Friday, October 29, 2010

A Field Guide to Non-Orthodox Jews -- for the Orthodox

In response to the recent publication of some offensive kiruv-schlock that attempts to explain Orthodox Judaism to non-Orthodox Jews , I have decided to write my own book on a related topic because I believe that a distressingly large percentage of the Orthodox community has a bizarre and misleading image of the non-Orthodox Jewish community. If you would believe this "Rabbi Baum," who wrote the kiruv junk referenced above, you would think that non-Orthodox Jews were all a bunch of pork-eating sex-crazed hedonists who spend every Shabbos going to the mall for shopping and finding the object of their Saturday night lust, whether someone of the opposite gender, someone of the same gender, or even a household pet! There's also the belief that the non-Orthodox Jews are all lonely, depressed, and otherwise miserable because they do not submit to Da'as Torah. (Of course, many Orthodox Jews do not hold by Da'as Torah, but they seem to be a beleaguered and rapidly shrinking community.) And, of course, all too many Orthodox Jews believe that non-Orthodox Judaism will disappear anyway, because its practitioners are too busy having sexual relations with people of the same gender or household pets to actually breed, and even if some random non-Orthodox couple manages to produce a halachically Jewish child, that child will grow up to become a celibate Buddhist monk or something.

Alas, for these triumphalists in the orthodox world, the reality of the non-Orthodox Jews world is much more complex. But the bottom line is that the vast majority of us non-Orthodox Jews are quite happy with our beliefs and lifestyle choices, even the the Orthodox believe them to be kefirah, and we really wish you would leave us alone and lay off the kiruv. I mean, we don't invite you over to our homes in the hope that you'll go off the derech, eat pork, and have sex with Fido or Mr. Whiskers, so why the expectation that we non-Orthodox should drop our professions, learn arcane religious texts full-time and do whatever your cult leaders, I mean "gedolim," tell us to do?

Anyway, without further ado, here is an outline of my book, which will appear in installments whenever I am motivated enough to write a chapter.

PART 1: What We Believe
Chapter 1: Why?
Chapter 2: What Really happened at Sinai?
Chapter 3: Free Will and the Meaning of Life
Chapter 4: What, exactly, is the Torah?
Chapter 5: Reward, Punishment, and why good things happen to bad people
PART 2: How Non_Orthodox Jews relate to one another
Chapter 6:Integrity and interpersonal relationships
Chapter 7: Men and Women
Chapter 8: Truth, "Morality" and ethics
Chapter 9: Sex
Chapter 10: Goyim and Orthodox Jews
Chapter 11: The State of Israel
PART 3: Identifying the non-Orthodox tribes
Chapter 12: More secular than Stalin
Chapter 13: Reform
Chapter 14:Conservative
Chapter 15: Reconstructionist
Chapter 16: Renewal
Chapter 17: None of the above & all of the above
APPENDIX: Illustrations of members of the various tribes
SPECIAL APPENDIX: The Yom Kippur Cookbook

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wherein I fisk the Bray of Fundy fisking some Reform rabbi

Now while I'm not a big fan of most non-Orthodox rabbis, believing them to be overly pompous and self-important, I'm, fo course, also not a fan of Orthodox rabbis, believing them to see nonsense as being self-evident. Then there's the Bray of Fundy, who has started his own blog, and witha great feeling of ahavat Yosrael, decided to kick a Reform rabbi in the teeth just when the reform rabbi was starting to get too traditionalist. After all, we can't let those evil Reform rabbis use any of their own traidtion, can we?

Anyway, the Bray, as usual, fell a bit short of his mark, and I may well, too in pointing out his misses, but if you donit try, you'll never succeed.

So without further ado, he-e-e-e-re's the Bray! (R' Washovky's original is in blue italics)

The July 31 edition of the Forward published an op-ed piece by Rabbi Mark Washovsky in which he claims that liberal Jews have been more observant of Tisha B'Av of late and in which he explains why Liberal Jews ought to observe Tisha B'Av. He is a professor of Jewish law and practice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He chairs the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. My fisking of selected passages follows:
There are some good reasons why many religiously liberal, non-Orthodox Jews choose not to observe Tisha B’Av:
Forgive my ignorance. I'd always thought that Reform Judaism chose not to observe unless there are compelling reasons TO observe.

Lashon hara, lamed heh! We will listen anyway!

Your ignorance is forgiven. Where did you ever hear that the default in Reform Judaism was to do nothing? That seems a little illogical, as no religious insitution would be foolish enough to go that far.

We do not yearn for the restoration of animal sacrifice to our worship of God.
Say better. Say that you are deeply ashamed that this was ever part of your religion and so, of course, you'd be revolted to see it's re-institution.

Ooooh, projection, projection! Any other great insights you ant to reveal to us, Dr. Freud? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and maybe in this case the reform don't yearn for a reinstitution of animal sacrifice any more than chazal did when they somehow neglected to restart the Temple service in temporary quarters after the Destruction. After all, there's nothing in the Torah that says the sacrifices had to be done in Jerusalem. In fact, they did them for 40 years in the Sinai and Transjordan, and then for many years in Shiloh after the Jews entered the Promised land. Chazal could have set up a mishkan in Shiloh or Yavneh, or wherever, but they didn't. Maybe the Reform are closer to Chazal than you care to admit.

