Friday, May 27, 2005

Gay Rights Above All Else

The New Republic is a good magazine that is going through an extended identity crisis as it moves away from its liberal roots while still being repelled by a conservatism that is compassionate toward those who are privileged. We need a new coinage to describe TNR, something like neo-lib.

There is no identity crisis over gay rights, as the magazine embraces the movement's agenda. One of its stars is Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative intellectual who is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times. The latest issue includes an article by Jonathan Rauch who argues that same-sex marriage "is good for kids." TNR is another illustration of the prominence of gay righters in this country's cultural and intellectual elites, a circumstance that does not deter the movement from claiming extreme victimization.

A month ago, The New Republic published a brief editorial note on the plans, since postponed because of its coinciding with the Gaza withdrawal, of gay rights activists around the world to sponsor this summer a ten-day World Pride Festival and parade in Jerusalem. The expectation is that the event will be rescheduled, so that the issues that it raises, including the enormous distress that it will give to a large majority of Jerusalem's population, remain relevant. Even as other causes have moderated their rhetoric and demands in the face of growing public hostility, this movement has upped the ante, as is evident in its ever-intensifying advocacy of same-sex marriage.

TNR's note, entitled "Reductio Ad Hitlerum" (it sounds Wielseltierian), sniped at Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, the leading voice of Jewish political conservatism. Apparently, Lapin had compared the Jerusalem parade to the notorious march of neo-Nazis years ago in Skokie. In this instance, as in all political and ideological discussion, "Nazi" is a description that ought not to be used, if only because it distorts the issue. The magazine pounced on Lapin, calling him dishonest and bigoted and concluding that he "is a bit like Goebbels."

Of course, Lapin did not say that gay writers were Nazis, nor did he even come close to comparing them to Nazis. His point, certainly understood by the smart folks at TNR, was that the mind-boggling insensitivity of those who plan to march in Jerusalem was akin to the insensitivity shown by those who marched in Skokie. This is a legitimate point. Those who readily proclaim their fidelity to human dignity ought to be concerned about the feelings of those who would be greatly pained by a gay parade in their holy city.

That's not how most American Jews feel these days. They aren't faithful to our teachings and practices and when their notion of modernity clashes with the feelings and practices of the minority of Jews who cling to traditional values, they are intolerant and insensitive. Still, it is astounding that United Jewish Communities, the increasingly defective umbrella agency for the Federation network, announced at the end of March that "the final portion" of its summer mission to Israel "coincides with the beginning of Love Without Borders: WorldPride 2005, a ten-day festival for the international LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual & Transexual] community expected to attract thousands of participants from throughout the world. Mission participants will take part in the opening session." There were other indications that UJC was endorsing the festival and parade.

Given the support of most American Jews of same-sex marriage, it may be that UJC's identification with gay rights will yield fundraising benefits. But the organization will be harmed because such positions remove it further from its appropriate agenda and removes it further from the Jews who are most vital to Jewish continuity.

There will be collateral damage to American Jewry and to Israel. While other causes that traditionally have been labeled as liberal are rethinking their strategy and, at times, tempering their advocacy in light of the presidential election, the same-sex bandwagon marches on without regard to the impact that it is making on people who otherwise might support at least part of the liberal agenda. American Jews eagerly join the same-sex crusade, not pausing for a moment to consider whether this is good for the Jews or good for Israel. Their attitude is, we have our secular belief system and no matter how antithetical it is to the values of tens of millions of Americans, we will remain faithful to our faithless faith.

This is recklessness. Don't we care whether conservative Americans who have given important aid and comfort to Israel are turned off by our in-the-face advocacy of activities and policies that are anathema to them? So far as I know, in the six months since the election sent a regrettable message regarding the attitudes and values of tens of millions of Americans, there hasn't been as much as a preliminary discussion within our community whether this development should result in a reshaping of our strategy and positions.

When Jews and other liberals place same-sex marriage at the top of their political agenda, they are signaling, probably inadvertently, that other groups and causes are not as worthy of attention and support. Gays, a highly advanced socio-economic group, are given priority over Blacks, Hispanics, working people. Concerns about the economy and environment also must take a back seat to same-sex marriage. Liberals are losing one political battle after another because they are alienating people who might - certainly they have in the past - agree with liberal positions on other issues.

