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.