Thursday, May 31, 2001

Judaism in a Time of Confusion

Every Jew who has lived during the past century has lived in history, has lived during transforming events that have profoundly affected Jewish life. There have been world wars and other conflicts, the Holocaust, the rise and fall of communism and the Soviet Union, the establishment of the State of Israel, major population movements, great social and cultural changes and extraordinary economic growth and technological development. All in one-hundred years or less.

The recent period appears to be stable, even placid. While we are often gripped by news reports, our lives are mainly as they have been, without the benefits or the burdens of epic happenings. If there isn’t quite an equilibrium in Jewish life, we seem to be as close to one as can be imagined under contemporary conditions of rapid change.

Still, Jews continue to live in history, experiencing shattering changes – essentially attitudinal and behavioral, rather than political – that are permanently affecting the Jewish landscape. While none of this is actually hidden, what is occurring is not sufficiently understood because we are not geared to readily grasp changes that come with a veneer of stability.

After many years of massive Judaic abandonment, we are comfortably in – or so it seems – a post-assimilationist, post-intermarriage phase in which in order to staunch demographic losses we have accepted the loss of our traditions, much of our history, much of our religion, and our sense of peoplehood as somehow compatible with what we choose to call Jewish continuity. This is an epic development.

There have been, of course, massive losses that do not fit into this transformative mold. They consist of the millions who were born Jewish and who do not regard themselves as Jewish. Many of these people were never told of their religious background, while many others do not care. These lost Jews do not join our organizations or congregations, do not contribute to our causes, do not read our publications, do not pay heed to any of our messages and Israel does not resonate in their lives. Though a tiny number may return under serendipitous circumstances, these Jews are no longer part of the story of our people. They have become our Ten Lost Tribes. Though this is a tragedy, there is nothing especially remarkable about this part of the statistical equation of Jewish loss.

What is remarkable is the effort to retain those who have jettisoned Jewish tradition but who continue to identify as Jews, not by embracing our heritage but through a re-definition of Judaism. Nowadays, we can define our identity in our own idiosyncratic terms. A Jew is not so much everyman as anyman.

In the upheavals and transformations that occurred during the past century, Jewish history and traditions remained key reference points. We have now become counter-traditional, as well as counter-logical. To retain Jews as members of our community we agree that they can set the terms and establish the rules, even have no rules. Jews can believe or not believe, observe or not observe, marry in or marry out and they can accept as Jews persons who certainly are not Jewish. Under this arrangement, being Jewish in conformity with the understanding that prevailed for generations is no more legitimate than rejecting this understanding. All that is needed is a kind of membership card.

This reconstructionist view of Judaism may seem absurd, even bogus, and it is. We who are the tiniest of nations did not endure by going with the tide as we abandoned our moorings. It is incredible to believe that we can provide for Jewish continuity by embracing massive discontinuity.

But what is absurd can also be real and the acceptance and legitimization of Jewish discontinuity is real. What is bound to fail tomorrow or the day after is alive today, powerfully affecting intra-Jewish relationships and attitudes. As I describe in an essay in the next issue of Tradition, for all of our rhetoric rejecting advanced assimilation and intermarriage, these behaviors have been incorporated into our communal life and social experiences. This is a stunning development and it also begets much confusion. We hardly know anymore who is a Jew or what it means to be a Jew. And for all of the certainty that the redefinition of Judaism will fail, it is not a transient development. For what is happening is being reinforced through thousands of communal activities, the growing number of Jews who adhere to this approach to Judaism and the legitimacy accorded to it. In the United States alone, there are many more such persons who fit into this mold of Judaism than who are Orthodox.

We are in the midst of the transformation of the Jewish people into a membership association, with individuals free to opt in or out, free to determine the extent of their commitment. A person can be a Jew today and not a Jew tomorrow and once more a Jew the day after, much in the way that people can change their political affiliation.

And so we are confused and there is nothing we can do about it.

Monday, May 21, 2001

Unkosher Litigation

Every survey of the religious behavior of American Jews shows a decline in kosher food observance, which is hardly surprising in view of what is happening throughout our community. Since Reform Jews and the unaffiliated have never had much use for kosher food requirements, the decline in observance is most pronounced in Conservative ranks. Today, no more than one in four of those who are affiliated with a Conservative congregation keep kosher. This may explain why the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has joined the brief submitted by the American Jewish Congress in opposition to New York’s kosher food statutes. Years ago, when the Conservative movement was still trying to conserve more of our traditions than it is today, its leaders were strong advocates of kosher food laws. But its standards are steadily being adjusted downwards to accommodate the lowered level of observance of the membership.

If the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York upholds the lower court ruling that invalidated New York’s laws on separation of church and state grounds, the direct impact on kosher observance will be negligible. Those who keep kosher, including traditional Conservative Jews, rely not on governmental vigilance but on religious certification, such as is provided by the Orthodox Union with its familiar symbol. Laws are not designed to tell people what they can eat or where they can shop. There are no signs in meat stores indicating that the place has been inspected by government officials and is certified as kosher.

