Thursday, June 25, 2009

We Have to Be Taught Not to Hate

The killing at the Holocaust Museum and the latest foul emanation from Rev. Jeremiah Wright demonstrate that whatever may separate haters on the far right from haters on the far left, their common denominator is hatred of Jews. This is a lesson that has been taught time and time again and even the most optimistic among us know that the prospect is for additional lessons.

It isn’t sufficient to bemoan the reality that anti-Semitism is inherent in our existence, that this is the way we are fated to live and too often in our history the way Jews have been fated to die. It’s necessary to identify the roots that nourish the hatred of Jews. Far greater attention is given to the repulsive language of Wright than to the expanding ranks of armed and dangerous neo-Nazis and their allies who constitute a far greater danger, if only because they have shown a willingness to engage in violent acts. One explanation for this less than benign neglect is that they are essentially underground and away from the mainstream. Another is that the far right is protected, perhaps inadvertently but we cannot be sure, by the powerful right wing of the Republican Party. It’s time for Jews to be more alert to this danger. More parochially, it’s time for the too many Orthodox Jews who have embraced right-wingism to contemplate who their bedfellows are.

Our religion is Judaism, not conservatism or liberalism. A good case can be made on Jewish grounds for certain conservative positions, notably on a range of social issues, and a good case can be made for certain liberal positions, also on a range of social issues. Those of us who have supported President Obama might pause to consider whether Washington’s unprecedented, massive involvement in economic and other territory that historically and even under the New Deal was regarded as off limits is a good thing. As an aside, the conservative nature of the New Deal has been detailed by Arthur Schlessinger, Jr. and Richard Hofstadter.

Why should the White House decide who heads an automobile company or serves as a bank chairman? Isn’t there truth in Lord Acton’s famous dictum about how power corrupts?

A good conservative case can be made for limited government, for skepticism about the role of government. David Brooks makes this case often in his Times’ column and William Buckley did much the same for decades. This is a conservatism with malice toward none and except for the conservative label, it bears little resemblance to the conservatism of talk radio which is totally negative and bereft of nuance, reflection or the willingness to recognize that at least on some issues, the other side may have a point. The message is one of hate, of seeking to destroy those who espouse a different point of view.

There is danger in the drumbeat of hate offered by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk and while his speech is protected and his intentions may be otherwise, he is nurturing a mentality that feeds into neo-Nazism. That is the inevitable outcome of a message that day in and day out for weeks, months and years is laced with hatred. I know that there are those who will be offended about my writing about their idol in this fashion. They should also know that idol worship is strongly proscribed in our religion.

Most of us have been conditioned to be optimistic, to believe that there is a marketplace of ideas in which good ideas triumph over those that aren’t good. As expressed in the last lines of the published version of Anne Frank’s diary, people are good. At about the same time that the book first appeared, Rodgers and Hammerstein had a similar formulation in South Pacific, preaching that people have to be taught to hate because their natural instinct is not to hate.

Sadly, that’s not true. People must be taught not to hate. They must be taught that hatred is wrong because in too much of human experience and much that we know as Jews, there are tragic consequences. What we know about the human psyche points toward a gloomy assessment of our species. Few of us are paranoid, yet few of us can escape entirely looking at certain events through dark glasses. People have fears and there are reservoirs of bitterness and anger or disappointment and these may serve as nesting places for messages of hate and bigotry.

Over the ages, those who identify as conservative understood the dark side of human nature and that has been a powerful factor in their distrust of government. In their Thoreauean view, that government is best that governs least. The roots of this pessimistic view precede by many generations any political ideology. As we read early in Genesis, “G-D saw the weakness of man…and that every product of his heart was but evil constantly” and therefore G-D regretted that He created man.

A conservative outlook that arises from our religious teachings must be aware of the potential for evil when the heart and mind are receptive to messages of hate. There is today much peril in the hate messages emanating without stop from the right wing. Religious Jews in particular must not turn a blind eye or be deaf to this reality simply because on some political or social issues we are in the same camp with those who are peddling these messages.

All Jews should be frightened by the growing neo-Nazi movement and by how it is egged on by right-wing talk radio. Religious Jews are frequently enjoined to be careful about the company they keep. This surely must encompass the company of extreme right-wingers. This is a plea to my fellow Orthodox who are on a treadmill of hate to get off. There are plenty of ways to embrace conservatism without falling prey to the odious message marketed by the extreme right wing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Response to Comments On Rabbi Dovid Cohen and the Jewish Week

My column criticizing the Jewish Week for its article on Rabbi Dovid Cohen has elicited an enormous response, a majority of it critical of what I wrote, and this is something that I did not expect. I haven’t read all of the comments. Those sent to me have been thoughtful and respectful. I am grateful for this and especially to Harry Maryles, a man who has demonstrated over the years that a blog forum for discussion of issues in Jewish life need not resemble a spitball fight. His comments and the long anonymous one that he posted have induced further reflection on my part.

