Monday, June 20, 2011

On Jewish National Identity: A Response to Daniel Gordis and Yitzhak Adlerstein

Daniel Gordis' observations concerning the alienation of non-Orthodox rabbinical students have elicited a thoughtful response by Yitzhak Adlerstein. He advises against Orthodox triumphalism, out of a serious concern for the Jewish collective. I support his sentiments as far as they go. They do not, however, go far enough. For, as far as real concern and identification with Israel is concerned, American Orthodoxy has much with which to be concerned.

I left the following comment, which I hope to expand later:

Overall, I agree with your reaction to Gordis’ piece and with the overall tenor of the comments (except for the first, which I think is reprehensible). I would only add a further reason for caution, lest we pat ourselves on the back overly much.

I have just completed a four month sabbatical in the US. One thing that struck me was how incredibly self-satisfied large swaths of American Orthodox Jews appear to be. For many of the people I met (though assuredly not the majority, I hope), Israel is a place to visit, without really engaging or encountering it; to use, without internalizing; to pine for in low keys on Tisha B’Av, without putting Aliyah on the agenda. One indicator of this attenuation of relations is the Hebrew illiteracy (both in speaking and writing) that marks the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews (including rabbis and Lamdanim). Without a common language, how can there be a common cause?

So, while we share the secret of our blessed solidarity and sense of peoplehood with other Jews, it behooves the Diaspora Jewish Community to check itself, as well.

To his credit, R. Adlerstein's response to my remarks (in a private note) were both open and appreciative.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Of Blended Families

Second (and third) marriages are a growing fact of life. Israel lags behind the US (33%- 53%), but the percentages keep growing. Israeli men and women are more likely to lost a spouse to violence (in addition to natural causes), than might be the case in Europe or the United States and Canada.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nothing Light About Dati-Lite (1)

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what Israelis call 'Dati-Lite'. For those who aren't familiar with the term, Dati-Lite refers to people marked by some degree of two distinct, though related, characteristics whose interaction marks a person's religious life: Openness to and involvement in the general cultural milieu and Less than maximal levels of observance.

As I once mention (in my Hebrew blog, here) the fact that these are, at all, related is instructive. It means that the regnant ideal in religious circles (at least at the official level) is that cultural self-segregation is as essential an element of religiosity as performance of mitzvot. Anyone who knows (or reads) me knows that I summarily reject such a conclusion, and I will expand upon this point in the book I'm writing on Modern Orthodoxy in Hebrew.

At the present moment, I want to zero in on the other factor: One's Level of Religious Observance.

Let me preface my remarks by asserting the obvious. Mitzvot are not optional, and that reality should be the point of departure for any Orthodox Jew. However, contemporary Israeli Orthodoxy comprehends two, inter-related, basic fallacies in this regard. The first is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding concerning the difference between religious policy and law. The second is rooted in an extremely exaggerated definition as to the minimum of observance required for one to be considered legitimately Orthodox. These dual fallacies lead to the delegitimization of fine upstanding observant Jews; to the phenomenon of 'Dati-Lite' (and not infrequently) to the total abandonment of Observance and the so-called 'Datlash' (דתי לשעבר or Formerly Observant).

Religious Policy: There is very real difference between what the Torah might allow and that which might be legal, but undesirable. Ramban, in his famous discussion of the parameters of sanctity (ad Lev. 19, 2 s.v. קדושים) notes that one could, conceivably, live one's life within the boundaries of the Law, and still miss the point. He, himself, highlighted the need to carefully balance spiritual with material pursuits. Thus, while eating kosher food is a mitzvah, neglecting one's soul in the interest of gastronomic pleasure (qualitatively or quantitatively) would render one a 'Knave with the Torah's Permission' (נבל ברשות התורה). Contrarily, extreme self-denial would presumably also fall under that category. This corrective falls, according to Ramban, under the overall directive 'Thou shalt be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy' (קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני ד'). This mitzvah is, in effect, an expression of religious policy, viz. the overall import of the Torah directs certain behavioral options over other (equally legal) ones.

