Thursday, December 31, 2009

Against the Wall

Civil society is founded on respect for the law and customs, including laws and even customs that many may not like. When laws and customs are in conflict, there are valid reasons to challenge one or the other and, at times, both. When they are in harmony, they possess greater legitimacy and there is consequently a greater obligation to accord them respect. When either has been challenged in court and the judicial outcome supports the status quo, there is a yet greater obligation to accept, not necessarily attitudinally but surely in practice, that which society, legislators and judges have agreed to.

These understandings should serve as a frame of reference when we consider the efforts of a small group of women to challenge rules and regulations that do not permit them to conduct an alternative service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That should be the end of the story, except that it never is in Jewish life. We are afflicted by a heightened instinct to challenge religious norms. Of course, all religions are prone to schisms. In ours, there is the tendency to go far down the road of religious deviance.

I have no doubt that the Women of the Wall, the fringe group whose aim is to change the rules governing services at the Kotel, are sincere as is Nofrat Frenkel, the young medical student recently arrested when she attempted to conduct an unauthorized service. This sincerity is embedded in egotism, in the attitude that what I/we want trumps long-standing religious practices, the sensibilities of others notwithstanding. If these women would be in a Christian, Islamic or Buddhist setting, the powerful likelihood is that they would adhere to restrictions in dress, prayer or other behavior. They would be compliant. Judaism, however, does not enjoy an equal right to respect.

For all of Ms. Frenkel’s wrongful behavior, it was foolish and wrong to arrest her, foolish because she was thereby elevated to undeserved sainthood or some equivalent status and, more importantly, wrongful because it is preferable, perhaps obligatory, in these situations to deter persons from what they are attempting to do without bringing to bear the gratuitous weight of criminal charges.

The Kotel is a place for tefila, not heroics. Admittedly, too many men, specifically including the Orthodox, are unmindful of this setting and obligation, thereby violating the sanctity of the place. The schmoozers, schnorrers and protestors all act contrary to the sense of kedusha, the sanctity that the Kotel mandates. Two wrongs, as we are often reminded, do not make a right.

As expected, Ms. Frenkel is now widely admired as a hero, including by this newspaper, which isn’t surprising when we reflect on how our media cover religious matters. But even a biased outlook should have room for objectivity, should be able to reflect on the totality of circumstances when considering whether this woman’s actions were justified.

It should matter that, in the words of the New York Times headline on the story, Ms. Frenkel challenged “traditions at the heart of Judaism.” Should it not matter that the challenged arrangement is incorporated into Israeli law through legislation enacted by the Knesset? Should it not matter that Israel’s Supreme Court, notorious or famous depending on one’s outlook for upsetting the religious applecart, has rejected a challenge to the ban on the service that Ms. Frenkel sought to conduct?

These should be powerful considerations for those who believe that, in Winston Churchill’s great formulation, democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the others. If none of this counts, what about Israeli public opinion? I have some involvement in surveys of how Israeli Jews look at religious issues and though to my knowledge there are no statistics on the Kotel issue, based on other data I would hazard a guess that overwhelmingly Israelis would endorse the current arrangements at the Kotel.

Another factor that merits consideration is the unwelcome impact of any alternative service on the tefila of the many women who come to the Kotel to pray in a traditional manner.

It is also noteworthy that despite abundant publicity and other support, little headway has been made by those who seek to challenge and change Orthodox liturgical practices, whether here or in Israel. This specifically includes among the Modern Orthodox, a subgroup that clearly is not insensitive to questions about the place of women in religious Jewish life. There is little interest in alternative services that purport to elevate the role of women. Even as the role of women has evolved in much of Orthodox life, it remains that within synagogues and in liturgical and ritual matters there is a powerful reluctance to yield to fads or ideological preferences that are antithetical to our heritage.

I know that there are persons who will read this as apologetics for antiquated rules that are contrary to contemporary standards. I wonder whether it is all that difficult to understand that what has been labeled for far too long as out of touch or fundamentalist has proven to be essential to our survival as a people. For nearly two-thousand years we yearned in our prayers and in our hearts to return to Jerusalem so that we could pray there and serve G-D. We did not pray or yearn to behave in a destructive fashion or to change the way prayer has been conducted.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Lords Have Ruled

We Jews worldwide are in number considerably fewer than half the margin of error in the Chinese census or, for that matter, India’s census. Yet, we are at the center of attention, a condition that should not be welcomed, and we have always been awash in questions of status. This is true of good times and bad times. When the going is good, there are those who seek to identify with us, while when there is persecution, there are those who flee Jewish identity. Either circumstance begets “Who Is a Jew?” issues. Because persecution invariably results in losses that generally are not reversible, the more enduring questions arise out of Jewish success.

