Friday, September 26, 2008

The Yad Vashem Issue

Museums need to prioritize, to decide what to display, which is also to say that they need to decide what is to be excluded. Resources, notably space and funds, are limited and this creates the imperative to be selective. The primary determinant is, of course, the nature or mission of the institution. A museum devoted to Islamic culture will not display Hopi Indian artifacts, at least not until a dissertation writer expounds on the impact of Islam on Hopi life. In the life of most museums, there are plenty of close calls regarding what to include.

For all of the sincere determination to be objective in the choices that are made, it is not possible to exclude entirely individual tastes and interests, both subjective factors, and perhaps also a dose or more of bias. The proof is in the many disputes regarding what museums exhibit, as well as the changes that are made when there are key personnel changes.

Yad Vashem is, in a strict sense, a museum, a description that inadequately describes its mission as our people’s primary evocation of horrors that while visually portrayable remain beyond comprehension. A second challenge is the vastness of the destruction of European Jewry, the numbers and places and key events and major personalities. Another difficulty arises from the sensibilities and passions that engulf the remembrance of the tragedy that befell our people.

In attempting to meet these challenges, Yad Vashem officials must constantly be mindful that the institution is not theirs. They must purposefully strive to banish whatever scholarly or aesthetic prejudices they may have as they perform their institutional responsibilities. This isn’t easy because the field of Holocaust history is rife with conflict and some of this is not pretty. What is urgently needed is a bias against bias.

It may be inappropriate to use adjectives when describing Yad Vashem’s achievements. One is unavoidable: impressive, a term that applies especially to sections of the museum that are less well visited, including the Valley of the Communities, the Children’s Memorial, the Hall of Remembrance where candles commemorate the camps where Jews were slaughtered, the Hall of Names where the names of each murdered Jew is inscribed, the memorials to Righteous Gentiles and an expanding array of research and documentation services assisting those who seek information about murdered family members. There is dignity in the way Yad Vashem operates.

The Holocaust History Museum, which is the main exhibition space, provides an extensive verbal and pictorial narrative of the Holocaust, from the events leading to Hitler’s rise to power to the establishment of Israel. This facility is new, having replaced in 2005 the previous History Museum that had been Yad Vashem’s mainstay. The new museum covers the same ground as its predecessor, but in a softer and yet more moving and effective way.

In the choices they have made, Yad Vashem officials have invariably struck the right note. A notable and unfortunate exception is the slighting of religious life and leaders, a point that has been made by Mrs. Esther Farbstein who has written extensively on the subject, notably in “Hidden in Thunder,” a significant work that has been published in English in a two-volume edition. A granddaughter of a previous Gerrer Rebbe and the wife of the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Mrs. Farbstein has urged Yad Vashem officials to correct this unfortunate neglect. In a recent email to me, she wrote that there has been progress, yet more needs to be done.

A far more publicized issue concerns Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, whose militant group pressured both the American Jewish establishment and the Roosevelt administration to take stronger action to assist and rescue European Jew, as many thousands were being murdered daily. It has been estimated that these efforts resulted in as many as 200,000 Jews being saved, certainly a significant achievement.

This is a Holocaust chapter that should be included in Holocaust museums and especially Yad Vashem. Yet, this hasn’t happened, in large measure because it is convenient to treat Kook as an outcast. In a sense, what has happened is payback time by the establishment. Recently, however, the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington reversed course and it is including a Bergson exhibit. Fifty Holocaust scholars from around the world have urged Yad Vashem to follow suit. Unfortunately, Yad Vashem is adamant and this constitutes a betrayal of trust by those who need to understand that the place where they have titles and offices is not theirs but the emotional and historical property of the Jewish people and it is necessary for those who make decisions to be sensitive to the sensibilities of all Jews.

In a surprisingly tendentious Jerusalem Post article called “Why Kook is Out,” Dr. Yehuda Bauer, the noted Holocaust historian who is the director of Yad Vashem’s International Center for Holocaust Studies, defends the decision to exclude the Bergson group. Much of the article offers an extensive and I believe historically warped defense of Stephen Wise, a prime target of the Bergson group. Bauer argues that it is not the function of Yad Vashem to pay attention to Kook since he operated outside of Europe and “Yad Vashem can only cover what happened to the Jews in Europe – not the action or inaction of the Jews outside.” This is, to be gentle, a questionable assertion in view of what Yad Vashem already displays about Jewish activity outside of Europe.

