Sunday, March 20, 2005

Rabbi Rank -- invoking Goodwin's Law

Ah, our good Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, President of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly and "Spiritual leader" of the Midway Jewish Center, Long Island, New York. He must never have heard of Goodwin's Law, as is obvious from this Rabbi's Message from 2003:

"Self-Criticism or Self Destruction?"

Self-criticism is important, but when Jews, whether in the media or elsewhere, incessantly attack Israel or the Israeli government, they become the unwitting kapos of a cruel world.

He then attempts to argue that Jewish professors who advocate disvestment of their University Funds from Israeli companies would not have been redeemed had they been around during the time of the Exodus. Rabbi Rank equates people who criticize the State of Israel with the 4/5ths of the Israelites who (according to the Talmudic-era midrash) stayed behind in Egypt.

I don't know where to begin regarding Rabbi Rank's statement. He's lucky I'm not a makher at his shul, or he'd be in real trouble come contract time.

First, he it's pretty obvious that he can't handle dissenting opinions. "Self-criticism is important," he says, but to advocate any argument or action that might be effective makes a person a "kapo." In other words, anyone who advocates doing something serious to change the current policies of the State of Israel is a traitor to the Jewish people. This seems to be typical of Rabbi Rank's rhetorical style. He seems to agree with something, and immediately contradicts it.

Second, he uses incorrect historical parallels. A kapo was a concentration camp inmate who assisted the management. Believing that gentile critics of the policies of the State of Israel are the equivalent of Nazi concentration camp guards is so obviously silly that I'm wondering why I even have to write about this. Why didn't the management of the Midway Jewish Center pull this foolish sermon from its web site immediately?

Rabbi Rank, because you called them "kapos," you were the first to raise a comparison involving the Nazis to the debate, so according to Goodwin's Law, the debate on this topic is over, and you lose.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Day Schools -- A waste of community resources?

Over in Dov Bear there's a discussion about the exhorbitant tuition fees for Jewish Day schools. Of course, these fees may be exhorbitant only in terms of the ability of people of normal means to afford them, not in terms of the actual funds available for education. The comments section then devolved into advocacy for European-syle per-capita state funding for all schools, where private and religious schools with outside funding sources have an advantage over the public schools.

I have several problems with this. I'll start with general policy and move to my more jewish concerns.

Per capita state funding might be OK if the recieving schools agree to not be selective in their admissions and retention as a condition of accepting the "King's shilling." As it is, private schools are notoriously selective; we just got the tuition contract, and the fine print gives them the right to bounce the kid for any kind of vaguely defined reasons, including having parents who are a pain in the ass. And, they won't even give you a pro-rated tuition refund. I'm only sticking with them because I know the administration and trust their judgement, also I can't convince the missus that we'd be better off sending the kids to the local public high school, which is perfectly adequate, in my opinion, although the kids might have to deal with a little culture shock at first.

Given that kind of selectivity, no wonder many private shcools spend less per capita and have better performance. All the problem kids are dumped on the public schools. Selective private schools shouldn't be receiving government handouts; they should be subject to extra taxes!

My next concern has to do with public financing of religious indoctrination, er, "education." I'll be damned if my tax dollars are going to be used to indoctrinate impressionable young minds to follow religious beliefs that I find offensive, such as Fundamentalist and Dominionist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam, and Chareidi Judaism. Of course, membors of those faiths might not want to subsidize my indoctrinating my kids into the Hebrew Secular Humanism known as non-Orthodox Judaism. Fair enough. Thus, the obvious solution is no funding at all for religious education. At the very least, it will slow down the introduction of madrassas to the United States.

And, finally, from a Jewish standpoint, I don't see the value to the Jewish community for universal Day School education in any event. Day Schools force the community to spend scarce funds on duplicating what is already being provided by tax dollars (science labs, gyms, and other secular education.) It's even questionable whether a higher level of academic achievement in Judaic subjects translates into increased Jewish committment. (I derive this from my observations of fellow Day School parents.)

It may well be that "informal education," including youth groups and summer camps, might be a far more cost-effective way to build Jewish identity and committment . There's even some empirical evidence, as presented in the Young Judaea Alumni Study.