This, of course, opens up a Pandora's box. Who's to tell what is the Torah's overall import, or needs? In a sense, it is around this question that the history of Orthodoxy turns (and has turned for over two centuries). In a Pre-Modern/Pre-Emancipation world, the integrity of Halakhah was complemented by an organic, living (ok, mimetic) tradition. With the latter's progressive dissolution, the setting of Religious Policy, based upon the 'best interests' of the Torah, became a judgment call by the Greats (and, more frequently, the would bees and wannabes).

It remains, however, a judgment call. If a person rejects such a judgment call, and his/her behavior is in consonance with acceptable halakhic norms (usually based upon a factor that might be deemed סוגיא דעלמא, or consensus. That, however, is a topic for another discussion); there is no justification to running them out of the Orthodox community, or of so abusing them that they feel they have no choice but to leave. I believe that this is the case in a number of contemporary contexts, where the proper policy is (I believe) to firmly voice our objections (respectfully), but adopt a 'Wait and See' attitude. In other words, if the mode of behavior (e.g. 'Partnership Minyanim') continue without sliding over the boundaries of normative law, then they will be regularized. If not, well, they will either disappear or read themselves out of the realm of Orthodoxy.

If one should not drive people out of Orthodoxy over more weighty subjects, one should certainly not do so over lesser issues. Nevertheless, religious priorities in the Religious Zionist world are so skewed that this is precisely what happens.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Rebellious Son: A Wonderful Movie

Many of you are, I hope, aware that the Maaleh School for Film has created an entire generation of gifted Religious Zionist Filmmakers. The most famous is, I suspect, Laizy Schapiro who created the inimitable series Srugim, which just completed filming its third season for Israel’s Yes TV (and which I"ve discussed on many occasions).

One of these truly talented people is Shoshi Greenfield. She has written, produced and directed a number of high quality films that touch, with sensitivity and humor, upon issues that lie at the core of the intersection of Judaism and Zionism in contemporary Israel. Now, her prize-winning film, ‘The Rebellious Son’ is available for viewing on the web in Hebrew with English subtitles online for only $4.00. [Website, here.]

The integration of men and women from the religious community into the visual arts is a tremendous Kiddush HaShem, and deserves support. Films such as these support that effort and bring home to your members the reality of life in Israel, in ways that even visiting cannot achieve.I strongly and warmly recommend that you watch them yourselves and publicise them among your community members.

The Rebellious Son

By Shoshi Greenfield

Documentary, 72 min.

My cousin Ya’acov’s secret ambition is to go unnoticed. He dreams of becoming a monk, a recluse. One summer, towards the end of his high school days, he fulfills his monastic ambitions.He drops out of school and becomes a shepherd on a forsaken farm in southern Mount Hebron. The mystery and magic that he discovers in the mountains aren’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm by his family. This rebellious son’s high jinks draw them into family quarrels that expose fresh, surprising points of view on themes such as love, war, and the beard my cousin has decided to grow.This is a family story about one individual's attempt to find his own path and independence, even when those around him think differently.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Shavuot:: The Unforgottable Festival

A provocative article in today's Jewish Ideas Daily claims that almost no Jews know about Shavuot, and tries to account for that fact. One of the factors that the author cites is the fact that (in the absence of the Temple) there are no ceremonies or mitzvot that are uniquely associated with the festival. On the face of it, that's true. Upon closer examination, that is not only a false assertion, it is profoundly misleading.

To begin with, Shavuot is wonderful specifically because it is unencumbered by considerations beyond the laws of Yom Tov. Indeed, it is Yom Tov, pure and simple. It's a day given totally over to rejoicing before God. The Torah commands us, ושמחת בחגיך. The Rav זצ"ל always pointed out that the ultimate joy a Jew can experience is to stand before God, ושמחת לפני ד'. On other holidays, there are all kinds of accessories to help us do that. On Shavuot, in the afterglow of Pesach and 49 days of spiritual preparation through the Omer period, we are bidden to just experience God's presence and rejoice; physically and spiritually. The paucity of ceremonial is, indeed, its power.

