Monday, December 30, 2002

Will There Be Anything Left to Conserve

Among the young rabbis who came to Conservative pulpits during the movement’s growth period in the 1950’s, more than a few were raised as Orthodox Jews and had attended yeshivas where some were ordained. Whatever the reasons for their move away from their Orthodox moorings – whether because of better career opportunities or ideological affinity to Conservatism – these rabbis believed that they could retain much of religious Jewish law and tradition as they served congregants who were embracing modernity and moving away from tradition. Some of these rabbis, in fact, attempted to remain Orthodox in their personal lives, sending their children to yeshiva, keeping a fully kosher home and observing Shabbos according to halacha.

Most of these rabbis are now retired. It’s hard to find a cohort of rabbinical senior citizens who are more disappointed, even disillusioned, with what transpired on their watch. Upon retirement, the tendency has been to quickly move away and to find shelter elsewhere, at times in a comforting traditional, even Orthodox, environment.

If these rabbis have changed, their congregants have changed a lot more. At the start of their careers, members of Conservative synagogues generally maintained what could be called kosher homes, they could read Hebrew and were comfortable with a siddur. Congregants wanted no part of a mechitza and they liked the idea of driving to the synagogue on Shabbos. They also wanted to be traditional in some meaningful sense.

At first slowly and then ever more rapidly, the profile of Conservative membership changed. As older members died, congregations were increasingly comprised of persons more remote from either Jewish knowledge or practice. Fewer members could daven and so fewer came regularly to the services. Keeping kosher provides a good index of what has transpired among the rank and file of Conservative Jews. Whereas a kosher home once was a staple, nowadays no more than twenty percent of Conservative synagogue members adhere to kosher food laws.

As their movement and synagogues changed, the traditionalists fought to conserve what they could within the movement or, perhaps more accurately, they fought to stem the tide of change. Intuitively, they knew that theirs was a losing battle in the larger arena of Conservative policy, yet if only because they needed to validate that which they had given their lives to they did not give in easily. Although they did not prevail within the movement, they were determined to prevail within their own synagogues. This was no easy challenge, for even there – or especially there – time and tide were running against them. Younger congregants were insistent on change, especially with respect to the role of women. For some of these veteran rabbis, the final years in the pulpit were the most difficult.

There remains within Conservatism a traditional wing. It is not without influence, but its ranks are thin and getting thinner. Relatively few of its adherents are pulpit rabbis. The traditionalists are found mainly at the Jewish Theological Seminary and other central Conservative entities. There is as a result a disconnect that is growing between what is practiced in the field and what the movement attempts to teach via its policy pronouncements. While Conservative leaders continue to insist on adherence to standards, such as the prohibition against intermarriage, at the congregational level the reality is that most members are opting for a brand of Judaism that is far more lax, that essentially allows each Jew to determine what to accept or practice. Rabbis are under enormous pressure, at times indirect but often overt, to countenance downward departures from traditional religious standards. More than a few Conservative rabbis perform intermarriages. It is not easy to be a traditionalist when tradition is being abandoned all around you.

There are reports that another standard is likely to fall. The expectation is that the movement’s religious law committee will revisit the issue of gay ordination and that when it does, the prohibition will be abandoned. This would not be surprising in view of the prevailing attitude among students at the main Conservative seminaries. For too many of them, tradition is like a railroad ticket, good one day and not good the next.

Same sex marriages are certain to remain taboo within Conservatism indefinitely, although here too at the congregational level there will be rabbis who find ways to accommodate those who believe that rabbis should officiate at such unions.

When Conservative leaders embarked on their fateful journey away from traditional practices and requirements many years ago, invariably the leniencies that they accepted were linked somehow to congregational life, as in the seminal decision in the 1950’s to permit congregants to drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath. The movement has arrived at the point where political correctness is the primary catalyst for downward Judaic departures. Accordingly, what Americans generally and more specifically American Jews think about certain issues is now the determining factor for much of what passes as Conservative religious law. When the law committee gets around to sanctioning gay rabbis, there no doubt will be a sophistic recitation of sources that will serve as a pretext for an additional abandonment of our traditions.

We know that the situation of American Jewry is dynamic. More Jews are defining their identity as Jews in terms that are alien to our heritage. The Conservative movement is trapped in a dilemma. Its efforts to accommodate the winds of change have left it vulnerable to demands for further changes, for further movements away from what once defined Conservatism.

If we look at the reality of Conservative life and not at what is presented on paper, there is now less to conserve than there was just a few years ago. Less Judaism does not make for more, not even when the number of adherents is grossly inflated, as it is for both the Reform and Conservative movements. The way things are going, before long there will not be much left for Conservatives to conserve.

Monday, December 23, 2002

Who Says the Orthodox Are Different?

Before there was the organization, there were suicide bombers and other terrorist acts in Israel and also teams of religious Jewish volunteers, mainly from the burial societies, who combed the terror sites for body parts that would be buried in accordance with Jewish law. Israelis are still threatened by terrorism and we American Jews now have a new organization - with office, staff and high-powered fundraising – to contribute to.

Last week my neighborhood was plastered with posters seeking support for this organization and for “our heroes,” as the volunteers were called. Those who do this grim work are doubtlessly good and well-meaning people who deserve our appreciation. Most of us would not undertake their task, yet there is nothing heroic about what they do. The term is more appropriate for Israeli soldiers, border police and others who risk their lives to provide security for their countrymen.

Of course, “our heroes” is meant to touch an emotional chord, thereby spurring the fundraising that is needed to sustain the organization. The contributions have no meaningful impact on what transpires in Israel.

This organization is part of a larger trend. Orthodox Jews are going the way of all Jewish flesh, transforming modest, albeit important and effective, voluntary activities into full-blown operations. They are yielding to the impulse to establish more organizations which spend far too much of their time on public relations and fundraising, much of which does little more than sustain the organizational infrastructure. In the process, they add to what has been expensive and dysfunctional in American Jewish life.
As with secular Jews previously, this transformation is abetted by the tendency to respond to emotional appeals. There is receptivity to Israel-linked organizations that allow the Orthodox to express their strong ties to the Jewish State. While they visit
Israel – many quite often – and their children study there, they do not live in Israel, a circumstance that induces some guilt that is eased by contributions to these new causes. Some of the new guys on the block may soon qualify for membership in the Presidents Conference.

Another thrust of the new trend and another point of convergence between the old secular philanthropy and Orthodox philanthropy is the primacy given to medical and other chesed activities. This was the direction taken by Federations and they were bitterly challenged by the Orthodox who insisted that day school education merited priority because it best provides for Jewish continuity.

It’s our religious obligation to help the poor and others in need, although it is also necessary at times to question how much goes for the organization and how much to the needy. Our tradition of tzedakah clearly encompasses such causes. But while I have devoted some of my communal life to chesed activities, the lesson I received from the great rabbis I have known is that in the allocation of our charity, paramount importance must be given to religious Jewish education.

I heard the same message several years ago in the Jerusalem office of Moshe Berlin who has just retired after thirty years of devoted service as the director general of the Rothschild Foundation’s programs in Israel. He played part of a tape from a 1950’s talk given by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in which he underscored without qualification the religious obligation to devote the larger share of one’s tzedakah to yeshivas and day schools.

It’s disheartening how many Orthodox Jews are departing from this standard, how they are following the path that was rejected not long ago when taken by Federations. There cannot be one rule for the Federations and another for the Orthodox.

Orthodox Jews obviously give more than other Jews to religious education. More than may be realized, however, comes from other sources. Furthermore, the Orthodox are increasingly attracted to other causes and Jewish schools are receiving a declining share of the tzedakah dollar. One interesting example of the trend is that while appeals for yeshivas used to be a feature in Orthodox shuls, they have become rarities.

In part, the large number of schools seeking support turns off contributors. More importantly, there has been a sea change in attitude among the Orthodox regarding support for basic religious education at the elementary and high school levels. Support for these schools has traditionally been regarded as primarily a community responsibility and not a parental obligation. Too many Orthodox Jews now look at basic religious education as a parental responsibility. This revisionist attitude dominates at non-Orthodox schools, but more Orthodox institutions are embracing it out of economic necessity. Nowadays, most day schools live off a combination of tuition and donations received from parents.

There are Orthodox Jews who can contribution who reason that since they paid full tuition for their children, so should all other parents. In fact, there is no greater act of chesed than providing a meaningful Jewish education to children whose parents cannot afford to pay or who because they are removed from Judaism will not pay any tuition or perhaps just a modest amount. But this is a message with little emotional appeal. Jewish education is finding it difficult to compete with causes that appeal to the emotions.

There are no posters in my neighborhood proclaiming that yeshivas merit priority in tzedakah allocations. We are adopting that which we fought against a generation ago. We apparently believe that there can be a different rule for the Orthodox than for the Federations. Who says that the Orthodox are different?

Friday, December 13, 2002

Law and Religion

Some public issues never go away. This is usually true of issues that are caught in ideological whirlwinds and certainly those that involve religion. Ordinary democratic political processes that are designed to resolve or mitigate conflict are not effective. It is one thing to compromise on budgets or even in policy disputes that generate much passion and something quite different to reach an accommodation when fundamental beliefs are at stake.

