Thursday, October 31, 2013

Religion in Israel

For most Americans, religion is a thing. A useful thing, perhaps. Even an important thing. But nevertheless…a thing. Something that can be taken out to be admired or stored away for future use. Something that can be crucial—even essential—in the lives of some people, but which others can just as easily be justified in setting aside. Something that has a certain intrinsic value, to be sure…but also something with ascribed value that different people will evaluate in different ways and that some will determine not to have any real value at all.  To be sure, we in this country pay a great deal of lip service to the importance of religion as one of the foundation stones upon which just societies rest. One of the core principles of our Constitution, after all, is the protection of the rights of all citizens to worship as they choose. But we also find it slightly peculiar, even perhaps a bit annoying, when people insist that beliefs they have acquired through the medium of religious affiliation are not merely dogmatic ideas they personally have decided to embrace, but absolute truths that should be reflected absolutely in public policy. To say the same thing in other words, we Americans like religion. But we also feel, in this as we do too about other people’s pets or the videotapes of their weddings, that it should never be foisted on others—not unawares by pretending that a particular platform rooted in one’s personal faith simply “makes sense” as public policy, and surely not overtly by insisting that there is something morally perverse or ethically aberrant about embracing some alternate position to whatever policy or program we wish personally to promote as public policy and then refusing to entertain even the reasonability of those alternate approaches.

The great debates that have riven the nation in the last decades—the ones, for example, surrounding abortion, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, or public access to medical insurance and health care—could all be interpreted along these lines, with parties on both sides of each issue thinking—and occasionally saying aloud—that the people on the other side of the debate are being motivated not by patriotic concern for the public weal or by altruistic feelings for the welfare of others, but by religious convictions they wish to bring to bear in the establishment of public policy whether or not they have the nerve actually to say that clearly. People generally know how they feel about specific issues, particularly hotly debated ones. But I would like to write today about the debate itself, about the specific question of how the thoughtful citizen should behave when, say, something being promoted as a positive innovation in law or practice is also something his or her religion teaches is not only non-mandatory and non-requisite, but actually sinful and morally wrong. Is the right thing to do to stand up or to sit down, to speak out or to keep one’s peace? Are we supposed to insist that society follow what we ourselves have come through the medium of faith to accept as the path of righteousness and decency? Or are we supposed to hold our tongues and allow secular society to make secular decisions that we, as free citizens, will then be free to disagree with and dissent from? These are complicated questions for all Americans to consider, but all these issues boil down to the same basic question: what role should religion play in public life?

Here this is all confusing enough, but things in Israel are exponentially more complicated. Partially that has to do with the specific political process that Israelis use to elect their officials. But mostly, I think, it has to do with the way Judaism itself functions as the coordinating metaphor widely understood not merely as a foundation stone upon which the secular state rests but more accurately as the glue that holds that society together. When people are annoyed by Israel defining itself as a Jewish state, they generally justify that sentiment with reference to the non-Jewish minorities that form 24.7% of the population. (Why those same people never seem anywhere nearly as exercised by Iran, Mauritania, Libya, or Pakistan choosing to self-define as Islamic republics is an entirely different question, although one with a relatively obvious answer.) But, the right of any state to self-define in terms of its national ethos and culture being both basic and inalienable (a point formally articulated in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, among other places), that is exactly how Israel defines itself. And that, clearly, is why things that are non-issues in other places are hugely contentious ones in the Jewish state.

Just this last week, a bill was introduced by the Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”) party headed by Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, proposing that Israel create the possibility of couples marrying in “civil union” ceremonies that would provide them with the same benefits available to couples who marry in religious ceremonies. The bill also proposes that there also be created a way to dissolve such unions, one that would be a kind of secular parallel to the divorce proceedings through which married couples can legally and permanently dissolve their nuptial bond. The bill’s chances, although not negligible, are not great. But the very fact that it was introduced and is being taken seriously—along with the possibility that it could actually become law—constitutes a kind of sea change for Israel, one that I think I think I welcome. Or, to speak less equivocally, it is a solution to a problem that I personally feel needed desperately to be solved without being the solution I personally would have favored. So the question comes down to this: is solving the problem more important than not solving it even if the solution is, in my humble opinion, the less good option? It’s a tough call. But in the end I think it probably is.

Israel does not have civil marriage for anyone who self-defines in terms of religious identity. Christians have to be married by Christian clergypeople. Muslims have to marry under Islamic auspices. Jews are obliged to be married by rabbis who are certified by the Chief Rabbinate to perform weddings. Couples who declare themselves to have no religion at all do have a civil option, but for Jewish citizens to be obliged falsely to declare themselves to have no religious identity just to escape the obligation to engage with the Chief Rabbinate, a vestigial institution at best which has evolved into a bastion of religious extremism with which most normal people would naturally to have no truck at all—that seems beyond insulting and can hardly be the solution to the problem for people who are proud of their Jewish identity and who have no interest in making believe that they aren’t. To say the same thing in other words, for the Jewish state to offer a way to marry without having to submit to the heavy-handed auspices of the Chief Rabbinate only to Jewish citizens who deny that they have any sort of Jewish identity seems insane. And that is why the bill introduced by Yesh Atid is so important.

The bill specifically references couples as “two human beings,” thereby making irrelevant their gender. That opens the door to civil unions for same-sex couples. But it will also have a very salutary effect on countless Israeli non-same-sex couples unable to marry because they cannot adequately prove their Jewishness—a problem that confronts particularly immigrants from the former Soviet Union but also one that can make huge problems for olim from North America as well, and particularly converts to Judaism—or because they do not quality for marriage under some other rule that the Rabbinate imposes on those who wish to wed.  The courts in the United States have determined that in most cases separate is not equal, and that I believe is surely so. But this constitutes such a huge step forward for Israeli society that I think all right-minded, forward-thinking people should embrace it as serious progress that should be applauded and not derided for not going far enough.