Essentially, the criticism of what I wrote can be divided into two categories: My criticism of JW and what I wrote about people not paying all of their taxes.

I continue to believe that the JW article was disgraceful, even if what it claims Rabbi Cohen said is accurate. RDC spoke nearly two and a half years before JW published an article. There was nothing newsworthy to generate such an article and it was one more example of the tawdry journalism that constitutes too much of this newspaper’s reportage on Orthodox life. I cannot think of a parallel situation where JW or any other newspaper has allowed such a long gap of time before discovering that there is a story deserving of publication. This was an article that should not have been published, no matter what may have occurred in a Bergenfield shul in February 2007 and it was an exercise in character assassination.

The heavy involvement of Ohel in the story was an exercise in guilt by association. There was no reason to bring in Ohel, although it is apparent from what I have heard since the article was published that an effort has been made over an extended period to connect Ohel with what RDC said. Most of us have a plethora of associations including friends, relatives, institutions we are involved in and much else. What I think most of us have come to understand is the untenability of the notion that the friend of my enemy is also my enemy. We come into regular contact with people who are involved with persons whom we do not care for and there is some rational instinct in most of us which says that this is not something that we want to make much of. Ohel did not belong in the story not because there is no connection to RDC but because its connection to RDC was not germane. I must note that over a great number of years the impression that I and many others in Orthodox life have had is that RDC plays a creative and responsible role at Ohel.

Interestingly, several of those who have written have taken a hatchet to Ohel, apparently because they have other axes to grind. For sure, Ohel has warts and it cannot be otherwise in view of the territory in which it operates. Life is always difficult because there are unexpected happenings and because there is too much that does happen that has no easy approach or solution. Ohel operates in zones of family dysfunction, of deep and enduring emotional problems and pain, of difficulty in determining what the right course of action may be, etc. There is nothing easy about what Ohel does and while the organization is not immune from criticism, those who criticize need to be careful.

The implication of the Rabbinical Council in the article was a further act of guilt by association. I have heard different versions as to whether the RCA has disbanded its halachic body because of the RDC matter. If it has, our community is the loser.

I also criticized the article for its heavy reliance on anonymity, which is based on the claim that if persons spoke on the record, they would be subject to severe communal retribution. I imagine that my point of view was significantly affected by my willingness to take a position and never to hide behind anonymity. Since I am not afraid (but I am often angry) I cannot figure out why others might be afraid. In his post, Harry Maryles specifically took me to task, saying that if I do not think that Orthodox communities “contain individuals who will act in retribution, then he is living in a different world than the one I live in.” That may be the case; if it is, I must concede that in writing about retribution I ought to have recognized that there are people who are unwilling to be out front. Still, it’s hard to accept that every single source cited by JW against RDC remained anonymous.

This brings me to the tax portion of the column: I did not write about cheating as such but simply said that answering questions about paying taxes is a mine field and that there are powerful social realities that both impel many tens of millions to underreport and impel government to allow a fairly large amount of slack in the degree of reporting. I gave a number of examples and could have given many more, including the failure of most persons who have nannies (they may not be called nannies) to pay the requisite Social Security tax and perhaps other taxes and also the failure of most parents who gift to their children to adequately pay the gift tax. I do not regard such persons as criminals or, in fact, demonstrating severe ethical lapses. Rather, given the nature of the tax system, including complications in the tax code, as well as the feeling of many that ordinary tax on income that is recorded should be sufficient for governmental purposes, there is a powerful tendency to try to take advantage at the edges. Not only doesn’t government prosecute such “cheating,” it also makes no effort of consequence to prevent millions of persons to engage in such behavior.

A number of the comments link the tax issue to gezel akum and also to the more general notion that prevails in some quarters of eisav sonei es Yaakov, arguing that it therefore is permissible to be antagonistic to Gentiles, to cheat them, etc. For many more years than I can remember I have been strongly influenced by the words of Maharsha in Kesubos on the incident involving the daughter of Nakdimon ben-Gurion. Gezel akum is a sin and those who justify it are committing a chillul hashem and impelling others to sin. It is reprehensible for any rabbi to take the opposite position.