When electoral, legislative and administrative processes do not yield results in line with what some regard as central to their faith, there is a tendency to go to court, to ask judges to issue rulings based on the Constitution or laws or, as likely, on what they think the Constitution and laws ought to say. Since judicial rulings are authoritative, at least until they are reversed or revised, they can go further than elections and legislative actions in bringing about resolutions that have to be accepted, if not also respected. But courts cannot make an issue go away, especially when decisions are split or when other courts rule otherwise.

There are times when judicial intervention adds fuel to the fire or inflames emotions on issues that essentially were dormant. This is true of the incredibly stupid and gratuitously divisive ruling that the innocent words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. As a consequence, we now have intense controversy where there was none and another unneeded example of how activist judges can poison civil society.

It is inevitable that we continue to have heated debate over the role of religion in American life. Public vouchers are now a perennial issue and this is not going to change anytime soon. But there are issues that can be resolved if neutral principles were applied by courts and what is less likely, accepted by litigants.

We are at the time of the year when courts around the country are busy with crèches and nativity scenes, menorahs and other religious symbols in public places. In addition to the Pledge of Allegiance controversy, in Alabama we have the spectacle of the state’s chief judge mandating that a huge Ten Commandments monument be installed in his courthouse and a federal district judge ordering its removal. It would not be more unseemly if these two black-robed “Your Honors” would resolve their disagreement in a Worldwide Wrestling Federation ring.

Anti-religion forces which include many Jews regard the protracted battles over religious symbols as proof that these symbols entangle church and state and therefore violate the First Amendment. Elected and appointed public officials must get into the act and decide what is permissible and what is not. In their hostility to symbols even in their most benign form - Ten Commandments displays, for example – they obscure the crucial fact that it is their endless trips to courts, appearances before local councils and other actions that generate the conflict that they rely on as proof of governmental entanglement in religion.

The battle over religious symbols has a life of its own that transcends the inherent significance of these symbols. There is much exaggeration on both sides of the issue. When Chabad representatives place so much stock in ever-larger and more public menorahs, they are indulging more in public relations and fundraising than in transmitting religious practice and belief. If proof of this is needed, it is provided by Chabad’s practice of picking affluent people who are willing to part with their money for the privilege and pleasure of going up in a cherry picker to light the menorah.

There is exaggeration by the other side when opponents of symbols claim that they project religion, when in fact they primarily give expression to our country’s tradition of tolerance and the collateral goal of making diverse groups feel that there is a place for them in a society that respects diversity.

The symbols themselves are essentially formulaic, devoid of the capacity to teach or indoctrinate outsiders. Group members themselves scarcely react to such symbols. Holiday displays in department store windows get far more attention and generate stronger reactions. In short, most religious symbols are establishments of comfort levels and not of religion. To recognize this is not to downplay the continued importance of the separation doctrine.

It is sad that judges who believe that their mission is to seek and destroy innocent practices give aid and comfort to those who are hostile to religion.

Instead of indulging in mischief, judges ought to allow persons of religious persuasion to feel that the rules are not stacked against them. Courts should approach their responsibilities in religious matters, as well as others, in a spirit of moderation and neutrality. They should recognize that there is a huge difference between that which is benign and that which seeks to indoctrinate. There is a world of difference between including “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and requiring or pressuring students to join in religious prayer.

The failure to understand this distinction has resulted in greater and sharper conflict over religion. There are open wounds resulting from silly or gratuitous judicial rulings. The alleged civil libertarians and judicial guardians who challenge practices that have no religious consequences accomplish little other than the promotion of civil discord. When judges give support to those whose agenda is primarily hostility to religions, they further discredit the judiciary.

It is disheartening that Jewish groups and far too many individual Jews are constantly enlisted in the anti-religion efforts. Will these people ever learn that hypocrisy is not a virtue? Will they ever learn that we do not promote tolerance through intolerance and that, at the least, those who claim to be promoting Jewish life ought not to be constantly at war with Jewish tradition?

Monday, December 09, 2002

A Palestinian State?

There is no Middle East peace plan that has a reasonably good chance of providing Israel with full and lasting peace. Yasir Arafat and his lieutenants have a long record of duplicity, corruption and at least covert support of terrorism. Peace is a partnership and the Palestinian leaders are unreliable partners. Islamic radicalism is an even more formable barrier to peace, as it’s certain that any agreement with the Palestinians would be rejected by the many in the Arab world whose unyielding goal is the destruction of Israel.

But if there is to be peace – if not full and lasting, an arrangement that gives Israel the respite and hope for the emergence of Islamic moderation – a necessary condition is the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Ariel Sharon has said as much, thereby angering Likud and other nationalistic intransigents who seem to believe that a state of permanent war is preferable to a state called Palestine. While Mr. Sharon has set conditions which if adhered to mean that a separate state is not yet on the political horizon, he knows that Palestinian statehood can serve rather than hinder Israel’s security interests.

As the Bush administration prepares for war against Iraq, it is evident that it has a road map and timetable that give priority to statehood. In an interesting way that has not received the attention it deserves, what Washington is now doing amounts to a remarkable geo-political paradox, even distortion.

Much of the world believes that Israel is a key player and catalyst in U.S. determination to go after Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Israeli leaders who have come out in support of American and British military action certainly have not disabused anyone of the notion that defeating Iraq and deposing Hussein are important goals for Israel. Nor have American Jewish leaders questioned the wisdom of what the White House is doing or, more importantly, the assumed nexus between American policy and Israeli interests.

It is admittedly not easy for American Jews to criticize Mr. Bush. He has given Israel much support during the Intifada and as it combats terrorism. It is not smart to go after a President who is both popular and a friend, especially since the administration’s war plans are aimed at combating terrorism, a goal that Israel and American Jews share.

The problem is that there are critical issues affecting Israel that ought to be discussed. For openers, there is the problem of Islamic fundamentalism engulfing post-Hussein Iraq, a state which for all of the butchery of its dictator is essentially secular and has not been particularly hospitable to Islamic fanatics. While this does not make Hussein any less an evil man, it does affect political realities that should not be ignored.

Attention also needs to be given to the secret diplomacy that has resulted in quick and seismic policy shifts among Arab states that not long ago were strongly opposed to military action against Iraq. They somehow have embraced Washington’s line and are offering diplomatic and military cover. It is not going out on a limb to surmise that there are prices to be paid for Saudi, Kuwaiti, Syrian, Egyptian, etc., support for U.S. policies and that these prices must affect Israel in an important way.

One possible price is the U.S. commitment to speed up the White House’s road map by moving to establish a Palestinian state soon after Hussein is toppled. While statehood is a necessary condition for peace, it is also necessary that Israel negotiate directly with the Palestinians and not have “peace” terms thrust on it by others. We already know that Washington has moved away from the view that because Arafat’s hands are dirty and his record atrocious, he cannot be the head of a Palestinian state, nor should he be involved in the negotiations. Likely, back office diplomacy has resulted in other understandings that may not be acceptable to Israel.

Apart from the difficulty in challenging Mr. Bush, American Jewish silence about Iraq and a Palestinian state probably arises from divisions within our ranks. We have a peace camp that echoes those in Israel who believe that Oslo and the Barak plan are not dead and that whatever is labeled “peace” deserves to be supported. At the other end of the spectrum are the hardliners, also with their Israeli counterparts, who have always opposed giving up land. They believe that an agreement that accepts the idea of a Palestinian state is a clear and present danger to Israel.

Opinion surveys in Israel indicate that a strong majority is in favor of a Palestinian state. There are, of course, differences as to the conditions that need to be met for such an entity to come into being. But the conceptual consensus is overwhelming. It includes the recognition that there are risks to statehood. Israel’s majority rejects the peace-at-all-costs camp, recognizing that there is a large difference between taking risks and acting recklessly.

My guess is that a majority of American Jews who are committed to Israel recognize that peace entails risks and that a Palestinian state may serve Israel’s interests. If we stay on the sidelines, we will continue to promote the wrongful impression that we are united against Palestinian statehood. We may also forfeit an opportunity to influence Washington’s road map. American Jews now have close and important friends in Washington who care about Israel and who are signing on to the concept of statehood. I believe that we should support the idea and work with these pro-Israel forces to ensure that statehood comes with terms that enhance Israel’s security.

At the end of the day, there is no way that statehood itself can counteract the madness in the Islamic world which regards suicide bombing and terrorism as moral actions. But independent states have responsibilities and while there are risks, there are reasons to believe that an independent Palestinian state will take action against terrorism. This may be wishful thinking, but I doubt it.

Monday, November 25, 2002

There is Joy in Mudville

The tzoris that has befallen the National Jewish Population Survey should evoke sorrow, if only because this long-awaited study can provide important information about American Jewish life. We will have to wait longer because the firm that conducted the telephone polling lost some early data and United Jewish Communities, NJPS’ sponsor, has suspended further release of the findings until it determines whether what is missing makes a difference.

While UJC, the umbrella agency for the Federation network, is in mourning, there is celebrating among those demographers who have been eager for the opportunity to pounce on NJPS. Several went on the attack weeks ago, the aim being to discredit NJPS before the rest of us could learn what is being discredited. These nasty folks now have an embarrassment of riches, thanks to UJC’s missteps. Doubtlessly, down the road we will get a bunch of statistics and their interpretation, but it is hard to see how the damage can be repaired. There is joy in Mudville, it being the natural habitat of the demography clan.

