February 28, 2013

The Pope and The Jews

Pope Benedict’s resignation sends an important message to our own religious leadership. Know when it’s time to step down. What humility it takes for someone to realize that he does not have the strength or the capacity to lead such a significant movement. No pope has had that quality for over six hundred years. Like most geriatric leaders, they have invariably held on until the Almighty (or His agent) has put them out of their misery.

Religions have always faced the challenges of how to get the faithful to behave in practice according to the ideals and original visions of their founders. Haven’t you noticed how they love to talk about peace and goodwill on earth and loving one’s fellow human being, yet at the same time tend to disregard the feelings and sensitivities of others? They seem to believe that only the faithful deserve love and concern and all the rest had better either agree with them or face the consequences. All religions now face the challenge of self-indulgent materialism, to which the overwhelming majority of humans on earth subscribe, regardless of faith. And all religions suffer from the abuses of power, of petty men and women seeking to control, bully, and fight their internecine battles as though this was what they were created for.

It is true that religions also have their saints and altruistic souls who toil and struggle to improve the human condition and to help individuals of all sorts cope with the pressures of life. They may actually be the majority. But on balance it’s the abuses and misuses that get the publicity.

A public religious leader has to be charismatic and of saintly disposition; ideally a scholar too. But he has also to be a strong CEO controlling an unwieldy organization; a disciplinarian to rope in rogue clerics; a fighter to hold firm against the inroads of secularism and fanaticism; a warm empathetic healer of souls. Such a person doesn’t exist. But to come close requires strength and energy. Normally large organizations and parties promote up through the ranks and the safe men of consensus tend to get the job. Think of the Russian Communist party; but then think of the exception in Gorbachev. Similarly, the papacy with its exceptions like John XXIII and John Paul II.

The Catholic Church has been facing very serious internal issues of sexual abuse and financial corruption. The very size of the papal bureaucracy--with its rival departments, interests, and theologians--has been compounding its difficulties. In Europe the Church is in serious decline. The largest Catholic communities are in the Americas; yet there too it is shrinking and facing the growing popularity of Pentecostal churches. And in the Middle East, Pakistan, and China, the Catholic Church is actually under serious assault.

The last seriously reforming pope was John XXIII, but those who have followed him have been conservative. They have fought to preserve a hard line orthodoxy that in fact has proven to be an ineffective response to the challenges they face.

The single most notable change in the Catholic Church in my lifetime has been its attitude towards the Jews. The history of the papacy has been one of persecution. The norm was to attack Jews and Judaism. Only rare exceptions extended any sort of sympathy. Pope Pius IX, who died in 1878, supported baptizing and kidnapping a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, and refusing to ever hand him back to his parents. Pope Pius XII was accused of not condemning Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and although he may have turned a blind eye to sheltering some Jewish victims, many in his Church stood in the way of returning Jewish children who were rescued by Christians.

We owe a tremendous debt to John XXIII for beginning the process of reconciliation that Benedict XVI has so formidably championed. From a Jewish point of view, the last two popes have both been influenced by the Holocaust and have been the most positive and supportive of Jews and Israel. From being the branch of Christianity least well disposed towards the Jews it has now overtaken by far most of the established Protestant churches who are now solidly sadly in the thrall of anti Israelism. Even so, they have faced opposition within their own house.

The Church is not monolithic. The record of the South American Church on anti-Semitism is a lamentable one. The leading candidates for the papacy from South America have been caught on record making anti-Semitic statements. We have no idea what the next one will be like. Nevertheless, for their sake, I hope the Church chooses a young, dynamic, and aggressive leader who will stem the collapse in Europe and allow a more progressive mood to shake up the old order.

