Friday, December 29, 2006

Anti-Semites Everywhere

Which offense resulted in Judith Regan, the trash queen of book publishing, being banished from Rupert Murdoch's empire of high culture? Was it her outburst in a heated phone conversation with a Jewish lawyer that in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson book fiasco she is the victim of a "Jewish cabal" or was it an incident several years earlier when, to quote from the Times' story, she "boasted of removing the scrolls from her neighbor's mezuzas and replacing them with torn pieces from dollar bills."

We know the answer because it has been all over the news. Ms. Regan kept her powerful position despite multiple wrongdoings because she was a money-maker and she was fired after the Simpson affair cost one of Mr. Murdoch's companies a bundle. She became damaged goods and was vulnerable. We can now celebrate because one more enemy of our people has been defeated.

We are awash in claims of anti-Semitic words or behavior by assorted celebrities and scholars, this at a time when surveys show that Jews in America are in high regard. Like never before, popular culture features Jewish symbols and characters and in large numbers, fellow Americans who are not Jewish are eager to tie the knot with those who are. It seems that we are being embraced by an America that loves us to spiritual death and yet we are constantly confronted by incidents that we label as anti-Semitic. Could it be that there is a dualism, that the contemporary Jewish popularity masks latent feelings that are legitimate reasons for concern?

Without a doubt, we have enemies and, without a doubt, history has given us more than ample reasons to be nervous. Yet, we must separate the wheat from the chaff, what is meaningless or inconsequential from what is serious. Else, we will be in a constant tizzy, with our emotional bags packed for a quick exit. It's alright to err on the side of caution, but not to exaggerate. We are overplaying the anti-Semitism gambit.

I do not subscribe to the refrain, heard often among my fellow Orthodox, that the "goyim" all hate us and I have elsewhere sharply challenged this attitude. Nor do I believe that what is anti-Semitic should be dismissed as inconsequential. We need to distinguish among words, factoring in the key elements of frequency and context, as well as their nexus to behavior. There is a difference between what is said in anger or while intoxicated or during horseplay or even in incautious private conversation and a pattern of anti-Semitic language or the inclusion of such language in a prepared speech or article. In short, not everything that sounds anti-Semitic is anti-Semitic.

We can understand this by looking at other situations where inappropriate words are used. In angry exchanges, as occurs at times between spouses or within families or between friends, people say wounding things that they scarcely believe. Such words may touch on the target's religion or ethnicity. I imagine that most of us have been guilty of such indiscretion and let the few of us - if there are any - who are without sin cast the first stone. Anger does not beget exalted language.

It is likely that when the next minor incident crops up, we'll once more holler anti-Semitism. We are comfortable with this accusation, as if it makes us feel better about the real wrongs committed against us. The seminal event occurred a couple of decades back with Jesse Jackson's "Hymietown" remark about New York Jews. I could not figure out what the fuss was about, this despite my lack of respect for Mr. Jackson who has become a pathetic caricature of what he once was. Far more serious offenses against Jews have been committed by Al Sharpton, the phony Rev whose mouth is always revved up when there is a Black misfortune ripe for exploitation.

With his flare for sadistic entertainment, Mel Gibson is encased in layers of unsavoriness. A loyal son to his openly anti-Semitic father, he isn't a candidate for one of the humanitarian awards that our foolish organizations bestow on Hollywood unworthies. Yet, we were excessive in our reaction to his recent anti-Semitic rant. Despite the assertions by entertainment bigwigs that Gibson is now a leper, should he continue to have strong commercial value, some of the Stars of David will sing another tune.

Our tendency to locate anti-Semitism in nearly all nooks and crannies of American life, including incautious remarks by Billy Graham, reaches into the White House. We know about Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Even the venerated Harry Truman said things about Jews that he should not have. With his new book, Jimmy Carter is at the top of our most wanted - or is it most unwanted? - list. Presidents are particularly vulnerable because their private remarks are often recorded. What is usually missing in reports of presidential misuse of language is the context. A president who feels that he faces severe and undeserved pressure from Jews might be forgiven if he blurts out something like "what do these blankety-blank Jews want from me?" or uses even coarser language. Inappropriate? Yes. Anti-Semitic? No.

Whether the issue is Israel or American Jews, not everything that is critical or harsh or expressed in demeaning language is anti-Semitic. This is even true of Jimmy Carter whose use of the word "apartheid" to describe Israel's relationship with Palestinians is despicable and dishonest. We should knock the stuffings out of him for his anti-Israel polemic and this can easily be accomplished without indulging in the A-S gambit.

I do not know what term to use for the Neturei Karta scoundrels who shamed us with their embrace of the world's most dangerous anti-Semite. It is too facile to say that they are imposters. We should save our ire for them and others who are Jew-haters. Minor incidents and incautious language come with the territory called life. It's time that we recognize this.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Shortchanging Day Schools

New York's highest court has ordered the state to add about two million dollars to what it provides to New York City public schools, a tidy sum but less than half of what city officials believe is coming to them. Had they gotten all of what they wanted, per student expenditures would have risen by between $4,000-$5,000, a figure that matches what more than a handful of local Jewish day schools spend per student for a dual curriculum program.

I do not believe that money is the answer to all that ails public education. Most of what erodes the ability of public schools to properly educate children occurs outside of the school, in the home and street where family and behavioral pathologies abound and in the collateral damage caused by a popular culture that is at once exciting and destructive. The reach of the school is limited.

Still, classroom size can make a difference and this is true of the basket-full of other educational enhancements that cost money. If public education is shortchanged, what can we say about our schools? In the New York area, the average expenditure per child in Jewish day schools is not much more than half of what it is in public schools.

There are day schools that charge $20,000 or more tuition, schools where the word "scholarship" is scarcely recognized. These schools provide electives, extracurricular activities and usually a first-rate facility, their goal being to make the institution attractive to parents who have other educational options. High tuition buys much, yet it comes at the high Judaic cost of turning away an indeterminate number of prospective parents, including those of marginal religiosity whose children would benefit from a meaningful Jewish education. There is the added hardship in the large number of day school families that are hard-pressed to meet their tuition obligations.

The schools that get by on less than $5,000 per student scrimp on everything, including maintenance and curriculum. To boot, they tend to serve students who need additional educational and other services, as their enrollment inordinately consists of children from poor homes and immigrant and outreach families. The schools make do primarily because of the dedication and sacrifice of shockingly underpaid faculty. Inevitably, students at these schools do relatively poorly on standardized tests, a circumstance that the philanthropic sector often uses to justify the refusal to assist these institutions.

Rich and poor day schools in the city share the common fate of being victims of Federation neglect. The story is different around the country, as in an expanding number of communities Federation and philanthropic support of day schools has increased. In New York, the little that was done has become littler because several years ago Federation eliminated basic grants. While there has been talk of Federation atoning a bit for its misdeed, not a penny of what was taken away has been restored.

It's true that because of their large number, New York's yeshivas and day schools present a fundraising challenge that probably can never be resolved satisfactorily. More than half of all U.S. day school enrollment is in the New York metropolitan area, with the annual operating budget approaching one-billion dollars. When combined with New Jersey's enrollment, the share reaches two-thirds. It is unavoidable that for nearly all yeshivas and day schools, the bulk of the income must come from tuition.

This does not excuse philanthropic neglect and certainly not the shortchanging of schools that operate on a shoestring and cannot attract even modest support. Nor is there any excuse for the prolonged silence of Orthodox organizations and leaders. They talk much about the tuition crisis, doubtlessly with sincerity, yet they are unwilling to challenge Federation or to advocate on behalf of day schools. Inadvertently, they give aid and comfort to those who shortchange day schools. While they may claim that they are working behind the scenes, it remains that the tuition crisis worsens, as does the pressure on the large number of yeshivas and day schools that live a hand to mouth existence. Is it disrespectful to suggest that organizations that know how to produce press releases proclaiming this or that accomplishment speak out on behalf of our most vital institutions?

There is no quick fix to the problem. The best we can hope for on the income side is a modest increase of support from conventional philanthropic sources. For all of the attention that it is getting, government aid will not come in abundance, as much because of financial constraints on the public treasury as from constitutional constraints.

What is critical is whether there will be Orthodox advocacy for basic Torah education. Day schools were once the crowning achievement of American Orthodox life, the foundation on which our religious resurgence was built. Were there no yeshivas and day schools in the formative years of Orthodox growth, many of them supported then and even today by persons who were not Orthodox, the destruction of American Jewry would be far more advanced than it is today. Unfortunately, we have embraced the alien notion that religious Jewish education is a parental responsibility and not also a communal responsibility.

The message - it is unintended - sent out by Orthodox religious and lay leaders is that day school education at the elementary and high school levels is not a tzedakah priority, at least not for institutions located in North America. As a consequence, the poorer schools in particular are not able to adequately provide the education and services that their students need.

There are now substantial pockets of great affluence among the fervently Orthodox. In the chassidic sector, yeshivas are a primary beneficiary of the tzedakah given by a group's adherents. Not so in the yeshiva world. Unless yeshiva deans who are the acknowledged leaders of the day school world come to recognize that they have an obligation to lead, our schools will continue to be shortchanged.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Barak's Last Stand

You have to admire the staying power of Aharon Barak, the former President of Israel's Supreme Court. A couple of months after reaching the mandatory retirement age and required to leave the bench, he apparently continues to be involved in the court. He is writing opinions, which makes him a de facto member and therefore the Supreme Court has more members than the number set by law. So far as I know, in legal systems when a judge retires, that's the end of his involvement. Not so for Barak.