Every legal victory secured by gay activists is a nail in the coffin of traditional liberalism and perhaps also of the New Deal. In The New Republic issue that excoriated Rabbi Lapin, the venerable TRB column was by Jonathan Cohn, a liberal writer who argued that Democratic reliance on court decisions have "provoked political backlashes that have hobbled Democrats" and "in cases like gay marriage, probably set back the liberal cause by many years."

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Case Against AIPAC

Has the lingering trauma of the Pollard affair induced our silence in the face of large questions regarding the investigation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee? We have been treated during the past year to leaks and contradictory reports about Lawrence A. Franklin who now has been arrested. Somehow, Aipac is involved. Several Jewish leaders initially questioned the investigation, but for the past six months there has been silence. Our newspapers report the latest developments, but there is little inclination to probe, to try to figure out what is going on. Apart from firing two top staff members, Aipac has said little, preferring to have us believe that it is business as usual.

The stakes are high and we need to know more. We cannot rely on FBI leaks, if only because that agency which occupies a central place in American mythology has shown itself capable of destroying and distorting evidence and employing tactics that egregiously depart from minimum standards of criminal justice. These failings are apart from the FBI's well-advertised mishandling of major security matters. With time out for the presidential election, perhaps under White House instructions, the FBI has investigated Franklin for at least a year, which should be sufficient time to gather information and reach conclusions. In the present climate which tolerates, even encourages, abuse, investigations have become daisy chains. What emerges at the end of the process often has a tenuous connection to the reasons why the investigation was launched. As in the already notorious Wilson affair and the CIA, journalists who are no more than bystanders become the target of an investigation. This may be happening regarding Aipac.

Increasingly, the Bill of Rights are in exile in the United States and too few have the courage to speak up.

Aipac seeks to distance itself from the investigation. Its main business is marketing itself, convincing American Jews that what it does is vital for Israel and makes a significant difference. In fact, the organization's contributions to Israel's welfare are negligible. It raises no money for Israel, sponsors and supports no programs in the Jewish state and does not promote aliyah. Aipac is essentially a safe haven for well-meaning American Jews who are eager to demonstrate their intensive feeling for Israel by doing what American Jews often do best, making contributions and going to events.

We only need to consider the big ticket items on Israel's agenda to appreciate how feeble, indeed infantile, is the notion that Aipac is vital. The Gaza withdrawal, responses to terrorism, relations with Palestinians, diplomatic contacts around the globe - in these and other critical policy areas Aipac's role amounts to a big zero. While Washington pays lip service by sending officials to its affairs, the While House and State Department set U.S. Middle East policy without giving a rap about what is said by these pacmen. Attention is paid, however, by those who believe that there is a Zionist conspiracy.

Aipac is about to have its annual policy conference. There will be thousands of pseudo-machers, again they are well-meaning, who will spend money and time that could be better spent on causes that directly help Israel. In line with the imperative of the political world that makes pandering a positive commandment, there will be loads of people from the Administration and Congress, it is said including Secretary of State Rice and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. It is not expected that the ghosts of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the staff members who have been sacked, will hover over the event. It is expected that Ms. Rice, Dr. Frist and other officials will say nice things about Aipac and Israel, even as the organization is being investigated and even as the State Department is putting enormous pressure on Israel to yield more. While recently in Israel, Bill Frist insisted in a speech that the Gaza withdrawal must be the prelude to further unilateral steps and withdrawals to meet Palestinian needs and demands.

For sure, the attendees will applaud these speakers and, for sure, Aipac will market the message that the event proves that it is crucial for Israel.

The decision to jettison Rosen and Weissman is puzzling because charges have not been brought against them. The perception is that Aipac's action is designed to accommodate the Bush Administration. A credible source tells me that Aipac is under White House pressure not to pay the high legal fees that Messrs. Rosen and Weissman are expected to incur.