All this reminds me of why we should take a leaf out of the pope’s book. Who are the leaders of the Jewish religious world today? One thinks of the late Rav Shach and Rav Elyashiv, and Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Shteinman today, to mention only the most prominent. They are a gerontocracy of men who, in their nineties, might still have amazing brains, honed on years of study and analysis. They might also be the most pious of men. Yet it is also clear that they are tired and weak and out of touch with the world around them. Rav Shteinman refuses to make any compromise on allowing those Charedi young men who do not want to sit and study to go into the army. Rav Yosef calls Naftali Bennett worse than a non-Jew because he refuses to abide by Charedi authority. Because of their infirmity, they are surrounded by warring family heirs, political fixers, gatekeepers, and secretaries who shelter them and filter through what they want to let the great man see and hear. These men have been and are national treasures. But just as Benedict will now relinquish the burdens of leadership to younger, stronger men and devote himself to study alone, so too ought these wise men in Judaism.

The challenges Judaism faces in Israel, mainly for that is where it is strongest, are so important and yet the present reactions of its leadership are akin to paralysis. There is no sense of the need for new perspectives and new ways of dealing with the challenges. Orthodoxy, like the Catholic Church, is awash with sexual and financial scandals. It thinks it can deal with them itself when clearly it can’t, and as a result it is allowing an impression of corrupt decadence to emerge as the face of ultra-Orthodoxy. When this happens, it is time for either a peaceful change or a revolution. And as we know, most revolutions are dangerous and painful things.

And I must get in a PS against that despicable travesty of "moderate" Islam, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, and his foul-mouthed abuse of Zionism before a UN audience again. He pleads for Islamophobia to be outlawed, and I agree with that. So long as he includes Israelophobia, Zionaphobia, and Kurdophobia on his list of moral outrages. But of course he can’t, because that’s precisely what he’s guilty of. What a two-faced hypocrite.

February 21, 2013

Purim 2013

It always amazes me how Judaism has succeeded in evolving (or shall we say, for the sake of political correctness, reinvigorating itself).

After all, the Bible took orgiastic pagan harvest festivals and turned them into disciplined, monotheistic family celebrations. Shapatu, the Mesopotamian Seventh Day, was transformed from an evil day of fear and bad luck into one of rest and spirituality. The people of Ugarit boiled a kid in its mother’s milk, while we wait six hours between meat and milk (or insist on two sets of dishes, fridges, ovens, dishcloths, tablecloths, dentures, and toothpicks). But I still can’t believe that Moses could ever have imagined his descendants would one day return to the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey to turn it into a land swamped with long black coats and fur hats speaking a variation of "Dog German". But, as the good book of Psalms says, “How amazing are your works, God, and they are all wise!”

No sooner had Moses and Joshua been called to the Heavenly Assembly, when we Israelites returned to our natural bolshie, argumentative, and contrarian personification of a “stiff-necked people”. Despite the optimistic aspirations of Isaiah and the desperate Jeremiads of guess who, and with the exception of one or two decent monarchs, we descended into corruption, chaos, defeat, and exile. The horrific conquest and destruction described by the Book of Lamentations is obvious enough reason for the state of depression that enveloped us as we “sat by the waters of Babylon and there we wept”.

By the time we got to the prophet Zechariah, Judaism had instituted a range of depressing fasts, in the fourth month, the fifth, the seventh, and the tenth month (though we can’t be certain which ones they were, because the names of the months were constantly changing from Canaanite to Babylonian to Persian and more). Not only, but according to the Talmud we were fasting at the drop of a hat whenever something went wrong, the rains failed, the hurricanes blew, the lions roared, the jackals howled, or yet another invading army passed through.

The mood was dark. Our land was laid waste and we became a nation of expatriates. So think how amazing it is that after all those visions of valleys of dried bones, all of a sudden our religion bequeaths us a celebration to surpass all celebrations, a carnival of food drink and fancy dress. Again I ask, could Moses have ever envisioned a celebration that started in the warmth of Persian indulgence transported into the driving sleet of Manchester, the cold rain of London, or the snow ravaged suburbs of New England? No wonder getting drunk seemed to be the only way to get through the day.

Yet the wisdom of our forefathers was not simply in giving us an opportunity to have fun and let our hair down (if you were a male and forgot to shave your head to the scalp). Even in the moments of our inebriated self-indulgence we were commanded to think of the poor, to cement friendships, and give presents. It is an amazing tribute to our forefathers that they knew how to find that golden rule, that balance between self-indulgence and altruism, between individuality and community, between enjoying God’s gifts and making sure we shared them with others.

