Saturday, February 26, 2005

The rise and fall of a Conservative BT - part 1

A little life story about where I came from, and why I'm heading to wherever I'm going to end up.

About 15 years ago, I started thinking about becoming a Conservative Ba'al Teshuva. Yes, indeed, the C's have them. By God, I was going to show my Orthodox neighbors that it was possible to lead allife following halakha in the Conservative manner. Besides, being a Conservative BT is a lot easier than being an Orthodox BT. For one thing, when I went to visit my parents, I could still go to shul with them. And why Conservative instead of the so-called "real thing," Orthodox? Well, for one thing, the argumentation I read from the Conservative rabbis regarding such things as unhekshered wine and cheese, mixed seating, and ritual egalitarianism made more sense than what the Orthodox were saying. (We won't even start with the fact that some of my frum neighbors, even 15 years ago, were starting to talk about evolution, etc, as if they were red-neck Bible-thumpers from the Scopes Trial. I do value reality-based religions.) Plus, my wife and I had just joined a new shul where it seemed like most of the members (unlike other Conservative shuls) were observant, or trying to get there. So our little experiment began.

-to be continued

The CJLS wimps out - re: Rubashkin PETA scandal

Yeah, I know, this is old news, but another example of why I am less than enamored with Conservative Judaism. So we had the Postville Scandal, where a PETA operative got some video showing that the shechita there violated "za'ar ba'alei chayim," (the requirement to treat animals, even those you kill, humanely) if not the actual laws of shechita. So the Orthos are circling the wagons and trying to justify this, whilst the Conservative Committee on Jewsh Laws and Standards (CJLS) dithers about. Then we have this wimpy statement from Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, the President of the Rabbinical Assembly.

If what Rubashkin is doing is so wrong, why don't our rabbis come right out and just say that Rubashkin's meat is treif? Or at least "not recommended," as the kashrus agencies like to put it.

Jeez, the fundamentalist wing of the Orthos has no compunctions of shutting down a kosher food vendor over "moral" issues having nothing to do with the kashrus of the food, why don't Conservatives have the guts to do the same? At least "za'ar ba'lei chayim" is a real moral issue.

So no more Rubashkin or Aaron's Best meat products for me!

As they say: "Better you should eat treif, than Rubashkins."
On the other hand, the way Agriprocessors was slaughtering the animals, maybe Rubashkins meat is treif.

So what's a good apikorus to do?

Live "Frei" or die -- orgin of the Blog name

It comes from the state motto of New Hampshire. From a letter by General John Stark, a Revolutionary War hero, who had a lot to do with ensuring that we Yanks no longer sing "G-d Save the King." It's a variation on Patrick Henry's "Give me Liberty or give me death!

On the other hand. somewhere I read that Patrick Henry made some sort of anti-semitic statements, though I haven't been able to find any references in a google search. Of course, Henry was active in the 1770's, at that time, even the mavens of the Enlightenment still had some visceral reactions against Yidden, even if their ideology taught them such reactions were irrational. Who knows what Jefferson really thought about the Jews, what's important is that ol' Tom insistent on codifying religious freedom in Virginia. So what if he owned slaves? One thing at a time.

As for General Stark, my google search gave no idea of whether he was an apikoris or an anti-semite, or even a Christian. (Many of the American Founding Fathers, were actually deists, even if they participated in Christian churches. Kind of like all the frum atheist bloggers.)

So why did I pick to New Hampshire State motto for my blog title? Well, I was in New Hampshire last week, and while I prefer Maine, I did have a good time. (The lobster tastes the same, whether it comes from New Hampshire or Maine).

Good Shabbos

Just some thoughts:

Is Corsedonk Beer Shabbosdik? From what I know about brewing, there's nothing in the beer that would make it treif, but the artwork on the bottle shows very clearly a baby JC and his Mom, the Virgin "Miriam." Well, it is an "abbey ale, what should I expect? On the other hand, here I am surfing the net on Shabbos, an activity prohibited by Conservative Judaism as much as it's prohibited by Orthodox ... but I'm a heretic, why should I care? Oh, right. I'm an apikoris, not a goy, and maybe a pic of Yoshke is going a little too far. But I still finished the bottle. this is good ale.

