Thursday, March 25, 2010
I remember, for example, reluctantly putting down Mario Puzo’s The Godfather when my parents announced it was time to leave for my high school graduation. And I very clearly recall that I was reading, more than just a bit grimly, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song during my mother’s shiva week in 1979. In 1981, Joan and I were reading his and hers copies of James Clavell’s fabulous book Noble House on the plane as we were flying to Israel for our honeymoon. And I especially vividly remember reading Hermann Hesse’s underappreciated book, Beneath the Wheel, while our oldest child Max was being born in 1984. (In Jerusalem in those days, fathers were excluded from the O.R. when a child was being delivered via Caesarian section. So what was I supposed to do—just sit there in the hallway on the stool they thoughtfully provided for expectant fathers and look at the ceiling? It’s still my favorite of Hesse’s novels.) Sometimes these reading choices have not been the wisest ones possible—for some inexplicable reason I found myself reading Thomas Harris’ Hannibal during my father’s shiva in 1999—but sometimes they have been (usually accidentally) perfect choices, for example when I fortuitously ended up reading Wally Lamb’s truly great book, I Know This Much Is True, as I drove south on the I-5 through Washington and Oregon on my way to what was eventually to become our three-year stay in California. Except for Hannibal, I would warmly recommend any of the above-mentioned titles to my own readers. (You have to be in a certain mood to read any of Thomas’ Hannibal Lecter novels and even then they’re creepier than my literary tastes usually run. Still, they were all bestsellers, so maybe it’s just me. I doubt it, however.)
And now I’ve just finished reading Marcel Möring’s novel In a Dark Wood precisely in the course of these last few weeks’ effort to get our house ready for Pesach and I would like to recommend it to my readers as a kind of advance present for the holiday. Möring will be an unknown quantity to most American readers, including most Jewish ones, but he is one of Holland’s leading contemporary authors and, at that, one who often writes books with profoundly Jewish themes. His earlier books, The Dream Room and In Babylon were both elaborate midrashim on the concept of Jewish survival in post-Shoah Europe, but this latest novel, published in Dutch under the title Dis, will occupy its own category of relevance for Jewish readers interested in coming to terms with the legacy of survival. It is a rich, intelligent, disturbing but also endlessly fascinating meditation on the meaning of Jewishness in the world, something no Jew involved in celebrating Pesach as the foundational moment from which the Jewish people emerged as a nation will want to miss enjoying. (Dis is the name of a specific neighborhood in the city of the dead described in detail in Dante’s Inferno. Located in the sixth ring of hell, Dis serves as the permanent posthumous home for active sinners of all sorts, including heretics, murderers, blasphemers, hypocrites, thieves, false counselors, and traitors. It’s a cool title, but I suppose HarperCollins must have considered it beyond the reach of ordinary American readers and so opted for an utterly banal title instead, one that absolutely fails to convey anything at all of the novel’s richness and flavor.)
The basic plot outline is almost simple. A man named Jacob Noah escaped the round-ups that sent almost all the Jews of his Dutch hometown of Assen to their deaths in the camps by taking refuge in a local farmer’s bog where he remained hidden underground for several years, surreptitiously fed by the farmer but otherwise totally alone. When the war finally ends in 1945, Jacob emerges from his subterranean hiding place and walks back to Assen only to find that his father’s shoe repair shop has been transformed into an “Aryan Bookshop” featuring such works as Mother, Tell Us About Adolph Hitler in its show window. Vowing revenge, Jacob undertakes a successful legal campaign to regain control of his parents’ property and turns it into, of all things, a lingerie shop. One thing leads to another as his relentless hard work makes him richer and richer. Eventually he begins to purchase real estate and then by the 1970s he actually owns most of downtown Assen. Yet for all his wealth he has no joy in his life, not from his marriage to the daughter of the farmer who hid him or even from their three daughters whom he loves in theory but cannot even begin to understand. Partially this is because he can’t come to terms with the legacy of his own Jewishness, but the man is also suffering from a severe case of survivor’s guilt and a general sense of disconnectedness from the world. Even his sex life is burdened by the tortured legacy of a survivor uncertain why or for what purpose he survived or, worse, if it goes without saying that there even was some specific point to his survival in the first place.