From the time of Joshua and for many generations, there were converts whose embrace of Judaism was questionable. Later on, there were similar issues regarding Cutheans that remained up in the air into the Talmudic period. During the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, there were a great number of converts by religious courts of dubious authority. Their status, as the Talmud indicates and Maimonides set down in his Code, was to wait and to see how their attachment to Judaism developed over the years. After the reversal of fortune in the Purim narrative, we read that many embraced Judaism.

The lessons to be learned from this substantial experience are that questions of Jewish identity are familiar territory, so that issues that arise in the contemporary period are not unique, and, furthermore, that the unfolding of history will resolve status questions that are now contentious. This is true of the mountain of issues arising from the high degree of social mobility and the companion notions of tolerance and personal choice that have resulted in the extraordinarily high incidence of intermarriage, as well as other behaviors that inexorably result in questions of status.

For the moment, which may be an extended period, and with the exception of Israel – but not entirely even there – world Jewry has accepted a sociological rather than an halachic definition of Jewish identity. We include in our statistics a great many who do not meet the traditional criteria and do not include those whose halachic status is certainly Jewish yet who say that they no longer identify as Jewish. There are many persons around the world who according to halacha are Jewish but who do not know that they are Jewish because their parents or grandparents abandoned their faith.

As in the past, the passage of time will resolve matters that now seem blurred or are in dispute, I believe overwhelmingly in the direction of Jewish loss. However, conversions that do not conform to halachic standards will be more vexatious because in these situations there is often a strong desire to identify as Jewish. The point is made in the current issue of Mishpacha, the weekly that perhaps is the best English-language Jewish magazine anywhere. In an interview with Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the distinguished Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, we read: “Occasionally we have had talmidim (students) who subsequently discover that their mother had a Reform conversion or had no conversion at all. So then I get involved in gerus (conversion). All the rebbes over the years had situations where a boy was going for smichah (ordination) and then discovered that he wasn’t Jewish… We frequently have similar situations, which forced me to become involved in conversions.”

This brings me to the ruling a few days ago by Great Britain’s Supreme Court in the case involving the refusal of JFS, formerly the Jewish Free School, a highly regarded Modern Orthodox secondary school, to admit a 13-year old applicant whose mother was converted by what we would refer to as Conservative religious authority. By a split vote, the Lords and one Lady, ruled that this violated the country’s anti-discrimination law.

Each of the judges wrote an opinion and reading this substantial legal output is a remarkable experience because the jurists, especially those in the majority, were sensitive to the situation of the school and the standards of Orthodox Jewry, with its requirement of matrilineal descent or conversion by an Orthodox court. They recognized that the school did not intend to be discriminatory, but held that motivation was not a determining factor under the statute and that although religious schools could under English law refuse to admit applicants who were not of the their religious faith, the distinction between different modes of conversion amounts to an ethnic and not religious criterion and therefore is barred by law.

For all of the expressions of empathy, such as Parliament can change the law but we cannot, it’s difficult to grasp why JFS’s policy is labeled as ethnic and not religious. The ruling has upset much of English Jewry and not only the Orthodox. JFS has altered its admissions criteria to cover specific religious behaviors. It’s difficult to assess what further impact the ruling may have.

In view of changing social realities and attitudes in the U.S., Jewish day schools cannot avoid identity or status issues. A surprisingly large number of non-Orthodox schools admit children who are not Jewish by any definition, while there are Orthodox schools that admit applicants whose mothers were not born Jewish and were not converted by the Orthodox. This is the reality acknowledged by Rabbi Schachter and it is the approach in Chabad schools that have an outreach orientation. A generation ago, leading Orthodox Rabbinic leaders allowed such admissions under special circumstances, as when the aim was to make a school viable or to avoid conflict. Of course, such admissions could not be permitted to affect the character of the school or have a negative impact on other students. The thrust of this policy was to be faithful to the halachic system, even as individual circumstances may result in particular leniencies. In these situations, as with J.F.S. and other status issues, we need to be mindful that history will provide the answers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Congratulations American Jewry

It would take a miracle for yeshivas and day schools to fare well in the current economic environment and although it is now Chanukah which is the festival of miracles, we know that we cannot and must not rely on miracles. There is unhappy news in this vital sector of Jewish life, with the prospect of further unwelcome developments in the form of declining enrollment and school closings.