Well, no problem, I've switched from Corsedonk's 7.5% abv to the 50% abv of Navip slivovitz. Oh, and we need to send an e-mail to Radosevich’s Earthwood Inn on the North Shore in Two Harbors, Minnnesota. The U. S. Slivovitz Festival that occurred last fall, while it included sampling of fine kosher slivovitz, also included a "pig roast." The least they could do is offer a kosher "bull roast" as an alternative. Maybe we need to send a contingent of Yidden to next year's festival to set things straight. Maybe a klezmer band, in addition to Dr. Kielbasa's Polka Band. And we need to show the goyim that Jews can get drunk, too.

Oh, yes, and I can't be a Conservative Apikoris unless I post some disaffection with Conservative Judaism, so here goes. The Corsedonk (plus a little West Virginia corn liquor) relaxed my inhibitions enough tonight that I actualy attempted to sing Z'miros at my Shabbos table (driving the kids away in horror at the off-key singing). During my rendition of "Yom zeh Mechubad", my eyes strayed over to the translation in my Conservative bentsher ("B'kol Echad," edited by Cnator Jeffrey Shiovitz, published by the Uinited Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Depatment of Youth Activities). I seem to have detetced naotherinstance where the Conservatives have kept the traditional Hebrew, but have provided an innacurate, politcally correct, translation. What is it with our Conservative Clergy? do they thing we're a bunch of ignoramuses, we don't know Hebrew?

Here's the passage in question:

Lo techsar kol bo v'alchalta
v'savata uveirachta et
adonai elohecha asher ahavta,
ki veirachh'cha mikol ha'amim...

translated as..

You'll lack for nothing, you'll eat with cheer,
So dine and wine, and singing clear,
Bless the Lord and love and revere,
For above all, He did bless your nest...

I may not be a Hebrew scholar, but the last line in Hebrew clearly (to me) says that "You will be blessed from all the other peoples." The translation is a wee bit subtle about that point, if you ask me. As if the translator was uncomfortable with the idea that God has elevated the Jews above other people. What is this, some kind of Reconstructionist bentsher? Come on, be honest, Judaism is not liberalism. That's why I have my doubts about Judaism.

Good Shabbos.
(After all, I'm an apikoris, not a goy.)

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Is the Conservative rabbinate incompetent or does it just have contempt for the membershp?

Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, the Conservative rabbi's Union, wrote a column for the Fall 2004 edition of the United Synagogue Review, an in-house rag sent to the Conservative laity in North America. This article was at such a shallow intellectual level, I wonder how Rabbi Rank could have risen in the "ranks" (pardon the pun) of the Conservative Rabbinate. His basic thesis is that Conservative Judaism will die out in 20 years unless Conservative Jews adopt orthodox theology. Well, of course, Rabbi Rank might have a personal interest in how many Jews affiliate with the Conservative movement in 20 years because, after all, someone has to pay into the Rabbi's Retirement Fund. But Rabbi Rank's views are sentimentalistic, guilt-tripping, and inconsistent, not the best way to attract and keep members.

Here's a link to the original article:

But don't take my work for it, here it is in his own words (with some commentary by yours truly in italics):

There is another statistic that the Jewish community must ponder these days,

and that is the number of children who will receive no religious education. The statistics are interesting. They show growth in the area of Reform Judaism, but they also show growth in zero Judaism – that is, Jews who feel no need to identify with any one denomination or give their children any religious education. What is that all about?

Zero Judaism ... religious education -- “Not identifying with any one Jewish denomination” is not the same as “Zero Judaism.” Of course, I would understand why the leaders of the institutions of a Jewish denomination might be worried that Jews would try to make a Jewish life outside of a denomination.

What it is, is secularism. Secularism is an approach to life in which God is, at best, marginal if not completely absent from the way in which we arrive at our decisions and our moral posturing. God’s chosen have become a profoundly secular group. That is not to say that we are atheists, but even when we believe in God, the belief does not manifest itself in any practical, measurable way

Secularism – It is not a problem for Conservative Judaism that those who wish not to affiliate with a Jewish religious denomination are infected with secularism. If there's a problem for Conservative Judaism, it's that the people who do affiliate with the Conservative movement are mostly secularists, whereas the rabbis have a philosophy that's closer to Orthodoxy. This problem could be solved by changing the attitude of either the rabbinic leadership or the lay membership.

. . .