And then he dies in a terrible car accident on June 27, 1980. Or maybe he does. When he comes to, he finds he is in the company of a mysterious character called only the Jew of Assen, who proceeds to take him on a tour of his hometown. Whether this is a posthumous journey into the great night that awaits us all or merely a hallucination experienced by the unconscious Jacob, or for that matter if we are supposed to understand simply that he eventually comes to and, still very much alive, meets up with the Jew in the context his own ongoing life, we never quite find out. But as he wanders into town on the eve of this huge motorcycle race called the Dutch Tourist Trophy race—a race that really does take place every June in the real Assen—he finds himself on something more akin to a tour of hell than a stroll through the familiar streets of his home town. As he traverses the bars and brothels and gambling dens of his town, each one described less appealingly than the previous one, he eventually crosses paths with one Marcus Kolpa, a deeply disenchanted Jewish intellectual who once was in love with Noah’s daughter Chaya and who is still pursuing her for reasons even he himself cannot quite pinpoint. In a sense, Noah and Marcus represent the two halves of the Jewish world in all its neurotic dysfunction: the former unable to come to terms with his past and the latter unable to come to terms with his future. And Chaya is there too, although not in a major role, as are her sisters and their long-suffering mother.
Möring’s novel not the easiest read. You have to be in the right mood to take on a book that has the occasional three- or four-page paragraph, that slips here and there into graphic mode (there are six or eight pages in the middle of the book that are presented precisely as a graphic novel with the characters depicted as cartoon figures with dialogue balloons coming out of their mouths, and that is as filled with extremely frank and unguarded descriptions of its characters’ sexual experiences (including one remarkable scene featuring only Kolpa and a television set). I have no idea if the book reads more easily in Dutch, but I doubt it and Shaun Whiteside’s translation really is quite elegant and very readable. And then there is also the author’s literary legacy to consider: Möring’s book has a lot to do with Homer and Dante, but even more to do with James Joyce. (Readers will easily see Möring’s June 27, 1980, as his homage to Joyce’s June 16, 1904, the day on which the entire novel Ulysses takes place. But no one will need first to read or re-read Dante or Joyce to appreciate what Möring has accomplished.)
I came to the book accidentally by noticing it on a shelf at Barnes and Noble. Why it called to me, I can’t say exactly. But it did…and now that I’ve read it I have to say that I feel transformed by the experience. Like I said, reading In a Dark Wood is not an undertaking for the timid. This is a dense, thick book filled with gorgeous prose that needs to be read slowly and savored thoughtfully before being digested. But it has more to say about the essence of Jewishness in the modern age than most books I’ve read that address the topic far more formally or directly.
As we prepare for Pesach, our minds should at least partially be on the larger questions lurking just behind those clouds of chametz dust rising from everybody’s kitchens. It’s so easy to get lost in the forest when preparing for a holiday that demands as much in advance as does Pesach! My own house is only slowly turning back into a place of some order after having been turned on its head for more than a week now. But there also has to be time for contemplating the deeper truth that the whole chametz thing is meaningful precisely because it creates a context for us to contemplate the origins of Jewishness as focused through the birth narrative of an entire nation. And so…for those who already know the Haggadah by heart, I offer you Marcel Möring. As noted, In a Dark Wood is not a book for children nor is it a book for people unwilling to give a serious work of art the time it requires. It is a dense, powerful book about what it means to wander the landscape of the world without quite being able to decide if what you see all around you is or isn’t hell and what it means to be a survivor of the Shoah not merely in the conventional sense but in the broader sense in which the Jews of our generation are all in some ways survivors.