  • According to Professor Steven M. Cohen, “The Young Judaea experience exerts a powerful impact upon adult Jewish identity years after the alumni have completed their active involvement in Young Judaea. The Young Judaea experience lowers intermarriage, elevates ritual observance, raises community activity, promotes involvement with Israel and increases all other types of Jewish involvement.”
  • Young Judaea’s impact on Jewish identity compares favorably with results recently reported by the Orthodox Union, in its study of the impact of its youth movement, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Young Judaea is the only pluralistic youth movement able to make such a claim
Young Judaea also costs a heck of a lot less than day school tuition. And kids are less likely to be indoctrinated with chumra-of-the-month fundamentalism, either.

Friday, March 11, 2005

What is that makes a Conservative Apikoris?

I has occurred to me that my nom de plume, Conservative Apikoris," conveys a certain degree of ambiguity. After all, to many religious Jews, the Conservative movement is, by its very nature, apikorsus, and those who follow it (at least those who should know better) are apikorsim. On the other hand, my intention was to explore heresy from the standpoint of Conservative Judaism.

But what does Conservative Judaism consider to be heresy worthy of the name "apikorsus?" Sure, there's the usual stuff, atheists, and those who consider halakha irrelevant, and Reform Jews. But what about a Conservative Jew who rejects the "historical-positive" philosophy underlying Conservatism and moves to Orthodoxy? If my kids become frum-orthodox ba'alei teshuva, don the black hat, start believing that the world is only 5765 years old and dinosaurs lived alongside Fred Flinstone? Would I be required, from the standpoint of Conservative Judaism, to consider them apikorsim?

Rabbi Rank, where are you when we need you?

Good Shabbos.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A d'rash you won't hear me give at shul

From the Book of Bereishit (Genesis):

Chapter 15:
1 After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
2 And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eli-e'zer of Damascus?
3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
4 And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.

Now Mis-Nagid might be able to tell us whether J,P, E, or D wrote this part, unfortunately, I dropped out of Hebrew School before they taught us how to seperate the sources in Biblical texts. But I want to focus on the story itself, because it reveals something about God that bothers me, and is part of the reason I don't find solace in worshipping Him (or Her or It).

Notice that all Abraham (er, Abram) asked for was a child. Quite understandably, he wanted an heir who would be able to provide for him in his old age.

What does God offer? Not just an heir, but that Abraham's descendants will be innumerable as the stars in the sky.

Now I could see that God, who is at this point frustrated becuase most people worship idols, wouldn't mind having a large number of Abraham's descendants who worship God, but I can't see what value it is to Abraham to know that he will be the progenitor of a "great nation." God is acting like the husband who gives his wife a set of power tools for her birthday when what she really wants is a diamond necklace.

This theme runs through the Torah. God "gives" the Israelites stuff that, when you think of it, benefits mainly God. Even the redemption from Egypt was done mainly to show Pharoah that God was Boss.

So why do would anyone want to worship God, assuming that He exists? All He does is "give" us things that He wants anyway.

(As an aside, note the translation from the King James version, reporduced here (to avoid copyright violations). The translation says that God promises that Abraham's heir will come from his "bowels." Either the word "bowels" had a slightly different meaning in the 17th century, or someone has been bowdlerizing the text.)

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Israel is going meshuganner!

Check out this post by the Barefoot Jewess.

With pictures, yet.

A mechitza now bisects Rambam's grave in Tiberias, Israel.

I can't believe it, in my mind it's a chillul hashem, and I'm an apikoris and shouldn't even care about chillul hashem, rather I should be laughing at the fools. But all I can do is shake my head in amazement and sadness.

I was there, with my wife, in 1989. We visited one warm evening, it was very peaceful at the time, the grave was softly lit, with benches around the perimeter of the little plaza. While we were contemplating the scene, a young Orthodox couple, obviously Mizrachi, entered. The wife then knelt over Rambam's grave and started praying with great feeling. Just listening to her prayers strongly affected both my wife and me. And now, from the look of the photos, all of that sprituality is gone. But we don't have to worry about men and women mingling.

It gives a whole new meaning to the old expression, "over my dead body!"

Rambam, on behalf of the Jewish people, I apologize for this.

The rise and fall of a Conservative BT - part 2

-- Our story unfolds...

Encouraged by Conservative Jewish e-mail listservs that appeared to show that there was a core of Conservative Jews who were committed to living the halachic lifestyle, my wife and I bgean our quest.

