Monday, July 28, 2003

Privacy Cuts Two Ways

What’s the best strategy for the country’s most powerful interest group? Does it lie low, count its blessings and tone down its demands, lest it provoke opposition or should it up the ante and demand even more , claiming that the deck is stacked against it and that its members are disadvantaged? The Gay Rights movement is by far the most powerful group around, dwarfing in influence and effectiveness the repellent National Rifle Association. Its response to the question is to kvetch even more about discrimination and to bully any who are brave enough to challenge its demands, tactics and goals. That’s sure to cow the media and silence much of the opposition. So much for the First Amendment.

As part of the unwholesome intimidatory package, the claim that the Gay Rights crusade is powerful is said to be proof of bias on the part of those who make the claim. So be it. The fact is that gays and their advocates are entrenched in the media - the Times is their newspaper – and in just about every area of American life where style and opinion are shaped, including Hollywood and Broadway, Madison Avenue and Seventh Avenue.

Any doubt about the tremendous clout of the gays should be dispelled by comparing the record of this movement with the achievements of other contemporary movements that should have strong claims for civil rights protection. Unlike gays and ethnics who routinely exaggerate their numbers and other claims – the back page of this newspaper recently had a paean to gayness that included the incredibly absurd claim that 14 million children in the U.S. are being raised by gay parents – we have absolutely reliable data that women or at least females constitute approximately 51% of the population. If a generation ago an opinion survey had asked whether Gay Rights and marriage or the Equal Rights Amendment had the better prospect for success, the question would have been regarded as absurd. ERA was moving ahead and the notion of gay marriages was nearly everywhere regarded as abhorrent. Well, the Equal Rights Amendment is dead – undeservedly so – while the notion of gay marriages is being taken very seriously. This is quite an achievement for an allegedly weak movement.

Another comparative benchmark is civil rights for Blacks, a massive group of Americans who in the aggregate remain disadvantaged and are often the victims of racism. Their movement is in the doldrums, admittedly in part because of rotten, even sleazy, leadership, but also because few people care anymore and there is only so much attention to be given to discrimination claims. The media and politicians have adopted Gay Rights as their favored crusade.

Blacks will have to wait their turn, they will have to remain at the back of the bus until the high-status, socio-economically privileged gays are satisfied. That may be a long time in coming.

Gays have been further empowered by the Supreme Court decision striking down state anti-sodomy laws. I cannot think of a more stupid legal strategy as that employed by Texas officials who enforced a law that should not be on the books, a law that had been rightly abandoned by other states. Whether embedded in the words of the Constitution or not, privacy is as fundamental a right as there is and no matter what any of us may think of certain sexual conduct, what consenting adults do in private is not the business of the state or, with few exceptions, any outsiders.

Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion made an eloquent case for striking down Texas’ law, yet errant though it was, Justice Scalia’s dissent was right in suggesting that the ruling would advance the gay agenda far beyond the reach of the immediate case. Already, great impetus has been given to the acceptance of gay marriages.

The strictures against such marriages are not at all rooted in discrimination, as was certainly true of anti-miscegenation laws. In fact, they are not rooted primarily in law but in the understanding that marriage is a sanctified act involving male and female. The barriers to homosexual marriage are biological, philosophical and ethical. If law now comes into the picture, it will be to validate that which nearly universally has been regarded as unacceptable, even abhorrent. I cannot think of a more extreme situation of judicial activism, yet we live in an era when judges feel free to impose their likes and dislikes, irrespective of tradition and common understandings.

While sexual conduct is or should be private, marriage is a public act and that alone transforms its character. A license is needed, the ceremony is conducted by someone who is authorized by government to do so and governmental records are maintained. In a legal sense, marriages can be dissolved only through governmental action. It’s fascinating to note that however much gays rely on the right to privacy when it is to their advantage to do so, they abandon the ideal of privacy when it suits their political agenda or sexual proclivities. Gay Rights marches and demonstrations are not simply exercises in rhetoric and advocacy, as nearly all other demonstrations are. They increasingly have a public character that includes overt sexual behavior, the goal being to both shock and attract, the latter being especially directed at the young and counterculturalists who, whatever their sexual orientation, gravitate towards that which rejects convention and propriety.

