they soon became more interested in power and wealth than their spiritual and moral obligations. Growing wealthy on the tithes the Bible awarded them and their share of sacrifices, as well as the vast sums of money sent from the Diaspora to support the Temple, they soon found themselves more in tune with Graeco-Roman tastes, fashions, and way of life than with their own and began to spend more and more time in Roman society.

Adopting Greek names, it was the priesthood under Onias, Alcimus, Menelaus, and Lysimachus who became the proponents of Hellenism. They competed for power, sending huge bribes to Antioch to secure the top position and undermine each other. They introduced the circus, theater, and games into Jerusalem. The fact was that the Hellenist Priestly party, the Sadducees (the Tzadukim, named after the Tzadok dynasty) ended up disappearing. The mighty priesthood disintegrated and became irrelevant.

They were like the secular lay leadership that came to dominate the Jewish world in the last century whose interest in anything religious was negative and incidental. I recall the shock my father experienced when he visited the USA in 1952 to discover that none of the heads and senior administration of the major communal and philanthropic organizations had any interest in the Jewish religion. This applied throughout much of Jewish world. Organizations like the Alliance Francaise, the Federations in the USA, Hadassah, ORT, HIAS, welfare of all kinds, all did good and vital work. But their culture was more non-Jewish than Jewish in the religious sense. They were closer to the priests of old. Only in recent years has the pendulum begun to swing.

The biggest criticism I have of religious life today is that it has become so snobbishly restrictive and exclusionary, more concerned with keeping people out than welcoming them in. Orthodoxy puts too much emphasis on being “holier than thou”. It is one thing to make more demands of oneself. It is quite another to expect everyone else to come up to those standards (or to make them unreasonably expensive). Chanukah should remind us of how interdependent we are. It took all sorts and shades to ensure we survived.

We are fortunate nowadays that, in most of the Free World, we no longer need to apologize for our religion and culture. We may still have our enemies, but we no longer slink quietly in the shadows or try to disguise ourselves. That is what Chanukah signifies to me. The custom we have of placing the menorah in the window is our way of declaring our pride and identity (though there is no law I have ever discovered of needing to put it in the marketplace).

We Jews are too often our own worst critics, and it’s no bad thing to see and admit our faults. But we should try to avoid letting the negative detract from our immense achievements and contributions. Keeping the light aflame is what Chanukah really means. Survival is only of use if you have something positive to offer.

December 15, 2011

Hillary Clinton & Modesty

Hillary Clinton, bless her, chose to berate Israel at a closed conference recently for its attitudes towards women. She specifically mentioned segregated seating on buses serving Charedi neighborhoods and recent decisions limiting the role of women in the armed forces in combat. I’m not sure if her objection to recent moves that permit male soldiers to opt out of mixed concerts was aimed at the soldiers or the performers.

I don’t disagree with her. But given all the serious issues that are matters of life and death, the ongoing failure of talks, the non-Charedi settler violence, for example, what the heck was she thinking? Well I can tell you, she was simply reflecting a form of liberal fundamentalism that is every bit as dangerous as religious fundamentalism. I object to any fundamentalism of any kind when it tries to interfere with freedom of choice. But when fundamentalism itself is an expression of freedom of choice, I object even more to people so ideologically hidebound they cannot see the beam in their eye for the mote in someone else’s.

I don’t mind sitting next anyone, regardless of sex, so long as he or she doesn’t smell! I do not approve of sex segregated buses. I believe state legislation should forbid any kind of segregation on state property or in state contracts. If you want something different, pay for it. Don’t expect me to subsidize it. But all free states do allow all kinds of private restrictions, limitations, and choices, social and religious. In that respect why is Israel any different than the USA?

Why is Clinton preaching at Israel when there are far worse abuses of freedom in her own country? The USA, of all places, should value allowing different communities to express themselves. From its constitution the United States allows individual states to be different. Some states have the "death penalty", others do not, some refuse to allow women the freedom of choice to have abortions. Some control the availability of contraceptives. Others limit the use of alcohol. Israel is in most respects a much freer society than many parts of the USA.

Two of Israel’s major parties are headed by women. Dorit Beinisch is the president of the Supreme Court. Women serve in the army, they have equal civil rights, they can walk around 90% of the country as décolleté as they fancy, and they are allowed to drive. Of course Israeli society, secular as well as religious, is far from ideal, and male chauvinist pigs of all stripes and creeds are not yet extinct. But tell me, pray, where it is better?