The root problem is a way of looking at life that has rendered God marginal.

. . .

In order to understand the peculiar behavior of Jews over the past two centuries, we need to consider our interactions with a hostile, Christian Europe during the past 200 years. For centuries, Jews had been sequestered from non-Jews, living in their own communities or within small towns, shtetlakh. The French Revolution, and, more generally, the Enlightenment, brought with it the doctrine that all men are equal, and even the people who heretofore had been very

Hostile, Christian Europe during the past 200 years - Over the past 200 years, “Christian” Europe (and America, for that matter) has become progressively less Christian and less hostile to Jews. The Holocaust is obviously an exception, but I believe it was an aberration and not reflective of the general social trend over this period.

The French Revolution, and, more generally, the Enlightenment, brought with it the doctrine that all men are equal, and even the people who heretofore had been very unequal, like the Jews, had to be treated equally.

Jews had to be treated equally -- More importantly, individual Jews now relate to the general government directly, rather than through the self-governing, semi-autonomous Jewish communities. This is the essential dilemma of the Jewish people in the modern era – how to maintain a Jewish identity when it’s not forced on you.

This was a big problem for Christian Europe. However hostile the landscape, Jews sought to make integration a reality through accommodation.

We were deemed cliquish, so we abandoned Jewish nationhood.

We abandoned Jewish nationhood -- Actually, Jewish nationhood was taken from us by the authorities, who now prefer to deal with their subjects as individual citizens rather than members of a corporate class or internal sub-nation. The modern era has taken the “middleman” (in the case of the Jews, the autonomous kehilla) out of government. However, I suspect that most modern Jews have seen that as liberation, not as a loss.

We were dismissed as uncultured, so we became prominent supporters of the arts.

We were thought of as linguistically challenged, so we shunned Yiddish.

And since we were hell-bound due to our Judaism, we exercised various options in getting “undamned.”

We exercised various options in getting “undamned.” -- I find it hard to believe that many Jews ever worried about going to Hell because they didn't accept Jesus. It might be one of the few points of philosophy that unite Orthodox, secular, Reform, and Conservative Jews. Jews know that rejecting Christianity is not a ticket to Hell; they’re certainly not going to modify Judaism because they’re worried of what Christians think on that regard.

One option was to convert to Christianity.

Another option was to reform Judaism to render it acceptable to the Gentile world.

And one option was to opt out entirely

One option -- The option to reform Judaism to make it palatable to Jews who found it hard to accept many traditional practices, attitudes, and beliefs in the light of scientific evidence and modern philosophical thought has been omitted from this list. This is making Judaism acceptable to secularist Jews, not making it acceptable to the Gentile world.

In order to secure our future as Conservative Jews, we have to reclaim our Jewishness with vigor. We need not abandon secularism, but we must take charge of it.

We need not abandon secularism, but we must take charge of it. --This statement is a total contradiction. The point seems to be that secularism allegedly dilutes religious Jewish commitment. Conservative Judaism is a religious movement. The obvious implication is that if Conservative Judaism is to survive into the future, Conservative Jews will need to abandon secularism. Period. Don't beat around the bush, Rabbi Rank! Sure, saying this will alienate your membership, and possibly cause problems at contract renewal time, but if you aren't willing to stick to your guns, keep quiet.

Most Jews who belong to our synagogues believe in God, but it is most likely the God of Newton, Einstein, and Watson

Newton, Einstein, And Watson – Newton's religious views may be closer to traditional Christianity than you give him credit for, Einstein's main contribution to theology was his remark that “God doesn't play dice with the universe,” and, as far as I know, Watson's religious views are unknown, at least to me.

It is a God Who has set up the universe but does not intervene in its workings;

a God Who commands all people, but not One Who commands Jews.

A God who commands all peoples, but does not command the Jews -- A God “Who has set up the universe but does not intervene in its workings” is not a God who would command any people, let alone Jews.

a God Who may be out there somewhere, but not One Who is right here, right now.

In order to reclaim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

Reclaim the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob – Do we really want to “reclaim” such a God?