I imagine that there is a provision somewhere, perhaps in the court's procedures, that permits him to play this role. Just the same, it is wrong, though in line with the court-packing and other stratagems he has employed to maintain control over a body that has a huge role in Israeli life. Membership in the Supreme Court is rigged, adding another layer to its inherently undemocratic character. Rigging reached a new height during the Barak era, as when he blocked the appointment of the much-admired civil rights advocate Professor Ruth Gavison because he did not like her. He arranged for his successor who shares his extreme secular ideology and he has rigged key judicial panels that hear important cases.

Because they are fragile institutions in terms of their adherence to democratic norms, supreme courts tend to act with restraint. Israel's has a self-proclaimed exalted role that allows it to roam across the governmental and societal landscapes as it determines which laws, policies, appointments and practices shall stand and which shall be invalidated. This is democracy?

For all of his usurpations, Mr. Barak is shrewd and knows that there are limits, that if too much power is claimed by the court, there will be reprisals. He yields from time to time to the imperative of restraint. A useful example is his handling of challenges to the security wall that is still under construction. He ruled against the government in key cases, but upheld certain of the locations selected by the government. Much the same has occurred under his watch in other security and military cases.

Now he has ruled that Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza can sue Israel for damages and harm resulting from Israel Defense Forces actions. There are exceptions, such as when the damages occurred during a clearly defined "war" or against an enemy state or a terrorist organization. In their decision, Barak and his panel invalidated a law passed by the Knesset, a consideration that has not deterred this presumed advocate of democracy.

It is too early to assess the implications and reach of this ruling. It has been reported that there are pending in Israel's badly clogged courts more than 500 lawsuits brought by Palestinians claiming they were harmed and there are strong implications that hundreds more are lining up to sue, demanding that a state they abhor and many want to destroy pay compensation for its self-defense against Arab aggression. Likely, the raid on Israel's treasury will be huge. An additional cost is greater divisiveness in Israel.

The irony is that Israel's departure from Gaza has increased the prospect of Palestinian citizens being harmed because withdrawal has led to increased shelling from Gaza into Israel. The further irony is that Palestinian claimants are likely to do better in Israeli courts than the Israelis who once lived in a small part of Gaza.

Barak's approach is to figure out how to implement his ideological and policy preferences and then to search for legal precedents that serve, in a sense, as fig leafs for his jurisprudence. Nearly all of the Israeli legal precedents that he points to are his own opinions, a tendency that reaches a height in his latest ruling. He selects excerpts from books that share his ideology, yet he finds very little support in rulings from respected supreme courts elsewhere because they scarcely exist.

If what Barak has decided for Israel would be applicable to U.S. actions in Iraq, there would be at least a million Iraqi litigants in American courts. Under the circumstances facing Israel, its courts should be open to Palestinian claimants only when it can be shown that the IDF deliberately targeted civilians or that it did so with reckless disregard for the welfare of civilians. However, if civilians were in harm's way, that is not a sufficient justification for a claim.

War isn't pretty. Or fair. It's hell. Civilians are killed and maimed. Homes and property are destroyed. That is why the military must take prudent risks to avoid harming civilians. To demand more is unreasonable and wrong and to compound this wrong by inviting civilians to sue is folly. When Israel counteracts attacks coming from Gaza, it is doing what all responsible states know they must do. Instead of relying on his false ideological gods, Aharon Barak and the Israel Supreme Court should be mindful of what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in dissent in 1949 in a case called Terminiello v. Chicago: "There is danger that if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact."

Hopefully, last week's ruling is Mr. Barak's last. Even so, it is certain that his dubious jurisprudence has taken strong root in the Supreme Court and his progeny will haunt us for years to come.

Friday, December 15, 2006

What's Wrong With Mesirah

Two Rabbis, one Reform and one Conservative, were in the news recently for alleged wrongdoing. Coverage in Jewish newspapers was minimal, raising once more the question of why our press is so hot to the trot whenever an Orthodox rabbi is accused. Could it be that editors and reporters do not accept the clerical credentials of the non-Orthodox?

Suffice it to say because the details are puerile, the Reform clergyman who is being sued by a former mistress who is not Jewish is being kept on by his Manhattan congregation. Less fortunate is the Conservative fellow who now sells used cars and, more ominously, is under indictment after lay leaders at the Manapalan, New Jersey, congregation he once served discovered that he had put his hands into the synagogue's cooking jar and removed nearly $100,000 that wasn't his. They snitched on him to the local authorities.

Which brings me to mesirah or the halachic misdeed of informing to government officials, a subject that has a long and painful history. We need not delve into the tragic record which encompasses the awful consequences of apostasy in hostile and usually Christian societies. Even in benign places, mesirah ordinarily is not permitted under our religious laws. This apparently was no concern to the Manapalan Conservatives who did not consult their movement's religious leaders. It also appears that the ex-rabbi was not given the opportunity to make restitution.

Serious financial wrongdoing is not a common occurrence in our institutional affairs. It does happen, as does other wrongdoing. Among the Orthodox, the halachic ban against mesirah is a powerful cultural norm. A related norm is the obligation of the person who acted wrongfully to take responsibility for his deeds and to make full restitution. This prudent course often results in full financial recovery and it strikes me as preferable to sending the perpetrator to prison, a course that results in little or no recovery and much collateral grief.

Even in financial matters, the halachic objection to mesirah comes under attack from secularists and other Jews who leap at every opportunity to attack our religious practices. They regard the mesirah ban as designed to cover up misdeeds. It means nothing to these critics that this way of life essentially has worked in our community and has resulted in what may be termed proximate justice. There are severe attitudinal and practical penalties directed against those who act wrongfully. Of course, the halachic system is imperfect in its execution because execution is in the hands of mortals for whom perfection is beyond reach. Yet, when compared with the usual outcome under civil or secular procedures aimed at curtailing or punishing wrongdoing, it should be evident that the halachic system comes out favorably.

The ban against mesirah is not total. There are circumstances when civil authorities are to be informed, particularly when the alleged wrongdoing endangers the welfare of others. There are instances of spousal abuse, child abuse and other situations where leading Orthodox rabbis instructed that civil authorities be notified.

Those who deprecate the Orthodox point to sexual abuse of children, including by a tiny number of rabbis, as an area where communal norms create a culture of cover-up with concern for the victims being subordinate to concern for the wrongdoers. The yeshiva deans who comprise the Rabbinical Board of Torah Umesorah, the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools, adopted a policy statement that should dispel this canard. It begins, "We address ourselves to the problem of child molestation in our community." They continue, "in addition to the sins which they have committed, they have created painful memories in the minds of their victims, memories which can have a devastating lifetime impact." In a cover letter to principals, Rabbi Joshua Fishman, the organization's executive head, wrote "If there is indeed an allegation of child abuse that proves to be true, and the matter that had come to your attention was not attended to, you will be liable both in the eyes of G-d and according to secular law."

One of the advantages of the norm against mesirah is that it pays more than lip service to the obligation to protect the innocent. It should matter that the principle of a person being innocent until proven guilty is increasingly disparaged and also that prosecutorial abuse is widespread. We know that innocent people have been convicted of serious crimes they did not commit. The record in this regard in the area of sexual abuse is especially dismal. Persons charged which such crimes invariably are found guilty in the media and they are considered guilty until proven innocent. There was a notable case recently involving Temple Emanuel in Manhattan and its officials acted with much courage.

The state of criminal justice in this country - and in Israel - is too shaky to ignore and this has a bearing on the issue of mesirah. There is too much reliance on circumstantial evidence, of the kind proscribed in halacha. There is too much plea bargaining and other prosecutorial techniques that provide incentives for questionable and even false testimony, as witnesses seek to save their own skin.

If this isn't sufficient to induce doubts about contemporary criminal justice and also serve as an argument for the anti-mesirah standard, there is the expanding record in this country of meting out harsh sentences. Fully one-quarter of the world's prison population is in the U.S., an astounding statistic. We are becoming a gulag society. Even as virtually all categories of serious crime have seen sharp reductions over the last decade, there is each year a significant rise in the prison population. Judges, including on the federal bench, hand out long sentences without regard to family or societal consequences.

Why, then, should we trust civil authorities. At least in monetary matters, we should abide by the anti-mesirah rule. Violence and sexual abuse are different matters.

Friday, November 24, 2006

As We Continue to Widen Our Tent

As the aftershocks of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey began to subside in the mid-1990s, American Jewry entered a post-intermarriage stage. We remained unhappy about the dreadful NJPS statistics, yet we came to accept the reality that a great number of Jews had married out and the trend would not be reversed. We accepted the reality but did not welcome it and this acceptance was driven not by theology or ideology, not by such developments as the Reform sanctioning of patrilineality, but by the numbers. There was a critical mass of Jews who had married non-Jews who wanted to continue to identify as Jews and in addition to their large number, they had parents, siblings, other relatives and Jewish friends who refused to regard the intermarried or even their spouses or children as outside the pale of Jewish life. While many who had intermarried walked away entirely, a great number continued to be involved in Jewish life, perhaps in a civic or secular fashion and, at times, even in some religious sense. Inexorably, they and their families were a part of the evolving story of the Jewish people.

At the time, there was a burst of activity encouraging the conversion of non-Jewish spouses and other forms of identity-strengthening. The small flock of newly important demographers chipped away at NJPS, arguing over whether the intermarriage rate was above or below 50% and whether to distinguish between core Jews and other Jews. There was scant acceptance of the alien notion that marrying out somehow adds to our numbers or the richness of Jewish life.