It is not Yad Vashem’s role to debate the merits of Hillel Kook and those who worked with him or to enter into any of the other scholarly thickets and controversies that are the province of historians. The pity is that there is so much the institution does right. It should be big enough and sufficiently honorable to do the right thing regarding the Bergson group.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Right is Wrong

As the Brits might say, we’re supposed to be mum about the Mum-to-be. This from the family value folks who preach against sexual promiscuity and the failure of parents to take responsibility for the behavior of their children. I happen to share many of these family values. What I do not share is the blatant hypocrisy of the Sarah Palin claque, those who have quickly elevated the Alaska Governor to undeserved sainthood.

Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is, as we have been told, a private matter and she should not be the target of media probing. Her right to privacy is not diminished by her status as the daughter of a now very prominent national figure.

The problem is that her privacy has been violated by those who are marketing her mother as a paragon of good values. They employed the teenager as a centerpiece at the Republican Convention and then went further by flying in from Alaska the teenage father-to-be who appeared to be in a daze. We know little about him or the wedding plans, whether it will happen before election day or after or perhaps not at all. I imagine the decision will be made by those who decide which option will be best for the McCain-Palin ticket. Perhaps there will be a White House ceremony when the lad reaches the age of consent, presided over by James Dobson, the eminent head of Focus on the Family and the great advocate of sexual abstention.

There are reasons to support John McCain. He is a war hero who is not being swift-boated. He has a good record on Israel. He has often shown admirable independence and political courage, rising above the crude partisanship that degrades political discourse. Sarah Palin is not among the reasons and not only because she is not in the slightest prepared for the great responsibilities that soon may be hers.

There is another responsibility, parental responsibility. Parents cannot control or monitor what their teenagers do every moment of the day. Yet, in a legal and moral sense we insist – and rightfully so – that parents have responsibility for what their children who are minors are doing. We hear the constant refrain, “Do you know where your children are?” Was Sarah Palin completely unaware of Bristol’s relationship? We are told by those who are carefully crafting her image that she is a soccer mom and a hockey mom. We need to know what kind of real Mom she is, how concerned she was about her daughter’s behavior.

Our society is plagued by teenage pregnancy. The emotional, social and financial costs are enormous and the harm to parents and children is more often than not enduring. What message is being sent to teenagers by the adoration visited upon Sarah Palin by the vocal champions of sexual abstinence and restraint? Is it that if your mother is famous and an advocate of right-wing ideology it is okay to be promiscuous?

While conservatives and religious fundamentalists are holding their noses, as well as their tongues, on Election Day they will toe the ideological line. What makes Sarah Palin right to them is that she is right-wing. Ideology enslaves the mind by doing away with the difficult task of thinking, of reflecting and making choices based on what is right. Life is simpler when the mind is put into mothballs, when ideology dictates how we are to view a wide range of public issues.

The sin of ideology worship is not monopolized by the right wing. Last week I criticized the liberal antagonism toward religion, the tendency to constantly oppose involvement of religion in the public square, including the vital and irreplaceable role played by faith-based groups in providing critical social services. A significant number of American Jews are in this camp, the Orthodox being a notable exception. They have moved in the main far toward the right, a process that I first discussed in a 1967 article, “The New Style of American Orthodox Jewry” that was published in Jewish Life, then the magazine of the Orthodox Union. Their ideological conservatism encompasses opposition to gay marriage and abortion, as well as a wide range of family values and social issues.

Regrettably, too many Orthodox have bought whole hog into the right wing agenda, including on environmental issues, civil rights and civil liberties, the treatment of workers and governmental responsibility to the poor. Isn’t it possible to be strongly against gay marriage and strongly for increasing the minimum wage? I know of no Orthodox Jewish breadwinners who can get by on the current minimum wage.

Religious Jews do have something of an ideological guide, although it is much more than that. It is called the Torah and there is nothing in it that mandates opposition to gun control or to the protection of the environment or, for that matter, going gaga over Sarah Palin. Total fidelity to a political ideology is a form of idol worship, as I argue in a 1974 Jewish Press article in which I described the growing enthusiasm among religious Jews for political conservatism. I wrote:

“My principal objection to the new embrace of conservatism is that [Orthodox] Jews have adopted a new pseudo-religion to replace the one that they have recently rejected. The false gods of conservative politics have succeeded the false gods of liberalism and little has changed since too many of us remain political idol worshipers. We are in the process of elevating our gratification with conservative rhetoric and policies to the transcendent status of a religion. Once again, we are true believers, and once again the object of our belief is false. Idol worship is alien to Judaism and this includes political idols.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Our War Against Religion