In some ways this quest was made easier by the fact that we were living in a large city with a large Orthodox Jewish population. Heck, we even lived inside the eruvv (and our shul was also inside the eruv.) No problem finding a kosher butcher, baker, or even candlestick maker. And we were having a great time at the shul, where the people were very friendly and appreciated active new memebers, even if they weren't millionaires. (In fact, I'm not sure if we have any really rich people in our shul, which still suits me fine.)

So before long we had our kitchen duly kashered under the auspices of an Orthodox outreach organization. Why Orthodox? One, the Conservatives are behind the 8-ball on this and don't offer the service. We not only had a rabbinic consultant review our kicthcen and equipment and make a plan for us, we had another rabbi, who taught in a yeshiva, come over and personally help me boil the plates and pots and blowtorch the sink. You try and imagine your typical RA rabbi wearing rubber gloves and fishing spoons out of a kettle of boiling water. The other reason what that this Orthodox outreach organization had a deal with the local kosher butcher to provide a $100 coupon for anyone who kashered their kitchen under the organizarion's auspices. Ideological purity is all well and good, but $100 is still $100.

These guys even prevailed upon us to tovel our dishes in the community mikveh. (The special mikveh for toveling, you wise guys!) You should know the traditional attitude in the Conservative movement to this custom can be summarized by the word "obsolesecent."

"Numerous illustrations may be cited of laws and practices which have become so obsolescent that few, if any, Jewish leaders would now campaign for their reintroduction. Thus, the prohibition against milk and bread made by Gentiles, the requirement to dip newly purchased dishes in the mikveh, or to abstain from newly harvetsted grains, chodosh, are esamples of laws that the quietly lapsed." -- Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Freidman, A responsum on the Sabbath, 1950

"Quietly lapsed?! " Not among the black hatter frum in my town. And, tell the truth, the toveling is actually a pretty neat ritual. It's kind of like converting your dishes, even the German knives, to Judaism. But 1950 was a different time, and the Conservative rabbis were worried about different things than they are today.

Now the kitchen was kosher, and we were already Shabbos regulars at shul. The next thing was that we were going to be Shomer Shabbat, in the spirit of Conservative Judaism. That did not mean that we were going to drive to shul, despite the so-called pseudo-"permission" given in the Adler-Agus-Friedman responsum cited earlier. In fact, I read the responsum and found it to be one of the few Conservative halachic pieces that was less than convincing. But I also read Rabbi Neulander's responsum on electircity and found its logic comprelling, so we had no problems with using the light switches. Hey, we were trying to be frum Conservative Jews, not drive ourselves crazy.

So started our new lifestyle. Friday night started for me with a shot of some sort of distilled spirits, which help lift my spirits as I puttered about the kitchen cooking Shabbos dinner. Then kiddush, the full ritual, with the singing of Shalom Aleichem, Eishet hayil, belssing the kids, kiddush, washing hands, motzi, more ways of cooking chicken than I care to think about, accompanied by hekhshered wine, dessert, slivovitz, and bentshing. We tried to learn z'miros, but no one in my family can carry a tune. Eventually, I figured out a reasonable approximation of Yom Zeh Mechubad and Mi Pi El. Sometimes I would read the weekly parsha, but this stopped after I read the story of Jacob and Esau and started sympathizing with Esau, who got royally screwed by his rather insensitive father. (What can I say, I have father issues. Maybe I should worry, because, after all, I am a father.) Come on, Isaac, what do you mean, you only have one blessing to give?

Anyway, I would go to bed with a nice buzz. Shabbos is about the only time I drink and get a bzz like that. But I would wake up in the morning, and walk to shul, get there on time and pray my head off. Then kiddush and schmoozing, and home for a traditional Shabbos lunch (we even made choulent sometimes! How many Conservatives do you know who make choulent?), a traditional shabbos nap, a traditional shabbos walk, shalosh seudos, and finaly havdalah. OK, so we never made it back to shul for mincha and ma'ariv unless we were visiting frum Orthodox neighbors and stayed late enough to attend their minyan out of courtesy. But, believe me, we were pretty frum for Conservatives.

But, alas, these spiritual heights, while attained, could not be maintaned. In our next installment, you'll get to hear why we started our downward spiral.

-to be continued.