The forces that compelled the acceptance of intermarriage could not escape the impact of changes in American society or Jewish life, changes that impelled most American Jews further away from the moorings of Jewish tradition. An additional pull away from what had been our sense of Jewishness resulted from Jewish identity being determined less by communal norms than by what can be referred to as self-definition. People could define their Judaism according to their own choosing, without regard to their definition having discernible Jewish roots. We had rapidly entered the world of anything goes Judaism, a world in which "Jewish" encompassed much of what was antithetical to practices and beliefs that had been central in Jewish life. What was inauthentic now became labeled as authentic.

Here is a brief description of an anything goes Judaism event, taken from a report that regards such activities as beneficial and authentic. The event called "Golem Gets Married" took place in a room that "was filled with revelers, drinking at the bar and enjoying a spread of cold cuts well before the 'ceremony' began. The mock wedding featured salacious vows, a cross-dressing couple and a sermon delivered in haiku. Following the 'ceremony,' the band led the crowd in a hora or two (complete with the bride and groom hoisted in the air.)" This was a "Jewish" activity because the attendees were mainly Jews. Nothing more was required.

As what is conducted under anything goes Judaism has expanded, some demographers have been hard at work expanding the boundaries of Jewish identity to include persons who do not regard themselves as Jewish, the goal being to increase our numbers and also to promote the legitimacy of ultra-secular experiences that somehow are labeled as Jewish. Rather than there being four or five million Americans who acknowledge that they are Jewish, our ranks somehow swell to twice or more that number. In this and other questionable developments we are witness to the debasement of Jewish scholarship. Too often, those who pay for the research get the results that they want to hear.

There are those in Israel who welcome the inflated population figures because the higher numbers can be employed to show that American Jews are still an important element to be reckoned with as they advocate for Israel.

The anything goes mindset is not the final leg in the journey away from even a minimalistic sense of traditional Jewish identity. The pervasiveness of social change and the maintenance of a critical mass who are comfortable with a definition of Jewishness that conforms to their life-style mandates a further enlargement of the tent. Intermarriage is now welcomed in certain quarters and there is the corollary urging that communal resources be directed at those who are most distant, including at persons who are not Jewish. There are calls for missionary and conversionary activity among peoples who are entirely bereft of a scintilla of Jewish identity.

We are told that efforts to promote Jewish continuity should not favor day school education or conventional religious activity. It apparently matters not that our educational and religious initiatives encompass a great number of at-risk Jews. We are told that the spiritual needs of these Jews should be ignored and we should concentrate on those who are distant and unlikely to pay attention to our messages. This argument was made at a recent conference on the future of North American Jewry.

Advocates of outreach to non-Jews who are married to Jews have just gotten a boost, perhaps inadvertent, from a report out of Boston claiming that such activity by the local Federation has resulted in sixty percent of the children of intermarried couples being raised as Jews, a figure that is about twice as high as that indicated by NJPS and research in other communities. In all likelihood, the Boston statistic is exaggerated because of the inability of researchers to survey the intermarried who are not involved in Jewish life and/or those who do not have recognizable Jewish names. An added factor that points in the same direction is that Jews who no longer regard themselves as Jewish invariably do not respond to our demographers.

We are not now capable of preventing our tent from being enlarged, albeit bogusly, nor can we prevent critical resources from being diverted to meaningless pursuits. We must, however, insist that that which is authentic be supported.

Friday, November 17, 2006

RJJ Newsletter - Torah Leadership

Throughout our experience as a people, Torah leadership has been crucial to our spiritual well-being. Torah leaders inspire and give us direction. They transmit the teachings they received from their great teachers and apply them to new questions and situations. They are our link to the past and together with those whom they inspire and lead, they are guarantors that are our exalted heritage will be transmitted to new generations. They are, in short, indispensable, an irreplaceable resource which if deficient results in a diminution of what our community can accomplish. Because of their vital role, their learning and their elevated personal qualities, we are obligated to respect those who are recognized as Torah leaders.

In the lines that follow, I discuss certain aspects of Torah leadership in the present period in this country. While I shall touch on problem areas, my fervent hope is that I shall not deviate from the obligation to honor and respect those whom we accept as our leaders. We have been witness to their important achievements.

It is not possible to prove what might have happened had events not proceeded as they did. Yet, it is clear that American Orthodoxy would be a lot different today had our community not been molded and led in the post-Holocaust period by a remarkable group of Gedolei Torah, men of genius, spiritual nobility and wisdom. We all know their names. All were born in pre-Holocaust Europe and many were refugees who had escaped the destruction of European Jewry. They planted the seeds for the exciting development of religious life on this continent.

The Holocaust also foretold the unveiling of a bleak development. The customary channels of transmission of Torah leadership were destroyed. The outstanding people who came here gave us a multitude of blessings. What they could not do is quickly repair the process of Mesorah that has been an essential element throughout all of Jewish history. The point was made by Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztl, the eminent Rosh Yeshivah of Chaim Berlin, who suggested that it ordinarily takes ten generations for greatness in Torah to take root and fully blossom in a new place of religious Jewish settlement. Even as we were enveloped in the sanctity and glory of truly remarkable leaders, we knew that there would be a day when the sun would set. Although we continue to be nurtured by the example and teachings of these men and their memory remains a presence in our lives, in a communal sense we are orphaned.

In all corners of American Orthodoxy there is a deficit in Torah leadership. In the yeshiva world which is central to the lives of many who will read what is written here, there is presently no towering leader. At most, there is a collegial arrangement involving a small number of men of much virtue and learning. That they are not equal to their predecessors should not be material because there is the fundamental hashkafic principle of "Shmuel b'doro." What is material is how our present leaders interpret and fulfill their roles.

There is nothing that the Roshei Yeshiva who are our key leaders can do to reverse history. They can, however, attempt to prepare for what lies ahead by providing guidance to the next generation or two of Torah leaders through processes of shimush or apprenticeship, such as they experienced in their relationship with the great Torah leaders of the previous generation. Unfortunately, scant - if any - attention is now being paid to this responsibility.

While our Torah leaders cannot alter the widespread and understandable, albeit at times lamentable, practice of relying on the authority of eminent Gedolei Torah in Israel, they can provide leadership regarding certain developments within the yeshiva world that are clearly within their zone of authority. A primary example is the tragic and costly decline of Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day School, the one organization that inherently Roshei Yeshiva have responsibility for. The Torah leaders of the previous two generations rightly regarded Torah Umesorah and the day school movement as the primary instrumentalities of kiruv, as the centerpiece for the building of Torah in North America. Torah Umesorah's decline has taken a huge toll, as is evident in the frightening enrollment decline in kiruv and immigrant schools.

We see in this development how costly it is when a Torah leadership arrangement predicated on collegiality breaks down because there is no single leader who is accepted as transcendent and the participants in the collegial arrangement too often do not agree on how best to proceed.

As important as are these and related developments, what may be most costly is the absence of what may be termed management skills among our senior Roshei Yeshiva. They are all over the place, sending out letters for individuals in crisis, at times without having sufficient details, speaking too often and traveling too much, attending too many events and, in an important sense, being too available and too easy to reach. Advances in communication allow for quick access, while the automobile is regarded as an adequate answer when Roshei Yeshiva plead that they cannot attend this or that event or occasion.

As a result, they are more likely to be reactive than proactive, which is to say that they are more likely to be led than to lead others. They forfeit control over their primary resources of time and space. Although in an immediate sense their formal responsibilities are limited because generally their yeshivas are small, these men are always super-busy.

What is at work is the outgrowth of an immense reservoir of goodness among Torah leaders. They have an insufficient capacity to say "no" and they certainly have difficulty turning down any opportunity to accomplish some good. There is what may be referred to as a yeshiva-world culture which dictates that our Torah leaders must nearly always be available, this despite the practice of certain Roshei Yeshiva in the previous generation to carefully control their time and space. Unless Torah leaders overcome, at least in a significant way, this cultural imperative, their leadership capabilities will remain limited.

The culture of the yeshiva world can be contrasted with the very different culture of the Chassidic world, which is the other part of charedi life. Chassidic Rebbes are responsible for a community that may have thousands of adherents and for a network of institutions that serve this membership. Their burden in terms of their immediate responsibilities is far more extensive than that of Roshei Yeshiva. Almost inherently, they understand that unless they control and limit how their time is spent and where they are at, they will not be able to provide the necessary quotient of leadership.

Hence they travel little, severely limit the events they attend, give few speeches, rarely send out letters to solicit for other causes or make public pronouncements. They also know how to delegate responsibility to officials in their communities and to condition their followers to have interaction with these officials. In short, they are focused on their four cubits, at times perhaps too focused. Even on crucial issues, their voice is often heard via a son or dayan or some other subordinate figure. They have, as well, a small army of eager assistants. This contributes to the luxury of being able to decide what they will do and where they will be.

This inward-looking view of their responsibilities may appear to limit their role in religious life outside of their communities. In fact, the reverse is true, for the major Chassidic Rebbes clearly have an impact on religious life beyond the walls of their group.

By attempting to accommodate nearly everyone and to be jacks of all religious trades, American Roshei Yeshiva compromise their capacity to plan and to lead. I cannot think of a single major Orthodox initiative in the past twenty years that has their fingerprints on it. Creative and inspiring chesed activities or recent developments in chinuch invariably are grass root achievements. In the meantime, Torah Umesorah is in crisis, while enrollment in day schools with a kiruv orientation has declined sharply. The tuition crisis that causes hardship in our schools and homes is an issue that the Roshei Yeshiva are aware of and yet these is scant evidence that they are prepared to provide the leadership that is necessary to ameliorate this crisis.