In the days before the Democratic convention, Jewish notables issued, in the words of the headline in this newspaper’s lead article, “stern warnings” to party leaders. They weren’t concerned about Israel, despite questions that have been raised about Barack Obama’s views, nor about strengthening the safety net for tens of millions of Americans. Their target was faith-based initiatives, the social service programs sponsored by religious groups that assist the needy and receive public funding. In the pages of Forward, we were treated to the pseudo-wisdom of Abraham Foxman whose shallowness as a thinker is matched by the skimpiness of his achievements. The ADL boss groused that “religious institutions have been eligible to receive billions in government social service grants.”

Because these non-conscientious objectors are secularists and overwhelmingly Democratic in their political orientation, I wonder whether down deep they prefer another Republican victory in November, as this would allow them to continue to complain. They should read Peter J. Boyer’s important article in last week’s The New Yorker called “Party Faithful” and subtitled, “Can the Democrats Get a Foothold on the Religious Vote?” Boyer describes how Democrats alienated faith-based voters and the toll that this has taken on election day and the new efforts to draw some of these voters back to the party.

The critical issue for Jews is not political expediency, whether we do or should favor this or that candidate or party. What is most at stake is intellectual honesty, the truth about how best to meet the enormous challenge to tend to the vast number of Americans who are poor or needy in any of a great number of ways. If we would follow the “stern warnings” of our leaders who wage a constant war against religion, poor and needy people of all ages and groups would be hurt.

Boyer cites “a remarkable speech” given two years ago by Barack Obama before a liberal Christian group “in which he offered a frank critique of liberal queasiness regarding faith,” saying that “there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical.” He then challenged secularists who “are wrong when they ask believers to leave religion at the door before entering into the public square,” insisting that “a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state.”

We Jews are in the first rank of these police, as we have been for at least sixty years. This is our surrogate religion, the idol that we worship as we remain steadfastly faithful to faithlessness. We reflect not on this orthodoxy, nor do we pay heed to realities or liberal voices that suggest that our fanaticism is misplaced. Nor do we reflect on the potential harm that our anti-religious stance may cause to American Jewry.

There is in this a remarkable disconnect. This newspaper has reported the anguish in the Federation world arising from cutbacks in governmental funding to some Jewish social service agencies. We are told that the Jewish needy will suffer. There is not a peep from our anti-faith vigilantes regarding First Amendment issues, not even regarding programs that have an overt and distinct Jewish character, as when a Federation facility or agency has a synagogue on its premises.

Nor have we been concerned – and for good reasons – about public funding for Black churches that provide vital social services to their members. Surely, such activity strengthens the identity of individual recipients with the church. For even better reasons, we have enthusiastically applauded the civil rights activism of churches, although clearly this advocacy inherently eradicates the boundaries between church and state.

Our opposition to faith-based programs is selective, based largely on our ideological preferences. We save our fire primarily for those who do not share our liberal agenda. We issue stern warnings because we are fearful that Democrats may reach out to Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants who have become alienated from a party that they once supported and have come to believe is hostile to their interests and faith.

When Catholic hospitals tend to the sick, they serve a necessary public function which is not diminished by the presence of crucifixes and religious attire. The same is true of faith-based sponsored activities that fulfill governmental obligations to assist the poor, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the elderly and frail, children in broken families and many others. Without faith-based initiatives our society would be far worse off and this is not an abstraction but a reality in millions of homes. Without faith-based initiatives, many who need help would have nowhere to turn.

Faith-based initiatives generally do a better job than governmental-based social service initiatives because they provide a caring environment that is often absent when bureaucratic barriers impede what government is trying to accomplish.

It is time for American Jewry to grow up, time to acknowledge that Barack Obama was right when he said that “Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters.” It is time that we not be the only “religion” in America whose agenda promotes a war against religion.

Sadly, there is little prospect that we will change course. Our hostility to our own religion has become hostility to other religions and now, hostility as well, to the critical needs of millions of Americans. We can only hope that our intolerance will not one day result in the defamation of Jews by other Americans.