  • The God of Abraham, who promised Abraham his descendants would be a great Nation, when all Abraham asked for was an heir (Gen 15:2-6), and the God to commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen 22);

  • The God of Isaac, who was more interested in ensuring that Isaac stayed in the Land of Canaan (Gen. 26:2-5), than in providing guidance to Isaac and Esau about what behavior was needed in order to pass on Isaac's tradition (Gen 25:27-34);

  • The God of Jacob, who, again, was more worried about His prestige than about the fact that Jacob was raising his children in a manner that would cause dissension and heartbreak (Gen 37).

I think I'll stick with the “God of Newton,” thank you.

the God Who took us out of the House of Bondage,

The God who took us out of the House of Bondage – God's actions with regard to the liberation of the Israelites showed that He was mainly interested in upholding His prestige against Pharaoh and demonstrating His power to the nations of the world.(Ex 3:19-21;Ex 10:1-2;Ex 15:14-16). Helping the Israelites was a secondary objective, and, as the story unfolds, was conditional on the Jews accepting an onerous Divine Law under duress. (The children of Israel were underneath Mount Sinai and God threatended to drop the mountain on them if they didn't accept the Torah. -- Don't take my word for it, the story is in the Talmud.)

we must abandon three dangerous theological myths.

The first is belief in a God who utters only universal truths but cannot speak to Jews in particular.

This is a repetition of the theme that the God of Newton must be abandoned.

The second damaging theological myth is the accusation that God is uninvolved in our lives.

Another screed against the God of Newton, what makes this one any different from the first "myth?"

Unfortunately, it’s the abuse of freedom that forever reminds us just how free we are. We are free to abuse God’s home and God’s creatures. It is Torah that teaches us to make better choices.

We may be angry with God, but when we curse God, we do irreparable damage to Judaism. Through our curses of God, we, in a sense, render God impotent. By rendering God impotent, we make God irrelevant. By making God irrelevant, we undermine the entire foundation of mitzvot upon which Conservative Judaism rests

We render God impotent – It's not our curses that render God impotent, it's God's lack of response to our curses that demonstrate His impotence.

We undermine the entire foundation of mitzvot -- The foundation of the mitzvot is not our fear of God's power, it's that we find personal benefit from the mizvot.

The third damaging theological myth is that God does not care about our ritual lives.

God does not care about our ritual lives -- What evidence is there that God cares about our ritual lives?

If that same young man made fun of an African tribal rite, he would have been met with a chorus of righteous indignation. But Jews criticize halakhic practice with impunity.

African tribal rite -- This line of argument is one of the oldest red herrings in the book. It's one thing to be outwardly respectful of other people's rituals, even if you personally believe they're nonsense. It's quite another thing for someone to sit quietly by when fanatic members of your own community are forcing observance of rituals that you believe have no value or basis in the tradition. As an example, I'll point out the typical Conservative rabbi's attitude toward the requirement to eat only glatt kosher meat or Yoshon baked goods, or tovel their plates and silverware. “Everybody stricter than me is a fanatic; everybody more lenient is a heretic.”

Will there be Conservative Judaism 20 years from now? I would say that we not only have a future, but we have an opportunity to re-create ourselves in such a way as to revitalize the lure of the center.

But the way we go about securing the future is by reinventing the present. What we really need is a program of Reverse Assimilation2 in which we look back to the lives of our Great Bubbes and our Great Zeydes3 and figure out which part of the baby we inadvertently threw out with the bath water. God will most certainly bless the work of our hands, but our hands have a lot of work to do.

Reverse Assimilation – In other words, in order for Conservative Judaism to survive, it must become more like Orthodox Judaism. Stop beating around the bush and at least be honest with your readers.

Our Great Bubbes and our Great Zeydes – My paternal grandparents were both completely secular freethinkers. My maternal grandparents eventually affiliated with the Conservative movement, but my formerly Orthodox grandfather made a lot of compromises with his religious practices. If these people, who saw firsthand traditional Jewish life in the shtedl, assimilated, why would one expect anyone of our generation to want to reclaim it? Frankly, having read historical accounts of Jewish life in the shtedl, I believe that it was all pretty much bathwater, the baby had the good sense to get on the first boat to America.

The Tale of the Great Apikoris of Brooklyn

NOTE: The comments in italics have been extracted from the Yad Korakh commentary to the traditional Sefer Bubeh Maises, as compiled by Rabbi Danni Gazlani. The complete Yad Korakh commentary can be found in the Fartscroll edition of the Sefer Bubeh Maises, published by the Masorti (NOT) Heritiage Foundation.