The purpose of legislation and the scheme of enforcement established by government is to protect consumers by curtailing fraud. Although the reach of government is far more limited than many believe it to be, the curtailment of fraud is a legitimate public goal that finds expression in numerous other legislative enactments that are designed to protect consumers.

Until recently, that was the position of the AJCongress. For all of its hypersensitivity about religion and government, the agency acknowledged that decades of experience with kosher food laws had not resulted in government entanglement in religious matters. For whatever reasons, the AJC has changed its stance. For all who have wondered whether it is still among the living, the New York case provides concrete evidence that it is, albeit in a state of advanced organizational senility.

When the New Jersey Supreme Court was considering that state’s kosher laws in the early 1990’s, the AJC firmly came out on the side of constitutionality, concluding its brief with the confident assertion that “this is a case in which entanglement is only minimal, as the long experience of New York indicates. New York and the rabbinate have not become hopelessly intertwined as a result of the enforcement of the state’s kosher food laws.”

Now, with the New York law being challenged, the AJC begins its brief by declaring, “This is an easy case.” It then goes on to insist that the kosher laws result in the entanglement of state and religion. No mention is made of its earlier position, and it is this forgetfulness that leads me to conclude that the AJC is experiencing advanced senility.

The Conservative movement’s involvement in the case is apparently designed to allow the marketing as kosher products that are sanctioned as such by Conservative rabbis, although nominal Orthodox standards are not met. New York’s laws already provide that fraud can occur only if there is scienter or knowledge, which means that proprietors know that they are selling products that are definitely not kosher.

The outcome of the New York case is not as important as some of the Orthodox community believe it to be. There is, just the same, a discordant note that deserves comment. Litigation is ordinarily resorted to when the stakes are high and there is no other way to achieve a fair resolution. While American society is far too litigious, lawsuits often are an appropriate way to achieve social goals. However, intra-communal litigation, as between Jewish groups, should be a rarity, especially because we are constantly being preached to about civility and tolerance, about the importance of comity and the value of diversity.

It seems that these sermons are to be applied selectively, that there is an exclusion clause when Orthodox interests and organizations are being targeted. That is the message of the kosher food case and gay rights attack on Yeshiva University’s housing policy, an issue that I discussed last week. In these matters – and presumably others – the adversarial approach of litigation can be employed.

In contrast, when Rabbi Avi Shafran criticized the Conservative movement in an article published in Moment, there was an outpouring of protest, the general tenor being that he had seriously violated a newly-minted eleventh commandment that proclaims, “Thou shalt not speak ill of other Jews.” Thus, Edah, the ultra-Modern Orthodox group, rather predictably joined in the condemnation, saying that “representatives of the various denominations can help each other achieve the best goals for the Jewish people through dialogue and cooperation, loving challenge and respectful disagreements.”

I wonder where the loving challenge of litigation that attacks Jewish traditions fits in. As an Orthodox Jew, it is helpful to know the new rules of the game.

Monday, May 14, 2001

Jewish Rights and Gay Rights

Could it be that Rodef Sholom, the Reform day school on Manhattan’s West Side, has added a twist to the movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent when it banned the pre-Mothers Day practice of students making cards celebrating those who gave birth to them? Or, perhaps, Rodef Sholom has gotten religion, though of course nothing that resembles Judaism. Maybe it now believes in some form of Immaculate Conception.

Whatever school officials believe in or teach, Rodef Sholom bears scant resemblance to Jewish tradition. Like much else in American Jewish life, these folks march to a different drummer, to the false gods of political correctness which they worship with complete faith. The world of our fathers does not mean the shtetl, zaydes, Shabbos or the tenacious devotion to religious practice. It means the world of two fathers for one child.

There are good reasons for schools to be sensitive about activities and language that involve or refer to parents. Nearly everywhere there are children who have lost one or both parents or who in the aftermath of divorce or marital conflict no longer have contact with one or both of their parents. I imagine that there are such children at Rodef Sholom and it is important not to cause gratuitous pain to these students.

Concern for orphans or children whose parents are divorced is not the reason why Rodef Sholom changed its Mothers Day policy. The feelings of these children are apparently not on the political correctness radar screen. But the doubtlessly smaller number who live in homes with same-sex arrangements is a sufficient cause to trigger action. Children and families must suffer because of the imperatives of the Gay Rights movement.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the key leader of Reform Jews has an opinion about nearly everything in Jewish life. It would be good to have his thoughts on Rodef Sholom.