What’s her agenda?

Is it because a recent raft of right-wing legislation is a serious assault on freedom? I agree it is. Restricting funds to charitable organizations because you do not approve of their politics is indeed a scandal. Making verbal attacks on the state a crime if they come from Arabs, but not from Jews, is indeed unacceptable. I guess if you get into bed with yahoos, as Netanyahu has, there is price to pay. But let us remember this includes quasi-fascist secular Russian voters too. The disease at the core of Israeli society is the corruption of politics. But it is the failure of the opposition to win over public opinion and the absence of the political will to work together to clean up the mess that is responsible. As indeed this could all equally be said of the USA. So why frame the attack in terms of women on buses?

Is this another attempt to curry favor with the Brotherhood by painting religiously conservative Jews with the same brush? The Obama delusion in thinking that appeasing other ideologies will make them more sympathetic to yours? Is this to deflect attention away from the fears of Arab states becoming Shariah states by suggesting Israel is going the same way? When some countries she visits stone women to death, refuse to allow them to vote, won’t let them drive or have an education or take control of their own lives, she has to pick on Israel over a few buses that only serve Charedi areas?

Perhaps it is something else. Hillary is the archetypical liberated, modern woman who has had to fight hard for her success and who has identified strongly with a liberal agenda. She has recently trumpeted her intention to spend large sums promoting gay and lesbian rights around the world (well, good luck with THAT in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Iran). But her commitment to liberal causes blinds her to other areas of free choice that she cannot identify with, and that is the huge failure of the left wing agenda. It is as biased and closed-minded in its way as the fundamentalists are in theirs.

A doctrinaire liberal position is where one can object to women choosing to cover themselves up in the name of religion, or preferring to live in a sex-segregated community, but refuse to see that women walking semi-naked into a sensitive social context, or flaunting sexuality in inappreciative areas is equally problematic. You will ban head covering in schools but allow girls to walk in with micro-skirts and boob tubes. You will frown on taking time off for prayer but not for a quick snog in the playground. You will assume that ALL women who cover their hair, be they Muslims or Jews, have been compelled by aggressive males. Some may indeed, but to imply they all are is typical doctrinaire blindness.

It is this insensitivity to religious feeling that led her and her team to totally misread Egyptian society and think that funding liberal values would help change the nature of Egyptian society to be in the image of the USA, when clearly that is precisely what most voters in Egypt do NOT want. The Middle East is not Coastal America. It was a failure of both Israel and the Palestinians at the infamous Oslo talks to ignore their own religious communities instead of getting them involved.

Whether we like it or not religion plays an increasing role in the affairs of most countries nowadays. It is the zeitgeist. The more you swing one way the more the other swings back. Clinton should, we should be supporting the middle ground and consensus, instead of jabbing at the extremes.

Happy Chanukah, everyone. Let us celebrate light rather than the sword!

December 08, 2011

Can Mir survive?

The Mir Yeshivah that I went to in the 1960s was an intimate place, as indeed was Jerusalem itself--still divided, and small enough so that everyone seemed to know everyone else. After the Six Day War it all changed. Suddenly Jerusalem opened up and the Old City was like a magnet that drew everyone into its secret passages and ancient sites.

Mir expanded in stages throughout the main building, and finally beyond. Amongst the early arrivals from the USA was Nosson Tzvi Finkel, from another branch of the Finkel family, who married Rav Beinush’s daughter. He was tall, quiet, studious, and shy. I completely underestimated him. No one, I think, would have predicted then that he would become the Rosh Yeshivah. But the Almighty works in strange ways. Reb Chaim died in 1979. Reb Moishe, with whom I kept in close contact during the ‘70s, died prematurely. The brilliant Reb Nochum who had succeeded Reb Chaim, went in 1986. Reb Beinush followed briefly as Rosh Yeshivah, but he too died, in 1990.

One often wondered how to explain these tragedies. Was it just that “those whom the gods love die young?” or the curse of Shanghai? Reb Nosson Tzvi was in poor health, himself, when he became the Rosh Yeshivah in 1990. And he established his own style, much more accessible and involved with his students. He had inherited the tradition to accept anyone who wanted to come to Mir. This worked in reviving it after the war. How would it work now? He also inherited the noble tradition that Mir did not charge fees; it only asked those who could to contribute.