I almost put down the book at least half a dozen times, but in the end I kept with it and I think all my readers will find it as richly rewarding a book as I finally did. Believe me, you could prepare for the seder evenings a lot less productively than by reading Möring's book and contemplating its implications.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
It’s completely obvious that two people cannot talk to each other if they do not have a language in common and that this is true even if they speak really, really clearly (or loudly) in their own tongue. Think of putting a unilingual Norwegian speaker in a room with a unilingual speaker of Japanese and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe such a pair could convey some elementary thoughts with gestures or by attempting to act out something that they would have simply said aloud if they were speaking to someone who could understand, but truly meaningful dialogue simply cannot take place without both parties having at least one language in common. But what is obviously true when there is no single language two people can both speak well can also be true when people only appear to have a language in common, and I was reminded of this truth in the course of the last week while we were all treated to the complicated pas de deux performed this last week on the world stage (and for a mostly hostile world’s all too eager delectation) by our own Vice President Biden and Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
That two nations allied by common values and common interests should occasionally not see eye-to-eye on some specific point is hardly the kind of amazing development that anyone would consider newsworthy under normal circumstances. Nevertheless, when Israel and the United States disagree so publicly and so unexpectedly dramatically over a point as contentious as the right, depending on your point of view either inalienable or self-arrogated, of Jewish people to live wherever in Jerusalem they wish (which is merely the more tightly focused version of the parallel issue regarding the right of Jewish people to live wherever they wish in the Land of Israel, including the so-called territories), the dust-up seems not only newsworthy but intensely so…and not in such a healthy way. Indeed, for me personally, there was something vaguely unwholesome and indecent about being made privy to this kind of normally private dispute between the closest of allies, something not entirely unlike accidentally walking in on your parents having a huge row without either of them being fully dressed and not knowing which way to look or not to look.
Vice President Biden was visiting in Israel when the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which controls the Interior Ministry, suddenly announced plans to build 1,600 new housing units in the part of Jerusalem that was controlled by Jordan until 1967. This announcement, coming with no advance warning, could not have been less well timed and provoked the vice president to respond uncharacteristically harshly. Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized for the timing, for which effort he was rewarded with an outpouring of almost unprecedentedly angry rhetoric from some of President Obama’s aides and from Mrs. Clinton. This in turn triggered some seriously intemperate language on the part of some Israeli officials, not least of all from Israel’s outspoken Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In the end, after some concerted backpedaling, everybody appears more or less to have calmed down. The housing project at the center of the whole affair turns out not even to have received the final approval of the Israeli government to be built and, as such, was hardly a worthy trigger event for a dust-up of this magnitude. (If the project ever actually is approved, it will only be built years in the future.) But the issue itself of whether Israel has the right to permit its citizens to live wherever they want in Jerusalem will inevitably resurface.
Part of the problem, I believe, is because the parties to this discussion speak the same language and different languages at the same time. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more obvious it is that there are many different contexts in which Israelis and the rest of the world, including our own elected officials, only appear to be saying the same thing when they use the same words to refer to the same things. And that places a special burden of responsibility on those of us who, as patriotic Americans and as Jews fully committed to the viability of the Jewish state, actually can speak both languages.
Consider the name "Jerusalem" itself. When most Americans hear that name they think of the modern city that was divided into two from 1948 when the War of Independence ended until 1967 when the Jordanians withdrew from the city during the Six Day War and the city was reunited under Israeli rule. And for people whose sense that the part of history that matters most is the part that coincides with their own lifetimes, nineteen years is certainly long enough to establish a status quo worthy to be considered a reasonable jumping-off point for negotiations. For Jews with long memories (and Jews have nothing if not long memories) however, the nineteen years between 1948 and 1967 constitute the shortest of blips in the history of a city that was the capital of a Jewish state in the days of King David three thousand years ago and which was only divided in two for less than two decades millennia later.
