Monday, July 31, 2006

The Center Moves Left

My sense of the Conservative Rabbinate, and especially the younger rabbis, and Seminary students is that they are determined to change the ideals of the movement in a number of significant ways. The first is they have had it with the Orthodox and proto- Orthodox Rabbis who ran the Jewish Theological Seminary for almost a century. The three most important professors, Finkelstein , Ginsberg and Lieberman were all trained in Orthodox Lithuanian yeshivot, and maintained, consciously or unconsciously, much of the worldview of the Orthodox. They were important in their day because the core of the Conservative ideology was that Conservative Judaism was based with some minor exceptions on halacha. The intellectual aristocracy that these professors represented, with its other worldly devotion to scholarship and its implicit depreciation of American democratic middle brow culture, is over and gone. The next generation is going to create a different kind of movement, more populist and much closer to Reform.

Over time a few things have happened. There was this disconnect, which grew larger and larger as the years progressed between theory and practice. The actual membership has become more liberal and the Rabbis have reluctantly followed. It has become more and more difficult to think of halacha as strictly governing the lives of most Conservative Jews. The post war leadership of the movement has been living in a kind of ideological fog, pushing away the realities of congregational life and repeating mantra like the founding formulas. My favorite is: We believe in a timeless but ever evolving historical conception of Torah. This leadership squandered a great historical opportunity, and in my opinion, future historians will not be kind in their judgments. Even if their congregants were becoming independently less religious, they might have done more to stem the spiritual decline, or so I for one believe.

Second, the Orthodox have in the last 50 years waged a fierce and aggressive war against Conservative Judaism and especially the Rabbinate. The Orthodox won’t sit with Conservative Rabbis on any board, even where there are common interests, won’t recognize their divorces and conversions, and much more. The campaign has been very effective and demoralizing. The bitterness and anger in Conservative circles has expressed itself in two ways. For defensive purposes, most everyone, Rabbis and lay people alike, have turned away from Orthodoxy. Unlike their teachers, the current generation of Rabbis doesn’t care what the Orthodox say or do. The social and familial ties between these Rabbis and their Orthodox counterparts are weak to nonexistent. The general idea is if Orthodoxy engages in a politics of schism, so be it. There is no need to make the situation worse by internalizing their polemical diatribes.

The effect of the Orthodox policies towards Conservative Jews has had the beneficial consequence that the differences between the groups have been drawn very sharply, thus strengthening the sense of ideological purity in Orthodox ranks. The effect on Conservative Jewry has been the opposite. It has pushed this movement closer towards Reform. The trench warfare the Orthodox have practiced is not the only factor or even the main one, but it is considerable. When Orthodox speak of kiruv, the need to bring Jews back to the religious fold, it must be understood against a political program of non stop polemics against Conservative Judaism that has had the opposite effect, of pushing many Jews further away from traditional Jewish life. A demoralized Conservative Congregation led by a shamed Rabbi is much more likely to move to the left than the right.

I feel Jewish religious life in 25 years from now will resemble the Steinberg cartoon how America looks to New Yorkers….the five boroughs, Westchester County, Connecticut, New Jersey, the Hudson River and then ….L.A. There will be Ultra Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Orthodox Lite and then nothing until Reform Plus, Reform, Reconstructionists, Jewish Renewal and Jew- Bhu’s (Jewish Buddhists) , and at the very end a variety of experimental groups and chavuras. There is more Jewish life even after radical Judaism in families where the spouses have intermarried, and new eclectic traditions have taken hold, but that’s like Hawaii and Alaska.

W.B. Yeats might as well have been speaking of Judaism when he said "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Israel Lobby

In mid-March, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt (M-W) of The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, posted an 81 page paper on the Kennedy School website entitled the "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.’’ The paper unleashed a storm of controversy. An edited version was then published by the London Review of Books, which generated a second round of debate. The American Jewish response was frequently vitriolic, led by Allan Dershowitz and John Hopkins’ Eliot Cohen. One of the claims of the M-W paper was that a pro- Israel lobby led by AIPAC, (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has had an unreasonably powerful influence on American policy in the Mid-East.

The thesis is that the identification of American and Israeli interests is because of the influence of the lobby, and not because Israel is a strategic asset or in virtue of Israel having a uniquely compelling moral case for support. M-W say quite openly, "Israel may have been a strategic asset during the cold war, but it is a strategic burden in the war on terror and the broader U.S. effort to deal with rogue states.’’ They also claim that the $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel has no strategic or moral rationale anymore, if it ever had, and has made America more, not less, vulnerable to terrorism. The study says America, and ultimately Israel interests, would be better served by not following the Lobby’s agenda. The obvious implication of the paper was that a loosening of ties with Israel would be in the American interest.

There are 3 separate issues involved in this major brouhaha. The first concerns the past and whether the claims are true. It is interesting to note that many left wing and Arab commentators like Noam Chomsky and the infamous Prof. Massad of Columbia University reject the paper’s main points. They feel it exonerates the US government of its responsibility and guilt that it deserves for its Middle East policies. They argue that the Israel lobby is not the primary cause of U.S. policies towards Palestinians and the Arab world. In their view, the U.S. pursues policies in the Middle East and everywhere else that are beneficial to its own interests and those regimes that serve those interests, including Israel. The way the radicals see it, Israel is doing America’s bidding and not the other way around. They believe the US would continue the policies even if there was no AIPAC. It is very rare for Jewish polemicists like Alan Dershowitz and radical Palestinian apologists to agree on anything, but this debate is exceptional.

The second interesting question that came of out of the paper is whether the American lobby is in Israel’s interests. I hope at some point to devote a separate blog to this question.

The third issue concerns the future and, in particular, Iran. In the current issue of Foreign Policy, M-W warn ominously “The Israeli lobby is now focusing on Iran…Few world leaders favor using force to deal with the problem, except in Israel and the United States. AIPAC and many of the same neoconservatives who advocated attacking Iraq are now among the chief proponents of using military force against Iran.” "If the lobby were less powerful, the current U.S. policy toward Iran would be more flexible and effective. The U.S. …would not be trying to overthrow the regime or contemplating preventive war...Iran is treated differently (from other nuclear powers) not because it threatens America, but as President Bush has said, because it threatens Israel.’’

I see that two major Jewish neoconservatives, Martin Peretz, publisher of The New Republic, and William Kristol, editor of The American Standard, have come out in favor of our forcing regime change in Iran and the destruction of the Iranian nuclear facilities by the US military. Jewish neo-conservatives are not the sort of people who are willing to sit out a major foreign policy debate. They believe that the current debacle in Iraq is not a sufficient reason for them to change or modify their views. If the debate surrounding the Mearsheimer-Walt article is any indication, the coming debate on Iran is going to be ugly and could very well stir up anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Kotzker President

This war should be called the Tisha B’Av war. The IDF is having big problems, and before long there will be recriminations. If there is not enough of a victory to justify all the pain, the Olmert government should fall, which would be the least of Israel’s problems. A failure to achieve a decisive victory will embolden Israel’s enemies, and be one more indication to radical Islam that the tide has turned in their favor. Hezbollah and Iran will grow in stature at the expense of the Sunni governments and al Qaeda. At this point, Israel’s deterrence depends to a large extent on a firm reigning in and disarming of Hezbollah, pushing them back far enough so that no rockets will fall on Israel.

The issues that are already being raised is, first and foremost, that Israel did not think through the consequences. The decision to attack was made without sufficient internal Israeli consultations, and without adequate contingency plans. If the idea was to bring back the soldiers, we could have found other ways to achieve the goal. Even Hezbollah and Iran were surprised, having thought that a kidnapping or two were within the rules of engagement. In addition, the IDF misjudged the strength of the enemy. I have little doubt that in time the chief of staff and the other top brass who advised the government will bear some of the blame. What other conclusion can one draw? The U.S. and everyone else believed the IDF had this war all figured out. It seemed plausible to say an army as powerful as Israel’s would decimate an opponent no larger than a brigade. Even without a cease fire, l am confident the IDF will prevail, but apparently it will be a difficult battle.

The world already is voicing other criticisms. The Arabs, the EU, the U.N., the political left will deplore the ferocity of the attack on the non-Hezbollah parts of Lebanon. Israel is using excessive force without distinguishing between the civilian population and the enemy. The sole purpose of the destruction is to force the Lebanese government to enter the area and disarm Hezbollah. The problem is the Lebanese army is 30% Shiite, a quarter of the government is still in Syria’s pocket, and the government is so delicately balanced, it is effectively paralyzed. If Hezbollah is not defeated, such large scale destruction will be seen as having achieved nothing. In order to justify what has been done so far, and in order to maintain a future deterrence, Israel has little choice but to continue fighting. It is a downward spiral, and an unhappy situation.

A possible alternative to the fighting is vigorous negations to achieve the same goals by diplomatic means. In my opinion, the Bush administration is way too rigid on how a meaningful cease fire can be brokered. Maureen Dowd ,the day before yesterday in the NY Times, hit it on the head. “What‘s so frustrating about watching him (Bush) deal with Iraq or Lebanon, there’s almost nothing to watch. It’s not like watching paint dry, since that too is a passage from one state to another. It’s like watching dry paint.” If they want a deal, at this point, I think they must pay up. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not a messenger and not a third party, must go to Damascus and make Assad a genuine offer. Saying in her supercilious way, "He knows what he must do, and we expect him to do it’’ is way too arrogant a way to talk to someone who has a very strong hand, and can be of major help both in Lebanon and in Iraq. Rigid is a mild word for the Bush strategy. Dowd again, “The more people tell him that this is a region of shifting alliances and interests, the less he seems inclined to develop an adroit policy to win people over to our side rather than try to annihilate them.”