Was the expansion of Mir into the largest, most influential center of Jewish study in the world, from the 200 in my day to 6,000. Was this Reb Nosson Tzvi’s secret master plan? Or was he rather a child of circumstances and simply accepted the inevitable? We may never know, but he gets and deserves the credit. But was it necessarily a good thing?

The Charedi world was expanding rapidly everywhere, particularly in Israel, where its political clout could move governments and funds. Charedi “families blessed with children” were pouring thousands of youngsters into the yeshivot. Many went for the highest of motives, to study for study’s sake, some in the hope a career in religious education but others went to avoid the draft into the Israeli military. The more students the bigger the subsidy (which often led to the illegal massaging of figures). The rise in affluent orthodoxy meant that many more young men from all round the world were going to Jerusalem, some to study seriously but others to enjoy themselves and Mir took all even those deemed unsuitable.

I watched with pride from afar, but I wondered. There is no way you can control so many or influence with a particular approach to life. The old Lithuanian Jewry had all but disappeared. The Charedi world today is very different to that which existed in the more hybrid state of Jewry before World War II. The boom in Chasidic numbers and power has come to dominate the Charedi world in Israel and to a lesser extent the USA. No longer dare the Mitnagdim (Opposition to Chasidism, initiated by the Vilna Gaon) stand up to the more mystical, popularist, anti-intellectual approach which now determines the mood and attitudes of Orthodoxy--Sephardi as well as Ashkenazi. The ideal of unquestioned submission to authority, the unbridled adoption of the most recondite of mystical customs, has been adopted by all Charedim, which has in turn created a new world of control and conformity that is essential for political power and access to the money such power guarantees. But conformity too often is a social phenomenon rather than a religious one. Those who resist the wave do so as individuals. And they do exist even within the portals of the Charedi establishment; it is not quite as monolithic as it appears.

But the old unique Lithuanian world of Mir no longer exists. Mir, in spreading itself out under different heads over many campuses, has neither preserved its own ideology nor encouraged variety of thinking. It has simply mirrored the Charedi brand. It contains great minds, passionately devoted scholars, yet also time-servers and passers-through.

I love Mir. I used to go back during summer vacations to study and soak in its atmosphere. I want to see it thrive, and it pains me that Reb Nosson Tzvi suffered trying to raise money and that many of its teachers went without proper pay.

What will happen? All yeshivot were traditionally run as family concerns, where nepotism often trumped learning. The founder and Rosh Yeshivah of the great Ponevez was once asked by Rav Yechezkel Sarna, the head of Chevron Yeshivah, why Chevron was not as successful even though it was an older establishment. Rav Kahaneman replied, “In my yeshivah I choose the heads, in yours it is your daughters, and I think I am a better judge.”

I hope Mir has a new giant to lead it forward, to make crucial and perhaps painful decisions. Nothing however praiseworthy, is every guaranteed continuity. Like any major academic institution around the world, it needs a professional class of fundraisers and administrators. It should no longer rely exclusively on its founding families. Neither should numbers be allowed to swamp its unique contribution. Mir now is a bellwether. It can either be subsumed under the Charedi label or it can stand as the last redoubt of Lithuanian Jewry. The hagiographers will go to work right away. But sometimes “more is less”.

December 01, 2011

The Passing of Mir - Part 1

Mir Yeshivah today is probably the largest and most famous yeshivah in the world, with some 6,000 students scattered over numerous campuses and buildings. Its head, Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel, died recently, and tens of thousands turned out for his funeral. Yet most of the Jewish world, and certainly the non-Jewish world, have no idea who he or Mir is. Mir is my alma mater and the single most important influence on my religious life so I have a personal view on its progress. It has gone through three very different phases and I should like to contrast them. We can learn from history.

My late father travelled from London to Lithuania in 1934 to study in the famous Mir yeshivah. His experience there was absolutely transformative. It was not just the brilliant study, the phenomenal minds of the “academic” roshei yeshivah, or the powerful moral influence of the “dean of students”, the mashgiach Reb Yerucham. It was also the ethos of the yeshivah, the way the students lived what they studied, the emphasis on ethics, behavior, comradeship, even appearance. It was said that you needed a tin of boot polish if you wanted to study in Mir. The great yeshivot regarded themselves as purely centers of study for its own sake, not as a preparing ground for the rabbinate; nevertheless a whole generation of major rabbis emerged from my father’s generation.