Actually, enrollment is up by about 2% this year, all of it attributable to high fertility among the fervently Orthodox who comprise about 60% of all enrollment. Elsewhere in the day school world, there is decline.

As one example of many, there is the story of Rambam, a Modern Orthodox school that opened in Atlanta in September 2008. A year later it closed, in large measure because of financial difficulties. Of the thirty-seven students enrolled in June, twelve are now in public school. In Los Angeles, a local Jewish newspaper reported recently that at one public high school there are forty boys who wear yarmulkas. Solomon Schechter schools (Conservative) that lost a large share of their enrollment between 1998 and 2008 have lost another 6% this year. There are, sadly, too many other similar developments, of course with the notable exception of yeshiva-world and chassidic schools.

As has been widely reported, the Conservative movement is in crisis, as many synagogues have closed or merged and membership is down. The Schechter situation reflects this reality. Both the Forward and this newspaper featured last week long front-page stories on efforts to strengthen the movement, the primary focus being on United Synagogue, which is the Conservative’s congregational body. The Forward article made no mention of the Schechters, while the sole reference in this newspaper was essentially a comment by a top Conservative rabbi downplaying the importance of these schools to the future of the movement. A front-page photo of Conservative leaders that accompanied the story included the head of the Cantors Assembly but no one from the Schechter Association. Unless Conservatives start singing a different tune, their woes will escalate.

Another Conservative angle points to the predicament facing day schools. Once upon a time, key Conservative leaders, mainly at Jewish Theological Seminary, strongly supported government aid to the academic or secular program of schools under religious sponsorship. No more. With the exception of the Orthodox, nearly all of American Jewry marches in lockstep in opposition to government aid, believing with full paranoid faith that any assistance would surely result in terrible evils, this despite tons of evidence to the contrary from democracies across the globe. Fanatics are never bothered by facts.

It is astonishing that we who are divided on just about every issue, including Israel, are of one voice on this issue. There is no debate or discussion, no leader saying that we should at least think about government aid, no editorial in the Anglo-Jewish press calling for reconsideration, no agenda item at the annual General Assembly. The most die-hard ideologues are more open-minded than we are.

Congratulations American Jewry on the immensely successful effort to undermine meaningful Jewish education and to undermine Jewish continuity. Even the Orthodox should not be proud, as their major organizations utilize public relations and marketing as a surrogate for advocacy.

As noted, the situation is certain to get worse. New York which has 135,000 dayschoolers recently enacted a new payroll tax to help fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. No employers are exempt, including nonpublic schools. The law provides, however, that public school districts will be reimbursed. This strikes me as constitutionally questionable on several grounds and I believe that there should be litigation. As yet, there is no interest in pursuing the matter. This tax will cost yeshivas and day schools as much as $2 million a year.

Many of our schools were on shaky financial ground when the economy was doing well. The downturn has hit hard. My rough estimate is that more than half of the 800 U.S. day schools are in trouble. They rely almost exclusively on tuition and contributions and both have been impacted. More parents are saying that they cannot pay what the school is asking and contributions are down dramatically, at some schools nearly to the vanishing point.

Yeshiva and day school financial realities are translated into additional hardship in thousands of homes as faculty and staff, nearly all of whom are greatly underpaid and many of whom are traditionally paid late, must struggle to make ends meet when their meager paychecks do not arrive. Our community is standing idly by as people who have devoted themselves to religious education are suffering.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who has played a noble role in advocating for day schools has circulated an eloquent article calling on our community to provide greater support. His plea is earnest and yet the prospect that it will generate even modest results is remote. What is needed is a return to the militant advocacy that he demonstrated decades ago, as well as a willingness of our community to abandon the false god that preaches against government aid.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rabbi Jacob Joseph School

Please consider making a contribution to the four schools under the umbrella of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. These schools are the Jewish Foundation School, a 400-student kiruv school on Staten Island under the leadership of Rabbi Richard Ehrlich; Yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah, which consists of a boys school under the leadership of Rabbi Mayer Friedman and a girls school led by Mrs. Esther Akerman; and a high school and beis medrash in Edison, NJ led by Rabbi Yaakov Busel and Rabbi Yosef Eichenstein.

This is a truly unique arrangement, in which RJJ strives to fulfill a key principle of Torah education - chanoch l'naar al pi darcho, teach each child in the ways that best meet his needs.

Many families whose children are attending our schools are receiving significantly reduced tuitions. At the same time, we are experiencing a huge downturn in contributions, more than 50 percent since April of this year.