The pity is that should Roshei Yeshiva exert leadership their efforts would be rewarded because they are respected and their messages to us receive attention. Should they urge the religious masses to action, there would be productive consequences. There would also be the beneficial byproduct of involving in fruitful activity younger Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis from whose ranks ultimately would emerge the Torah leaders of the next generation.

This requires a determination to lead. How do we get our message across to Roshei Yeshiva that we want them to lead?

The Case for John Bolton

Although I do not write about domestic politics in this space, it is necessary to mention that I am thrilled by the election results because it sets the context for my view that organized American Jewry should urge the Senate to confirm President Bush's nomination of John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton has been serving for about a year on an interim basis and unless he is confirmed, he cannot continue in his post after December 31.

With the President and Republicans greatly weakened and Democrats soon to take control of Congress, Bolton's prospects range from extremely poor to non-existent. Democratic Senators have indicated that they will oppose him in the dying days of the Republican controlled Senate. It is also a long-shot that the rank and file of our community will back him, particularly in view of the way American Jews voted on November 7 and our ideological disdain for anything identified as right wing.

Yet, I hope that we will be able to put ideology aside.

The case against Bolton is not flimsy. When he was first nominated, what emerged was evidence that he is abrasive, bullying and a right-wing ideologue, with his fingerprints on Iraq and other Bush Administration foreign policy mistakes. At a time when America's standing abroad is at its lowest point in more than two generations and perhaps even in the entire history of this country, there is much appeal to the argument that we do not need a divisive figure representing us at the U.N. If he could not win confirmation last year, why support him now, especially since the election results powerfully demonstrate strong public disapproval of the direction of our foreign policy?

The difference that a year makes is that in 2005 John Bolton was a job-seeker, while now there is a record of service to assess. From this perspective, the picture that emerges is of a man who is a skilled diplomat and while also a sharp advocate of U.S. interests, is capable of flexibility and even tact. He has been tough on U.N. corruption, both moral and the conventional financial variety, and it is evident that his persistence has contributed to meaningful reforms. With the U.N. playing a heightened role regarding Iran and North Korea, in a difficult environment and hampered by Russia and China, as well as by France and other occasional American allies, he has brought about impressive diplomatic achievements.

Likely, Mr. Bush's electoral thumping and lame-duck status will result in an expanded role for the U.N. in the international crises that are already on its plate and those that will unfold during the coming two years. This factor makes the case for Bolton more compelling. I should mention that unlike certain U.N. ambassadors who served under Republican presidents, he has been respectful of an institution that does not always merit respect and he has not been confrontational.

How do Israel and American Jews fit into this picture? For all of its intentions, as I have underscored, the Bush Administration's actions in Iraq have harmed Israel by destroying the Sunni-Sh'ia balance of power and by provoking greater jihadist sentiments in the Islamic world. To help extricate his Administration from the disaster that is Iraq, Mr. President Bush has appointed a study group headed by James Baker whose report is expected in about a month. Baker, a former Secretary of State, has never been friendly to Israel and I regard it as nearly a sure thing that his group will recommend policy shifts that are harmful to Israel's security, such things as the necessity to seek a rapprochement with Syria and perhaps even with Iran, even if this means a sharp shift away from support of Israel.

To make the outlook more ominous still, the cadre of Israel supporters high up in the Administration has been shrinking. From Israel's standpoint, therefore, Bolton's voice is needed, both at the U.N. and in Washington. There is no doubt where he stands. His attitude toward Israel was on display during the Lebanon War this past summer and he was instrumental in scripting U.N. resolutions that were balanced. If I recall correctly, at the time several Democratic senators, I think including Chuck Schumer, said that they might support the Bolton nomination. It now appears that partisan politics will doom his prospects.

If only because Bolton boldly advocates for Israel, we have an obligation to advocate for him. It's in our interest to support him. Over the next two years, world politics will be flush with issues in which Israel has a huge stake. Under the best of circumstances, Israel is often isolated, with the U.S. its only major and dependable ally. It would be harmful if because of timidity or ideology we stand idly by while a public figure whom we can help and who has helped us is abandoned.

Because I do not believe that we Jews have the clout that we often want others to believe that we have, I know that our support of Bolton may not amount to much. Just the same, we ought to do the right thing and make the effort. This effort need not be a public campaign.

In a column some weeks ago entitled "Aliya and Yerida," I wrote that Nefesh B'Nefesh, the organization that promotes aliya "receives enormous financial support from Evangelical Christians." That apparently was once the case, but no more. Nowadays, only a small portion of the group's funding comes from this source. I regret the error and am pleased to make this correction.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Exhibitionism Is Not Influence

Is the continuing pursuit of AIPAC a rouge operation, the handiwork of a zealous prosecutor who doesn't like the organization and has the FBI at his disposal to act out this dislike, or is it an organized Justice Department operation that has the approval of people at the top? One day we might know. My guess is that what began as a limited investigation has now blossomed into a crusade sanctioned by high Justice Department officials and perhaps the White House.

Whatever the full story, this business has been going on for more than three years and there is no sign of a let-up, as we know from the latest chapter involving Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She's been investigated, apparently because she may have enlisted AIPAC in her effort to chair the committee should Democrats gain control of the House. This is a crime?

Likely, Harman is off the hook. Also off the hook are nearly all whom the FBI has trailed, wiretapped, questioned and investigated in the pursuit of AIPAC. Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, the ex-AIPAC staffers, are not off the hook. They await trial on phantom charges concocted by Justice Department prosecutors, their alleged crime being that they did what hundreds do every day in Washington. Should we be comforted because no one caught up in the AIPAC dragnet has been waterboarded?

What is the American Jewish reaction to the systematic attack against a Jewish organization that has by far more members than any other? We are once more the Jews of silence, not daring to criticize the government and not even curious about how an administration that sends its highest officials to AIPAC events can compile so flagrant an anti-AIPAC record. As for the lobbying group, its spokesman utters the familiar mantra, "we wouldn’t do anything wrong." That's not the issue. The issue is why the Feds are harassing people who have an association with the organization.

In truth, the bad news has not been too bad for AIPAC. The impact on Israel and American Jewry is another matter. After Rosen and Weissman were cashiered by the organization they served with loyalty and were then indicted, American Jews responded by adding substantially to their contributions, the apparent explanation being their belief that the anti-AIPAC crusade demonstrates that their idol is vital to Israel and the Jewish people. The logic may be flawed but the group’s overstuffed coffers are real. AIPAC also eats well when Israel-haters like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt attack. It is inappropriate to ask whether AIPAC's self-promotion gives ammunition to Israel haters.

AIPAC's hype is a serious Jewish/Israel problem and we need to have the courage and intelligence to address this issue. Its annual extravaganza is a public declaration that "we are powerful." The participation of high officials and scores of senators and representatives has no bearing on American foreign policy, this despite the multitude of platitudinous declarations of U.S.-Israel friendship. It has much to do with how Jews and Israel are perceived because the message being sent is that this is the most powerful lobby under the sun.

It should not be difficult to understand that exhibitionism is not influence, that most often it is a display of immaturity and lack of confidence. Those who have influence go about their work quietly. AIPAC makes noise to call attention to itself because its large army of mini-machers are more likely to contribute when there is hoopla, when they believe that they are rubbing shoulders with the powerful. According to Newsweek, in mid-September while she was under investigation, Representative Harman hosted a dinner at her home for over 120 "top financial backers" of AIPAC that included a panel discussion with John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, and Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. The event had no bearing on U.S. policy and everything to do with demonstrating AIPAC's alleged clout to the affluent attendees.

Let's face it. We want AIPAC to be regarded as powerful and then without batting an eye we throw a fit when AIPAC is accused of wielding power. Nor are we willing to ask the tough question of whether AIPAC is worth the cost, whether the message being sent to Americans is that Jews have great influence. The Forward reports that half of the respondents to a Zogby International survey believe that "the Israel lobby" has been "a key factor" in American actions in Iraq and the confrontation with Iran. True, the question was of the "when did you stop beating your wife?" variety. Even so, we should be concerned.

In response to AIPAC's overreaching and exhibitionism we do not need a new group that will take an ultra-liberal, anti-Administration tack along the lines suggested by George Soros. He is a fabulously wealthy man who has never displayed any caring for Israel or Jews. What we do not need is a competing lobby but an intelligent examination of whether our lobbying strategy is an asset or deficit. We need to explore whether AIPAC's perhaps inevitable tendency to provide support for those who are in power may work to Israel's disadvantage, as I believe we have seen in Iraq.

Doubtlessly, AIPAC and its supporters prefer to ignore these questions and it will be business as usual. The group is likely to raise more money and add to its instinct for exhibitionism. It remains, however, that while the band plays on, AIPAC continues to be investigated. This should concern us, not for the sake of an organization mired in self-promotion, but for the sake of American Jewry. I am a strong disbeliever in conspiracy theories, yet when we consider what has transpired over the past three years and also in light of the Jonathan Pollard affair, there are reasons to believe that there is an anti-Israel cabal embedded high up in the U.S. government.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Minyan on Sixteenth Avenue

In the early 1950s, about fifty-five years ago, a group of teenagers came together in what was known as the Zeirei Agudath Israel of Borough Park, the youth division of the local Agudah that had recently relocated to a two-story building on Fourteenth Avenue and 46th Street. The Agudah davened on the first floor and the Zeirei on the second floor. Nearly all of us were children of immigrants who were hard working parents and though some of us were born in pre-Holocaust Europe, we were essentially boys who liked baseball and other things American. For high school we went by subway to yeshivas in other neighborhoods.