That, after all, was our very first celebration as a nation. The Paschal Lamb was eaten together with the stranger or the loner and was welcomed into the warmth of the home. So from the start the family, eating and rejoicing, became the center point of our religious life.

Nowadays in modern and free materialist living, the idea of family comes under assault everywhere and in every form. Families no longer sit down to eat together, or if they do it is in front of the television. Mothers walk their babies as they talk into their cellphones or sit on park benches texting, and never even look at their offspring, let alone communicate with them. The conflicting and concurrent demands of modern life pull one parent to work, the other to the store, one child to sport, the other to a mall; even when they do come back, they each retire to their pads, phones, boxes, and screens to enter their own private worlds. How wise of our founders to focus on sitting down together to have a religious meal, to drink and be merry, to talk about lofty ideas, and encourage children to present some stimulating or original thought. We have always been adding, adapting and adjusting as circumstances and history have changed.

There’s one point about Purim that I don’t think is stressed enough. The Jews of the Persian Empire were very careful to avoid offending and above all not to be seen benefitting from the discomfort of their enemies. They did not loot or take advantage (though Esther did get Haman’s palace). I wish nowadays more of us took that to heart. Swindling the State has almost become a national pastime in some quarters.

Purim reminds us of the dangers of life but also the pleasures. One can so quickly turn into the other. We are commanded to be so spaced out on Purim that we cannot tell the difference between “Blessed is Haman” and “Cursed is Mordechai”. If I may suggest some relevant adaptations; between an outwardly religious Jew who behaves like a pagan and a pagan who behaves more morally than a Jew, and between a Jew who says he is a Jew and one who really behaves like one!!!

We have survived despite the continuing presence of Amalek in various disguises. And we have survived despite the fact that we are often our own worst enemies. So let’s drink to survival. Happy Purim.

February 14, 2013

Menachem Elon and Theocracy

One of the greatest of Jewish jurists, Menachem Elon, former Supreme Court Judge in Israel, died this week. He was steeped in the Talmudic tradition as well as the secular, and he was a moral, just human being. He stood for a balance between the standards of Jewish law and the more universal and sometimes contradictory demands of a pluralistic, democratic, and largely secular society. He was strongly opposed to theocracy. His classic “Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles” remains the best book by far for anyone who wants to understand Jewish law. He was a rabbi, graduate of Yeshivat Chevron, a top academic and he fought in the War of Independence. He stood for values, both religious and secular that are under threat as a new generation seems bent on turning Israel back to medievalism.

In the wake of the recent elections, different sectors of Israeli life are jockeying for positions in the government and campaigning for their own agendas. Amongst the most sensitive of the issues being debated is the nature of the state. Should it be a civil democracy, a religious democracy, or a theocracy?

Broadly speaking, there are three positions:
  • Israel is a secular democracy in which religion should not interfere in the private lives of its citizens regardless of faith. 
  • Israel is a Jewish state, run according to Jewish law.
  • Israel should combine Jewish legal and spiritual values with those of secular democracy. The state will accept the Jewish calendar alongside the universal, and its prime cultural obligation is the perpetuation of the Jewish religion. It will recognize and protect other religions and enable their specific legal systems to function alongside, but not in conflict with, those of the wider state. It will not interfere in the private lives of individual citizens.
You will doubtless be able to guess that I identify with the third.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, is what one might call a religious nationalist Zionist. He is typical of a new breed that is pushing for a more assertive religious position from a non-Charedi point of view. In the light of over 40 new members of the Knesset who are Orthodox, he has recently called for a review of the status quo in regard to religious matters and a redefinition of Israel as a Jewish state. I fear if he were taken seriously, this would be the next step towards a theocracy and a theocracy cannot possibly work where most of the population is either not religious or of a different religion.

This struggle over definition has been simmering for a long time. Israel has no constitution and its declaration of independence talked about establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Its laws--a melange of Ottoman, British Mandate, and Jewish--are modulated by the Supreme Court and the Knesset; in addition, certain governmental agreements have accumulated over the years, commonly called Basic Laws. These include laws regulating religious matters, often called “The Status Quo”, laws concerning the status of marriage and divorce, according to which family relationships or their annulment are determined by halakha (Jewish law) in rabbinical courts, the status of Shabbat observance and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) in all government and public frameworks, the obligation of the Israel Defence Forces to enable Jewish law to be observed within its ranks, and the exemption of those who wish to study Torah.

