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.