The teens went by quickly and before long there were marriages and additional members, with the minyan growing to about seventy families and undergoing several name changes, including the "Young Agudah" and several locations, settling finally on a modest facility on Sixteenth Avenue where we remain. Our homes were also modest and that, too, remains. Before long, we came to realize that we needed a Rabbi, a man who would inspire and teach and elevate our families. At the time, yeshiva-world shuls, including those of the Agudah, generally functioned without a rabbi. We reached out to Rabbi Yisroel Perkowski, a scholar and refugee who had studied at the renowned Mir Yeshiva in Poland before the Holocaust. He had davened with us during our Zeirei days, before moving to East New York where he was a Rosh Yeshiva or dean at Beth Hatalmud, a top level talmudic seminary that for many years has been located in Bensonhurst. Rabbi Perkowski accepted our request, maintaining his important role at Beth Hatalmud.

Our choice was fortuitous. For about forty-five years our minyan was blessed by a man who forged with us and our families a powerful bond of love, respect and admiration. We responded eagerly to his teachings, his warmth and his ways. In truth, he came to a group that possessed the potential to accept what he offered us. As boys, we were a special group. Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the transcendent Orthodox Jewish leader in the American Jewish experience and the founder of the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, had davened with us when he was in Borough Park for Shabbos. Each year, he and Rabbi Moshe Sherer made an appeal for Torah Schools for Israel, the network of religious schools that he established in Israel, and the fellows pledged $20,000 or more each year, an extraordinary sum for the 1950s and for a group that was so young.

Under our Rav's guidance, the minyan reached new heights in Torah study, communal service and charitable giving. It is not easy to describe his leadership style because it was enveloped in humility. There is an esoteric religious Jewish theological concept called "Hester Panim," which means that G-D's glory is hidden from us. In perhaps an allegorical sense, this can be understood as referring to how the glory of our religious life is hidden from view. We are ensnared by celebrityship, by what is trumpeted and noisy. We fail to see the grandeur and sanctity of the typical religious Jewish home where modesty and Torah observance and study are embedded, where despite the struggle to make ends meet, there is an abundance of caring about others. What was hidden in the life of our Rav was his wisdom and his stature as a scholar. Even in the yeshiva world, he was not a celebrity.

He would have it no other way. I know but one photograph of him prior to his coming to the United States. It is of the study hall of the Mir Yeshiva which had miraculously found refuge in Shanghai during the dark years of the Holocaust. Our Rav is seated near the rear and all the way on the side. He abhorred being front and center anywhere. About twenty years ago, a delegation of eminent rabbis came to ask that he become a member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, Agudath Israel's prestigious Council of Torah Sages. They did not have a chance.

As much as his skin, humility was a part of his essence and no more than his skin could it be separated from him. He was entirely happy with what G-D had given him, including a wife of comparable sanctity and seven children. Even in his 90s, he would with a loving smile admonish those who attempted to help him, as when he was putting on his coat. He knew who he was and what he wanted to do. He had opinions and they were always expressed softly, as when he admonished us not to talk during davening, a lesson that we learned well. His speeches were masterly, invariably lasting fewer than ten minutes. He always began in a very low voice, barely above a whisper, for he was doubtful of the propriety of his speaking in a sanctified place.

I never heard him speak a word of English, yet he well understood the world in which we live. As the bond with him became as strong as steel, we knew that we were blessed with a rare treasure. This was a perfect relationship. When guests davened with us, they sensed our pride, but we never boasted because that would be unbecoming.

Over the years, our small group has become smaller. Some moved away and some passed away. Few of our children live in Borough Park because housing is expensive and maybe also because of the American Jewish imperative, "Thou shalt not live near your parents." On a typical Shabbos, the shul is half or more empty. We have now suffered our greatest loss, with the passing during the intermediate days of Sukkos, of our beloved Rav. He was buried twenty-two hours later in Israel and in accordance with his will, there will be no eulogies. If these lines are a violation of his wishes, it is the first time that I have transgressed against his instructions.

The pain of his loss will endure. The boys of the Zeirei are in their 70s and nearly all are grandfathers. More than a few are great-grandfathers. Our ranks will continue to diminish and perhaps one day this remarkable minyan will be no more. Whatever the future brings, we know that we were blessed.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Iraq is a Disaster for Israel

As an undergraduate at Brooklyn College more than fifty years ago, I read "Politics Among Nations," Hans J. Morgenthau's seminal text on international relations. It was the second edition, much changed from its predecessor, as this was a break-out book for Morganthau. He challenged assumptions about U.S. foreign policy that perhaps because he was a refugee from Nazi Germany he had not challenged previously. His target was the moralizing that inhered in the American ethos, the sermonizing about making the world safe for democracy. As an antidote, he advocated realism, a foreign policy based on national interests and even cold calculations.

In fact, Morganthau was a gentle man. Toward the end of his life, in the early 1980's, he and I were colleagues at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. By then, the pendulum had swung away from realpolitics and Morganthau's thesis had lost its glitter. But for a generation, his view of the balance of power was influential in both the academy and government. Of course, idealism was never abandoned as a rhetorical device in the articulation of this country's international goals. During the Cold War, there was coherence between the policy outcomes that were achieved by realistic calculations and those achieved by idealistic calculations because there was a consensus that the Soviet Union was evil and that its aggression must be curtailed via a policy of containment.

Under George W. Bush, foreign policy sermonizing has come back with a vengeance, dominating not only the rhetorical sphere but also the administration's actions. Iraq is the centerpiece and the rhetoric about American actions being predicated on moral goals, such as the export of democracy, exceeds by a great deal what we have experienced under other administrations. The "good guy/bad guy" gambit is used promiscuously to justify what this country is doing in far away places. President Bush believes with full faith that there is an unimpeachable obligation to implant American values in places that have long been alien soil for such values. He believes that deeds aimed at achieving this goal will be rewarded through beneficial outcomes because democracy is contagious.

The debate over Iraq has centered on why we went to war, on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the like. More recently, as the outlook has become gloomier, the focus has shifted to whether we have made things worse by provoking a brutal civil war and by stirring up the Islamic-Jihadist pot. Inevitably, some of this debate is partisan and also predicated on ideology. Not surprisingly, those who are anti-Bush for other reasons conclude that Iraq is an American foreign policy disaster.

What about Israel? Putting aside partisanship and ideology, how has Iraq impacted on the Jewish state? President Bush has given Israel enormous support and this might be sufficient from the Jewish standpoint. I think not. Prior to the Iraq invasion, I questioned whether the removal of Saddam Hussein's secular regime might be risky for Israel. That question has now been firmly answered. Iraq is an unmitigated disaster, even tragedy, for Israel. The balance of power between the Sunnis who were dominant in Iraq and the Shi'ites who were subjugated in Iraq but are dominant in neighboring Iran has been shattered. Islamic fundamentalism is out of control, with Iran emboldened, as we have seen in its nuclear development program and support of the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi'ites in Iraq.

As a further negative consequence of Iraq, the U.S. has too little will, too little military manpower and resources, too little diplomatic mobility and too little support to confront Iran, a country that is a far, far greater threat to U.S. (and Israeli) interests than Iraq ever was. This conclusion is not a matter of partisanship or ideology.

Israel knows the difference between Sunni and Shi'a and its policy makers obviously understood the benefits of Iraqi-Irani rivalry. Israel knew the benefits that it secured from the balance of power that has now been shattered. Israel had to know that ousting Saddam Hussein would result in an expansion of Iran's influence. For all of this knowledge, Israeli leaders enthusiastically supported U.S. military actions in Iraq. So far as I know, neither government officials nor journalists have said that Israel's security has been undermined by Shi'ite ascendancy in Iraq. I was in Israel throughout the Lebanon war and cannot recall a single Haaretz or Jerusalem Post article linking the Hezbolah-Iranian axis to what transpired in Iraq.

What I believe is at work is a bad case of the dialectics of friendship, of the familiar pattern of having more to fear from friends than from enemies, if only because friends are the ones who make demands. Israel has very little wiggle room when it comes to deciding whether to support U.S. actions. In anticipation of what the U.S. wants and as a trade-off for American assistance, Israel's national interests are at times subordinated to what the U.S. expects, even when a realistic calculation of the price that is being paid indicates that it is too high.

What emerges is that Israeli policy-makers suppressed their concerns and subordinated their country's interests to American policy. If I am right, Israel's miscalculations regarding Iraq were far more damaging than Israel's miscalculations regarding Hezbollah, although only the latter have engendered calls for a high level investigation. We do not need an investigation of Israel's policies regarding Iraq. What is desperately needed is reflection on the collateral damage that has occurred. At long last, there should be a courageous confrontation of the vexatious issue of the dialectics of friendship.

If there is any ray of hope in this gloomy picture, it is that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are also fearful of the consequences of the shattering of the intra-Islamic balance of power.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Sliding Toward Bigotry

To outsiders, religious groups seem to be undifferentiated masses of adherents. From the inside, there are varying degrees of religiosity and nuances in practices and beliefs that often are not picked up by outsiders, particularly those who traffic in stereotypes, a failing that afflicts some who are allegedly adept in the sociology of religion.

Religious groups also reflect social change, how the external world brings about mutations in the behavior and attitudes of group members. Change can be in the direction of greater or lesser religiosity or concurrently in both directions, a phenomenon that is evident in contemporary Orthodox Jewish life. Among some, modernity results in a diminution of religious commitment, while among others the reaction against modernity provokes the opposite outcome. The Modern Orthodox or MOs especially are subject to this dualism, although it is to an extent true of all sectors of Orthodoxy, as well as other religious groups.