There are currently, in the Middle East imbroglio 19 players: Israel, Hezbollah, the non Hezbollah Lebanese Shiites, the Lebanese government, Syria, Iran, Russia, China (because of its support of Iran), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the U.S., the E.U., the U.N., the Iraqi insurgents, the Iraqi government, the Iraqi Shia, the Arab and Muslim street, the American street (public), and the EU street. Each have a half a dozen uncertainties associated with how they are going to act under different contingencies. President Bush in a recent press conference said “That’s what leaders do. They see problems, they address problems, and they lay out a plan to solve the problems.’’ He certainly does get the general idea.

In Kotzk (a Chasidic group in Congress Poland) they used to say “oyb men kenisht ariber, miz men ariber”. A rough but inadequate translation might be, "If faced with an insurmountable obstacle, surmount it.” Bush is a Kotzker if I ever saw one. One last time Dowd," W prides himself on his changelessness and regards his immutability as the surest sign of virtue. Facing a map on fire he sees any inkling of change as the slippery slope to failure.”

What America and even Israel need is a Galitzianer (the south Polish province Galicia that was part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire), or Ungarisher (Hungarian) foreign policy dressed in the appropriate Germanic (Yekkish) gravitas, a Henry Kissinger style of realism. In Galitzia they used to say “Oib men kenisht ariber, git men zich aan eitzah.” In an even freer translation this means “If faced with an insurmountable obstacle, go around it.” We need a foreign policy team that can whistle Dixie and chew gum at the same time.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Queer Rabbis

As everyone who follows these matters knows, the Conservative movement and its rabbinical representatives are having a knockdown drag out fight over the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. Now that Chancellor Schorsch has retired, the tide has turned away from the traditionalists and in favor of their opponents.

At first glance homosexual ordination is not a significant civil rights issue. It is not about state recognized marriages or whether homosexual couples should get equal benefits. This does not affect the basic rights or quality of life of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community. At most, it directly affects the lives of maybe 10 people a year, who will not be able to go to the Seminary, and will be forced to apply to the Reform or Reconstructionist divinity schools.

As the issue has been explained to me, it does not depend on the number of gay congregants who want or need a homosexual rabbi. The argument for allowing the LGBT community to be ordained is that not to do so is considered by many to constitute discrimination, and as a result it is considered a civil rights issue. Someone who is only moderately connected to Conservative Judaism, and who is not in need of a homosexual rabbi, may very well feel strongly that to not allow LGBT to be ordained is unacceptable. So the number of homosexuals in the Conservative movement is immaterial. The real question is how many people in the Conservative movement are in favor of equality for homosexuals, and I’d imagine that this is a large number. It’s the sort of situation where the pro gay ordination people might not particularly want or need a gay rabbi, but wouldn’t want to be a part of an organization that would not allow people to be rabbis because of their sexual orientation. Changing the traditional scope of ordination on the part of the Conservative movement is their way of trying to position themselves as pro-human rights, without discrimination against women and homosexuals, unlike the “oppressive” Orthodox movement where discrimination against these minorities is rampant.

I would conjecture, (I have no first hand knowledge) that this brouhaha about homosexuals is really about something else. Those who would allow homosexuals as rabbis want to move the movement closer to Reform and destroy the last vestiges of Orthodoxy and halacha. I guess they are thinking intuitively that they will ultimately lose in a head-on competition with the Orthodox. There is a huge religious revival going on in America and around the world. Conservatives cannot get ahead of such a tsunami. Better to move in the other direction and take a bigger share of the liberal market on the left. Their slogan could very well be: Better Reform Plus than Orthodox Lite

The people who want to push the movement away from halacha may ultimately over the long term prove correct. It is happening in a natural way as the liberal wing of American Jewry continues to assimilate. Most Conservative Jews are not properly observant of halacha. They do not observe the dietary laws or keep the Sabbath in the way it is prescribed in the shulchan aruch (legal codes). At the same time, I would say for a majority, maybe even for a large majority of Conservatives, it is the observance of some halacha that separates them from Reform. Even when observance of halacha is not strict and does not dictate their decisions, it is included and informs their daily life. Some kosher, some shabbat, imperfect observance, ever changing, with wide variations even within a family, but nevertheless revolving around the halachic axis.

Religious denominations like any other consumer product must be positioned and ‘branded’ to compete in the market place. At this point in time, the demographics for the Conservative message are closer to Orthodoxy than Reform. For the movement to agree to use the issue of homosexual Rabbis as a vehicle for quick theological change is self destructive. It would be a boon for the Modern Orthodox, since their ranks will grow. For the Conservatives, allowing for gay and lesbian rabbis will, in my opinion, lead to a further decline in membership, potential schisms and endlessly warring factions. Because Conservative Judaism has this deep vein of tradition running through its ranks, I feel the movement ought to position itself as Orthodox Lite rather than as Reform Plus.

The reality of the political situation is that it’s only a matter of time before the movement will be ordaining openly homosexual rabbis. A world of gay rabbis would add excitement and uncertainty to the otherwise staid world of Conservative congregational life. In fact, it might even usher in an entire new more Chassidish and tsniusdig (modest) dress code for Conservative women. For one thing is clear. We can be guaranteed that the Rebitzen (Rabbi’s wife) will wear a sheytel (wig) when she comes to shul in drag.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Closeted Charedim

Scientists have discovered an odd correlation. For each additional older brother, a boy has his chance of growing up gay increases by one third. At the same time growing up with older stepbrothers has no effect on whether younger brothers will be gay; but having an older biological brother, even one who grows up separately, does. It appears that the biological fact of being a later occupant of the same womb make it more likely that a boy will grow up to be gay. Somehow the prenatal uterine environment fosters homosexuality in later sons. The causal mechanism that is being suggested is this: Giving birth to a child mixes fetal and maternal blood which causes the mother to develop antibodies to the foreign male proteins of her first born. These antibodies cross the placenta in subsequent pregnancies, thus exposing fetuses to these maternal antibodies. The brain development of a younger son might somehow be affected, increasing his chances of growing up to be gay. After 11 older brothers, the estimate is that the 12th boy has a 50-50 chance of being gay.

I learnt all this from an article in the WSJ, (6/31/06). Let’s assume the correlation is correct, and in time scientists understand in greater detail how the mechanism works. And furthermore let us suppose that the correlations will remain stable and become widely disseminated. Every parent at that point will have a well confirmed probability estimate matching each male child with the estimated chance of growing up gay. It might be something like this, assuming the relationship is linear: 0 previous boys=2%, 1=6%, 2=10% and so on. Couples with 6 previous boys who choose to have another child and know its sex, are bringing a child into the world with approximately a 25% chance of being gay. Nisht kein kleinikeet as we say. Such an outcome is not trivial. The results can be more startling if the function is non linear.

All this raises some curious problems for Ultra Orthodox people who choose to have large families with 8-12 children. Clearly it is not their intent to have a gay child, and if they did they would not want that result. So far so good. But there is this curious problem of its being foreseen with a stable probability distribution. True it is not a certainty, what the Talmud calls a psik rayeshaw. It is not like a case where you chop someone’s head off and then say “Who knew he was going to die?” It is more like playing Russian roulette with 3 empty cartridges and one bullet, and the victim dies. I am not sure about the halacha, but I would think morally and legally the killer is a murderer. At some point, frum people are playing Russian roulette with their children’s sexual preference. They are causally responsible for their child’s sexual preferences. I am also curious, if in such a case, the parents can be said to be an accomplice in the child’s sexual history?

One tempting way of dealing with this narrow halachic issue might be to differentiate between impulses, desires, propensities, etc. and homosexual activities. A homosexual is someone who has actual sexual relations with someone of the same sex. If there is no sexual activity, there is no homosexuality. It’s like the famous line of Reb Chaim Solovetcik. A crook is not someone who knows how to steal, or dreams of a life of crime. A crook is someone who steals. The same for a scholar ( a lamdan). We can add the same for being a homosexual. At most, the parents are responsible for the desire. They bear no responsibility for the activities, because of free will etc. In real life, it is not so easy. They have some part in the misery of celibacy, and might be considered by the child as bad parents for having brought him into the world. And the crook in the Reb Chaim witticism is not a g.f.b, a ganiv (crook) from birth. In some not insignificant way being gay from birth cannot be separated from the subsequent sexual relations, even if there isn’t a genetic marker.

Putting these issues aside, there are some interesting empirical consequences. I urge interested readers to work out the math for themselves, but there are going to be or already are, many more gay men in Ultra Orthodox circles than has been estimated heretofore. It should exceed the national average of 2%, since the vast majority of gays do not come from very large families. If you assume there are a million charedim, there is no growth in population and gays become in time 4%of the male population, we are talking 20,000 frum gay men in our midst. These men have four choices. They can leave Orthodoxy. They can lead holy and pure celibate lives. They can marry and muddle through. They can be single or married, but closeted. The last possibility is serious insofar as it will invariably lead to innocent charedi women and children with AIDS. An epidemic, however, is unlikely since we now know that circumcision is a major protection against AIDS.

I hope the research is not confirmed, and I hope I made some mistake in my reasoning. As much as I hate religious zealotry towards the gay community, I pray the problem of a large, closeted frum gay community will never arrive.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Anti -Anti (Anti-Gay)

Here, in Chicago, we just hosted the 2nd International Gay Olympics. It has been a smashing success. The event brought 12,000 gays to Chicago. The city provided 20 venues for the games, the teams were seeded, and locals and guests turned out to watch, despite temperatures over 90. The city was happy because of the additional revenue, the gays were excited to be in a city that welcomed their presence, and a good time was had by all.

Next month there was going to be, in Jerusalem, a week-long international gay festival, the highlight of which was a gay pride parade. The event has been postponed because of the war. The principle, however, has not been resolved. The event has gotten many charedim (Ultra Orthodox) people hot and bothered. The homophobia of the charedim is, to some extent, based on very strong feelings about how to live a holy and pure life. There is no better example in the Jewish world of a community that lives in holiness and purity than the 200 year old community in Meah Shearim and surroundings.