Some of what has gone wrong was inevitable. The notion of a Jewish population study sounds like a great idea, made more attractive by the year 2000 mystique. The U.S. extends across nearly four million square miles and, as has happened often in our history, we are dispersed within this diaspora. To make the task harder, there are the controversial “who is a Jew?” issues. To reach American Jews, however they may be defined, NJPS utilized a random digital dialing technique that required more than three million calls being placed in order to reach the 4,500 households that could somehow be identified as Jewish and which would respond to the survey.
In its vital methodological underpinnings, NJPS was the victim of the expanding reluctance of people to answer the phone or to respond to telemarketers. At the moment when organized American Jewry believes that it is more necessary than ever to get a profile and count of its members, it has become much more difficult to locate these Jews and to get them to tell us what we want to know.

NJPS critics underscore that there have been recent useful Jewish population surveys that were far less expensive and time-consuming. They have a point, though the other studies ask few questions and essentially have been piggybacked onto ongoing research, a method that raises the strong possibility of survey bias because the respondents are not representative.

NJPS’ wounds are also self-inflicted. Mirroring the over-organization of our community, its questionnaire is a behemoth encompassing 300 items, some of them complicated and more than a few that are intrusive or irrelevant or foolish. Too many cooks were involved in the making of the brew and now a price is being paid.

All contemporary demography, specifically including the U.S. census, requires the weighting of raw statistics to ensure that discrete and hard to reach population groups are adequately represented. Each NJPS respondent will not count equally in the final published data. It’s necessary to determine the right geographic distribution and also how to count singles, Orthodox Jews and others who may be underrepresented in the telephone polling. NJPS enlisted a considerable number of experts to help achieve these goals and this added to the project’s cost and complexity.

Weighting inevitably raises as many questions as it answers. The assignment of weights entails a measure of subjectivity, so that the data presented to us and the accompanying interpretations may be challenged, even by those who are not residents of Mudville.

As American Jewry has become less Jewish and, to an extent that is astounding, not Jewish as all, NJPS and other Jewish population studies are increasingly on shaky ground. There has been a steady enlargement of the boundaries of Jewish identity to include persons of dubious status. It’s impossible to arrive at any consensus as to whom to include or how to count, so that apart from any methodological difficulties, the findings are open to question by those who want to add the numbers differently.

We are now beset by the question of whether to include non-Jews living in what may be loosely called a Jewish household and who identify themselves as Jewish and also whether to include persons who were born Jewish who say emphatically that they practice another religion or no religion and no longer regard themselves as Jewish. Children in intermarried families raise a host of related issues.

It’s become a mess. Demographers have abandoned a halachic or religious definition of Jewishness, substituting a sociological approach that unfortunately for them opens up new cans of conceptual worms. NJPS could do everything right and still be in trouble.

As necessary as it may be to collect data about American Jews, the exercise has become problematic. We need to rely more on qualitative studies and less on quantitative approaches. As for the numbers, NJPS and others should present us with a smorgasbord, giving us the numbers according to different categories of Jewishness and other identifying characteristics and then allow those who want to partake of what is being offered to pick and choose and to come up with their own conclusions.
* * *
I am nearing my thirtieth year as president on a voluntary basis of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which is in its 103rd year. We have four schools in an unprecedented arrangement and other distinctive projects. We also face severe financial difficulties. This year is the hardest that we have encountered in a long while, undoubtedly because of the economic downturn. As Chanukah arrives, I hope that I can ask readers to provide a measure of support to an institution that for more than a century has been a treasure of American Jewish life. We need help.

Contributions can be sent to Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. 350 Broadway – Room 300, New York, NY 10013.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Money and Education

Other than ersatz status, does $20,000 per tot buy a vastly superior nursery program,
TLC and other goodies that are not provided at nurseries that cost half that amount or even less? This is one of the less than intriguing questions arising from the revelations about Jack Grubman, Sanford Weill and the 92nd Street Y.

I am asked from time to time whether increased per student expenditures have a significant impact on the quality of Jewish day school education. The same issue arises more importantly regarding public education, but that is a subject for another article. While it’s obvious that more money usually buys more and better, the issue isn’t all that simple, as I learned in a recent visit to two day schools serving a community away from New York.

At one school, the annual cost per student is about $20,000, which is more than twice what it costs to educate a public school student in the same state. It’s also about three times the average cost of a Jewish day school education in the U.S. The added funding means better paid teachers, small classrooms, more administrators, two teachers per class and other extras. At this nondenominational community day school, students are challenged and there is a sense of educational superiority. Tuition is about $15,000 and, with scholarship assistance, income from this source does not cover the budget. About $1 million must be raised each year for a school of fewer than 150 students.

The second school is Orthodox, has about 200 students in separate boys and girls divisions and is housed in terribly inadequate facilities. Tuition is about $6,000, but a majority of the students receive scholarship assistance. Funds are not available for special educational services or other enhancements. There is a constant struggle to meet obligations. The administrators are overburdened and underpaid, which is true of the faculty, although from the look of things, students are happy and learning.

The community school is clearly the stronger of the two. It’s a safe bet that its students do better on standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement. We do not need tests for us to know that its students are better read and more culturally aware. The extra money spent on educating students makes a difference.

The second school is typical of a large number of Orthodox yeshivas and day schools, as well as some that aren’t Orthodox. Starved for funds, they make do in buildings that are poorly maintained and which do not contain some of the basic accoutrements of an educational institution. The philanthropic support they receive from outside sources is a pittance as most large donors believe that it’s a greater mitzvah to feed the rich than to assist the needy.

Better and stronger does not mean that all of the $20,000 buys extra value or a better product. To determine whether added funding brings added benefits, we must factor for self-selection, for the capabilities of students when they are first enrolled in the school. The community school students are already better read, more sophisticated, etc. when they commence the regular school grades.

A similar point is made about the Judaic benefits of yeshivas whose students come from observant homes. They are already religious, while in non-Orthodox day schools a significant proportion of the students usually are not. While yeshivas add to religious socialization and knowledge, there is a pre-selection so that they cannot take full credit for the level of religiosity among their students. Likewise, day schools that cater to highly educated and motivated families whose children are introduced to books and cultural stimuli at a young age cannot take full credit for the academic accomplishments of their students.

They might take credit for what their students learn and practice about Judaism. Unfortunately, the Judaic minimalisim of many day schools results in minimalistic Judaic outcomes. Parents and school officials tend to assess educational progress in terms of general academic achievement, with Judaics taking a back seat. Judged by a Jewish educational standard, the $6,000 per year school in the community that I visited is performing at least as well as the $20,000 a year institution. While the more expensive school may well be doing a decent job Jewishly, it’s not delivering added value commensurate with what it is charging.

To a degree that is imprecise, some of the high tuition charged at posh schools arises from the snob factor. What is being paid for is a brand name, as well as an education, and brand names cost more. This is evident when the super rich want to ensure that their tykes gain entry into elite pre-schools. There are, for sure, nurseries that charge $5,000 which do as good a job as the four-times as expensive 92nd St. Y. The Y can overcharge for its product because it is confident that it can find buyers who are willing to overpay as the price for allowing them to boast.

A similar instinct – albeit not as foolish – is at work when parents insist on sending their teenagers to elite private colleges, deliberately foregoing public universities that they wrongfully regard as inferior. I have heard parents say that they cannot send their children to a Jewish day school or high school because they have to save in order to send their kids to expensive colleges.

At the end of the day, higher per student expenditures for day schools are often translated into meaningful benefits in the form of electives, tutoring and counseling, libraries and athletic facilities, extra-curricular activities and more. But we need to recognize that these schools exist for Jewish reasons and this aspect is frequently neglected, especially in the more expensive day schools. We also need to see that some of what is being paid for is nothing other than a brand name and snob appeal.

Friday, November 15, 2002

Obedience to Halacha and Book-Banning

(Originally published by Jewish Law Commentary)

A legal system carries with it the obligation to be obedient. Those whose actions are covered by a body of law are required to respect the law and the rulings of those who have the authority to decide. We may not agree with certain legislation or judicial interpretations of what is on the books, but we must be obedient. The alternative is either anarchy or the use of coercion to obtain compliance.
The obligation to be obedient extends to those who decide. When the law has been settled by prior legislative and judicial actions, judges are not free to impose their views and disregard precedent, although some do. They have more freedom when the law is not settled, but even in those situations there are conceptual and procedural guidelines that cannot be disregarded.

It's obvious that there is slippage from the ideal of obedience. Violations of tax and traffic laws are commonplace and whether crime is on the increase or going down, there is always plenty of criminal activity. The point about obedience is not that there is perfect compliance or anything close to it. What is critical is the sense of legitimacy, of recognizing that civil society requires acceptance of what has been duly enacted or decided. This is what we mean by the rule of law and the ideal of the rule of law is scarcely undermined because there are violations. Wholesale violations - if relatively few pay their taxes or many jump traffic lights - would be another matter.