Of the three primary religious paths available to the MOs - moving away from Orthodoxy, stability in religiosity and greater religiosity - successive National Jewish Population Surveys indicate that moving away from Orthodoxy is the most prevalent path. There is much qualitative evidence pointing in the same direction. There is also a high incidence of stability, as is demonstrated by the steady enrollment increases in MO day schools, this despite a) defections from Orthodoxy, b) some movement toward greater religiosity and c) significant MO aliyah. The least likely path for MOs is becoming charedi or fervently Orthodox.

This last direction is the subject of "Sliding to the Right," the new book by Samuel Heilman who has been fixated for quite a while on the prospect of a charedi take-over of Modern Orthodoxy. The book is an expansion of a Heilman lecture published last year in "Contemporary Jewry" (Vol. 25, 2005) under the title "How Did Fundamentalism Manage to Infiltrate Contemporary Orthodoxy?" What follows is a nasty picture bereft of the slightest feelings of empathy or understanding of the nuances that abound in Orthodox life. In Heilman's distorted telling, Orthodox Jews are in the Dark Ages or rapidly heading in that direction, as they are engulfed in a sea of fundamentalism, a term that he uses promiscuously in his obsessive determination to assign negative characteristics to these Jews.

As an antidote to Heilman's concocted conspiracy, it's worth reading Aaron Rose's, "The Haredim: A Defense," published in the latest issue of Azure. Rose is an ex-charedi.

Heilman's main fixation is not with charedim whose life-style he describes in stereotypic fashion without any appreciation of their differences or career and educational paths. He is most exercised over the MOs who are betraying Modern Orthodoxy by becoming less modern, although in dress and numerous other behaviors they are quite distinct from charedim. This change arises from sinister - meaning fundamentalist - forces that conspire to move MOs into the charedi camp. As with all conspiracy theories, Heilman's is constructed out of a daisy chain of circumstances that exists largely in his mind.

His starting point is the MO day school where charedi teachers bring "their ideological baggage." Once inside, they import "a worldview and ethos that conflicted with that of modern Orthodoxy," seeing "their presence in the day school as evidence of the ideological weaknesses and flaws of the modern Orthodox worldview" and instilling "in their students many of the values and ideas of the yeshiva or even the contemporary hasidic world. In effect, these people were agents-provocateurs who came from one segment of the Orthodox world to influence another by undermining many of its acculturationist values ... One of the reasons why they were willing to step out of their enclaves and into the defiled domains of the day school," was that this allowed them to promote "a haredi, fundamentalist message."

To be generous, this is nuts. These are teachers in co-educational schools who do not set the curriculum or ambiance, schools where Zionism and modernity are constantly on display. As with teachers everywhere, some have an impact. But agents-provocateurs? If Heilman would approach his subject as a sociologist and not as a polemicist, he would at least ask how is it that far many more MO students abandon religiosity.

The conspiracy continues with a year or two of Israel study after high school. If you think that young men and women go to Israel because of their love for the Jewish State and yearning to be there, you have it wrong. In Heilman's conspiratorial mindset, anxieties that predate "a more reactionary Orthodoxy, led increasingly to the practice of sending day school graduates for a year or two" to yeshivas and seminaries in Israel.

There is no allowance for the possibility of students or, as likely, their parents deciding to move somewhat away from modernity without embracing fundamentalism. There is no recognition that they may be rejecting what Rabbi Saul Berman has termed "the debasement of the low secular culture in America." There is no allowance that MOs have come to appreciate the glory of Torah study, in part as a consequence of ArtScroll's magnificent publications which Heilman describes as having a "haredi outlook." There is no acknowledgement that a bit more religion might be a good thing.

Heilman concludes his description of the new Orthodox dystopia by comparing Islamic schools and yeshivas, something that he has done in previous writings. The comparison is odious, even morally obscene, in view of the suicide bombers and other evils attributable to the former. This does not curtail a writer who concludes his nasty polemic by writing that the "new Orthodox fundamentalist guardians of the faith could turn out to be its jailers."

Indeed, Heilman has reached a point where he is the prisoner of his own fantasies and falsehoods.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Whither Modern Orthodoxy

Religious groups that are defined by distinctive practices and beliefs are fascinating social organisms. To outsiders, the group's adherents are invariably viewed as an undifferentiated mass, as a collection of people who think and act alike. Inside of the group, there are distinctions and nuances that can beget sharp theological disputes. The Sh'ia world exemplifies this reality.

That world is huge, consisting of tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Moslems. All of world Jewry is, as I suggested at least a generation ago, less than a statistical error in the Chinese - and now also the Indian - census. The Orthodox are a small part of world Jewry, according to demographers about 500,000 in the United States. Yet, there are four major groupings of American Orthodox - Centrist, Chassidic, Modern and Yeshiva-world - and that's not counting Chabad or the Sephardim. There is also a dizzying array of subgroups, as, for example, the many Chassidic sects. There's more. Satmar, the largest sect, is divided over theology and not merely over succession and control. There is a splinter group which claims that mainstream Satmar has become lax in its religiosity.

There are also distinctions among the Modern Orthodox. An ultra-modern wing differs substantially from other Modern Orthodox on feminism, relations with the non-Orthodox and how to respond to modernity. Its leaders include Rabbis Saul Berman and Avi Weiss, respectfully the founders of Edah and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Despite the errant and endless kvetching of Samuel Heilman that the Moderns are a threatened species whose young are being subverted by charedi teachers, the reality is otherwise. My censuses of Jewish day schools indicate significant growth in the Modern Orthodox sector, an impressive development in view of the number of Moderns who have made aliyah.

As summer arrived, Rabbi Berman announced that Edah would close, a shocker in view of its ability to attract attention and funding and, more importantly, participation in its events and activities. While key Edah projects are being incorporated into Chovevei Torah where Rabbi Berman will direct continuing rabbinic education, it is unlikely that things will be the same.

In a thoughtful front-page article published in The Jewish Press explaining why "Edah is electing to wind down," Rabbi Berman wrote, "we didn't see the need for the Jewish community to bear the burden of yet another Jewish institution." This admirable sentiment should be emulated by other Jewish groups, notably the large number that for all practical purposes have long been dead.

Less admirable is Rabbi Berman's claim that Edah followed in the path of notable Orthodox Rabbis, including Rabbis Samson R. Hirsch, Jacob Ettinger and Azriel Hildesheimer and that these and other Orthodox leaders provided "the halachic and hashkafic antecedents" for the major ideological positions of Edah. This is a total historic distortion, a claim that doesn't have even a wobbly leg to stand on. Rabbi Berman should make his case without relying on what is bogus.

If, as he writes, it was not Edah's "purpose to criticize other Jews," the group did a terrific job camouflaging its intentions. Edah's well-advertised slogan, "The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox," was a deliberate jab at mainstream Orthodoxy. It takes little or no courage to be modern. It takes, at times, much courage to be distinctive in dress and appearance and to maintain a strictly Orthodox life in a society that is mired in Rabbi Berman's appropriate phrase, "the debasement of the low secular culture in America."

Edah's conference sessions frequently exhibited the bad habit of targeting mainstream Orthodoxy, even as tolerance and a welcome mat were the message to the non-Orthodox and those who openly deviated from halacha. My main peeve concerns sessions dealing with day schools where the refrain was the imperative to rescue Modern Orthodox schools from the pernicious influence exerted by charedi teachers. There was not a word of empathy for these men and women who toil with dedication and at low pay in the essential field of religious Jewish education. There was only criticism and the foolish notion that these teachers dictate the curriculum and character of the schools.

There was scant inclination to practice diversity and tolerance by inviting Orthodox speakers who might offer a different opinion on feminism, education and other topics on Edah's agenda. About the time that Rabbi Berman made his announcement, Rabbi Nati Helfgot, a top-flight scholar and star on Chovevei Torah's faculty, defended the school against criticism published in Yated Ne'eman, the yeshiva world's main newspaper. This resulted in a powerful response from the paper's editor who compellingly documented Chovevei Torah's hospitality toward those who advocate anti-halachic positions.

Orthodoxy is not what ails American Jewry. Modernity is. The impact of modernity is inescapable and, to one extent or another, all of Orthodox Jewry faces the problem of how to integrate elements of modernity while also shielding against that which is harmful. While strategies differ, the major parts of Orthodoxy have by and large established boundaries. The ultra-Moderns as represented by Edah have not. In the mindset of the ultras, too often Orthodoxy places second to modernity.

Modernity and the low secular culture that accompanies it are dynamic forces that constantly widen the gap between what society tolerates and what religious Jewish law allows. This reality has added to the predicament of Edah and the ultra-Modern Orthodox. The embrace of modernity can fill a conference hall, fed in part by Conservative traditionalists, but it cannot fill a Jewish home with sanctity.

Thatis why many Modern Orthodox rejected Edah. Unless the ultra-Modern Orthodox define the limits of modernity, there is a good prospect that, as has been anticipated for some time, little will separate them from the Conservative traditionalists who are unhappy because their movement has drifted far away from any traditional moorings.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Aliya and Yerida

I am suspicious, perhaps foolishly, of the official Israeli reports of the number of American Jews who have made aliya, not because I think that we are being deceived but because I sense that there are those who do not go through official channels when they settle in Israel and therefore are not counted. It was announced during the summer that fewer than 500 olim had come to Israel from North American in the first half of 2006. This seems fewer than the number that Nefesh B'efesh, the organization that receives enormous financial support from Evangelical Christians, claims to have brought to Israel via its well-publicized flights. How could the figure be so low?

