Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Counterfeit Judaism

Birthright Israel is a good program. It would be better still if the claims made on its behalf were not saturated in hype. Birthright is the best bet we have on the communal agenda to reach Jewish teens and collegians and to counteract the powerful assimilatory pressures that are active in their lives. These young people are, with few exceptions, unlikely to be attracted to any of the conventional forms of outreach.

It remains that the same forces that make Birthright worthy ensure that when its participants return from their ten-day free trip to Israel, they will once more be enmeshed in activities and associations that impel them away from Judaic commitment. Still, the modest beneficial outcomes produced by Birthright justify the effort and expense.

While the Birthright pattern varies according to who the sponsors are, in the aggregate the trips do not shy away from introducing the participants to tradition and religious life. At the Jerusalem hotel where we were staying several weeks ago, Kiddush was made Friday evening for the Birthrighters and it was evident that they were moved. A jarring note was struck by the sweet-looking young man wearing a tee shirt with a blatant vulgarism. I know that such language has lost much of its shock value, even its meaning, yet Kiddush is an act of sanctification and vulgarity is not compatible with sanctity. While Birthright has merit, it isn't immune from the spreading tendency to give a stamp of approval to whatever is called Jewish, no matter how hostile it may be to our teachings and traditions.

In an effort to reach young Jews who are distant from Jewish life and to maintain their shred of Jewish identity, what is Jewish is being constantly defined downward. We do not have confidence in our practices and beliefs and so we delude ourselves into believing that we can salvage Jewish life by abandoning Judaism. We are embedded in an era of anything goes Judaism. Defining Jewishness downward is a dynamic process; even if we think that rock bottom has been hit, there is a lot further down to go.

This attempted remaking of Judaism is sustained by a large critical mass of persons whom our demographers characterize as Jewish, a number that dwarfs the ranks of religious Jews, including the traditional sector of Conservatism. These people like what they are being told and what they see. They like the idea of being Jewish without having to be Jewish in any distinctive way. Our community is investing great sums in promoting this illusion. This ersatz brand of Jewish identity gains strength as well from the American ethos of tolerance and the companion notion that people can choose how they want to live or be identified.

We are confusing the right to personal choice with the right to redefine a religion that we are essentially rejecting.

There is now also the contemporary fixation with outrageous behavior and exhibitionism. Jewish life cannot be exempt from being attracted to what has shock value or at least the capacity to gain media attention. Nowadays, anything and anybody can be Jewish. American society now has what is being called a bar mitzvah ceremony for kids who aren't Jewish by anybody's definition. There is lots of bar and no mitzvah at these events, which is to say that they bear a close resemblance to what passes for a bar mitzvah in many Jewish families. When what is being imitated is itself false, the product is counterfeit.

There is no telling how far this process has to go, how much further we can depart from what resembles Jewish life and still call it Jewish. If the Madonna story is a guide, we may not have seen anything yet. In her latest incarnation, she is a student of Kabballah or, more accurately, a student of a bogus product called Kabballah by charlatans who know a sucker when they see one. Filthy and filthy rich, Madonna is convenient prey. She is smart; what remains to be seen is how long it takes her to recognize that she is being duped or when she will be off to her next self-reinvention.

In the meantime, red bendels or strings have become a fashion craze, with celebrities showing that they are into Kabballah. What long was the province of a small number of Orthodox Jews is now part of the anything goes mentality. It may be a only a matter of time until practices that are fundamental to our faith will be defiled by the impulse to be outrageous or by the notion that in order to ensure Jewish identity, little is now out of bounds.

There is a tide in the affairs of men and societies. Tides are powerful forces that cannot be resisted by wishing that they change course. Yet, change is inevitable. As Robert Lowell observed in reference to Shakespeare's observation, "but there is no gulf stream setting forever in one direction." My guess is that a reversal of the anything goes mentality is still distant, if only because a great investment is being made in marketing and sustaining that which is fake.

There is nothing to be done to prevent the promotion of counterfeit Judaism. Those of us who respect tradition can reject what is antithetical to our heritage. We need not yield to those who are selling a bill of phony goods, even if they claim they are doing so in order to preserve Judaism. We must not be intimidated into accepting or being silent about conduct that ultimately will destroy Jewish continuity.