Worse yet because of the global implications is the sophomoric, ignorant, stupid, false and odious notion that eisav sonei es Yaakov means that every non-Jew hates us. This is a formula for tragedy and disaster and it is also a mind-set that runs counter to truth. As I have written quite often over a number of years, it should be obvious that G-D did not place us on this earth to be at war with billions of other people.

Friday, June 19, 2009

There Needs to Be An Apology

Although the title would fit, I have resisted the urge to call this column, “McCarthyism at the Jewish Week.” Week after week and for years, this newspaper has pummeled the Orthodox, the clear intent being to depict this ten percent of American Jewry as engulfed in wrongdoing. The low point was reached last week in an article that purports to deal with what Rabbi David Cohen, a notable scholar and a truly nice person, said more than two years ago on a Shabbos in a Bergenfield shul. The article is an exercise in character assassination.

Guilt by association is a familiar McCarthyistic technique and it is abundantly on display in this article. The headline is “Ohel’s Halachic Advisor: OK to Cheat on Taxes?” I will just note the “when did you stop beating your wife?” question mark at the end. More disturbingly, how did Ohel get into the act? What does Ohel have to do with the talk that Rabbi Cohen gave in February 2007? The strong suggestion is that this newspaper is determined to discredit Ohel, a childcare agency with an exemplary record, specifically including on the hot-button issue of sexual abuse.

Ohel wasn’t the only victim of the nasty embrace of guilt by association. Somehow, the Rabbinical Council of America was also thrust into the same putrid journalistic cauldron. I doubt that we will fully learn by what alleged standard this article was written and published.

Another McCarthyistic staple is the reliance on anonymous sources. No name is attached to the article and it is identified as a staff report; it appears from the sources cited that considerable resources went into the effort to discredit Rabbi Cohen and, by association, Ohel and the Rabbinical Council. There is at least a minyan of anonymous sources which aren’t identified, allegedly because they are fearful of retribution. This claim itself is designed to make the Orthodox look bad. The Orthodox are routinely taken to task, including in the Jewish Week, and the critics are mentioned. What retribution would ensue if this newspaper had identified its sources? When charges are made, the absence of attribution undermines credibility.

McCarthyism is serious business and we should all be concerned about the disgraceful article that was published last week.

The larger issue concerns the story itself, if there is a story. There was no activity by Rabbi Cohen to trigger an article about what he may have said twenty-eight months ago, no new position or publication or pronouncement. If there was something to report, the time was shortly after Rabbi Cohen gave his Shabbos talk. There obviously is no tape of the speech which concerned the obligation of religious Jews to obey civil law. During the question period he was asked about tax evasion, itself an ethical minefield that I shall discuss shortly. Allegedly, he did not come out against tax cheating, although he said that wherever there is the prospect of Chilul Hashem or desecration of G-D’s name, it is forbidden to cheat.

I do not know what Rabbi Cohen said. I know that tax compliance is a complex subject made more complex by the arcane nature of the tax code and also by powerful social realities that affect the extent of compliance and how the government deals with non-compliance. The words “evasion” and “cheat” carry a punch, yet it is mistaken to believe that the issue is simply one of compliance or non-compliance. In a notable tax case opinion two-thirds of a century ago, Judge Learned Hand of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made the point that it is appropriate for taxpayers to take advantage when they calculate their liability.

I imagine that there are waiters, cab drivers and all those who rely on tips for income who report every last cent, but they are a small minority. I imagine that there are shopkeepers who report all their income, but they aren’t representative of their field. I imagine that there are others who deal with cash who faithfully record every transaction and give the government every last cent it may be entitled to, but they too aren’t representative. I imagine that there are those who have fringe benefits that are taxable who make certain to include the benefits as income, but they are no more than a small minority. I imagine that there are people in newspaper publishing who have barter arrangements providing for trips and other goodies in exchange for advertising who make certain to report this as income, but they too are not representative.

The point again is that social realities are a critical component of the tax system and the terms “evasion” and “cheat” may evoke a reaction, but they do not conform to the reality that the IRS and the Justice Department do not prosecute people for not paying all of the taxes that may be due, except in the most egregious situations. Most people are risk-averse, meaning that if there is the prospect that government will find out, there is compliance. In speaking of Chilul Hashem, I believe that Rabbi Cohen employed a higher standard.

However we look at tax issues, there is no justification for a holier than thou attitude and there was no justification for a nasty, mean-spirited article that largely fabricated a story. There is much to speculate about motivation. The article violated journalistic, ethical and religious standards and needs to be repudiated. It was McCarthyistic, which invites a paraphrase of Joseph Welch’s immortal words to the disgraced senator more than a half-century ago, “at long last do you have no decency?”