Nor do Jewish people think specifically about the modern capital of Israel when they hear the name “Jerusalem.” Obviously, we know there is a modern Jerusalem and that it is the capital of Israel. But the name of Israel’s capital is far richer and more evocative than that! For us, Jerusalem is the city of David, the city in which the ancient Temple stood, the capital not only of a modern Jewish state but of the people Israel itself. As such, Jerusalem is more than the aggregate of its neighborhoods, more than its tourist sites, more even than the seat of the central institutions of the Israeli government. And so, both for Jews in and outside of Israel, the notion that Jewish people should not be allowed to live in some specific neighborhood of Jerusalem because that part of the city was exclusively Arab while it was under the temporary jurisdiction of an Arab state in a state of war with Israel seems beyond peculiar. Add into the mix the detail that the Ramat Shlomo housing project that triggered such an unforgiving reaction in Washington is less than three miles from the Prime Minister of Israel’s residence and it starts to become clear the extent to which we are witnessing a conversation between friends using the same words to mean entirely different things.
The same is true with respect to other words as well. No Jew with any knowledge of Jewish history could possibly refer to Jews occupying the Land of Israel. But when Americans hear the phrase “occupied territories,” they suppose that for land to be occupied it must be have been seized from its rightful inhabitants without recalling that the same West Bank occupied now by Israel was previously occupied by Jordan (which rejected the United Nations partition plan of 1947 to divide British Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and which then proceeded to grab as much territory of the old British mandate that it could before agreeing to an armistice) and had before that previously been occupied by Britain whose right to govern the land was awarded to them by the League of Nations as a way of punishing the Ottoman Empire for been on the losing side in the First World War.
And the “territories” part of the phrase “occupied territories” also means two different things when used by different parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Israelis talk about the territories, they are talking not solely about lands that came under Israeli control at a specific moment in 1967 but about the heartland of ancient Israel, about cities and towns that were never considered by any ruling power, certainly including the Turks and the British, to be other than part and parcel of the Land of Israel. Yet when most Americans hear the word “territories,” they hear something entirely different. One of the dictionary definitions of the word “territory,” for example, is “a non-sovereign geographic area which has come under the authority of another government.” Think, for example, of the Louisiana Territory purchased by the United States from France in 1803 for fifteen million dollars in cash and forgiven debts without anyone on either side pausing to note that the land was not unoccupied—scholars estimate that there were between 100,000 and 200,000 native Americans present when the French arrived—and that the French themselves had come to “own” the land they were selling merely by unilaterally declaring their sovereignty over it. Whether or not Israel should cede the West Bank to a future Palestinian state is a question for Israelis to decide based on their own perception of where the best interests of the state lie. But the discussion here too often features two sides using the same language to refer to things they conceptualize entirely differently.
There is no question that the timing of the Israeli announcement was ill-conceived. Whether or not Netanyahu was blindsided will probably never be known publicly. The 1,600 housing units eventually either will or will not be built. That the matter will eventually be forgotten and folded into a larger discussion regarding the future of Jerusalem goes almost without saying. Things will return to normal. (President Obama, for example, said just yesterday that American efforts to bring peace to the Middle East must begin with a “clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel” and he called Israel America’s strongest ally in the region.) But the question of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem will not disappear. In fact, it and its sister question regarding the rights of Jews to live wherever they wish in the Land of Israel will continue to fester until the concerned parties find it in themselves finally to learn to speak the same language and to address each other not in words that merely sound like the words the other side is using but actually do carry the same meaning and the same weight.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Unexpectedly—or at least unexpectedly to me—the whole “Who Is a Jew?” issue came forcefully to the fore again this week in Israel. It’s a subject I’ve always tried to avoid writing about, mostly because it is so filled with the kind of ultimately insoluble issues that I’ve always found it simpler and easier to skate around than to address directly. And yet the events of this last week were so unexpected that perhaps the time really has come to write about the topic and say clearly how I see the lay of that particular landscape these days.