The amazing mixed marriage of over-the-top hubris and abysmal ignorance, while par for the Reform course, never loses it's capacity to take ones breath away. This attitude is informed by an understanding of qorbonos=sacrifices as being cruel to animals, bribery to a bloodthirsty G-d, a form of buying indulgences and that reduces Judaisms holiest shrine to a foul abattoir.

I would guess it has to do with a perfectly rational distaste for the exaltation of the ritual over the ethical. The presence of the Temple cult and Davidic monarchy didn't do much to prevent the sins of the Jewish people and the destruction of the Temple by God Him or Herself.

It is an attitude completely ignorant of what the Ramban and a host of Rishonim and Akhronim had to say on the topic. The Ramban's critiqued of the Rambam's explanation for the purpose of the Mitzvos of Qorbonos in Moreh as עשה שלחן ה' מגואל="he has made the L-rd's table repulsive". I wonder what he'd have to say about the smug attitude of these ignoramii.

So you mean the Reform share the attitudes of the Rambam, then? Was the Rambam a smug ignoramus just because the Ramban didn't agree with him?

so it seems strange to take part in that day’s mourning for the First and Second Temples, both of which are said to have been destroyed on the ninth day of the month of Av.
Let's not allow for the historicity of Jewish observance. I mean given Judaism track record on history and science is there any reason to presume that the Temples were ACTUALLY destroyed on the ninth day of the month of Av? Haven't I heard this attitude somewhere before? Hmmmmmmmmmm????

There's a difference between the "historicity of Jewish observance" and the historicity of the events the the Jews commemorate.

Nor do we particularly identify with the day’s dominant theological message, namely that we are responsible for the catastrophe, that God permitted our enemies to lay waste to the land and our people as an act of judgment of our sins.
I beg your pardon. While it is true that this is a message of the day and the Kinnos, It is hardly the dominant message. When sitting shiva one does not ponder the fact that , undoubtedly, it was the sins of the deceased that caused his/her death. OTC we lick our wounds and bewail the deceased and all that we miss about him /her. THAT is the dominant theme of Tisha B'Av. It is NOT about assigning blame but about feeling loss, alienation and pain.

So you believe that people die becuase of their sins? Um, we all have a one-way ticket to the grave no matter how righteous we are. And, yes, we're all sinners. But to say that we die becuase we sin contains such a basic fallacy in logical argumentation that I'm surprised I have to point it out. And bringing up the example of the shiva is not a good idea for your point, anyway. Becuase in a shiva, not only do we lick our wounds and bewail the dead, we feed our faces. Which you're not supposed to do on Tisha B'av. last time I checked. Which is evidence that supports the idea that Tisha B'av has a different purpose than sitting shiva. Like maybe put us on a guilt trip about how, just like the ancients, our sins today will lead to national tragedy tomorrow.

We liberal Jews, of course, are not the only ones who find it difficult to swallow these themes. But for us, that difficulty lies at the very heart of our liberal religious identity. We are liberal Jews in large part because our modern sensibility recoils at this simplistic notion of guilt and punishment.
No. You recoil from the notion because YOU have rendered it simplistic. As if prior to the advent of "Liberal" Judaism no Jewish thinker ever grappled with the questions of theodicy or of apparent disproportionate punishment. Talk about a credible history deficiency. But you are right about one thing. A flight from responsibility and a shifting of the onus of Golus from man to G-d does indeed lie at the black heart of your liberal religious identity.

Boy, if there were an Olympic event in conclusion jumping, the Bray would get the gold. Washovsky is not saying that the Reform were the first or only Jews to have problems with theodicy. In fact, I would think that the history of Jews "grappling with questions of theodicy and apparent disproportionate punishment" might be used a evidence of the kashrut of the Reform Jewish attiude on this issue.

We cannot say with the traditional Siddur that “on account of our sins we were exiled from our land,”.
No? Why then IYO why were we exiled from our land?

That's easy, it was on account of the sins of our ancestors at that time.

To be more specific, in the case of the First Temple, it was becuase the Jewish King decided to double cross his Babylonian ally. Which was stupid, considering that Babylon was a far more powerful country than Judea. In the case of the Second Temple it was, if you believe the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, becuase of Chazal's frumkeit. If they had just gone all Reform, and said who cares whether the animal is pasul, let's just sacrifice it and keep the Emperor happy, maybe we'd still have a Temple and not be in exile.

and we most definitely refuse to join those who apply such logic to rationalize the subsequent persecutions, pogroms and exterminations that darken the pages of our history.
When one zeros in on only one part of a multifaceted rationalization one inevitably distorts.

Huh? What does that mean? Do you work foir the government or something? That's some of the most impressive gobbledygook I;ve ever read!

Yet some of us liberal Jews insist upon observing Tisha B’Av. This is true even in my own Reform movement, where the holiday has made a rather impressive comeback in recent decades. Given all the above, what gives? How do we explain this apparent inconsistency?
The answer, perhaps, is that we have learned some valuable lessons during the two centuries of liberal Judaism’s existence.
We have learned, first of all, that there is no such thing as Judaism without the Jews and the historic experience of our people.