The breakdown between private and public behavior is the deliberate attempt by gays to impose, at least visually, what they are doing on others. A case in point is what is happening this summer in parts of the Hamptons, as public beaches have become trysting places for homosexual activity. Never mind that this is on public property, that others are being imposed on, that the rights of neighbors are being violated. Gay Rights are supreme; so says the New York Times whose slogan might be “We print all of the gay news that’s unfit to print.”

When a Hampton homeowner whose property fronts on a beach complained about what was transpiring, the response was a threat to send 1,000 gay men to harass him at his home. We now know what these uncivil libertines think of civil liberties.

What would the tolerance level be if comparable heterosexual activity occurred at a public facility? There would be an outcry and efforts to prevent such behavior would be applauded. But gays, for all of their complaining, are afforded privileged status.

American Jews overwhelmingly support Gay Rights in its most extreme forms. They have been at the head of the pack advocating gay marriages and not merely as civil ceremonies but, in their convoluted mindset, as religious rituals. It has been said that there is a greater incidence of homosexuality among Jews. I do not know whether this is the case. What seems to be true is that the abandonment of traditional beliefs has been accompanied by the embrace of attitudes and practices that are hostile to the Judaic tradition.

If gay marriages come, it’s a sure thing that Reform clergy will be lining up to perform the ceremony, much like they’ve been active in sanctioning intermarriage. There is consistency to the Reform rejection of all that ensures our survival. As for Conservatives, the leadership of the Jewish Theological Seminary and older rabbis have remained staunchly opposed to the extreme variety of Gay Rights and they have blocked the ordination of gays. However, among younger rabbis and students at JTS, the prevailing opinion is strongly in the other direction. It’s likely only a matter of time until the Conservative movement accepts all or nearly all of the gay agenda, so that there will be one less religious tradition to conserve.

While I believe that most Orthodox recognize that gays should be protected against discrimination, there is fierce opposition to gay commitment ceremonies and certainly gay marriages. If such marriages are permitted, the Orthodox will face anew the question of whether they should maintain the fiction that we are Am Echad, one people, despite intermarriage, patriliniality, quickie conversions, the wholesale abandonment of Judaism and all else that has ravaged American Jewry. As unpopular as it may be, the Orthodox should face the reality that we are no longer Am Echad.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Curiouser and Curiouser

Go figure this one out: Politically and, in a way, socially the country seems to be in the grip of a conservative, even right wing, takeover. Compassionate or not, it’s evident that President Bush is a staunch conservative who is determined to reverse decades of social, economic and environmental policies. His key White House aides are perhaps more committed in this direction than he is. The House of Representatives is under the control of Tom DeLay and his ultra right-wing cohorts, while in the Senate there is at best an ideological standoff. For all of the Democratic rear guard actions, the Supreme Court and the Federal judiciary are increasingly bold in their conservative activism. On the social side, talk radio is overwhelmingly dominated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and other diatribists who each day reach tens of millions of listeners and feed them a constant diet of the alleged sins of liberalism. This is apart from the vast audience reached by the Christian media. So why is the U.S. on the brink of accepting gay marriages and why are courts so eager to ban the Ten Commandments from public life?

The best explanation may be that democracies are messy arrangements, if only because power is inevitably decentralized even when it appears to be centralized. For all of the strength displayed by one ideological position or another, politics are not linear. Like other social relationships, political relationships are complicated and ambiguous, at times also contradictory. We are often reminded of the old saying about strange bedfellows, a phenomenon that is true not only of politics but also of families, friendship patterns and most other associations. It’s rare in democracies for one side to win it all.

But for all of the contradictions that abound in democracies or human affairs, there is still something strange about what we are now witness to. The inconsistencies are too blatant, too directly incompatible. In the always heated arena of law and religion where some measure of coherence might be expected, we have contemporaneously the Supreme Court opening the door wider to government support of religious schools and institutions and the White House successfully promoting support of faith-based initiatives, while courts are finding constitutional infirmities in the formulaic words of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments. There must be something more to the story than democracy’s messiness.