The concept of who exactly can legitimately claim membership in the House of Israel is itself a confusing one. Those of us born to Jewish mothers, of course, have nothing to prove our Jewishness other than that single detail regarding our parentage, a detail which itself rests on the assumption that our mothers’ Jewishness is or was of unassailable legitimacy. Unfortunately, our mothers’ status—unless they were formally converted to Judaism and have the papers to prove it—rests on their own mothers’ Jewishness, a detail that itself rests in turn on the status of those mothers, unassailable or otherwise. You see where I’m going. Am I a Jew merely because my mother told me that she herself was born to a Jewish mother, my maternal grandmother? In my own case (and for better or for worse), that is precisely correct. And it is so for the vast majority of Jewish people. Indeed, those among us who are the children of mothers who formally converted to Judaism, or who are the children of mothers whose own mothers converted, are paradoxically the only ones in our communities who have any sort of documentation at all to prove their status. And how ironic is that! So going to war over issues of status when the overwhelming majority of our people have nothing other than hearsay evidence to support their personal claims to Jewishness is, to say the very least, a peculiar strategic concept. And yet the issue remains so permanently on the table that it feels as though it must be nailed to it.
This week brought an amazing development in this endless debate when an almost unbelievable article was published yesterday in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper I myself read daily. It concerned Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former Rishon Letziyon (as the head of the Sephardic community in Israel is called) and, as he approaches age 90, one of Israel’s most respected halachic jurists. The article describes a newly published legal decision in which the author not only accepts conversions to Judaism undertaken under Conservative auspices as worthy and meaningful, but says unequivocally that he considers them to be as valid as conversions undertaken by the Orthodox establishment in Israel.
The decision, published in the Orthodox journal, Beit Hillel, had to do specifically with a young Israeli man who, because of his status as kohen, was barred from marrying a woman convert. (This prohibition has been largely relaxed within our Conservative world, but remains in full force among the Orthodox.) The point here however is that because the man’s fiancée is the daughter of a Conservative convert, his ability to marry her rests on the supposition that she is already Jewish, a supposition that in turn rests on the validity of her mother’s conversion, and it was this question to which the former Chief Rabbi addressed himself. The short version is that he accepted the conversion as valid, thus removing any impediment to the couple’s marriage in Israel. That much would have been amazing enough given the vituperation, lack of interdenominational respect, and general nastiness that generally surround the way the conversion issue is discussed both in Israel and abroad. But the former Rishon Letziyon went on to note that the Conservative rabbis who oversaw the mother’s conversions acted “with no less attention to every requisite detail than any other (i.e., Orthodox) beit-din would have displayed and perhaps even with more attention.” And that, more even than the decision itself, was what made the publication of Ovadiah Yosef’s decision newsworthy enough to publish in the daily press. (Hebrew-speaking readers can access the story at http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1155059.html)
The responses from within the Conservative/masorti world were what you would expect. When my friend, Rabbi Peretz Rodman, the chairman of the public affairs committee of the movement in Israel, qualified the rabbi’s decision as brave and said that we can all only hope that he does not withdraw his remarks now that they have been published, he was only expressing the same thought every one of my colleagues in Israel and abroad were having at exactly the same moment. But what made that article in yesterday’s Haaretz even more amazing was that it came out precisely as the Knesset is again debating a proposal specifically designed to delegitimize conversions taken by anyone at all outside the extreme Orthodox world that increasingly dominates the Chief Rabbinate.
There have been so many twists and turns in this apparently endless debate that it is hard to take seriously the notion that the Knesset could resolve the matter permanently merely by passing some specific bill, nor is it even remotely likely that the bill currently under debate—which, among other things, would bar any Gentile who came to Israel as a non-Jew and only subsequently pursued conversion from becoming an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return—could possibly do anything other than exacerbate a debate that already has the capacity not only to enrage the directly affected parties—the converts to Judaism themselves and their spouses and children—but also to alienate the Jews of Israel even more profoundly from their religion than they mostly already are.