The Jewish Week should apologize to Rabbi Cohen and his family and, as importantly, to its readers.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Obama Watch

We Jews are a nervous people with much to be nervous about because of past and present circumstances and it is therefore understandable that we are nervous about President Obama. We have also been edgy about several of his predecessors, although not to the extent of climbing the walls as more than a few of us are now doing. Whether this arises from his ethnicity, primarily the Islamic roots, or his current Middle East advocacy or both, is an interesting question.

The starting point for analyzing the attitude of any president toward Israel is the recognition that he is, after all, the president of the United States and not the prime minister of Israel. This has or should have two implications, firstly that he rightly sees Middle East affairs in terms of American national interest which may not coincide exactly with Israeli interests. Secondly, Israeli policy should rightly be decided by Israelis and not by American policy makers. Both considerations often get lost in the shuffle as, at times, we imagine that presidents should look at issues through Israeli eyes and American policy-makers too often think that they are empowered to determine Israeli policy.

If any good comes from the tensions induced by Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech, hopefully it will be the lessening of Israel being treated, partly with its acquiescence, as a quasi-American colony.

Let’s have a reality check. George W. Bush was super-friendly toward Israel, never making threats and always saying nice things, yet during his tenure Israel was severely pressured by the U.S. to get out of Gaza (Gush Katif), ostensibly because the U.S. felt that this would help the Palestinian Authority and Mr. Abbas. We know the tragic results. The Bush Administration had substantial control over Israel’s relationship with China and, to a lesser extent, with India. Israel was not able to expand so-called settlements, such places as Maale Adumim which is about as close to Jerusalem’s City Hall as the Capitol is to the White House. The same administration vetoed Israeli action against Iran. The lesson is that friendship is a dialectical relationship that exacts a cost for the weaker partner.

It is too early to know whether the Obama approach represents a major shift in policy, although it is clear that there is the new hot button issue of the natural growth of communities that have been designated by those outside of Israel as settlements although everywhere else in the world such communities are called suburbs. In rhetoric and style, it is certain that the Obama administration is taking an entirely different tack than any of its predecessors. Rhetoric and style count for much in international politics.

Israel must say “no” to the U.S. on natural growth and it must not yield additional territory as long as Islam is saturated by fierce anti-Israel sentiments and terrorism. Diplomacy is not a suicide pact and the lesson of Gush Katif must be learned, else the harm to Israel may be enormous.

Yet, I cannot understand the argument against a two-state solution. States in general have greater responsibility and are more readily held accountable than vague governmental arrangements such as the Palestinian Authority. Even if this is not true of the Palestinians given the ascendency of Hamas, Israel’s security will be no less than it now is should the Palestinians have a state. It’s time for Israel to stop its rhetorical game of “We want two states…but.”

Whatever the focus of the White House, much will depend on what the Palestinians and their supporters do. If the past is a guide, then Abba Eban’s peerless formulation will be evident once more and the Palestinians and their supporters will again not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In formulating its response to the new administration, Israel is hampered by its over-reliance on the U.S. and the collateral desire not to impair its “special friendship” with this country. There are times when friends must say no. The United States is accustomed to Islamic countries saying no, to European countries saying no, to Asiatic countries saying no and the world or the special friendship will not come to an end if Israel says no.

Israel does have a problem in the incredible circumstance that its foreign minister is a man for whom “diplomacy” is a dirty word. Mr. Netanyahu obviously felt that if his ambition to become prime minister again was to be fulfilled, he would have to enter into a deal with Avigdor Lieberman’s party and since he was desperate, the foreign ministry was the bait. Whatever the justification, Lieberman is unfit for this responsibility. Hooray to Abe Foxman for speaking the truth about this.

The greater deficit is in the realm of perception. The Obama administration has framed its policy in terms of “settlements” because that word has severe connotations that are entirely negative to Israel. Of course, the new administration in Washington did not invent the term, as it has been promoted by the media, as well as by nearly as many governments that can make it into the anti-Israel society known as the United Nations. Admittedly, the usage was also used throughout the Bush years and without sufficient challenge by Israel or its supporters in this country.

Doubtlessly, Israel can do a better job marketing its message and there are occasions when it undertakes actions that do little to enhance its security and much to enhance the notion that it is overly harsh. On the issue of settlements, however, the best marketing would not improve Israel’s image. Still, if and when Mr. Obama gets around to visiting Israel, perhaps at least his motorcade will enter Jerusalem via the close-by suburbs, also known as settlements.