The existence of homophobia in the charedi world has angered many liberal Jews for two reasons. Charedim have let loose with a ton of homophobia that is unacceptable in today’s world. The charedi rhetoric has been inflammatory and unhelpful. Even the biggest Meah Shearim zealot must understand you can’t curse an entire group, shout obscenities and at the same time expect civil behavior from their supporters.

The blogosphere is having a field day. They satirize the charedim as Neanderthal idiots. Here is an example from Dov Bear:
“Let me see if I have this straight. Adulterers, thieves, wife-beaters, and idol-worshipers like the Pope are all allowed to touch the Wall and everything is fine. Nothing happens. But if gay people touch the Wall, God will be rendered completely powerless, and He will be unable to prevent the disaster it will cause.”

The second complaint is that the charedi case would be more convincing if they were equally zealous in pursuing issues such as sexual harassment, women trafficking, pedophilia and discrimination against women in the rabbinical courts. For example, they have never said boo about Israeli trafficking in women. I have never read a sermon on the evils caused by the presence of thousands of prostitutes in the Holy Land. They wake up when homosexuality is mentioned.

Despite these justified misgivings, I want to say something politically incorrect, which I nevertheless believe to be true. The charedim were a 100% correct on the substantive issue. There ought not to be a gay festival and parade in Jerusalem, not in August, not in the fall, never. I agree gays have the right to march. If they had any brains, they wouldn’t exercise this right. It is not a good thing to engage in provocative, unessential behavior that drives other Jews into paroxysms of rage and disgust. All gay people, including the leather s&m crowd, the cross dressers and the biker lesbians can exhibit their lifestyle anywhere and everywhere, but not in Jerusalem. The issue is not the rights of gays to cohabit, or any other basic civil right. Gays march in Tel Aviv with no serious problems. I believe what I said is true even if it is totally permissible to lead an openly gay life. Furthermore, I believe the existence of wall to wall homophobia in the charedi world doesn’t change the equation. The gays shouldn’t march in Jerusalem. They shouldn’t march in the Vatican. They should take a pass on Mecca and Qom. The rest of the world is fine.

Gays are just a small part of a culture war being waged gleefully by both the secular and religious. The secular are giggling how the gays are infuriating the Charedim. Secular Israelis are so very angry at charedim; anything that puts Ultra Orthodox Jews over the top is a positive. The other side is not much better. A gay parade in Jerusalem would be an opportunity to project onto some marginal outsider their own repressed anxieties. There is nothing to fear in verbally abusing gays, since Hashem is obviously homophobic, and happy they are doing this. What can be better? In venting, they are God’s Cossacks.

I have a bone to pick with the Orthodox liberal bloggers. They take comments by the most idiotic, charedi yahoo, tear it apart usually with sarcasm, and think they have defeated the UO position and scored a victory for reason and modernity. It is not so simple. If reason is your goal, you have to consider all serious arguments slowly and dispassionately. I don’t believe reason and truth is the goal. It’s all a form of guerrilla warfare, shteching, needling, turning the knife, laughing, derision. It is part of the secular Israeli battle against the charedim. It is also a tool in the Modern Orthodox kulturkampf against the Ultra Orthodox. If the charedim are anti-gay, and the MO bloggers who make fun of charedim are anti(anti-gay), I am an anti-anti(anti-gay) , which regretfully doesn’t make me a charedi. I don’t think of myself as being homophobic, and I make every effort not to be. But if siding with the charedim is an example of hatred of homosexuals, I would rather take my chances with that sin, than be in favor of infuriating the edah hacharedis, the holy and homophobic way of life in Jerusalem.

Postscript: There is a new movie out called ‘Keep Not Silent’ that portrays Ultra Orthodox Israeli lesbians, (in street jargon Orthodykes), who struggle to reconcile their sexuality and their commitment to an Orthodox Jewish life. According to the current Tikkun magazine, the movie presents a nuanced and complex picture of what appears to be an irreconcilable conflict. The 3 women portrayed in the movie present different ways of coping with what is a very difficult problem. I have not seen the movie, but I venture to speculate their situation would not improve one iota with a gay pride parade in Jerusalem.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Why Questions

A Rabbi Garma, a graduate of Lakewood, has written an over-the-top racist book, which has been pulled from the shelves and condemned by everyone including the head of the Lakewood Yeshiva. The details can be found here . I don’t want to discuss the racist part which doesn’t interest me. What caught my eye was the following paragraph in the Forward’s summary of his views.

The Jews themselves brought about their own destruction during the Holocaust, since they arrogantly endeavored to overcome their very essence, dictated by divine law, by leaving their ghettoes and trying to assimilate into Christian European society. The confrontational approach of the Zionists, their boycott of German products and anti-Nazi demonstrations in particular, only exacerbated the peril to European Jewry. For this, they were massacred by Hitler who, while himself an evil person, was acting as God's agent in punishing the Jews.

A thesis, similar in its logical structure was argued last week by Rabbi Strernbuch. "We have not protested enough against this parade of abomination and therefore we have received this warning," warned Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the extremist Eda Haredit rabbinic court, in a hand-written message to his followers. "Who knows where things will get to if we do not act further and more stringently against it." He is saying all of Israel is being punished by Hezbollah because the gay pride Parade is about to take place in Jerusalem.

The first Satmar Rebbe, and the old Munkazcer Rebbe, the Minchas Elazar, said the same thing, except for them the culprit was mainly the Zionism that sought to establish an independent state. (The core text is Vayoel Moshe, which, to my knowledge, has not been translated into English).

As an aside, I would not call the Edah extremist. Maybe ultra-ultra Orthodox. There is nothing extremist about them. It is we who have changed. They are doing what any normal 18th century Jew would do. My version of the Duchess of Windsor’s aphorism “You can never be too rich or too thin” is “Once you are Orthoprax, you can never be too frum, or too secular.” Vehamavin yavin.

Let’s analyze the structure of these arguments. We can call it, in philosophy of science jargon, an inference to the best explanation argument.

1) God rules the world.
2) If a major event occurs it is because He willed it.
3) A major event has just occurred, e.g. the Lebanon War
4) God must have willed it.
5) God is good and just.
6) He would not have willed the event unless we deserve it.
7) We wouldn’t deserve such a terrible collective punishment unless we had sinned in a manner such that the punishment visited on us was appropriate.
8) Since the punishment is serious, the sin must be equally significant.

(Once we get to this point all the theorist needs is a convincing sin.)

9) The sin was X.
10) If you disagree, what else could it be? Can you think of a bigger sin?
11) The best explanation why the event occurred is X. QED

The argument is found in the Torah again and again. The book of Deuteronomy, Kings 1 and 2, and the prophet Jeremiah all agree the Temple was destroyed and Judea was forced into exile because of the evil of idolatry. The prophets warned Israel, they did not heed the warnings, so God used the Babylonians, and before them the Assyrians, as His vehicles to punish the Israelites. We had entered into a covenant, we knew the terms, we broke our part of the arrangement, and the punishments flowed naturally.

All the wise guy Modern Orthodox bloggers who make fun of this kind of argument have a small problem. Why are the Deuteronomist’s version legitimate and other contributions to this type of historiography illegitimate? The structure of the argument is always the same.

It is true there are other books and voices in the Bible that take a different approach. Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes come to mind. But no one can deny that the front and center view is the one exemplified in Deuteronomy.

A person cannot reject the first 4 premises and still believe in divine providence and the efficacy of prayer. Without going into details, I would say the book of Job questions #5. Premise #6 requires a deserts theory of punishment, which has big problems, the details of which can be found in any standard moral philosophy textbook

My own opinion is that the theologically fruitful approach would be to stop after #4, and try to give an account; a narrative of what God has been up to that would tie the events of the last few hundred years together. If there was such an account, even if it wasn’t a didactic lesson in how the Jews got their comeuppance, at least it would maintain God’s sovereignty and the large scale coherence of history. In any event, there is a real puzzle why good and bad times tend to cluster rather than being distributed randomly.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Bears Attract (Gorreret) Bears

Some times things turn on a dime. One day it’s good, the next day terrible. Stock markets for example. Throughout the twenties the market boomed. On October 24, 1929, it crashed not to recover for many, many years. The same for the internet boom. JDS Uniphase, the optical telecommunications co., was 130 in Jan 2000, a year later 20, today 2.There were hundreds of stocks with a similar history. When a market has gone up for a long time, and begins to go down precipitously, a speculator has to make a very basic decision. Is this a pullback in basically a bull market, or is it the beginning of a long term secular downtrend? There are many heuristic rules but in the end the trader is in a similar position to what Rabbi Solovetchik described as ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’. The speculator must make an existential decision, a leap of faith if you will.

The world today is faced with a similar problem. From the end of WWII UNTIL 9/11 we were in basically a bull market as a world power. There were problems, but in retrospect they all turned out to be pullbacks, not the beginning of some major downturn. We even held a party for over a decade with those party animals Reagan, Bush1 and Clinton. The opposite was true for Europe between 1914 and 1945. One huge bear market with occasional rallies. All the rallies failed, and the world plunged deeper into chaos and horror. And then one day, it was over. In 1944, the German people were overwhelmingly Nazis or supporters of Nazis. A few years later, Nazism was gone, and anti Semitism had largely disappeared. Poof. What happened? Where did all the hatred go? At first, it was possible to say nothing had changed, the Germans weren’t showing their true colors. Not anymore. Germany has been a decent and peaceful country for 60 years.

My question then is this: Are all the woes that have befallen the US and Israel since 9/11 part of a pullback in a long term uptrend or are they the beginning of a secular bear market? One day we were the only superpower; today we have a host of problems all over the world. President Bush has said we are in a long term war on terror against a determined and devious enemy. The administration’s rhetoric predicts all sorts of problems will soon come our way courtesy of radical Islam. A long term downtrend is not Armageddon. It need not involve an inferno of nuclear war. It could involve no more than a disruption in our comfortable way of life. On the other hand, how is it possible for small groups of terrorists to break this magnificent run we’ve had for 60 years? Maybe it’s only a pullback.