Melamed wants to pass a “chok yesod” (Basic Law) regulating these matters, instead of their being simply “agreements”. The reason he claims it is necessary is that Israel has adopted a basic law of human rights which enables the largely secular Supreme Court to gnaw away at the status of the rabbinical courts and Jewish family values, in the name of the “Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty”.

If Israel is really a Jewish and democratic state, he argues, it is unacceptable that the democratic side of the equation receives backing and significance in “Basic Law”, and in various other laws while the Jewish side receives only limited and inferior expression in “common law”. This, he claims, puts Judaism at a disadvantage although I find this hard to see happening on the ground.

I strongly oppose empowering the rabbinate or any religious authority with any increased basic legal powers. In a word, the rabbinate has failed its constituency. Once upon a time there were two separate camps in Israeli religious life. The State Rabbinate was predominantly religious Zionist, inclusive, and tolerant in its application of Jewish law to accommodate the national majority, which was traditional rather than Orthodox. The Charedi Rabbinate, with its Chassidic and Lithuanian wings completely devoted to their leaders, was at best disdainful of secular Zionism, but tended to stand apart from and ignore its religious institutions. It set much stricter standards for itself. It is also true to say that the Charedi Rabbinate was less nationalist and more concessionary when it came to Palestinian aspirations and the possibility of exchanging land for peace. Had things remained that way, I would have had less of a complaint. There was at least choice.

Over the years, as the Charedi community has exploded, it has infiltrated and taken over the moderate rabbinate and has made increasingly hard-line demands on the rest of Israeli society. The scandalous state of conversions in Israel amply highlights this trend. If their uncompromising mentality becomes enshrined in Israeli law, it will lead to a paralysis of inter-human legislation and will only damage Israeli civil society.

Both the Israeli Rabbinate and the Charedi world have manifestly failed to regulate themselves on matters such as sexual and financial abuse. They have not moved towards giving women fairer rights in divorce, inheritance, or custody. Such moral failure, if extended to the law of the land, would lead to the same collapse of religious morality that caused the destruction of both Temples and the exiles. The religious world must and will fight to protect its own. But I have no confidence that if given more power and authority it would protect others. Israeli society has not done enough to protect minorities. But I certainly do not think we could count on the established rabbinate to redress this balance. In most places (there are of course exceptions) that I have encountered religious courts, Batei Din, I have not been impressed with the way they have heard the pleas of “the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed”. I do not see the religious leadership in Israel or in the diaspora at present that I would have the confidence in to govern a state, or indeed a religion.

Israel must preserve its system of checks and balances and avoid at all costs granting religion even more power in the land. It is not that I think the Supreme Court is perfect. Far from it. But I want more counterbalances, not fewer. So far “human rights” have all but been ignored by the religious authorities.

So I fear the mentality of men like Melamed, and I mourn the loss to our people of men like Menachem Elon. They knew the value of Torah, but they also understood the nature of a modern state for all its citizens. Chaval Al DeAvdin. What a sad loss. If only there were more like him.

February 08, 2013

Marrying Out

Recently I have been asked once again to intervene in situations where a young Jew wants to marry a non-Jew. It is such a difficult position to be in. Love is a beautiful emotion and on the other hand, marriage is such a complex, difficult, and challenging state. Of course it is immensely rewarding when it works. Being Jewish is so important to me and so is being human. Everyone is upset with everyone else. It becomes a battleground. What can I do? What can I say? I have been facing this problem ever since I entered the rabbinate 45 years ago.

In my youthful arrogance, I used to reply to parents that if all they showed of Judaism to their children was a social club with hardly any positive Jewish experience, then why shouldn’t their children want to join a bigger social club? After all, I had seen in the Jewish school I attended how so many parents wanted the school to inoculate their children so that they would not marry out, but Heaven forfend they should come home and want to be more observant.