This is my 37th year as RJJ's president and support of RJJ is below what it has been throughout this entire period. Please consider helping.

Donations can be be made electronically via Paypal, to or mailed to Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, 3495 Richmond Road, Staten Island, NY 10306.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Bad Idea

It matters not whether she is from J Street or from Avenue J, the appointment of Hannah Rosenthal as the State Department’s “Special Envoy” on anti-Semitism is a bad idea. For all of the hi-falutin title – as in special envoy for the Middle East or Afghanistan – the position is no more than an envoyship to Foggy Bottom, to a vast bureaucracy that is adept at positions that although bereft of substance give the trappings of importance.

The office now occupied by Ms. Rosenthal was created five years ago by congressional legislation, one more act by a legislative body that mistakes pandering for high public service. It is small wonder that Congress is held in low public esteem. Precisely because anti-Semitism is dangerous, the last thing that is needed to combat this terrible social disease is vacuous rhetoric and meaningless acts that suggest that the problem is being dealt with.

Ms. Rosenthal isn’t the first occupant of this position. Her predecessor was Gregg Rickman who according to an editorial in this newspaper “laid a good foundation as the first anti-Semitism envoy.” He is doubtlessly a good person with proper commitment, yet it is a good deal more than a stretch to suggest that he accomplished anything. How many readers of this newspaper ever heard of him? For sure he was busy writing memos, reading what others sent to him, attending meetings and finding things to fill the time. It’s a good bet that Ms. Rosenthal will be similarly occupied, although given her greater experience in Jewish affairs, the likelihood is that much of her time will be occupied with conferences and a multitude of communal events.

The principles that guide this nation are alone justification for our government challenging anti-Semitism, as well as racism and bigotry against any ethnic or nationality group. Anti-Semitism especially needs to be spotlighted because history, distant and recent, amply documents the toll exacted through the tolerance of the hatred of Jews. We Jews have a right to be parochial, to pressure Washington to confront and condemn anti-Semitism. We are not guests in this country. Even if we were, that would not negate our right to advocate what we think is best for our people.

The problem is that bureaucracy may be the antithesis to combating anti-Semitism, a severe social disease that has, I believe, no ready cure as long as our people remain distinct and relatively successful. Since Ms. Rosenthal’s job is in the State Department, is it too much to hope that her office will be the one that was occupied during the Holocaust by Breckenridge Long, the high official whose anti-Semitism impelled him to thwart efforts to rescue refugees? She will have an abundance of perverse riches to examine since the hatred of Jews is alive and spreading in too many places.

I am certain that home-bred or U.S.-based anti-Semitism isn’t part of her mandate, which is a shame because that is the variety that our government can and should effectively deal with. There are neo-Nazis and an assortment of far rightwing haters who have conspiracy theories about Jews and they need to be confronted. There is evidence of anti-Semitism at the FBI and other intelligence agencies and this will surely be off-limits, as is the place where Ms. Rosenthal now works, although there too there lingers the legacy of too many officials, including the great George C. Marshall, who exhibited animosity toward Jews.

This leaves the wide wide world where there is anti-Semitism aplenty and there will be much for Ms. Rosenthal to read and write about and preciously little else for her to do. Even on the information side there will be little for her to add to the ground already covered by the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee.

We know that Western Europe has had repeated outbreaks of anti-Jewish actions and rhetoric. We also know that in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism remains a serious problem despite the paucity of Jews. Are we to expect that Ms. Rosenthal will have an impact on how our government addresses an issue that quite frankly is low on the totem pole of current U.S. diplomatic concerns?

Throughout Europe, as well as elsewhere, there are diplomatic niceties and national interests that dictate what issues any American administration may choose to address. There are always bigger fish in the diplomatic pond to contend with and although we may wish that it were otherwise, it is a rare day when any president or administration will make much of an issue over anti-Semitism. As just one of many examples, this is evident in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Saudi Arabian law and practices are enveloped in the hatred of Jews. Has any president or secretary of state underscored this issue in discussions with this or that King Saud or King Faud?

Even in regard to Iran, it is hard to see how anti-Semitism fits into the equation. If the U.S. at long last takes concrete action to punish or limit Iran, it will not be because that country has engaged in anti-Semitism but because Washington believes that it is in America’s interest to take such action. What role is Ms. Rosenthal to play regarding Iran or in U.S. relations with Venezuela whose leader Chavez has been bitten by the anti-Semitism bug?