The affair raises tangential issues. We need to know the extent of FBI surveillance, including wiretapping, of American Jewish leaders. We need to know whether our government considers these Jews to be loyalty and security risks. There is shocking evidence of mini-McCarthyism as American Jews who have been employed by Defense Department contractors have lost their security clearance. Where is the Anti-Defamation League? Perhaps it is too busy attacking the Ten Commandments.

It is expected that Rosen and Weissman will be formally charged, their crime being that they verbally received from Franklin classified information regarding Iran and/or Iraq. Is this a crime? If it is, charges should be brought against top U.S. officials who constantly serve as the "unnamed sources" that leak classified intelligence information.

I imagine that in Israel, as well as elsewhere, there are CIA operatives, military attaches and other U.S. personnel whose job it is to get secret information - including surreptitiously - from sources in the host country. It will be valuable to learn how many Israelis with access to their country's intelligence and security information are on a U.S. payroll. Of course, there is a difference because Israel has yielded much of its sovereignty to the United States and in too many areas it operates as an American protectorate. In short, Israel is required to do as the U.S. says, but not as the U.S. does.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Social Change and the Orthodox Rabbinate

Following is a speech given on May 15, 2005 at the national convention of the Rabbinical Council of America:

As a graduate student nearly a half century ago, I took a course on social change that was taught by Albert deGrazia. At the time, much attention was being given to technological changes, to inventions that were transforming how we live. There were advances in transportation, computers that were as large as large-size bedrooms, and television was the new rage. It was expected that what was already evident in the mid-1950's would be the tip of a technological iceberg.

There has been, of course, a stream of additional inventions, many of them wondrous and many of them affecting our lives in an important way. But they haven't really changed our lives to the extent anticipated by those who predicted subways and highways in the sky and other Buck Rogers-style fantasies. In a physical sense, the pattern of our lives hasn't changed all that much. We travel by car, train, bus and plane, as we did then. We live in houses and apartments where we rely on refrigerators and ovens as perhaps the key appliances. Where we live often looks pretty much like the way it looked fifty years ago.

By the 1950's, the process of social change was substantially underway in the move to suburbia and the corollary Black and Hispanic migrations to the inner city, as well as in the growing affluence of Americans, certainly including Jews. These are factors that have impacted importantly on Jewish life. Too many abandoned synagogues and too many congregations with rows of nearly empty pews attest to how we have been affected by these developments.

For Orthodox pulpit rabbis, however, life seems to be much like it was. They continue to serve single congregations, give sermons on Shabbos morning, speak at other occasions, teach classes, provide pastoral services, decide halachic questions and play a role in Jewish communal life. Certainly, the Shulchan Aruch is unchanged. In a dynamic world, it seems that the Rabbinate is a bastion of stability.

This picture of stability blurs too many realities. It is true that in a structural sense the rabbinate is mainly as it was. Yet, much else has been transformed. We can begin with demography or population shifts, encompassing movement into and away from communities and also the demographics of those who remain. It is not necessary to point to the Newarks and Co-op Cities of America to know how devastating out-migration can be to synagogue life, nor do we have to refer to the Five Towns to recognize the blessings of in-migration.

Even when the overall number of religious Jews living in a community remains the same, shul membership and attendance can be powerfully affected by intra-Orthodox differences or by the desire to daven in small shuls or the determination of young couples to daven with people of a like age group or the unwillingness of children to go to the synagogues that their parents go to. The once familiar sight of three generations davening together is nearly gone with the wind. Even two generations of adults together is heading in the same direction. What is not being lost as a result of these factors is being taken away by housing costs that have gone through the roof and which increasingly impel young families to move away.

There is another dimension to the generational picture. Many synagogue members are in what has been referred to as the sandwich generation, the idea being that people in the middle stages of life have responsibilities that span across three generations. I will not extend the metaphor and say that rabbis deal primarily with the middle generation that is sandwiched in-between parents and children. What I find striking is that even as the concept has taken root, it is becoming dated because of the remarkable, perhaps breathtaking, increase in life expectancy which means that a growing number of families extend across four generations. For reasons related to our fertility patterns, this development is more relevant to Orthodox life than elsewhere. In turn, pulpit rabbis are burdened with increased pastoral responsibilities. With increased responsibility there inevitably is an increased number of events.