Close but no cigar. Say better, say as Saadiah Gaon said that there are no Jews/Jewish People without our Torah. Maybe you and your movement will catch on before the yikhus of every last one of you is diluted to the point of dissipation.

There's nothing in the Torah that commands observance of Tisha B'av. It's all made up by the rabbis.

>Our religious ideas, however high-minded, remain lifeless abstractions so long as they are divorced from the concrete experience of the Jewish people throughout the ages.
So let's join the idiots on the floor who actually pine for the return of the Holy abattoir because, after all, that's what Jews did for millenia. Maybe Liberal Jews ought to look into the reinstitution of outdoor plumbing and kerosene lighting as well. After all that would marry them to the "experience of the Jewish people throughout the ages".

I don't think they had kerosene lighting during most of the history of the Jewish people. Besides, as I recall Eicha, most of the mourning is over the death and desturction in gneral, not the fact that the kohanim are now unemployed. Washivksy might be a bit pompous here, but he is making the point that Reform Judaism is Judaism, not Ethical Culture.

< ...
But we have discovered that the struggle to find meaning in suffering, even in suffering that defies all attempts at rationalization, can be an uplifting thing.
When do you struggle for meaning? Before, during or after the kinnos? Why not share your findings with us? That would've been a lot more valuable than this inane op-ed piece.

We have learned to read the traditional liturgy of Tisha B’Av — the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations), the day’s Torah readings, the kinot (dirges) — not as an effort to explain or to justify the destruction. Like saying that I read the cookbook not as an effort to produce fine cuisine but in order to....go on a diet? redouble our efforts to rid public schools of junk food snacks? Pass laws to outlaw trans-fats?

You see the Torah as a cookbook? Oy! And you think that someone should use a cookbook as a prooftext for advocaing food policy? Do you know anything about the content of cookbooks? Have you even cracked one open and read it a little? Maybe you should have run that passage by your wife before you posted it. And what's wrong with R' Washovky not anting to find justification of the destruction? Didn'y you yourself say earlier that Tosha B'av was like a shiva, where you don't intellectualize, but rather greive and remember? Of course, I pointed out the fallacy in that view, but if you insist on holding it, you might as well be consistent.

but as a call to respond to it by redoubling our commitment to search our souls, to purify our conduct and to renew our shaken-but-not-shattered faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.A) What manner of smugness has convinced you that non-Liberal Jews/branches of Judaism have not had THEIR faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil shaken-but-not-shattered? B) Post Holocaust why has your , ahem, "faith" NOT been utterly shattered? Especially as, unsure of G-d's very existence, yours is a faith in man alone?

I don't see where R' Washovsky denies that the Orthodox haven't had their doubts, too. As for the Holocaust, we apikorsim actually don't have as much theologoical problems with it becuase we expect less from God.

This way of response permits us to acknowledge tragedy in all its darkness, but it forbids us to yield to a sense of helplessness and despair. Too bad. G-d helps those who are helpless themselves.

I'm not sure whether you're being dleiberately blockheaded or whether your community is so clueless that you refuse to do what is needed to help yourself.

And that’s why some of us liberal Jews will be in shul this Tisha B’Av. Shul? As you see no need for the rebuilding of a Temple in Jerusalem I'd always thought you referred to your theatres for performance art as temples

Reform aren't mourning the loss of the Holy Barbecue, thy're mourning the death and destruction. As for the "performance art," maybe you need to llo and see what goes on at your average O shul before you get too critical. Besides, you on;'t know what goes on inside the heads of the Reform worshipers, They could find the ritual spiritually uplifting, just the way the guys in the row behind me at the Orthodox shteeble find talking about baseball and the stock market during the amidah to be spiritually uplifting.

May God comfort us all among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Amen. Unfortunately you don't mourn for Zion and Jerusalem. After all THAT would equate to surrendering to hopelessness and despair. Instead you mourn Utopia and Robert F. Kennedy.

Huh? Do you really think that mourning is all about hoplessness and depair? Talk abour "performance art!" I'd sure hate to ever come to your shiva house. When I have one, while we're sad, we are a wee bit more optomistic about the prospects for the future than you imply you are.

Qedusha-Havdala....have you had yours today?

Qedusha? We don't need no steenkin' Qedusha! (or even "kedushah")

Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Shavuot Revelation

So here I am, erev Shavuot, I go to the lunch buffet around the corner from my office and fill up on treif: shrimp salad, roasted pork loin, barbecue pork ribs. Just a little taste, but I knew I had a 2 day dose of religion facing me.

Well, about quitting time. my tummy began to feel queasy. This feeling intensified on the commute home, and then the Ms. and I rushed around making dinner, which didn't make me feel any better. I don't think the rum punch I had before dinner, or the glass of chablis helped, either. Anyway, by the time we got to shul for the tikum leayl shavuot, I was zonked and not feeling too good.