This outlook is admittedly pessimistic. It arises not from an absence of concern about anti-Semitism as from an absence of confidence that conventional diplomacy is an antidote to the disease. It is necessary for the President and Secretary of State to speak out occasionally. I feel that the State Department office will have the unintended effect of locating the issue in the middle labyrinth of a vast bureaucracy. That is what happened under President Bush. I believe that the Obama administration will be no different.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Where Have You Gone Arnold J. Toynbee?

History isn’t kind to historians. Most are forgotten and those who aren’t usually turn up as footnotes in dissertations or in books that are destined for a similar fate. A few have lasting relevance, mainly because later historians challenge their interpretations of the past. This should not be surprising. There is constant disagreement about recent events, about what happened not long ago. Why should there be agreement or clarity about events long past?

What we call history is to one extent or another subjective, as it is affected by ideology and other commitments, prevailing cultural norms and, of course, by limited knowledge. It has been noted that history is largely written by the winners. While pursuing my doctorate a half century ago, I taught social studies for two years at the newly-established high school of Yeshiva Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch in Washington Heights, an experience that yielded a great and lasting blessing. While teaching the American Revolution, students were given the assignment of ascertaining how British historians looked at the same events, the obvious point being to show how perspective powerfully affects what is written.

Few famous historians have been treated more unkindly than Arnold J. Toynbee. With his twelve-volume “Study of History,” he was both idol and icon, perched right at the top of the historians’ hit parade. The set could be had for a pittance through membership in the Book of the Month Club, which for decades served as a cultural must in a great number of middle class homes. We Jews took the bait in droves. In the recesses of our homes and in library stacks, Toynbee remains with his cock-a-mamie names of civilizations and nations never heard of before or since. As for Jews, Toynbee had a bad case of upper class British anti-Semitism and identified us as “a fossil of the Syriac civilization.” Nowadays, it is Toynbee who is a fossil.

I thought of him while reading a smug New York Times article on “The Invention of the Jewish People,” a book by Shlomo Sand who teaches at Tel Aviv University. Whatever his other credentials, Sand is an exhibitionist, another academic who knows that the best way to attract attention in a very crowded field is to offer a sensationalist tale. According to the Times article, his contribution to the genre “is to undercut the Jews’ claim to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute ‘a people,’ with a shared racial or biological past.” Why do we Jews produce an excess of self-haters and other misfits masquerading as scholars? We even have Holocaust deniers. Is it the result of our being stiff-necked or could it be that we are no different than other people, but for understandable reasons we are more aware of the misfits in our ranks?

The Times’ article, written by Patricia Cohen, opens with the declaration “that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70” and “modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.”

There is some validity and some nonsense in this passage, but none of this makes us an invention. It is certain that many Jews remained in Jerusalem and in other parts of what was then the land of Israel and also that many were killed or forced to leave. It is certain that conversion and intermarriage were key elements in the story of the Jews, as far back as the era of Kings David and Solomon through the Talmudic period. It also could be said that, in a sense, all nations and people are inventions, none more than we Americans. No people descend fully developed onto a parcel of this earth like manna from heaven.

While Sand posits that we aren’t who we say we are, there are writers galore who have claimed that other people are who we say we are, meaning that they are Jews even if they are not identified as such. There is much literature about the Khazars and other Asiatics. We obviously know about the Ethiopian story. Hillel Halkin has discovered a sect in India which he identifies as having Jewish roots. Around the globe and especially in Europe and North America there are millions who came from good Jewish stock and who are not identified as Jews. If DNA testing were mandatory, our demographers would have a field day.

The notion of “invention” flies in the face of significant contrary evidence. Not long ago, there was a flurry of articles regarding DNA tests showing the genealogical continuity of our Kohanic or priestly subgroup, this despite all of our marrying out over many centuries and other people marrying in. It is clear that from the early years of Christianity until the present, the outflow from Jewish life was far greater than the influx through conversion. Historical circumstances, including the persecution of Jews and Rabbinic stringencies, have served as formidable barriers against conversion into Judaism. Cohen’s reference to conversion into the early Middle Ages is wildly inaccurate.

The upshot is that if we are an invention, we are one heck of an enduring invention, a people whose character has been essentially maintained over an enormous span of time, perhaps significantly longer than any other nation or people, this despite the lack of a homeland and dispersal, horrific persecution, acculturation into other societies and massive Judaic abandonment.

The invention in Shlomo’s Sands’ book is his book, not the Jewish people. He now has his yearned for moment of attention. Soon enough, he will be forgotten and his work will not even enjoy the dubious fate of Arnold J. Toynbee whose voluminous writings are orphaned works that are bereft of attention.