A palm pilot or little black calendar book can tell a rabbi where he is supposed to be at a particular time. So far as I know, neither can add to the hours in the day. But while the hours have remained constant, the events have not. The line-up is familiar, including weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs, engagement parties, funerals, shiva calls and much else. What is mainly new is not the character of the events but their number, growing each year, in some measure because people are living longer and also because our families are larger. Zero population growth is not an Orthodox Jewish phenomenon. I was surprised to learn six years ago when I conducted my first day school census that there were 3.26 children in the families of Modern Orthodox day school enrollees and 4.26 children in the families of Centrist Orthodox day school enrollees. Of course, the statistics are much higher in both the yeshiva world and Chassidic sectors.

Life-cycle ceremonies are not all that rabbis must participate in. In every nook and cranny of our communal life we are blessed with organizations and where there are organizations there is fundraising and where there is fundraising there are events. When a congregant is a macher in an organization or an honoree, attendance by the rabbi is usually expected. This may mean a free supper and the Rebbitzin doesn't have to cook. Alas, the time spent is not free.

I do not know whether pulpit rabbis teach more classes than they once did.
I believe that at least some do, if only because of the daf hayomi phenomenon. Thanks to ArtScroll and the sincere desire of many to study Torah, congregants are more learned and this means that rabbis have to be better prepared. Women come into the picture because they, too, are more learned and they, too, want to learn more. If rabbis try to wing it without preparation, the deficit is readily apparent.

Greater interest in Torah study leads to the increased likelihood that halachic questions will be asked. Social and technological changes have created new issues. While the Shulchan Aruch is unchanged, its applications are often new. That's why twenty-five years ago I asked Rabbi Avrohom Cohen - I believe he is an RCA member - to become editor of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society which is published by the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.

The difficulty rabbis face is not only in finding the time to answer the multitude of questions that come their way. It is in knowing what to answer. There is an avalanche of learned books, journals, articles and other publications that can provide guidance, but this requires the allocation of scarce time. Just look at the stacks on your desk. Apart from the reading material there is the Internet which for all of its problematic qualities, conveys a wealth of Judaic information that is worthy of attention.

There are issues where halacha is clear but socio-psychological factors result in complications. Think of these two polar experiences, intermarriage and conversions. The sharply higher intermarriage rate among Jews includes increased intermarriage among those who were raised Orthodox or have been affiliated with Orthodox congregations. The practical implications of intermarriage are different nowadays, if only because unlike the historical pattern many more of the intermarried want to maintain active connections with Jewish life and with their families. This begets difficult, even sticky, situations that rabbis are required to confront.

It's evident that conversions are a new development. A generation ago, geirus was rare. I was told last year that in one New York Orthodox synagogue, more than twenty persons were studying for conversion. Each case is time-consuming and potentially wrought with difficulty. For rabbis, complications and commitment of time do not end with conversion. Halacha may tell us that when a person becomes a Jew, the biological family is no longer his or her family. Emotions and certain realities tug in an entirely different direction.

This catalogue of social change needs to include the opportunities and obligations incurred through kiruv activities. Few full-service synagogues are now totally disengaged from kiruv, which certainly was not true a generation ago when the tshuva movement arose. For those who return to Judaism, there is a journey that requires guidance and empathy and which continues after an individual has become observant. While outreach workers play an important role in this, rabbis are inevitably involved, at times intensively.

Because of time limitations, I shall not dwell on changes resulting from affluence, as their impact extends far beyond synagogue life. Affluence and its Siamese twins, hedonism and conspicuous consumption, breed situations that often land at the rabbi's doorstep. There is the flip side of having to deal with and help those who do not have and the greater difficulty of assisting those who once had.

While our relative affluence allows us to fulfill physical needs - in our homes, through travel, how we dress - it may also plant the seeds for the contagion of emotional deprivation that we are witness to. There is sadness and pain in too many families and this belies the physical comforts that we enjoy. These situations are added to the pastoral agenda of rabbis. Again, this responsibility is in its nature no different from what rabbis have always experienced. The difference is primarily quantitative.