While it is a legal system, in key respects halacha differs from the codes of law that govern how societies operate. There is the fundamental principle of the Torah being given at Sinai, received by Moses and transmitted to subsequent generations by Torah leaders whose status was determined by their spiritual and intellectual transcendence and not by elections. In the development of halacha throughout our history, there have been in some places and in different periods processes at work that can be identified as legislative. Even in such instances, the halachic process differs importantly from the legislative process that is a key component of democratic societies.

The authority of halacha and therefore also the obligation to be obedient is fortified by it being our mesorah, the fundamental heritage that we have received. Because of this, halacha is accorded a different and also greater degree of legitimacy than what is accorded to the legislation and legal rulings of temporal political and judicial systems.

Yet it is also true that especially in the modern period and certainly in the context of broader Jewish life, the authority of halacha has been weakened because Jews can walk away from Judaism, as so many have during the past two generations.

As suggested, another distinguishing characteristic of halacha is that the authority of those who decide religious issues is derived from their personal qualities, from their spiritual dignity and intellectual stature and not necessarily from the formal positions that they may hold. This is evident in contemporary Jewish life. In an interview years ago, Israel Shenker, a noted writer at the New York Times, asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, about the source of his authority as a posek. Rav Moshe essentially responded that over many years Jews turned to him with their halachic questions, he wrote responses and somehow they came to be accepted.

We religious Jews readily accept the obligation to be obedient, an obligation that for all practical purposes comes into play when we are adversely affected by a ruling or may disagree with it. There is, just the same, a certain fragility to halachic decisions, in part because they can be ignored by the many Jews who do not accept halachic authority and, as well, because among religious Jews, rabbinic authority is dispersed rather than centralized. Rav Moshe was the foremost authority on religious Jewish law for the yeshiva world of which we are a part and for many others, yet his rulings are not always accepted by Orthodox Jews in other sectors of the community. In Borough Park where I live, there are chassidim who carry outdoors on Shabbos, claiming that there is an acceptable eruv in place and that they have eminent rabbis to rely on, this despite Rav Moshe's prohibitory ruling.

Even without communal division, halachic authority rests to an extent on the willingness of those who are affected by decisions to accept what has been decided. Likely, this idea of willingness seems to be inconsistent with the obligation to be obedient. Upon reflection, there is no inconsistency, although how to allow for both obedience and a measure of freedom within the context of the halachic system cannot be easily determined. Rav Moshe's modest comment to Israel Shenker may shed light on the subject, for he was acknowledging that his authority depended somewhat on the receptivity accorded to his rulings.

This sounds like the democratic principle of the consent of the governed, a concept that ordinarily refers to elections and representative government. While the halachic system is emphatically not meant to be democratic as that term is understood, there is a consensual factor in the way religious issues are decided. A notable example is the Talmudic requirement that religious judges be wary of imposing a prohibition that a majority of the community cannot accept. This rule may be designed to protect rabbinic authority from being weakened by massive disobedience or, as likely, to protect the masses against violating a prohibition that they cannot or will not accept. Whatever the reasons, at least in certain instances receptivity to potential prohibitions is a legitimate factor in determining whether a prohibition should become actual.

One such instance may be provided by the several books written all or in part by respected Orthodox Jews and whose contents have been challenged. We are confronted by the question of how to deal with publications that may be regarded as objectionable on hashkafa or other religious grounds. One approach is maximalist, to rule that the offending publications are entirely off limits, that they are not to be sold or bought or allowed into one's home. A more modest approach is to attempt to isolate the passages that are regarded as objectionable, to indicate why they are objectionable and to deliberately stop short of a ban.

It is tempting because it is in a way easier to condemn outright and to prohibit outright. This relieves those who issue the ban and those who might read the offending works of any obligation to consider what is objectionable and why this is so. This maximalist approach apparently is the fate of a well-intentioned but problematic two-volume work on Torah leadership. While the intention of those who issued the prohibition was probably not to condemn the author and subject him to public calumny, all that we have is very strong language of a prohibitory nature by eminent authorities.

This is not the end of the story, if only because at least in the contemporary world it is rather difficult to successfully ban publications. There is evidence that many who would ordinarily accept rulings from Torah authorities are anxious to read the book and more than a few of those who have read the book are wondering what all the fuss has been about. It is evident that the prohibition has whet the appetite of some who would not be interested in reading the work.

There is additional unfortunate fallout in the cheap talk that has been generated by the condemnation of certain works. We are constantly admonished about wrongful speech, about lashon hora. In fact, there is a mini-industry that has arisen within Orthodox ranks exploiting the obligation to be careful in speech. I wonder whether it is sufficiently recognized that when books are banned or other extreme actions are taken, much of what has been accomplished regarding proper speech is severely undermined.

Consideration needs to be given, as well, to whether prohibitory statements, specifically regarding books, impact adversely on efforts to draw marginal Jews closer to their great heritage. This is a priority goal of contemporary Orthodoxy and there have been significant achievements, although more needs to be done. Perhaps more than any other prohibitory action, book-banning can turn prospective returnees away from Judaism.

We often point to the life and example of the outstanding Torah personalities who led our community during the formative post-Holocaust years, people of great stature who gave us inspiration and direction. There is a lesson to be learned from how they exercised their vast and essentially unchallenged authority, how they led by example and teaching and not by issuing a constant stream of prohibitory rulings.

The foremost of these Torah giants was the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. In the twenty years of his fervent and fevered activity on behalf of the Torah world, he essentially was responsible for just one major prohibitory ruling, it being against Orthodox membership in rabbinical bodies with non-Orthodox Jews. This ruling came more than fifteen years after he arrived on these shores. In that great period of the development of American Orthodox Jewry, the Gedolei Torah were constantly occupied with major issues. They did not shirk their obligation to lead and they did not lead by prohibiting that which perhaps should have been criticized and not prohibited.

Monday, November 11, 2002

Yenta Journalism

Months before her eye-opening articles on Wall Street analysts, Gretchen Morgenson – the outstanding financial columnist of the New York Times – wrote an inconsequential piece that appeared on the front page of the business section detailing the sharp decline in stock price and the problems of an internet company and the entrepreneur who ran it. There was no suggestion of wrongdoing, although Ms. Morgenson managed to dig up the fellow’s Hebrew name, Orthodox affiliation and charitable activities. These bits of information had nothing to do with the story.

Last year, this newspaper published an article on a prominent businessman who was engaged in a business dispute that involved Israel. Presumably, this was newsworthy material for a Jewish publication. More problematically, we were treated to every bit of nastiness that the writer could extract from the files about this Modern Orthodox Jew.

These are two examples among many of a puzzling and disturbing phenomenon. When an Orthodox Jew is the subject of a business or crime story, attention is given to the subject’s religiosity, even when, as is nearly always the case, his or her religiosity has nothing to do with the story. As a rule, the information provided is no more than gossip presented in an unflattering way.

This tendency can be contrasted with how journalists have written about the current wave of corporate scandals. Inevitably, some Jews – not many – have been among those accused of misdeeds. I haven’t seen any references to their religious affiliation or activity. Ms. Morgenson has been silent about their Hebrew names, where they attend service, and the charities that they give to of the Jews implicated in Tyco, WorldCom, Enron and other businesses in the corporate hall of shame.

Why the disparity in coverage? Why the yentering in stories about the Orthodox?

There’s no easy answer, although I believe that discrimination – at least in a benign form – is part of the explanation. The hyper-attention to the religiosity of Orthodox Jews who may have committed misdeeds or are being portrayed unfavorably for other reasons is in an important sense the natural byproduct of their religiosity. Their religious identification stands out and that is how they are identified by the media.

Secular Jews, on the other hand, are essentially faces in the vast American crowd, Jews who are scarcely distinguishable from the much larger number of Americans who aren’t Jewish. Their Jewish activity – if there is any – is ordinarily one aspect of how they fit into society.

For Orthodox Jews, religion is the center of their world, a factor that is alive in their lives and dominant each day. Religious standards determine how they spend much of their time and other resources and often the kind of work that they do and where they live. In one way or another, their religiosity affects their dress and appearance. While there are exceptions, increasingly the Orthodox are identifiable by their distinctive dress. Their situation is akin to that of Blacks whose color sets them apart. Orthodox Jews and especially the charedim of the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors live in a world apart.

As journalistic restraint is appropriate in reporting on race, there should be a similar standard regarding news stories about Orthodox Jews. Their religion is not pertinent unless it is a key element in what is being reported. I am not suggesting that religion or, for that matter, race or other ethnic identities, should never be included in a story. Certainly, if the police are looking for a suspected perpetrator who can be identified via an ethnic or religious characteristic, that information is relevant. When a person’s misdeeds are connected with religious responsibilities, whether in a clerical or lay capacity, such information is pertinent, as it is when either a religious institution is implicated in wrongdoing or the victim of wrongdoing. Otherwise, such information is almost always gratuitous.