America’s multiple diversities – geographic, political, social, religious, etc. – and the parallel extraordinary range of interest group activity beget incompatible political and social outcomes. While at the ideological level liberals and conservatives – and other opposing groups and interests – are in conflict and reject what the other side advocates, at the action level they operate in essentially separate territory and not at cross purposes.

Religion and law illustrates the point. While those who support aid to religious schools believe that it’s constitutional and, of course, ethically proper to include a reference to God in public ceremonies and documents and those on the other side are consistent in their opposition, in practice the two battles are conducted separately and they partake of different social, political, geographic and judicial dynamics. The judges who are deciding the Pledge of Allegiance and Ten Commandments issues are not ruling on the constitutionality of government aid to parochial schools. In short, different courts are deciding different cases and responding to different group pressures. While not inevitably, this can yield outcomes that are ideologically inconsistent.

Incongruities also arise because governmental dynamics and social dynamics are mismatched. We tend to think – I suppose understandably – that political and legal domains are supreme, that what governments and courts decide settles important public issues. This na├»ve view discounts the tenacity and potency of social forces that have mobilized and have momentum. For all of the conservative dominance in Washington, there are powerful social trends that go in the other direction in such areas as dress, sexual conduct and the transmission of traditional values. There is, in short, a tension between the conservative ideology that is promoted in high places and the social forces encouraged by the media and trendsetters and government is nearly powerless to stay the hand of the latter.

The conservative voices preach almost entirely to the converted and while the converted may even be a majority, this is a majority that is bereft of the momentum and dynamism that promotes practices and attitudes which may be liberal to the extreme, even permissive and promiscuous. In an important way, therefore, the country is becoming at once more conservative and more hostile to what conservatives want, which is another way of saying that it is becoming more polarized. The vital center is evaporating.

The forces of tradition prevail nowadays in the political arena where they are more powerful. The power base of those who may be regarded as anti-traditional is in society.

As we know, ads target trendsetters, in particular younger consumers who are more likely to respond affirmatively to messages that are countercultural, to messages that are inherently different and therefore also anti-traditional. In the larger society, what has momentum gets attention and the attention itself generates additional momentum. Black America is in the doldrums because for all of the many millions of Blacks and their growing political power, Black civil rights is yesterday’s story and a tired one at that.

This can be contrasted with the success of the gay rights movement, the most powerful interest group in America today. It has momentum and the backing of trendsetters and the media. Talk radio and Christian radio may rail against gay unions and the prospect of gay marriages, something that seemed unthinkable not long ago. Conservatives in Congress and elsewhere may extol the sanctity of traditional families, but right now for all of their high positions they are nearly powerless to stop a social trend that is dynamic.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - July 2003

I know a young man who after many years of serious and effective study at Lakewood became a rebbi at the start of the school year that has just ended at a major Brooklyn yeshiva. Because he continues to live in Lakewood, he must arise early for the long commute and in order to be at the school for Shacharis. His teaching day extends well into the afternoon and then there is the return trip to Lakewood. In short, his job is exhausting. It’s no wonder that not long ago he questioned whether he should continue the grind or attempt to join a kollel that might pay him more than he earns as a full-time teacher.

There are questions about kollels that should be raised, questions that accept the fundamental importance of these institutions in our contemporary religious life and yet do not accept uncritically the view that in a community where resources are obviously limited and priorities must be set, it’s right to place so much emphasis on kollels while ordinary Torah education is increasingly being relegated to the status of a stepchild in Orthodox philanthropy.

It is also necessary to question whether the continued expansion of kollels is to be encouraged, without any regard being given to what the young men who study in kollels will be doing down the road.

There are kollels that make a major difference in the places where they are located and there are kollels that are, in effect, the breeding ground for the next generation of Torah scholars. It remains, however, that most kollels do not fit either of these profiles, that they exist for a host of other reasons, including ego gratification for their sponsors or because no one else knows what else to do with the rapidly growing number of married young men who need to be accommodated.

However we look at kollels, there is something amiss when a full-time rebbi with a classroom of students and all of the attendant responsibilities - preparation, paperwork and contact with parents – is paid less or even about the same as kollel members. Admittedly, the typical kollel student is not that well paid, although the trend has been to increase kollel stipends at a considerably greater rate than increases in rebbis’ salaries. The message being sent is that the Torah community is not particularly concerned about top-flight students who leave yeshiva, even to teach Torah.