I mentioned earlier family size as a factor adding to the burden on rabbis. There is another aspect to this. So far as I know, there is no data on the number of children in rabbinical families today as compared to a generation or more ago. I believe that there has been a significant increase, if only because this is true of Orthodox families overall. This, too, adds to the burden on rabbis who need to be available to their children, to study with them, to give them guidance and emotional support. Pulpit rabbis are also husbands and fathers. The increase in their family size and in the size of the families of close relatives also means that they have more events to go to and more personal responsibilities to fulfill.

By now, some of you may be thinking that I am describing a world that you do not recognize. I suspect that more of you believe that I am suggesting that you seek other employment. That certainly isn't the case, although as you know some talented pulpit rabbis - including people in this room - have left synagogue life to serve at organizations and institutions where the work hours are normal and the pressure is bearable. I need not tell you that the shortage of pulpit rabbis is becoming more severe, even though much attention has been paid to the problem over the past generation.

Additional social changes that will affect the rabbinate are inevitable because change is inevitable. Although we are enjoined not to prophesize, we are permitted to make projections based on what is already in the womb of time. What awaits the rabbinate is a world that awaits the rest of us, a world that will spin even faster, a world that will be even more hectic. Just think how email and the cell phone have impacted on your workday, as congregants and others are able to have immediate access to you. Too often they also want immediate action or immediate answers.

If you cannot retard social change, perhaps you can bring about changes in synagogue life that might make your work less stressful. One suggestion is to do away with the import from alien sources that mandates constant changes in lay leadership by limiting the term of the synagogue's president to two or three years. This is a foolish practice, although I recognize that the practice does not seem too foolish when the president is a dud or a petty tyrant. Overall, rapid lay leadership change results in a harder life for rabbis.

Rabbis need to reflect on how they can best use their time. They must establish rules that limit the demands made on their limited time. I doubt that this is something that can be taught; likely, it is an inherent feel for things. Yet, reflection may result in improvements.

I am a strong believer in people emphasizing what they are good at and confident about and not devoting much effort to what they do not do well. In the multiplicity of tasks confronting pulpit rabbis, a wide range of abilities are brought to bear. If a rabbi is a strong writer, he should find the time to write. If he is an outstanding speaker, the effort put into sermons is worthwhile. But if sermonizing is not his forte, that aspect of the job should be downplayed. More generally, I recommend but do not expect that sermons be given on a far less frequent basis. They should not be a weekly obligation.

There is one element of social change that can be converted into an advantage. In nearly all shuls, there are people of experience and talent, men and women with knowledge and good judgment. They are utilized in educational programs and, at times, in fulfilling other synagogue responsibilities. Their role should be expanded to include fulfilling part of the pastoral duties that are now nearly the exclusive responsibility of the rabbi.

Rabbis need to discuss with lay leaders and congregants how social change has transformed their work, how and why it isn't realistic or fair to expect rabbis to deal with all that is being put on their plate. This kind of change is not inevitable and it is difficult to achieve. Our community has over the years developed a long agenda of expectations regarding a rabbi's role and this agenda has paid scant heed to social change. It may be that what is needed, perhaps through the leadership of the Rabbinical Council, is a long-term informational program that seeks to educate the rank and file of lay people about the lives and challenges facing pulpit rabbis. If the overall climate of opinion is changed, synagogue boards and members will come to be more understanding.

There is a final transformation. Because of other changes in the Orthodox world, rabbinical leadership has a more creative role in this country than it has had for at least two generations. There are opportunities for leadership that - I believe for good reasons - were not available until recently. This change presents an opportunity and also another set of difficulties, if only because leadership is a very fragile instrumentality. My prayer is that this be an opportunity and a challenge that is addressed with fidelity to Torah.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Reassessing Separation of Church and State II

If only because our advocacy of total church-state separation is increasingly viewed as hostility to religion by the growing number of Americans who believe that there is a place for religion in public life, it's time for our community to re-examine the absolutism that has been an identifying feature of American Jewish public policy. As I wrote last week, this is not likely to happen any time soon, but those who advocate change must continue their advocacy because the issue is important.