This is equally true of the general and Jewish media. The latter are not exempt from the obligation to show restraint. The fact that they report Jewish news does not give them a broader license to delve into matters that are not pertinent to the story. To the contrary, accusations of misdeeds by Jews in business or some other fashion are not newsworthy material for Jewish publications, else our newspapers would have space for nothing else. Such stories belong in the general press.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox get special treatment in the form of gratuitous nastiness. This is a form of discrimination and while it may be benign, it’s not excusable. We must not accept the yenta journalism that now characterizes far too much of what is included in our newspapers. Instead of covering our massive organizational infrastructure, the yentas who are also reporters forage for bits and pieces of information about individuals or minor disputes in shuls. A content analysis of our newspapers would show that though the Orthodox constitute about 10% of American Jews, their adventures and misadventures constitute a substantial proportion of stories about communal life that appear in Jewish weeklies.

Yenta journalists are generally not secular; they often have close ties to the Orthodox. As is always true of yentering, there are those who are willing to report rumors or half-truths and whatever else constitutes the meat and potatoes of the yenta profession. Gossip is reported as fact and the fact that too often what the yentas put into writing has been shown to be a distortion scarcely serves as an impediment for further yentering.

While yenta reporter are apparently gleeful about the gossip machine in which they play a central role, we must recognize that they do damage. They hurt people gratuitously. Half-truths are not half of the truth but untruths. Yenta reporters have written distorted stories about Yeshiva University and Modern Orthodox congregations. We need to understand that yentering is a social disease and the pathology is especially serious when it comes packaged as journalism.

Monday, November 04, 2002

The Unethical Ethicist

Anyone who allows himself to be called an ethicist is in need of serious moral improvement. The term is pretentious and arrogant, suggesting that the designee possesses much wisdom and is of high moral character. Randy Cohen who once was a humorist – a vocation that presumably required some skill – has been installed as the resident ethicist at the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times. As applied to him, the term is an oxymoron.

For all of its evident drawbacks, Cohen’s weekly column is a huge draw, something of an upscale version of “Dear Abby.” Admittedly, the comparison is a disservice to Miss Van Buren and the late Ann Landers. He is not in their league in terms of common sense or experience or empathy and he knows little about the subject that he purports to write about. Ethics is for him a way of expressing personal preference.

Much of what he responds to are slam dunks, questions about the propriety of cheating or engaging in deceit. Mr. Cohen stumbles when the issues are more complex, when they touch on ambiguities or dilemmas and it is useful, if not necessary, to weigh conflicting values and to balance conflicting needs. On such occasions, he sounds like a malfunctioning Delphic Oracle, as likely to be errant as to be on the mark.

It is especially unfortunate when someone labeled an ethicist is blind to nuances or does not understand that there are questions that cannot be answered, at least not with a quick judgment or quip. Mr. Cohen plows ahead, without saying – at least not in the column – that he does not know what the proper course might be or that there isn’t a single correct approach or that more than one response can be given.

His latest column, out a few days ago, illustrates what’s wrong. Asked by a reader whether to vote for a former boss running for public office who is “rude and condescending” but whose politics are right or for his opponent “whose politics are completely opposite mine,” Cohen responds that it is a “civic obligation” to “vote for your unlikable ex-boss.” Apparently, character does not count at election time, for it is now a civic obligation and the ethical thing to do to support a candidate whose character is flawed. This from a so-called ethicist. Can it ever be a civic obligation to vote for a particular candidate?

Cohen’s misadventures in ethicsland lend themselves to parody and Calvin Trillin has just jumped at the opportunity in the New Yorker with six “Unpublished Letters to the Ethicist.” Since Cohen kicked up a storm with a know-nothing response that is hostile to religion and offensive to Orthodox Jews, it’s interesting that Trillin’s first letter describes himself as being brought up in a Jewish home, but not observant. “Last summer, in a rash moment, I said publically that if Martha Stewart got indicted I would go back to the synagogue.” Now that she may be indicted, C.T. is in a quandary. His older daughter says that he will have to attend services regularly, have a kosher home and not drive on Shemini Atzeret. He asks the ethicist “whether a Friday-night service or two would do the trick.”

While it is easy to poke fun at Cohen, his skewed view of ethics is not always a laughing matter. Two weeks ago, he gave us a lesson in intolerance falsely marketed as ethics, when he advised a woman who had negotiated a deal with a “courteous and competent real-estate agent” to tear up the signed contract because “he refused to shake her hand,” saying that as an Orthodox Jew he does not touch women. It’s apparently ethical in Cohen’s warped understanding of ethics to tear up a signed contract. It’s also ethical to disregard the freedom of religious expression of the agent and it’s even ethical to suggest that contrary to law and social policy, Orthodox Jews who won’t touch women be victims of discrimination. Since, according to Cohen, they are sexist, it is appropriate to fire or refuse to hire Orthodox men who won’t touch a woman.

Cohen is silent about Orthodox women who refuse to touch men. Is their act of religious faith and modesty also an expression of sexism? At the June 2001 Yale graduation – President Bush was the featured speaker – a young Russian Jewish woman who was graduating politely told the official conducting the ceremony that when she received her diploma, she would not shake the hands of the men on the receiving line. Apparently, this official and others were not offended.

The Times and Cohen have received as many as 1,000 communications, nearly all critical of the column. The critics include persons who are not Orthodox and feminists who on other occasions have been critical of the Orthodox. If there would be a touch of decency or ethics in Cohen, he would apologize. That’s not likely to happen because he is motivated by hostility to religion and to Orthodox Jews and he readily converts his intolerance into pseudo-ethics. In responses to email, he has inappropriately compared the Orthodox conscience-based refusal to touch a woman to racial discrimination. In the mindset of one who is hostile to religion, there is scarcely room for the accommodation of religious belief, for allowing Orthodox Jews and persons of other religious persuasions to go about being faithful to beliefs and practices that harm no one.

The New York Times would not appoint a person who is ignorant about music to be a music critic or an unlettered person to be a book reviewer. It’s anyone’s guess why the newspaper chose someone totally ignorant about ethics and intolerant to boot to be its arbiter of ethical conduct. Whatever the explanation, the outcome is another stain in the Times’ inglorious history of the treatment of Jews.

Friday, November 01, 2002

November 2002 - RJJ Newsletter

The previous newsletter discussed the expanding tendency of Torah leaders to promote chesed causes, usually on behalf of individual families in Israel or here. The point that was underscored is that a message is being sent that chesed takes priority in tzedakah allocations over chinuch, an attitude that is similar to the approach of Federation and others in the secular camp and which was fiercely criticized by Orthodox Jews who contended that yeshivas and day schools should receive the lion’s share of our tzedakah. The essay concluded with the observation that there cannot be one standard for the Federations and another for our community.

This view raises several uncomfortable questions. The issue is important because the funds that are being raised in individual chesed campaigns amount to millions of dollars each year and the figure is almost certainly growing in view of the avalanche of letters that we now receive from respected Torah leaders. At the least, the subject deserves greater attention than it has received. The following comments are intended to encourage our consideration of this issue.

1. Let us assume, perhaps incorrectly, that all of the individual solicitations are legitimate, that they are for deserving persons who are in extraordinary financial difficulty and that Torah leaders whose names are being used have given their authorization. There still is the question of whether these situations merit priority over the financial – at times desperate financial – needs of Torah institutions.
There is - or so it seems – much tragedy and extreme hardship in our relatively small community. There is a stream of sad news telling us of catastrophic illness and of the death of parents, often at a young age, who leave behind young children and scant financial resources. It is one of the glories of religious Jews that we act quickly to assist widows and orphans. There are campaigns that in a matter of weeks have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars or even as much as $1 million.
If only because of personal experience, I am not callous toward those who have suffered loss. I have played a role in a number of chesed campaigns. But I am troubled by a question that was raised not long ago in the name of a Rosh Yeshiva on the way to a simcha in Lakewood. He apparently wondered how he and the yeshiva world could justify raising $1 million for a single family when, in the example that he gave, an outreach high school for boys at risk was about to collapse under a mountain of debt and few seemed to care.
2. When a Torah leader sends out letters regarding a chesed situation with which he is personally familiar, we can be confident that the need is real and probably great. It’s apparent that these situations are no longer the rule. While most solicitation letters used to be written in Hebrew and personally signed – with a convenient English translation provided – nowadays, a personal letter is often dispensed with and all we get is a signature to someone else’s letter.

The situation has become more problematic because many of the letters we now receive seem to be not the work of those who are identified as signers but rather the product of someone who is adept at writing these messages. Invariably, the tone and style are the same. At the least, there is a credible question regarding the legitimacy of certain of these solicitations. We do not know whether the signatures that we see were actually authorized or perhaps lifted from another source. Put otherwise, increasingly these communications partake of mechse k’shikra, the appearance of deception.

3. Confidence in these letters is not buttressed by reliance on what I regard as the vulgar technique of printing messages on the outside envelope that abet fundraising but which, in all likelihood, are false. We are being manipulated by the likes of “a little boy is waiting to hear from you” or “you can save this life” or “can’t you see the tears?” And so it goes. Chesed apparently is exempt from the fundamental Torah principle that all that is sanctified must be conducted with hatznea leches, a sense of modesty.

4. The Rabbis and Roshei Yeshivas whose names are on the return envelopes are busy people. It’s a good bet that they do not open the envelopes or record the contributions or make the deposits or disburse the funds. These functions are performed by others, at times by persons who are close to the families for whom funds are being raised, but with increasing likelihood by individuals who control the mailing lists, draft the standard letters and who have little to do with the persons on whose behalf the solicitations are being made. It’s anyone’s guess how the funds are being distributed or how much reaches the families. We don’t even know whether those in control of the funds are trustworthy people.
5. The practice of buying and selling contributors’ lists needs to be examined. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School has an unyielding policy that prohibits this practice. We do not believe that it is appropriate to reward our contributors by peddling their names elsewhere. In fact, more than ethics are involved. There are practical reasons the practice should be curtailed.