I try not to make once and for all, yes or no choices. I try to adjust my subjective probability assignments as the evidence unfolds. As of today, I would assign a high probability to the idea that America is minimally in a period of long term stagnation. It is more than a localized pullback, a temporary way station to even greater glory. Assuming, hypothetically, I am right, we have another striking example of how a trend can be broken just like this. One day America is master of the universe, the next day we are scrambling trying to contain a 3500 member terrorist group. Incredible.

In the High Holiday liturgy we say again and again Hashem will decide who will flourish and who will perish. Religious Jews know better than most how the world can suddenly take a sharp turn in a different direction. When there are these sorts of tipping points, the religious imagination begins to work overtime. Why did these events happen? What went wrong? What should we have done? Followed in a natural way by “What did we do wrong”, which leads directly to “Where have we sinned?”

Even if we are only in a temporary difficult position, no one knows it is temporary. There may not be a big bear market in America’s future, but there is certainly a bull market in religious fervor and fundamentalism. The two are related. If Americans can’t read its future, imagine yourself an Arab Muslim.

Stock market investors these days are scratching themselves as to what gives with the market. All rallies seem to fail. Friday’s action, after the bullish reading given to Bernanke’s Senate Banking Committee testimony is typical of what has been happening of late. Once again the basic question is pullback or secular bear? Here is a not very helpful idea. Answer my question about the fate of America (and Israel) and you will have the beginnings of an answer about the market. The converse is easier. Check in on the stock and currency markets every now and then, and you will have one good indicator how it is going with America in the world.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The New Darth Vader

The Gog and Magog, good versus evil, darkness versus light crowd are at it again, this time in the form of a position paper by Y. Carmon and others on the MEMRE (Middle East Research Institute) website. (If you google ‘Gog and magog,’ you could spend half a lifetime unraveling all the current Christian ideas on how all of this will play out. There are a mere 432,000 entries.) The journalist Akiva Eldar in Haaretz(7/21) presents the substance of the article plus dramatic embellishments. The highlights of the view are this:

The current crisis has the makings of being able to create a new order in the region, or even a global conflict. The traditional allies of the United States - Saudi Arabia and Egypt – are losing their senior regional status to Iran. Russia, an ally of Iran, is once again taking up position against the United States, as a world power that wields influence in the Middle East and in Europe, where Russia is the principal supplier of oil and gas. The structure of a dual-superpower world is being revived, complete with all the rivalry that was characteristic of the Cold War era.

Russia is Iran's main supporter. Russia has 6,000 experts there, and knows how to develop its Iranian ally’s aggressive foreign policy.

Before long, Iran, the Darth Vader of the planet, will unleash terror attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets around the world.

The Middle East will line up all soldiers in a row. The forces of good: The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, most of the Gulf States.

The forces of evil are Russia, Iran, Syria, Hamas, (what happened to the PLO?), Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiites (re-described as Iranian proxies), and Iraqi Sunni insurgents, Sudan, Yemen and Qatar (it owns al Jazirah). The main Shiite puppeteer, Iran, now has an uber-puppeteer, Russia.

What this conceptual breakthrough accomplishes is that it enables all the cold war rhetoric to be recycled with minor emendations. Not only are we not at the end of history, with the US the only super power left standing, we are locked in a planetary fight on many different fronts from Kashmir and Afghanistan to Somalia and Sudan against a new two headed enemy the Russian-Shiite axis. Once the framework is accepted, the entire foreign policy outlook begins to take shape. Venezuela’s Chavez, who supports Iran and has more than a touch of anti-Semitism, fits easily. Morales in Bolivia and Castro’s Cuba can now be tucked into the grand picture, since they are in bed with Chavez. North Korea is a bit of a wild card, but the crazies there are tied to Pakistan and Pakistan’s Muslims are sympathetic to the Taliban and al Quaida.

The picture that is beginning to emerge almost daily is related to the first versions of Bush’s War on Terror. It is a generalized version of David Frum’s Axis of Evil. Just the other day the thinking was that Iraq has proved such a debacle there will be no more Middle East adventures during this administration. Wrong. The activist idealist strain exemplified by the neo-Conservative think tanks is much like Freddie Kruger. Just when you think it is safe to go outside, it is back.

In contrast to this view, Vice Premier Shimon Peres in the same issue of Haaretz said “the crisis has escalated because under the current international circumstances, nobody has influence over Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas - not the United States, not Russia, not the United Nations, not the Europeans and not the Arab League, and the only country with guts is Israel.” I don’t think Shimon Peres was being disingenuous, and he might be in a position to know a thing or two about how the forces are lined up.

I want to close by making two small points. I am not at all sure a good versus evil dualism is useful on a daily basis. Maybe something can be done with Assad in Syria. Maybe Putin is just a normal Russian bully, but not evil. Maybe Chavez can be pacified. I would think by taking each problem one at a time, slowly and carefully, we might make more progress than by promoting some grand diabolical theory. When people start talking, as they now do, of bringing Syria back ‘from the dark side’, the negotiations take on a totally different tone.

The issue reminds me of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the problem of “seeing as” in the Philosophical Investigations. He talks about these duck-rabbit drawings, where you can see it as a rabbit and you can see it as a duck, but not both at the same time. Once you see it one way, it becomes very difficult to see it the other way. You have to walk away from the drawing, and try again at a later point. Once we get locked into a good versus evil dualism, it will be hard to undo.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dreaming Of Peace

Can anyone say today that after 60 years of independence Israel has acquired greater skills in learning how to live peacefully with the Palestinians? I think on an individual basis the answer is yes, on a government to government basis it is difficult to discern much progress. Israel is much stronger than in 1947. It has attempted in many different ways and at different times to impose some stability and order to the region. It has won every war, and yet despite overwhelming economic and military power when compared to the Palestinians, Israel has failed to impose its vision.

In time of war it is good to dream of peace. Hopefully there will soon be a cease fire in this current war. At that point life will regain a semblance of normalcy. People will once again return to the ever present topic “What is to be done?” I would like to tell a true story about peace, which in the context of the Middle East is even beyond a utopian dream. I’ll tell it anyway.

My story is about the history of Jews in Chicagoland, as it is called. The area of greater Chicago as well as its population is comparable to Israel’s. Jews number 250,000 in a population of seven million. In the city of Chicago itself the total population is 2.9 million, divided roughly like this: 35% black, 30% white, 5% Asian and 30% Latino. The Jews used to live on the West Side of the city. In the 1940’s and 1950’s there was a massive migration from the American south to Chicago. The Jews abandoned the West Side for the South Side. The shuls became churches; the West Side became a black place, with the exception of some retail stores owned by Jews. Another wave of immigration caused another flight of Jews from the South Side to the North Side and the suburbs. The South side became mostly black. Jews didn’t hold their ground, they just moved away. In the 1967 riots, the blacks burnt down every Jewish store on the West Side. For many, many years there were no stores. No Jewish shopkeeper ever returned to either area. In the ‘80s Indians and Pakistanis began encroaching on the North Side Jewish neighborhood of Rogers Park. The Jews ceded more than half the area, moved west into Lincolnwood, south to Peterson Park, north to Skokie and the far northwestern suburb of Buffalo Grove.

Sounds horrible… migration, after migration, always moving on, never standing their ground. In practice it has turned out the other way around. The Jewish community loves Chicago, is generally prosperous, and is experiencing an influx of Jews from other parts of the country. Relations between the races are generally peaceful; there are no huge problems. If the blacks or some other ethnic minority were to become angry and enraged, they could make life miserable for the white European minority. Somehow Chicagoans have learnt how to live peacefully with each other.

How did they do it? I am no expert, but a few obvious points come to mind. 1) No one tried to get even. There was no retaliation for the riots. Following the lead of the Kerner Commission, every white politician acknowledged there was a problem of racism, and agreed to work towards improving the situation. 2) Over time the considerable financial resources of the city were used to improve the black neighborhoods. 3) Chicago has many events downtown that make life more enjoyable for everyone, including those living in poor neighborhoods. 4) Blacks were appointed to prominent positions in government and the media. For example, Jews and liberals overwhelmingly supported our current black U.S. Senator, Derek Obama. The police commissioner is black. The police force is fully integrated. In suburbs like Evanston with a large black population, the mayor is a black woman. 5) Many idealistic and liberal whites, including many liberal Jews, continued to work all these many years on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden. Doctors, social workers, public heath administrators, lawyers working pro bono and many other professionals created an impression amongst minorities that there were caring and decent whites. 6) In time, the blacks began to perceive themselves as part of the system, a black middle class developed, as well as a high black bourgeoisie. Oprah is just the most prominent example.

I believe it is correct to say a majority of the Jewish people believe the American experience in promoting a multiethnic society is totally irrelevant to Israel. A majority believe the only solution is to be strong and to use all the military force necessary to maintain stability. One has to go to the far left of the political spectrum, Peace Now types and such, before one can find any voices in favor of a different approach.

If all of Israel, which talks about these questions day and night, cannot solve the problem, perhaps it is correct to conclude the time is not yet ripe for a lasting peace.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Scripture Says

It is interesting to see how the various religions lead in an almost natural way to different visions of the future. I want to say that Jews and Christians have different attitudes toward the meaning of the current turmoil in the Middle East because each community looks at a different book in the Bible as being paradigmatic. In the case of Jews, I believe that the core text is the scroll we read on Purim, the Book of Esther, whereas for Christians, the book of Daniel has a greater influence. Both books occur after the destruction of the First Temple, in a world in where there are empires and where Jews are an identifiable and vulnerable minority.