Having said that, the real solution to the problem lies, I believe, not solely in the dissolution of the Chief Rabbinate but in ending the stranglehold on Jewish religious life that the Chief Rabbinate is able to maintain not because they have won over the hearts and minds of the citizenry through the sheer force of their moral example but because they have benefited mightily by the political system that allows their constituents, time and time again, to function as deal-makers and power-brokers in Israel’s peculiar version of parliamentary democracy.  If non-Orthodox rabbis were permitted to function fully, then Jewish people would not need to turn to secular, non-Jewish ceremonies to wed…but could marry in the Jewish setting they want and deserve. If there simply were no Chief Rabbinate and each religious stream were permitted to function by its own lights, then the alternative to religious extremism would be religious liberality. And that would be a very good thing for the Jewish state and its Jewish citizens.

This new bill exists to provide a way around the rules, a way to circumvent the obligation of Jewish people to live fully Jewish lives to the best of their ability, a way to sneak past the roadblocks set in place by an extremist Chief Rabbinate.  That is a solution, but it isn’t the best one. Nor is it one I can support other than as the lesser of two evils. The real solution is for Israel to take its place among the democracies of the world and offer its citizens not civil unions but religious freedom. Yes, it is painful for me to see Israel listed among the forty-five nations in the world that have the most restrictive marriage laws—for those of you reading electronically, click here for a remarkably upsetting and eye-opening picture of how things are out there in wide world of matrimony—but I also can’t feel good about the idea of Israel solving its problems by creating a way for its Jewish citizens simply to step away from Judaism and embrace secularism instead. The solution is not to create an exit route, but to work to obviate the need for an exit route! And that is the day-to-day work of organizations like Mercaz and The Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, both of which are out there in the world striving to obviate the need for legislation like the bill introduced in the Knesset this week by creating a kind of traditional, halakhic, liberal, just, fair-minded, and inclusionary Judaism in Israel for Israelis.

I hope the Yesh Atid bill succeeds. It’s not what I would have proposed personally, but it will do some good…and perhaps it, and other pieces of parallel legislation, will eventually break the power of the Chief Rabbinate and let some fresh air blow across the spiritual landscape of modern Israel. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Participating in the World

Participating fully in the world while keeping faith with a specific, non-universal set of spiritual values and cultural standards is not that simple a job to undertake, nor will Jewish Americans struggling to walk the narrow line between integration into their nation’s culture and allegiance to the covenant that binds the House of Israel to its God expect it to be. When put that way, it sounds as though this must be an issue thrust on moderns by modernity itself. That isn’t really the case however and, indeed, one of my favorite passages in the Mishnah relates how an otherwise unknown fellow named Proclus once noticed Rabban Gamliel washing up in the “Bath of Aphrodite” bathhouse in Akko which had that specific name because it was adorned with statues of the naked goddess. Seeing an opportunity to embarrass a man widely revered as the living exemplar of Jewish piety, Proclus asked him if it was proper for a Jew—and a rabbi, at that—to bathe in a place filled with idolatrous statuary. Rabban Gamliel at first declined to respond, noting that one only discusses issues of Torah with one’s clothes on. But then, once he was all dressed, he did address the issue and he addressed it seriously and thoughtfully. First of all, he said, referring to Aphrodite herself, she was the one who had come to him and not he to her. (In other words, Rabban Gamliel had apparently already been frequenting this particular bathhouse long before someone installed the statuary and didn’t see any reason to change his well-established custom of bathing in that place merely because the interior had been refurbished in the Greek style.) Second of all, he pointed out that the situation wasn’t that the bathhouse had been built as a shrine to the goddess but just the opposite—the goddess’s statue had been installed, presumably by the owners, to lend the establishment a bit of Hellenic class and for no other reason. This was, he meant to say, therefore not a temple at all and thus not a place the law required him to avoid. And third—and best—of all, Rabban Gamliel added the acidulous observation that if the bath had been a real shrine to the goddess, men stopping by to bathe would hardly stand around naked and urinate into the trough that had indecorously been installed directly before her marble image. That sounds about right to me!

So there’s that approach. But other Talmudic texts are more severe and consider a wide range of Gentile customs with an eye towards determining which of them a Jew might reasonably adopt and which the law requires the faithful to avoid because they are in effect idolatrous practices even if they seem merely to be superstitious silliness. And there are a lot of them.

In our American culture, Jews have generally become adept at knowing which parts of secular culture must be avoided and which can reasonably be embraced.  But what of the deeper, more serious questions that surround participation in activities that involve, or potentially involve, violating the strictest of prohibitions?  What sounds simple enough when the discussion is about going to a ball game or participating in a Thanksgiving dinner suddenly becomes exponentially more difficult to negotiate. Several examples of issues like this are currently on the table for Jewish Americans to negotiate, but none is more vexing than the question of whether an observant Jewish person can, may, or should participate in the criminal justice system when the accused faces the death penalty. We say, perhaps just a bit too often, that the underlying principle is dina d’malkhuta dina, that the law of the land is the law that its citizenry must observe.  But what if obedience to the law of the land—answering a summons to serve on a jury in a death penalty case, for example—involves the possibility of being personally responsible for someone’s execution? The Torah unambiguously prohibits murder. And it unambiguously permits capital punishment. But to avail ourselves of that permission without also accepting the myriad strictures that same Torah places upon the process that could conceivably lead to an execution…is that just one more application of the dina d’malkhuta principle? Or is it participating in murder?