There was once an apikoris who lived in a small community in the eastern United States. He was indeed a zealous apikorus who did his best to explore the full limits of apikorsus, but in his small town, he felt limited and constrained by the narrow views of his provincial neighbors. Finally, he wrote to the Great Apikorus of Brooklyn, asking if he could study at the master's feet. The great Apikoris quickly sent back an e-mail inviting the acolyte to visit for Shabbos.

The tradition is clear that the Sefer Bubeh Maises was written in the late 1700's in Lithuania by the Vilna Gaon. However, many G-dless modern scholars claim that this story is of more recent origins, pointing out that the story contains a number of anachronisms for something written in 1790. However, these apparent anachronisms simply serve to strengthen the case for authorship by the Vilna Gaon, as it's clear that this story is a divine revelation, and, of course H-sh-m can reveal the future. Alternatively, it should be pointed out that in 1790, there were Jews who lived in New York, and who knows? Maybe there was a great Apikoris of Brooklyn at the time.

The young apikorus arrived in New York on a busy Friday afternoon. As he rode up the escalator from his train, he say the Great Apikoris, a man who wore a black suit, Fedora, with tzitzis dangling from beneath his coat, and with a full beard. A black velvet yarmulke was visible beneath the fedora.

"Quickly," aid the Great Apikoris, "It's almost Shabbos, and we have much to do!"

Whith that, he grabbed his younf visitor and hurried him on to the Subway, where the rode to Brooklyn. In the heart of Crown Heights, the young apikorus found himself immersed in a mikveh, and then whisked off to the Apartment of the Great Apikorus, where he changed into Shabbos clothes. He then accompanied the Great Apikoris to a very Orthodox black-hatter frum chassidische yeshivishe shul where they davened ma'ariv in the traditional manner. Then they returned home, where the Wife of the Great Apikoris had prepared a delicious traditional Shabbos dinner, and the Great Apikoris said kiddush in the traditional manner and expounded on the Torah between each course. Needless to ay, the young visitor was very puzzled at all of this.

The next day was more of the same, with a return to the frum shul, where the Great Apikoris gave the Davar Torah, a very learned and traditional interpretation of the weekly Torah Portion. Then back to the Apartment for some traditional choulent and a much needed Shabbos nap. After that, the Great Apikoris took his visitor to a Gemora study group, then they davenned mincha, has shalosh se'udos, and finally ma'ariv and havdalah. At this point, the young visitor finally had time to speak to the master:

"O Great Apikoris, what's going on here? Back home, I do all I can to strengthen my committment to apikorsus. I eat treif every chance I get. Pork, lobster, shrimp, and cheeseburgers don't have a chance at my table. On Shabbos I make it a point to do yard work, go to the mall, or check out the college football game, that is, if I'm not at the office catching up on work. I make sure that my wife and daughters wear the most revealing clothing they can without getting arrested. When I do discuss the Torah, I make sure to expound on the teachings of the great Wellhausen, or at least Mordechai Kaplan. But you, look at this! You keep kosher, heck it's glatt, Mehadrin kosher! You keep Shabbos! Your wife not only wears a wig, she wears a snood on top of the wig, and a hat on top of the snood! You discuss Torah like you were some kind of right-wing yeshiva bocher! What kind of apikoris are you, anyway?!"

The Apikoris looked at the young man and replied, "Hey, I'm an apikoris, not a goy."

There are some versions of this tale in which the punch line reads "Hey, I'm an apikoris, not an ignoramus ("am Ha-aretz"). Obviously, such a variant is not authentic, as an apikoris, by definition, is not an ignoramus.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Welcome to Live "Frei" or Die!, my new blog.

The title says it all. I am a Conservative Jew who has decided to go "off the derekh" and explore the boundless freedom of apikorsus. Of course, exploring true apikorsus within the spirit of Conservative Judaism is not the easiest thing to do. Conservative rabbis are so damn tolerant, it's hard to have your views labeled as heretical, and the Conservative laity is so non-observant that no one will particularly notice my principled rebellion against pointless rules and preposterous theology.

Ah, you don't know what is an apikoris and apikorsus? No need to worry, you'll find out here if you are patient and read the posts. Perhaps you're already getting the idea. Whatever, sit back, relax, and enjoy the feeling of "frei!"