Religious Jewry has survived in the United States and elsewhere because of a willingness to be different, even unpopular. Judaism is a religion and not a popularity contest. It is a religion that has preserved those who have been faithful to it.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Some Laws Are More Kosher Than Others

New Yorkers who eat kosher and who rely on government to protect them against deception can breathe easier because the state has a new kosher food law, replacing the one that courts declared treife on constitutional grounds. By my rough calculation, there may be as many as a minyan who fit into this category. The rest of us who eat kosher will continue to rely the old fashioned way on certifying agencies such as the Orthodox Union which does a splendid job and on entrepreneurial rabbis, a few of whom care more about the money than about upholding religious standards.

The law that was recently enacted by the ever-compliant Stepford Wives body known as the New York State legislature and reluctantly signed by Governor Pataki who had championed his own bill, is a decent piece of work. It hopefully will survive legal challenge, which is more than can be said about Mr. Pataki's mishmash legislation. Still, I am intrigued by the legislative finding, proclaimed in the new law, that many consumers in New York who purchase kosher products "do so for reasons unrelated to religious observance." I guess they like the higher prices.

I believe that under their police powers, states have the right to deter consumer fraud and therefore kosher food laws should pass legal scrutiny. Because regulatory schemes may rely on religious definitions and standards, the government could be trespassing on forbidden territory. Even so, I believe that the New York law is kosher. I doubt, however, that it is either necessary or wise.

Whatever relevance they may have once had, kosher food laws are no longer needed. They do not protect kosher consumers, although by creating the erroneous impression that they do, they paradoxically may abet deception against consumers.

All governmental enforcement of laws that seek to protect against fraud is selective. We need only think of enforcement of the tax code. It follows that at most only a fraction of the kosher food industry is subject to meaningful regulation. As noted, most of us rely on communal or private rabbinical supervision. Governments can do little to prevent fraudulent certification by persons with credentials. There are several "Orthodox rabbis," including one who has a state job, who certify restaurants and bakeries that are open on Shabbos and serve bread during Passover.

The enactment of the new law is an exercise in pushing through an open door, which is the kind of thing that state and local legislative bodies love to do as they seek to accommodate ethnic and interest groups by passing laws that do not deliver anything of significance. This allows both politicians and group leaders to boastfully claim that they have achieved something of importance for group members.

Such exercises divert attention away from pressing issues where governmental action might result in significant benefits. While Orthodox organizations earnestly advocate unneeded kosher food laws, they are doing nothing to improve the scandalous situation in cemeteries around the state where the religious rights of observant Jews and the sensitivity of many families have been severely compromised by the wrongful actions of cemetery officials. We have recently been treated to the sordid story of a former cemetery in Westchester County that was uprooted to make way for a shopping mall. The graves - at least some of them - were shipped to Israel.

This is but the tip of the iceberg of the moral and financial corruption that constitutes the cemetery situation in New York, a situation that cries out for religious advocacy and governmental action. Unlike kosher food, there is no open door here. The sordid situation at cemeteries is resistant to reform because those who control them gain much from arrangements that permit them to operate with minimal governmental scrutiny. There is much petty - at times not so petty - graft arising from endowment and perpetual care funds controlled by cemetery officials.

It would not take much legislative prowess to address the situation and it should not take much to get Orthodox groups to advocate reform. All that would be needed is the determination to confront the scoundrels who gain from the rotten status quo. Sadly, such determination is lacking, although there are Orthodox groups that are willing to do kazatzkas on their heads when a Jewish cemetery is defiled in Israel or overseas.

A second area that cries out for reform is the enforcement of laws that protect religious persons against workplace discrimination. New York State has a good law which is widely disregarded by employers, shockingly at times including governmental agencies. As is evident from a recent matter involving Sikhs and the Police Department in which Rabbi Haskel Lookstein played a vital and salutary role, it is possible to promote the legitimate interests of religious persons. Sadly and even incredibly, other groups are better organized on this front than Orthodox Jews, although for sure we Orthodox do great in public relations.

The upshot is that job discrimination is a lingering problem affecting too many religious Jews and causing pain in many homes. The Orthodox community does little to promote greater enforcement of existing laws. There is an unwillingness to challenge major employers who discriminate against religious Jews, particularly in limiting their advancement opportunities. We need to do the grunt work of preparing complaints and cases and this is far more difficult than pushing through an open door. As a consequence, there is today substantial discrimination against religious Jews in the job market.