In addition, Shavuot has a mitzvah. We are bidden to re-experience Revelation and to sit and study Torah. What is better, more sublime. more exalted and more spiritually intoxicating than meeting God, the Creator of the World? As R. Hayyim of Volozhin writes in Sefer Nefesh ha-Hayyim (4, 3), attaining insight into the Torah is a personal act of Revelation. And we do it through a meeting of physicality and spirituality (רוחניות וגשמיות).

That is why, for me, Shavuot is not only unforgettable. It is my absolutely favorite Hag.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Hebrew (Teachers) College ע"ה

It is with profound sadness, that I must record the death (for me) of an institution for which I have hitherto felt nothing but affection and gratitude, Boston Hebrew College (aka HTC). It was there that I received the broad Hebrew, Jewish education upon which I subsequently built much of my personal and professional life. It was there that I had the privilege of studying under some of the most remarkale teachers ever to walk the face of God's earth: Rose Bronstein ע"ה, R. Arnold Wieder, R. Isaiah Wohlgemuth ז"ל, Israel Levin, Ehud Luz, Reuven Kritz, David Schapiro, Solomon Schimmel and others. In addition, it was R. Schapiro who, while teaching there, arranged for me to start learning under the Rav זצ"ל and who urged me to pursue my doctorate at Harvard.

HTC was also an intimate Jewish community that was integrally and intensely attached to the State of Israel (and previously, to the Yishuv). Indeed, it was founded by Palestinian Jewish educators. The Hebrew culture we imbibed was inextricably tied up with that of Israel. Despite the fact that it was officially a secular institution, it was open and accepting to a broad panoply of Jews, and eminently respectful of tradition. One thing that bound us, in particular, was a profound sense of Jewish Peoplehood.

The school was headed, for many years, by Eisig Silberschlag, who was an accomplished poet and a member of Bialik's inner circle. He embodied, in many ways, all of the best the school sought to represent. I will never forget the assembly of thanksgiving that was held in the wake of Israel's miraculous victory in June, 1967. We were all so thankful that the Second Holocaust that we had feared just days before, had ended in the liberation of our people from destruction, and the reunification of Jerusalem. I don't recall all that was said in that electric moment. I will, however, never forget how Dr. Silberschlag kept saying (his voice choked with emotion): כל הכבוד לצה"ל!!!!

It grieves me to say that this school, the one I loved so much, is dead. Its death has, I admit, been a long, drawn out affair. It started when Hebrew (its ostensible, raison d'etre) was dropped. It continued as it diluted its academic content. It sank deeper, as it ominously entered the fabian world of post-denominational Judaism with its rabbinical school. It has now, for me, finally died a death worthy of Peretz Smolenskin.

Yesterday, as I travelled home from New York, I read Daniel Gordis' column in which he describes the post-modern, relativist posture that the institution adopted toward Yom ha-Zikkaron. The message, and the PC disingenuous response by the school's dean, has so filled me with pain and rage that I urge you to read Gordis' piece (with which I fully agree). The school has effectively denuded itself of Jewish national sentiment, of substantive Jewish and knowledge and abandoned the Hebrew Language. I have contacted the school asking to be removed from their mailing list, or to be referred to as an alumnus. I will continue to treasure the school that once was.

The institution, however, that pretends to be its continuation is a mere knock-off.

The real Hebrew College is dead.

תהי נשמתה צרורה בצרור החיים.

I received the following response from Hebrew College. (I don't think they got it.):

Dear Dr. Woolf,

Thank you very much for your email. We have removed you from our mailing lists. I am glad you have positive memories of your time here and thank you for reaching out.