Friday, June 05, 2009

What Rabbi Lamm Said

It’s obviously okay to criticize people for what they say or do. That’s what disagreement is about and disagreement is a factor in all social relationships. What isn’t right is to criticize people for what they haven’t said or done or to distort their words, as this newspaper did last week in a sharp editorial criticizing Rabbi Norman Lamm for what he said about the Conservative and Reform movements in a Jerusalem Post interview.

I admire Rabbi Lamm, a man whom I have known but not well for forty years. We correspond from time to time – many years ago at great length – and we have had our disagreements. He is a man of great intellect who has produced significant writing and he became president of Yeshiva University at a time when it was at the brink of bankruptcy. Yeshiva became stronger under his leadership, notably the Beth Medrash or seminary where he oversaw the extraordinary transition in the post-Rabbi Soloveitchik era as eminent Torah scholars who were born and educated in Europe were succeeded by an impressive group of young American-born and educated scholars. Rabbi Lamm ensured that the seminary would have the resources to attain its present stature.

None of this gives him a free ride. Did his interview merit the strong editorial rebuke? He said that the Conservative movement is in “a mood of despondency and pessimism” as Solomon Schechter schools are closing and the movement is in general shrinking. As for the Reform, their numbers, he suggested, are inflated by the inclusion of persons who are not Jewish by any standard. These words, the editorial declared, “are not only hurtful,” they are “at odds with the notion of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Lamm’s comments are sociological and not theological observations and they are on the mark. His theological position was expressed perhaps twenty years ago in a remarkable speech at a Clal event, it being the transdenominational organization established by Rabbi Irving Greenberg. The speech, a major document in the post-Holocaust American Jewish experience, acknowledged the spiritual dignity of the Reform and Conservative movements, while denying their halachic legitimacy. At the time, many Orthodox criticized Rabbi Lamm.

In the interview, he spoke “with a heavy heart.” Is this “triumphalism,” as the editorial and Jonathan Sarna have claimed? The term is silly and false, used regularly when the Orthodox speak about American Jewish life. Of note, on the page preceding the editorial there is an interview with the new director of the Metropolitan Region of United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. Four questions were asked, the first being, “Is the Conservative movement here dying?” The last is: Some Conservative shuls have suffered a serious drop in membership. How many are dying?” Who is saying Kaddish?

The Conservatives’ problems are real and intensifying. The movement has an abundance of officials with titles but is essentially leaderless. Arnold Eisen, JTS’s chancellor and the movement’s presumed head, has not yet left his mark. Solomon Schechter schools have closed and others are at-risk. For the record once more and despite criticism from other Orthodox, I am concerned about the fate of these schools.

The Reform aren’t closing schools, although there are now several fewer than the twenty they had a few years back. In the event, day schools are not in favor. However, Reform membership statistics are swelled by dubious statistics. In his history of American Jewry published about five years ago, Jonathan Sarna noted that in large Reform congregations, as many as twenty-five percent of the participants are not Jewish by Reform criteria. I imagine that the statistic rises by a point or two each year. Last week’s editorial cited “statistics showing that nearly eighty percent of American Jews” are Reform and Conservative. This is baloney although in line with much of what passes as Jewish demography. Jews who scarcely, if at all, identify themselves as Jewish and are not affiliated with Reform or Conservative congregations should not be identified as belonging to these movements simply because they cannot be Orthodox.

This means that those who do not observe, are not congregational members, rarely if ever attend services, do not visit Israel and scarcely care about the Jewish State must be Reform. If so, let us pray for the future of American Jewry.

This touches on another editorial misstep, the claim that “despite our differences in observance and identity, we share and treasure the same Torah” including the 613 commandments, the weekly observance of Shabbat and more. Sadly, this is far from the truth. Among the Reform and Conservative, there are core traditionalists, a term that refers to the religious standards of their movements and not to what tradition has meant throughout our history. Even with a diluted notion of what our religion mandates, the traditionalists have been losing ground, primarily because of the realities of American Jewish life which incessantly impel Jews away from even atrophied religious moorings.

I recently received two documents from the Solomon Schechter School movement, each expressing a sincerely religious view of the mission of these schools. I read them with much sadness because I know what is happening at many of these schools. It serves no good purpose for us to be in denial, to fail to recognize the losses that we are experiencing.

When Rabbi Lamm was interviewed, he expressed concern about developments within Reform and Conservative life and sadness that so many would be lost to Judaism. This is the Kaddish that he was referring to and unless we acknowledge the truth of his observations, there will be even greater losses.