Just this last week, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis of which I have been a member for thirty-five years, voted unanimously to accept as legally binding a responsum authored by my colleague and friend, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, the rabbi of the Ansche Chesed Synagogue on West End Avenue in Manhattan. The questions he addressed are chilling even to read. May a Jew participate in capital criminal cases in the American legal system? May a Jew serve as judge in a capital trial or as prosecutor seeking the death penalty? May a Jew testify in a trial in which the defendant could be sentenced to execution? And may a Jew serve on the jury which could sentence a defendant to death? Clearly, these are all legal things for American citizens to do.  One could even reasonably define jury duty as a civic obligation, thus as something one should undertake willingly. But playing the game means playing by the rules of the game you’re playing, not the rules that pertain to some other game you wish you were playing. And that was exactly the question Rabbi Kalmanofsky took it upon himself to answer: can the criminal justice system as it exists today can be actively participated in by people who wish to remain faithful to the strictures of halakhah, of Jewish law if the possibility exists of the accused being sentenced to death.

He begins by citing texts suggestive of the rabbinic ambivalence about the death penalty—Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon are cited in the Mishnah as saying that if it were their call to make no one would ever be executed—and then goes on approvingly to cite the opinion written by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser for the CJLS more than half a century ago in which he unequivocally comes out against capital punishment and affirms that God alone has the right to take a life.  But the fact is that the United States does have capital punishments in many jurisdictions…and the fact that there is no other country in the world with a significant Jewish population that also has capital punishment puts American Jews in a bind that their co-religionists elsewhere do not face. Let me cite the issue as Rabbi Kalmanofsky himself frames it:
Given that the death penalty exists at the federal level and in 32 states, what should Jewish citizens do when called to play roles in capital cases? Should Jewish judges and prosecutors refuse to play their parts in what Justice Harry Blackmun called “the machinery of death?” Should Jewish citizens refuse to serve on juries that might send a person to execution? Should witnesses withhold testimony that might help send someone to death row? Or, alternatively, does halakhah consider it within a government’s legitimate authority to execute criminals, though based on values we would argue that they should elect not to exercise that power? If this is the case, then Jewish citizens could take part in capital cases, albeit reluctantly or under protest. Certainly Jews are generally bound to obey the laws of the land, even those laws they oppose. Yet some laws may be so incompatible with our norms that Jews should refuse to follow them, by civil disobedience or conscientious objection. In which category does capital punishment belong? Is it beyond the bounds of what Judaism can tolerate? Or might it be bad policy, but not prima facie illegitimate?
My regular readers know that I am a subscriber to the Innocence Project newsletter, which is something that I believe all citizens who feel certain that they support the death penalty should force themselves to read from time to time.  (You can subscribe directly from their website by clicking here. It is chilling to read the stories of people—more than three hundred of them—who were wrongly convicted, but a thousand times more so to read the stories of the eighteen people, each now fully exonerated, who were sentenced to death and who would have been executed had their convictions not been overturned.) So that is part of the context in which I read Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s specific way of framing the issue: we are not talking about theory here, but about the system as it exists today and in which citizens like ourselves are regularly called upon to participate.

The responsum is a kind of tour de force, referencing all sorts of sources from different epochs and places. In the end, though, although the weight of Jewish tradition is surely opposed to capital punishment philosophically, Rabbi Kalmanofsky produces text after authoritative text that suggests that the use of execution by secular governments to maintain order and to discourage violent crime is not something a Jew needs oppose. Nor is the very existence of a secular criminal justice system something negative, the rabbis having long ago taught that among the handful of commandments imposed on the survivors of the great flood in Noah’s day was the obligation to establish a justice system that would discourage wrongdoing and punish wrongdoers without there being any expectation that the courts established by those survivors’ descendants would conform to the halakhah as it would later be drawn forth by our Jewish sages from principles set forth in Scripture.

From there, Rabbi Kalmanofsky moves on to analyze a number of Talmudic stories about rabbis who cooperated with the secular justice system in Roman Judea and who were praised for their efforts, or at least not condemned for them. And then he considers the distinctly more thorny issues surrounding the question of m’sirah, the act of turning Jewish citizens over to the Gentile authorities for punishment or judgment. It’s a long discussion, one with strong arguments on both sides, and one I recommend particularly to my readers.

The second half of the responsum deals with the reality of the death penalty in America. In some specific ways, I found the numbers both surprising and vaguely re-assuring: after all these years reading the Innocence Project newsletter, it was calming to realize that there were in our country only seventy-eight death sentences in 2012, down from 224 in 2000 and 315 in 1996. (Those numbers need to be considered in light of the fact that more than 16,000 homicides occur in the United States every year. So the vast majority of murderers are neither sentenced to death nor, needless to say, executed.)  But there is a lot more than to consider and I strongly urge my readers to find Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s responsum and read it thoughtfully and carefully. (It has been posted on the public side of the Rabbinical Assembly website and can be accessed by clicking here. Otherwise, go to and you’ll find a tab for the CJLS on one of the drop-down menus at the top of the page.) In the end, Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s conclusion that “objection to the death penalty is not halakhic grounds to refuse to participate as judge, prosecutor, juror, police or witness in capital trials” follows logically from the evidence adduced. I was surprised to find myself so easily in agreement, but he writes very persuasively and compellingly. I personally feel that a system that cannot guarantee that no innocent citizen will ever be convicted in error should only impose sentences on the convicted that can be reversed should such an error later on come to light. But I also came away feeling convinced that participation in death penalty cases is halakhically acceptable behavior from which Jewish citizens need not flee.