Monday, September 08, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - September 2008

Torah and mitzvos constitute an ideal world, a world in which our obedience to the commandments frees us from slavery to our ego, desires and impulses and also from slavery to the outer environment which compels us to yield to hedonism and fleeting pleasures. The world of Torah and mitzvos is ideal not in the sense of a utopia that exists in the mind and is beyond our reach. By ideal is meant a state of perfection achieved through obedience and service to Hashem. This world is at once nearby and elusive. It is, in the words of the Torah reading in several weeks, not in heaven or in a distant place but very close. It is within our grasp through fulfillment of the mitzvos, yet because of failings that are inherent in the human experience, we fall short.

There is thus a gap between our ideals and our reality, a disconnect between how we are required to act and how we do act. The life of a religious Jew is a struggle to control and overtake the appetites and inclinations that create the disconnect between what is required of us by Torah and mitzvos and our behavior. In varying degrees and ways, our thought, speech and actions compromise our compliance with Torah obligations. The distinctive characteristic of a religious person is to know this, to acknowledge the disconnect and to work at self-improvement. Among those of us who are righteous, the gap between the ideal and practice is narrow, in some measure because these individuals are blessed with elevated attributes but surely also because of their struggle to draw close to the ideal. That some of us succeed provides assurance that the disconnect can be challenged.

However, the powerful forces that induce wrongful thought, speech and action are always alive in our lives. As the Talmud teaches, the more we triumph over wrongful inclinations, the more these inclinations seek to entrap us. These negative forces serve as justification for what is wrongful, so that we come to think of inappropriate behavior as appropriate. We are taught that when a sin is repeated and then repeated again and again, it becomes permissible in the mind of the transgressor. The justification of wrongdoing serves as the guardian and advocate of wrongdoing.

For improvement, this barrier must be recognized and then challenged. Rambam accordingly underscores that the process of teshuvah requires the conscious acknowledgement that what is wrong is wrong. This is never easy, yet our religious commitment provides an opening and opportunity for halachic and hashkafic improvement so that we can triumph over wrongful inclinations. This opportunity is particularly heightened in the period beginning with Elul and extending through Yom Kippur when we are more alert to the obligation to engage in self-assessment and, at least for a while, to draw closer to the standards and behavior required of us as observant and obedient Jews.

The prayers and confessions recited during this period are essentially personal expressions that relate to personal shortcomings. This is as it should be because departures from Torah standards in thought, speech and deed are, in the main, personal defects and it is a hallmark of religious life that we take responsibility for our behavior. Even when the expressions are in group terms, as in the Avinu Malkeinu recitations, the reference is primarily to the individual wrongdoing of the many and not to the collective sins of the community as a community.

For our communal sins, by which is meant not the aggregate of individual wrongs but departures from appropriate Torah behavior that have become ingrained in our community so that many of us are entrapped by wrongful societal and communal imperatives that are difficult to resist, there is a paucity of liturgical language and opportunities for acknowledging the wrong. There are, of course, gatherings, more often for women than for men, where effective speakers implore us to improve in one way or another. These are sincere occasions and they evoke a desire to change while the speeches are being heard. Yet, they are also invariably and without intention superficial occasions, if only because the words that are spoken are divorced from reality, the reality being potent forces that compel adherence to practices that do not necessarily conflict head on with Torah requirements but which are nonetheless divorced from the life of Torah and mitzvos.

What is involved is not a blatant violation of halacha. Rather, there is an embrace of values and attitudes that are discordant with Torah values. A useful illustration is hedonism, the excessive and relentless pursuit of material things and pleasures. The consequence of hedonism is not the commission of an overt sin – although there is a negative impact on the giving of tzedakah – but the dimunition of our community as a sacred people. It is remarkable that at a time when there is a sincere and enhanced commitment to Torah study, there is a parallel sincere and enhanced commitment to living it up.

At the communal level, there is a disconnect between Torah values and societal appetites and impulses that pull in a discordant direction and there is too little in our liturgy and mussar that may serve as restraint on wrongful communal behavior. Nor is the Elul through Yom Kippur period, whose salutary effect on individual reflection and teshuvah is evident, a time for greater fidelity to Torah norms at the communal level. There is no apparent narrowing of the communal disconnect between the ideal and reality. In fact, in one crucial respect, the communal disconnect is enlarged during this period.