Following the insights of Jack Miles, I would say that in the Book of Esther, though the Jews are hated by some, they survive because they are willing to take risks for one another, are skillful in winning support from a powerful sovereign, and have a strategy how to deal with a potentially dangerous course of events. As is well known, God is not mentioned in the book neither by Esther nor Mordecai, nor are Jews ever referred to other than as an ethnic group. When the decree of extermination is announced, Mordecai and the Jews go into mourning. There’s no mention of anyone praying to God. In the beginning of the Bible when Pharaoh was about to exterminate the Israelites, they consciously cried out to God and asked for His help. This time around nobody expects God to do anything. They rescue themselves by their own courage and resourcefulness. (It’s interesting to note that in the Septuagint translation of and additions to Esther, as well as in the comparable books of Tobit and Judith, there are numerous appeals to God. All these books have been excluded from the Jewish cannon. Unless one believes cannonization was not a deliberate, purposeful process, we must conclude it is no accident that the more pious books were excluded.) Esther is the first book that continues the historical narrative that ended at Kings II. For the first time, the people of Israel are called Jews. They are the same people as the Israelites, but in this narrative they are not waiting on God for redemption. The message of the book is that although the world is hostile, with courage and talent and a little mazal, one can make a go of it. There is no book in the Bible that is a better example of what it is to be a secular Zionist in a world where the signs of redemption are far from clear.

The book of Daniel is more typically Jewish because it has a much greater sense of history and contains the expectation of divine help. In the second half of the book, there are these apocalyptic and eschatological visions of the rise and fall of various kingdoms, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and maybe even Rome. Victory is still assured to the righteous, but it’s going to be a long process and in the interim there’s going to be much woe and tribulations. Until that time, it is important to have a map of how history will unfold. Here, the immediate agents of change are the angels in heaven, Gabriel and Michael. It is to them that Daniel appeals for understanding. Here Daniel is not an agent in history but an outside observer of history.

“I heard and did not understand, so I said, “My lord [Gabriel], what will be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go, Daniel, for these words are secret and sealed to the time of the end. Many will be purified and purged and refined; the wicked will act wickedly and none of the wicked will understand; but the knowledgeable will understand.” (12:8-10)

There is a straight line between the apocalyptic visions in the book of Daniel and the Armageddon of the Book of Revelation. In contrast Jews have traditionally taken the latter half of Daniel as containing esoteric secrets, and not as a guide to modern history. Both the book of Daniel as well as its successors gives the reader the sense that the eschatological events will be so overwhelming, the forces and powers so great that there is little for the individual to do but pray, and trust that heaven will protect the righteous.

And that is my devar (thought about) Torah for today.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What Is The Goal ?

The WSJ yesterday put out a nasty variant of the buck stops in Tehran view that I talked about yesterday. The Journal points out the missiles are hidden in many widely dispersed Hezbollah locations such that Israel will not be able to get at all of them for a long time. Israel will be forced to attack both Syria and Iran, in order to get them to place pressure on Hezbollah to stop the shelling. If this nightmare scenario came about, Israel would be fighting a four front war all alone. A horrible thought.

A more moderate Israeli vision of the war was put forth by Yossi Klein Halevi in the New Republic last Thursday: The goals of the war should be the destruction of the Hamas regime and the dismantling of the Hezbollah infrastructure in Southern Lebanon. Yesterday, Prime Minister Olmert said Israel will destroy the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza and South Lebanon. I assume infrastructure and regime are not one and the same. I must say, however, I have no idea what the Prime Minister means by ‘infrastructure’ in the context of Gaza. I also don’t understand how one can destroy the terrorist infrastructure without destroying the infrastructure of Gaza as a whole. To the best of my knowledge, no Israeli official has said openly the goal of the war is to topple the Hamas government. They might be thinking Hamas regime change, but so far they are not saying it. In this more minimalist program there is no talk of how Israel or the US must invade Iran and Syria, nor is there any goal of regime change in Damascus or Tehran. All that must be done is to X (eliminate, destroy, degrade) Hamas and Hezbollah. As we are learning, whatever the exact goal, it is easy to say, hard to do.

Klein has an interesting caveat at the end of his piece: "The ultimate threat, though, isn't Hezbollah or Hamas but Iran. According to a very senior military source with whom I've spoken, Israel is still hoping that an international effort will stop a nuclear Iran; if that fails, then Israel is hoping for an American attack. But if the Bush administration is too weakened to take on Iran, then, as a last resort, Israel will have to act unilaterally. And, added the source, Israel has the operational capability to do so.” Why MUST Israel take out the Iranian nuclear capability? Klein’s answer is this must be done to avoid the worst possible scenario, “The scenario of nuclear weapons in the hands of the patron state of Hezbollah and Hamas.” And how can Israel destroy the nuclear capability without retaliation from Iran? Apparently, the senior military source has not yet spoken on this issue.

Haaretz in the last week has argued for more pragmatic goals: Israel should strike at Hezbollah with all its strength, stop and see what happens. Israel should have mercy on the Palestinians and not use its full force in Gaza. It should deal with the rockets in Gaza as best it can, and withdraw. Hezbollah is Israel’s sworn enemy. The Palestinians, in the absence of a functioning state and final settlement, are Israel’s responsibility. In truth, we might end up with a cease fire and UN peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon before any goals are reached, in which case all these speculations sound a bit dumb. Everyone will declare victory and life can go on.

The most radical and speculative vision about the war is that it is the beginning of something even worse around the corner. On this view, the current war has no goals; it’s a skirmish in a battle that will last for years, and eventually lead to a catastrophic conflagration. Extreme Jewish right wing groups, Evangelical Christians and Radical Muslims all have this yearning for an Armageddon, a final apocalypse that will settle the question once and for all which religion is numero uno in heaven above and on earth below. I need not point out that EVERY attempt to use the New Testament Book of Revelation or the prophecies of Ezekiel in a practical way have been a total failure. Joachim of Fiore and Jacob Frank are two of the more famous examples.

A second possible cause why these extreme Armageddon speculations are so popular is that all the talk of proxies and puppets makes the war appear similar to the Spanish Civil War, with the Hamas and Hezbollah axis of evil playing the role of the Spanish fascists. We all know what came next. Newt Gingrich said Sunday what we are seeing is the beginning of World War 3. (I assume The War on Terrorism and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was World War 2.5) I feel this talk of World Wars is premature and not very likely. It is always a mistake to force tomorrow’s events into some forced analogy with the past. The GDP of Iran is 561 billion. Iraq‘s GDP is 94 billion, Syria 72 billion. Add another 25 billion for the Palestinians and Hezbollah. The total GDP of the Shiite axis is around 750 billion, roughly equal to the value of 2 Exxon or 1 GE. How can any one compare these two bit countries with the WW2 axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan?

On my view, all this talk of Armageddon and WW3 is metaphysical speculation with a political angle. Everyone knows a liberal Democrat like Hilary Clinton or Al Gore couldn’t handle Armageddon. We would need someone very tough, competent and a long term strategic thinker; someone more like our current President. It is sad but true that war in general, and apocalyptic speculations in particular, favors the right far more than the left.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Moi A Puppet ?

In the current war, Iran and Syria are helping Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is coordinating with Hamas. Many conservatives (e.g. Michael Ledeen, David Brooks and many others) want to go on to advance 5 further claims:

1) Iran has conducted a semi-hostile takeover of the Palestinian cause.
2) Hezbollah is already a totally owned subsidiary of Iran.
3) The prime mover of the insurgency in Iraq is the Iranian mullahcracy.
4) Since Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran are all jihadists, they have begun this war with no interest other than escalation and genocide.
5) Iran is at war with the US and the only way to win the war is for the US to overthrow the regimes in Damascus and Tehran.

Very little evidence is given for 1) or 3). As for the second thesis, the view is far from obvious. First, there is the problem of Syria. No one claims Syria is a jihadist state. Syria is indeed an ally of Iran. Is Syria controlled by Iran? Except for Michael Ledeen, I have not seen that claim made even by the hawks at Debka. Every time there was trouble in Lebanon, Israel blamed Syria, not Iran. Israel says Syria can reign in Hezbollah. If Syria is still independent, are there two states that control Hezbollah? Does Hezbollah itself have anything to say, or is it a cipher, a mere puppet of somebody else?

The New York Times in its news columns (7/16) has put forth a modified view. ‘‘Hezbollah’s move serves the interest of Iran and Syria. Their relationship is so opaque that few would suggest that Syria or Iran can issue direct orders to Hezbollah. But the links are strong, with Iran providing SUBSTANTIAL financial assistance and weapons, while Syria provides logistical help as well as political backing.” The article goes on to explain how Hezbollah has 3500 active supporters and 300 hard core guerrillas trained by the Iranians. With generous backing from Iran, they have established an extensive social welfare network in South Lebanon. “Intelligence estimates …suggest that Iran subsidizes Hezbollah with $100 million to $200 million annually.”

The Times attributes different motives to the puppeteers, other than genocidal jihad against Israel.
1) Iran wants to prove that if the West tries to get tough with them (over the nuclear issue?), there is a cost to the West. Hezbollah will cause trouble.
2) Syria is following its traditional policy of stirring up trouble whenever they feel marginalized or ignored, so that the great powers will come knocking.
3) Iran and Syria are part of a “Shiite” axis that also includes the Iraqi Shiites, Hezbollah and Hamas. The axis is trying to establish predominance over Arab public opinion and gain influence in Sunni countries. (The axis is “Shiite” even though two of its five members Syria and the Palestinians are not Shia. The Palestinians are largely secular.)
4) Syria has an interest in using Hezbollah to defy the central Lebanese authority, and prevent the Lebanese state from consolidating its newfound independence from Syria

The Times asserts Hezbollah has its own interests and motives.
5) It wants to remind everyone that even though it has 13 deputies in the Lebanese Parliament, it is also an independent regional player.
6) Hezbollah wants to retain its weapons, and not give them up to the centralized Lebanese government. Hezbollah must use these weapons or they will ultimately be forced to surrender them.
7) Hezbollah is claiming a RELIGIOUS leadership because of its active opposition to Israel, a position not open to other non-combatant Sunni leaders.

I point out that reasons #2, #3, #5 and #7 are issues dealing with status, self- importance and the need to be recognized as powerful. I also point out all seven explanations are normal interests of states and organizations, and can’t be described as fanatical as such. The Shiite tactic of martyrdom is an example of fanaticism. The immediate goals of the various members of the axis appear self interested. Their fanaticism can be seen in their over the top rhetoric, and their long term goal of eliminating Israel.