More generally, religious Jews need an approach to legislation that promotes our ability to live religious lives. We do not need legislation that attempts to enforce our religious standards or has the government doing the job that we are loath to do. I have taken this position for a long while, without much success. Our leaders and groups prefer to push through open doors. While this may be psychologically satisfying, it is of scant benefit.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - September 2004

From the look of things, we have lost all of the battles and the war against materialism and hedonism. Homes that not long ago would have been regarded as elegant are being disemboweled and then rebuilt because he or she or both believe that it isn't fancy enough, especially when compared with the homes of friends and neighbors. We all seem to be caught up in self-indulgence. There are frum people who though they are quite skimpy in fulfilling their tzedakah obligations have been hit by the travel bug, shelling out thousands to see the Canadian Rockies or Alaska or to join the rapidly growing number of expensive kosher tours to this or that exotic place, apparently in the belief that these experiences are an essential element of a proper Torah life. Shortly, thousands - perhaps 10,000 or more - will make the sacred pilgrimage to Uman in Ukraine because they do not achieve spiritual fulfillment if they daven on Rosh Hashanah in an ordinary shul or yeshiva. Besides, it's apparently a mitzvah to enrich the Ukrainians by many millions in recompense for their slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews on that blood-soaked land. All of this is apart from the growing number of ego trips to Israel, at times led by Torah leaders. We may wonder what such Torah giants as Rav Eliyashev and Rav Shteinman would do with their time if they did not have a constant stream of Americans dropping by. A few weeks ago, I met a man who told me that he had just been to Israel, first scuba diving in Eilat and then two visits in Jerusalem with Rav Eliyashev. As with others, money was the passkey.

We are seeing once more that religious Jews whose values and practices separate them from nearly everyone else are profoundly affected by the behavior and values of others. In some respects, we have outdone our hosts in showing off, in being materialistic. It's quite the case that from the look of things we have lost the battles and the war against materialism and self-indulgence.

But there is more to the story. We see only a part of the picture because that's the part that our community overly focuses on. We see excesses everywhere. What we don't see sufficiently are the thousands of Torah families struggling to get by. We do not see sufficiently the parents who work hard and honorably and scarcely can meet the extra costs of a religious life, particularly the steadily increasing tuition charges. There are families, often with many children, where both parents work, where the father in a state of near exhaustion fights to find time to study Torah and learn with the children and where in a state of near exhaustion the mother takes care of the home, studies with the children and, likely as not, engages in chesed activities.

These families are our glory. They are our grandeur. They are the glory of the Jewish people. In truth, they are not entirely immune from materialism. After all, they are influenced to an extent by the world in which they live. In the main, though, they live modest lives. We see them in shul and wherever religious Jews are found, but while they are our glory and in a sense we see them, in another sense they are hidden. Their needs and their behavior get too little attention.

In our religious thought we have a concept known as Hester Panim, of G-D's glory being hidden from the Jewish people. This is a difficult concept to understand and yet it clearly has relevance to our contemporary experience. As we religious Jews and some Torah leaders give prominence to pomp and all that is public, we lose further sight of G-D's glory and consequently we lose sight, as well, of the glory of the ordinary Jewish family. The more we are a public people indulging in the noise and attention-grabbing that are highlights of the modern world, the more that is hidden from us and the greater the incidence of Hester Panim. The more that we abandon the principle of hatznea leches (modesty), the more that is tzanua (hidden) from us.

The shattering of the First Tablets immediately after they were given at Sinai is one of the epic events in our history. Medrash Tanchuma notes that the First Tablets were given in grandeur, with great sound and in the presence of the entire Jewish nation and that is why they were broken. The Second Tablets that were seen by Moshe Rabbenu alone were not broken.

The Chafetz Chaim comments: "Our Sages are teaching us that the permanence of any act, even that which is of great significance and sanctity is in danger if its creation comes with noise and loud ceremony. Behold, the First Tablets although they were the handiwork of G-D were nonetheless shattered because they were given in public." He goes on to emphasize that truth and wisdom are inner experiences that do not require tumult and noise and this is also true of Judaism, Torah and the commandments.

We are witness to the corrosive force of materialism and self-indulgence, how the emphasis on personal pleasure harms us and our children and our children's children. Except for the few who are blessed with a special sanctity, we cannot fully escape the influences of the world around us. Our Torah leaders properly urge us to resist, yet too much of what our community does openly belies this message. We have become eager to embrace noise and ceremony, apparently accepting the alien notion that whatever is not done openly is scarcely worth doing. There is greatness and glory in our family life and in all that abides by the principle of hatznea leches. But too much is hidden from us because we are intoxicated by the impulse to be exhibitionists.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Haaretz - The Land of Bigots

Can any of us imagine a major or even minor American newspaper having a staff reporter whose primary - perhaps sole - responsibility is to track and trail and then spew out dirt about a discrete religious group like Mel Gibson's stripe of Catholics or Pat Robertson's Christian Fundamentalists or Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam or, for that matter, any of the dozens of intensely religious groups that we read about from time to time? Of course not. It would be a waste of limited journalistic resources; more importantly, such an obsessive focus is entirely inappropriate. The intent would be to demonize a religious group.

