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.

The Accusatory State

If you want to know how badly the Lebanon war went for Israel, just consider this: Within three days of the start of hostilities, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Lebanon called for a cease fire. The obvious reason is that Israel had seriously damaged Hezbollah. But when the cease fire came, many Israelis believed that their country had failed. Nasrallah wasn't killed, rockets continued to fall in the North until the cease file came and key objectives weren't achieved. Finger-pointing began immediately and it has become a national phenomenon.

There were failures and mistakes in intelligence, military preparedness and planning, strategy and, most seriously, in the lack of preparedness for the socio-economic consequences of the war to Israelis in the North. Israel did not win the war because there was no war to win. There was the goal to hurt Hezbollah and to punish Lebanon severely for tolerating a terrorist state with a state. That goal was met. With the exception of the Six Day War, since 1948 Israel hasn't won outright any war and that will not change, primarily because of powerful diplomatic constraints. But Israelis aren't satisfied with partial results. There is a childish expectation that Rambo-like Israel can quickly wipe out all of the bad guys.

When this doesn't happen because it cannot, there must be high-powered investigations, fault must be found and heads must roll. There is no guillotine, but the "guilty" must be identified, pilloried and sacked.

If the finger-pointing were limited to major national security events, the practice would be understandable, yet also lamentable because of its overuse. This is not the case. Israel has become an accusatory state, a country engulfed by an endless parade of complaints of real or imagined wrongdoing by public officials in which the instrumentalities of democratic government are ignored. This development is nasty and dangerous because it poisons Israeli life and has the collateral effect of deterring top-flight people from engaging in public service.

The accusatory state has several prongs, with the Supreme Court being the primary architect. In its composition and practices it is sharply anti-democratic. It has usurped the authority to interfere in all matters of public policy, including routine administrative appointments. Accusatory petitions are filed nearly daily, with the court scarcely reflecting on the appropriateness of this activity. The attitude, as expressed by a former Chief Judge, is that the court has to play this role because no one else in government can be trusted.

The accusatory mentality or culture is especially evident in police activity. In large measure because of security needs, Israel's police have a distinctive role. As an apparent trade-off they play a small role in crime prevention or detection. When cars were being stolen wholesale and shipped immediately to Arab chop shops, the police stood idly by. Their response to the epidemic of home burglaries is not any better, a circumstance that results in homeowners putting bars on their windows because they know they cannot rely on the police.

But give the Israeli police the opportunity to investigate public figures and they quickly awake from their lethargy, operating on the principle that those whom they are investigating are guilty until proven innocent. Why the police have this role is a question that isn't asked. Nowadays, they are super-busy investigating loads of officials, from President Moshe Katsav whose presidential residence they raided late at night to lesser personages. In recent days, they netted two big fish, Tsahi Hanegbi, a former government minister, whose alleged crime strikes me as engaging in routine patronage and politics, and Haim Ramon, the Justice Minister, who apparently kissed a woman against her will. It is stupid and dangerous to criminalize what Ramon may have done, which is not to defend him. I assume that the law that criminalizes such behavior applies in its majesty to all who live in Israel. If it is properly enforced, Israel will either have to build many additional penal facilities or perhaps release the Palestinians it is holding to make room for the many others who have committed Ramon's crime.

What is intriguing about the police's determination to promote sexual morality is the blind eye and worse shown toward the well-documented and widespread sexual slavery practiced in Israel, as incredibly and shamefully many women are brutalized, prostituted and sold as property. Surely, we should be thankful for their vigilance in the Ramon matter.

Ordinary Israelis seem to relish the accusatory state, perhaps believing that there is an excess of corruption and maybe also because it relieves some of the tension from living dangerously. They seem not to understand that there is a cost in driving good people away from public service, as well as the poisoning of public life.

It's time for Israel to recognize that for some misjudgments or missteps, civil penalties are usually more appropriate than overkill. It's time for Israel's police force to get into the crime fighting business. It's time for Israel's Supreme Court to get out of the business of having a welcoming mat for all who have accusations to make.

I do not advocate tolerance of wrongdoing, whether financial or sexual. With, I think, the exception of Shimon Peres, over the past twenty years every Prime Minister has been under prolonged investigation, in some instances for possible trivial wrongdoing. Israel's presidents haven't done much better, nor the Chief Rabbis. It's comforting to know that no matter how powerful they may be, wrongdoing is not being tolerated.

The problem is that many of the targets scarcely did wrongs that merit full-fledged criminal investigation. What is the benefit when the police engage in extended trivial pursuits, hounding public officials on trivial charges based on trivial evidence? What is the benefit if the accusatory state continues to grow, as it must and will unless it is checked by a sense of restraint and proportion?