Conservatives in America want to claim the final address for the current problems in the Middle East is in Teheran with the mullahs. They also believe if we would overthrow the Iranian regime, the region as a whole could be pushed to democracy. As with all such claims there are two relevant questions one must always ask: Are there any ulterior motives involved? Are the claims true?

Remember, the conservatives don’t need a Shiite axis of evil theory to justify taking out Teheran’s nuclear capability. The entire argument that all the bad guys are puppets of the ayatollahs is needed only to justify a US invasion and occupation of Syria and Iran.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bomb and Bomb Somemore!

Rabbi Lazar Brody is a smooth talker, and in the business of kiruv and teshuvah,i.e. bringing Jews closer to Orthodoxy and repentance. His site is interesting as an example of the diversity of Jewish life. Friday he posted this story:

“Message from Persian Kabbalist Chacham Z: Chacham Z comes from Mashad, Iran. He is an anonymous tzaddik… one that looks like a fishmonger or a milkman on the outside. Don't let that fool you. If you want to feel true humility, then discuss Torah, Talmud or esoteric with Chacham Z. His blessings are like money in the bank. Today, Chacham Z came to Ashdod. I couldn't believe what I saw - he was distributing free books of Psalms to passersby, ice cream for children (to relieve their worry), vegetables for the poor, and pastries to soldiers. He had an entire welcome wagon in his battered Fiat 127, model 1981. He called me over and blessed me, and said "Hashem will do tremendous miracles. Iran is in big trouble. If Israel does a warning strike on a secondary Iranian town, such as Isfahan or Mashad, they will succeed! Achmadinejad will see the strong arm of Hashem if he doesn't back off of Israel. The Torah says we shall dwell alone - we don't need America or anybody else's help! If the Iranians persist in attacking Israel, then Tehran will be hit with a nuclear weapon. Hashem wants us to do Tshuva, so He chastises us. But, He will protect us against Iran. Let the IDF fight fearlessly and with no restraint from the nations of the world. We must support our dear soldiers with tshuva and Torah!" He wished me "Shabbat Shalom" and drove away… Like other tyrants, Achmedinejad will run to his own destruction. Wait and see, it's all comin' down.”

I remember in 1982, the last time we were in Lebanon and attacking Beirut, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was saying "Bomb, bomb, bomb!" His reasoning was that after the Holocaust, we had paid our dues and there was nothing to fear. We have been severly punished for our sins, and the imperfections in our collective soul have been removed. He felt that trust in Hashem, together with strong military action, is all that is required. All the hindrances and difficulties that Jews faced in the 2000 years of exile have been removed.

In the course of the first Lebanese War, 17,000 Arabs and 675 Israeli soldiers were killed. After Sabra and Shatilla, the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine Barracks in 1983, and the continued occupation by Israel of Southern Lebanon for 18 years, the Israeli army went down from Lebanon in 2000. The PLO presence from Southern Lebanon was removed. In its place came the Iranian and Syrian supported Hezbollah.

My view is this. There is an element of truth in what the Lubavitcher Rebbe said. Something very fundamental changed after the Holocaust. There are 1.2 billion Muslims, and 14 million Jews. In general we have won, they have lost. I am LESS confident that this positive change in our fortunes can be used to guide our political and military strategy. I feel it is prudent to base our strategies on assumptions that are not metaphysical, and have the possibility of being confirmed. Believing we are on a roll underwritten by God is a metaphysical assumption. I feel I am in a minority. Many Jews since 1967 have a magical sense about them. Miracles happen, and in recent times they have happened to the Jewish people.

Robert Aumann, this years Nobel Prize winner in Economics, recently said that peace will come to the Middle East when both sides feel they have nothing to gain by war or procrastination. In this last go around, both Israel and its enemies feel there is a lot to be gained by another slugfest, and both sides, despite their obvious anxiety, feel confident they will win. Under such conditions it is difficult to think of peace.

I pray we will prevail quickly and successfully.

Friday, July 14, 2006


The fighting between Israel and its neighbors is becoming increasingly scary. What started as a relatively minor Israeli sweep through Gaza has turned into a two front war.

In Israel, terrorist organizations permit themselves to kill, wound and abduct Israeli soldiers and civilians. It is awful.

The Bush administration as well as the Olmert government thinks Iran is the culprit behind Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. It is commonly believed that the geopolitical fear driving the markets is that a widening of this conflict with Iran’s proxies will lead quickly to a war with Iran.

My own reading is that we are not very close to war with Iran. Oil prices are going up because the hedge funds are doing their monthly elephant stampede, and are piling into oil. The hedge funds believe $100 oil. They have the money and power to make it come true. Other markets do not confirm what is happening in oil. Natural gas is around $6. A normal ratio is 7:1 with oil, which would put oil at $42. The oil stocks, the gas stocks, the drillers, the coal stocks have all lost momentum and are not making new highs. Some have come down a lot. The stock market is having a correction for many different reasons, including the most obvious reason…why not? We’ve gone up for a few years; there are multiple problems in the world, time to take a breather. We are still at the “let us take some protection stage." So far there has been no massive sell off and no massive panic.

The coming weekend will be a serious one for Jews everywhere. All a Diaspora Jew can do right now is hope and pray the situation improves. We wish our brothers in Israel the strength and courage that will be necessary in the days ahead.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hello Ms. Botox, Hello Mr. Viagra

The last frontier of discrimination is not with respect to women or gays. Nor is it particularly unfair or unjust. No injustice is being committed; no immoral acts are being performed. Yet it is pernicious and hurtful. What I have in mind is the discrimination we all make on the basis of age. In general old people hang with, date and marry old people. Young people socialize with, date and marry young people. Middle age people stick to middle age people. Ageism is directly responsible for the isolation and loneliness of the elderly.

It’s even worse than what I just described. 60 year olds, who are not exactly spring chickens, will be damned before they socialize with seniors 75+ year old. A 40 year old, who can still remember being carded, feels ill at ease with a 55 year old, who is facing the ultimate carding ignominy, AARP membership and senior discounts. And so on all the way down to preschoolers who refuse to play with toddlers.

Ageism is less obtrusive for men because there is a long standing and tolerated practice of men dating down. Men tend to date women younger than themselves, and to a large extent women go along with this unfair tradition, frequently because they have no choice. Despite its acceptance, dating down has a limit. A five years difference is ok, twenty raises all sorts of questions. A few men continue to marry women much younger than themselves, but a few men do all sorts of things.

There are two developments that have made age discrimination more painful. The first is the introduction of drugs such as Viagra for erectile dysfunction. Before Viagra men’s aspirations were constrained by their capabilities. Now every senior citizen can experience a second adolescence. Mazel Tov! The sadness comes because a 75 year old stud is still 75 in all other respects. He might be eyeing the under 45 set, but he still wants to be on time for the early bird special.

The second development that is making ageism more painful is the increased acceptance of botox and cosmetic surgery, even in conservative and traditional circles. Most people are in better shape today than their parents were at their age. Once a woman convinces herself she doesn’t just feel younger than her age, but actually looks younger than her age, she is much less inclined to passively accept the practice of dating down. In fact, she might want to do some dating down herself. People don’t seem to realize that even if you look good FOR your age, most everyone including botoxniks LOOK their age. Each of us has this natural ability to judge how old a person is, and this ability does not involve counting wrinkles.

All this leads to a one big comic mismatch. A 65 year old man, who was willing to settle in with a 55 year old woman, is now looking for a 45 year old. The 55 year old gebotoxed woman who was willing to hook up with the 65 year old, is now looking for someone 50, might settle for 60, but will in no way consider walking around with an old man of 65.

I’m going to talk to Rebbetzin Jungreis and Dr. Phil and find out what can be done to solve this problem.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Belz Does Pilates

It is outrageous that Ultra Orthodox men and women in their fifties look, act and feel old. It is equally outrageous to see over the top obesity looked at as a sign of ascetic saintliness. I find it very depressing to see rabbinic leaders 100 lbs. overweight. I think chasidim more than yeshiva people, are resistant and fearful of change. The Mir will be eating organic foods way before Vishnitz will stop eating kugels. I might be missing important special circumstances, but in the absence of special explanations I would say someone ought to buy the Belzer Rebbe a treadmill. And from the photos I have seen of his kid checking out the cars in London, the heir apparent is maintaining the family tradition.

I am using Belz just as one of many possible examples. I am not saying this out of any special animus against the Belzer Rebbe. Quite the contrary, I have a favorable opinion of the Rebbe’s politics, ever since Arthur Hertzberg praised his views in the New York Review of Books many years ago, and his accomplishments speak for themselves.

I’ll say it differently. When the Belzer Rebbe built his magnificent castle in Jerusalem, talk about McMansions, why didn’t he build a gym with a track. I don’t want to hear that ‘maen hut zich nisht azoi gefeert in der alter Belz’, (‘‘such was not the custom in the Belz of old,(in Galicia))” That is retarded. I am waiting for the day when a single Belzer will refuse to accept any medical technology because we didn’t have it back in good ‘ole Belz. Mein shteitele Belz had mud and horse manure to spare. I don’t sense an overwhelming cry to remove the concrete from Kiryas Mattesdorf.

Psychoanalysis teaches that the primary form of narcissism is body narcissism. When a human being exercises and the body shape becomes more toned and muscular, the image we have of our bodies changes for the better. When flexibility and stamina increase, when athletics become more interesting, there are corresponding changes in personality. Self esteem begins to rise, initiative and entrepreneurial talents emerge, and the world seems a more hopeful place. Who knows where such changes might lead? My guess is that no one in Belz is eager to find out.

There is something of an epidemic of breast cancer in the Jewish community. Obesity and the consumption of excessive amounts of fat aggravate the problem.