Even if it is the case that there are American Jews - for instance, some charedim - who have made aliya without formally making aliya, the total is astoundingly low and this is without taking into account those who return within several years or sooner because they could not make a go of it in Israel or for some other reason.

Aliya statistics are pitiful when compared with the population movement in the other direction, meaning the Israelis who are yordim, as they have left Israel. There are many tens of thousands of yordim in the United States alone. Statistics do not tell the entire story, not even the entire quantitative side and certainly not the qualitative aspects. The migration of Israelis to these shores has propped up our population statistics, offsetting to an extent the massive losses resulting from Judaic abandonment. When we reckon, as we should, the offspring of ex-Israelis who now live here, as a consequence of yerida there are probably hundreds of thousands of Jews in the United States whose roots at some point were in Israel.

Aliya, on the other hand, has had a minimal impact on American Jewish numbers. Tens of thousands in a population of five or six million is not significant. However, overwhelmingly aliya is an Orthodox phenomenon and according to demographers the Orthodox come to no more than 10% of American Jews. Therefore, the impact on this sector has been significant. When Orthodox aliya is considered in generational terms encompassing the offspring of those who made aliya - and in many families, their offspring as well - American Orthodoxy has experienced meaningful population loss because of aliya.

That's the quantitative side. Qualitatively, how has aliya and yerida affected religious, intellectual and cultural Jewish life in Israel and the United States? It is difficult to assess the qualitative impact of yerida on either Israel or this country because there is scant evidence that Israel has lost much or that the U.S. has benefited. In the aggregate, the ex-Israelis and their families have not been sufficiently integrated into American Jewish communal life. It seems at times that there is a tacit understanding that neither they nor we - the important exception is Chabad - are much interested in the yordim being actively involved in Jewish affairs. They remain deeply committed to Israel where they have family, but they add little to Jewish life here, with the important exception of their numbers.

Aliya, although low in numbers, has resulted in qualitative gains and losses. Among those who have left, many were among the best and brightest that American Jewry has produced. Invariably, these are young men and women of true spirituality, deepfelt Judaic commitment and decency who possess skills that are valuable to the Jewish people. These qualities have been transferred to the Jewish State because those who made aliya could not see a future for themselves and their families that did not include living in the land that is our heritage. They have contributed enormously to Israel, blessing the land and people that they are committed to in multiple ways. When I am in Israel, I see them everywhere and marvel at their goodness and their endless reservoir of love for the Torah, for the land and for the people.

Israel's enormous gain from American aliya is American Jewry's great loss. When we read about a shortage of rabbis for our synagogues and principals for our day schools and when we bemoan the intellectual aridness of American Jewish life and the paucity of elevated leadership, we are being confronted with the aftershocks of the spiritual drain and brain drain resulting from aliya. Of course, there are other contributory factors arising from weaknesses in the fabric of American Jewish life, yet the deficit resulting from the departure of so many people of talent and deepfelt commitment is real.

This deficit is most pronounced among the Orthodox, notably in the modern and centrist sectors where aliya is most strongly felt as a transcendent religious obligation. The moderns and centrists have by and large maintained their numbers on these shores despite aliya. What they haven't maintained is spiritual elegance, for they are entrapped in a value system that emphasizes pursuit of material things and pleasures. We need only contrast the lifestyle of family members who have made aliya with their close relatives who have remained here.

Nor have the charedi sectors been immune from the same influences. It is telling that in American charedi life in the first years of this millennium, there isn't a towering religious figure. For decades, chassidic and yeshiva-world Jews were inspired by Torah leaders who were born and educated in pre-Holocaust Europe. They are gone, replaced by people of far lesser stature. For leadership, most charedim now look to Israel and this is true of the modern and centrist sectors of Orthodoxy.

There are individuals of true merit and religious and spiritual grandeur in our community. What American religious Jewry lacks is the quality of leadership that has been crucial in our religious life in every place of significant Jewish settlement. We can be thankful, at least, that Orthodox Jews in this country have contributed their best and brightest to Israel.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Sad State of the Conservative Movement

Borrowing from the world of politics where bad news is often leaked in advance of it being announced officially, the Conservative movement is letting it be known that before long its "halacha" experts will do what they have been doing for a long while and give their stamp of approval to what is halachically forbidden by sanctioning gay ordination and unions. This obviously is not bad news for a large majority of those who continue to identify as Conservative. They welcome each lowering of religious standards, each new interpretation that accords with what is happening in their lives as they drift even further away from religiosity. It is bad news for Conservatism.

Actually, the movement is trying to have it both ways, a stratagem that was used previously without success. Like the old joke about the rabbi who told two people in dispute that each was right, approval is to be given to a paper arguing that gay unions are permissible and to a second paper arguing that they are not. This is a heck of a way to run a religion.

We can now understand why Conservatism is beset by tzoros, why membership is declining and Conservative schools and synagogues are being closed. Since the forces in American and Jewish life that induce support for gay unions and other misinterpretations of halacha are dynamic, it's not likely that a Stop sign will be put up any time soon on processes that are harming the movement. The facts on the ground in Conservative homes point to increased acceptance of intermarriage and patrilineality and decreased adherence to religious obligations. The reality at the Jewish Theological Seminary and other key Conservative institutions is growing student support for defining Judaism downwards. These students are the Conservative rabbis of the future and many will also be leaders of the movement. They are a far cry in both learning and commitment from their predecessors.

In some sense, it makes sense for Conservatives to move in this direction. If the movement opts for greater religiosity or just stays where it is, membership losses are certain to escalate. The Conservative's traditional wing is relatively small and there are few adherents that it can attract by strengthening religious standards. Accordingly, it may be best to follow the path of Reform, letting the traditionalists drift further away, perhaps associating with the most modern of the Modern Orthodox or the break-away Union for Traditional Judaism that was established when the Conservatives approved the ordination of women.

The problem with this approach is that the Conservatives are losing many of their best and most committed, which was a subtext of the remarkable speech given by former JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch in his farewell address. He certainly is not in what is now the Conservative mainstream. What is in doubt is whether he remains a Conservative.

Another problem with the strategy of jettisoning the little that remains to be conserved is that the Reform already occupy the territory the Conservatives are moving into and they have developed a brilliant game plan for presenting their abandonment of Judaism in pseudo-religious terms.

Although it will not yield large numbers, my advice is for the Conservatives to give religion a try by tightening rather than loosening standards. This would surely mean even more defections to Reform or to the ranks of the unaffiliated, yet what would emerge is a stronger movement. Smaller would be, in short, stronger, as the Orthodox have demonstrated. The alternative, which is now the approach being taken, means a slow death for the movement.

When once before I gave unsolicited advice to the Conservatives, some Orthodox wanted to know why I might help a movement that I have sharply criticized. The answer is that what is happening is, while probably inevitable, bad news for American Jewry. This is evident in the crisis facing many Solomon Schechter schools. In the aggregate, they are significantly more religiously purposeful than nearly all other non-Orthodox day schools. Enrollment declines accompanied by financial difficulties have resulted in the closing of a number of Solomon Schechters and others are on the endangered list. They are usually replaced by transdenominational or Community day schools that are much weaker Jewishly. This translates into a loss for the Jewish future.

Conservative rabbis and leaders need to do more for Jewish education. One place to start is to provide significant funding to the movement's day schools and not to rely almost exclusively on tuition income. I am not confident that Arnold Eisen, JTS's incoming Chancellor who will be the movement's top leader, is sufficiently committed to meaningful Jewish education. He is thoughtful and talented and in a number of ways a good man, but he is not a religious figure. It is a mistake on both administrative and ideological grounds not to separate the JTS and the movement's leadership positions.

Throughout the network of Orthodox outreach activities there are Conservative Jews who are attracted by the meaningful classes and other educational opportunities. This demonstrates the eagerness of these Jews to study and to grow in Judaism. In Conservative synagogues, too often the educational pattern is Judaism light and the results reflect this.

As Conservatism continues to be challenged by membership losses, the prospect is for additional excuses to reduce what Judaism requires of Jews. This may buy some time, but not much. It will exact a large cost. Conservatism is no longer at a crossroads. That point was crossed a long time ago. What lies ahead looks bleak. The key question is not whether the movement can be salvaged because ultimately it cannot. The question is whether while it is still operational, the Conservative movement can make a contribution to American Jewish religious life.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Inartful Restitution

Without apology, I cannot join the large mixed Jewish and non-Jewish chorus offering hymns of praise celebrating the return of major works of art pilfered by the Nazis to some distant cousin or great niece of their former Jewish owners. I do not begrudge the good fortune of those who picked affluent forbearers. The problem is that righting these Nazi wrongs raises the question of why other property stolen from Jews has not received comparable attention, while even claims for restitution that were filed shortly after the Holocaust received short shrift.

Marie Altman, the closest surviving relative in the family that owned the Gustav Klimt painting that recently fetched $135 million, thanks to the circumstance that Ronald S. Lauder was sufficiently prescient to select a fabulously wealthy mother, is quoted as saying, "so far, fate has been very good to me." Fate wasn't good to millions of murdered Jews, nor to the hundreds of thousands who survived but now have died without their rightful claims being addressed. So far, fate hasn't been kind to the steadily dwindling number of survivors who still survive and for whom restitution hasn't been made.

The Nazis and their collaborators in all places where Jews lived stole whatever they could get their hands on, including homes, businesses, communal property, money and personal possessions. Why is the return of artwork more morally or legally compelling than the return of all else that the murdered and persecuted Jews possessed?