The question is especially relevant because of other Reform policies that elevate gay rights over Jewish rights. In the Yeshiva University housing case now before New York’s Court of Appeals, the Reform movement has joined in a brief challenging the university’s policy of not permitting unwed couples to live together in its residential halls. The primary impact of this policy is to exclude unwed heterosexual couples, which is a reasonable position for the school to take, especially in view of its orientation. That is not enough for the gay righters and their Reform allies who want to force YU to accept same sex couples.

The Gay Rights movement is using a strategy that is at once simple and disingenuous. It voices to a far greater extent than other groups, including minority groups that are severely disadvantaged, the claim of victimization and powerlessness. This despite it being in the driver’s seat at the New York Times and the constant support for the cause by many other key publications, as well as within all of American’s cultural elites. I believe that societal attention to the continued discrimination against Blacks and other deprivations experienced by this minority group is one of the casualties of the prominence being given to gay rights.

Gay righters regularly invoke the ideals of tolerance and pluralism, ideals that are familiar to Jews here and in Israel. The concept of a pluralistic society inherently means that incompatible attitudes and practices are allowed or even encouraged to exist in a spirit of tolerance. We accept as legitimate for others that which we do not want for ourselves. On the other hand, when people are compelled to act in lockstep, pluralism and tolerance are being traduced.

The Gay Rights movement talks a good game about tolerance and diversity, as do many Jews, but this is belied by the insistence that what gays want for themselves must be accepted by others. When Yeshiva University is sued, a legal club is being used to defeat diversity. At Rodef Sholom, a socio-psychological club is being employed. The common denominator in these and other situations is that it matters not at all who is being hurt and what values are being violated, so long as the Gay Rights movement has its way.

I know that most American Jews strongly reject what I have written here. We have traveled so far down the road away from Jewish tradition. Is it any wonder that according to an American Jewish survey, half of American Jews believe that rabbis have an obligation to officiate at same-sex marriages.

We have thrown overboard nearly all of the religious content of Jewish life, the laws, beliefs and behaviors that enriched us even as we experienced deprivations and degradations. What remains in much of what we continue to call American Jewish life is a nearly empty shell that is labeled “Jewish continuity.” It apparently does not occur to most of us that the wholesale rejection of the Jewish past cannot be called continuity.

The deliberate abandonment of nearly the entire core of Jewish living erodes the notion that we continue to be one people. In one of its frequent forays into the world of fundraising and public relations, a major Orthodox organization proclaims that we are “Am Echad,” one people. I do not believe that we are any longer one people.

Monday, May 07, 2001

Junk Science

American Jewry is awash is research and statistics, a pastime that puts us in the American mainstream even as it diverts us from more important tasks. Scarcely a week goes by without a new report chock full of statistics claiming that Jews believe or act this way or that. Demographers and statisticians have become our intellectual giants, which tells us a good deal about the current state of our communal IQ.

Statistical presentations come with a good housekeeping seal of objectivity and reliability. The numbers are, after all, nothing more or less than what the researchers have come up with. In fact, different surveys of the same issue or behavior often come up with conflicting data. We have become accustomed to incompatible claims, presumably based on objective surveys, of the presumed benefits or harm caused by coffee, milk, aspirin, alcohol and scads of other products. In Jewish communal life, we have had conflicting claims regarding intermarriage, Jewish education, Israel experiences and much more.

Statistics are not infallible, if only because they are the handiwork of mortals who inevitably make mistakes and who usually are limited in their capabilities.

There’s a world of difference between conventional research shortcomings and those that result from improper intent. When researchers approach their work with preconceived notions, their product is compromised before the first question is asked. Sadly, too much of American Jewish research is compromised in this fashion, so that despite assertions of scholarship, what we are being given often is junk science.

The debate over intermarriage and the impact on children is a case in point. Dubious statistics have been utilized to advance the absurd notion that these marriages can result in a significant measure of Jewish continuity. Apart from the customary research infirmities that may diminish the reliability of statistics, the data inordinately comes from survey participants who are not representative of the entire class because they are more involved in Jewish life than other such persons.

The following, from a front page story last week in this newspaper, illustrates the point: “The Web poll of children of interfaith marriages run by Lights in Action for the JOI [Jewish Outreach Institute] received 205 responses from college students after being advertised last year in campus newspapers.” The participants reported that 58% had a bar or bat mitzvah, 63% had participated in Jewish youth groups, 31% wish they had been given more Jewish education and 20% wished they had been brought up in only one faith.

These statistics are permeated by a response bias and they are not representative of the tens of thousands of collegians who are the offspring of interfaith marriages involving a Jew. If we accept these statistics as representative, it appears that the offspring of interfaith marriages are more Jewishly involved than those of in-marriages. The methodology used is similar to that employed in a 1936 project that produced the laughable result that Alf Landon would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide.