The reason the debate is so contentious and so bitter is not because the problem has no solution—the simplest and best solution would simply be for Israel to grant full legitimacy to all rabbis who perform conversions in accordance with the strictures and standards of Jewish law—but because in many ways it goes to the very question of what it means to be a Jew. But what is worth noting, however, is not that this particular bill is mean-spirited or counterproductive, both of which things it surely is, but how unnecessary the whole debate truly is when considered in light of the law as it actually is codified in our most authoritative source books.
The actual laws that govern conversion to Judaism are neither harsh nor especially severe. Let me paraphrase the paragraphs from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in which he discusses the procedure for conversion. Rambam, whom no one would ever accuse of being a liberal in halachic matters, suggests that if a Gentile expresses interest in conversion, we ascertain as best we can that the candidate is sincere, then give him or her a stern lecture about the reality of anti-Semitism in our world to see what effect that has on his or her enthusiasm. If the response is that the candidate knows all about it and still wishes to proceed, we accept him or her as a potential candidate instantly. We then go on to teach the candidate the basic principles of Judaism, specifically stressing the unity of God and the prohibition of worshiping false gods, and then to teach about some of the commandments. We choose some simple ones and some more arduous ones, but without going on at length about any of them. Indeed, Rambam writes that we specifically do not go into all the particulars lest the law feel unduly onerous and burdensome and the potential convert thus be chased away before having been adequately drawn in.
We then move on to talk about the punishment for disobeying the commandments and the great reward observance brings the faithful. We tell a bit about the World to Come and about the doctrine of reward and punishment. If it is all too much and the prospective convert retracts and does not want to accept the obligation to perform the commandments, we simply let it go and forget the whole matter. But if the candidate accepts the basic principle of Jewish observance, we do not wait at all before moving forward. If the candidate is a man, we circumcise him immediately. If he was already circumcised, we draw a drop of blood from the site of circumcision. And then when he is entirely healed, we take him to the mikveh. The rabbis supervising the conversion then teach him about some of the simple and some of the more onerous commandments while the man is still in the mikveh. He then immerses himself a second time and that concludes the conversion procedure. If the candidate is a woman, she just goes to the mikveh where the same procedure is followed except that the woman’s initial immersion is witnessed by another woman instead of by the beit-din.
The whole concept has a friendly, welcoming feel to it. Indeed, by trying to balance the obligation to be frank about the onerous nature of at least some of the more burdensome commandments with the desire to present conversion to Judaism as an essentially positive decision for which the prospective convert should be commended, Rambam is suggesting that the way we ourselves conduct conversions within the context of our movement is far more in line with the tradition than the unbearably onerous procedures used by the rabbinate in Israel which feel as though their sole goal is to chase away as many potential converts as possible.
Over the years, I have participated in the conversion of many men and women. Some have gone on to be real leaders in the community, while others have taken their places in the back benches and simply become regular Jewish people who eventually are indistinguishable from members of the community born to the faith. Many, I’ve lost track of, but, in the end, I feel that I have done good bringing many people into our community and then helping them find their places in our midst. That our work was recognized as legitimate and praiseworthy by no less a personality than Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef himself is incredibly meaningful. Last week I wrote to you all about what it means to have the courage of your convictions. Even thought Rabbi Avi Weiss, about whom I wrote last week, has since backed down and agreed not to offer the women who graduate his rabbinic training program any title that sounds like “rabbi,” I still consider him to be out there fighting the good fight for values that I find myself able to identify with and support. But who would have thought that I would be writing about another Orthodox rabbi the very next week and lauding him too for having the courage of his convictions in a world that could not be less amenable to that kind of commitment to one’s own moral code? From this we can all learn, yet again, never to judge a book by its cover. Or a rabbi by his formal affiliation.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
I don’t believe anyone can say with certainty who first said of someone else that he or she had the courage of his or her convictions. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says the expression first entered English in the mid-1800s as being about people who maintained the courage of their opinions—it was apparently a direct translation of the parallel French expression—and then, perhaps just because it sounded so much better, the opinions in question somehow morphed into convictions and so was born one of those overused expressions that people suppose must just always have been part of the English language. But overused or not as an expression, the concept itself strikes me as not being worn out at all. Just to the contrary, actually. I’ve written a lot just lately about the concept of heroes—about people like Miep Gies or Rosa Parks or Nofrat Frenkel who risked arrest and serious personal loss for the sake of standing up (or in Rosa Parks’ case, sitting down) for what they believed to be right and just—and it strikes me now that I consider the matter that what all the people I think of as being truly heroic figures have in common is precisely that it could easily be said of them all that they were unable, or at least unwilling, not to maintain the courage of their own convictions even, or perhaps especially, when the going got truly tough.