The Second World War destroyed Mir, but it also destroyed the nature and character of Lithuanian Jewry. The main body of the yeshivah, including the legendary Reb Leizer Yehuda and his family, fled eastwards and ended up surviving the war in Shanghai, where Mir relocated temporarily. From Shanghai some went to the USA. But Reb Leizer Yehuda and his circle moved to Jerusalem where they reestablished Mir, in name at least.

That family was an amazing collection of brains and spirit. Rav Leizer Yehuda, gentle and wise, was the moving spirit, the personification of the ideals of Lithuanian Jewry; intellect, religious devotion and humanity. He had three sons, Reb Chaim Zev, Reb Beinush, and Reb Moshe (all the rabbonim were called “Reb”, surprisingly, because technically it is a lesser title than Rav but none of them had lowered themselves to seek a rabbinical title, which they thought beneath their dignity and fit only for lesser mortals. Reb Chaim Zev, known as Chazap, was the mashgiach, the spiritual guide. He was a warm, outstanding man who continued the tradition of his father. Reb Beinush was tall, handsome, and imposing; he was reputedly a brilliant chess player. And Reb Moishe was the modestly endowed secretary and administrator. Rav Leizer Yehuda’s daughter was married to the brilliant, singleminded giant of Torah, Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz, who in turn had an even more brilliant son-in-law, Reb Nochum Partzovitz (known in the old Mir as Trokker, from his home town).

They were the personalities I encountered in 1965 when I went to study in Mir. Despite my hybrid education and independent mind, they welcomed me into the yeshivah and their homes. This was largely because the affection they all held for my late father. I could see and feel, despite their differences, the magic of Lithuanian Jewry.

But Mir Yeshivah itself was a different matter. Its building was not well maintained, dirty, and odorous. It was located in Bet Israel, just off Mea Shearim, and served as a general dosshouse and refuge for the poor and lost. It was when I arrived, essentially a kollel, a yeshivah for older and married men, some 150 of whom often came for part of the day only to earn their stipendium and then went somewhere else to get another one. Only a select few scholars sat up front, opposite Reb Chaim and Reb Nochum, and studied with them every day . The big hall, the Beis Hamedrash, was full of men and smoke during the daytime, but all but empty at night and over weekends. There were a few dormitories occupied by old bachelors (a tradition from Lithuania, where often great minds needed more years immersed in study before they were prepared to take on the obligations of married life).

Most of the men in the Beis Hamedrash then were Yerushalmi, descendants of eighteenth and nineteenth century refugees from Eastern Europe, a premodern pious world, far from Lithuania. They were there because that was where they found refuge, but not necessarily because they merited it, and because Mir needed numbers in those days for the meager subsidies it was granted. And finally at the bottom of the food chain there were, in 1965, a handful of single men from abroad, like me. This Mir changed after the Six Day war when the flood gates opened and many more came, mainly from the USA, to swell the ranks.

My first year was probably the single most influential year of my life. Rav Leizer Yehuda died and I was adopted by Chazap. Then, not many months after, he fell ill and died too. Reb Chaim became the undisputed Rosh Yeshivah and he took over Chazap’s role as the Spiritual Guide, as well; but he was far too brilliant and academic to be a good mashgiach. His lectures packed out the hall, but if his mind was into the intricacies of midrash, his soul was not pastorally inclined. Nominally, Reb Aaron Chodosh assumed the role of pastoral supervisor; he was sweet and good, but a totally ineffective man. It was the brilliant Reb Nochum, the archetypal Litvak, who became my mentor and the person I consulted and interacted with most. He knew I was an unusual student, different than the others, and he humored me and treated me as such.

No one who has not experienced it can imagine the drug-like addiction to studying Torah that a place like Mir induced. Nowhere have I ever found a similar intensity in prayer. It was overpowering and inspirational. I lost myself in its atmosphere and I will always be beholden to those who were part of it. During my years at Mir I increasingly ploughed a lone furrow, because I was consciously training to be a rabbi. That was rather like deciding that although you were in an institute for Ph.D. research your ambition was to teach high school. Still, Mir tolerated me, and indeed encouraged me. When I was ready, Reb Nochum, and indeed Reb Beinush (with whom I took a brief break to South Africa in 1966 to help raise money for the yeshivah), ensured that Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz wrote me an impressive semicha (ordination).

But, as I was doing my own thing, I could see the yeshivah around me was changing and its transformation from an institution of less than 200 to a corporation of 6,000 I will explore next week.