As you might guess, B'nai CA doesn't make you stay up all night, but by the time the first lecture was over it was 10:30, and I had been up since 4 that morning. So they put out the cheesecake, and, of course, I had some, which helped a little, but not much. It didn't help that the rabbi's lecture was total boredom, nonsense pilpul that attempted to teach a totally different message than the plain text of the Torah. So between by indigestion and fatigue (not themtion the uncomfortable chairs), I was starting to doze off.

As I entered the twilight realm between the rabbis droning and blissful sleep, I noticed the background getting sapphire blue. Oh crap, I thought, it wasn't enough that I had to stand at Sinai 3,000 years ago, I'm going to have to get my own personal revelation tonight, when I'm really not in the mood to get preached to while nauseous. And even worse, the sapphire was tinged with red at the edges, which means that I was going to get a visit from Right-Wing Fundamentalist Orthodox God.

Sure enough, the booming voice echoed through my head:

"CA, you've been a bad boy."

As usual, I answered this excuse for a Deity with well chosen words: "Huh?"

"Don't get funny with me CA." The Holy One was not going to let me off the hook. "I saw what you had for lunch at Wang's Downtown Buffet. Pork, shrimp, crab salad, oy, I mean I've given up expecting that you would only eat from restaurants with rabbinic supervision, but Mr. Wang does have a good choice of chicken, beef, and vegetarian stuff. Well, buster, you wonder why you're not feeling so hot this evening? Figure it out! I, the Lord of din, true divine justice, have made it so!"

"Right," said I, "maybe it was just the case that Mr. Wang didn't cook the pork long enough..."

"Believe that if you want, kofer," snarled the Abishter, who for a flash of a moment seemed to bear and uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney, but know that Mr. Wang is very scrupulous about observing the Safe Food Handling Guidelines. Much more scrupulous than you are about observing Torah! Ha Ha! You feel like you want to barf, don't you? That will teach you to eat pork!"

And indeed, I did feel my stomach churn and start to heave.....

And the the red edges seemed to dim, and a pleasant, soft voice filled the room.

"CA, don't worry about what you just heard. God is not just a God of Justice, He/She is also a God of Mercy. Besides, why should I waste my time setting up special punishments for all 6 billion people on earth? I'd rather spend my time sitting in a mountain meadow and smoking pot. And why would I want to punish you by preventing your learning some Torah? Your tummy troubles are because you don't eat a balanced diet and don't get enough sleep. And the wine and cocktail you had with dinner didn't help. As for your violating my mitzvot, well, it's true, and I really wish you would stop being so childish and deliberately pick out pork and shrimp at Mr. Wang's buffet just to spite the Bray of Fundy, but then again, you do show up at shul, and you're not molesting any kids, and you are mostly honest in your business dealings and do your best to refrain from lashon hara, so maybe I'll spot you a couple of pork and shrimp dinners." With that, Laid-back, Egalitarian, non-Orthodox God, stretch forth his/her arm....

Poof! Snorrrt!! I suddenly woke, probably because my sleep apnea had resulted in oxygen starvation of my brain. I quickly looked around. No one seemed to notice my dozing off, probably because I wasn't the only one. Then I belt the fullness in my belly release itself by means of a very quiet, yet effective burp.

Well that was some revelation. And I have to admit that my rabbis is a wonder-working miracle man (well, miracle woman). Who needs to go the chasidic rebbe? All I have to do is listen to one of her lectures, and I fasll asleep and the Holy One blessed be He/She cures my illness.

Amen, Selah

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What's the fastest growing religion?

The answer may surprise you.

It's "No religion."

The source? The American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, with comparisons to their last survey, done in 1990. While this is a little old, I see no reason why the trends should have changed over the past few years.

What prompted me to dig up this material? Well, the other day, I was at a talk given by a prominent non-Orthodox rabbi, and somehow he/she got on the topic of Mormons and Evangelical Christians. This led him/her to go off on a genteel quasi-rant about how liberal (in the religious sense) Jews could learn from these religions, that supposedly make religious demands on their followers. This was combined with some shreying gevalt about the Orthodox and their superior commitment and higher birthrate were going to inherit the entire Jewish religion.

This led me to wonder whether or not the Mormons and Evangelical Bible Thumpers were really as fast-growing as all that. And even whether the Orthodox are growing as rapidly as everyonte thinks.

Let's start with ARIS:

OK, the Papists are the largest single religious denomination in the USA
Catholics 1990: 46 million 2001: 51 million % change: +11

Now let's look at some of the Protestant Bible thumpers:
Baptists: 1990: 33.9 million, 2001, 33.8 million % change: ~0
stam "Evangelical"" 1990: 0.24 million, 2001: 1.03 million, % change +329
Mormon: 1990 2.5 million, 2001, 2.8 million, % change +12

Now for some non-Christian faiths
Jews (oy vey!) 1990: 3.1 million, 2001, 2.8 million % change -10
Muslims: 1990, 0.5 million, 2001: 1.1 million % change: +120
Hindus, 1990, 0.2 million, 2001, 0.8 million, % change +300
Wiccan, 1990 8 thousand, 2001, 134,000 % change +1,570

Note that the number of Jews refers only to those who identify religiously as Jews.
Also, I suspect that the growth in Muslims and Hindus (and probably Catholics, too) comes from immigration. We'll see how long their descendants hold on to their faiths after a couple generations of assimilation.