It sounds so much easier to do than it actually ever is in the context of real life! Nor does it invariably end up well for such people—we celebrate endlessly the Ghandis of this world who struggle to maintain their own moral bearing in the face of brutal opposition, but rarely hear about those who finally are crushed by the very system they felt morally bound to oppose. Is having the courage of one’s own convictions its own reward? I suppose that in the end it has to be: what you get for not crumbling when challenged to betray your own beliefs is that you get to go to sleep that night untroubled about the strength of your own character. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me! And yet, if that is true (and, really, how can it not be?), then why exactly is it so difficult to remain faithful to ideals you actually do hold dear?
I’ve been reading this week about the scandal surrounding Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a large Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx. Rabbi Weiss, who has been a thorn in the side of the Orthodox establishment for many years and in many different ways, outdid himself considerably in terms of raising the ante by establishing a yeshivah last May in which he intended to ordain women not precisely as rabbis but rather as spiritual leaders virtually indistinguishable from rabbis who were intended instead to use the title Maharat, an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean something like “spiritual leader of Torah and halachah.” A woman, Sara Hurwitz, eventually graduated the program and was awarded that title, but now Rabbi Weiss, prompted by his realization that the title Maharat was too much of a mouthful ever really to catch on, has announced that henceforth Maharat Hurwitz will simply be called by the title Rabbah, a kind of feminine equivalent of the Hebrew word for rabbi.
Why Sara Hurwitz can’t just be a rabbi is a different question, one rooted in Rabbi Weiss’ interest in pushing the envelope only so far as it can be pushed without creating an unbridgeable chasm between himself and the more traditional end of the Orthodox world. (The term rabbah, by the way, is used in our masorti circles in Israel as the Hebrew word for a female rabbi. But female masorti rabbis are invariably called “rabbi” in English, not rabbah, precisely to stress that they are rabbis in the same sense that our male colleagues are.) Rabbi Weiss may seriously have miscalculated, however, in that the response has been scathing even by the standards of the people Rabbi Weiss is trying not totally to alienate. The Agudath Israel, an organization of haredi rabbis, denounced the decision as “a radical and dangerous departure” from Jewish tradition and declared that any synagogue that hires a woman in any sort of rabbinic role in so doing gives up its right to be considered Orthodox. The Jewish Week reported that the Rabbinical Council of America, the international organization of modern Orthodox rabbis, was considering cancelling Rabbi Weiss’ membership. (You can read more about that at http://matzav.com/rca-considering-kicking-out-avi-weiss). If you google “Weiss-rabbah-Riverdale,” you’ll find people calling for Rabbi Weiss not solely to be kicked out of his professional organization but actually excommunicated. Even for someone like myself who browses these sites all the time, I found the language used to condemn Rabbi Weiss to be shocking in terms of its shrillness and its vituperation.