Writing like this—clear, compelling, well-documented, thoughtful, and persuasive—exemplifies at its best the rabbinic mission to make our ancient Torah into a guide for moderns seeking to live moral lives in an imperfect world. To feel challenged by unfamiliar arguments, then convinced of their validity, is both humbling and intellectually satisfying. I recommend Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s work to all my readers…and I think you will find yourselves as impressed as I myself was by the quality of the writing and the persuasiveness of the argument. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Anne and Bibi

I was a teenager myself when I first read Anne Frank’s diary, or at least the edited version of it that was then in print and which was the basis for the Broadway show and the subsequent movie featuring Millie Perkins as Anne Frank, Joseph Schildkraut as Otto Frank, Shelly Winter as Auguste van Pels (for which portrayal she won an Oscar), and Richard Beymer as Peter van Daan. I was too young to have seen the show on Broadway—it ran from 1955 to 1957—nor did I see the revival in 1997 featuring Natalie Portman as Anne. (We were still living in British Columbia back then, although I surely would have gone had we been in New York.) I did see the original 1959 movie, of course, but it was the book itself that made the greatest impression on me as a young man and which continues to exert its force on me even now after all these years.

Thinking back on the experience, I find myself wondering what precisely it was that I found so moving about the diary. There are, after all, other diaries left behind by people who died in the camps. As a young man I read, for example, the diary of Moshe Zev Flinker, a young man whom the Nazis murdered at Auschwitz in 1944, which was published by Yad Vashem in 1965 as Young Moshe’s Diary and which somehow found its way into my hands around the same time I first read Anne Frank’s diary. And, of course, I read the so-called Oneg Shabbat diaries collected and preserved by Emanuel Ringelblum in three huge milk cans he managed somehow to bury safely beneath the Warsaw Ghetto before being executed by the Germans in March of 1944. (One of the milk cans was never located and is presumably still buried under Warsaw somewhere. The righteous souls who were hiding the Ringelblums outside the ghetto were also executed.) And there are many more such diaries, some of which were featured in a very well-received 2006 film by Lauren Lazar called I’m Still Here: Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust which was subsequently nominated for two Emmy awards. I’ve even read some of the perpetrators’ diaries, particularly the diary of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, published as Death Dealer: the Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz (and subsequently also under several other titles), which was as shocking in its detail as it was creepy in terms of its author’s detachment from his own story…and as depressing a book about the depths to which the human soul can sink as anything I believe I have ever read, possibly with no exceptions at all.

Anne Frank’s diary is in its own class, however, and it had its own special effect on me. Partially, that was because we were only separated by four degrees of separation: I grew up in Queens as the next door neighbor of Erna Neuhauser, who was the girlhood friend in Vienna many years earlier of Miep Gies (then known as Hermine Santruschitz), the woman who became Otto Frank’s secretary and later played a key role, really the key role, in hiding the Franks and the others in the so-called Secret Annex. I’ve written about Miep Gies on several occasions before, mostly regarding her disinclination to be labelled as hero for merely having behaved morally and bravely. (If you are reading this electronically, you can find my letters about Miep easily by entering her name in the search box at the top of the screen.) But now I’d like to say something about Anne Frank…and particularly about her legacy. Some of you may have noticed in the paper the other day that the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles has mounted a huge exhibit about Anne and her family that includes not only photographs and a full-length facsimile of the diary itself, but also actual artifacts from the Secret Annex. If the exhibit itself leads a new generation of young people to read the diary and to internalize the lesson that the k’doshim who died during the Shoah were not special people in any specific way, just ordinary Jewish citizens who had the misfortune to fall into the fiend’s hands and then to pay with their lives for their membership in the House of Israel…and, of course, also the corollary of that thought, that if any of us had been in that place at that time we likely would have met that fate…then it will have been well worth its curators’ efforts to mount the exhibition in the first place. But even all these many years later, the world continues to debate the specific lessons that the world’s most famous diary can best teach its readers.

The battle over Anne Frank’s legacy has usually been shaped by the tension between particularism and universality, between wanting Anne’s to be specifically a Jewish story and wanting it to be something “about” humankind itself. Otto Frank himself, Anne’s father and the family’s sole survivor, was on the univeralist side of the discussion, famously warning Meyer Levin, the author of the “first” adaptation of the diary (a three-hour radio play first broadcast in 1952 that I’ve also never heard), against making the story into a “Jewish play.” Others, including the officials who administer the Secret Annex in its latter-day guise of museum and shrine, have climbed onto that bandwagon as well. On the occasion of my sole visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam back in 1973 when I was all of twenty years old, in fact, I was shocked to discover that the exhibits on the ground floor of the main building—the Secret Annex was behind 263 Prinsengracht, not really part of it—I was shocked to find that the materials on display had nothing to do with the Shoah or with anti-Semitism at all, but were entirely about the Vietnam War and the suffering it brought to Vietnamese civilians. I had the distinct impression that the casual visitor without enough time to visit every single display case could easily have missed the fact that Anne Frank had been Jewish! I remember walking away thinking that poor Anne had been murdered again, that now even her legacy as a Jewish martyr had been compromised to the point of non-existence. And in the Anne Frank House itself!