Now, for the piece de resistance, here's the numbers for "No Religion"

1990: 14 million, 2001, 29 million for a percent change of +107% !!

People without religion represent 14% of the population, the third largest religious group after Catholics and Baptists. That I suspect is where all those disappearing Jews are going.

What the data show is that religions that make heavy demands on their followers aren't necessarily destined to be the ones that inherit the earth. And the large growth in stam "Evangelical" merely proves my point, along with the growth in "no religion." Despite their profession of absolute rules, these popular Evangelical churches are actually quite lax about enforcement of those standards. The impending shotgun nuptials of Sarah Palin's daughter is a case in point. Their church rants about sexual purity, but the young lady doesn't follow the rules, and she's not kicked out of the family or anything. You can go to any random town in the Bible Belt on a Saturday night and see the "Evangelical" faithful committing sins for which they'll go to church the next morning and ask for forgiveness. In fact, I'll bet if the Bible Thumpers were to enforce their rules the way the right-wing Orthodox Jews do, you would see empty megachurches from Richmond, Virginia to Orange County, California.

So my rabbi friend was blowing smoke out of various bodily orifices. But why should he/she do this, as he/she's very knowledgeable and usually quite perceptive? The only thing I can think of is professional jealousy. After all those fundamentalist preachers and black-hatter gedolim have followers who actually listen and do what they are taught. This rabbi has to herd cats. Well, too bad for him, but good for personal autonomy and individual freedom that the American public is moving away from the authoritarian religious model. He/she should chill and let the flock do what they want, as long as they renew his/her contract with a decent cost of living increase.

Help me interpret this dream

My cousin Yosef heard this, and he wouldn't interpret it, but told me to go see a shrink. But maybe some of my loyal readers can help.

I'm driving a car through the desert. At first I thought it was the Negev, but then I noticed that the landscape was green. Green from all the cacti and other desert plants. No, this wasn't Israel. Then I saw a road sign: US 385. Where the hell was I? I was driving a 1967 Sussita with expired Israeli license plates, and I sure didn't want to get stopped by some redneck state trooper in the US.

Finally, a sign by the road, brown wood with the familiar National Park Service arrowhead logo:

Big Bend National Park

WTF? I'm in Texas! Come to think of it, I was in Texas when I went to sleep, but I was about 250 miles to the east. I've always wanted to go to Big Bend, but there certainly wasn't time to do so on this trip. And the rental car company at the San Antonio airport gave me a 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, not a Sussita (thank God!).

Well, what could I do but stop at the entrance station to pay my fee, but it was closed. A notice tacked up on the window said to drive the quarter mile to the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center and pay the entrance fee. When I got out of the car, I noticed that it was about 115 in the shade. Why I didn't notice that before puzzled me, because they didn't sell 1967 Sussitas with air conditioning, and so the car should have been hot as hell. Oh well, that's dreams for you.

So I walk into the Visitor Center, and there's this grandmotherly lady ranger at the desk, so I ask her about the entrance fee.

"Oh yes, it's $20 for a week," she says with a very pronounced Texas drawl, "But seeing from your car that you probably only have Israeli money, we'll take 80 lirot."

"Lirot?" It's been decades since Israel dropped the "lira," the Israeli pound, in favor of the "shekel. And why would the National Park Service take obsolete Israeli money? But I pulled out my wallet and found it was stuffed with Israel banknotes from the early 1970's. I guess that goes along with my driving a 1967 Sussita. I pulled out a bill.

"Do you have change for a Herzl?" I asked, referring to the portrait on the 100 Lira bill.

"I sure do," she says, and, after taking my money, handed me four banknotes with pictures of Albert Einstein, each worth 5 Lirot. For some reason I didn't reflect too much on why a lady park ranger from west Texas would know what a "Herzl" was and give the right change.

"So what do recommend I see in the park?" I asked after perusing an exhibit about how Jefferson Davis sent an army expedition to the area in the 1840's to see if camels would make useful mounts for the soldiers.

"Hell, the only place I'd come visit in July is the Chisos Basin, as it's about the only place where you won't fry your brain. But then, you're probably an Israeli, so you're used to brain-fries, I guess. Most people have more sense than to come here this time of year, so you won't have to worry about crowds. But go up to the basin, it's at 5,400 feet, that's 1,600 meters to your Israeli buddies, it should be tolerable up there.

"But when you're up there, watch out for the DovBears..."

"The what?" I said, mystified.

"The DovBears," she repeated. They look like regular bears, but they're chasidic or something. "

OK this is starting to get wierd when a lady with a west Texas drawl starts talking about chasidic bears.

"Anyway," she continued, "we had some folks visit here from some town in New York called Monsey, or maybe it was New Square, and they tried to talk the Superintendent into letting them hunt the DovBears. They said it was very important to protect the spirtual health of America from kefira. Well, the Superintendent didn't buy it. We just don't allow hunting in National Parks. Of course, if the Dovbears wander outside the park boundary....