Is there a corollary need for the minority of American Jews - mainly, but not all, Orthodox - who support faith-based governmental programs and regard the interaction between religion and state as both inevitable and desirable to reassess their position? A related question is whether it is possible to establish common ground between what has long been antithetical Jewish attitudes toward church and state.

The minority view has essentially been defined by its opposition to strict separation. The Orthodox and their allies have not articulated any limits on what government may do in the religion arena. It seems at times that they will settle for nothing less than for the separation doctrine to be relegated to the trashcan of history. For historical and contemporary reasons, it is risky for Jews to entirely reject the Establishment Clause, yet there is little in the public record indicating that the Orthodox agree that there are boundaries beyond which government cannot trespass without violating the Constitution. It's as if they and fundamentalist Christians and Evangelicals are on the same page.

For all of the reasons why the extremism of the strict separationists is far too extreme, there must be limits on what government can do. There must be a constitutionally viable doctrine of church-state separation. Marc Stern of the AJCongress has urged that shifts in American opinion and judicial interpretation of the First Amendment are legitimate grounds for our organizations to soften their church-state absolutism. A similar consideration ought to result in Orthodox reassessment. Originally in insular pockets of Christian fundamentalism and now more blatantly throughout the country, there is a powerful movement for the elimination of all barriers between church and state. There are calls for the acknowledgement that this is a Christian country and that government through its policies and actions should not be exempt from this reality. This view has been strongly endorsed by Justice Antonin Scalia, a hero among the Orthodox who apparently pay no heed to what the distinguished gentleman has been saying about the place of Christianity - and not just religion in a general sense - in the public square. This is scary stuff.

The view that the Orthodox need to be restrained in their support of church-state interaction is not new. In 1968, as chairman of the now defunct National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs or COLPA, I organized a conference of Orthodox lawyers and scholars on "Governmental Aid to Parochial Schools - How Far?" The title and the ensuing discussion suggest that there are boundaries and limitations. Unfortunately, the many years in the wilderness of opposition to the dominant Jewish viewpoint have left the Orthodox bereft of the capacity to contemplate what the First Amendment might proscribe.

Prayer is a good place to start and it also might be an issue where a measure of intra-Jewish unity can be achieved. There is growing acceptance of neutral or vague public religious symbols and expressions, such as the brief prayers that typically open congressional and other legislative meetings and the even briefer invocations at the start of court sessions. In a similar vein, it is expected that the Supreme Court will permit the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at public occasions and in public schools. The Ten Commandments are more problematic, but likely they too will pass constitutional muster.

Prayers with more explicit religious content or that depart from neutrality would be viewed differently under this formulation, especially if they are recited in a social context that might be regarded as coercive, such as in a public school classroom or at events sponsored by public institutions. It may seem paradoxical that prayers before governmental bodies are more acceptable than prayers at discrete locations. This approach strikes me as truer to the intent of the Bill of Rights, even as it departs from the literal language of the Constitution.

In a word, the Jewish majority would yield somewhat in its opposition to all forms of prayer and the Orthodox would yield somewhat in their seeming acceptance of all prayer. It would be nice to have this come to pass, but the likelihood is smaller than small.

If somehow this formulation were accepted, there would be the additional benefit of taking some of the edge off the perception that Jews are enemies of religion. There would remain zones of disagreement relating to certain symbols and prayers, as well as other church-state issues, including aid to parochial schools. Interestingly, the parochial school issue does not evoke the fervor that it once did, nor much passion from the passionate Fundamentalists, possibly because it was primarily an issue for the Catholic Church with its huge school systems. As Catholic enrollment has declined and there is recognition that this situation will not be altered by vouchers or other kinds of governmental assistance, aid to parochial schools has become a secondary issue on the church-state agenda.

Of course, aid to parochial schools remains a key issue for Orthodox Jews. There has been little progress on this front and if only because vouchers are invariably linked to a means test, yeshivas and day schools are not going to be helped much by voucher programs. The Orthodox should continue their advocacy of government aid but they need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the range of issues arising from the interaction between government and religion. There are dangers and they must not be ignored.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Reassessing Separation of Church and State

As a graduate student nearly fifty years ago, I wrote a paper on the impact of amicus curiae or friend of the court briefs in civil liberties cases. In the course of the research which concluded that these briefs essentially served as effective interest group statements but added little to the arguments presented in the main briefs, I arranged to see Leo Pfeffer of the American Jewish Congress, the leading Jewish advocate of absolute church-state separation. When I entered his office, Pfeffer was visibly upset because on my head there was the tell-tale piece of cloth known as a yarmulka. He was not friendly. I later learned that family circumstances apparently contributed to this noted civil libertarian's reaction to an Orthodox Jew.