Yeshivas are being hurt because tzedakah is generally not a zero sum game in which contributions to one cause have no bearing on what may be given to others. When chesed campaigns are emphasized, inevitably less is available for Torah institutions. There is a second negative impact in that there are potential contributors who refuse to contribute because they are convinced that if they do, their names will be put on a list and the list will be sold to others. We may think that these individuals are wrong; at the least, we have to understand their motivation and how it affects yeshivas.

6. In order to ensure that the chesed solicitations that have become a significant feature of our communal life are conducted with probity – both in appearance and reality – we should insist on several precautions. We need to be assured that the Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva who are the primary signatories to these letters and to whom the contributions are being sent have given their authorization and that they have knowledge of the situations that are being described. It is apparent that in more than a few instances a Torah leader who is the key person in the campaign is at best a kli shlishi, a third hand source, someone who has been contacted by a person he knows who claims to have been contacted by a rabbi in Israel who has knowledge of the family for whom funds are being raised. If they do not have personal knowledge of these situations, they ought to say so and tell us on whom they are relying when they ask for our contributions.

We also need to put into place a better arrangement regarding the collection and distribution of funds so that we can have greater confidence that what is occurring is legitimate. It is not sufficient that the Torah leaders who receive these contributions turn the letters over to someone who appears at the door and that is the end of their responsibility. We and they must be concerned about what happens after the contributions are received.
It may be helpful for Torah leaders to establish a three-person vaad or committee of respected individuals who will oversee in some fashion this critical stage of chesed campaigns.

Doubtlessly, there are other issues that can be raised about a development that has not received the scrutiny it merits.

Monday, October 28, 2002

The Grandchildren of Eli the Fanatic

Literature and other cultural expressions can anticipate social change by getting under society’s skin and describing developments that are in the womb of time and not discernible to demographers, reporters and social commentators. After the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey appeared, an incisive sociologist asked why there was a fuss about the 50%+ intermarriage rate when the powerful trend toward Jews marrying out had been depicted for at least two decades in literature and movies.

The best example I know of this anticipatory capacity is Philip Roth’s great late 1950’s story, “Eli the Fanatic,” published initially in Commentary and then in the breakthrough/breathtaking collection, Goodbye, Columbus. The story tells of Woodenton, a pleasant upscale New York suburb where Jews who had made it came to as an escape into affluence and modernity and away from the old-world Jewishness of the inner city. Their peace of mind is disturbed when a small number of religious Jews arrive, with plans to open a yeshiva.

The newcomers are not welcomed by their putative co-religionists, one of whom says “if I want to live in Brownsville, I’ll live in Brownsville.” Another paints this frightening scenario: “It’s going to be a hundred little kids with little yarmulkahs chanting their Hebrew lessons on Coach House Road.” Still another wonders whether the “next thing they’ll be after our daughters.” These fictionalized Jews who doubtlessly saw themselves as liberal and tolerant do their best to keep the Orthodox out. They engage one of their own, an attorney named Eli Peck, to invoke zoning ordinances to block the yeshiva. Ultimately, Eli is transformed, as he comes to respect the religious way of life and understand the hypocritical bigotry of his neighbors. He identifies with the Orthodox by putting on their distinctive dress, hence the story’s title.

The use of zoning regulations against religious groups is a feature of the American landscape. In hundreds of localities, life is being made tougher for those who want to build houses of worship or parochial schools, as zoning ordinances are being interpreted in a fashion that is hostile to religion and, at times, flagrantly discriminatory. The frequent excuse is that the proposed facilities do not include sufficient parking spaces or would result in traffic congestion.

What is happening is especially harmful to religious Jews who require a communal infrastructure for the fulfillment of their religious obligations. Nearly everywhere there is local opposition to building plans, which is costly in terms of time and money. The usual pattern is for an accommodation to be reached after the religious group agrees to substantially scale down its project, including – and I regard this as probably unconstitutional – by committing to limit enrollment or other usage. On occasion, plans have been scrapped altogether.

Some of this is reported, but not much. In this era of yenta journalism, it’s preferable to give front page coverage to a minor squabble in a Brooklyn shul than to report on the six-year – and still counting – effort of a New Rochelle synagogue to get zoning approval for its badly needed and long-planned facility.

Whatever small justification there may be for using zoning rules to inhibit the building plans of religious groups, there is no excuse for the anti-civil libertarian reliance on them to prevent Orthodox Jews from establishing eruvs, those unobtrusive demarcations that allow the Orthodox to carry within a particular area on Shabbos. This form of discrimination is alive and well in American, invariably spurred by secular and religion-hating Jews who are about as hypocritical a species as can be found.

One sad illustration is the effort of Tenafly, New Jersey officials to block an eruv that relies on the inconspicuous use of telephone and power lines and municipal utility poles. They dug up a zoning ordinance whose violation they had constantly countenanced to prevent the eruv. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia ruled that by applying the ordinance “selectively against conduct motivated by Orthodox Jewish beliefs,” Tenafly had violated the free exercise of religion of observant Jews.

There’s a good prospect for an appeal because those who are motivated by hostility toward the Orthodox are willing to go to great lengths and much expense to have their way. Their notion of freedom is aptly articulated in the notorious clause of the 1936 Soviet Constitution that guaranteed the freedom to be anti-religious.

It’s sadly telling that Tenafly’s mayor is one Ann Moskowitz and its attorneys are named Bruce Rosen, Walter Lesnevich and Noah Feldman.

At the 1999 Tenafly Council hearing on the eruv, there were echoes of the language and sentiments of the assimilated Jews of Philip Roth’s Woodenton. In the words of the Third Circuit opinion, “many of those present expressed vehement objections prompted by their fear that an eruv would encourage Orthodox Jews to move to Tenafly.” One Council member expressed “a concern that the Orthodox would take over,” while another voiced “serious concern” that “Ultra-Orthodox Jews might stone cars that drive down the streets on the Sabbath.”

At times, bigotry is just a short step away from madness.

More often, it is predicated on hostility to the distinctiveness of other people, most often toward their color in the form of racism or, as in the case of Orthodox Jews, toward their special way of dress. Distinctiveness is regarded as a threat and it breeds protective and discriminatory action, at times to block the strangers from moving in and on other occasions to make it more difficult for them to live comfortably and to achieve our Constitutional guaranty of the pursuit of happiness. In the case of eruvs, there are secular Jews whose anger boils over when they see religious families walking home as a unit and being happy on Shabbos.

Monday, October 21, 2002

More on Lanner

It’s certain that the Lanner case will not go away any time soon because he is appealing his conviction in New Jersey on serious sexual misconduct charges and also because the case has become for some a symbol for alleged wrongs that transcend Lanner’s wrongdoing.

Sinful acts rarely beget noble or gracious reactions and Lanner’s case is no exception to the rule. A spirit of vindictiveness comes to the fore, so that the initial misdeeds serve as the starting point for further misdeeds, often committed by people in authority who have a higher obligation to act with restraint, yet who in their earnestness to punish the wrongdoers cross over into forbidden territory.

It’s beyond question that Baruch Lanner engaged in serious misconduct while in a position of authority at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, a branch of the Orthodox Union that over the years has compiled an impressive record in both outreach and youth activities. These wrongs were compounded by the failure to take action to remove Lanner from the positions that he held. It is less clear what transpired at the New Jersey day school where he served as principal and where the incidents of sex abuse that were the basis for his conviction were said to have taken place.

Although he has never been formally charged with criminal acts related to NCSY, in a sense, the New Jersey conviction which may have been unwarranted is a surrogate form of punishment for the more serious offenses committed at NCSY. At times, the scales of justice balance in strange ways.

Whatever the ultimate outcome in New Jersey regarding a man who has been accused, convicted, disgraced and punished, the symbolic dimensions of the case now have a life of their own. From the outset, there has been a sub-text that goes beyond Lanner, that intimates that sexual abuse is a serious problem within Orthodoxy, not only because of the wrongful deeds of the perpetrators but, at least as important, because of an alleged tendency, even an instinct, within Orthodoxy to cover-up wrongdoing. In my experience, both of these charges are false and I believe that a powerful case can now be made to challenge allegations that have little basis in fact.

It happens, as we surely know, that the Lanner affair has received much publicity during the period when sexual misconduct by clergy has been one of the major stories in contemporary America. The Catholic Church has been shaken to the core by literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of accusations, as adults have emerged to voice their claims of abusive activities that occurred years ago. Media attention has certainly been a catalyst for many of the accusers being willing to go public, mainly against Catholic clergymen, but also against religious functionaries of other denominations. It stands to reason that if Orthodox Jewry or any other part of Jewish life were awash with sexual abuse against youngsters or in efforts to cover-up abuse, we would have heard about it in the recent period. It is powerfully telling that such charges have not materialized, that despite an atmosphere that is strongly conducive to sexual abuse claims, very little has been forthcoming on the Jewish or Orthodox fronts.