But things were more nuanced in reality. I came across young men from observant homes who married out too. Someone I knew from a very Chasidic family fell for a woman in a bar in Moscow, and that was that. Another was trapped by pregnancy into an inappropriate marriage. So often circumstances or accidents determined the course of a person’s life; where he went to university or work, or who happened to know someone who knew someone. There were other exceptional circumstances. I met young men and women who were physically or mentally challenged, with little chance of finding a Jewish partner, yet had been fortunate to find someone on the outside who was willing to take care of them and perhaps love them too. Wouldn’t I want a Jewish paraplegic to find solace with a nice non-Jewish lady?

The sympathetic me wants to say that we must not treat such occurrences as the end of the road. The days are gone when parents sat in mourning for a child who married out, as if he or she had died. One must stay close to one’s flesh and blood, regardless of what decisions they make. After all, marriages tend to last less than they did. The child could return home or make a more appropriate choice the second or even third time around. If one retains a sympathetic connection, this might impact on the children who, ironically or unfairly, in the case of a Jewish woman marrying out, remain Jewish. Although it is true that statistically the children of mixed marriages are far less likely to be positively committed Jews, there are exceptions.

I might want to point out the examples I know of personally in which the non-Jewish partner not only converted but became a far better and more learned and committed Jew than the majority of born Jews I have met. I would argue that incorporating other talent, new genes into the pool might be beneficial. I could point to the Biblical Ruth, the Judean and Maccabee kings who brought non-Jewish women into the fold.

But then the hardliner enters the debate. Without any doubt, marrying out weakens the bonds with one’s religion and community. As a result of Jews from wealthy families marrying out, I have often seen fortunes that might have benefitted Jewish charities fall into the hands of those who had no interest in supporting Jewish causes. We Jews are so few and our history so fraught, our support so limited, losing millions through murder or forced assimilation that we cannot look dispassionately on those who leave our ranks. And there are a whole slew of issues: who spends time with which family, how the children are raised, and which of their parents’ different families, religions, and values impact differently. How one side may be totally unreceptive or even antagonistic to the sensibilities and history of the other. Yes it may sometimes work, but more often than not it doesn’t, or it leads inevitably to the loss of the Jewish component.

By the time they ask for my help, it’s invariably too late and arguments fall on deaf ears, or on hearts so heavily invested there is no room for doubt.

Nevertheless, the role of the rabbi is to defend Judaism. It is for the parent to defend and protect their child. If leadership regards marrying out as just another mild hazard of modernity, are we not failing our communities in withdrawing what few inhibitory factors are left in our heavily acculturated diaspora communities where over 50% marry out and leave?

As a rabbi, I have always taken a lenient and inclusive approach to the less committed. I have justified this by saying that the majority of Orthodox rabbis take such a rigid and uncompromising line that I know they have driven many away that they might have salvaged. Surely someone needs to offer an alternative approach, just as Shamai and Hillel presented different ways of defending the faith. Yet the fact is that for every ten I have seen welcomed into the fold through easy conversions or sympathetic exceptions, perhaps only two have stayed the course.

Here in New York there is another phenomenon. In this most pro-Jewish of cities outside of Israel, there are thousands of nice Jewish boys who swear they cannot find a nice Jewish girl. And there are thousands of nice Jewish girls who claim they cannot find nice Jewish boys. Why? It doesn’t make sense! Neither does claiming that all Jewish girls are materialistic nags and all Jewish males are spoilt mummy’s boys. They can’t both be right. My own eyes and experience tell me they are not! But where there is no responsibility or expectation, and when the availability of immediate gratification is so prevalent, it seems inevitable that, without inhibition or social pressure, we will continue to see the majority disappear while the minority puts up the barriers, survives as committed Jews, and indeed expands.

Logic says fight! Emotion says be kind. My religion encourages me to be sympathetic and supportive as much as it insists on adherence to the letter of the law and discipline. As a parent, I wouldn’t want to lose my children, no matter what mistakes they made. I am fortunate I was not faced with this situation, nor with children rebelling and abandoning my way of life. Still, it is hard to preach what goes against my instincts, even if I fear the consequences.