A handful of years later, I was teaching political science at Hunter College and representing the Orthodox Union at the National Jewish Communal Relations Advisory Council or NCRAC, an umbrella group for national and local agencies which each year issued policy statements purporting to express American Jewish opinion on public issues. Each year, NCRAC did battle against any breach in the wall of separation. Yet, the issue was debated and I believe that in 1966 or 1967 a session was devoted to whether our absolutism on separation should be reassessed. Leo Pfeffer and I presented papers reflecting our divergent views. While I did not prevail, I received a respectful hearing.

Forty years later, the pronouncements emitted by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, NCRAC's successor organization, read as if they were xeroxed from old files. A community whose members have jettisoned religious laws, practices and beliefs that prevailed for centuries clings fanatically to a secular doctrine that despite the intentions of its framers, is in its interpretation hostile to religion. As I wrote in the 1960's, American Jews are far more faithful to the First Amendment than they are to the first of the Ten Commandments.

In a way, we have retrogressed because we no longer reassess our position. Not long ago, Marc Stern, the general counsel of AJCongress' Commission on Law and Social Policy, drafted an alternate resolution on church-state relations for consideration by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. In view of AJCongress' history, it is remarkable that it argues that because of "major shifts in judicial treatment of the religion clauses of the First Amendment ...the Jewish community needs to assess how to respond to those changes, not merely bemoan them."

Perhaps AJCongress' position is not all that surprising. Two decades ago, Stern - an original and independent thinker - argued that when through its funding programs government serves in effect as the guardian or substitute parent for religious people, as in senior or child care facilities or a hospital, a measure of religious symbolism and practice is consistent with the separation doctrine. In the event, Stern's resolution did not make it out of committee. In the aggregate, organized American Jewry believes that there is nothing to reassess. We must be absolutely faithful to absolutism. These folks are people of perfect faith, our true fundamentalists.

But the questions raised in the draft resolution will not go away. As it noted, "the present state of affairs has the Jewish community pursuing a church-state separation legal agenda which has little or no chance of success. Like the fabled general, the Jewish community appears to be fighting the last war, not today's battles. The Jewish community persists in viewing the world through out-dated lenses. The result is the bringing of actions (or asserting claims in the political process) that have no chance of success." More specifically, our opposition to equal access for religious speech in public forums, "is often seen - somewhat correctly - as raw hostility toward religion."

This is strong language. In fact, AJCongress and Stern are not advocating the abandonment of the separation doctrine. As the Americorps case that I discussed several weeks ago shows, they believe strongly in church-state separation. What they do not believe in is fighting every minor church-state battle or failing to recognize that the First Amendment also protects the free exercise of religion and while, as is widely acknowledged, there is tension between the two religion clauses, free exercise also has strong constitutional claims.

This view, which is still a distance away from what many Orthodox Jews advocate, is consistent with what I believe a considerable number of American Jews would accept. A move away from absolutism would mitigate to an extent the spreading perception that anti-religion is a hallmark of contemporary American Jewry. Unfortunately, at the organizational level we remain wedded to a mindset that we refuse to re-examine. The Anti-Defamation League has emerged as the most determined defender of the false faith of absolutism, apparently failing to comprehend that its position is a direct catalyst for the defamation of Jews. This failure can perhaps be understood, but not forgiven, because the organization is too enveloped in the clatter of its hyperactive public relations and fundraising machinery to reflect on the consequences of its advocacy.

Local Jewish community councils, of which there are a hundred or more, are also enveloped in separation purity, a position that betrays more than what may be an acceptable dose of hypocrisy in view of the synergy between local Jewish councils and local Federations. While the Jewish councils bemoan faith-based governmental initiatives of the kind strongly endorsed by President Bush, the Federations bemoan the lack of sufficient government funding for their projects, all of which are inherently faith-based, at least in their sponsorship. I guess that at times there are advantages to one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing.