Emphatically, this does not mean that there haven’t been any such cases that we do not know about. It does mean that too much of the rhetoric within our community has been overwrought and unfortunate. I hope that those who leap at every opportunity to denigrate the Orthodox will recognize that what they have done is itself a form of abuse.

More specifically, as the Lanner case continues in the courts and headlines, can we hope for a cessation of the witch-hunting directed at anyone who has deviated from the politically correct position of not saying anything favorable about Lanner and not trying to help him? It is inexcusable that Rabbis who attempted to work out a plea bargain have been derided and attacked. Much the same has been the lot of witnesses in the New Jersey trial who under subpoena gave testimony that may have supported Lanner’s version of what happened. Do we believe for a moment that they lied under oath? Or that they could/should have avoided testifying? Do Lanner’s sins justify guilt by association?

NCSY and the Orthodox Union have taken significant reform steps. The continuing onslaught against these organizations is one more form of abuse. Lanner’s terrible wrongs and the Orthodox Union’s terrible mistakes do not justify the false and accusatory comment made by a “leader of a parental group,” as quoted in this newspaper, that even the possibility of a reversal of Lanner’s conviction would “undercut the entire reform effort within the Orthodox Union.” This is nonsense, as anyone who has paid attention during the past two years should know.

Harvey Blitz – a friend of more than thirty years – is nearing the completion of what hopefully will be his first two-year term as the Orthodox Union’s president. A man of integrity and accomplishment, he inherited a crisis that destabilized the organization. From the outset, he has confronted it directly, truthfully and with compassion, and he has never sought to explain away his organization’s mistakes. He is sincerely concerned about those who feel betrayed. He and Rabbi Hersh Tzvi Weinreb, a successful pulpit rabbi and psychologist who is now the Orthodox Union’s top administrative official, deserve some breathing space.

They deserve the opportunity to achieve their important goals without being reminded every time NCSY or the Orthodox Union is mentioned that they bear a heavy moral burden. They know this. What others apparently don’t know is that without forgetting or forgiving anyone’s misdeeds, it should be possible to discuss the Orthodox Union and NCSY without any reference to Baruch Lanner.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

The Need to Support Yeshiva Education

(Originally published by Jewish Law Commentary)

Jews are a charitable people and religious Jews are the most charitable of all. Giving to the needy and providing for communal activities and institutions is instinctive, a part of the ethos of the Jewish people. Admittedly, there are Jews, including some of means, in which this instinct is underdeveloped, so that parsimony rather than charity governs how they respond to pleas for financial help. In the aggregate, we are generous. How we assist the poor, care for the sick and elderly and support our communal infrastructure make us the envy of other groups who marvel at our philanthropy.

As American Jews moved away in droves from religious observance toward a secular version of Judaism or, as often, abandoned Jewish identity entirely, they retained a transmuted notion of charity that gave priority to humanitarian and secular causes. Hospitals and other medical-related activities were given top priority and not far behind was support for colleges and universities which were the contemporary articulation of the Jewish emphasis on education. A large Federation network was developed to espouse secular giving and to channel contributions to causes that embodied this ideal.

Orthodox Jews who were long quiescent eventually protested against the Federation's scheme of allocation, arguing that it shortchanged Jewish causes and especially day school education. It was said - and I played a role in this - that meaningful religious education had become the stepchild of Jewish philanthropy. The activities and commitments that have sustained us were being starved. Our advocacy was tough and we did not yield at all to the argument that, after all, there is a Torah obligation to feed the poor, help the sick and frail, give dignity to the elderly, in short, to highlight chesed activities in the distribution of communal charitable funds.

We did not accept this argument because we recognized that Torah education merited priority and not because we undervalued chesed. Ultimately, our advocacy had an impact and there has been an increase in Jewish philanthropic support to religious schools, although this increase has not been even remotely commensurate with the budgetary needs of these institutions.

We have, in any case, convinced others that yeshivas and day schools merit support. What is the record of the Orthodox community?

We obviously do not need to be sold on the importance of a yeshiva or day school education. Nearly all of our children attend full-time religious schools and the exceptions are special situations that scarcely challenge the rule. Yet, I believe, that in the recent period something has been lost within Orthodoxy, namely the more than two-thousand year tradition and heritage that religious education for our children is a communal responsibility and not merely a parental obligation. We have shifted bit by bit over the past generation, so that at the yeshiva ketana and high school levels, the cost of a Torah education is overwhelmingly and at times exclusively the responsibility of the parents who are regarded as the consumers of an educational product and like all consumers they must pay for what they take or get.

I have fought against this attitude for more years than I can recount. It is a battle that I have lost. In fairness, the more "frum" a school is, the more likely it is to retain a caring scholarship policy. Although they know that increased scholarship assistance inevitably means increased pressure on them, yeshiva officials at many schools show kindness toward parents in need. It remains, though, that the exigencies of yeshiva finances have resulted in a toughened stance, the upshot being that hard-pressed families are being pressured to pay a larger share of the cost of educating their children. As family size continues to increase in Orthodox ranks, an ever-greater toll is being exacted in the form of the disruption of sholom bayis and in family emotional and physical health.

The problem is not with school policy, although there is room for improvement. What is difficult to accept is the abandonment of the principle that basic Torah education is a basic communal responsibility. Whether through voluntary contributions or taxes imposed by community officials, over the centuries religious schools were supported in the main by outsiders and not by parents. We never embraced - at least not until recently - the alien concept that a Jewish education is a consumer product.

Even with increased parental financial participation, yeshivas need outside support if they are to meet their basic obligations. There are charitable persons who understand this, yet the painful truth is that outside contributions constitute a declining and by now relatively small share of the income of most schools. Voluntary contributions increasingly come from the parents themselves who either give themselves or get, as for example in what has become the customary dinner charge. Outsiders are growingly reluctant to contribute to ordinary yeshivas and day schools. They will support special situations, such as kollels, schools for special children and some advanced yeshivas. But elementary and secondary yeshivas and day schools are generally off the philanthropic radar screen.

Tzedakah is an obligation for all observant Jews. There is a good deal of discretion in what people may do with their charitable dollars, although there are halachic guidelines that govern tzedakah, including the obligation to give to the needy who ask directly for help and also pidyon shevuim. Too many of us make the mistake that organizations which purport to provide medical services or help the needy are accorded the same priority status as the needy themselves. This errant view of tzedakah parallels nearly perfectly the attitude of the Federations that we used to criticize.

As between Torah schools and organized chesed campaigns, the schools must be given priority. That is what I heard from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood and it was a message he proclaimed constantly as he molded the nascent American yeshiva world into the robust Torah community that has developed. A similar message was expressed by other Torah leaders of the last generation. Several years ago, I heard a tape of a shiur given in the 1950's by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and he made the same point.

This fundamental standard that is crucial to the well-being of the Torah community is now being abandoned by people who obviously appreciate the importance of chinuch. Shuls everywhere have cut down or stopped altogether making appeals for yeshivas. They prefer making appeals for chesed activities. We are, in any case, now bombarded by a flow of appeals for chesed organizations. These agencies are in the main important, but with few exceptions they are a good deal less important than Torah institutions.

This should be self-evident in the yeshiva world, which adds to the question of why this world is embracing the secularist approach to tzedakah that we once rejected.

There is no easy explanation. Likely, the complexity of the Torah community, including the great number of institutions and causes seeking support, serves as a disincentive to answering appeals for yeshivas and day schools. I believe that the anti-traditional consumerist view of chinuch that I have criticized has resulted in the unwillingness to support outside schools. This unwillingness works in two ways. There is the attitude that the operational cost of our schools should be covered by the parents. Secondly, parents who are required to pay large sums for their children's tuition are increasingly adverse to the notion that they should help other schools, even if they can afford to do so.

A third explanation is that for understandable reasons we have yielded to the emotional exhortations that are an inherent element of chesed campaigns. The impulses that govern how non-observant Jews approach their tzedakah decisions have begun to overtake us. Put otherwise, on the emotional front an appeal for a yeshiva cannot hold a candle to an appeal for a chesed cause.

What is the position of Torah leaders in all of this? Where are they as high tuition charges are causing pain in too many good and modest Torah homes? Where are they as many yeshivas are in financial crisis, a crisis that has become deeper because of the economic downturn that has resulted in a significant number of Orthodox parents losing their jobs?

I recognize that there is more than a small prospect that should Torah leaders advocate support for yeshivas, their words would go unheeded. At the least, though, they should trumpet the message that support for basic Torah institutions is both a communal requirement and a tzedakah priority. As far as I know, they have not sent out such a message. I do know that in some fashion they have acquiesced to the notion that tuition is a parental obligation, even for poor parents.

We receive a constant stream of letters from Torah leaders importuning us to support this or that chesed campaign, mainly for individuals but at times also for organizations. There are questionable aspects to these campaigns that I hope to deal with in the next Newsletter. What concerns me now is the lamentable fact that our Torah leaders are giving more momentum to the emotional chesed bandwagon.

Chesed activities constitute a glorious achievement in contemporary Orthodox life. In a somewhat similar fashion, they were considered to be a glorious aspect of the Federation and secular Jewish world. It was wrong in the past that Torah education was not regarded as a priority and the same attitude is wrong today. There cannot be one rule for the secularists and another for us.