One last twist. I offer a url to a web site that has many photographs of great rabbinic leaders and talmudists of the present and recent past. It is a lovely site, especially for those who know of these people and their intellectual accomplishments. Here’s the punch line: How many of these leaders could pass a stress test? I say not many. I need not remind my readers there is a specific mitzvah in the Torah to protect and properly care for one’s body.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sixty Is The New Forty

When I was very young, people became old at around sixty. Life expectancy was, I don’t know, maybe seventy, so if you were going be old, the time to do it was at sixty, or you would totally miss out on all the privileges and benefits. Jewish society in general and traditional Jewish society in particular treats old people with a great deal of respect and affection. At Orthodox weddings, when the zayde or bubbi march down the aisle everyone stands up out of respect, the same as they would do for a rabbinical big wig. It makes no difference who these grandparents are. The respect is because of their age and not their individual merit.

There were many benefits in those days in getting old. For one think you could krechts and kvetch, moan and groan, huff and puff even when there was nothing particularly wrong, just for fun. The children would listen and sigh, and everybody felt a lot better. Old Jews did lay it on thick. It was an essential vehicle for transmitting Jewish traditions, especially for the grandchildren. The implicit view was if an eight year old can’t understand the pain the arthritis is causing the grandparent, what chance is there she will ever care for other suffering Jews?

The expression I remember from those days was ‘‘er hut tzu teein mit der…’’ (’He has to do with the…’’) meaning something like ‘‘has a problem or an issue with “, as in ‘‘He has a problem with the IRS ‘‘or ‘’He has an issue with the FDA.’’ “He has to do with The Heart”, never “He has problem with his heart.” No Jew over 60 ever owned up to his organs. ”He has to do with The Prostate”, as if there was this huge prostate overhanging the entire Jewish community, which was then subdivided fairly amongst old Jewish men. Listening to these men I thought Jews exist so The Prostate could make old Jewish men miserable, a view I continue to maintain has an element of plausibility.

Life is very different these days. People live an additional five-ten years. Most everyone is in better shape. Except for the Ultra-Ultra Orthodox, Jewish communities don’t subsidize or encourage old age. Suck it up and get over it more or less sums up the prevailing wisdom. I think our generation has it right, and the way Jewish life was organized in the shtetl and in America until around the 1960’s was wrong. There is no reason why every Jew over 60 has to be stiff as a board and incapable of walking more than 5 city blocks. The downsides of the new attitudes to aging are that older people are not treated with the same respect and accommodation they used to receive. The arthritic joints and tired feet have not been notified that 60 is the new 40. There is a greater tendency for older people to suffer their aches and pains in private, as if the various conditions are somewhat shameful. Back in the 40’s and 50’s they were badges of honor.

I must admit I am challenged when it comes to this new 60-40 math. If sixty is the new forty and forty is the new twenty, what is twenty? I assume also twenty. What this mantra asserts is that parents and children are substantially the same age psychologically. I realize that in certain circles this is the reality. I’ve seen many a mother dress in the adolescent styles of their daughters. And men basically dress like their sons. Something is not quite right here. The core of this whole twisted logic is that in our society everyone is terrified of death!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Alt and Alter

In a recent New York Times (6/20/06) I saw a little item that said that younger and older adults believe their happiness declines with age. When they conducted actual surveys, they found that there was little evidence to support this belief, and, in fact, older adults described themselves as happier than the younger people did. Other studies report that even sick people often report surprising levels of happiness.

It’s not clear how to interpret this data. There are three possibilities I can think of. The first is that older people are really happier, period. The other is that by the time people are older, they are better equipped to deal with difficult times, perhaps because they have more perspective or greater experience. It is not so much that they are happier but rather they are better at handling difficult moments.

I’m inclined to a third explanation. I believe the way older people maintain their happiness is similar to the way we won in Vietnam. We declared victory and went home. Happiness, after all, has something to do with the percentage of desires that are fulfilled. It’s a fraction of sorts…fulfilled desires divided by total desires. Cut down on what you want, the denominator, and your happiness goes up.

How many times have you heard an older person say, “I don’t do that. I used to do it but now… I just don’t do that.” “I used to go to comedy clubs, but now it’s not for me. I don’t do that. “I used to run, but now… I don’t do that.” “I used to stay out late at night, but now I’m happy having dinner at six o’ clock.” “I used to love when my grandchildren were around, but tell you the truth, I’m happier when they leave.” “I used to read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, cover to cover, but who needs that? Now I’m happy watching the ten o’ clock news.” These people are saying that in omitting many activities they become happier. If you can't have what you want, you try to want what you have.

This point was brought home to me recently when I was talking with my friends. The subject was the Barbara Streisand concert this fall at the United Stadium in Chicago. There are 18,000 seats available, prices range from $100, already sold out, to $750. The Triple-A Super best Seats for $1,000 and up are a bit more expensive because they include a $40 souvenir program. Seats were being offered on EBay, from the beginning, for $1500. Everyone said “We gotta go. We gotta go. How can we not go? It’s her final concert. For sure, she had two final concerts before this, but she means it this time, we know she means it this time.”

I protested, “What has Barbara Streisand done in the last thirty years? Why pay $2000 to see what cosmetic surgery can do for an older woman? It’s not as if she stands for some distinct sensibility that you can idealize. I mean, she’s not a Frank Sinatra, where at least you can think of yourself as a boozer and a womanizer. You’ve never seen a yenta before? Remember what Mike Myers did to this yeedina (elderly matron) on Saturday Night Live?”

“What about going,” I asked half in jest, “to the Shakira concert? She’s new, she’s young, she’s sexy, she's Lebanese, she's Latino, she's important." My friends said, in all sincerity and in unison, "Who is Shakira?"I let out a howl ad a expletive."You guys are a bunch of alter k..."It felt great. Most of the time they are rolling their eyes, muttering “I can’t believe he said that” when I offer one of my retarded insights on the point spread in the NCAA tournament and other such issues.

It happens to all of us. As we age, we lose touch with what's happening in the culture.We begin to live in the past. We remember and idealize the stars of our youth, and in doing so, we feel happy. My view is that even though we all fade out as we age, there's no mitzvah (obligation) to speed up the process. Nostalgia and sentimentality are the kiss of death for staying young. Instead of paring down and living in the past, I think there is something to be said for doubling up and living in the present.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Fun In The Sun

A theme that is heard over and over again on JDate and in real life is fun.

”I am passionate about enjoying my life”“
“I am a “liver” (I think she is referring not to the organ but to the opposite of someone who is not into living), and would like someone who also enjoys life”
“Life is not a dress rehearsal and I try to enjoy every minute of it.”
“I am easygoing and lots of fun”
“I am a life-lover; I am outgoing, upbeat, fun-loving and positive. When I am away, my friends miss me to death” (I liked this last quote, beginning with life and ending with death is very a neo-Wagnerian theme. The Rhinemaiden frolicking motif shows this woman knows her opera.)
“I never have a bad day and the word stress is not in my vocabulary.”(And Rabbi Eliashav doesn’t believe in evolution. When I read this line I saw a new human life form in the making. All we need is for this man to find his mate and propagate on a remote island, and voila’ a new Galapagos.)
“Life is so much more fun when love walks in”
‘‘I enjoy good times.’’ (If the man didn’t enjoy the time could he still refer to it as a good time?)

I have noticed different states and regions in the country specialize in different ideals of fun. The southern tier, but especially Florida and Arizona, are fun-fun-fun places. The many retired people, the requirement that intellectuals need a special visa before being allowed to enter, and the wonderful weather all contribute to this hysterical “I live life to the fullest” mantra. The guy could be on a golf cart with a caddy in some Sun City ‘moshav zekanim’ (retirement community), but he’s having fun, living life to the fullest, enjoying every minute of it.

New York and Connecticut are less into raw fun .There culture prevails: theatre, art, museums, galleries, opera, and Lincoln Center. Art with a capital A is what makes life worthwhile. New Jersey, on the other hand, is, as everyone knows, a very complicated state. The communities that are close to the city are more aspirational culture vultures. They actually don’t get into the city THAT much, the schlep and the parking, and the need to drive the baby sitter back home makes traveling across the Hudson difficult. But they really, really love the City. In Central Jersey and the Jersey Shore, I’ve noticed a new theme begin to emerge. There is this strange yearning to walk barefoot on the beach. It’s a romantic theme. All these people eventually buy a condo in Boynton or Pompano and turn into the sandy version of fun-fun-fun. Down south near Princeton and Philadelphia, ideals gradually merge into the Baltimore/ Washington style, which I would describe as gracious living even if it hurts.

I don’t know what to make of this fun thing. I imagine my descendant someday meeting my namesake, my great grandfather in the world whose name is Truth, and asking him,”Nu was it fun? Did you and bubbi at least have fun?” He would look and look and look in utter disbelief. I can hear his answer.” What can I tell you, it was fun. The shtetl, the poverty, the loving goyim were all fun. World War 1, with Russian and German armies crisscrossing the countryside more fun. The rampant inflation that followed the war was so enjoyable. We had to carry sacks of money to get on the tram. It was wonderful. But the best was reserved for last. What can I tell you? I understand your question and the answer is yes, living under Hitler was simply amazing! Bubbi and I had lots and lots of fun.” I can hear him mumbling under his breath, “Where did I go wrong?”

My question is this: When did American Jewish life switch from immigrant values to the idea that we are here on this planet for the purpose of having fun?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Torah,Torah, Torah!

I believe that the ethos of “Torah, Torah, Torah,” has gone to extremes. Some Yeshiva people believe this slogan quite literally. They try their utmost not to waste ANY time, and study Torah diligently as much as they possibly can. If one reads the letter the Vilna Gaon wrote to his family when he was traveling from town to town as an act of penance (“pravin’ galus”), one can see how totally severe and obsessive the Gaon was that his wife and daughters not waste ANY time in idle talk and chatter.