"Come to think of it, I don't think you need to worry about the DovBears. You look like a Reform Jew, so protecting you from kefira is a lost cause..."

"No," I challenged her, "I'm not Reform, I'm Conservative."

"Yeah, right," she said, "if you're Conservative, then why the hell are you driving into the Park on Shabbos? Your rabbis only let you drive to shul on Shabbos... I guess you're another one of the dweebs who attends a Conservative shul, but is really Reform."

"Um, thanks," I said as I slipped out the door. What the hell is going on? A redneck Park ranger in West Texas is talking Jew stuff? And she has obsolete Israeli money in the till?

"Oh sir," the ranger came out the door and called out to me. "Y'all be careful out there. This here road is also the Comanche War Trail, and they sometimes send raiding parties down into Mexico to steal livestock and capture slaves."

What???!! Oh sure back 150 years ago, it was the Comanche War Trail, but is she serious that there are wild Indians about in the 21st century? Sure there are still Comanches, but raids to Mexico? I think she's been stationed out in this sun-blasted desert too long and needs a reassignment to a park with more moderate conditions.

Now thoroughly puzzled, I got back in my car and continued driving down the road through the desert. The scenery got a little more "Israeli," if you get my drift. More rocks and sand, less cactus and mesquite. I was starting to enjoy the drive, despite the sever heat shimmer that sometimes made it hard to see which way the road was going, when I noticed a large dust cloud ahead of me. As I drove up, my blood froze. For the dust cloud was raised by the hooves of hundreds of mounted and armed Indian warriors.

--To be continued

Monday, November 03, 2008

The "DovBear" of the 1860s?

The other day I was rooting around our local free book exchange with a buddy, when he shoved the following volume into my hot sweating hand:

The Polish Lad
By Isaac Joel Linetski
Translated from the Yiddish by Moshe Speigel
Introduction by Milton Hindus
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975
ISBN 0-8276-0065-8

The book in question purports to be the memoir of a human of the male gender raised in a Hasidic milieu in Poland during the 1840s/1850s. It is, of course, a "trenchant" satire of said milieu by a survivor. According to the biography provided in the introduction, Linetski was a son of a Hasidic Rabbi, who happened to be a "ilui," i.e., a Talmudic genius. It turns out that by the time he was 10 years old, his teacher told his father that there was nothing more they could teach him. (Of course that might say more about the quality of Hasidic educators of the time than it does about Linetski.) As you can imagine, Linetski soon got bored and started doing the 19th century equivalent of the "hasidic heretic" routine. This, as you could imagine, alarmed his father, and so he quickly married off his 14-year old son to a 12-year old (!) bride in an attemptto suppress the rebelion by giving the kid responsibilities. This didn't work too well, as the young Isaac quickly "corrupted" his spouse, so now Papa had two rebellious youths to deal with instead of one. Somehow he found a way to force a divorce (and those of us interested in a way to solve the aguna crisis need to research how this Hasidic rabbi was able to justify it under the halacha. I suspect it was not entirely voluntary on the part of two of the parties involved.) Anyway, after many trials and tribulations, our hero ended up in Odessa, where he found a love match raised a family, and became a well-regarded, if not financially successful writer.

This book was probably his best effort, and when it came out it was quite controversial. Unlike "Steimel," and the other athiest frummers on the web today, I would say that Linetski was more of a reformer, on the lines of DovBear. In fact, I think that DovBear would appreciate this short passage:

Chapter 2

At my age, my father expects me to be an Orthodox Jew

As soon as I reached the Age of four, my father took me in hand and began to drill me in the tenents of virtue and tradition. But if you suppose he taught me any of those stupid pprecepts with which the German Jews indoctrinate their children, such as giving homage to one's parents...--- well, if that is what you yhink, you are entirely wrong. Jews in Poland regard putting on such fine airs as clumsy and deserving of scorn. My Fathers teachings were diametrically opposed ... he urged me to be rude to my mother; my mother, in turn, exhorted me to show disrespect to my father, and they both encouraged me to greet honered guests with rude comments.

At the same time, he insisted on my observing certain precepts which even an elderly Orthodox Jew is not obliged to perform under Mosaic Law, but which muyst be heeded becuase of tradition. For instance, he taught me to hold on to my yarmulke at night, so as to keep it from slipping off my head while I slept. At the Festival of Purim I was supposed to do eighteen somersaults on the table in obedience to a certain ritual. During the Passover Seder he directed me in observing the ritual down to the last detail, and until the crack of dawn. On Yom kippur, I had to abstain from food until noon and to move about in my stocking feet thoughout the day. During the Feast of Tabernacles, I had to sleep in the booth even when it was freezing weather. I was adjured to comb my sidecurls once, and only once a week, on the eve of the Sabbath, when I also had to accompany my father to the ritual baths and have my head completely shaved. And other such virtues.

This is followed by a passage describing the riual baths that hints at things more ominuous:

"I could describe still other bizzare scenes for you ... but to my father, such practices were the quintessence of Judaism."