That, of course, is not the issue in Los Angeles, where the entire exhibit is devoted to Anne and her family specifically as Shoah victims. (There are even things there I’ve never seen or even heard of before, for example a set of letters that Anne and her sister exchanged in 1940 with some American pen-pals in Iowa.) But what is troubling, and what the article in last Sunday’s Times was about, were the conclusions the exhibit draws: after devoting its entirety to Anne’s Jewishness and the price she paid for it, the exhibit then pulls back and fully universalizes the lessons to be derived from the contemplation of her story. In a series of mawkishly sentimental touch screens, Anne’s legacy is reduced to vague platitudes, each one supported by some quote or another from the diary. People should not gossip about their friends behind those friends’ backs. People should oppose bullying and attend their children’s school board meetings. People should not let their dogs soil public spaces. That’s what Anne Frank lived and died to teach, that people should clean up after their dogs in public parks? Let me quote Edward Rothstein, who scathingly reviewed the exhibit for the Times: “Isn’t it remarkable how Anne’s diary can inspire such empathetic efforts? But look how thoroughly history has been dissolved! See how horrific circumstances are distilled into effervescent platitudes! The Museum of Tolerance teases unconvincing homilies from Holocaust history, as if intolerance were the root cause of genocide, which now seems to be an international delusion. As a result, the extreme is diminished in its awfulness, the trivial becomes grotesque and, ultimately, any analogy becomes possible.”

I find those very challenging remarks. The notion that what fueled the unimaginable horrors of the Shoah was that the Germans were merely being intolerant sounds just right enough not to be totally offensive, but really is as misleading an idea as it is slightly correct. Yes, of course, Nazi anti-Semitism was a version of intolerance. But anti-Semitism is not just another kind of prejudice, but something malign and toxic within the consciousness of western civilization itself with roots so deep that it simply cannot be eradicated or uprooted by nice people wishing that it would go away. Earlier this year, I read David Nirenberg’s book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, published by W.W. Norton last February. And now there is a kind of companion volume, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism, which complements and supplements Nirenberg’s book. These are serious authors—Nirenberg is a professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago and Goldhagen, now an independent author, was an associate professor of political science at Harvard—who deserve to be taken seriously. If you’re going to wade into these waters, though, perhaps it would be best to begin by reading Rosemary Reuther’s 1996 book, Faith and Fratricide, which book had its own profound effect on me when it was first published. Together, these three books make it clear that anti-Semitism is not merely the Jewish version of other kinds of discriminatory prejudice, but something unto itself, something that is similar to other kinds of bigotry but which is also distinct from them. What prompted the Nazis to embark on their war against the Jews, therefore, was not merely that they were intolerant louts who couldn’t stand people not exactly like themselves—which is exactly what intolerance is, after all: the inability to tolerate others—but that they were seized by a mania that has existed for millennia and which, so Goldhagen, only morphs forward into different, more or less pestilential versions of itself as history progresses and the world remains unredeemed.

And that brings me to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks at the U.N. the other week. While the world was tripping all over itself in an effort to fall in love with Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, and to will itself to imagine that Iran, the world’s leading exporter of terrorism and a nation led by people whose hatred for Israel knows no bounds, had somehow changed overnight into a reasonable group of allrightniks with whom we can surely come to terms if we only approach the issue fairly and generously…while the world was succumbing to the new president’s charming manner and dulcet tones, it fell to poor Benyamin Netanyahu to observe, as someone invariably does, that the emperor was not wearing any clothes, that the Iranian support for terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas continues unabated, that the Iranian leadership—both the show leaders like Rouhani and the real ones who actually set policy for Iran—that the leadership has yet to suggest even obliquely that it might be ready to abandon terror, to live in peace with all the nations of the Near East, or to renounce its self-arrogated right to pursue its own nuclear destiny in whatever way it sees fit. It fell to poor Bibi to pour so much cold water on so many people having such a good time!

And what reward did he receive? More or less the same one anyone telling people one thing when all they want is fervently to believe precisely the opposite. The New York Times itself in an article published on October 11, described Netanyahu’s stance as lonely, his voice as shrill, his aloneness as the central feature of his place on the world stage. What it really comes down to, I believe, is that Benyamin Netanyahu is a historian, not just the son of one. (His father, the late Benzion Netanyahu, was a professor of Jewish history whose specialty was the history of the Jews of Spain.) For him, I think, as for me and for many, Iran is not acting out of hostility to Israel or any great love for Israel’s enemies, but because it has become the fountainhead of anti-Semitism in the world today. That explains President Rouhani’s predecessor’s obsession with the Shoah, some part of which he appears to have inherited (albeit, at least so far, without the virulence). It explains the willingness of the leadership to speak not of their desire to bend Israeli policy to their will or to force a peaceful solution of some sort on the Palestinians and the Israelis, but of their desire to annihilate Israel and to murder its citizens. Once a nation embraces the language of Nazism, it links itself not to countries in the world who are displeased with this or that policy of the Israeli government but to the enemies of Israel from centuries past…including the twentieth. If any nation has seriously suggested that the solution to apartheid in South Africa was to “eliminate” all its white citizens, they would have been laughed off the international stage. But just days after the former president of Iran called for the elimination of Israel, he was permitted to speak as a respected world leader in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

To describe Anne Frank as a victim of intolerance is to miss the point almost entirely. She wasn’t murdered by people who didn’t care for her and her kind, she was killed because she was a Jew by people who saw the annihilation of the Jewish people as their life mission, as part of their national destiny. Benyamin Netanyahu understands that…and that is why his lonely mission is to remind the world that, historically speaking, no one—and certainly no nation—can speak blithely about the eradication of Israel and the annihilation of its citizens and retain its right to become a nuclear power. When the author of the 117th psalm suggested that the nations of the world cannot relate differently, let alone radically differently, to the God of Israel and the people of Israel, I think he had it exactly right.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Responding to Pew