In practice, how does the Ultra-Orthodox wide conception of Torah study actually work? In our generation at least, I can’t speak of the Vilna Gaon, even great Talmudic scholars engage to a greater or lesser degree in small talk and in non-Torah activities with their families and friends. It’s impossible to raise children without playing with them, and it is impossible to maintain a marriage if all one does is talk Torah. It must be that the rule against wasting time from the study of Torah is what Kant would call an imperfect duty. It can’t exactly be specified in exact detail what one must do at any given time. It must somehow be in each individual’s discretion how to interpret this duty. However if no time is the right time, you are failing to perform the duty. I think most grown up mature people know this, even if they sometimes talk as if Torah study is a perfect strict requirement. In talking up Torah,Torah,Torah as much as they do, the Ultra Orthodox at least promote the geek ideal of serious study in Jewish life, even if they promote this ideal in an extremist fashion.

My life experience confirms that in practice the duty of Torah study is interpreted as an imperfect duty. When I was young, I spied with my little eyes, rabbinical leaders who today have Art Scroll hagiographic books written about their saintliness, walking down the street with the New York Post tucked under their arms. Any interested reader can find in Jerome Mintz’s book, Hasidic People: A Place in the New World, that the late Boyaner Rebbe, a scion of the famous Ryziner Dynasty, read the New York Times every morning. Recently I learnt that Rabbi Saul Lieberman z’’l, the legendary scholar at the Conservative J.T.S. refused to read any newspapers on the ground that it took away from Torah study. Though he didn’t read newspapers, he was fond of detective stories. Go figure.

In the Orthodox newspapers Yated and Hamodia, there is always a centerfold of famous and not so famous rabbinical figures attending various weddings, bar mitzvahs, fundraisers, and so on. I love these photos and study them very closely, much like I used to study the lineup in the Politburo during the heyday of Communism. It appears to me these rabbis are doing pretty much the same sort of thing one sees party animals doing in the pages of W and the Sunday Times Style section. They are hanging out with their friends, partying, socializing, networking, and having a pretty good time. I don’t think they are sitting and learning.

The question of the extent of Torah study is a very murky area in Halachic thinking. One gets the impression the strict interpretation of this duty is being used for ideological purposes as a way of rallying the troops, and giving the Torah community a way of thinking of themselves as fundamentally superior to the more ordinary working class stiffs. Everyone knows, and seems to be ok with the fact that the bulk of the Ultra Orthodox community are not even close to studying Torah ALL the time.

Since I don’t desire to be a living example of obsessive talking about the study of Torah, I will stop this thread for now, and blog a bit on a miscellany of life cycle issues centering on old age, after which I plan on returning to the trenches of rabbinical politics.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Is Modern Orthodox Modern?

The word “modern” in “Modern Orthodoxy” (MO) is different from the use of “modern” in “modern art” or “modern literature” and so on. In the latter cases it refers to a specific period, for example between 1910 and 1945. The painting hanging over most people’s sofas is not modern art; it might not even be art. The “modern” of “Modern Orthodoxy” is a syncategorematic term like “big”. A big ant is not necessarily a big elephant. A Modern Orthodox Jew need not be a modern person.

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein is one of the most erudite and prominent spokesmen on behalf of Modern Orthodoxy. He is a Harvard Ph.D in English Literature, the head of a major hesder yeshiva on the West Bank, and the son-in-law of the much revered Rabbi Joseph B. Solveitchik z”l, who established much of the ideological foundation for the MO movement. In a long article, I would say over a hundred pages, Rabbi Lichtenstein tries to justify why it is permissible for religious Jews to study, enjoy, and appreciate great works of literature. He twists and he turns, there are proof texts and high-powered moral reasoning and at the end, the Rabbi concludes it is permissible to use one’s time to study, think about and appreciate Dante, Milton, Blake, etc.

I, for one, found the essay a frustrating experience. I was wondering all along what he would say about classical music or painting or dance? If Rabbi Lichtenstein had a Ph.D in ballet would his results have been different? And as I wondered, it occurred to me that even if all these activities were kosher, what about popular music and movies and just hanging out and an occasional game of golf or tennis or scrabble? Is a Modern Orthodox Jew permitted to do all the things that Modern Orthodox Jews actually do? Or is it that even though they engage in all these low culture activities, they are not exactly doing something kosher because they could be utilizing their time in studying Torah?

These questions bring out a big difference between the theory and practice of Modern Orthodoxy. In theory, MO obeys the exact same rules as Ultra-Orthodoxy. In our case, they should be subject to the laws regulating the study of Torah even if such laws are what we might call obsessive compulsive. In practice, it’s really very different. MO Jews tend to have a narrow conception of Halacha. They tend to shy away from open-ended rules, like “Study Torah in ALL your free time.” They prefer rules like “Go to shul Shabbus morning. The rest of the day is yours.” Even if MO has become somewhat blacker in recent years, they still pride themselves on their ability to live “normal American” lives. After all, they think of themselves as modern.

My opinion is this: Any Jew who feels guilty going to the movies or the opera because it wastes time from the study of Torah (‘bitul torah”) isn’t modern in any interesting sense of the word. Part of modernity is that a person owns his life. The belief that your positive, active religious obligations never cease is contrary to the entire spirit of the modern world. If a Jew is constantly subject to the anxiety that he is wasting time in enjoying his life, he may be virtuous or Orthodox, but he certainly isn’t modern.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Peter Pan, Kolel Yungerman

Sometimes when I read the very frum blogs I get that Yogi feeling of déjà vu all over again. Why are we fighting battles that were decided by the world hundreds of years ago? Who can possibly believe knowledge of the arts and sciences is bad? Who can be against reading a serious work of science or literature? Who can be against education? I don’t quite get it, and yet I do understand. I understand where the kolel people are coming from, and I admire their sincerity and idealism, their willingness in many instances to undergo poverty for the sake of Torah study, to avoid college, to refuse the joys of modern culture.

Here is the crux of the problem. Torah is too big. It is too big to know what you want to know, what you are supposed to know. There is not enough time to know it all even if one studies all day and all night from 6 years old until you die. The idea that one’s memory is large enough to remember the entire corpus is an illusion, something like an imaginary oasis in a desert. Our heads, our mental capacities are too weak to download the material in the requisite amount of time.

The kolel problem is economic only because it involves allocating a scarce resource, not money, but time. Imagine if the time we have on earth was much longer say by a factor of 10 to the 10, or imagine Torah was much smaller, everything would be relatively easy. A Jew, a Torah Jew would sit and learn and learn and learn until she came to the end. She would celebrate her completion of her goal, giving new meaning to the idea of a siyum (conclusion of a tractate), and she’s done. Now what is she going do for the rest of her life? The rabbis might say chazir over, learn it again, but in our imaginary world there is nothing to chazir, to learn one more time. You already know it! Go chazir 2+2 =4. There would be time to study science, learn mathematics, go to college, maybe even take in a concert or visit a museum.

There are many subjects that are too BIG for anyone’s head, in the same way as Torah is too big for our heads. Mathematics for instance. No single mathematician today knows all of mathematics. One guy is a topology mavin, another is into algebra, a third works in number theory. The same is true for the sciences, physics, biology. The same for medicine. We live in the age of specialists. The last man who knew everything in the arts in sciences lived in the 16th century. History has even recorded his name. Since then science & the arts have grown exponentially, and we now recognize and accept our limitations.

The early commentators, Rashi the Rambam, the Ramban give their readers the feeling they were conversant in the entire Torah. It appears they knew everything. Every nook and cranny in the sea of Torah was at their fingertips. This isn’t exactly correct. Rashi having lived earlier didn’t know the Rambam, the Rambam didn’t know the Ramban. The Ramban knew some kabbalah, the Rambam might not have known any. That’s the arrow of time doing what it does best, moving forward. Later authors read the books that preceded them but not vice versa. Nevertheless we do feel, and maybe we should feel the early great commentators really knew every single thing there is to know about Torah, even if they were in fact far away from knowing it all.

So here we are young and dewy eyed, smart, ambitious wanting to know it all. We’re 9 years old; we’re 10 and 11 learning how to make our way through the first pages of Talmud. And we read all these stories, how this savant knew it all, and that gaon (genius) knew it all and then some. And we say to ourselves, “Why can’t we be like them? We’re smart, we are willing to work.” Our teacher tells us the pun: The Vilna Gaon used to say “oib man vil nawr ken man zein a gaon.” The name of the city of Vilna sounds like the Yiddish words for ‘‘if you only will it”. If you only will it, you too can be a gaon. (Shades of Herzl’s “Im tirzeh…”, if you really will a Jewish homeland it will not be a fairy tale.) We read the hagiographies of great Talmudists. We study their faces. We slowly internalize this burning desire to know it all. It is encouraged by our teachers to be sure, but it is our ‘yetzer harah‘(negative, morally bad impulse) so to speak, our ambition, our grandiosity, our narcissism that the teachers are playing off.

A person who has had this burning ambition never gives it totally up. It becomes over time an insatiable hunger for knowledge. It is a desire that is so deep, that is so much part of our ambitions and ideals, our very self, the world has to hit us over the head with a 2 by 4 before we even think of becoming more realistic. And that is the inner secret why so many yeshiva people want to learn and learn and learn and never ever stop. Who says you have to grow up? Show me where it says*, what page is it written: GET OVER IT. GROW UP. ACCEPT REALITY? We might call this dream of kolel people an example of the Peter Pan complex. Who doesn’t love Peter Pan? Who has not dreamt of being able to fly?

In a review of the deeply depressing, somewhat obscene, French writer, Michel Houellebecq, (NY Times, 6/11/06), the reviewer makes the following distinction “In the English lad novel, the raffish cad learns to accept normal human limitations and eventually grows up. In the French lad novel, he not only refuses to grow up, he begets an entire anti -civilization.” In this respect, kolel people are more like the French. Their dreams have revolutionized Jewish life.

* Freud said the meaning of life is love and work. There is no mitzvah in the Torah requiring work, or a career or a job. The first positive mention of work in the Bible is in Proverbs 6:6-11, in the passage beginning with “Lazybones, go the ant; Study its ways and learn.”