This is because Elul and Rosh Hashanah coincide with the opening of the school year, the period when there is a spirit of renewal as children begin another year of Torah study and, hopefully, a year that will result in further growth of their religious commitment. Ever since the Talmudic period, it has been accepted that the establishment of schools for religious study is a communal responsibility. This means that there is a communal responsibility to provide the opportunity to study Torah to all children. This communal responsibility extends to children from marginally observant homes whose parents are willing to send them to a yeshiva or day school, children who in today’s usage would in the main attend schools with a kiruv orientation. We do have such schools, although they are scarcely provided for by our community and few Orthodox Jews any longer pay much attention to them. It is no wonder that enrollment in these schools has declined and since few mainstream yeshivas and day schools now accept such children, an ever-increasing number of Jewish children are being deprived of the opportunity to be nurtured in our noble heritage which is the great treasure of our people.

That is one communal disconnect in Torah education and it is a disconnect that is most pronounced at the start of the school year in the month of Elul.

Another disconnect is that during the same period, retention and admission decisions are made by school officials. This is a period when our well-advertised ideal of providing a Torah education to our community’s children is put to the test. Such decisions are also made throughout the year, often in the form of students being told that they must leave. While there are situations that justify parents being told to find another school for their children, what has erupted in our ranks is a culture of rejection, a set of attitudes that have become embedded and which result in an expanding array of situations where it is regarded as the right and “Torah” way to deny admission or re-admission. I regard this culture of rejection as anti-Torah. It encompasses children from homes that are not sufficiently religious, children with even mild behavioral problems, children who are not sufficiently bright, children who have committed minor misdeeds, children from poor homes and much else.

The number of children who have been affected by the culture of rejection is in the thousands. I wonder whether during Elul there are principals or other yeshiva officials who pause and reflect on the relevance of this period as they reject students. Are there principals who say that precisely because it is Elul it is necessary to admit a child who has a particular shortcoming? Are there principals who say that because it is Elul it is necessary to give a student another chance? I know that some do, but far too many do not. I am astounded by the willingness of principals to cavalierly reject students in the month of Elul. How easy it is for them to expand the gap in Torah chinuch between our rhetoric and the ideal on the one hand and the reality on the other hand. The culture of rejection in Torah chinuch is at its strongest during the period of teshuvah.

Why do I write of a communal disconnect when the decisions to accept or reject students are made by individuals? Let the principals and deans bear the burden of guilt, not the community. At a Torah Umesorah convention years ago, Rav Elya Svei, the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva whose illness has deprived us of the guidance of the outstanding figure in American Torah chinuch in the past generation, noted that Rav Mendelowitz, ztl, of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath would fast on the day that he was required to fire a rebbi. Perhaps principals should be obligated to fast on the day that they expel a student. The question, however remains, in what way is our community responsible for the actions of principals and deans?

One answer is that they are community leaders and what they do carries a communal imprimatur. Another reason is that the culture of rejection arises in some measure because parents pressure schools to turn away certain students.

I know that these words will have little or no impact, that they repeat a message that I have been sending for more years than I can remember. We have ignored the sacred words of the Chazon Ish that I have printed in this space. Still, I believe that the message is necessary and we are obligated to challenge the culture of rejection. I should note that over the years I have been involved in a number of admission and retention decisions where I have prevailed in the direction of retention and admission. In each of these situations, my faith in the student has been rewarded.

We often do not see the outcome of a rejected child. He or she is gone and out of sight and definitely out of the thoughts of those who made the decision to reject. The sin is therefore easier to bear and yet greater in consequence. When Joseph was sold by his brothers, they first cast him into a pit so that he was out of their sight and they went on with their shepherding. Years later in Egypt, they did not recognize him and the reason they did not recognize him is because in a meaningful sense they did not recognize him as their brother when they committed their original sin.

As Jacob was about to be reunited with the son he thought had died, he initially saw the agalos or wagons that Joseph had sent and this prompted him to think of the last time that the father and son were together and studied the laws of eglah arufah, what is required of the elders of a community when an unidentified corpse is found. They must proclaim, “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.” Rashi asks, “Can we even imagine that the elders of Beth Din are murderers?” He responds that what they are proclaiming is that “we did not see this man and we did not send him away without sustenance and proper accompaniment.” Their transgression was the failure to see and to provide sustenance, which is a metaphor for Torah. The elders were all righteous people and Torah leaders and they therefore bore a great responsibility. Not seeing can be sinful.

Those who make retention decisions in our schools and who partake of the culture of rejection are in the aggregate good people. Yet, they sin when they do not see, when they send away. Elul should be a time when they see and do not send away because this is a time of drawing closer to G-D and Torah and mitzvos, a time for teshuvah.