By now, I’m sure, you’ll all read the Pew Report on Jewish life in America. (If you haven’t, click here. Have a cup of arsenic ready so you can complete the experience without getting up from your chair.)  I spoke about it from the bimah last week. I wrote an essay about one specific aspect of it that will come out in our synagogue bulletin in December. I’ve read a hundred on-line responses, each one penned by an author trying to out-grim the others. And that was on top of reading Jack Wertheimer’s essay, “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?” in the on-line journal, Mosaic, and the various responses it provoked, notably the ones by Sylvia Barack Fishman, Eric Yoffie, Harold Berman, and Steven M. Cohen.  They’re an august group, that’s for sure: Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at JTS, Fishman is a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis, Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, Berman is a former Federation executive, and Steven Cohen is a professor at the Hebrew Union College and one of the foremost American sociologists who study Jewish issues.  (You can find Wertheimer’s essay by clicking here and the rest by clicking on the author’s name in the following series: Fishman, Yoffie, Berman, Cohen. All are extremely worthy pieces to read and consider thoughtfully.)

What all these authors seem to learn from the statistics Wertheimer adduces and the Pew Report more or less confirms is that things haven’t ever been worse. The expectation of Jewish endogamy is ancient history. The level of Jewish observance is in severe decline. (The Pew Report reports that this does not apply, or does not apply much, to Orthodox Jews. But, of course, the people raised in Orthodox homes who have abandoned observance are hardly going to self-identify as Orthodox. So how could the observance rate among people who do self-define as Orthodox Jews ever decline? It’s like asking what percentage of people who play for the New York Yankees make their living playing baseball.) The fundamental principles of Jewish theology have been abandoned by huge segments of the population. It’s true that some of the Pew conclusions sound fishy to the point of being almost unbelievable. 15% of modern Orthodox Jews attend services in non-Jewish houses of worship “a few times a year”? I don’t think so! Of course, the people who responded got to say on their own where they fit into the larger picture of American Jewry. There was no actual test to determine, say, if someone who self-defined as a Reform Jew actually belonged to a Reform temple or personally accepted any of the actual tenets of Reform Judaism. So the bottom line is that the survey, appalling as its conclusions are, is only as reliable as the people who responded to the pollsters’ questions. And that, of course, is not something that anyone reading from afar, like myself and yourselves, can really test with any reasonable accuracy.

On the other hand, dismissing the survey because of perceived flaws in its conclusions would also be a huge error of judgment. Perhaps some people gave false answers or identified themselves based on wished-for or perceived realities rather than how anyone other than themselves would describe them. But even if those people were legion, the results are still extremely unsettling.

The responses to Pew that I’ve read fall into three general categories.

First, we have the ’twas-ever-thus school. These are the analyzers who accept the data but dismiss its importance because, they insist, this is how things always were. The fall-off rate has always been immense: we don’t feel that because the fallen-off generally go away and aren’t heard from again. The rate of Jewish conversion to Christianity in, say, eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany was astronomical, just as it was in Spain and Portugal before the expulsions of 1492 and 1496, and just as it was in antiquity when Rome became Christian. Let me quote from an essay that was published in the 1904 Jewish Encyclopedia that speaks directly to this point: 
The number of conversions reached their height at the close of the nineteenth century, when under the watchword of anti-Semitism all the medieval fury of Jew-hatred was revived, and the Jews of continental Europe were made to feel that, in spite of their full and hearty participation in the political life and intellectual progress of their country, they were yet regarded and treated as aliens. Having in their worldly pursuits allowed their religious sentiment to fall to the freezing-point, and finding themselves disappointed in all their aims and aspirations, many wealthy Jewish families took that step which opened to them the door of admission into the highest circles. It must be left to the moralist to decide whether conversions caused by mere worldly motives benefit or demoralize society. It must be left to the statesman to decide whether in thus forcing Jewish elements to amalgamate with non-Jewish under the thin cover of a formal profession of creed, anti-Semitism does not rather defeat its own ends. From the Jewish point of view the law of natural selection, which is ever at work weeding out the weaker elements and allowing only those to survive that have the power of resistance, has been fitting the Jew for his highest task even in this crisis, just as Isaiah saw it in the vision of the tree reduced to a "tenth" by storm and fire (Isaiah 10:13).
So you see, this school insists…the fall-off now is no different than the fall-off then. It’s true, it’s a different kind of falling away, but the center always holds even if the edges fritter more and less as the years pass. Therefore, although we should surely do what we can to prevent edge-fritter, we should also find comfort in the fact that this is how things have always been. If the Jews of Eastern Europe had survived, a significant portion of them would have long since assimilated into the general population too, this theory works, and they would be leaving, just as here in these United States, the self-identified Jews to mourn their disappearance.

The second school is the one associated with Orthodox triumphalism. Since Pew reports that 98% of respondents who self-identified as ultra-Orthodox reported having kosher homes, but only 7% of those who identified themselves as Reform said they have kosher homes…the clear implication, having a kosher home being one of the true foundation stones upon which Jewish life rests, is that to survive the Jewish people should embrace ultra-Orthodoxy. It’s true the numbers seem strange here too. (2% of traditional Orthodox households aren’t kosher? I don’t think so!)  But that’s just quibbling about numbers…and the clear implication, in statistical row after row, is that the highest levels of allegiance to ritual and dogma are maintained in Orthodox circles. As noted, part of that has to do with the likely disinclination of those who lack that level of allegiance to self-define as Orthodox. But even taking that into account, the implication is still that it’s not the center that’s holding, it’s the right-hand quadrant.