Now back when Linetski was writing, the Ashkenazic Jewish world was split into roughly 3 camps: The Hasidim, the Misnagim (what we might call today the "yeshivish") and the Reformers/Maskilim. Linetski was in the Reform/Maskil camp, but he doesn't apparently have much to say about the Misnagim. Maybe that's becuase they were less numerous in Poland than they were in other places (like Lithuania.) But today, there are really only two basic camps, because the Misnagim, for all their original violent opposition to Hasidic superstition, have by now more or less embraced many Hasidic practices and even viewpoints. I say this from the vantage of 30 years of close observation of an Orthodox Jewish community that had very little Hasidic influence when I first started observing them, but today they are virtually one and the same as Hasidim. The differences are superficial matters of ritual, and the fact that in this community, they still value their menfolk having careers and earning an honest living. (But, to be honest, some Hasidim earn an honest living, too. I'm thinking of a couple in Midtown Manhattan 20 years ago who had a camera store and actually gave me a fair price without too much of the BS that passed for marketing tacticis in that industry.)

Alas, today Linetski doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Everybody knows about Shalom and the Tevya Tales, but who knows about Linetski and The Polish Boy? Google him and see what I mean. The phrase descrining him is "obscure 19th century Yiddish writer." Well, I think that Isaac Joel Linetski's spiritula descendants should work to lift his memory from obscurity.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A vision regarding the Conversion crisis

So some Rabbinical court in Israel has invalidated the conversions done by a highly regarded Orthodox rabbi just because the convert was not observing Judaism in the Orthodox style.

I commented on this at DovBear, and thought it might be a service to my loyal readers to reproduce it here.

So, without any more ado, here's the ma'aseh:

The soft hum of thew CPAP was lulling me to sleep when the sapphire glow announced that I was about to get a Divine Visitation. Unfortunately, the red tinge at the margins meant that the Visitor was Right-Wing Fundamentalist Orthodox G-d. Rats. I was hoping it would be Laid-Back Egalitarian Feminist God, and His/Her Holy Bong. Well, can't always have what you want.

"CA" boomed the Divine Voice. "You're off the hook."

"Huh?" I answered in my usual articulate manner.

"I mean all those pork and shellfish entrees you prefer at the lunch buffet. I mean your arriving at shul just in time for kiddush. I mean your general and pervasive violation of every halacha known to Man. Every ritual one, anyway. Well, I don't care anymore."

What? The KBH doesn't care about the sins of a Jew? What's going on here.

"So continued the KBH, "What do you know about the Countess X__?"

"Wow," I replied, "My mom told me that story. Countess X__ was a beautiful Polish noblewoman who was so entranced by Mendel Y___, the family's Jewish accountant that she converted to Judaism out of love and became my many-generations removed great grandmother on my mother's side. The family story is the the Vilna Gaon did the conversion. How did you know about our unusual family history?"

"Nudnick," replied the Holy One, "I'm G-d, remember? I know everything."

Why do you mention Countess X___?" I asked.

"Because," Said Hashem, "about 25 years after she supposedly "converted," she was seen attending services in a Roman Catholic Church. You know what that means?"

"Not really," I said.

"You obviously haven't been reading the proceedings of the High Rabbinical Court of Israel," G-d look at me with reproach. "They have ruled that when a convert stops observing halacha as they interpret it, then the conversion is invalid, even if it was performed by the most distinguished rabbi in the Community.

"Countess X___ violated halacha by attending that church service. The fact that it was the funeral mass for her father is no excuse. Her conversion was invalid, and don't give me any nonsense about the Gaon of Vilna having performed it, it doesn't matter. She became s shiksa again, all her children were goyim, and so were their children right down and including your mother. Which means, CA, you are NOT an apikoris. You are a GOY. A Sheygetz.

"So go and have a good time throwing another shrimp on the barbie. But I'll bet it won't be as much fun, because you won't be breaking any rules anymore....."

Suddenly the sapphire wavered and the red tint disappeared.

"Pay no attention to what was just said, CA..." The voice was similar, but with a more melodious gentle quality. OY, looks like I get to chat with Laid Back Egalitarian Feminist God after all. There may only be One God, but when He/She suffers from multiple personality disorder, a person might as well be a polytheist.

"CA, you don't live in Israel and your Conservative rabbi certainly doesn't follow the rulings of the High Rabbinical Court of Israel. So as far as you are concerned, Countess X___ had a valid conversion, and you are still Jewish. Which means that you'd better not be buying any shrimp for your next barbecue."

At that point the alarm went off, which was fine with me, because after the shock of the revelation of Right-Wing Fundamentalist Orthodox G-d, I really wasn't in the mood to smoke dope with Laid-Back Egalitarian Feminist God. On the other hand, Laid Back Egalitarian Feminist God was right. Why should I care what the High Rabbinical Court of Israel rules?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Zionism, R.I.P. (Yom Hazikaron)

[UPDATE} Made some minor spelling and grammar corrections]

Today is Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day. Just as it is fitting for Israelis to memorialize their fellows who gave their life for the state, so it is fitting for us to memorialize the Zionist ideology that brought about the state and the deaths of its defenders. Theodore Herzl gave us a 19th century solution to a 20th century problem that looks less and less viable as the 21st century unfolds. I don't condemn those who gave us the Zionist idea, they were doing what they thought was for the best. As the old saying goes, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." But if we are to save some remnant of the Jewish state and, especially ensure the continued safety and prosperity of the Jews in the Land of Israel, we need to see where Zionism failed and what we can do to salvage some good from it.