Sitting on the sidelines as someone with no ties of any formal sort to that world, it’s easy to be smug. We, after all, have been ordaining women within our Conservative movement for almost a quarter-century. And we have not felt the need to invent some alternate title to describe qualified women who join the rabbinate so as specifically to avoid calling them by the title they have earned and to which they are thus formally entitled. But our growth towards the eradication of illogical gender bias has not been as forthright or as direct as many would prefer to imagine. For years, our scholars poured over medieval law codes to find some precedent, no matter how slight, for calling women to the Torah. Eventually, they found one too—an obscure reference in an obscure book to an obscure medieval French rabbi of whom it was obscurely said that he (possibly) allowed women to come forward for aliyot to the Torah in his synagogue—and upon that most slender of threads was hung what should have been a moral decision in the first place based on the fact that irrational discrimination is morally unjust and should invariably be set aside. A similarly elaborate effort went into the decision to count women in a minyan or to allow women to sign a ketubbah as the witnesses at a wedding. But all of that paled in comparison to the years of debate that led to the decision at JTS finally to ordain its first women rabbi in 1985. Specifically not choosing to frame the issue in moral terms, the decision was rooted instead in an elaborate halachic compromise based on the discovery that it could theoretically be possible to be physically female yet halachically male. (For the uninitiated, halachah is the Hebrew word for Jewish law. The adjective “halachic” is used to mean “in accordance with halachah.”) In other words, it could just as correctly be said that the decision at JTS in 1985 was actually not to ordain women, or at least not to ordain women who chose to remain faithful to the traditional strictures delimiting women’s participation in ritual life, but instead to focus on a candidate’s willingness to accept the obligations traditionally understood to rest upon men regardless of that candidate’s anatomical or physiological gender, thus creating some sort of weird hybrid of legally male rabbis housed in physically female bodies. To say the least, it was not our finest hour. Preferring that sort of legalistic legerdemain to clear moral reasoning did not do us proud, nor does it matter much to me that this compromise, which I believe remains in effect de jure, is today widely (and wisely) ignored by all or most concerned parties.
Of course, having the forceful courage of one’s own convictions does not make right or good anything at all that anyone believes forcefully because the concept rests on the supposition that the convictions in play are themselves morally defensible and not merely passionately maintained. And it is surely so that many of those who the most bitterly oppose Rabbi Weiss’ decision to ordain Sara Hurwitz as a rabbah would argue in precisely that vein that the concept in play is not whether Avi Weiss is a moral individual possessed of the courage to live by his own convictions but whether his basic assumption—that there is something morally indefensible about denying someone the fruits of her own labor merely because of her gender—is itself seriously flawed. That society as a whole appears almost fully to have accepted the distinction between rational and irrational gender bias—and so permits gender-restricted locker rooms and hospital wards, but not gender-restricted country clubs or professional organizations—seems not to carry any weight with these people. But, in the end, it is they—the people who so hate Avi Weiss—who have failed to understand that the effort to balance fidelity to tradition with the moral imperative is at the very core of Jewishness. Indeed, trying to negotiate a path of integrity between the obligation every Jewish person must feel to embrace as sacred the word of God as revealed in the Torah and the parallel obligation to hear the word of God as spoken directly and distinctly to every human being willing to open his or her ears to the communicative presence of the divine in our midst—that is the definition of Jewishness that I find the most compelling and the most attractive. That we in the Conservative movement have adopted this as one of our foundational principles speaks, I think, well for us. That we have occasionally allowed ourselves to look away from that principle, less so. But the bottom line has to be that we see the path forward guided by the twin obligations to be traditionally faithful and morally just. And that, in the end, has to be the determining factor in justifying our right to success as a movement and as a legitimate philosophy of Judaism.
What the future will bring for Avi Weiss, who knows? If he is finally ejected from the RCA, I believe it will in the long run hurt them more than him. And no matter how much opprobrium they bring down on him simply for having tried to be just and fair, the more important point in evaluating the larger implications of this whole rabbah affair will have to be the moral reasonableness of Rabbi Weiss’ actions. If the powers that control Orthodoxy determine that there is no place for a man such as Avi Weiss in their world, then there will surely be a place for him in ours.