Haaretz is an Israeli newspaper that for decades has been crazed by a nearly psychotic reaction to certain religious Jews. Its animosity toward charedi or fervently religious Jews exceeds by a comfortable margin its distaste for Yasir Arafat. In addition to an endless stream of negative articles that are bereft of even the tiniest dose of empathy, Haaretz has on staff Shachar Ilan whose beat is to beat up on charedim, by now filing literally hundreds of articles whose message is that they are scoundrels, hypocrites, evil and deserving of total contempt.

Ilan's arsenal includes just about every stereotype that can be employed to demonize a people. There are no nuances in his writing, no acknowledgement of even the slightest charedi contribution to Israeli life and no indication that the story is not as one-sided or one-dimensional as he makes it out to be. These religious Jews are bad people, period. The efforts of religious parties to reflect and represent the views and needs of their constituents are portrayed as nefarious activity. In Ilan's warped outlook, they apparently have an obligation to represent those who are anti-religious.

His nasty words are frequently accompanied by cartoons that appear to be drawn by caricaturists who learned their craft at Der Stuermer. Religious Jews are depicted with long noses and ugly features, as being sneaks, cheats and worse.

The traducing by Haaretz and Ilan of basic journalistic standards runs much deeper. Assuming, as I do not, that it is appropriate for a newspaper to have on staff someone whose job is to provide a stream of strongly negative stories about a particular group, there is the additional question of whether a reporter with Ilan's history of hostility toward charedim can legitimately be given that assignment. I had thought that reporters are expected to be objective and certainly without bias. When Ilan files news stories, he is not objective, has no interest in being fair and is overwhelmed by his animus toward those whom he is writing about.

If there is any question about this, readers can look at the question and answer forum, conducted in English, on Haaretz's website in which he participated last December. (It is available at In response to the question, "Why the hatred?", he responded, "I have no hate for Haredim. But in my work there is a degree of anger. There is anger over dodging the draft and differentiating between blood and blood. It is anger over fictitious reporting to falsely squeeze more money out of the state. It is anger over arrogance, viewing secularism as inferior and negating its values."

And this in response to another question:

"There is almost no link between the Israeli Haredi sect whose most sacred beliefs include dodging the army draft and avoiding work and the Judaism kept by our ancestors. Israeli ultra-Orthodoxism is a complete distortion of Judaism and the Jewish culture and it is doubtful that such Judaism should be sustained. In my opinion, Jewish leaders like Shulamit Aloni or Reform Rabbi Uri Regev are far more faithful to the Jewish tradition."

This is historically false and, frankly, nuts. This man has serious problems. For all of his protestations to the contrary, he is a hater. He despises these religious Jews. If anything can be said in his favor, it is that his poisoned attitudes and biases are overt.

But others can decide whether Ilan crosses the thin line that separates his intense anger from raw hostility. Let us assume again, as I do not, that his unbridled anger toward charadim - there is much more than I have quoted here - is justified, that these Jews are no good, enemies of Israel and Jewish tradition and deserving of strong condemnation. Under even the most lenient journalistic standards, in view of his anger and the language that I have quoted, should covering charidim be his assignment? Is it proper for a reporter to approach his task with malice and intense animosity? Is it possible for him to be fair or accurate?

As deplorable as is Ilan's debasement of the ideal of journalistic integrity, the larger story in this scandal is the hypocrisy of Haarertz, its giving an assignment to a writer who is intensely biased. While Haaretz would like to be regarded as a liberal newspaper with a commitment to fairness, it is a repository of endless hostility toward religious Jews. Shachar Ilan has been given a license to demonize and denigrate religious Jews because that's the way Haaretz wants it to be.

For all of its undeserved reputation, Haaretz violates basic journalistic standards. It prefers to caricature and stereotype, to peddle prejudice and to instill feelings of hatred. About five years ago, a critic at Haaretz broke the pattern. In reviewing a play that was totally hostile to charedim, he wrote, "We are the new anti-Semites."