If you read Herzl's manifesto, The Jewish State, you will see that he believed that the emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century was a failure. He believed that the nations of the world would never accept Jews, that Jews were and indigestible mass in the body politic of the western world. In fact, he said things about the Jews that, if he were a gentile, he would have had the ADL all over him. Thus, in his mind, the only solution to what they quaintly called "The Jewish Question" was an independent Jewish State, "secured by public law," as the declaration of the the First Zionist Congress in Basel puts it.

I'm not going to criticize Herzl's judgment about the situation at the time. After all, he was at the Dreyfus trial, and I wasn't. And it seems that the Holocaust vindicated his view.

And yet.....

If the Jews were such a dispirited, deracinated mass of people incapable of contributing to the societies in which they lived, why should they be expected to do so just because they lived in a state ruled by other Jews? Furthermore Herzl believed that the mere existence of a Jewish State would end antisemitism. He also believed that the Jews who stayed behind and didn't join in the project would assimilate and disappear.

Obviously, the history of the past 60 years, in which Herzl's vision has been fulfilled beyond his wildest expectations, has shown that it didn't work. The Jews living in Israel are just as petty and corrupt with no better a sense of civic engagement than their brothers in the Diaspora. Their leaders are also just as petty and corrupt as any diaspora Jewish or gentile politician. The existence of the State has not transformed the Jewish people. They are no better or no worse than they were before the State was created.

The existence of the State has not ended antisemitism, and in fact, the one place in the world where the Jews are in the most danger is -- the State of Israel! (At least that's what I keep hearing from the right-wing Zionists when they're trying to justify their refusal to come to terms with the Palestinians.) And the Jews who didn't accept the Zionist proposal and settle in the Jewish State did not disappear. In fact, their political activity on behalf of Israel, especially with regards to the superpower United States, is crucial to the security and survival of Israel.

But Zionism had a broader component than merely ensuring the physical and political security of the Jews. One of the major issues when 19th century Jewish emancipation did work was how to keep Jews Jewish when nobody was forcing them to be Jewish. The scientific revolution of the 19th century caused many Jews to reject traditional Jewish religion as superstition, and nothing discovered by science since then has changed that situation. Thus, many Jews needed a new secular outlet to express their Jewish identity. The "Hebrew" culture promulgated by people like Eliezer Ben Yehudah and Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Ha'am) was one such attempt to do this. There were also attempts by the Non-Zionist Bundists to develop a Yiddish culture within the socialist movement. Obviously, the Bundists didn't have much attraction to bourgeois Jews, whereas it was possible to have both socialist and "bourgeois" Zionism. In any event, as socialism evolved into Bolshevism and Soviet Communism, the socialists weren't interested in letting Jews express their Jewish identities, so that alternative fizzed out. It would seem that Zionism was triumphant as the secular source of Jewish identity.

Alas, it was not to work out. For Jews in the Diaspora, use of Israeli culture as a crutch to sustain their Jewish identity is just too full of contradictions. ("Why aren't you making aliyah?") Even for secular Israeli Jews, merely speaking Hebrew and learning Tanakh in the place where the events happened isn't enough to maintain their Judaism. All to many secular Israelis either end up on a beach in Goa, or at an ashram, or they mock non-Orthodox Judaism without offering anything that might be better. They may not have anything, but whatever those galut nudnicks have, it can't be much. Thus they allow their country to become an Orthodox ghetto state, and one day they will wake up and be very disappointed. Yes, we non-Orthodox might be inconsistent in our practice, our commitment might be attenuated, and our theology might be so goofy as to not pass the laugh test, but we are able to maintain our Jewish identity without having to absorb the poison of pre-modern religious superstition.

And mark my words, a Jewish State as an Orthodox Ghetto State cannot be sustained. The secular Jews will leave it, as many have already done. Most of the world does not believe in Orthodox Judaism and does not have the patience to allow them to impose their will on minority non-Jews,especially when these minority non-Jews are related to the folks who sit on the largest remaining reserves of petroleum. Just as happened in the days of Bar Kokhba, a band of Jewish religious fanatics cannot hold out against the world. Yes, I know some will cite the example of the Hasmoneans. But look what happened to them in the end.

So I come to bury the dream of Herzl and Ahad Ha'am. May we remember it fondly as a good intention that had unanticipated consequences. May we accept it's passing without finding fault and being judgmental of the persons who had only the best of intentions for our people. Nineteenth century romantic nationalism, whether of the political or cultural variety, will not solve the Jewish question of the 21st century. And this question remains the same one brought to us by the Enlightenment -- "Why should Jews be Jewish when they don't have to be?" What will answer this question? What course will ensure the security and prosperity of the Jews in both the Diaspora and the Land of Israel? I hope to answer that in my Yom Ha'atzma'ut post tomorrow (or some time soon if I get to busy eating schwarma.)