The third is the silver-lining school. According to the people who belong to his school of thought, it’s all good. The soaring rate of Jews marrying non-Jews is just a side-effect of how comfortable Jews feel in America, and how little prejudice we face when we try to break out of our own neighborhoods and comfort zones. The decline in observance is part of the general disinclination of all Americans to find solace in religion. (That this is not true is generally ignored—the Pew report notes, for example, that whereas only 20% of the general American public says that religion is either not too important or not important at all to them, an astounding 44% of Jews responded that way, as did fully half the Jewish men who responded, and almost half the respondents  between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine.) The rejection of Jewish belief by such huge segments of our population has to do not with those people embracing other religions but with them embracing science and secular culture—so they’re not committing collective suicide, those fall-aways…just allowing themselves to morph into a new version of Jewishness, possibly even a finer or better one. Isn’t growth a good thing?

I actually know exactly where we’ve gone wrong…because I know exactly which questions are the most painful for me personally to confront as a rabbi when I think of my own work over all these decades of effort. What we have failed at is not creating enough comfy spaces for people to settle into in our synagogue lobbies (I actually saw that on-line the other day) nor is our problem that we haven’t opened our doors wide enough to people who would come into the tent if only they felt welcome enough. Having nice sofas in the lobby and being welcoming, friendly people are not bad plans. But the problem, I believe, has to do with a general loss of nerve that has plagued our people now for well over half a century. There was a time, I think, when the point of preserving Jewishness was not that Jewishness be preserved, but that the great mission of the Jewish people—to redeem the world through endless acts of fealty to a God acclaimed as the moral ground of the universe—be, at the very least, moved toward…and possibly even accomplished in our day. There was a time, and not that long ago, when observance was not defined as obsessive-compulsive in-group behavior but as part of a great program to move the world forward towards its own salvation by beginning at home with simple steps designed to make of Jewish homes places of purposeful holiness and deep and ongoing dedication to the finest moral virtues. There was a time when illiteracy was considered shameful, when not being at least reasonably conversant with the classics of Jewish thought was something people would hide or even lie about. There was a time when even lapsed Jews could define the mission of Israel clearly and concisely…even if they themselves had gotten off the bus.

Among the books I mention from time to time on my bimah is Gilbert Murray’s 1925 book, Five Stages of Greek Religion, a re-do of an earlier book of his. In the book, which worth reading even today for many different reasons, he considers in a long essay the reasons that the Greeks simply walked away from their ancestral faith and embraced Christianity. That chapter is entitled, “The Failure of Nerve,” and describes the move away from the religion of the past not as being due to the attractiveness of the religion of the future but as the result of that religion becoming a huge temple with no real foundation as the beliefs that had once given the rituals of that faith structure and meaning slowly eroded away until what was left could simply not support the weight of the structure that sat atop its crumbling stones. I recommend the book to people who have finished the Pew report and are looking around for something new to read. You won’t enjoy what you find there. But when life-saving medicine is bitter…one generally is better off swallowing it than spitting it out.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What You Can Learn From a Piece of an Old Pot

All of you know that I am a life-long student of Jewish history. And mostly that is a good thing—studying history brings us all closer to the past, makes personalities from distant centuries seem familiar and alive to us, and gives us a stronger and clearer sense of who we ourselves are by drawing a picture of who our own ancestors were. But there’s also a downside that attends the study of history in that all those people we learn about when we read about the past tend to become lumped together in our minds as though “History” were a place that all these people lived in rather than a man-made construct invented solely to help us organize the events and personalities of time gone by.  We even speak that way, talking about “people in history” as though by virtue of having lived and died all those so-called “historical” personalities somehow posthumously acquired some relationship to each other…including people who would never have heard of each other, let alone actually known each other, in their actual lifetimes.

And then, every so often, some artifact surfaces that reminds us—or at least that reminds me—that the individuals whose names we know from ancient books were not merely names…but people like ourselves who had whole lives of which we generally know either nothing or almost nothing. To us they mostly are just names in a book, but in real life they were people whose lives were characterized, just as are our own lives, by disappointment and success, by achievement and setback, by fulfilled and unfilled hopes, by reasonable and unreasonable plans. People who lived and died not as historical personalities but as men and women who didn’t think of themselves as men and women of “history” any more than we—for all we know that in ten thousand years some few of our names could possibly surface in some aqua-archeologist’s underwater archeological excavation of long-submerged Long Island—any more than we ourselves find it possible to think of ourselves merely as some future generation’s historical personalities. Surely, we kid ourselves into thinking, our destiny is to be more than just names in a book! (And that would actually be the good news, the alternative to not being names in some book—if they still have books—to be published in the 31st century.)

All these thoughts came to me last summer as I read a press release from the Israel Museum regarding the discovery of some artifacts deemed to be about 2,700 years old in the City of David excavations in Jerusalem. Undertaken by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the area of the Gichon Spring to the southwest of the Old City, these excavations have yielded a treasure trove of artifacts from the First Temple period, which began in the days of King Solomon and lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the early years of the sixth century BCE.  That’s a long time ago! Anything that old would almost ipso facto be interesting, but even in the context of Israeli archeology these finds were remarkable.  And among them was a bowl with a man’s name on it.