I hope that we will not have to wait another forty years in our intellectually-primitive wilderness before we are willing to examine our fanatic adherence to absolute separation.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

RJJ Newsletter - May 2005

It has been evident for many years that if somehow Rebbi Akiva and Rebbi Eliezer were transplanted into contemporary religious Jewish life at the time that they were beginning their study of Torah, it is highly unlikely that they would be admitted to our best yeshivas. They would be sent to a kiruv school or perhaps one of the weak day schools that dot our communal landscape. Only after they were thoroughly cleansed of the baneful effects of bad parentage and background might they be accepted by our strongest schools.

It is also true that children of many Talmudic sages and Torah scholars of subsequent generations, including the recent period, would also be turned away from some yeshivas and Beth Jacobs. Although these parents were transcendent scholars and spiritual giants, alas they had the serious defect of earning their livelihood outside of the four cubits of Torah, perhaps by being in business or a professional or working for government or a private employer. There are mosdos at the elementary school level in Israel and now in this country that will not accept children from such homes, presumably to protect those who are admitted from harmful influences.

Whatever the explanation, this is madness, an example of the spreading sickness known as extreme frumkeit. It is said that children with working fathers live in more affluent homes, have nicer clothing, tend to show off, or that their appearance makes other children feel inferior, etc. This is inaccurate on several grounds, most notably the obvious fact that at least in this country, a majority of yeshiva-world families with a working father struggle to make ends meet. The more likely explanation is that schools with an exclusionary policy seek to proclaim that they are better because their students come from pure Torah homes.

Because this sort of frumkeit is a dynamic force, what we are now witness to is likely to be followed by even greater deprecations against sense and sensibility. Admittedly, it is hard to figure out what the next step might be. Unless we are willing to protest against a policy that to my knowledge has no antecedent in all of the annals of Torah chinuch, worse tidings await us. Too many of us - and I specifically refer to Torah leaders - are unwilling to criticize what is wrong. It is a sure bet that the protest expressed here is one more fruitless tilting against the windmill of good intentions gone awry.

It is obvious that kollel-only schools survive because they have the support of affluent people whose children and grandchildren would not be accepted by such schools. I imagine that they contribute in order to atone for the sin of making a living. Or could it be that they believe that exclusive schools are desirable? If so, they are mistaken. There isn't as much as a line in the speeches and writings of the Great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood or, for that matter, other Gedolei Torah who led the yeshiva world in the last two generations, that can be marshaled in support of an exclusionary policy. I am told that one of the yeshiva world's most revered and senior Rosh Yeshiva was appalled when told of such a policy and referred to it as "rishus" or evil.

In a way, this policy is linked to the view that yeshivas must rid themselves of students who do not match up academically or who stray even minimally in their behavior. This allegedly protects a yeshiva's reputation, of course at the expense of Jewish children and their families. It is also, I might add, at the expense of violating the clearly expressed views of the Chazon Ish. But why worry about those who are being turned away and, in some instances, also turned off to Judaism? Out of sight is out of mind. The child is now someone else's problem.

When we opened on Staten Island thirty years ago, we faced the question of whether to accept children from non-Shomer Shabbos homes. Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, our principal, and I sought the counsel of his Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, ztl, who built Chaim Berlin into a great Torah institution and who was a genius in matters of chinuch. We presented the question. The Rosh Yeshiva responded vigorously, insisting that we must not have a policy of refusing such children. He emphasized that some of his outstanding students had come from homes that were not Shomer Shabbos. Where would they be now, he asked, had they not been accepted?

This question isn't asked too often these days. We develop standards that reject students and parents and we are comfortable with what we are doing. Of course, a kollel-only school is different from a policy that denies admission to students from marginally Jewish homes. In the former situation, the rejected applicants will find another yeshiva. This is not true of those from marginal homes. Likely as not, they will be deprived of our heritage, of a Jewish future. As I said many years ago at the annual dinner of Torah Umesorah, we are being M'rachek K'rovim, alienating those who may close.