What is happening is part of the larger story of the abandonment by our community and leaders of ordinary yeshiva education, certainly at the elementary school level and, at times, above that. Our basic schools, without which Torah and chinuch cannot exist are left to sink or swim for themselves. Schools and parents are being told in effect that the obligation to save these institutions is theirs and not the community’s. With few exceptions, shuls no longer make appeals for yeshivas in their neighborhood and our Torah leaders no longer pay much attention to basic chinuch. Anyone who doubts this can examine each week’s Yated Ne’eman, the yeshiva world’s major newspaper. Or we could examine the mail that comes nearly daily from Torah leaders. There are impassioned pleas for chesed causes and individuals, as well as special Torah educational opportunities. Nary a word is said that there is an obligation to help the schools that educate our children.

I have made this point often and I recognize that, as in the past, what is being written here is likely to fall on deaf ears. As I write these lines, I am mindful of the example of the Great Roshe Yeshiva of Lakewood, that Torah giant who for all of the extraordinary burdens that confronted him worked tirelessly for basic Torah chinuch in Israel and North America. In a state of constant exhaustion, he raised funds for these institutions and was their leading advocate.

Has anyone seen even once during the past ten years a kol koreh from Roshei Yeshiva and Torah leaders proclaiming that it is a sacred obligation to support basic Torah chinuch? Just once? Their names are plastered everywhere, prohibiting this and advocating that, but when it comes to basic Torah education they are silent.

They do beat the drums for kollels, at times deservedly, and yet also at times because it is the politically correct and safe thing to do. They seem satisfied, however, with the current attitude that basic yeshiva education is a parental responsibility, irrespective of the reality that so many of our parents are struggling to make ends meet and are failing in the process.

It is always risky to project the future, if only because the unexpected usually happens. But if the present trends continue, we will have a further significant increase in kollel enrollment and a further increase in the number of students who are drifting because they don’t have a clue as to what they could do other than to stay in kollel. This point was made in the previous Newsletter; to a surprising extent, it struck a positive chord.

It’s likely also that our basic institutions will continue to struggle and they will rely even more on the coercive power they have over parents who can scarcely afford what is being asked of them. Even if this arrangement remains economically viable, it will take an ever-increasing toll in terms of sholom bayis.

We must continue to respect kollels, without falling prey to the wrongful notion that little else in Torah education merits communal support. I seem to recall that Chazal taught, “Im ein gediyim, ein tayashim.” If there are no young students, there cannot be scholars.

Staten Island Jews

We won’t vouch that the just-released statistics on New York Jews are fully accurate, if only because population studies of this kind can scarcely avoid being errant. We aren’t surprised, however, to learn that the Staten Island Jewish population has risen above 40,000 and that it is still climbing. If anything, the survey’s estimate of 42,000 may be on the low side. In any event, Staten Island is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the United States.

For us, the numbers are a challenge and, in a way, they are also scary. There are two good Jewish high schools on Staten Island, mainly serving students who live elsewhere. There are also four kollels. At the elementary school level, we are it. There are 800 students in all, a nice number to be sure, but far too low in view of the number of Jewish children of school age. Of course, there are Staten Island youngsters who commute to schools elsewhere, but that hardly alters the key point that there are many Jewish children who are receiving no meaningful Jewish education.

The situation is complicated because Staten Island may constitute the least affluent concentration of Jews anywhere in North America. Furthermore, Staten Island is, with one or two exceptions, treated as a backwater by New York’s Federation and other communal agencies. In short, very few people outside of Staten Island care about what is happening there and not enough people inside of Staten Island are doing enough to help.

It’s fascinating how we hear constantly about Orthodox-sponsored kiruv activities in far off places, some with few Jews, while our own more Jewishly-populated backyards are virtually ignored. It might be a good idea to give both kiruv agencies and our Torah leaders a lesson in basic American Jewish geography, as well as in the statistics of American Jewish life. One of the findings of the New York survey is that in this neck of the woods the intermarriage rate is far below what it is nearly everywhere else in the United States. In practical terms this means that there are far more halachic Jews to be reached out to in Staten Island than in more distant communities.