A good part of the answer - unfortunately it's a good answer - is that the scale of Nazi theft makes return and restitution just about financially and politically impossible. Are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Poles and Ukranians to be removed from their homes? Or are many tens of billions of dollars available to recompense Jews for homes stolen, businesses stolen, community facilities stolen, personal property stolen? As an aside, thousands of fervently religious Jews will soon travel to Uman in Ukraine for Rosh Hashanah, an exercise in mass stupidity conducted on land that remains soaked with the blood of untold hundreds of thousands of Jews slaughtered over the centuries by the ancestors of those who will now benefit financially from the visits of religious Jews to their country.

Art is different from other property because quantitatively it is limited and qualitatively it has unlimited cache. Great art is enveloped in celebrityship and this results in sleuths ferreting out stolen pieces that are now possessed by major museums. A private home in Lodz doesn't have comparable appeal.

Claims were made for the return or restitution of looted property but organized American Jewry turned a deaf ear. In at least one situation, involving the return of stolen German property to their rightful owners, the Jewish restitution bureaucracy did its best to prevent the families who were the victims from getting their property back. In the end, instead of stolen property going to the owners, it went into the grubby hands of the restitution organizations. So far as I know, the disgraceful story was told only by Netty Gross in The Jerusalem Report.

More shameful still was our community's reaction to the stealing of Jewish souls. As the fate of European Jewry became known, parents - we will never know how many - awaiting their murder or shipment to death camps gave their children to neighboring Gentiles for "safe-keeping," some to individuals and others to orphanages or other institutions, usually operated by Catholic groups. When the war ended, an indeterminate number of these children were returned to their parents if they survived and, if not, to other relatives. Since most parents did not survive, many children were not returned, even when relatives brought proof of their Jewish roots, and they were raised as Catholics. We recently learned that Pope Pius XII ruled that Jewish children who had been baptized could not be returned. Only the Orthodox made an effort to reclaim stolen Jewish souls. They had some success, but many were never returned and nearly all were lost entirely to Judaism.

While in Israel several years ago, I saw a deeply moving Israeli documentary on Polish Jews that focused on a handful of Poles who had discovered their Jewish heritage. The central story was of a Polish priest who had recently learned that his parents were Chassidim. Their picture was on the wall, flanked on one side by Sh'ma Yisrael and by a crucifix on the other side. With tears streaming down his face, the priest said that G-D had made him what he is and he cannot reject either of his heritages.

As the Holocaust recedes into history, our memory and emotional reaction to the horrible events have expanded. This may seem strange, yet it is as it should be because in the early years after the Holocaust we blocked out the horrors. They were too powerful for us to confront. It was as if we were too close to an intense flame.

We can now look at what befell our people and we can react to the crimes that occurred. This is good. What is not good is the corollary exploitation of the destruction of European Jewry as a matter of dollars and cents. Our activity and advocacy highlight a restitution agenda, as if there can be restitution for the crimes against our people. Increasingly, Holocaust-memory is an exercise in greed and even worse. Our remembrance of what happened two generations and more ago should be more than a money game. When it is treated as a money game, those who now benefit forget the suffering that Jews, including their relatives, experienced, and come to feel that fate has been good to them.

Individuals should pursue their claims. For our community, the agenda must be different. The Holocaust must remain a searing tragedy and not an exercise in alleged restitution.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Self-Indulgence In Religious Jewish Life - RJJ Newsletter

The battle against self-indulgence and the pursuit of pleasure in religious Jewish life is over, with those who still preach the message of restraint in full rout. They continue to give mussar, speaking to audiences of religious Jews who seem deeply moved by what they hear and determined to heed the plea that Torah living requires moderation and hatznea leches. Then for most - there are some who practice what has been preached - it is back to the old stand, back to gratuitous materialism and hedonism. There are the must-do expensive trips to ever-more exotic places, the redoing of homes that already reek with affluence, the show-off SUVs and the determination to nestle in the lap of luxury.

The battle that is over was never fought. The white flag was raised at the outset, for most of us are too weak spiritually to resist the imperative to buy and spend, to show off. For too many on this gravy train, tzedakah obligations are scarcely on the itinerary. Interestingly, the superrich whom I have known recognize that they have nothing to prove and generally fulfill their tzedakah responsibilities. It's the ordinary affluent - and their ranks are growing - and those who aspire to affluence who are most bit by the bug of self-indulgence.

We hear that American values and behavior are to blame. Are they? We live in a society where goods and services, experiences and fantasies are deliberately packaged and marketed to entice us. Can we escape the alluring message that this or that pleasure or extravagance is something that is easily within reach and something that we must have? The difficulty arising from the baneful influence of those among whom we live is pinpointed by Rambam in a notable section in Hilchos Deos (The Laws of Moral Conduct). "It is human nature," he writes, "that man is influenced in his thoughts and actions by his friends and associations and behaves in accordance with the way people behave where he lives." In a society embedded in instant gratification, we are ensnared and cannot escape.

It is convenient in this matter and others to attribute our bad behavior and errant values to the wrongful ways of non-Jews amongst whom we dwell. We obviously are affected by outside influences, yet somehow we manage to escape the behavioral attributes that we want to escape and remain a people who dwell apart. We do not escape the clutches of materialism and self-indulging because we do not want to escape them. We want to have, in the main, our religious cake and eat it too, but we also want to have some wiggle room to enjoy society's goodies. If we would only look in the mirror, we would see that the root problem - our spiritual decay - arises from within.

When Rambam speaks of a community's harmful influence, he does not have in mind a community of Gentiles. He has in mind a community of Jews, indeed a community of observant Jews. Elsewhere, he rules that a religious Jew must live in a community that has the full attributes and institutions of our religious life. Our vulnerability to the pursuit of pleasure and materialism results from internal defects, from intentions and values that we refer to as the Yetzer Ho-rah, which is nothing other than powerful destructive inclinations that are part of our make-up.

In the discussion in Tractate Yevamos regarding prospective converts, we learn that they are cautioned immediately prior to conversion not to expect "an abundance of wealth" after they join the Jewish people. The avoidance of wealth is essential to their spiritual growth after conversion. In the words of ArtScroll that are based on Rashi, "if the Jews were to enjoy an abundance of material resources, a condition that invariably invokes arrogance and vanity, they would be more susceptible to sin than other nations in similar circumstances."

Our greater susceptibility to sin is attributed in Tractate Sukkos to the Yetzer Ho-rah abandoning other nations - which means that he leaves them alone - and then concentrating the full force of his evil-doing on the Jewish people. We are more vulnerable than others and the degree of our vulnerability expands as we enter the path of self-indulgence. When we abandon restraint, our shield of kedusha is pierced and we are endangered spiritually. The more religious we are, the more endangered we may become, in line with the Talmudic maxim, "Kol hagadol me'chavero, yitzro gadol hemenu." (Whoever is greater than his fellow man, his evil inclination is greater than his fellow man's.)

Our spiritual grandeur dialectically puts us at greater risk and when we invite into our lives, even ever so slightly, values that are incompatible with our spiritual grandeur, there is great prospect that much worse will follow. This is the lesson learned from the tragic story of the daughter of Nakdimon Ben-Gurion in the period immediately after the destruction of the Second Temple, as recounted in Tractate Kesuvos.

The process of being enveloped and conquered by a spirit of self-indulgence that is antithetical to kedusha is the reverse of the process described by Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in Mesilas Yesharim for the acquisition of kedusha. That process begins with a determined effort to attain a measure of kedusha that results in the reward of sanctity as a gift from G-D. When those of us who want to live sanctified lives put out a small welcoming-mat to self-indulgence, base inclinations that are dormant within us are aroused and they seize the opportunity to lead us away from kedusha.

We have traveled too far on a questionable path and even those who have not the means or the desire to transgress are ensnared. Neither the example of our parents who lived lives of modesty and restraint and were thankful for the little that they had or the words of Torah leaders whom we respect are sufficient barriers against excess. In a few days, a contingent of thousands of religious Jews will be off to a distant place to commemorate Rosh Hashanah, not in Israel but in Uman in the Ukraine, a land that is still soaked with the blood of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Jews who were slaughtered over the centuries. This exercise in vanity is enveloped in claims of piety. Truly, there is no one who the Yetzer Ho-rah likes more than a religious Jewish fool.

Nearly everywhere in our community we see the insatiable appetite for luxury and pleasure. If only our impulse to give tzedakah would keep pace. Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, was careful not to criticize Orthodox Jews, yet he was critical of our failure to fulfill the maaser obligation. A generation ago, he wrote in a tshuva that most Orthodox Jews do not give sufficiently. The situation has gotten worse.

We are not commanded to be hermits. It is not a mitzvah to be poor. Our religion is one of engagement with the world and this includes the world of commerce. It is good to succeed in business and investments. It is not sinful to be affluent. The sin is in the misuse of affluence. The greatest tragedy arising from our self-indulgence is the wrongful lesson being taught to our children and grandchildren. They are being taught to want and even to demand. They are being taught to worship the false god of magia li - it is coming to me. Because self-indulgence is a dynamic force, the level of want and demand and indulgence rises steadily. Why would we want to harm our children?

Reversing the process of self-indulgence may be beyond our present reach. There are no reasons for optimism. What we can do is to take a small step on the path of self-denial and that may be a building block to greater acts of restraint. Our journey on the path of self-indulgence began with a small step that made us vulnerable. If we start to say "no," we may come to recognize that our lives are enriched as a consequence.