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.