A second illustration demonstrates the expanding tendency to employ statistics in service of a pre-conceived agenda. Much attention has been paid to an attractively prepared chart that offers population projections over the next several generations for Jews across the denominational spectrum. The point is to dramatically show that except for the Orthodox – and especially the very Orthodox – all groups would virtually disappear in several generations. This may eventually happen, although it is highly unlikely that it could occur to the extent presented in the chart which is based on faulty methodology, misinterpretation of data, the misuse of other researchers’ statistics and a lack of understanding of Jewish life. These formidable shortcomings have not deterred some from accepting the documents as holy writ.

As the new millennium opened last year, I was involved in a more egregiously distorted misuse of statistics, although I did not know it at the time. I was asked by people here and in Israel to comment on a privately-circulated memorandum that apparently demonstrated an extraordinarily high attrition rate in the contemporary period among Orthodox Jews in the U.S. The data struck me as contrived and that’s what I told those who had contacted me.

I recently learned that the suspect document was prepared for Marc Rich – an innocent, yet charitable, bystander in the episode – as part of an effort to secure from him a substantial gift for Birthright Israel. Mr. Rich had apparently questioned the wisdom of making a contribution in view of evidence indicating that, except for the Orthodox, American Jewry was experiencing rapid decline and loss. The function of the document was to show that the Orthodox were not doing much better in this regard. The individual who prepared it is a world class demographer, a scholar of considerable repute. At a recent meeting he told me that the goal of getting a substantial contribution for Birthright Israel justified the use of bogus statistics. What a brave new world we are in.

Obviously, surveys and statistics remain a key component of our communal life and we will continue to get a steady diet of new studies and numbers purporting to demonstrate this or that. While we cannot prevent the trend from continuing, we ought not be bewitched by statisticians called demographers who are deficient in understanding and insight and, at times, also in probity.

Tuesday, May 01, 2001

May 2001 - RJJ Newsletter

As I recall Irving Howe’s telling of the story in The World of Our Fathers, a noted journalist who was familiar with the neighborhood was walking on the Lower East Side several years after Rabbi Jacob Joseph had passed away when he noticed a house with a sign proclaiming that it was the home of the “Chief Rabbi of New York.” This was news to him, so he knocked on the door, was admitted and introduced to an elderly man who affirmed that he was the Chief Rabbi. Upon being asked by the journalist, “and who made you the Chief Rabbi?”, the man responded: “The sign maker.”

Signmakers are a sign of the times, as they provide a snapshot of a community and insight into trends and events. Of course, the true signmakers are not those who produce the product but those who write the text and provide the message. Anyone who has walked the streets of Jerusalem or religious Jewish neighborhoods here knows that signs are important artifacts. During Pesach, we were treated to the customary announcements of events and also to a barrage of posters outlawing, among other things, Chol Hamoed concerts (with separate seating) and having a computer at home. Not long ago in Israel, there was at least a partial ban on radios. We won’t have long to wait for what comes next in our brave new world.

Perhaps we should be bemused by these antics and regard them as the silly exercises of small-minded people with Rabbinic titles who regard their mission to wage war against sense and sensibility. That’s the way most Orthodox Jews, including in the yeshiva world, look at the pronouncements. The “banned” concerts were sold out, as religious Jews celebrated the holiday happily and in an appropriate manner. As for computers, they are found in all sorts of Orthodox homes and the number is certain to increase steadily because computers are integral to contemporary living and because they belong in homes.

To have a computer at home – or more than one – is not an act of disobedience. We are respectful of rabbinic authority, as we should be. Obedience is a hallmark of Orthodox life. There is, in short, no rebellion in our ranks. Rather, there is a comfortable feeling among most “frum” Jews that computers are essential educational tools and are needed for communication, information retrieval and much else that is beneficial. After all, virtually all of our children are now taught computer skills at an early age in yeshiva and Beth Jacobs and our schools tend to boast about the equipment they have.

Computers can be abused, as can virtually everything else that has been created or is available, including food or, for that matter, the telephone. When the telephone was invented and then installed in homes, Rabbis did not rush to ban the device because it a) often encourages lashon horah, b) can engender conflict, c) results in bitul Torah and d) can be put to perverse use. It should be possible to distinguish between an implement whose inherent function is frivolous or worse and one that is inherently beneficial but may be misused.

While it is obviously true that the rabbis who have an instinct to issue bans represent a small part of the rabbinical fraternity, it is also the case that at times – including the computer ban – there are prominent people who apparently sign-up. This is especially regrettable because they are inadvertently engendering disrespect for rabbinical authority. It is also regrettable that, as a rule, respected Torah leaders are unwilling to speak out against the mischief. Sadly, we are in a period when intimidatory forces abound, so that the voice of reason is subdued.

It is no mitzvah to be foolish or to curse the world we are in. It is certainly no mitzvah to convey so much negativism, especially to our children. A close friend of mine who is a rabbi has often remarked that “G-D gave us a beautiful religion and look what we are making of it.”