Not a whole bowl either…just part of one. Nor a whole name. Just part of one…but somehow the words and the clay speak to me and that’s why I’m writing today: to tell you what I hear them saying.
Some details are clear. The inscription was made before the bowl was fired, so was clearly not etched into the clay later on by someone who merely acquired it. It’s in ancient Hebrew script too, so not that easily readable today even by modern Israelis. And some letters are missing in the beginning of the name. But archeologists Joe Uziel and Nahshon Zanton feel reasonably certain that the name on the bowl is Zechariah ben Benayahuan individual who, or at least whose name, appears in the Bible. There are a lot of if’s in all of this. If they’ve read the name correctly.  If the man whose name was inscribed on the bowl was the same man whose name appears in the Book of Chronicles. If the bowl “goes” with the other datable artifacts found at the site and didn’t wind up there through some now unrecoverable turn of events that now suggests a context that didn’t actually exist historically. If all of that is true, or if some version of all of it is…then what we have here is the physical remnant of a remarkable era in Jewish history, one as obscure as tantalizing. And of a man who, heretofore a mere name in a book, who lived…and who owned (no doubt among other things) a bowl.
King Yehoshafat (not the “jumpin’ Jehosaphat” of 19th century American slang, but the fourth king of ancient Judah, the son of King Asa).  What we don’t know about King Yehoshafat is a lot. He was thirty-five years old when he became king, probably in 873 BCE, and he reigned for twenty-five years.  History remembers him as a pious man and as a reformer, but the specific incident I want to tell you about is recorded only in the Book of Chronicles, which was probably written half a millennium after King Yehoshafat lived and died. Still, it’s a good story! The Jewish kingdom was being threatened by an alliance of Syria and several hostile kingdoms across the Jordan. (Does this sound at all familiar?) The king, a religious man, proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer to focus the national will on the crisis at hand and to seek God’s help in defending the homeland. The king’s prayer, beautiful in its own right, is preserved at 2 Chronicles 20:6-12.  And then, as if to confirm that the nation’s prayers had been heard and answered, the spirit of prophecy came over a Levite, a man named Yahaziel, the son of Zechariah ben Benayahu, who confirmed that the nation would be safe and remain secure. And that is what happened. The alliance crumbled. The allies ended up fighting with each and killed each other in such numbers that the survivors simply fled and all the armies of Judah had to do was to collect the booty where it lay on the ground in the enemy’s abandoned camps. And then “they returned, every man of Judah and Jerusalem, and Yehoshafat at their head, to Jerusalem with joy for the Eternal had made them rejoice over their enemies. And they came to Jerusalem with lutes and lyres and trumpets to the Temple.  And the fear of God was on all the kingdoms of those countries, when they heard how God had fought against the enemies of Israel” (2 Chronicles 27-29).

It’s not a famous story. Even in the context of not famous stories, it’s an obscure one. But it’s there. And Yahaziel is mentioned front and center as the prophet through whom God promised the nation victory. But it’s not Yahaziel whose bowl survived…it was (possibly) his father’s. Because that’s whose name is on the bowl: Zechariah ben Benayahu. The dates are right. The name, assuming Zanton and Uziel have reconstructed the writing correctly, is right.  The script and orthography are right. There’s no way to know for sure…but I’d like to think that this piece of broken clay was once a bowl owned by Yahaziel’s dad.  He was, after all, a Levite…and Levites did work in the Temple and probably lived in the City of David, precisely where these excavations are taking place. So why couldn’t it have been he?

This is exactly what I meant about individuals stepping out of the history books to become real people. Suddenly, they’re there…not as names in some book even people like myself only really read in Graduate School but as a real man. With a bowl. Did he sit in his backyard working on a new psalm eating walnuts out of his bowl? Or dates? Or perhaps he served his son, the prophet, and his daughter-in-law figs in that bowl. Or maybe he used it for some other purpose entirely, something we could never guess at. I suppose it could have been his chamber pot too! But somehow looking at this…this thing…makes me think of the countless millions of people who didn’t leave parts of their chamber pots behind, who simply vanished into the mists of history, as will almost all of us too, at least eventually.

Is that thought chastening or annoying? Does it make you feel humbled or angry? I suppose the truth is that it brings some combination of the above emotions to me personally. But it is an exceptional find, and you can actually go to see Yahaziel’s dad’s bowl, or what’s left of it, in the Israel Museum the next time you’re in Jerusalem, then let the experience remind you about some of life’s more provocative truths: that life lasts but a moment, that if you are supremely lucky you may get to leave behind some piece of a bowl with part of your name on it, that history itself may not be a place but the people who lived and died and whose spiritual descendants we are—those people actually lived and died, and left importantly behind not pieces of broken terra cotta but us ourselves who carry on their traditions and their faith, and through whom their civilization continues to evolve even in our own day.

And now I’ve saved the best for last. There are almost no pictures from ancient times of regular people. (The pictures of Israelites in the Assyrian wall carvings depicting the destruction of the city of Lachish northern kingdom of Israel are the exceptions that prove the rule. Click here to take a look!) There aren’t even any contemporary portraits of our most famous kings, only the odd reference to physical characteristics that appear in the biblical narrative. So we know that King David had red hair (1 Samuel 16:12) and that King Saul was exceptionally tall (1 Samuel 9:2), but not much else.  But in the same excavation at the City of David were uncovered a few female figurines…who are ancient Israelites looking across the millennia to invite us to imagine who they were and what they were like. And here they are, along with some other broken shards:

Do they look like us? Are they us? They look happy enough…but so would you be if you managed to survive for more than three and a half millennia buried under the earth only to re-appear in your great x 1000-grandchildren’s day to smile out again at the world and leave your descendants free to look into your eyes and ask the questions that all will pose and none be able to answer. Who are you exactly? And what have you traveled through time to say?