Monday, October 14, 2002

We Doth Protest Too Much and Also Too Little

Given the deep-rooted corruption that has characterized much of New Jersey’s political life for decades, it’s fitting that Amiri Baraka is the state’s poet laureate. If New Jersey was looking for an anti-Semitic poet, do we think it could get T.S. Eliott?

As Eliott and Ezra Pound demonstrated, poetry can serve as a convenient haven for those who hate Jews. Sadly, there are too many havens in literature, as well as in other creative fields and in more ordinary social activities. We seem to have an inexhaustible supply of enemies, of persons who are eager to advertise their anti-Semitism. It appears that their ranks have grown during the past two years in the wake of the Intifada and September 11.

Scarcely a week goes by without new affronts to civility and tolerance. College and even high school newspapers publish articles that would gladden the hearts of the forgers of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. College campuses have seen rallies where the hatred of Jews is common fare, while in the same locales efforts to support Israel have been met by intimidation. We the chosen people are being chosen once more as responsible for the world’s evils.

It’s hard to keep up with all of the bad tidings, although I imagine that ADL’s files are up to date.

As the anti-Semites have come out of their rat holes, they have made common cause with Israel-deniers, a motley crew of Islamic fundamentalists with support from people on both the far right and far left. To boot, there are Jews who are adding their own special concoction of self-hatred to the poisoned brew.

As those who disparage us have been true to form, so have we. Our standard operating procedures for anti-Semitism include public relations, letters to the editor, pressure on politicians and the rather courageous message that anti-Semitism is not acceptable. In the end, as in New Jersey, we get politicians who turn one cheek to anti-Semitism and now do their profile in courage shtick by turning the other cheek against the Amiri Barakas of the world. We apparently believe that anti-Semitism can best be counteracted through rhetoric and debating.

At this point it’s well to acknowledge that there is something wrong with this picture. The United States is not awash in anti-Semitism, the too many bits and pieces of untoward news and our fears notwithstanding. We are doing quite well on these shores. Those who hate us have essentially been marginalized, while respect among Americans for Jews and Israel remains exceedingly high. Our blood-stained history and our present fears must not be allowed to darken this reality.

A second problem is that we too frequently kvetch about matters that do not merit protest. A familiar example are the complaints that arise from our quarters when a Palestinian representative is invited to speak on campus or, at times, before a Jewish audience. To some of us, this is a cardinal sin, an act that gives encouragement to our enemies. It’s hard to figure out what the beef is about in those instances when invitees have appeared regularly on Israeli radio and television and have been involved in negotiations with Israel officials. Thus, I specifically disagree with efforts to block the appearances in this country of Sari Nusseibeh who some label as tolerant of terrorism and others as a moderate.

Admittedly, our complaints may serve certain emotional needs but they scarcely advance our interests. They are also losing propositions and not simply because our protests fail, except perhaps to generate more interest in what Palestinians have to say. More importantly, these are losing efforts because at least potentially they result in the loss of support for Israel within constituencies that we are courting, notably Jews on campus. This is one of the great battlegrounds in contemporary Jewish life and it is perhaps the most difficult place of contention that now confronts us. Our cause is not advanced when we seek to block speeches by Palestinians.

There are occasions when we need to protest. Even then, our one approach fits all situations attitude serves us poorly. On occasion, a simple statement of protest may be sufficient. When an anti-Semitic tirade comes from an obscure and/or entirely unrespected source, it might be best to either ignore the affront or say very little about it. I doubt that much has been gained from our perspective through all of the saber rattling that has accompanied the Baraka affair. Those who appointed him should have known better, but it is highly doubtful that it will be possible to get rid of him now.

There are also occasions when a more militant or aggressive approach is warranted. When major newspapers publish Streicher-like anti-Semitic cartoons, as some have, we ought to do more than gear up our xerox machines and public relations people. Letter writing and platitudinous statements condemning anti-Semitism play into the hands of editors, college officials and politicians who out of laxity or more base motives have given aid and comfort to our enemies. They can at once hide behind the First Amendment and yet also deplore that which they have allowed to go forward.

The one approach fits all situations model hides our pain and our anger, the hurt that we feel when in places that purport to promote tolerance both Jews and Israel are caricatured and stereotyped. There must be instances when militancy is justified, when instead of just wailing and writing, we show the depths of our feelings by being more activist.

I will believe that American Jews are serious about serious acts of anti-Semitism when enough of us invite arrest because we have sat in or condemnation because we have engaged in acts of civil disobedience. It may sound harsh, but it remains that there is superficiality to our protests. One approach does not fit all situations.

Friday, October 04, 2002

Funny Numbers

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts and anyone bearing statistics. That’s the lesson to be learned from economists who confidently tell us what shall be in a future that clearly has yet to arrive and which they surely cannot know. For all of the confidence of these soothsayers, their track record isn’t much better than that of astrologers. It’s their good fortune that their errant predictions are usually quickly forgotten.

A similar lesson is being taught to us by our demographers, a small band of statisticians dressed up as sociologists who when they aren’t clawing at one another bequeath us widely divergent data on the state of American Jewish life. Their enterprise is conducted with a flair for publicity, as is evident in the front page story in this newspaper detailing the discovery by Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research - one of our growing number of think tanks where thinking tanks regularly - that there are many more Jews in these United States than other demographers have located.

Tobin’s announcement appears to be a pre-emptive strike against the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey whose first fruit is to be announced within several days. This is a low blow, but demography is not a gentlemanly sport.

Mr. Tobin arrives at his elevated figures essentially through the simple calculation that intermarriage adds to the number of Jews because there are many more Americans who are partly Jewish. If we include all those who say that they have some link to Jewishness, our ranks grow to 13.3 million Americans. With this kind of new math and as more Jews marry out and the children of the intermarried themselves intermarry, erelong there will be 25 million Americans who are somehow Jewish.

There is a phenomenon of hidden Jews, persons who are Jewish in one sense or another but who either do not know of their background or who deliberately hide the fact. I refer to this as the Madeleine Albright syndrome. It’s a subject that requires study, here and especially in Europe. But Tobin’s statistics are preposterous. Intermarriage weakens a group and reduces its numbers, as is evident from the experience of German Americans and Irish Americans, to mention two notable examples, and from the history of our people.

In addition to its conceptual flaws, Tobin’s study relies on methodological assumptions that are at least as dubious. His data is based on 250 telephone interviews with households that in the words of the article “expressed some relationship to Judaism.” Anyone who believes that a sample size of 250 is sufficient to support the extraordinary conclusions reached by Tobin is in fantasy land. Mr. Tobin has a good appetite for extrapolation, for inferences and guesswork, but he has stretched a questionable methodology past the breaking point.

As far back as 1970, our demographers extended the concept of a Jewish household to include non-Jews and others whose Jewishness was questionable. Social necessity became the mother to sociological invention. In addition to halachic Jews, we now have sociological Jews, ethnic Jews, cultural Jews and, thanks to Mr. Tobin, cardiac Jews, as well as non-Jewish Jews. His survey includes persons who simply feel “Jewish in their hearts.” In order to ensure Jewish survival, perhaps our community should invest more heavily in cardiologists rather than in Jewish education.

In an essay published in Tradition (Summer 2001), I suggested that American Jewry is evolving into a voluntary membership association. “We can stay in, pay dues, join in group activities and perhaps impart our sense of loyalty to the next generation. Or we can switch out, in much the same way that political party affiliation can be switched…. There are Americans who aren’t Jewish by anyone’s definition who are signing on as Jews – at least that’s what they think – usually because they’re in a relationship with someone who is Jewish.”

Mr. Tobin eagerly counts all of the joiners, yet he does not exclude the quitters, the large number who say that they no longer regard themselves as Jewish. If, as he claims in a Forward article, that his is a “sociological assessment” he ought to be consistent and not include those who have opted out of the Jewish community. He also ought to accept the customary and valid distinction between core and non-core Jews, something that he regards as “insulting.” It’s hard to figure out who is being insulted. NJPS and other surveys rely on this distinction and as undergraduate sociology majors know, it is a useful way of differentiating among group membership.

I believe that Mr. Tobin conducted his survey with a good idea of what he wanted to find. Not surprisingly, he found what he was looking for. Although his approach is absurd, it’s a good bet that he has hit pay dirt, and not primarily because of a developed instinct for self-promotion. His approach is in tune with what a majority of American Jews want to hear and believe. They want to believe that despite out-marriages and wholesale Judaic abandonment, our ranks our growing. More critically, they want to be assured that they remain in good Jewish standing no matter how far removed they are from our heritage.

They now have another psychological safetynet to go along with the massive communal investment to prop up a sociological reality that is alien to our history. Although it is ersatz, this brand of Judaism will be with us for a long while, given the backing it is receiving.

Mr. Tobin writes in the Forward that those who do “not like these figures” are peddling “fear and despair” and “are used to predicting disaster and destruction, and even the disappearance of American Jews.” I see Jewish life blossoming on these shores because of adherence to our traditions and not through statistical manipulation. We shall survive, not by abandoning Judaism but by being faithful to that which has ensured our survival for generations.